Saturday, 24 October 2020

The Quest for Truth in the Upaniṣads

The earnestness with which the Upaniṣads quest for truth is evident in these terse lines from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (verse 1.3.28):

From the unreal lead me to the real. 
From darkness lead me to light. 
From death lead me to immortality.

Argumentation was the preferred means of questing for truth for the Vedic thinkers. When their arguments proved inadequate, they would revise their ideas—but this method has ensured that the material in the Upaniṣads is diverse, unsystematic, and rife with contradictory philosophical opinions. The Upaniṣads cannot be reduced into a single philosophical system.

Stoicism: The Religion of Educated Men

In Ancient Rome, Stoicism was regarded as the religion of educated men. The stoics believed that though men were not perfect, like the gods, they had the potential to be perfected. In his Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Moral Letters to Lucilius), the Roman politician and stoic philosopher, Seneca writes, “But some say: ‘Only to the immortal gods is given virtue and the happy life; we can attain but the shadow, as it were, and semblance of such goods as theirs. We approach them, but we never reach them.’ Reason, however, is a common attribute of both gods and men; in the gods it is already perfected, in us it is capable of being perfected.” Stoicism is the world’s longest lasting philosophical and moral movement—it was founded by Zeno of Citium in the third century B.C.E, and it continues to be a major force till this day.

Friday, 23 October 2020

The Four Mahavakyas of the Upaniṣads

There are thirteen principal Upaniṣads—to understand their teachings one should begin with the four Mahavakyas (the Great Sayings):

1. Prajnanam Brahma (प्रज्ञानम् ब्रह्म) — “Pure Consciousness is Brahman" or "Brahman is insight” (Aitareya Upaniṣad, verse 3.3)

2. Tat Tvam Asi (तत् त्वम् असि) — “You are that” or “You are the existent” (Chāndogya Upaniṣad, verse 6.8.7)

3. Ayam Atma Brahma (अयम् आत्मा ब्रह्म) — "This Self (Atman or soul) is Brahman" (Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, verse 1.2)

4. Aham Brahma Asmi (अहम् ब्रह्मास्मि) - "I am Brahman" (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, verse 1.4.10)

The traditional way of teaching the essence of the Upaniṣads to new students is through these four Mahavakyas.

The Debate Between Gargya and Ajatasatru

In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (Book Two), the story of a debate between Gargya Balaki, the renowned philosopher, and Ajatasatru, the King of Kasi, serves as a medium to deliver the philosophical lesson that there are certain fundamental questions in philosophy for which the human mind can never find the answers—the most critical of these fundamental questions being: “What is the nature of the universe?” Here’s a summarized version of the story: 

One day Gargya Balaki arrives before King Ajatasatru and says, “O King, I wish to teach you about the Brahman [the One who is the author of the universe].” Pleased at the prospect of learning something new about the Brahman, Ajatasatru replies, “I will give you a thousand cows for such a teaching.” The first explanation that Gargya offers is: “I revere as the Brahman the person in the sun.” Unimpressed by the argument, Ajatasatru replies, “Don’t talk to me about such a Brahman.” Then Gargya says, “I revere the person in the moon as the Brahman.” Ajatasatru finds this argument inadequate—the One who is the author of the universe has to be greater than the sun and the moon. Gargya then says that he reveres as the Brahman the person in the lightening—once again, Ajatasatru finds the statement inadequate. The conversation between the philosopher and the king goes on, with Gargya offering several new explanations of the Brahman: as the person in space, as the person in the wind, as the person in the fire, as the person in the waters, as the person in the mirrors, as the person in the directions, as the person in the shadows, as the person in the body [atman]—but all these explanations do not satisfy Ajatasatru. Having run out of explanations, Gargya asks Ajatasatru to take him as his student and teach him about the Brahman. Ajatasatru notes that it’s against the existing order of things for a king to be the teacher of a great philosopher, but he goes on to give his view of the Brahman—the concluding part of his statement, in the verse 2.1.20 of Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, is of great interest. Here’s Valerie Roebuck’s translation of the verse 2.1.20: 

‘As a spider moves along its thread, as small sparks fly up from a fire, so all breaths, all worlds, all gods, all is “the truth of the truth”: the breaths are the truth, and it is the truth of them.’

Ajatasatru made a great advancement in philosophical thinking by finding inadequacy in Gargya’s every explanation of the Brahman—he formulated the philosophical view that was little known in his time: that the ultimate nature of the universe is unknowable to man. Most scholars believe that the debate between Gargya and Ajatasatru happened in the ninth century B.C.E.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

The Ancient Roots of Modern Philosophy

The teachings of modern philosophy are not modern; they are not the novelties invented by modern thinkers; all the great philosophical questions and their possible answers have originated in the ancient times, before the sixth century B.C.E. No “real” modern philosopher will have the audacity to claim that his ideas are his own or wholly original. Since philosophy is always based on the work done in the past, we can draw the inference that a “real” philosopher is never a revolutionary who advocates a break with the past; he is, at the most, a reformer who tries to make some improvements in the thoughts which he has inherited from the past.

The Universe and the Great Soul

In Plato’s dialogue the Timaeus, the title character Timaeus of Locri gives a long speech in which he speculates about how the universe, which is as good as possible, got created by a benevolent Demiurge. Timaeus says: “…we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.” The conception of the world as a living creature with divine soul and intelligence probably originated between the fifteenth and ninth centuries B.C.E.—the Rigveda has several hymns which proclaim that the universe is a manifestation of the One, the omnipotent and omnipresent Paramatman, who is the great soul and living principle, that is the undivided, timeless, and motionless author of everything. The hymn 72 in Mandala 10 talks about the birth of the gods and the heavenly bodies of the universe from the One (translations by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, OUP, 2014):  

1. Now amid acclaim we will proclaim the births of the gods,
so that one in a later generation will see (them) as the hymns are recited. 

2. The Lord of the Sacred Formulation [=Bṛhaspati] smelted these (births) like a smith.
In the ancient generation of the gods, what exists was born from what does not exist.

3. In the first generation of the gods, what exists was born from what does not exist.
The regions of space were born following that (which exists)—that (which exists) was born from the one whose feet were opened up.

4. The earth was born from the one whose feet were opened up; from the earth the regions of space were born.
From Aditi, Dakṣa was born, and from Dakṣa, Aditi.

5. Because Aditi was born—she who is your daughter, o Dakṣa— following her, the gods were born, the auspicious kin of the immortal one.

6. When, o gods, well clasped to one another, you stood there in the ocean, then the bitter dust [=spray] dispersed from you, like (the dust [=sweat?]) of those dancing.

7. When, o gods, just as the Yatis did, you swelled the living worlds, then you brought here the sun, which was hidden in the sea.

8. Eight are the sons of Aditi, which were born from her body. 
With seven she went forth to the gods. She cast away the one stemming from a dead egg.

9. With seven sons Aditi went forth to the ancient generation.
For procreation but also for death, she brought here again the one stemming from a dead egg.

Monism is also apparent in the verse 46 of hymn 164 in Mandala 1:

They say it is Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, and Agni, and also it is the winged, well-feathered (bird) of heaven [=the Sun].
Though it is One, inspired poets speak of it in many ways. They say it is Agni, Yama, and Mātariśvan.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Kena Upaniṣad: The Gods and “The One”

Once upon a time the gods won a great victory over the demons and they became arrogant. They boasted, “This victory is ours! This triumph is ours.” They failed to realize that the victory was won for them by the Brahman, with whose power the universe is created and in whom, at the end of the kalpa (aeon), it dissolves. The Brahman noticed the arrogance of the gods and appeared before them in the form of an Yaksha, but the gods failed to comprehend the identity of this wondrous entity. They deputed Agni (the fire god) to ascertain the identity of the Yaksha. Agni proclaimed that he had the power to burn down the entire universe—the Yaksha asked him to burn a straw; Agni tried but he failed to set the straw ablaze. Then the gods deputed Vayu (the wind god) to ascertain the identity of the Yaksha. Vayu proclaimed that he had the power to blow away the universe—the Yaksha asked him to blow a straw; Vayu tried but he failed to move the straw. After that Indra (the lord of the gods) was sent to investigate—the Yaksha presented before Indra a beautiful woman called Uma Haimavati. Indra asked her what this wondrous Yaksha was that had the power of hindering Agni from burning and Vayu from blowing. Uma Haimavati, who is the personification of wisdom, said, “This Yaksha is the Brahman. The gods are feeling pride over a victory that was won for them by the Brahman, so he has appeared as an Yaksha to teach the gods the lesson of humility.” Since the gods derive their power from the One, the Brahman, they must not become arrogant. This story, which I have retold in my own words, occurs in the Book Three and Book Four of the Kena Upaniṣad and can be seen from two angles: first, it’s a moral injunction that the entities in positions of power must avoid arrogance; second, it’s an evidence of the monistic metaphysics of the Vedic thinkers.

