The Legend of Prince Siddhartha: Buddhist Philosophy Part I

Running parallel to the maturation and evolution of Hellenic philosophy, to the East the Indo-Aryan people were going through a similar intellectual revolution from the prevalence of ritual and ceremonial worship of gods and goddesses embedded in their mythologically steeped traditions as preserved in their Hindu (Vedic) scripture, to a more speculative and metaphysical mode of inquiry into the nature of reality and existence and its relationship to change, impermanence, and the immortality of the Soul, or Self (Atman) as it was referred to in the Vedas.

The aim of this inquiry, again just as it was in the West in the Hellenic philosophical tradition which was emerging at contemporaneously, was to explain not only the nature of reality, being, or “existence”, but also mankind’s place in as well as expound upon the goal of life, i.e. happiness, enlightenment, nirvana, liberation, moksha, eudaemonia or whatever other term the specific theo-philosophical tradition chose to denote this idea.  Unique to the Indo-Aryan philosophical tradition, which was also shared by Buddhism its close cousin, was that there existed a path to the ultimate liberation of the human Soul, by means of which death itself could be overcome.  This belief system was not just steeped in the notion of “realization”, or absolute knowledge (vidya), that which was spoken of by the great sages or seers of old, i.e. the Rishis, but also was characterized and underpinned by a system of metaphysics within which the nature of the Soul could be understood, and through which the means by which the Soul could be ultimately liberated rested upon.  This fundamentally intellectual development was driven not only by the analysis, commentary and interpretation of the more esoteric and philosophical aspects of the Vedas, or more specifically the Upanishads, but also by the teachings of Siddartha Gautama, the historical figure who is the founder of Buddhism.

Buddhism takes root in the Indian subcontinent toward the end of the 5th century BCE or so, originating in the northeast border between modern India and Nepal where Siddhartha Gautama was born (and where he presumably taught as well) at around the same time that the first of the Upanishads were compiled.  In modern academic literature, Buddhism is typically considered to be part of a broader philosophical movement that arose as an alternative to Vedic religion in the first half of the first millennium BCE in the Indian subcontinent called Śramaṇa.  This movement included Jainism, as well as other heterodox – i.e. not adhering to the Vedas as authoritative scripture – theo-philosophical schools of thought.[1]

The rise and influence of Buddhism then must be seen within the context of a broader intellectual movement that arose on the outskirts of the ancient Indo-Aryan civilization which reflected a basic and fundamental dissatisfaction with Vedic philosophy, culture and tradition as a means to liberation.  It represented almost a rebellion of sorts to the orthodox theological and religious dogma that was prevalent at the time which was encased within a very structured and elitist socio-political structure, i.e. Varna, which closely guarded theological study and knowledge by a specific class of society, i.e. the Brahmins, and which held that moksha, or immortality, was to be practiced only by the well trained and select few. Siddhartha, after much trials and tribulation, and after following many different paths and teachings, concluded that the prevailing orthodox Vedic philosophical system as a means to liberation or happiness was fundamentally flawed and after his Awakening, came up with an alternative philosophy (and underlying metaphysics) which became the basis of Buddhism in all its different variants today.

The popularity and spread of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent in the last half of the first millennium BCE, which spread all the way into the Far East and regions of Chinese cultural influence in the first few centuries of the Common Era and beyond, along with the establishment of Vedic philosophy as represented in the Upanishadic literature, is in many respects directly analogous theo-philosophical development in the Hellenic world which arose out of the prevailing mythological and theological based religious traditions from which our modern (Western) notion of “philosophy” itself was conceived.  It can also be understood as analogous to the Christian revolution in the first few centuries of the Common Era as Jesus of Nazareth rejected the fundamental teachings of Judaism and proclaimed his new philosophy, i.e. the Gospel, for which he was ultimately crucified.  The teachings of Jesus, who later became known as Christ or Logos personified, as interpreted and compiled by his followers who founded Christianity as we know it today, not only rejected the religion of the Hebrews (of which Jesus was of course a member), but also the so-called “pagan” religions that were prevalent in the Mediterranean at the time, proclaiming that not only was there one true God as the Hebrews had done before him, but that this God was accessible to, and was in fact indistinguishable from, the very inmost essence of all mankind.

But Christianity as well, in its formation in the after the death of Jesus and as the Church and its associated religious dogma became codified and canonized into the Bible, also integrated Hellenic theo-philosophy as well, this element of Christianity being specially emphasized by the early Christian Church Fathers.  Just like Jesus then, Buddha rejected the religious traditions of his forefathers proposed not only an altogether different theo-philosophy, but also a fundamentally different worldview, i.e. metaphysics, as well as a completely different means and approach by which the ultimate goal of life could be reached, a goal which he defined as the cessation of suffering.  Buddhism then was born out of Hinduism just as Christianity was born out of Judaism, and Buddha was a Hindu just as Jesus was a Jew.

After searching for keys to unlock the secret of human suffering in his many years of wandering after he left behind his family and kingdom, Buddha ultimately came to find that none of the teachings he encountered answered his questions satisfactorily, and therefore he rejected Vedic philosophy in all its variations and after his “Awakening”, came to understand and teach a practical handbook of sorts for all seekers of Truth and Knowledge, a much more simplified and practical philosophy, a way of life really, than was then offered by the more traditional orthodox Vedic philosophical schools.

 

The mythical narrative surrounding the birth, life and death of the Prince Siddhartha is consistent with the narratives of most pre-historical heroic figures (Jesus, Hercules, etc.) and starts with stories of his immaculate conception into a ruling family in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India.  It is said that upon his birth, which his mother did not survive, he was visited by a great sage who predicted that he would either be a great ruler of men or a great religious teacher and reformer (holy man).  His early childhood and young adulthood was spent living the life of luxury within the confines of multiple palaces and exposed to all the pleasures that one might expect were accessible to a prince.  It is said that his father, given the prophecy upon his birth of the potential for his son to be a great religious prophet and teacher, took great pains to shelter him from any outside influences that would expose him to the suffering and harsh realities of the world which in turn might lead to his renunciation of his birthright.  It is said that he married and had a son and spent the first 29 years of his life in the sheltered and elaborate palace of his father where no desire of his was left unfulfilled.

In his late twenties, a story is told that one day he left the palace of his own volition to view his subjects and kingdom first hand, despite the misgivings and sheltering instincts of his father.  On this journey outside the palace walls, he was exposed to his first examples of the great suffering of the world, seeing first an old man on the verge of death, then a diseased man in great suffering and pain, followed by the corpse of a dead man, and lastly by an ascetic monk who had renounced the world in the classic Vedic monastic tradition which was prevalent at the time.  This experience is said to have completely transformed his view of the world and invoked feelings of tremendous and overwhelming compassion for the plight of his people, inspiring him to renounce his royal pedigree, leave his wife and child, and begin to live the life of an itinerant wandering monk to search for truth and the meaning of life, which was from his perspective the source and possible secret to the end of suffering.

Prince Siddhartha then spent the next several years following various forms of extreme Vedic asceticism and renunciation to try and find the true nature of existence and the path to illumination as prescribed by the teachings of the Vedas, with each successive path and teaching that he followed getting him no closer to the answers to the questions that he was seeking.  It is then said that after practicing these extreme forms of renunciation and deprivation that led him close to the edge of death, he finally gave up these practices as fruitless and settled down under a Bodhi tree (believed to be in Bodh Gaya, India), and resolved to sit in contemplation until either the solution to the nature of suffering and its ultimate liberation was revealed to him or die in the process.

After supposedly sitting in deep meditation for some 49 days, being tempted during his practice by various demons and gods with all sorts of worldly temptations to lead him astray (think Jesus’s 40 days and 40 nights in the desert having been tempted by Satan), at the age of 35 Siddhartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment and arose as the Buddha the name being derived from the root Sanskrit verb ”to know”, or “budh”, meaning “one who is awake”, i.e. the Awakened One.  The term Buddha, or Buddha nature, has come to represent the eternal and ever-present nature of truth and existence which he came to embody after his enlightenment experience under the Bodhi tree.

Upon emerging from this deep meditative and transformative experience, which was supposed marked by a great earthquake when his state of enlightenment was achieved and the eternal truth and knowledge of the nature of suffering and the path by which it could be overcome was revealed to him, Prince Siddartha became Buddha.  Although initially reticent to teaching this new found knowledge to the rest of mankind, believing that everyone was too steeped in ignorance and worldliness to understand, comprehend and ultimately practice the eternal Truth which was revealed to him, it is said that he was convinced by one of the great Indian deities, Brahma Sahampati, to at least try to teach for the good of mankind.

Thus began the teaching phase of his life from which the philosophical system of Buddhism as we know it today has been handed down to us.  It is said that he traveled throughout India and taught his Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path, as well as instituted the practices of Buddhist monasticism, for some 45 years until his death sometime in the 5th or 4th centuries BCE.  These teachings, sometimes referred to as his Buddha Dharma, or the Way of Buddha, represented a complete explanation and exposition of the laws of nature as they applied to the problem, and ultimate solution, of human suffering which was from his perspective the end goal of any theological or philosophical pursuit.  He taught how the great cycle of birth, disease, decay and dying could be overcome by proper understanding, or knowledge of “reality”, or more precisely the shedding of ignorance of the existence of the Self and attachment to which to Buddha attributed the source of suffering.

The historical figure we know today as Buddha was raised on the northern Indian/Nepal border in the foothills of the Himalayas as a prince from an affluent ruling family, living and teaching somewhere between the end of the sixth and early part of the 4th centuries BCE but dated by most scholars to the 5th century BCE.  What we know about the historical figure named Siddhartha Gautama who later became known as the Buddha, is from a corpus of textual material written that is handed down to us in in Pali[3], as well as somewhat later Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese transliterations of the Pali texts.  The Tripitaka, or Pali Canon, which is term used for the orthodox and authoritative Buddhist texts, cover not only his teachings, but also include biographic material as well, the latter of which is interspersed with a variety of mythical accounts that established him as a pseudo-divine figure who was born to deliver his message for the good of mankind.  Tripitaka (Tipitaka in Pali), means literally “three baskets”, and while the earliest parts of the canon are believed to have been compiled or transcribed within a few centuries after Buddha died, the biographic material is believed to have been incorporated into the corpus in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.

Siddhartha Gautama, or the “Awakened One” as he was referred to by his followers, is one of the most prominent and influential theo-philosophical teachers from antiquity whose influence has spread over the centuries from the Indian subcontinent throughout most of Asia and now in modern times to the West.  In many respects the Pali Canon and teachings of the Buddha which are contained therein can be seen as analogous to the Four Gospels which contain various narratives of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and form the core part of the New Testament of the Bible which were written some decades after his death and were only later included as part of the Biblical canon.

According to most scholarly accounts, it is the Pali Canon that represents the oldest authoritative Buddhist scripture.  This strain of Buddhism that considers the Pali Canon to be the authoritative Buddhist scripture is referred to as Theravada Buddhism, Theraveda meaning literally “school of elderly monks” in Pali, as opposed to the slightly more possible and well known variant of Buddhism, at least in the West, called Mahayana Buddhism – of which the more widely known schools of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are representative for example – and relies on a different set of scriptures than the Theraveda school referred to as the Agamas (“sacred work” or “scripture” in Sanskrit or Pali), which are written in Classical Chinese and referred to as the Chinese Buddhist Canon, or Dàzàngjīng (大藏經).