Chāndogya Upaniṣad: The Creation of the Universe

The hymn 3.19 of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad posits that the creation of the universe happened through a cosmic egg which materialized in the nothingness of the cosmic waters. Here’s Valerie Roebuck’s translation of the first two verses of this hymn:

1. The sun is the brahman: this is the symbolic statement. To explain further: in the beginning this was not-being. That was being; it came into existence; it turned into an egg. It lay for the space of a year, then cracked open. The two halves of the egg-shell became gold and silver. 
2. What was the silver half is this earth, and what was the gold half is the sky. What was the chorion is the mountains, and what was the amnion is the mist with the clouds. What were the blood-vessels are the rivers, and what was the amniotic fluid is the sea. 

In the hymn 6.2, the Chāndogya Upaniṣad deals with the problem of how “being” could emerge from “nothingness” or “non-being”. The arguments are being provided by Sage Uddalaka Aruni to his son, a young lad called Svetaketu. Uddalaka says: 

1. ‘In the beginning, good lad, this was being, one alone without a second. Some say, “In the beginning this was non-being, one alone without a second. From that non-being, being was produced.”
2. ‘But, good lad, how could that be?’ he said. ‘How could being be produced from non-being? In the beginning, good lad, surely this was being, one alone without a second.
3. ‘It thought, “Let me become many; let me be born.” It created heat. Heat thought, “Let me become many; let me be born.” It created the waters. So when and wherever a person grieves or sweats, the waters are born from heat. 
4. ‘The waters thought, “Let us become many; let us be born.” They created food. So when and whenever it rains food becomes more abundant. So good food is born from the waters. 

The enigmatic conversation on various aspects of creation continues between Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu in the hymns that follow. The father and son are also present in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad in which Uddalaka provides his philosophical insights on several issues.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

On Prehistoric Philosophy

What is the meaning of life? What are the great unseen powers behind the universe? How did life on earth originate? What is the moral way of life? The consideration of these mighty problems did not begin with modern philosophy, nor did it begin with medieval and ancient philosophies—the serious and thoughtful among the prehistory and pre-philosophy men, between 3000 years and 5000 years ago, betook on themselves to quest for the answers. As they could not find the convincing answers, these fundamental questions got passed from generation to generation and finally they fell into the lap of Ancient Philosophy, which was born in a remarkable period of philosophical achievement, between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C.E., when there was rise of the first philosophers of humanity in different parts of the world—Pythagoras, Thales, Parmenides, and Heraclitus in Ancient Greece; Buddhism, Jainism, and schools like Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedanta in India; Zoroastrianism in Iran; and Taoism and Confucianism in China. 

The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, which is clearly a prehistory and pre-philosophy text, begins with these questions (hymn 1.1; translation by Valerie Roebuck):

Om. Scholars of brahman say:
What is the cause—brahman? From what were we born?
By what do we live? And on what are we based?
Ruled by what do we follow our course
In joys and their opposite, you knowers of brahman?

Monday, 19 October 2020

The Upaniṣads: Water is the Original Substance

The Upaniṣads, which are placed between the 15th century B.C.E and 700 B.C.E., contain several hymns which advance the theory that the original substance of the universe is “water.” (A similar theory is attributed to the Ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (624 B.C.E—548 B.C.E), who preached that water is the essence of all matter.) Here’s the translation of the verse 5.5.1 from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (translations by Valerie Roebuck): 

“In the beginning the waters were all this. The waters created truth; truth, brahman; brahman, Prajapati; and Prajapati the gods. The gods worship truth (satya). It has three syllables: sa-ti-yam. Sa is one syllable. Ti is one syllable. Yam is one syllable. Truth is in the first and the last syllable, falsehood in the middle: so falsehood is surrounded on both sides by truth, and becomes truth. Falsehood does not harm the one who knows this.” 

In the verse 3.6.1 of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, the Vedic philosopher Gargi Vachaknavi begins a discussion with Sage Yājñavalkya with these words: 

“Yājñavalkya, since all this is woven on the waters, as warp and weft, on what are the waters woven, as warp and weft.”

The Chandogya Upaniṣad emphasizes the cosmic importance of water in the verse 7.10.1: 

“The waters are greater than food. So when there is not a good rainfall, living things suffer, thinking, “Food will be short”. When there is a good rainfall, living things are happy, thinking, “Food will be plentiful”. All these are the waters, shaped: earth, middle-air, sky, mountains, gods and human beings, domestic animals, birds, grass and trees, and wild animals, all the way down to worms, flying things and ants. All these are the waters, shaped. Worship the waters.”

In the Katha Upaniṣad, the verse 4.6 suggests that the atman (soul) was originally born from water:

He who was formerly the offspring of heat (tapas)
Who was formerly born of the waters—
He who, having entered and dwelt in the secret phase,
Looks out through beings—
This is that. 

In the Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad, the creator god Brahma declares in the verse 1.7 that water is his natural world:

“Brahma says to him, “The waters are my world: that world is yours.” He wins as his victory the victory, the attainment, that is Brahma’s—the one who knows this, the one who knows this.”

Aquinas and the Duel Between Parmenides and Aristotle

The presocratic philosopher Parmenides, who is regarded as the founder of western metaphysics, believed that all material things, and their changing forms and motions, are a reflection of the same eternal reality, the “Being”—he proposed the monistic principle “all is one”. In his Physics, Aristotle rejects Parmanedian monism by noting that a thinker who denies the multiplicity of things, and all the changing forms and motions, is not engaging in natural philosophy. In the thirteenth century, Aquinas assumed that, with Aristotle’s assistance, he could appropriate the “all is one” Parmanedian god while avoiding the pitfalls of monism. In his Compendium of Theology, Aquinas writes: "If we gather together the various points established thus far, we perceive that all perfections in God are in reality one. We have shown above that God is simple. But where there is simplicity, there can be no distinction among the perfections that are present. Hence, if the perfections of all things are in God, they cannot be distinct in Him. Accordingly they are all one in Him.” (Translation by Cyril Vollert). But Aquinas, it seems, was unable to bring Parmenides and Aristotle together and the duel between the two Ancient Greek philosophers continues.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

The Teaching of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads

The cosmic forces of the universe are eternal, limitless, and absolute, but that does not imply that man is insignificant. The significance of man lies in the fact that he is not only the ultimate interpretation of the cosmic forces but also their ultimate interpreter—this is because the Supreme Principle of the universe, the One who creates the universe out of nothingness, by bringing space, time, and matter into existence, is closely related to the man’s mind. This is a key teaching of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads—these ancient texts preach that man must endeavor to relate himself to the Supreme Principle (the One) of the universe.

Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad: On the Identity of the “One"

The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, which is clearly related to the Katha Upaniṣad, and is a part of the Black Yajurveda, is named after the Sage Śvetāśvatara whose name means “the one who possesses white horses” (which means, the one who has pure faculties). The philosophy of the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad is close to the Samkhya school—it talks of creation emanating from the dual principles of Purusa (the cosmic spirit) and the Prakrti (the cosmic material principle). Samkhya denies the existence of god but Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad subordinates the Purusa and Prakriti principles to a supreme god or the “One.” The text offers a view of the “One” in its Fourth Adhyaya (fourth book). Here’s the first verse of the fourth book (translation by Robert Ernest Hume, 1921):

1. The One who, himself without color, 

by the manifold application of his power (sakti-yoga) 

Distributes many colors in his hidden purpose,
And into whom, its end and its beginning, the whole world 

dissolves—He is God!

May He endow us with clear intellect!

In the next three verses of the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad’s fourth book, the One is pantheistically identified: 

2. That surely is Agni (fire god). That is Adltya (sun god). 

That is Vsyu (wind god), and That is the moon. 

That surely is the pure. That is Brahma. 

That is the waters. That is Prajapati (Lord of Creation). 

3. Thou art woman. Thou art man. 

Thou art the youth and the maiden too. 

Thou as an old man totterest with a staff. 

Being born, thou becomest facing in every direction. 

4. Thou art the dark-blue bird and the green [parrot] with red eyes. 

Thou hast the lightning as thy child. Thou art the seasons and 

the seas. 

Having no beginning, thou dost abide with immanence, 

Wherefrom all beings are born.

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Perfect Happiness is Unachievable

The thinkers of Ancient Greece believed that the gods are envious of human prosperity and happiness, and they interfere to ruin the life of all those who lust for great riches and perfect happiness. Commenting on the terrible fate of Croesus, Herodotus writes in his Histories: ‘‘presumably because God was angry with him for supposing himself to be the happiest of men.’’ Only the gods can be perfectly prosperous and happy. The chorus in, Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon warns: 

In fame unmeasured, praise too high, 

Lies danger: God’s sharp lightnings fly 

To stagger mountains.

The notion that the lust for wealth and happiness leads to perdition is emphasized in several ancient Hindu (and Buddhist) texts and continues to be a part of the Indian ethical theory till this day. 

Friday, 16 October 2020

The Indian Obsession With Chronology

In the study of ancient history and philosophy, the need for accurate chronology cannot be denied, but in case of ancient Hindu texts there is an inordinate amount of emphasis on chronology. For most present day Indians chronology has become the simplistic way of glorifying their ancient heritage. Too often you encounter people who (without furnishing any evidence) boast about some texts being from the fourth or fifth century B.C.E—they are convinced that their culture is great merely because it’s the most ancient. But what are the key learnings from these ancient texts? What was the culture in which these texts came into being? What kind of people composed these text? What is the relevance of these text in our modern times?

Thursday, 15 October 2020

The Rigveda on Language and Pronunciation

The importance of pronouncing words in the right way and using grammatically correct language is emphasized in several verses of the Rigveda. The Vedic sages insist that while reciting the hymns if correct language is not used and if the words are not correctly pronounced then the gods are not appeased. This means that a sense of purity in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary had developed as early as the twelfth century B.C.E. For instance, the hymn 26 of Mandala 7, which is attributed to Vasiṣṭha Maitravaruni, opens with a verse which notes that Indra is pleased with sacred formulations or correct chanting of hymns. Here’s a translation of the verse 7.26.1 (The Rigveda, by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, OUP, 2014):

“Soma, unpressed, does not exhilarate Indra, nor do pressings unaccompanied by sacred formulations (exhilarate) the bounteous one. 

For him I beget a hymn that he will enjoy, a newer manly one, so that he will listen to us.”

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

The Ancient Greek Acceptance of Imperfection

The Ancient Greeks could not conceive of perfectibility of man because they were taught by Homer and Hesiod that even the gods are not perfect. Zeus, the supreme god in Homeric legends, would have sounded like a hypocrite if he exhorted the mortals to perfect themselves since the gods have all the imperfections which bedevil the mortals. The presocratic philosopher Xonophanes laments, “Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods everything that is a shame and a reproach amongst men, stealing and committing adultery and deceiving each other.” The situation in Ancient Hindu literature is similar—the Hindu gods often conduct themselves in the fashion of the imperfect humans. The notion of man being perfected by reason, atheism, and science was born in the eighteenth century France during the Age of Enlightenment. In the twentieth century, naive writers like Ayn Rand have tried to describe people who are morally, intellectually, and physically perfect, but the wise ancients did not believe in the possibility of such perfection.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

The Dating of the Rigveda

Most scholars place the Rigveda between the twelfth and ninth centuries B.C., but since the text mentions several metals except iron, the inference might be drawn that the Rigveda was composed before the dawn of the Iron Age; it could be a Bronze Age text. The manufacturing of iron began in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, the geographical area of the Rigveda, between the twelfth and tenth centuries B.C.—this means that the work on the Rigveda could have started earlier than the twelfth century B.C., perhaps between the fourteenth and tenth centuries B.C., or even in the second half of the second millennium B.C. The rich tradition of Vedic gods, rituals, mythologies, cosmological queries, and the linguistic and poetic conventions on which the Rigveda has been developed would have to predate the text by a number of centuries and could even have originated in the third millennium B.C. On astronomical grounds, which assume that the ancient Hindus had the ability to chart the sun’s course, some scholars (noted by Arthur Anthony Macdonell in his 1917 book A Vedic Reader for Students) have placed the oldest Rigveda hymns as far back as the sixth millennium B.C.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year

Is 2020 the worst year? There have been several years in history when the human experience has been much worse than in this year. I look at 2020 as the year when the intellectual, technological, and political establishment in most advanced democracies have become totally deranged. Here’s a quote from  J. M. Coetzee’s 2007 book Diary of a Bad Year: “Michel de Montaigne’s young friend Etienne de La Boetie, writing in 1549, saw the passivity of the populations vis-a-vis their rulers as first an acquired and then later an inherited vice, an obstinate “will to be ruled” that becomes so deep-rooted “that even the love of liberty comes to seem not quite as natural.””

Sunday, 11 October 2020

On The Rigveda’s Cosmological Hymn

The Rigveda makes references to the theories of creation of the world in several hymns from Mandala 2 to Mandala 9, but in Mandala 10, for the first time, we find hymns dedicated to cosmology. The hymn 129 of Mandala 10 is a famous cosmological hymn, but it’s a strange cosmological hymn because it states that the gods came after the universe got created, which means that even the gods don’t know when and how the universe was created. The hymn begins with a mention of the nonexistence where there is the ultimate source of creation, the “One,” which assumes a cosmic egg like form in the verse 3, and in the verse 4, the “primal semen,” the origin of all beings gets concretized. 

Here’s a translation of the hymn 129 of Mandala 10 (The Rigveda, translated by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, OUP, 2014):  

1. The nonexistent did not exist, nor did the existent exist at that time. There existed neither the airy space nor heaven beyond. 

What moved back and forth? From where and in whose protection? Did water exist, a deep depth? 

2. Death did not exist nor deathlessness then. There existed no sign of night nor of day. 

That One breathed without wind by its independent will. There existed nothing else beyond that. 

3. Darkness existed, hidden by darkness, in the beginning. All this was a signless ocean. 

What existed as a thing coming into being, concealed by emptiness—that One was born by the power of heat. 

4. Then, in the beginning, from thought there evolved desire, which existed as the primal semen. 

Searching in their hearts through inspired thought, poets found the connection of the existent in the nonexistent. 

5. Their cord was stretched across: Did something exist below it? Did something exist above? 

There existed placers of semen and there existed greatnesses. There was independent will below, offering above. 

6. Who really knows? Who shall here proclaim it?—from where was it born, from where this creation? 

The gods are on this side of the creation of this (world). So then who does know from where it came to be? 

7. This creation—from where it came to be, if it was produced or if not— he who is the overseer of this (world) in the furthest heaven, he surely knows. Or if he does not know...? 

It is noteworthy that Vedic theology, unlike Western theology, does not begin with stories on creation—the Rigveda explores the cosmological issues in its final book (the Mandala 10).

Saturday, 10 October 2020

On The Vedic Devas

We can make the a priori assumption that the Vedic devas (gods) predate the Vedas. Since the Rigveda is dated between twelfth and ninth centuries B.C., the conception of devas must have originated a few centuries before the twelfth century B.C.—if the first Vedic sages didn’t have a priori knowledge of the devas, they could not have created the hymns on the divine attributes and actions of the devas

The word “devas” relates to beings who are connected to swargloka (heaven); they exist to counter the influence of the demons for whom the Vedas use words like “Dasyus” and “Raksases”; in a few instances, the word used is “adeva,” or the opposite of deva—in the Rigveda, Vrtra, the demon who had stolen the waters of the world, and was ultimately killed by Indra, the deva who is the lord of the heaven, is called adeva. In the Brahmanas, Puranas, and Ithihasas, the term “asura” is used for the demons. The Vedic mythology often makes it difficult to draw a line between the devas and demons because there are several entities which possess divine as well as demonic attributes.

The Rigveda notes that the devas are thirty-three in number—they are called the Trayastrinshata (Three plus thirty). The Brahmanas give a breakdown of the thirty-three devas—eight are Vasus (material gods), twelve are Adityas (personified gods); eleven are Rudras (consisting of abstract entities, atman, and the incarnations of Shiva), and two are the divine twins, the Ashvins. The Yujurveda and Atharvaveda too have hymns which talk about the thirty-three devas. 

Here are three verses from the Rigveda in which it's suggested that there are thirty-three devas (translations by Ralph T. H. Griffith, 1896):

Mandala 1, hymn 45, verse 2

“Agni, the Gods who understand give ear unto the worshipper:

Lord of Red Steeds, who lovest song, bring thou those Three-and-Thirty Gods.”

Mandala 8, hymn 28, verse 1: 

“The Thirty Gods and Three besides, whose seat hath been the sacred grass,

From time of old have found and gained.”

Mandala 1, hymn 139, verse 11: 

“O ye eleven gods whose home is heaven, O ye eleven who make earth your dwelling,

Ye who with might, eleven, live in waters, accept this sacrifice, O gods, with pleasure.”

In the Rigveda, there is no trace of subordination of one deva by another—the lack of hierarchy among the devas is clearly exemplified in the assertions made by Indira and Varuna that they are obeyed by all the devas, even though there are hymns in which it’s indicated that Varuna and Surya are subject to Indra, while Indra and the Asvins are subject to Vishnu, and even a relatively unimportant entity like Savitur is able to claim that his munificence cannot be resisted by Indira, Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman, and Rudra. Since the Rigveda sees all the devas as a manifestation of the omnipotent and omnipresent Paramatman, or the great soul and living principle, that is the undivided, timeless, and motionless author of the universe, there is no question of one deva being subordinate to another deva—all are equal, all are parts of the same Paramatman

If the devas of the Rigveda are classified on basis of the number of hymns dedicated to them, then we might conclude that Indra, who has two hundred and fifty hymns, or a quarter of the collection in the text, dedicated to him, is the most important. After Indra comes Agni who has two hundred dedicated hymns, Soma has one hundred twenty-three, the Asvins have fifty-six, and Varuna has forty-six. The supreme deva Vishnu has five dedicated hymns, while the powerful Rudra has three, and the devi (female god) of learning Saraswati has three.