Mahayana literally means “Great Vehicle” in Sanskrit and focuses more on the monastic aspects of Buddha’s teachings and emphasizes the, rules, rites and practices for those who wish to pursue enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings as Buddha himself did.  These enlightened beings are called bodhisattvas, or “enlightened beings” in the Mahayana school and while the Mahayana school does not necessarily differ from the Theravada tradition (which precedes it historically) in terms of basic philosophical tenets and practices, it nonetheless developed a unique and relatively independent scriptural and philosophical tradition which codified and institutionalized specific doctrines, teachings and practices for the pursuit and attainment of enlightenment, what perhaps Buddhism in modern parlance is best known for.

Despite their differences in interpretation and practices, each adheres to the core basic teachings of Buddha as reflected in his Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the latter of which outlines the true nature of reality and the causes of suffering and the former which outlines the intellectual and metaphysical basis for the basic precepts and practices which are to bring about the cessation of suffering and ultimately enlightenment and the end if the cycle of death and rebirth.  While Buddhism does not lay out a philosophic doctrine per se, at least not in the classic Western sense of the term, nor does it lay out any systemic laws or beliefs as is characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, it does however lays out basic fundamental precepts about the nature of life and reality from which it establishes a path, the so called “Middle Way”, which is the means by which the bonds of attachment which ultimately lead to suffering can be broken for good, resting on the fundamental assertion that not only is enlightenment possible, but that there is a specific path which can be followed which will ultimately lead to nirvana, the term given to the cessation of suffering and the end of the “wheel of dharma”.

 

When analyzing the teachings of Buddhism, as reflected in the various textual sources which were compiled by his followers sometime after his death, we are left with very similar challenges and pitfalls when studying the philosophy of all of the great teachers in antiquity.  While we can optimistically assume that his precise teachings and doctrines, words and phrases and terminology , were faithfully transcribed by his followers even if several generations of teacher and student transmission existed before any of the actual texts which codify his teachings were transcribed, we still nonetheless have to try and extract what he actually said and taught from the extant literature – for the texts were written in a variety of languages that a) in all likelihood do not reflect the actually language that he spoke, and b) we do know that he did not leave any written materials behind himself.

According to tradition, the transcription of the Pali Canon is the result of the Third Buddhist Council that was convened at the behest of the pious Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BCE) who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century BCE.  His intent for convening the council, much like the Christian councils that were convened in the 3rd century CE onward, was to standardize the teachings, texts and some philosophical elements of Buddha’s legacy from amongst the various factions that had sprung forth after Buddha’s death, leading to the existence of a variety of teachers and philosophic schools who disagreed on many aspects of the Buddha’s message and precepts.

As the tradition has it, the council lasted nine months and consisted of senior monastic representatives from all around the emperor’s kingdom who debated various aspects of Buddhist doctrine, culminating in the canonization of the scripture, i.e. the establishment of the Pali Canon, and formation of the foundational principles and practices of Theravada Buddhism.  After the council it is said that the emperor dispatched various monks who could recite the teachings by heart to nine different locations throughout the Near and Far East, laying the groundwork for the spread of Buddhist teachings and philosophy not just in the Indian subcontinent, but throughout the ancient world as far East to Burma and even as far West to Persia, Greece and Egypt.

The Tripitaka contain three major sections, (in Sanskrit) the Sutra Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka.  The Sutra Pitaka is the oldest of the three parts of the canon and is said to have been recited by Ananda, Buddha’s secretary at the First Council, a meeting of five hundred disciples of Buddha shortly after his death to compile his teachings.  It is divided into five sections of sutras which are grouped as nikayas, or “collections” – the Digha Nikaya or “Long Discourses”, the Majihima Nikaya or “Middle Discourses”, Samyutta Nikaya or “Connected Discourses”, the Anguttara Nikaya or “Numerical Discourses”, and the Khuddaka Nikaya or “Minor Collection”.  Another disciple of Buddha named Upali is said to have recited the Vinaya portion of the Tripitaka which deals mostly with rules governing monastic life, reflecting the strong undercurrent of renunciation and monasticism which was an integral part of Buddhism from its inception.  The Abhidharma portion of the is the youngest material and reflects the Buddha’s teachings regarding various deities in heaven during the final period of his Enlightenment and deals with various philosophical and doctrinal issues which help elucidate the some of the more esoteric and obscure aspects of the scripture.

It is from the Sutra Pitaka portion of the Pali Canon that we ascertain the core of Buddhist doctrine as it was understood by his followers and is interpreted by the various schools and practitioners throughout the world today.

 


 

 

[1] Śramaṇa (Samaṇa in Pali) is a Sanskrit word meaning “seeker”, or “one who performs acts of austerity”, or simple an “ascetic” and is used to refer to several Indian theo-philosophical intellectual developments that emerged in the first half of the first millennium BCE as distinct, and in opposition to, the more prevalent “orthodox” Vedic tradition which came to represent the basis of the Hindu faith, hence their categorization as “heterodox”.  These intellectual theo-philosophical developments and schools of thought ran directly parallel, and are believed to have influenced, the philosophy of the Upanishads.  Theo-philosophical traditions such as Jainism, Buddhism, as well as the lesser known traditions such as Ājīvika, Ajñana and Cārvāka are all considered to be part of the Śramaṇa movement.  Classical Indian philosophical conceptions such as saṃsāra and moksha are believed to have originated within these schools of thought, conceptions that were later integrated into some of the major Indian philosophical schools such as Yoga and Samkhya.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Śramaṇa’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 September 2016, 02:20 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=%C5%9Arama%E1%B9%87a&oldid=739942627> [accessed 18 September 2016] as well as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Buddha: Siderits, Mark, “Buddha”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/buddha/&gt;.

[3] Pali is a Prakrit language native to the Indian subcontinent, believed to have originated in Northern India, and very closely related to Sanskrit, with most words existing in both languages with simple phonetic transliterations between the two.  Pali is a language in the Indo-European/Indo-Iranian language family whose main historical significance is that it is the language of one, if not the, main source of Buddhist scripture and philosophy

Beginner’s Mind

The odd thing
Is that every Westerner
Approaches the practice of meditation
With a goal in mind
Without exception

The even odder thing
Is that from an Eastern point of view
[Particularly Daoist/Zen Buddhist
Which are very related and symbiotic traditions]
This misses the entire point
Not part of the point
The entire point
Of meditation practice

Reflect on that for a moment
Because it’s important
If you are a practitioner
To understand this very simple
And yet at the same time subtle
Extremely relevant and critical point

There is no goal to meditation practice
To the true practitioner
To the Master
The great sage as the ancient texts refer to them as
The Rishis of the Vedic tradition
The ancient shaman really

Nirvana, Enlightenment, Samadhi
And other illustrious powers and visions
Which many many practitioners hope to obtain
Or even to the poor old soul
Who struggles with mental anguish
And is looking for some peace and relief
An escape from the trials of life
Or those that wish to lead
More successful and empowering lives
And believe meditation
Through the clarity of mind
Will help them achieve those goals

Indirectly or directly
Doesn’t matter which
This misses the entire point
Which is the very point
Of this poem if you can call it that

The purpose of meditation
The purpose of life
Is to lead the best life
The one that is most fulfilling
And one that is full of as much joy
And happiness as possible
Aristotle’s arete (Greek: ἀρετή)

This was the absolute primary purpose
Of the writings of the almost all
Of the ancient philosophers
From around the globe
From Confucius, to Mencius, to Laozi
To Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics
And even to the Hindus

[With Vyasa and the Rishis
And the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads
In a less direct way
More Confucian in a sense perhaps
Given the Vedic emphasis on ritual (li)]

Meditation practice then
Is not the means to some sort of end
It is the end
The practice and life are not different
Practice and Life are the same

We are so goal oriented here in the West
That not for any given moment
Can we actually find happiness
Even while it stares us in the face
Because it is always somewhere out of reach
Due to some inadequacy that has been identified
By the relative ego and its constant comparison
To the ideal self
Which does not nor ever will exist

This is my problem with the materialists
The causal principalists who claim
With their authoritative academic voices
And all their scholarly credentials and degrees
That the only reality is the physical reality
That which can be measured and quantified

Hence their loss in madness
And why quantum theory is so powerful a model
That they just don’t understand
Where causality and determinism themselves
Need to be abandoned in order for the model
To make any sense whatsoever

Unless they just call it a mathematical theory
That predicts results (Copenhagen interpretation)
And say that it says nothing about the ‘real’ world
Which is nonsense in and of itself
Or you get the other just as lunatic conclusion
That the math does in fact represent ‘reality’
And therefore there must be multiple realities
That exist simultaneously
Of which ours is the only one
That we know about or have access to

What?????????????????

These seemingly logical and rational
Mathematically coherent and consistent
But at the same time completely nonsensical
Conclusions are all necessary and determined by
The fact that experience and Being (Aristotle’s)
Are considered to be ontologically subservient
To quantifiable and measurable results
And ‘observable’ phenomenon
Along with the predictability of outcomes
Of other various measurement phenomenon
Upon which all reality is not only based
But upon which the borders of reality itself are drawn

While all this sounds pretty complicated
The point here is that the Eastern view
Not only considers subjective phenomenon to be real
It considers experience itself to be
The primary, and in fact only,
Definition of Reality that is possible
And the only thing that is true about this definition of Reality
Is that it changes constantly
And the experience of the subject
Cannot be distinguished from in any meaningful way
The object of attention or awareness or intellectual understanding
That is yielded from
Is created and born from
Each and every individual experience
That each and every individual has
In each and every moment
Of their separate but totally interconnected lives

This is why Change (The I Ching)
Is so important and telling
Given its primary significance in the Eastern tradition
And virtually the only book that embeds with it
Some sort of cosmological theory
[If you can call it that]
And why it is so hard for Westerners
To understand what the purpose of the word is
Why it lasted so long and is such an elementary part
Of every form of theology or philosophy
That has emerged from the Far East

Because it doesn’t really ‘say’ anything
It (and by it i mean the act of consulting the I Ching)
Simply identifies a specific situation
Within the cosmic order of Heaven and Earth
Via the enactment of a certain ritual
Which includes Fate and the Observer
In the very process by which
A specific hexagram is selected
Out of a series of fixed and finite
But at the same time completely interrelated
Set of symbols that describe the attributes
Of a given circumstance

The event (the selected hexagram)
Most accurately reflects the current situation
Depending upon the question that has been posed
To the Book of Changes

By this process
The cosmological experience
And one’s place within it as it occurs
Has manifested itself and can be understood
Within the overall set of cosmic experiences
And their interaction and constant flow into and out of one another
Each with their own balance and assortment
Of Yin and Yang elements
Constantly working together
Which began at the beginning
When the world was created
Which to the Eastern mind
Has no beginning
And has no end

After this consolation and interpretation
After this ritual is performed
An advanced practitioner
A priest in the Western sense
Can provide the person, the leader or aristocrat in ancient times
A better understanding of the current situation
And make recommendations regarding
What can be done to achieve greater harmony and balance
Between yourself and Heaven and Earth
Which yields happiness or contentment
Which is again the very goal and purpose of life

So where you ‘are’ in the cosmological universal experiences
Along with where you are heading
As described and bound by
The 64 hexagrams of yin and yang
That make up the Book of Changes then
Can reveal how you might
Move toward more balance and harmony
Between Heaven and Earth
And the ‘ten thousand things’
As wànwù is commonly translated
And the individual
By honing the practice of virtue (ren)
May achieve happiness
The Eudaimonia of the ancient Greeks
And thus can not only find happiness and purpose
In their individual lives
But also can construct
A harmonious and happy society
Along with it