Philosophy is Subjective

To strive for a philosophical position that is wholly objective is futile—philosophical positions are not meant to transcend the sphere of philosophy in which imagination and rationalization (the subjective elements) play a far more critical role than observation and experimentation (the objective elements). All great works of philosophy are founded on the subjective thinking of the philosophers whose subjectivity is fuelled by their objective experiences of the world.

Friday, 9 October 2020

The Mind Body Dichotomy and Theological Philosophy

There is no historical record of any community at any point of time developing a religious philosophy (theology) before it became aware of the idea that there is a difference between the body and the mind, that the material world that can be observed through the senses is not the only thing that exists, and that there are things that are mental, spiritual, and transcendental. Thus it’s logical to look at the issue of the difference between the mind and body as the intellectual spark that has ignited the flames of religious (theological) philosophy, from which, over a period of several centuries, the advanced secular philosophies have evolved.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

On the Roots of Civilization

“Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots”—this excellent line is attributed to Victor Hugo. In my view, all major civilizations are rooted in their religious philosophy and traditions. When a society, enamored by some newfangled atheistic doctrine, rejects its religious philosophy and traditions, it weakens its own roots. Pure reason, the method of all modern atheistic doctrines, might achieve success in technological, militaristic, and libertine endeavors, but it cannot enable the people to adhere to their principles, which are the domain of the “spiritual being” that can be touched only by intuition and insight.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

The Fundamentals of Sanatana Dharma

Classical Hinduism is known as Sanatana Dharma which means Eternal and Ancient Law, or the Law that was given to mankind by the devas (the incarnated gods) in the primordial times. The foundation of Sanatana Dharma is forged from Śruti (that which is heard), and its structure is forged from Smṛti (that which is remembered).

The Śruti consists of the four Vedas (the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda) which the ancient sages received directly from the devas. The Vedic teachings were not written down for several millennia and were preserved through an oral tradition. The teacher would sing the Vedic hymns to his pupils, who, when they became teachers, would in turn, sing the hymns to their own pupils—thus the Vedic teachings were passed in a pristine form from generation to generation. The Vedas have four parts: the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions); the Aranyakas (explanation of the rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices); the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices); the Upanishads (discussion of meditation, philosophy, and spirituality).

The Smṛti (that which is remembered) consists of the sacred texts which are composed by the ancient sages: this tradition consists of Manusmriti, Yājñavalkyasmriti, Sankha Likhita Smriti, Parashara Smriti, the Dharmasūtras and Dharmaśāstras, the eighteen Mahapuranas (Major Puranas) and eighteen Upapuranas (Minor Puranas), the ancient epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana), the Arthasaśāstras, and several other texts. Yājñavalkya, the sage who flourished between seventh and eighth centuries B.C., gives the name of twenty Smṛti texts, several of which are no longer extant. 

In some classifications, a third category is added to the structure of Santana Dharma—it is called Itihasa (history). The two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, become part of the Itihasa category. There is also the category of Tantra, which means the science of doing practical things. But much of ancient Tantra is no longer extant, as the ancient sages felt that people in ancient times are not ready for such knowledge and they stopped teaching the Tantric arts.

Natural Atheism and Manmade Religions

Atheism occurs naturally and automatically; the pre-civilizational man was an atheist, his existence was like that of the animals in the wild. Mythological and religious thought, on the other hand, is manmade and represents the first major step towards civilization; the development of a mythological and religious worldview is the outcome of the great intellectual efforts from ancient minds which were filled with curiosity about the universe and craved for knowledge.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

The Marriage of Surya and Soma

When the daughter of the sun god Surya, who is named Surya after her father, is getting married to the moon god Soma, who, on earth, is incarnated as the Soma plant from which the immortality granting Soma juice is derived, all the gods and other divine beings of the universe arrive to attend the ceremony. In the Rigveda, the marriage of Surya and Soma is described in the hymn 85 of Mandala 10. Here’s an excerpt which contains a description of Surya’s bridal dress and pomp (all translations are from Ralph T.H. Griffith’s work on the Rigveda, 1896): 

“Raibhi was her dear bridal friend, and Narasamsi led her home 

Lovely was Surya's robe: she came to that which Gatha had adorned.”

“Thought was the pillow of her couch, sight was the unguent for her eyes: 

Her treasury was earth and heaven..when Surya went unto her Lord.”

Here’s another description of the ceremony: 

“Soma was he who wooed the maid: the groomsmen were both Asvins, when

The Sun-God Savitar bestowed his willing Surya on her Lord.”

“Her spirit was the bridal car; the covering thereof was heaven:

Bright were both Steers that drew it when Surya approached her husband's home.”

Surya is implored to prepare an exquisite wedding voyage for her husband Soma:

“Mount this, all-shaped, gold-hued, with strong wheels, fashioned of Kimsuka and Salmali, light-rolling,

Bound for the world of life immortal, Surya: make for thy lord a happy bridal journey.”

The hymn ends with a number of verses in which gods are invoked to bless the bride: 

“O Bounteous Indra, make this bride blest in her sons and fortunate.

Vouchsafe to her ten sons, and make her husband the eleventh man.”

“Over thy husband's father and thy husband's mother bear full sway.

Over the sister of thy lord, over his brothers rule supreme.”

“So may the Universal Gods, so may the Waters join our hearts.

May Matarisvan, Dhatar, and Destri together bind us close.”

It’s said that the Hindu marriages are modeled on the marriage between Surya and Soma.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Soma: The Vedic Celebration of Life

The sages of the Rigveda do not oppose the Dionysian proclivities—in several hymns, they are imploring the gods for the good things in life: health, wealth, long life, prestige, and progeny. Their Dionysian concerns are most pronounced in their descriptions of the making and drinking of “Soma juice,” the elixir of the gods. The Soma plant is viewed as a god that has descended from heaven and made the mountain called Mount Mujavant its earthly abode. The hymns in Rigveda’s Mandala 9.74 and 10.94 provide an insight into the ritual of extraction and distillation of Soma juice from Soma plants. Even the gods crave for Soma juice because it carries assurances of immortality (Mandala 8.48 and 9.113). When the gods drink Soma juice, they become boastful. Here’s an excerpt from Mandala 10.119, which describes the gargantuan claims made by a god (probably Indra or Agni) after drinking Soma juice (translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith, 1896): 

1. This, even this was my resolve, to win a cow, to win a steed: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

2. Like violent gusts of wind the draughts that I have drunk have lifted me: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

3. The draughts I drank have borne me up, as fleet-foot horses draw a car: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

4. The hymn hath reached me, like a cow who lows to meet her darling calf: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

5. As a wright bends a chariot-seat so round my heart I bend the hymn: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

6. Not as a mote within the eye count the Five Tribes of men with me: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

7. The heavens and earth themselves have not grown equal to one half of me: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

8. I in my grandeur have surpassed the heavens and all this spacious earth: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

9. Aha! this spacious earth will I deposit either here or there: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

10. In one short moment will I smite the earth in fury here or there: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

11. One of my flanks is in the sky; I let the other trail below: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

12. 1, greatest of the Mighty Ones, am lifted to the firmament: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

13. I seek the worshipper's abode; oblation-bearer to the Gods: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Sky and Earth: The Parents of the Sun

Three thousand years ago, the composers of the Rigveda imagined the morning sun as a child born from the union of sky, the father, and earth, the mother. The hundred-sixtieth hymn in the Rigveda’s first mandala depicts the sky and earth as the two divinities who are the sun’s parents. The sky is the abode of eternality where the sun resides, while the earth is the abode of mortality where the humans and other creatures reside. This hymn is credited to Rishi Dīrghatamas, who belongs to the Angirasa clan, one of the oldest Rishi families in the Vedic tradition, and known for his enigmatic and paradoxical apothegms in the Rigveda. Here’s Ralph T.H. Griffith’s 1896 translation of the mandala 1.160:

1. These, Heaven and Earth, bestow prosperity on all, sustainers of the region, Holy Ones and wise,

Two Bowls of noble kind: between these Goddesses the God, the fulgent Sun, travels by fixed decree [laws of nature].

2. Widely-capacious Pair, mighty, that never fail, the Father and the Mother keep all creatures safe:

The two world-halves, the spirited, the beautiful, because the Father hath clothed them in goodly forms.