But as usual we have lost our way
Or our wu wei (non-action, non-doing)
As the case may be

The point here is that
The purpose of meditation
Is not some sort of goal
Or any other goal
Than to lead a better life
Lead the best possible life

And to the Easterner
The Daoist and the Zen Buddhist
The only reality there is
Is the one that is sitting in front of you
At this very moment
Which is why mindfulness
Is so important in the Buddhist tradition

As also is emptiness
Which is basically is the opposite
Of the ancient Chinese word wànwù
Or ‘ten thousand things’ or ‘myriad of things’
As it is usually translated
Or at the very least
Emptiness can be considered to be
The origin and source
Or perhaps better put
Universal backdrop of
These ten thousand things
And what we in the West call Reality

So at some point the practitioner comes to realize
And it doesn’t happen in a moment
Because realization itself
Understanding and knowledge
Have many many levels
As Socrates last teaching showed us
That the wisest among us
Knows the least

That while we may speak of how
The end is not the goal
And it is the journey which is the whole purpose
The whole way to find the meaning of life
The holy Grail as it were

To be able to truly comprehend this fact
Gives us the illumination
That in fact our practice and our life
Are not two things but are one thing
And that the more they blend
And the more they complement each other
Our thoughts are not distractions from the View
They are the View

They, these thoughts that page us so sometimes
Are in fact the divine manifestations
That dwell within and originate
And flow out of and from Universal Mind
Into our own individual small minds
This is the Brahman and Atman
That the Vedic Rishis speak of
Which sits within (and without)
Coexists in fact
In each and every soul
And every animate thing
That can be said to exist

So with this sort of mindset then
These thoughts as they arise in our practice
Can be accepted for what they are
Manifestations of Mind within mind
And our emotional attachment
Or perhaps better put emotional reaction
To these thoughts as they arise
Can also be accepted
Along with the thoughts
Be they reflective or speculative
As manifestations of this divine principle
Which we all carry within us
And which is our source of being
And is also the source of Being itself

This is the practice
It is one of acceptance of the present situation
Your present situation in life
Your role in creating it
Your ability to truly understand it
To understand your codependence
On family, friends, colleagues, lovers, etc

And by so doing
Look to achieve this balance and harmony
Between the Earth and the Heavens
As the ancient Chinese so elegantly put it
Using symbols and not even words
Because once words are used
True understanding is actually lost in some sense

So don’t abandon your goals or objectives in life
The Western way of thinking has value too
But in your practice you must abandon such things
And then as the mind settles in
As thoughts and emotions settle
Out of and back Into
The grand abyss of awareness
That underlies all things and beings
One can recognize
Even if for a fleeting moment
The very source of Being itself
And our identity with it

The experience of Satchitananda
Existence Knowledge Bliss Absolute
Can be experienced
And perhaps more importantly
Its aftertaste spill into our daily lives
To make ourselves better people
And the world around us
A better place

Namaste

What is Vedanta?

Introduction

The ancient Indo-Aryan civilization sprung forth in the Indus valley region in modern day India and Pakistan (to the ancients Eastern Persia), and was the source of the “Vedas”, some of the oldest extant literature of mankind. This ancient Indus Valley civilization, from which one of the great world renowned religions called Hinduism was birthed, spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from circa 3300 to 1300 BCE, roughly aligning with the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization although contact between the two civilizations was limited if not absent entirely based upon the archeological record. The civilization from which Hinduism emerged is traditionally associated with the Indus valley, a river system from which an ancient culture could grow crops and thrive, a similar relationship to the Sumerians and their Tigris/Euphrates and the Egyptians and their Nile. This relationship with water and its fundamental existence and prerequisite feature for the source of life, clearly left its mark on the Cosmology and creation mythology of all of these ancient cultures. The Hindus believed in the Cosmic Waters (apas in Sanskrit) as the source of the known universe, just as the Egyptians had their concept of Nu and the Ancient Sumerians had their Apsu.[2]

Their theological doctrines and philosophy, as reflected in the Vedas, was a core part of their society and from a very early stage and the social structure even was architected to reflect this, namely that the sacred teachings of the Vedas were to be protected by a specific class of society, the Brahmins. In some respects the establishment of a priestly, learned class that was kept separate from the rest of the society (the Kshatriya or ruling/warrior class, the Vaishyas or the merchant class and the Shudras or laborers being the other classes of society in classic Hindu culture) reflected developments to the West where first the priests, then the philosophers and then finally the Church itself (the Imam in the Muslim community) became the established authority on matters dealing with intellectual development, education, or course religious matters and ultimately eternal freedom.

Although in antiquity Vedānta referred more specifically to the philosophic portion of the Vedas (Vedanta literally means “end of the Vedas”), the bulk of the content coming from the Upanishads, over time Vedanta took on a broader meaning to represent the body of work and knowledge that interpreted the meaning of the Upanishads, which in turn incorporated the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras more directly into the philosophic tradition.

The primary sources for what is considered modern day Vedanta are three main collections of verses or texts are the Upanishads[3], representing the end of the Vedas or the philosophical and mystical portions of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” from the epic poem the Mahabharata, and the Brahma Sutras which was an attempt at consolidating and synthesizing Vedantic philosophy from the 2nd or third century CE. Vyasa is the supposed author attributed to the works of the Mahabharata and the Brahma Sutras, while the Upanishads are considered to be the divine inspiration of the rishis, or seers, who fully realized and codified the knowledge of Brahman as put forth in the Upanishads. The three works together are also referred to as the Prasthanas, or canonical books, that form the foundation of the philosophy of Vedanta and form the foundation of Hindu religion even to this day.

The Vedas are the oldest Indo-Aryan Sanskrit[4] texts and are the oldest extant Hindu scripture. The Sanskrit word véda means “knowledge” or “wisdom” and is derived from the root vid, “to know”. Like many other religious traditions, the Vedas are said not to have been recorded and authored per se, but were revealed to these ancient rishis, passed down from generation o generation from teacher to student in a long standing oral tradition, and then documented and transcribed by scholars and sages somewhere between the second and first millennium BCE. Vedanta, somewhat literally translated as “the end”, or “goal”, of the Vedas, represents the philosophical or metaphysical tradition of the Hindus and represents the philosophical portions of the Vedas, i.e. the portions of the Vedas that do not deal with sacrifice, ritual or dharma (righteous action).

Vedānta is also sometimes referred to as Uttarā-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘latter’ or ‘higher’ inquiry, as juxtaposed with Purva-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘former’ inquiry which deals with ritual and sacrifice described in the Samhita portion of the Vedas and Brahmanas while Vedanta proper expounds upon the more esoteric teachings of the Āranyakas and the Upanishads. As defined by Shankara, perhaps the greatest of all the Vedic philosophers in antiquity, the term Upanishad is in effect a veiled reference to the content of the Upanishad itself, namely Brahmavidya, knowledge of Brahman, and Atmavidya, knowledge of Self.

The corpus of Vedic texts, all transcribed in some form of Sanskrit, include the Samhita, which are collections of mantras from the four Vedas, the Brahmanas which are prose texts that describe Hindu sacrifice and ritual, some of the older Upanishads such as the Mukya, Chandogya, Katha and Brhadaranyaka which deal with esoteric ideas and concepts describing the nature of Brahman and the soul (Atman), and other sutra (literally “thread”) literature dealing with Hindu rituals and sacred rites. Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas and may also include Aranyakas, literally “forest texts”, as well as Upanishad texts which again represent the philosophical and metaphysical, or perhaps better put mystical, interpretations of the sacred rituals.

Parts of the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as Upanishads explore what have become the theological underpinnings of Hinduism, notions such as Brahman, the absolute or underlying nature of all things, and Atman, the individuation of the principle of Brahman in man or the soul as it is usually translated, the relationship of which represents the core pillars of Vedic philosophy. The Upanishads however form the philosophical backbone of Vedanta and much like the ancient scripture of the Jews (Old Testament) or Zoroastrians (Avesta), the Upanishads and the rest of the Vedic scripture in toto represent an oral tradition that reaches deep into antiquity that was only later documented, dated by most scholars in the second and first millennium BCE.

The oldest parts of Vedic literature, the Rig Veda for example, give us a glimpse of the life of the Indo-Aryan peoples who first settled and formed complex social structures in the Indus Valley some seven thousand years or so ago and the nature of the language of old Vedic Sanskrit points to shared linguistic and philological with Indo-Iranian culture and civilization that populated the region to the West dominated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Rig Veda is one of, if not the, primary source texts of mythology, rituals and belief systems of the people of the Indus Valley region, and is one of the oldest extant texts in the Indo-European language family. It is thought to have been composed somewhere in the middle or end of the second millennium BCE (based upon philological and corroborated archeological evidence), roughly between 1700 and 1100 BCE. Even though the text is interspersed with mythology and outlines the characters and principles from which the known universe was birthed, the text also states unequivocally the unknowable nature of the source of the universe/cosmos, marking its core philosophical bent and providing the foundation for the later Upanishads which were primarily concerned with the nature of Brahman and Atman and their realization and manifestation rather than mythology per se.

Fundamental to the Upanishad texts themselves and the broader Vedanta philosophic tradition as a whole is the establishment of the importance of self-realization as the goal of life. In the Upanishads it is Brahman that represents the universal spirit that underlies all of the cosmos and all of its creation and it is through connection with Atman is that the individual can recognize their unity with all pervading Brahman. This knowledge is called “Brahmavidya”, or literally knowledge of Brahman, which reveals to the jiva the illusory nature of physical reality or maya, the universe being the “play”, lila of Ishvara. Brahman as espoused in the Upanishads, despite the tendency toward anthropomorphization, represents the ultimate unity of all things and creatures, animate and inanimate, and the belief in an indelible construct or consciousness which pervades the entire universe and which feeds and gives energy to all life.

Interpretations of Vedanta

The first attempt at compiling and synthesizing the teachings of Vedanta, their interpretation as it were, is contained in the Brahma Sutras (sometimes referred to as the Vedānta Sutras) which are believed to have been written somewhere around the 2nd century CE, the text being attributed to the mythical sage Vyasa who is also the author to whom the Mahabharata is attributed. The Brahma Sutras are part of the Uttara-Mimamsa (Vedantic) tradition and are in essence a summary and compilation of the teachings of the Upanishads. It is in the Brahma Sūtras that the teachings of Vedānta are set forth in a systematic and logical order, rather than the scattered and somewhat inconsistent manner which the teachings are presented in the Vedas given their deep historical and sometimes esoteric roots and their focus on ritual and sacrifice.

The Bhagavad Gita, or the “Song of the Lord”, has also played a significant role in the development of Vedantic thought over the centuries. The text is a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata of which some of its oldest parts date from the middle or early part of the first millennium BCE. The Bhagavad Gita is a portion of this mythological epic text and is a narrative of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna that takes place on the eve of a great battle. Arjuna, whose name means “bright” or “shining”, is one of the five Pandava brothers, all sons of Pandu who are aligned against their cousins the Kauravas, descendents of Kuru in the Kurukshetra War. This is he stage from which Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, gives his great teaching around the nature of duty, the soul, the universe and the path to liberation – the “Song of the Lord” which is undoubtedly one of the greatest epics of all time commensurate in stature and influence to the East as the Iliad or the Odyssey is in the West.

Arjuna voices to Lord Krishna great reservations and misgivings about the righteousness of the war in general and more specifically the duty to kill his enemies, who in this particular case were his cousins. Krishna at one point in the dialogue reveals himself as God in a great vision to Arjuna and represented an example of the avatar tradition which is a marked and unique trait of the Hindu faith. An avatar is a human incarnation of the divine, one who although is none other than the great Ishvara himself takes human form from time to time to show jivas the true nature of existence and lay out the path to liberation for each new age.

Krishna helps Arjuna understand why he must fight, and why it is morally right for him to do so, and the context of this dialogue forms the essence of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. In the process of his expositions, Lord Krishna expounds upon key Vedantic philosophical constructs such as moksha (liberation), karma (action), and dharma (righteous conduct), forming the foundation of the practice of Yoga and helping the great prince understand that while it may seem immoral for him to go to war with his kin, it is nonetheless his duty to do so and it would in fact be immoral to abstain from fighting. The metaphor is intended of course to not only justify the class differentiation which represented the fabric of ancient Hindu society but to hold Arjuna up to its people as a “shining” example of the just and moral life.

Outside of the esoteric notions of Brahman and Atman which are explored and eulogized in the more esoteric parts of Vedic scripture, there does also exist in the tradition a parallel notion of anthropomorphic deities consistent with the pantheon of gods that colored the mythology of the rest of the cultures from antiquity – The Greeks, Persians, Romans, Egyptians, etc. This concept of God, or Ishvara, is present in the Upanishads and the Vedas as well (and is topic of the Puranas, one of the other canonical works of Hinduism proper), but at least within Vedanta is subservient to the higher, more abstract, truths elucidated throughout the Vedic literature – Brahman alone is real, and it is through knowledge and realization of Atman and its ultimate unity with Brahman that the cycle of birth and death can be broken and the bondage of desire and attachment be rent asunder.

The core premise of the Upanishads and Vedanta in general then, and what distinguishes the philosophical system from the Western philosophical and theological traditions, is the belief in each individual’s (Atman) ultimate unity with the divine light that permeates the entire universe that is omnipresent and all-pervading (Brahman), and the intrinsic innate ability of all individual souls (jivas), to achieve the experience of this unity directly and therefore become fully realized beings free from all suffering and bondage – a state called moksha in Sanskrit. Although from the absolute perspective, Brahman and Atman are one and the same, indistinguishable entities, we do not realize this as such due to our belief in the reality of the human form and the physical world, the ultimate source of all suffering and delusion according to Vedanta. [One can see the clear parallels to Buddhist doctrine here despite the different semantics and the different focus on the “path” rather than the esoteric philosophy itself.]

Brahman then, as conceived by the Hindus which is the word we use in modern parlance to describe the people of India who descend from the people of the Indus Valley region, is a self-evident construct that was is not just as old as civilization itself, it is in fact as old as mankind and is the source of life. The ancient Vedic religion from which Vedanta emerged was steeped in ritual no doubt, consistent with all of the hunter-gatherer societies throughout the world and from which modern civilization eventually evolved, but the essence of the rituals was not lost and the highest form of teaching in the Vedic tradition was not the rituals per se, but the meaning behind the rituals, an idea that was part of the tradition itself since inception.

While the Hindus kept their various gods and goddesses, they also held true to the messages of the great rishis of old and laid out perhaps a sophisticated system of psychology, theology and metaphysics whose ultimate objective was the realization that God (Brahman) did in fact exist, could in fact be realized just as clearly as the realization of the world of objects all around us are realized by our (physical) senses, and that in fact we as humans were fundamentally designed for this realization, our individual consciousness being simply a reflection of this broader sometimes anthropomorphized principle of the universe, i.e. Brahman. According to the Hindu faith, this heaven on earth so to speak was the birth right of all of us – no passage or gateway or ticketing required.

The authors of Vedic scripture in fact took pains to apply as systematic and comprehensive an intellectual framework as possible, alongside guidelines on morality and ethics that were based upon virtues like justice and duty, in contrast to its Western religious brethren that laid out more specific rules of conduct that were baked into the fabric of the theology – a trademark of Judaism and Islam and a source of much of their rigidity and inflexibility to adapt to modern times in many respects.

The Ultimate Aim of Vedanta: Yoga and Samadhi

Another aspect of the teaching which was unique was the metaphysics and theology laid out the reality of a divine superconscious state, samadhi in the Yogic branch of Vedanta, which corresponds more or less to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, along with a natural philosophy and system of ethics which for the most part – independent of the caste system, remnants of which can still be found in modern India – evolved independent of authority and power. Although the Hindu caste system which is embedded in the fabric of Vedic literature had/has its draw backs no doubt, reflecting a system that is anything but a meritocracy, one advantage to the system is that there is a clear demarcation between the ruling class – Kshatriya to which Arjuna belongs – and the priestly class, the Brahmins, allowing for independent development of philosophic thought and “freedom of religion” so to speak that is definitely not a characteristic of Western theological development. This separation of classes allowed sages over the centuries to pursue the end of these Vedas without the risk of persecution.

In Hinduism then, and in its branches like Buddhism (for Buddhism is to the Hindus what Judaism is to the Christians, Buddha was a Hindu like Jesus was a Jew) presumed this fundamental distinction between church and state, or perhaps more aptly put this individuation (to borrow a Jungian term) of religion. The Hindus did not codify these separation principles into law per se, as has been done in modern American and European society (i.e. the West) after centuries of religious persecution, but the principle of religious freedom represented a core, integral part of Hindu culture just the same.

And from this social acceptance of the individual expression of the divine, many great sages and seers, known as rishis , had been born since the dawn of man that perennially personified this apex and goal of the Hindu religious system – namely the realization of the divine in this very life. The Indo-Aryan theological tradition (which includes Buddhism and Yoga as well as Hinduism/ Vedanta) more so than any other allows for, and in fact insists upon, the existence of sages and seers throughout history who literally incarnate the divine and eternal truth underlying the universe and re-establish the core tenets of the Vedas, translating the eternal message for each era and each people as the need arises. Krishna, Buddha, and Chaitanya, Ramakrishna and countless others are examples of incarnations where Ishvara himself has taken human form to shed light upon the mysteries of the universe.

These great sages, these rishis, personified the goal of oneness with the divine, the perception of the kingdom of heaven within, and realized the end of the Hindu scriptures. And they all accomplished this in their own unique way and yet at the same time each of them reestablished the validity of these ancient scriptures, renewing the people’s faith in their content and precepts which had been born so many thousands of years prior. To all of these great sages the mind and body, and reason and logic itself, was to be used to realize the truth of this oneness. That was its sole purpose of existence. This truth was the great gift that was handed down from the ages from the Vedas.


[2] You could argue that all of these traditions stemmed from one ancient source mythology, and in fact some scholars in modern times had started looking at and for such similar roots as put forth by E.J. M. Witzel in his The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, but it seems more plausible that an explanation of the similarities in the cosmologies of these ancient civilizations stems from individual cultures and societies having similar challenges and relationships with the environment which governed their existence from which their similar mythologies emerged, which in each case was defined by their relationship with the river system that their civilization grew and evolved around. The river system was the source of their food and sustenance, and framed their idea of the passage of time and sense of order. Therefore these basic principles were reflected in each of the different civilization’s cosmology to a large extent.

[3] The word Upanishad is derived from the Sanskrit root sad, which means to ‘to loosen’ or ‘‘to attain’ or even ‘to annihilate’, combined with the prefixes “upa” and “ni”, which denote ‘nearness’ or ‘sitting beside’ and ‘totality’ respectively. You can therefore translate the meaning of Upanishad to mean something along the lines of “that which is attained completely and entirely whilst sitting beside or near to”, referring to the tradition of sitting beside a teacher and learning, the educational practice that is embedded in the Vedic tradition itself from inception.

[4] Sanskrit was the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism and Jainism and virtually all of the ancient texts of these religions were authored in Sanskrit. Sanskrit’s position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, and it was the language used in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan peoples that described their cosmologies and rituals that survive and whose underlying rituals and theology carry into Hinduism and Buddhism even to this day. This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

Vedic Cosmological Narratives (Part II)

The Hymn of Purusha: God Takes Shape[1]

While the preceding passage from the Rig Veda contains some of the root kernel philosophical elements of Vedic philosophy, there is another passage from the same collection of hymns dating back to the 2nd millennium BCE that speaks to the more what we might call, classically ancient mythological, bent of the Indo-Aryans. This is a verse (quoted below) which describes a variation on the creation story/narrative which comes much closer to what we would call “myth”, and has a much more anthropomorphic bent, than the esoteric passage quoted above.

1 A THOUSAND heads hath Puruṣa, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet.

On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.

2 This Puruṣa is all that yet hath been and all that is to be;

The Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food.

3 So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Puruṣa.

All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.

4 With three-fourths Puruṣa went up: one-fourth of him again was here.

Thence he strode out to every side over what eats not and what eats.

5 From him Virāj was born; again Puruṣa from Virāj was born.

As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward o’er the earth.

6 When Gods prepared the sacrifice with Puruṣa as their offering,

Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood.

7 They balmed as victim on the grass Puruṣa born in earliest time.

With him the Deities and all Sādhyas and Ṛṣis sacrificed.

8 From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up.

He formed the creatures of-the air, and animals both wild and tame.

9 From that great general sacrifice Ṛcas and Sāma-hymns were born:

Therefrom were spells and charms produced; the Yajus had its birth from it.

10 From it were horses born, from it all cattle with two rows of teeth:

From it were generated kine, from it the goats and sheep were born.

11 When they divided Puruṣa how many portions did they make?

What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

12 The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rājanya made.

His thighs became the Vaiśya, from his feet the Śūdra was produced.

13 The Moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth;

Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vāyu from his breath.

14 Forth from his navel came mid-air the sky was fashioned from his head

Earth from his feet, and from his car the regions. Thus they formed the worlds.

15 Seven fencing-sticks had he, thrice seven layers of fuel were prepared,

When the Gods, offering sacrifice, bound, as their victim, Puruṣa.

16 Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim these were the earliest holy ordinances.

The Mighty Ones attained the height of heaven, there where the Sādhyas, Gods of old, are dwelling.[2]

Here we see many of the basic, core elements of ancient creation mythology that we are familiar with in the West – the creation of the seasons, animals, anthropomorphism, etc. We also see a connection drawn from the creation cosmology to societal and theological structure, i.e. the caste system which was such a key component of the Indo-Aryan peoples for much of their history, and the connection between hymn and scripture and the godhead himself. We also see the creation of the astral and celestial elements such as the Earth, Sun and Moon and Sky, as well as the emergence of the first pantheon of Gods such as Indra, Vayu and Agni, both elements that are found in creation mythology throughout antiquity (the Greeks, the Romans, etc.).

Furthermore, this ancient primordial pseudo-anthropological principal – Purusha – evolved over time to become an integral part of two of the main Vedic philosophical systems, namely Samkhya and Yoga, each of which held universal creation to be a balance between two primordial forces – Purusha and Prakriti – male and female, inactive and active respectively, sharing many basic elements with Taoism (Yin/Yang) which emerged independently (presumably) in the Far East. So again we see the roots of the core Vedic and Hindu philosophical elements in the very earliest cosmological narrative, speaking to the duration and strength of the lineage itself and the strong connection between the cosmological narrative and the philosophy – brothers in arms as it were.