3. Son of these Parents, he the Priest with power to cleanse, Sage, sanctifies the worlds with his surpassing power.

Thereto for his bright milk he milked through all the days the party-colored Cow and the prolific Bull.

4. Among the skillful Gods most skilled is he, who made the two world-halves which bring prosperity to all;

Who with great wisdom measured both the regions out, and stablished them with pillars that shall ne'er decay.

5. Extolled in song, O Heaven and Earth, bestow on us, ye mighty Pair, great glory and high lordly sway,

Whereby we may extend ourselves ever over the folk; and send us strength that shall deserve the praise of men.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Agni: The Offspring of the Waters

The Rigveda contains several verses in which Agni (the fire god) is identified as Apām Napāt, the son of waters—who is born from the womb of the water laden clouds as lightening. Here’s an excerpt from 35th hymn in the Second Mandala of the Rigveda (Ralph T.H. Griffith’s translation, 1896): “The Waters' Son hath risen, and clothed in lightning ascended up unto the curled cloud's bosom; And bearing with them his supremest glory the Youthful Ones, gold-colored, move around him.” “Golden in form is he, like gold to look on, his color is like gold, the Son of Waters. When he is seated fresh from golden birthplace those who present their gold give food to feed him.”

In the above verse, Agni (Apām Napāt) is being described emerging from the waters as golden lightning. Writing more than 2500 years after the Rigveda was composed, Sayana (also known as Sāyaṇācārya), the fourteenth century Hindu philosopher who has authored more than hundred books on the Vedas, and has exercised heavy influence on the later Vedic scholars, including the European commentators and translators, has remarked that the name Apām Napāt designates Agni as the grandson and not the son of the waters—this is because the herbs and trees are born of the waters and Agni (the fire god) is born from the herbs and trees.

Friday, 2 October 2020

Hiranyagarbha: The Founder of the Yoga System

Patanjali has systematically compiled the teachings of Yoga in his Yoga Sutras, which is dated between fourth and ninth centuries B.C., but he is not the founder of the Yoga system, which is an ancient practice predating him by several millennia. Vācaspati Miśra, the ninth century A.D. Hindu philosopher of the Advaita Vedanta tradition, notes that, according to the Yajnavalkya Smrti, which has been dated between third and fifth centuries A.D., and belongs to the Dharmasastras tradition, a sage known as Hiranyagarbha is the original teacher of Yoga. That is why Patanjali begins his Yoga Sutras with the following aphorism:

अथ योगानुशासनम् ॥१॥

(atha yoga-anuśāsanam)

The prefix “anu” indicates that the aphorisms in the Yoga Sutras are a continuation of an earlier activity which is indicated in the suffix “śāsanam” (teachings of Yoga). The term “atha” means now and the entire aphorism can be roughly translated as: “Now, the teachings of Yoga [follow in this treatise]”. 

The Mahabharata too identifies Hiranyagarbha as the founder of Yoga. In the Puranic literature, for example, the Bhagavata Purana, Hiranyagarbha is regarded as Brahma, the creator god of Hinduism, who is born on the lotus sprouting from the navel of Vishnu when Vishnu is reclining on the divine serpent Sesa which floats on the cosmic waters pervading the entire universe before creation. (It’s noteworthy that Patanjali is described as the reincarnation of Vishnu’s divine serpent Sesa.) When Hiranyagarbha awakens in the lotus, he is confused and disoriented—he has no means of knowing anything. He manages to calm his mind and entering into a stage of Yoga (samadhi), he attains the divine vision of Vishnu. Thus Hiranyagarbha becomes the first practitioner of Yoga, and by virtue of that, the founder of the Yoga system.

In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, which is embedded in the Yajurveda, Kapila, the founder of the Samkhya system, is identified as Hiranyagarbha. Another interesting portrayal of Hiranyagarbha is found in the account of primary creation of the universe given in the Matsya Puraṇa—here Hiranyagarbha is depicted as the golden womb (cosmic egg) inside which Brahma creates himself. Since he creates himself, this Brahma is also called Svayambhu, (the self-manifested).

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

The Dead Ends of Philosophy, Science, and Politics

In philosophy, science, and politics there is no dearth of dead ends. Civilizations march for centuries with certain philosophical, scientific, and political conceptions, but eventually their culture becomes decadent and obsolete and they face a stark choice—either they forge ahead with new insights or they die. History of the successful civilizations tells us that their fundamental conceptions are constantly in a state of flux; in every three to four centuries, they experience an intellectual revolution, which is coterminous with a political revolution, and there is a total transformation in their philosophy, science, and politics. The ability to split the shell of past conceptions, like a butterfly splitting its pupa, and emerge into the world in a new avatar is a trait of the successful civilizations.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

The Positive Vedic Sense of Life

The Vedic sense of life was positive—the Vedic philosophers were questing for not just liberation but for ways of achieving virtue, happiness, and fulfillment in one’s lifetime. In her book The Rig Veda, Wendy Doniger begins the chapter, “Realia,” with these lines: “The Rig Veda is a sacred book, but it is a very worldly sacred book. Nowhere can we find the tiniest suspicion of a wish to renounce the material world in favor of some spiritual quest; religion is the handmaiden of worldly life. The gods are invoked to give the worshipper the things he wants—health, wealth, long life and progeny. That is not to say that there is anything superficial about Vedic religious concerns, but merely that these meditations stem from a life-affirming, joyous celebration of human existence.”

The Vedic View of Infinity

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which is believed by scholars to have been composed in the eighth or seventh centuries B.C., and is traditionally attributed to the Hindu Vedic philosopher Yajnavalkya, has a discussion of the concept of infinity. Here’s a hymn in which infinity is being discussed:

पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते ।
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ॥

(purnam adah, purnam idam purnat purnam udachyate; purnasya purnam adaya purnam evavasisyate.)

Translation: “Fullness is there, fullness is here, fullness from fullness proceeds; when fullness is taken from fullness, fullness remains.” In other words, when infinity is taken out of infinity, infinity is what remains. 

Those who composed this hymn were clearly comfortable with the concept of very large numbers which verge on infinity. There can be a religious interpretation of this hymn: god is infinite, a part of god has gone into the creation of the material world, but because of that god has not become less, he is still infinite. The Vedas and other ancient Hindu texts use several terms to depict the concept of infinity.

Monday, 28 September 2020

On The Gayatri Mantra

The Gayatri Mantra occurs in the early section of the Rigveda (Mandala 3.62.10); so it must have been composed between 900 B.C. and 1200 B.C. This means that the hymn is more than 3000 years old, but it’s revered by the Hindus as a pious way of starting and ending their day—millions of people recite it at sunrise and sunset; they are convinced that this hymn represents the essence of the Vedas. It’s not clear why the Gayatri Mantra continues to be so popular; this is the only hymn in the world whose recitation has been widespread for more than 3000 years: 

ॐ भूर् भुवः स्वः ।

तत्सवितुर्वरेण्यं

भर्गो॑ देवस्य धीमहि ।

धियो यो नः प्रचोदयात् ॥

(Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ

tat savitur vareṇyaṃ

bhargo devasya dhīmahi

dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt) ~Rigveda 3.62.10

The hymn is dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of learning; since it’s recited at sunrise or sunset, it’s clearly linked to the sun—the word “Savitur” means the driving force behind the sun and not exactly the sun, who is known as Surya. Gayatri refers to the name of the goddess of the Vedic mantra in which the hymn is composed; tradition holds sage Vishvamitra as the hymn’s composer. The Gayatri Mantra is widely cited in Vedic and post-Vedic literature such as Bhagavad Gita, Harivamsa, and Manusmṛti.

PV Kane’s History of Dharmaśāstra

The texts of Dharmaśāstra (treatises on Dharma, or moral and pious way of life) were composed in the second century B.C., on the basis of Dharmasūtra texts which emerged from the Kalpa (Vedanga) expositions of the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sāma, and Atharva) during the Vedic age. It’s not clear how many Dharmaśāstra texts were composed in the second century B.C.—modern scholars estimate their number between eighteen and hundred, but only four texts, which include the sutras of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasistha, are extant. 

The Dharmaśāstra texts acquired political significance in the eighteenth century, when the colonial administrators of the East India Company passed an order making Dharmaśāstra the law of the land for all Hindus in India. In 1772, Governor General Warren Hastings expressed the system of personal law for India in these words: “That in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste and other religious usages or institutions, the law of the Koran with respect to Mohammedans, and those of the Shaster [Dharmaśāstra] with respect to Hindus shall be invariably be adhered to.”

The Sanskrit scholar Pandurang Vaman Kane (7 May 1880 – 8 May 1972) spent a significant part of his life researching the evolution of ethical, legal, and religious norms in ancient India—he examined the four extant Dharmaśāstra texts, and other ancient texts such as the Mahabharata, the Puranas, the Arthashastra. and the Manusmṛiti, and produced his magnum opus, a five volume work, consisting of around 6,500 pages, the History of Dharmaśāstra, subtitled Ancient and Mediaeval Religions and Civil Law in India—the first volume was published in 1930 and the fifth in 1962. 