Manu, the Cosmic Egg and Dharma

We also find a very detailed account of creation in a very influential socio-political work from India called The Laws of Manu – aka Manusmriti – a work reflecting the latter part of the 2nd millennium BCE to the middle of the first millennium BCE (roughly running parallel with the transcription of the early Upanishads) dealing with social and cultural issues – laws, practices, customs, etc. – rather than ritual or mythical traditions as were codified in the Vedas and Upanishads. In it Manu, the mythical Adam of the Indo-Aryans, lays out the social philosophical principals and practices to a group of great sages (rishis), providing the guiding principals that were to underpin the governing of Indo-Aryan society for millennia.

Although not considered part of the orthodox Vedic scriptural tradition per se, the text is nonetheless extremely influential in the development of Indo-Aryan civilization, and Indian history in particular, as it lays the groundwork for the operation and management of a healthy society. The work may be looked at in contrast, or similar to Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics although it contains a much more practical, or perhaps more aptly put Judaic-Christian (and Islamic) bent, as it deals with laws and the proper functioning of society in a very concrete way whereas the Greek philosophers dealt much more in the abstract.

The text deals primarily with what is referred to in the Indian philosophical tradition as dharma, a fairly deep and profound term which can be loosely translated as righteousness, path, or way but is a sophisticated and profound term that implies righteous and aligned living and is tightly interwoven into social considerations, i.e. one’s station in life. It is a concept which is found in the Bhagavad Gita as well and spans not just the Indian philosophical tradition but Buddhism too, speaking to its age, as well as its importance in the Eastern philosophical milieu in general.

But despite being a guidebook to good living and proper management of civilization as it were, the Laws of Manu contains a very well constructed and detailed creation story (two variants actually) at its very beginning as well, its author feeling compelled no doubt to establish the basic underpinnings of not just the Indo-Aryan society, but of the universe at large, helping the great seers of old to who he was speaking connect the dots through creation itself to the emergence of advanced society.

Although a fairly lengthy passage, it is worth quoting (mostly) in full so the reader can gain a full appreciation of the depth of the story and its striking parallels with other ancient creation cosmological narratives.

There was this world – pitch dark, indiscernible, without distinguishing marks, unthinkable, incomprehensible, in a kind of deep sleep all over. Then the Self-existent Lord appeared – the Unmanifest manifesting this world beginning with the elements, projecting his might, and dispelling the darkness. That One – who is beyond the range of the senses; who cannot be grasped; who is subtle, unmanifest, and eternal; who contains all beings; and who transcends thought – it is he who shone forth on his own.

As he focused his thought with the desire of bringing forth diverse creatures from his own body, it was the waters that he first brought forth; and into them he poured forth his semen. That became a golden egg, as bright as the sun; and in it he himself took birth as Brahma, the grandfather of all the worlds.

After residing in the egg for a full year, the Lord on his own split the egg in two by brooding on his own body. From these two halves, he formed the sky and the earth, and between them the mid-space, the eight directions, and the eternal place of the waters.

From his body, moreover, he drew out the mind having the nature of both the existent and the non-existent; and from the mind, the ego – producer of self-awareness and ruler – as also the great self, all things composed of the three attributes[3] and gradually the five sensory organs that grasp the sense objects. By merging the subtle parts of these six possessing boundless might into particles of his own body, moreover, he formed all beings. Because the six parts of his physical frame became attached to these beings, the wise called his physical frame “body”. The great elements[4] enter it accompanied by their activities, as also the mind, the imperishable producer of all beings, accompanied by its subtle particles.

From the subtle particles of the physical frames of the seven males of great might, this world comes into being, the perishable from the imperishable. Of these, each succeeding element acquires the quality specific to each preceding. Thus, each element, tradition tells us, possesses the same number of qualities as the number of its position in the series. In the beginning through the words of the Veda alone, he fashioned for all of them specific names and activities, as also specific stations.

The Lord brought forth the group of gods who are endowed with breath and whose nature it is to act, the subtle group of Sadhyas, and the eternal sacrifice. From fire, wind, and sun, he squeezed out the eternal triple Veda characterized by the Rig verses, the Yajus formulas, and the Saman chants, for the purpose of carrying out the sacrifice. Time, divisions of time, constellations, planets, rivers, oceans, mountains, flat and rough terrain, austerity, speech, sexual pleasure, desire, and anger – he brought forth this creation in his wish to bring forth these creatures.

To establish distinctions among activities, moreover, he distinguished the Right (dharma) from the Wrong (adharma) and afflicted these creatures with the pairs of opposites such as pleasure and pain. Together with the perishable atomic particles of the five elements given in tradition, this whole world comes into being in an orderly sequence. As they are brought forth again and again, each creature follows on its own the very activity assigned to it in the beginning by the Lord. Violence or non-violence, gentleness or cruelty, righteousness (dharma) or unrighteousness (adharma), truthfulness or untruthfulness – whichever he assigned to each at the time of creation, it stuck automatically to that creature. As the change of seasons each season automatically adopts its own distinctive marks, so do embodied beings adopt their own distinctive acts.

For the growth of these worlds, moreover, he produced from his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet, the Brahmin, the Ksatriya, the Vaisya, and the Sudra.[5]

Here we see a much more comprehensive and elaborate creation story relative to its parallel verses in the Vedas, and the integration of a much more sophisticated philosophical system, but yet at the same time shows clear signs of strong Vedic (Rig-Veda) influence. We see the emergence of an ordered world from a primordial chaotic universe through the will and power of an anthropomorphic grand deity, the universe itself being a manifestation of his physical form and creation occurring by his will/seed across the primordial waters. We also see the inclusion of the analogy of the “cosmic egg” from which came forth the sky and the earth, a metaphor which can be found in various Brahmanas (commentaries on the Vedas transcribed in the first few centuries first millennium BCE), and in the Chandogya Upanishad (3.19), one of the earliest of the Upanishads (from the early part of the first millennium BCE). In the Chandogya Upanishad, the cosmic egg splits into golden and silver parts and from which the sky and earth germinate respectively and a reference to this same “golden egg” can also be found in Rig Veda verse as well (10.121), where the Sanskrit word Hiranyagarbha (10.121)[6], literally the “golden womb” or “golden egg”, is used as an epithet of the Creator, or Brahma.[7]

We furthermore see in this rendition of creation the emergence of the Gods, the Vedas themselves and the rituals which they describe and encode, the core elements of the universe (ether, wind, light, water, earth), the celestial elements of the universe, time itself, etc. all emerging from this great creation process, as do the creation of all living beings and creatures on earth. Parallels here can be drawn directly with the order of creation in Genesis for example, while the segmentation into 7 days isn’t found but the basic natural universal creation narrative follows a very similar line.

Finally at the end, and consistent with the purpose of the treatise as a whole, with some antecedents found in the Vedas themselves, we have a final attestation of the establishment of right (dharma) from wrong (adharma), as well as the basic social structure, as the final piece of creation and the establishment of order, leading quote nicely into the text itself which now sits on the foundation of universal order, from which the social order arises.

Summary: Vedic Cosmology, a Distinctive Approach

So what we see in the Vedic-Hindu creation mythological narrative then, and what distinguishes the tradition as a whole from the Judeo-Christian tradition (again within which we place Islam) is a string philosophical and analytical bent that goes back to the roots of the very scriptural tradition itself. This unbroken tradition, which starts with the pre-historical Indo-Aryans as reflected in the Vedas, and then passes through the Upanishadic phase which further codifies and elaborates on the philosophical and ritualistic tradition that we find in the Vedas and then moves to a more classic Western epic poetry phase which involves the pre-eminence of Gods and heroes – the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas – includes not just what we would consider to be the classic theological components of a religion in today’s modern parlance – the classic creation story/myth – but also an underlying thread of philosophy and esotericism which were altogether abandoned from the Judeo-Christian narrative as it looked to focus more not on incorporating various streams of thought and schools of (philosophical) belief but on excluding as many different interpretations and traditions as possible so as to avoid any shadow of doubt with respect to how God was to be viewed and how his creation was to be perceived and even how one was to live their life in concordance with the laws of the Church.

So the Hindu creation mythology ascribes the source of the universe to Brahma, a layer of anthropomorphic abstraction between Brahman and the world of gods and men, who sits atop of the creation and destruction of this known universe, and that in turn each known universe has its own creation, preservation and destruction process and this process repeats itself ad infinitum through the ages. The Brahma of the Hindus is equivalent theologically to the Judeo-Christian God.

With the Indo-Aryan tradition then, we find belief in a single unified Creator God, Brahma, coupled with a robust philosophical tradition – Vedanta – from which the social and ethical structure of society evolves from and sits upon (as exemplified with Manu’s Laws and ethical precepts), and we also have a rich mythical poetic narrative, that is coupled with and compliments this deep philosophical system of thought no doubt capturing the imagination of Hindu’s from time immemorial. The cosmology embedded in the various scriptural texts, some of which we have looked at in detail here, captures essence and order of universal creation, the establishment of different classes of society, the creation narrative from the basic primary elements of universal matter to gods, sages, humans and all the way to the rest of life – plants, animals, etc.


[1] Although there is some debate as to the dating of all the verses within the Purusha Sukta (for example the verse which enumerates the various Indian castes), for the purposes of our discussion we can view the hymn as a 1st millennium BCE myth which speaks to a cosmological narrative surrounding Purusha which shows the early origins of the philosophy surrounding the same and the philosophical origins as embedded in the cosmological narrative itself in its earliest form – i.e. the scholarly debate on the dating of the composition or pieces thereof is not relevant to the this particular discussion albeit important and relevant enough to at least mention so the reader is aware.

[2] Rig Veda, Hymn XC. Purusa. Translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith [1896]. From http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv10090.htm.

[3] The three gunas, or qualities; i.e. sattva, rajas and tamas. The gunas are a key element of Vedic/Indian philosophy, originally stemming from the Samkhya school and then pervading most variants of Indian philosophy over time. The concept being that that these are the three fundamental characteristics and constituents of the universe, and the individual Soul (Atman), and that sattva – peace, calm, harmony – is to be cultivated for spiritual enlightenment. Tamas – darkness, inertia, sloth – is to be avoided and rajas, being somewhat beneficial – passion, action – is to be cultivated but should be tempered by sattva.

[4] “Elements” here, and below, referring to the five classic elements of the universe from the Indian philosophical perspective which diverged somewhat from the classic earth, air, water, fire that we are accustomed to seeing (alchemy for example) in the West. We have ether, wind, light, water, and earth, each created one from the other at the beginning of the universe, emanating from the mind of the creator when he awakens from his deep sleep. The process of creation of these elements, and their associated characteristics, is delineated in passage 1.75-8 of Laws of Manu and is alluded to here – “in a series”.

[5] Manu’s Code of Law, Chapter 1 verses 5-31. Translated by Patrick Olivelle. Oxford University Press, 2005 – pgs. 87-88.

[6] See Rig Veda translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith [1896], Hymn CXXI

[7] For a comprehensive look at the cosmic egg analogy, from which heaven and earth emerge, and its relationship to the age old theme of celestial, chaotic waters, see Origins of the Worlds Mythologies, E.J. Michael Witzel, Oxford University Press 2012 pgs. 121-124 where he looks extensively at these mythemes and their common use throughout a variety of ancient cultures in the Middle and Far East as well as into China and East Asia and provides specific reference passages in the Vedic literature.

Kali’s Child: A Case Study in the Limits of Freudian Psychoanalysis

As reluctant as I am to offer off an opinion on a debate that has been bantered about by scholars much more learned and experienced than I in comparative religion and scholars familiar with the source texts in Bengali, most notably the Kathamrita by Ramakrishna’s (householder) disciple known simply as M., I find that there are a few notable points, one in particular, that seems to be missing from the heart of the debate that I would like to offer up as a potential source of not only the heart of the debate but as a potential bridge for gap between the two seemingly diametrically opposed, and for now at least vehemently argumentative, sides of the debate.

For those of you not familiar with the book Kali’s Child or the subsequent controversy surrounding the publishing of the book, I would point you to the Wikipedia entry on the subject here which describes among other things how the book, authored by Jeffrey Kripal, a Professor of Comparative Religion at Rice University whose web site can be found here, which won the American Academy of Religion’s History of Religions Prize for the Best First Book of 1995 and then was subject to a broad ranging set of criticisms by “insiders”, i.e. those part of or schooled in the tradition of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and their students and disciples as reflected in the teachings of the Ramakrishna Order and its sister organization the Ramakrishna Mission, as well as “outsiders”, i.e. those who have not been immersed in the teachings of the life and times of Ramakrishna and his disciples by those who carry the torch of the tradition in the Ramakrishna Order, with of course its many supporters who laud the work for its originality, mostly from the Western academic community. [Note that this distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders” is drawn and taken from, and in my view is an accurate delineation of the two sides of the debate, the book by Swami Tyagananda (an esteemed monk of the Ramakrishna Order who presides over the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston and is a Hindu chaplain to MIT and Harvard) and Pravrajika Vrajaprana published in 2010 entitled Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, a work that covers the history of the source texts on Ramakrishna in the last 100 years and change along with a through criticism and attack not only on Kripal’s thesis in Kali’s Child, but also on the quality of his scholarship in general].

Kripal’s argument is basically that it is the repressed homoerotic desires of Ramakrishna, as well as the sexual abuses that he supposedly had as a child and as a young adult (of which his evidence is circumstantial at best), that drove and were the source of what can be best be described from Kripal’s point of view as his catatonic and pathological states of mind, which although he refers to (correctly) as samadhi clearly approaches the validity of these states of mind with what can be best described as a healthy degree of skepticism, hence his thesis . I am paraphrasing here but that’s basically what he sets out to prove, that it is not only Ramakrishna’s (repressed and/or sexually traumatically induced) homoerotic desires/experiences which were the source of his “ecstasy”. The interesting thing about this thesis, based on shaky ground or not, is what remains truly hidden, entirely implied and yet never stated explicitly, is that effectively the reason why Kripal’s thesis is rendered merit at any level, again leaving aside whether or not he provides any sufficient evidence to support this thesis aside, is that he assumes that the only way that these experiences can be explained are through Freud’s model of sexual repression and/or unexpressed or unmanifest sexual desire. What Kripal either fails to realize, or realizes and completely ignores, is that this premise in and of itself denies the reality of the entire religious and theological tradition from which Ramakrishna lived and experienced his life within, namely Hinduism and in its philosophical and theological terms Vedanta, which lives on even today in various forms and flavors – Tantra being one of them.

The other side of the argument however, the one promoted by and backed by insiders – and again this assumption is not made totally clear in the response to Kali’s Child by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana in their work Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, assumes that these higher states of consciousness can and do in fact exist, do not require any sort of trauma or sexual (or other types) of repression in order to be induced, and in fact are more “real” than the day to day experiential and materialistic existence of Western man.   Interpreting Ramakrishna describes 19th century Bengal, Hindu sadhana practices (spiritual practices), citing various perspectives of those who encountered Ramakrishna directly (via men and women disciple and 1st hand accounts, the latter of which are completely absent in Kripal’s analysis which is a glaring failure in the work), expounding on the nature of Tantra and its relationship to Vedanta, and in general do their best to try and explain the nature of Ramakrishna’s nearly constant experience of divine bliss through the lens of a 19th century Bengali socio-cultural yogic context, which is the only way to understand who he was, what he represented or in any way shape or form try and understand his behavior.

As a counter example, leaving aside whether or not it would even be possible for a Ramakrishna like figure to exist in modern times in the West (and I would argue it would not be for the very reason that Kripal cites that was one of the factors that led to his being perceived as an “avatar”, or an incarnation of God by 19th century Bengalis, i.e. that it was not just Ramakrishna’s belief in the divinity of what he referred to as “this”, i.e. himself, but also the belief of his followers and disciples which were a product of the very same culture that he was brought up in, with a Western bent for the most part given the Westernization of Bengal that was occurring in the 19th century when Ramakrishna lived, where British culture was being super-imposed onto Hindu and Indian culture in a fairly oppressive and arrogant way as has been the case throughout the last four centuries of Western civilization development – WWII and the Jews, the complete destruction of Native American culture by the Americans (and French and Spanish of course), the destruction of the Aboriginal culture by the Australians, the destruction and subjugation of Native African cultures by the colonizing forces in Africa which still goes son today, and in general a wholesale arrogance in Western culture’s belief that their views are better, more accurate and more complete than anyone else’s viewpoint on the nature of reality or the meaning and purpose of life, much less a culture’s religious beliefs which were for the most part – in all the references just cited – were looked down upon as backwards, ancient and outdated, and fundamentally flawed and archaic.

Unfortunately, Kripal’s work in Kali’s Child fits right squarely into this category of work. By taking Freudian psychology as a more accurate and telling vantage point of Ramakrishna’s life and teachings, he is placing this very same Western paradigm of arrogance and self-importance to Western modes of thought as pre-eminent and more trustworthy than specifically in his case the Eastern philosophical tradition from which Ramakrishna himself emerged, which is entirely based upon Hinduism and Vedanta – of which Tantra is a descendant and complementary system, not a wholesale different and unique system. This latter point is not only critical in understanding Ramakrishna’s sadhana, but also in pointing out that Kripal’s laser like focus on Ramakrishna’s Tantric sadhana over his “Vedic” teachings or practices, represents his ignorance of the theological and religious tradition that he is studying. As a Comparative Religious scholar from a respected Western University this is not only shameful and derogatory, this is quite simply poor scholarship. Here he is trying to interpret Ramakrishna’s life, who is the penultimate expression of Hindu and Vedic faith in the last two hundred and fifty years, and he has drawn a hard and fast line between Vedanta, which literally means the end of the Vedas and which Kripal focuses on the “non-dual” interpretation of Vedanta to which Tota Puri, Ramakrishna’s Vedic and monastic teacher represents harkening back to the non-dualistic Vedantic teachings of the 8th century from which Tota Puri’s heritage is linked from what I understand, and Tantra, whose philosophical underpinnings are as interwoven into the Vedic tradition from which it emerged from as are the non-dual teachings of Vedanta that stem from the same, slightly different and nuanced, interpretations of the same texts – the Vedas, the Gita, the Puranas, and the Brahma Sutras making up their core.

Not only do you ignore Vivekananda’s teachings about Ramakrishna’s life, you also ignore Swami Saradananda’s, who wrote the most thorough and comprehensive autobiography of Ramakrishna that exists down to us, but you also ignored Sarada’s (aka Holy Mother, Ramakrishna’s spouse) who was his wife and his partner in his work. What’s worse, is that not only do you ignore their interpretation of Ramakrishna’s life and work, you attack the verity of their work itself as a “cover up” of Ramakrishna’s story and life, that there was some “secret” that they covered up – which again was essentially a homosexual who had no sexual outlet given the culture he lived in, was fascinated and obsessed with “little boys” and it was this repression that was the source of his “ecstatic” experiences which you effectively explain away as a pathological reaction to his sexual abuses as a child and as an adult, abuses which you provide zero evidence for essentially and there is no evidence for in the historical record at all despite the dozens of first-hand accounts that survive down to us about Ramakrishna, the bulk of which you completely ignore in your analysis and study.

A word on Vedanta, of which Tantra is clearly a close cousin if not a direct descendant, both embroiled in a pot of mythology and metaphysics/philosophy that goes back some three thousand years, arguably the oldest practicing religious system in the world if you want to look at the tradition from which Ramakrishna emerges from a purely theological context. Ramakrishna is an embodiment, a full realization of the mythological and metaphysical system of Vedanta, and Hinduism, with an integral Christian and Islamic symbology to go right along with it, as he is said to have realized the truths of these faiths as well. And he took a wife, who was a significant part of his work which you somehow found a way to leave out despite claiming to offer a full psychological read of his visions and the source of his samadhi, or experience of divine bliss. Sarada, aka Holy Mother, is a big part of the story, particularly if you want to look at him through an “erotic” lens you cannot ignore the deep heterosexual aspects of his behavior, a whole complementary set of symbology that you completely leave out because you only want to look at his male-male relationships.

But the philosophical system under which Tantra rests is based upon Purusha and Prakriti, Siva and Sakti. Kripal looks at Kali’s symbology, and Siva’s too independently, but leaves out the heterosexual and erotic coupling of Siva and Sakti themselves, most notably characterized by the image which Kripal spends so much time dissecting namely Kali atop of Siva which is one of the most impressing and profound images of the male/female aspects of creation out of Hindu symbology, pointing to the symbiotic nature of Siva and Sakti and their divine union from which the universe draws its source – this male/female union from which the universe itself emerges, evolves and subsequently devolves, is one of the essential aspects of Hindu mythology to which Tantra, and Vedanta, ultimately rest. This union is the source of existence and represents the penultimate, dualistic properties or universal essentials, the ultimate Forms of the Platonic tradition which merge into Plotinus’s Intellect as it were, just as the yin and yang do in Taoism. You can’t focus on the dualistic philosophical elements alone, particular only one dimension of them (i.e. Ramakrishna’s homoerotic/male-male relationships) and expect to come away with a complete picture of his personality. His personality is deep and wide ranging and has been studied and contemplated by hundreds if not thousands of people since he lived, and his personality emerged from a deep and long social and cultural heritage of the Hindu/Vedic way of life, with its myth and theology as laid out in the Upanishads, the Gita, the Puranas, etc.

Just because the rituals and symbolism of Tantra is more focused on the chakras, kundalini, and the relationship between the core male and female principles of the universe – namely Purusha and Prakriti – doesn’t mean the core teachings, the core philosophy is not more aligned with Vedic proper than it is not. The method, particularly as espoused by Tota Puri and Bhairavi Brahmani his Vedic and Tantric gurus respectively, was no doubt drastically juxtaposed – one teaching the denial of the physical universe and its constituents as the path to ultimate realization, i.e. what Ramakrishna called neti neti or “not this”, “not this” as opposed to the Tantric teachings which are focused on embracing the reality of the world of opposites, the shameful and shameless, the male and the female, to ultimately experience the reality of the experience of consciousness that exists beyond this world of opposites – but that does not mean that the two teachings do not fundamentally agree with each other and complement each other. In fact, this is what Ramakrishna’s spiritual practices ultimately tells us, that the two paths ultimately lead to the same place. How in the world could you spend ten plus years studying the life of Ramakrishna and miss this?   This is the underlying message of Vivekananda really, a Westernization and synthesis of the teachings of Vedanta, Tantra included, for the West as he understood it not only through his own experiences but through his own direct (and extremely intimate of course) understanding of Ramakrishna the person, Ramakrishna the Paramhamsa, Ramakrishna the embodiment of the Vedas (Tantra included) in this age.