Kane believed that a constitution inspired from the code of conduct described in the ancient texts is necessary to make people aware of their ethical responsibilities.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Ancient Philosophers Versus Modern Philosophers

I have drawn two inferences from my reading of modern and ancient philosophy: first, there is no reason to believe that the moderns are better philosophers than the ancients; second, there is no reason to believe that the moderns are smarter and wiser than the ancients. Philosophy has made little progress in the last 3000 years—the progress that mankind has made is largely due to the advancements in science, economics, language, and militaristic and exploratory ventures.

Tolerance of Uncertainty

The ultimate truths are unknowable and at the base of all knowledge there is an element of uncertainty, but that does not imply that we should stop exploring the unknown—it implies that man must learn to tolerate uncertainty.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Eggeling’s Translation of the Satapatha Brahmana

Heinrich Julius Eggeling, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Edinburgh from 1875 to 1914, spent a significant part of his life translating the Satapatha Brahmana. His translation, published in five volumes between 1882 and 1897, is still in print, and scholars continue to refer to it in their discussions of the Satapatha Brahmana. Each of the four Vedas has four subdivisions: the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions); the Aranyakas (explanation of the rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices); the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices); the Upanishads (discussion of meditation, philosophy, and spirituality). The Satapatha Brahmana, the largest and most systematic Brahmana, is attached to the Yajurveda, and between the seventh and fourth centuries B.C., it played a role in the rise of Vaishnavism which is popular till this day.


The Vedic Horses and Chariots

The horses in Indus Valley Civilization had started drawing wheeled carts around the twentieth century B.C. By the thirteenth century B.C., when the Indus Valley Civilization got supplanted by the Vedic Civilization, the advanced chariots, which were equipped with spoked wheels, had replaced the carts with solid wheels. The Rigveda contains 792 references to the word “asva” (horse) and around the same number of references are there to the word “ratha” (chariot). 

The building of the chariots required great craftsmanship and the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa and other ancient Hindu texts talk about the talented Rathakaras (the chariot makers) who enjoy high social status. In some instances, the gods themselves intervene to create a race-winning chariots. The Rigveda tells the story of an old sage Mudgala who owns a rickety cart but dreams of winning a prestigious chariot race. He beseeches the lord of the gods, Indra, to transform his cart into a chariot. Indra does the needful, and Mudgala, with his young wife as his charioteer, manages to win the race and gets the prize of eleven hundred cows. 

The gods travel through the infinite universe on divine chariots drawn by horses which never tire. The Rigveda contains several references to the divine twins, the Asvins, who have the power to bring the dead back to life; they travel across the universe in their divine horse-drawn chariot and provide succor to the pious. The Asvins are also featured in the epic Mahabharata—King Pandu’s wife Madri is granted a son by each Asvin; the sons are Nakula and Sahadeva (who are known as the Pandavas). 

The Vedas use the word “chakra” for the wheels of the chariots. But the word “chakra” is often combined by the Vedic sages with other words: with the word “kala” (time), they create the concept of “kalachakra” (the wheel of time); with “Vishnu” (god), they create the concept of “Vishnuchakra” (god’s disk); with “dharma” (Vedic or religious), they create the concept of “dharmachakra” (the wheel of dharma).

Friday, 25 September 2020

The Six Schools of Philosophy in Hinduism

The six schools of philosophy in Hinduism have never outrightly rejected each other, even though for several millennia, they have been engaged in vigorous argumentation on fundamental issues. Soteriology is the major concern for the six schools but they have different areas of expertise: in Samkhya, the focus is on metaphysics; in Yoga, on praxis; in Mimamsa, on epistemology, interpretation of the Vedas for liberation, and ethics; in Vaiśeṣika, on metaphysics and naturalism; in Nyaya, on logic and epistemology; in Vedanta, on exegesis of the Upanishads for attainment of the knowledge of Brahman.

Kant and Metaphysics

“Kant thought that men will surely return to Metaphysics as one returns to one's mistress after a quarrel,” writes Hannah Arendt in her book The Life of The Mind. Arendt is right; Kant’s motivation for writing the first Critique was to save metaphysics from Hume’s skepticism. In my opinion, Kant was overestimating the power of his own and Hume’s philosophical arguments—metaphysics is what it’s; it can never be destroyed or saved by philosophy.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

The Vedic Arya and Anarya

The word “aryan” has acquired serious geopolitical ramifications in the last hundred years, but this word is probably derived from the words “arya’ and “anarya,” which occur frequently in all the four Vedas (and other ancient Hindu literature: the Puranas, the Mahabharata). Since the first Veda, the Rigveda, is placed by scholars between the 12th and 5th centuries B.C., it might be inferred that the conception that an “aryan" is a better man originated in the Indian subcontinent. But no sense of racial and ethnic bias can be perceived in the Vedic usage of “arya’ and “anarya”—the two words are used to express moral, social, and spiritual status. An arya is a man who enjoys high social status because he is moral and spiritual; an anarya is a man who is immoral and unspiritual. The Rigveda contains discussion of several battles between kingdoms and clans, and the enemies are often referred as “dasyu” (demon) and “dasa” (slave), but these two words are free of racial and ethnic prejudices—in several instances, the people who are described as “dasyu” and “dasa” are the progeny of the same parents or clans, who, for any reason, religious, political, or something else, have become rebellious.

The Largest Oral Tradition in History

The ancient Hindus have created a massive literature which they transmitted orally for several millennia—to facilitate memorization, the source material was kept minimal and each sutra (aphorism) was designed to serve as a mnemonic device. The Indus Script has been dated to 3000 B.C., but literary writing began in the 5th century B.C.; the oral tradition has, however, continued till the 15th century A.D. Most scholars believe that the oral transmission has been accurate and there is no reason for us to question the accuracy of the ancient texts. The Rigveda, the oldest of the four Vedas, is a collection of ten books consisting of 1,028 hymns with 10,600 verses. The Samaveda is larger than the Rigveda since it explains the changes that the verses in the Rigveda undergo when they are chanted or used in ritual. The Yajurveda too is larger than the Rigveda because it consists of a number of schools, which articulate their differing viewpoints. The Atharvaveda consists of almost 6000 verses. Then there are the Puranas which describe the ancient myths, legends, and other traditional lore—the eighteen Great Puranas (Mahapuranas) and eighteen Upa Puranas (Minor Puranas) consist of approximately 400,000 verses. The Mahabharata consists of 1.8 million words, which makes it ten times the combined length of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Other than the four Vedas, thirty-six major and minor Puranas, the Mahabharata, there are several other religious, mythological, and philosophical texts that the ancient Hindus have created—theirs could be the largest oral tradition in history.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Two Kinds of Cultures

There are two kinds of cultures: those that are designed for offense, innovation, and rapid progress, and those that are designed for defense, traditionalism, and maintaining social hierarchy—the western culture is of the first kind and the Hindu culture is of the second kind.

The Dualism of Samkhya and Yoga

The Samkhya and Yoga systems are distinctly dualistic since they preach that the creation of the universe is an outcome of the disturbance in the equilibrium from the coming together of Purusa (intelligence principle) and Prakriti (material principle). There is a multiplicity of Purusas, and, along with the material things in the universe, all life too is a result of the conjunction between certain kinds of Purusa and Prakriti. Purusa, in living entities, has been translated as the approximate equivalent of what is known as the “soul” in the western tradition, but it’s not exactly the soul because it also represents a complete conjunction between the body and the soul—along with being the eternal life-force, in case of man, it’s his ego, his intelligence, and his consciousness.

From Indus Valley to Vedic Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization, which sprawled across the northwest regions of the Indian subcontinent, has been placed by archeologists between 3300 B.C. and 1300 B.C. The planned city of Harappa, a part of Indus Valley, flourished between 2600 B.C. and 1900 B.C. Among the artifacts recovered in the archaeological surveys are the seals which show figures seated in yogic posture. One seal represents a figure seated with extended arms resting on the knees—a classical meditation posture. From these finds it can be inferred that yoga has been practiced in the Indian subcontinent for close to 5000 years. A civilization of the sophistication of the Indus Valley cannot be sustained for more than 2000 years if it was not founded on a strong cultural system—the culture could have been based on the yoga theories and exercises, the Vedic rituals, and the Puranic legends. But most scholars believe that the Vedic civilization came after the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization, between 1500 B.C. and 1200 B.C. The composition of the Rig Veda (the oldest Veda) has been dated between 1300 B.C. and 500 B.C.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Does Physics Refute Naive Realism?

In philosophy, there are no facts—there are only positions. Bertrand Russell makes this argument in the Introduction to his book An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth, “The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself. Thus science seems to be at war with itself: when it most means to be objective, it finds itself plunged into subjectivity against its will. Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.”