One of Kripal’s insights which I think is poignant, and relevant and hard for “insiders” to see sometimes or at least sometimes gloss over, is that Ramakrishna and what he became, the avatar of the modern era, an incarnation of God, great sage, whatever you’d like to refer to him as was a product not only of his personality, but also the culture and society within which he grew up and lived in, namely 19th century Bengal. Ramakrishna was an illiterate temple priest who interacted with some of the most well educated and highest (and lowest) class society of Calcutta, in a time and place where West met East in a radical and somewhat oppressive merging of cultures, the so called “Orientalism” in action where the indigenous Hindu and Indian culture was subsumed by the leading Western and British aristocracy. And with Ramakrishna’s pure and raw language, speaking in the same tongue that Jesus spoke essentially – in song and in analogy and metaphor, using parables and stories that the common folk could understand and remember quite easily – his message clearly resonated with a lot of people, many of whom who traveled long and far to come and spend time with him, to touch his feet as the custom of the Hindus as a sign of respect to holy people.

And yet even with the prevalence of Western modes of thought and scientific reason which was the benchmark of truth even in 19th century Calcutta, his personality had to be understood and had to be reckoned with, and understood and comprehended within the context of the Western cynical mindset. The Hindu, Western trained elite of 19th century Bengali culture could not ignore the strength and purity and power of Ramakrishna’s personality, this much is evident, and is most certainly reflected by his long-lasting and world affecting message that lives on and continues to gain strength in the East and West to this day – through the workings of the institutions which bear his name, the Ramakrishna Order and Ramakrishna Mission who among other things have taken great pains to protect and nurture the direct and subsequent interpretations of his life, works which Kripal directly attacks and denigrates in Kali’s Child. Let’s not forget that Ramakrishna picked Naren (Vivekananda) as his messenger and as the “official” interpreter of Ramakrishna’s life and, along with Sarada his wife and partner, was handpicked to carry on his “work”. The three in fact – Ramakrishna, Sarada and Vivekananda – are worshipped as a triad in the Vedanta centers in the East and West, it is not just Ramakrishna, but his relationship to those two individuals and their expression of his message which are all needed to fully understand who he was and what he truly embodied. This much Kripal would know if he had taken the time to really delve into the very culture that Ramakrishna started and Vivekananda carried forward.

 

A bit of background about myself here is probably necessary so that folks now where I sit relative to the insider vs outsider lines that have been drawn in the debate – the insiders again being those of the Ramakrishna Order who are arguably the closest, most well informed, and most learned in the tradition of the life and teachings of Ramakrishna and his disciples given that they have devoted their lives not only to the study of such material but also to the embodiment of what they feel is their teachings as reflected in the institutions that were set up by Vivekananda of which they are a part, and the outsiders being those (primarily) in Western academia that are either not exposed to the traditions or practices and teachings of the Ramakrishna Order or choose to take their teachings and interpretations of the life of Ramakrishna with a grain of salt so to speak, namely in this case Professor Kripal the author of Kali’s Child.

I am a simply a curious scholar with a BA in Ancient Studies from a well accredited undergraduate institution with a Masters in Computer Science whose career has been spent helping build technology companies or the technology infrastructure of consulting companies. Although not a monastic or religious person by any stretch of the imagination, I did spend many years studying with some of the monks of the Ramakrishna Order in NYC, and have been a student of Eastern Philosophy, and a practitioner of meditation, for some 20 years now. Eventually even the dullest of students picks up a thing or two after 20 years of study and I’d like to think that there are at least a few people in this world that are duller than I.

My interests in Eastern Philosophy, the development of theology and monotheism, and comparative religion in general is evident in some of the other pieces I have authored that are present on this blog. I also have a deep interest in science, particularly the advancements of the twentieth century with respect to Relativity and Quantum Theory, and their impact on our overall worldview in the West, in particular with respect to the implications of the role of the “observer” in science itself which now is part of the picture like it or not – i.e. the role of mind in our perspective on the nature of reality and worldview in general cannot really be ignored if Quantum Theory is to be accepted, hence a need from my perspective to relook at some of the Eastern philosophical traditions which uphold the mind as the direct conduit to the divine, Vedanta and Buddhism probably being the best examples of this. I have a book coming out in a few weeks which encapsulates and expands upon some of the work in this blog as well which explores these ideas, and others, in detail but for now you can refer to my blog here for more detail on my thoughts and ideas on these subjects.

So a word on how I encountered the materials at the heart of this debate and how I came to conclude that I, as a humble layperson relative to the other scholars and academics who have weighed in already on this long standing controversy (Kali’s Child was published as an extension to Kripal’s PHD thesis in comparative religious studies in 1995, with a follow on second edition in 1998 and Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana the bulk of which is an attack on Kripal’s theses as well his knowledge of the Vedas and Bengali which is the source language of the Kathamrita was published in 2010), might have something to say that is unique and might shed light on what may be the path that bridges the two sides, or at least identify the essential two seemingly unbridgeable sides of the debate, looks like.

I ran across Kripal’s article Visions of the Impossible a few weeks ago and was struck by the insight Professor Kripal had on the views of some of the ancient philosophies/philosophers that I have been studying and their relevance in theological and comparative religious studies in general even today, very much in line with my views on the topic and rare in the sense that not many in today’s academic circles given these ancient schools of philosophy – particularly Plato and Aristotle of course – their due in forming the basis from which our fields of knowledge, theological or scientific or otherwise, have evolved or been framed even to present day. Again, this is the topic of some of my blog posts and of great interest to me so I immediately felt a connection with Kripal’s perspective on theology and philosophy and wanted to learn more about him and his work.

I subsequently looked him up, saw that he had wrote a book on Ramakrishna with whom I have been fascinated with for many years, as well as Ramakrishna’s Tantric practices in particular of which I am also fascinated by – particularly in Tantra’s focus on the recognition of the reality of the world and its field of opposites, in particular the male and female energies that drive creation (Purusha and Prakriti), and the leverage of the recognition of their reality to lead one to realization of the divine, cosmic consciousness, or whatever one would like to call it. Many of the Vedanta traditions, particularly the variant taught by Vivekananda, emphasize some of the more non-dual aspects of Vedanta and although extremely interesting and extraordinarily rich and profound (and to be fair Vivekananda emphasizes Bhakti or Love & Devotion as a path to the divine as well although it does this in a very non-Tantric way so to speak), can sometimes be difficult for an individual aspirant to grasp and/or realize and practice in the materialistic and capitalistic culture of New York of which I have the great pleasure of residing square in the middle of (an element of sarcasm here, this town is for the insane of which I am clearly a part nowadays, sort of like the ship mates of the famed Flying Dutchman in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie where eventually they simply become merged into parts of the ship).

So I read Kali’s Child, and subsequently read Professor Kripal’s response to the critics of his work (can be found here, and then picked up and read the complete rebuttal of Kripal’s thesis by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana (Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited. Both fascinating and compelling works in their own right and both worthwhile reads for anyone looking to understand the life of Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali saint whose life and its meaning are at the center of both works. Although I would certainly recommend Swami Saradananda’s work, the Great Master (in English), as an introduction first before embarking on the adventure of Kripal’s study which in my view at least – siding with many of the academics and scholars who have weighed in on the debate, from inside and outside the Ramakrishna Order – is fundamentally flawed despite what I think are the best of intentions (I’m giving Professor Kripal the benefit of the doubt here, many scholars and academics have not).

So in essence although you could call me a devotee of Ramakrishna, in the sense that I see him as the greatest embodiment of the divine in the last few hundred years of recorded history, unique not only in his purity and the extent of his renunciation but also in the wealth of first hand materials regarding his life and his behavior, but in essence I am Western trained academic who is a householder – i.e. I’ve got kids and their expensive, enshrouded in Ramakrishna’s “maya” – and who is not part of academia per se but a the the same time is very well schooled in Comparative Religion, Eastern Philosophy, and the teachings and lives of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, and the teachings of the Ramakrishna Order which are the lasting gift of Ramakrishna in my view. Certainly I was moved enough to read and write an awful lot about the topic at least, and moved enough to write this post to clarify not only my own position but also try and talk some sense into Professor Kripal, in as respectful a manner as possible. Perhaps it is hubris of me to think that I could have any influence on the debate on this topic but from my standpoint my position is unique – I am not an insider or an outsider really – and perhaps can shed some light here on something that I think has been missed by everyone who has voiced so far on the topic – and that is quite simply do we believe that the state of samadhi (or nirvikalpa samadhi in Ramakrishna’s case), the direct experience of God, or the Satchitananda of the Vedas, is indeed possible.

 

This is what strikes me as the essence of the divide between the two sides of this debate – one represented by Kripal who would have us believe that Ramakrishna’s divine states were the result of unquenched or repressed homoerotic desires (I’m paraphrasing her but that’s the gist of his argument) and the other side of the debate which basically holds that not only is Kripal’s translation/transliteration of some of the source texts off, Kripal is fundamentally missing the socio-cultural context within which Ramakrishna lived and taught and therefore is coming to not only some very erroneous conclusions, but some very disturbing conclusions for anyone who is a devotee of Ramakrishna – is a belief in whether or not the state of what Vedanta (and Ramakrishna) calls samadhi, what Swami Tyagananda attempts to water down and put in some sort of Western psychoanalytical context by referring to it as a “superconsciousness” state (I believe that is the term he uses) actually exists and is possible to experience or realize as an individual human being.

What samadhi is from a Hindu/Vedanta philosophical standpoint covered in some of my other blog posts so I don’t want to recover that ground here but suffice it to say that it is the direct experience of the ultimate grounding of reality where any level of distinction or division that rests at the heart of our perception of physical reality completely and utterly disappears and one merges into “an ocean of consciousness”. I use samadhi here in the Patanjali sense, which in my view is the Yoga 101 manual that should be used as a reference guide. Not the Yogas as put forth by Vivekananda or even the teachings of Ramakrishna and his disciples because as true and enlightening as I believe them to be, by their very nature and source they are discounted by Kripal and his supporters as one sided and self serving views on Vedanta philosophy – a fact I don’t agree with but lets put them aside for now and just deal with Patanjali’s eight limbs. Again, this is Yoga 101.

Kripal’s argument is basically that it is the repressed homoerotic desires of Ramakrishna, as well as the sexual abuses that he supposedly had as a child and as a young adult (of which his evidence is circumstantial at best), that drove and were the source of what can be best be described from Kripal’s point of view as his catatonic and pathological states of mind. Again I am paraphrasing here but that’s basically what he sets out to prove. The other side of the argument however, assumes that these states of “higher” consciousness can and do exist and do not require any sort of trauma or repression in order to be induced. This is done in an altogether roundabout way by describing 19th century Bengal, describing Hindu sadhana practices (spiritual practices), citing various perspectives of those who encountered Ramakrishna directly , etc – and do this very effectively and thoroughly mind you, leaving no doubt in my mind at least that Kripal’s theses in Kali’s Child are way off base and have close to zero grounding in any sort of factual evidence. His only evidence really is Freudian, and I’ll get to him in a moment.