Hegel On Historical and Unhistorical People

People belonging to civilizations which have vanished in the past are likely to make progress while those belonging to civilizations that have lasted for thousands of years are unlikely to make progress—Hegel makes this point in his work on history of philosophy, and he gives the example of the Persians and the Europeans as people whose civilization has vanished several times in the past, and the Chinese and Indians as people who, for several millennia, have lived in the same civilization. In Hegel’s view, the Persians and Europeans are historical people while the Chinese and Indians are unhistorical people, by which he means that they have no role to play in world history. (It must be kept in mind that Hegel was writing in the early years of nineteenth century.)

Monday, 21 September 2020

Seven Points on Nyaya Realism

In his book Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 1986), Bimal Krishna Matilal defends Nyaya Realism (which, he notes, is similar to naive realism or direct realism) against the arguments of Buddhist phenomenalism. Here’s Matilal's seven point characterization of Nyaya realism:

1. What we are directly aware of in our perception is the physical reality that exists independently of our awareness of it.


2. We see as well as touch physical objects, wholes, bodies, and their properties as well. But we see and touch wholes and substrata because they have parts and properties, but not necessarily because we see or touch these parts and properties. On the other hand, we do not, in the same sense, smell the flower, but only its fragrance, nor taste the sugar, but taste only its sweetness. Likewise, we do not hear the train, but only its whistle. 

3. The whole is a distinct reality, created by the putting together of the parts, and yet distinct from those parts taken together. A substratum is likewise distinct from the properties it instantiates or the property-instantiations it contains. 

4. Perceiving or seeing-that is knowing in the most direct sense, and there is no further basis or foundation or ground which is more indubitable or certain,.and from which such perceptual knowledge is derived or inferred. 

5. This knowledge is not always verbalized, but it is verbalizable. 

6. An analysis of perceptual illusion is possible without the assumption of sense data or sense-impressions intervening between the perceiver and the physical world. 

7. Ordinary knowledge is neither self-revealing nor self-validating. For ‘a knows that p’ does not entail 'a knows that a knows that p'. A cognitive event may occur and pass away unnoticed or unperceived. We can neither recall it nor communicate it to others by using language unless we have first inwardly perceived it. This inward perceiving is called anuvyavasaya (inward perception). It is similar to our perception of pain or pleasure.

Mātariśvan: The Fire God of the Rigveda

The early sections of the Rigveda, which modern scholars place between 900 B.C. and 1500 B.C., describe the feats of a mythical being called Mātariśvan who brings fire, in the form of lightening, from afar, probably heaven, to the earth. But after arrival on earth, the fire disappears and Mātariśvan rediscovers it and brings it for safekeeping to the clan of Bhrigus who propagate the use of fire to all humanity. The later sections of the Rigveda identify Mātariśvan as Agni, the fire god, and in several verses there is discussion of the miracle of fire being produced by rubbing wooden sticks—the Sanskrit name for the wooden sticks used to create fire is Pramantha.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Kant on Metaphysics as a Matter of Faith

One of the most famous sentences that Kant has written occurs in the preface to the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason: “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Kant was committed to Newtonian science, he was definitely not a skeptic or a religious rationalist, but he believed that knowledge is limited to the objects of possible experience and metaphysics (like theology) is a matter of faith. I think, Kant is the right in treating metaphysics as a matter of faith; the questions of metaphysics cannot be proved or disproved by scientific experiments and they cannot be established or refuted by philosophical arguments—therefore, the belief in metaphysics is, in essence, a matter of faith. In her book on Kant, The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt has given an explanation of Kant’s position. She writes, “Kant stated defensively that he had ‘found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith,’ but he had not made room for faith; he had made room for thought, and he had not 'denied knowledge' but separated knowledge from thinking."

The Cosmological Questions in Markandeya Purana

The questions that the Hindu sages were asking around 1000 B.C. were quite advanced—this is apparent from a reading of the eighteen Puranas, especially the Markandeya Purana, which is the oldest, and has Sage Markandeya as its central character. Here’s an excerpt from the Markandeya Purana in which enquires are being made about cosmology, genealogy, evolution, and geography: 

“How did this universe, both moveable and immoveable come into existence? And how will it fall into dissolution at the proper time, most excellent priests? And how came the families that sprang from the gods, the rishis, the pitris, created things, etc.? And how did the Manvantras occur? And what was the history of the families of old? and whatever creations and whatever dissolutions of the universe have occurred; how the ages have been divided; and what the duration of the Manvantaras has been; and how the earth remains stable; and what is the size of the world; and what are the oceans, mountains and rivers and forests according to their situation; what is the number of the worlds, the bhur-lokasvar-loka, etc., including the lower regions; and what is the course of the sun, moon and other planets, of the stars and heavenly bodies also. I wish to hear of all this which is destined to subversion; and what will be the end when this universe is dissolved.” ~ (The Markandeya Purana, translated by F. E. Pargiter, 1904, Canto 45.9-14)

The word “Manvantras” in the above passage means a cycle of the universe—every Manvantaras repeats 71 Chatur Yugas (world ages), lasting for 306,720,000 years. According to tradition, Vayasa, the legendary writer of the epic Mahabharata, is the compiler of all the Puranas. It's impossible to have the exact date of the Markandeya Purana, but most modern scholars place this text between 550 B.C. and 1000 B.C. The eighteen Puranas consist of around 400,000 verses—the Markandeya Purana is believed to have 9000 verses, but most surviving manuscripts show only 6900 verses.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

The Kantian Debates: Reinhold Versus Maimon

The debate between the disciples of Kant started in the late 1780s, while Kant was in his prime—at times, Kant himself vigorously argued with his disciples. I think, Hegel is only other figure in western philosophy whose work has led to such intense controversy as Kant’s. 

Here’s a short exchange between the two dedicated Kantians—Reinhold and Maimon: 

"All philosophy must begin with self-evident facts, and these are indemonstrable since they are the basis of all demonstration.” ~ Karl Leonhard Reinhold in a letter to Salomon Maimon (1791)

"Of course all philosophy must begin with self-evident facts, but the question is how we know the principle of consciousness expresses such a fact.” ~ Salomon Maimon in his reply to Karl Leonhard Reinhold (1791)

The New Western Fear of Failure

The western nations have developed a morbid fear of failure; they have become obsessed with the notion that their civilization is failing and the collapse of their way of life is imminent. History tells us that when nations start fearing failure, they are doomed to fail.

On the Discussions of Samkhya in the Mahabharata

The Bhagavad-Gita and Mokshdharm sections of the Mahabharata contain several valuable passages explicating the principles of Samkhya which is described as the one system of liberation through knowledge. Even the approximate date of the Mahabharata is impossible to determine, but most modern scholars place the epic in the fourth or fifth century B.C. In his 1901 book The Great Epic of India, Edward Washburn Hopkins notes that Kapila, the legendary founder of Samkhya, is the only founder of a philosophical system known to the Mahabharata; Kapila is described a “supreme seer, identical with Agni, with Shiva also, and with Vishnu. Kapila is said to have received his wisdom from Shiva.” The Mahabharata accepts that Kapila’s Samkhya system is devoid of belief in a personal supreme god, but the epic uses his authority to uphold the systems founded by other gods and teachers—many of the teachers are described as Kapila’s disciples. There are several verses in the Bhagavad-Gita in which there is discussion of the difference between the Samkhya and the Yoga systems. In one of the verses, it is noted that there are three kinds of Yoga: samkhyayoga (liberation through knowledge and solitude), dhyanayoga (liberation through self-discipline and meditation), and karmayoga (liberation through righteous action).  From this verse, it might be inferred that Samkhya was once seen as the original form of Yoga—dhyanayoga and karmayoga are part of the Yoga System.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Theology Encompasses the Entirety of History

A religion’s theological texts embody the moral and cultural principles that majority of the people in a nation use to self-regulate their life. If the religion loses its sanctity and becomes irrelevant, the nation is deprived of moral and cultural standards—after that it cannot survive. Reverence for the theological aspects of religion is necessary because theology encompasses the entirety of a people’s history, their past, a past which stretches back by centuries and even thousands of years—no people can walk into the future without firmly placing their foot on their theological past.

On the Vedic Gods

The word “Veda” is derived from the Sanskrit root vid, to know; thus, it might be inferred that three thousand years ago, the Vedas referred to the important knowledge that was available to the people of that period. The Vedic teachers seem to have realized that the material world is not the creation of a conventional god but of an omnipotent and omnipresent author who is undivided, timeless, and motionless—they give this author the exalted title of Atman or Paramatman, the great soul, or living principle of the universe. Since the living principle cannot be grasped by the human mind, they preached, we must contemplate the finite portions of its infinite energy. That is what they were trying to do when they developed gods for natural phenomena—so there are sun gods, fire gods, wind gods, rain gods, and a multitude of other gods but they are all instances of the same Atman or Paramatman being contemplated in portions that are finite and comprehensible to the human mind. Max Muller uses the term “henotheism” to describe the Vedic practice of contemplating the living principle in the form of multiple deities.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

On Samkhya Position on God and the Vedas

The Samkhya is perhaps the only system of philosophy in the world which appears to doubt the existence of god but accepts revelations—it venerates the Vedas as revealed texts which are eternal and whose authority is beyond doubt. The school holds there are three kinds of evidence or instruments of knowledge: perception, inference, and the testimony of the Vedas. But if the existence of god is in doubt, then whose revelations are the Vedas, which Samkhya recognizes as an instrument of knowledge? Max Muller is among the scholars who believe that it’s wrong to see Samkhya as an atheistic philosophy—he notes that while Kapila, the legendary founder of Samkhya, said that the existence of god cannot be proved by human beings and that god is an impossible conception, he does not expressly state that god does not exist. Also, the Vedas themselves preach that the material world is the outcome of a natural process and its existence does not prove or disprove the existence of god.

On The European Contributions to Ancient Hindu Philosophy

In the eighteenth century, when the East India Company arrived in India, the Hindus had no memory of their philosophical heritage and they had little awareness of their common culture—they had a plethora of festivals and rituals, but they didn’t have the philosophical sensibility and the historical knowledge to connect the festivals and rituals with the Hindu philosophies which were originally developed between two thousand and four thousand years ago. With a significant part of the country being under the Islamic kings, there was no incentive for anyone in the country to launch an intellectual investigation into the past. It is a humbling thought that the rediscovery of ancient Hindu philosophies was accomplished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the intellectual giants from another continent, Europe: Friedrich Max Müller, Ralph T. H. Griffith, Charles Wilkins produced the first translations of the Vedas and the Gita; Henry Thomas Colebrooke, William Jones, and James R. Ballantyne have made major contributes to Sanskrit literature; Arthur Schopenhauer tried to use the teachings of the Upanishads to expand Kantian philosophy; then there is the work of German Indologists like Theodor Aufrecht, Richard Garbe, Hermann Jacobi, Paul Deussen and others. In the field of Vedic literature, the knowledge of the Europeans was far superior to the knowledge of their Indian counterparts till the middle of the twentieth century. The Europeans originated the intellectual structures and methods which are still being used for translating, interpreting, and analyzing the texts of ancient Hindu philosophy.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

The French Revolution: A History

“But figure his thought, when Death is now clutching at his own heart-strings, unlooked for, inexorable! Yes, poor Louis, Death has found thee. No palace walls or life-guards, gorgeous tapestries or gilt buckram of stiffest ceremonial could keep him out; but he is here, here at thy very life-breath, and will extinguish it. Thou, whose whole existence hitherto was a chimera and scenic show, at length becomest a reality: sumptuous Versailles bursts asunder, like a dream, into void Immensity; Time is done, and all the scaffolding of Time falls wrecked with hideous clangour round thy soul: the pale Kingdoms yawn open; there must thou enter, naked, all unking'd, and await what is appointed thee! Unhappy man, there as thou turnest, in dull agony, on thy bed of weariness, what a thought is thine! Purgatory and Hell-fire, now all-too possible, in the prospect; in the retrospect,--alas, what thing didst thou do that were not better undone; what mortal didst thou generously help; what sorrow hadst thou mercy on? Do the 'five hundred thousand' ghosts, who sank shamefully on so many battle-fields from Rossbach to Quebec, that thy Harlot might take revenge for an epigram,—crowd round thee in this hour? Thy foul Harem; the curses of mothers, the tears and infamy of daughters? Miserable man! thou 'hast done evil as thou couldst:' thy whole existence seems one hideous abortion and mistake of Nature; the use and meaning of thee not yet known. Wert thou a fabulous Griffin, devouring the works of men; daily dragging virgins to thy cave;--clad also in scales that no spear would pierce: no spear but Death's? A Griffin not fabulous but real! Frightful, O Louis, seem these moments for thee.—We will pry no further into the horrors of a sinner's death-bed.” ~ Thomas Carlyle, in The French Revolution: A History

Legends and Aristocracy

The phenomena of aristocracy is perhaps derived from the ancient legends. The characters in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Vyasa’s Mahabharata, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are purely aristocratic. The immortal gods and goddesses, the mortal kings and queens, and even the commoners, who populate these legends, are fully aware of the code of aristocracy or nobility.

The Samkhya and Yoga Systems

The Samkhya and Yoga are two of the oldest metaphysical and soteriological systems of the Hindu tradition—their classical versions were developed between 2400 and 3000 years ago. Both systems are practical in their motivations, in the sense that they do not seek truth as an end in itself but as a means of liberation and fulfillment. They seek release from suffering which is the general condition of human existence—the suffering, they hold, is the result of metaphysical ignorance, lack of self-discipline, and adverse material conditions. The essential difference between them is that in Samkhya, the emphasis is on gnosis (metaphysical knowledge and solitude are the means of acquiring liberation and fulfillment), while in Yoga, the emphasis is on ascesis (liberation and fulfillment come through self-discipline and asceticism). Some historians of Indian philosophy (Surendranath Dasgupta and others) have conjectured that Samkhya was originally theistic but it became atheistic at a later stage under the influence of Carvaka and Pancasikha. But Max Muller believed that the Samkhya system is theistic because it admits in some form or other the existence of an Absolute and Supreme being. On the Yoga system there is no controversy—it has remained theistic throughout.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Teleology in History

If there is teleology in history, it’s perceptible only in retrospect. The cultural, political, and economic consequences, which seem inevitable several decades or centuries later, are invisible to the people who happen to be the central players in the political battles of a particular historical period. Edmund Burke said in 1770: “The generality of people are fifty years, at least, behindhand in their politics.”

Britain’s Accidental Empire in India

“The Indian Empire was born like the child of an inexperienced unmarried girl, that is to say, without any design to found it, or even awareness that it could come into existence, or any admission of its legitimacy,” writes Nirad C. Chaudhuri in his book Clive of India. It is certainly true that the British people (of the eighteenth century) were politically, intellectually, and morally unprepared for having a vast Empire in India. When the activities of the East India Company, whose mandate was limited to developing an infrastructure in India for carrying out a profitable trade, led to the rise of an Empire, the intellectual and political establishment in Britain reacted with great anger and hostility. The British anti-imperialistic attitude was born before the British Empire in India took its final shape. In his notes, written between 1841 and 1843, Alexis de Tocqueville says that the East India Company founded an Empire two-thirds the size of Alexander the Great’s conquests while going against the orders of the British government.

Monday, 14 September 2020

Ananda Math and the British Imperialism

Why did providence send the British imperialists to India? This is the question that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee seeks to answer in his landmark 1882 novel Ananda Math. He was a nationalist (often regarded as the founder of Hindu nationalism), but in his novel (and several of his essays) he asserts that the Hindus should refrain from fighting the British, who are doing us a favor by being here. Since we, the people of India, have forgotten the art of teaching ourselves, we must get our learning from other countries. The British are good teachers, he suggests, and we are learning from them the lessons that we have not learned for centuries—the British are teaching us the virtues of nationalism, patriotism; they are rekindling in us an interest in the Hindu religious and philosophical texts of the past. In Ananda Math, a group of Hindu sannyasis form a militaristic organization to free their country, but after many battles in which both sides suffer losses, the realization dawns on them that they are not serving the interests of their country by attacking the British. In the novel's final chapter, a character says that it’s written that the British should rule this country before there can be a revival of Hindu culture.

Samkhya and Buddhism

Isvarakrsna’s Samkhyakarika is the important source of information on the Samkhya system; he is generally placed in the fifth century A.D., because the Samkhyakarika was translated into Chinese between A.D. 557 and A.D. 567. But the Samkhya system is much older—Chanakya’s Arthashastra, which is dated to B.C. 300, has references to the Samkhya, Yoga, and Lokayata systems. 

The other Hindu systems — Nayaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsa, and Vedanta — came after the Samkhya, Yoga, and Lokayata were systematized. 

There are striking similarities between Samkhya and Buddhist systems—for instance, both systems react against the Vedic sacrifices, ritualism, and belief in god; they preach that life is a web of pain and ignorance, and liberation (salvation) can be attained through knowledge; they reject self-torture and have an emphasis on becoming and change. The Samkhya position on Kalvalya (the ultimate raja yoga which stands for "solitude", "detachment" or "isolation") is similar to the Buddhist nirvana. 

The ancient texts on systematic Samkhya are no longer extant and most references to sage Kapila, the historical founder Samkhya, are mythological, but the unity in the Samkhya system indicates that it can be the work of one philosopher. Since the name of the birthplace of Buddha (Gautama) is Kapilavastu, it’s believed that this is the region where sage Kapila did his work.