Like it or not, this is the East West divide essentially right now which arguably characterizes not only this debate in my view, but also our current state of civilization – at least from a spiritual perspective. We fall right squarely into the Western atheist, empiricist and deterministic view of reality of the West (of which academia represents to a large degree) versus the holistic and energy based view – we’re all connected – view of the East. The latter view of which is represented certainly by those representatives who sit on the other (insider) side of the debate, i.e. that Ramakrishna’s states of consciousness were in fact real and had no grounding in “sexual repression” or “sexually abusive” behavior towards Ramakrishna by those close to him. The Ramakrishna Order and Mission arguably rests on this very principle, that we are all connected and the relief of the suffering of man, the love of the divine, the practice of meditation and the study of philosophy and metaphysics (Vedanta) all lead to this realization, to this state of mind – i.e. samadhi or what we would call in the Western theological terms, “salvation”.

Kripal never states this specifically, that he doubts that these states are achievable without some sort of trauma that sits behind them, but this seems altogether very evident to me after reading his text, that it is in fact his disbelief in the reality of these higher states of consciousness (again samadhi as outlined by Patanjali, samadhi being the eighth limb and pinnacle of his system of Yoga) that force him into a different intellectual paradigm in order to explain Ramakrishna’s behavior. Enter our friend Sigmund Freud here. But here’s the problem, and Swami Tyagananda in his Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited covers this at some length, Freud does not recognize anything other than the conscious or the unconscious mind. He doesn’t recognize, nor provide any intellectual framework for describing anything that resembles the states of mind that the East consider extraordinarily relevant and “real”. And yet this is the entire world that Ramakrishna lived in from a child from the “insider’s” view of Interpreting Ramakrishna.

To make a case in point here, and I am very surprised that Kripal doesn’t touch on this at all, is that as I understand it this very denial of existence of anything beyond one’s individual conscious or unconscious mind is one of the core differences in opinion which drove the break between Freud and Jung. Jung, extending Freud’s psychoanalytic model, referred to this phenomenon (which Freud rejected) as the collective unconscious, alluding to this shared symbology across individuals. He even used it specifically in his practice to heal his patients (a process which he called individuation where lo and behold he used symbology, personal mandalas for example, which are prevalent in Tantric practices among other Eastern traditions, as tools to guide this healing process).

But if you deny the existence of this collective unconscious – lets stick with some form of psychoanalytic framework here – of which samadhi is no other than a complete merging into, you must lean on some of other psychoanalytic model to explain Ramakrishna’s states of mind and behavior. And here again Kripal brings in Freud who as far as I can gather was as sexually obsessed as any other intellectual in the last two hundred and fifty years. My preference would not be to return to the womb thank you very much, and as far as I can gather I am not driven by some Oedipal complex to eat my mother and my guess is that the majority of society is not either. However, if you want to look through that lens I am sure you can categorize a whole plethora of people’s behavior, Ramakrishna’s included, and the therapeutic models that Freud created I am sure have been and continue to be very helpful to many many people in the West. That however doesn’t make it the right model to try and understand the behavior of a saint who spent virtually his entire adult life merged in states of consciousness which sat completely outside of an independent of Freud’s consciousness or unconsciousness. Ramakrishna refused to recognize the very existence of his physical form, he called it “this body” constantly. He had no identification with his body and it doesn’t take more than a cursory reading of any of the direct source materials about Ramakrishna to come to this conclusion. And yet you want to base your psychoanalytic conclusions about his “secret” on a psychoanalytical system which is fundamental and intrinsically based upon not only the reality of, but the basic supremacy of, the physical form and the understanding of its primary animal instincts and behaviors as the sole driving force of mankind. This is like trying to understanding Quantum Mechanics by using a ruler, a compass, and protractor. You’ve got the wrong tools. Good luck.

My guess is – and this is a guess mind you and I could be wrong – is that Professor Kripal has never practiced meditation (again Patanjali here, Yoga 101), nor has any of his wealth of academic training and studying provided him with any sort of intellectual ground to frame the existence of a man who lives constantly in a state of what David Bohm would call, “undivided wholeness” and what Swami Saradananda described as bhavamukha. I could be wrong here but that’s my guess, and without the ability to directly correspond with him (his email address is nowhere available and considering that he has gotten some death threats after publishing Kali’s Child I can understand that) I would have no way to tell.

I have nothing to add to Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s rebuttal of Kripal’s work, they like many other academics and scholars have done a very thorough job of explaining not only the flaws in Kripal’s argument, but also the flaws in his basic scholarship and understanding of Bengali and Vedanta which as it turns out can be pointed to as the ultimate source of his confusion and incorrect theses and interpretation of Ramakrishna – and this is not a black or white issue here, his these are quite simply wrong, on many levels and how it was published as PHD thesis without the proper level of scrutiny by Hindu/Vedanta scholars is beyond my level of comprehension and speaks to the failure of the academic institutions through which the work originated and came to fruition ultimately as the book Kali’s Child, but the crux of the matter remains in my point of view, and this I believe is why the debate has sparked so much controversy on both sides, is whether or not these states of mind that Ramakrishna supposedly achieved, realized, lived in, experienced or whatever other word you want to choose, actually exist, and are real independent of any sort of psychological defect or pathology as Freud would have us believe (which again Jung staunchly disagreed with him on).

Ramakrishna, as well as his disciples and his disciples’ disciples, as well as thousands of sages throughout the years across a myriad of religious traditions would have us believe that this state, this undivided state of merging in cosmic consciousness (a term unfortunately that Deepak Chopra has coined and made cliché at this point or even a mockery by some atheists – see Jerry Coyne’s work, the evolutionary biologist who is a starch atheist and critic of the term) is actually our more natural state, our true state of being. And that this individual embodiment, this thing we call “I” is an illusion. The West however, and I know this is a broad generalization but Kripal seems to fit squarely in this category, would have us believe that these states of mind can only be explained phenomena though standard psychotherapeutic models, models which (at least the Freudian one that he chose) doesn’t even believe that anything outside the individual mind and its own psychosis has any existence at all.

It’s this core belief, and it is a question of faith after all – no one is going to prove samadhi exists no matter how many yogis or sages experience it over the years – that separates the two sides of this debate as far as I can gather. And as far as I can gather, this very core tenet and thesis of each side, and the broad implications of which side you sit on, has not been brought up by anyone that I have seen voice their opinion on the debate.

If you don’t believe in Jung’s collective unconscious, and you don’t believe that as Ramakrishna taught his disciples that “God can be seen with these very eyes”, or Jesus for that matter that “the kingdom of God is within you”, that is your prerogative. But if you want to study the life of a man whose entire existence lay in this boundary beyond the conscious or the unconscious mind, then you need a paradigm to explain Ramakrishna’s behavior where he could believe such things, teach such things, and make extraordinary, outrageous efforts to achieve such states of realization, enter Freud’s model for Kripal which is again wholly inadequate for trying to interpret or understands Ramakrishna – metaphysically, intellectually and culturally. If you do believe these higher states of consciousness exists and that we can tap into them ourselves, which was the core teaching of not only Ramakrishna by the way but also his disciple Vivekananda, Jesus and Buddha as well, then Freud’s model of the psyche becomes wholly inadequate as an explanatory tool. It doesn’t even have a word to explain the whole paradigm within which these experiences happen or occur, if they can be said to happen or occur at all. At least Jung gave it a word – the collective unconscious – providing a metaphysical framework from within which these experiences could be viewed.

Its like quite frankly trying to build a model of the universe where the Earth is the center – it kind of makes sense but it doesn’t really map to reality, where the earth revolves around the sun and the sun exists in a great galaxy of stars. Freud would have us believe that the world revolves around us, our small minds and egos, our individual selves and our cravings and desires, and this is the explanation of all of our behavior and it is through this lens that Kripal views Ramakrishna and it is through this lens in fact that he views Tantra, or at least Ramakrishna’s practice of Tantra, and it is for this reason that not only are his conclusions are wrong, but the tools that he has chosen from within which to view Ramakrishna are not even valid. And yes, I am stating unequivocally that the belief that every mind on the planet is governed by Freudian like psychology and behavior is also false and I am sure many many people would disagree with me on this but irrespective of whether or not you believe in Freudian psychology no one has put forth an argument that would indicate that this is a lens that is appropriate at any level for viewing the behavior of Ramakrishna, or any Indian/Eastern sage or saint for that matter. What conclusions would you come to if you tried to view the Dalai Lama though a Freudian lens?   What pathology would you point to for explaining his behavior of dedicating his life to reliving the sufferings of all mankind and promoting harmony throughout the world? Or Buddha for that matter?

But the other side here, a divide which can only be crossed by personal experience yourself. And if you want a scientific approach for this again, I suggest Yoga 101, our old friend Patanjali. It’s been around a while and lots of people have tried it and the effects are pretty well documented at this point, physiological, mental and otherwise. And from this practice you can decide for yourself whether or not to believe that there is a level of interconnectedness of the all beings, sentient and non-sentient, which can be experienced directly, which most devotees of Ramakrishna not only believe he experienced but that he actually lived in constantly.

To quote a relevant passage from virtually the end of Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, a very apt quotation which defines at least some basic criteria required in order to come to at least some sort of understanding of who Ramakrishna was and what he represents outside of being a complete madman which to any untrained eye he would most certainly appear as such (emphasis is authors):

 

First and most importantly, a respectful acceptance of the possibility, crucial to understanding Hindu religious figures, that the reality behind the universe and the reality behind an individual – known respectively as Brahman and Atman – may be interrelated, even identical, and are essentially divine in nature. Secondly, Ramakrishna studies should include the possibility that the external reality as we experience it may not be the only, or even the most important, reality. Thirdly, this expanded paradigm would consider the limitations of human reason and the possibility of a different kind of knowledge that transcends (but does not contradict) reason. Fourthly, the expanded paradigm would include the possibility that human beings could fully realize and manifest their innate divinity by overcoming the identification with the body and mind to which gender and sexuality are tied.[1]

 

So for Professor Kripal specifically then, I would ask a simple question as a Comparative Religious scholar and Professor of some repute, would you not require your advanced students to be properly schooled in the philosophy and teachings of the religious traditions which they are studying? Would you have them write PHD thesis on Islam or Christianity by simply reading the Qur’an or the Bible? Or would you ask them to go in the field, worship as the objects of their studies worship to greater understand their faith – not just the words that sit on a page, and from there try to come up with an original thesis about their religion and how it sits relative to other world religions which have and continue to have a profound effect on the people in today’s world and the people in the history of mankind. Essentially as a Professor I would think you would prod your students to do their homework first, just as you prod your critics to do many of whom you state haven’t read your book and just as I have been prodded by some of my Professors and teachers over the years.

Well I read it, every last word, and where I land for whatever my humble opinion is worth If you want to judge or interpret the life of a yogi, practice yoga for a good while or at least sit at the feet of someone who has for a good while. Just as if I wanted to judge the mind or thought process of a world renowned professional tennis player, architect, or artisan of any kind, or to have really anything at all intelligent to say on the matter, one needs to have spent an awful lot of time studying, practicing and literally “getting into the mind of” the object of study first before making any assumptions on what they might have thought, or how they might have thought, or what could have propelled them to greatness. And if that individual were no longer with us, one would think that in order to understand them and best as possible one would read ALL of the first-hand accounts about that person, and then try and get a better understanding of who they were or what drove their creative spirit which so profoundly left its mark on the world. For Ramakrishna if nothing else was a yogi, and to try and look him, or Tantra even, through the lens of psychoanalysis which is a field entirely designed to treat medically ill people (and I have plenty of experience with psychoanalysis both directly and indirectly here so please for all you detractors do not hinge on the “power” of Freudian psychology), you are not only barking up the wrong tree, you’re invariably going to come to all sorts of erroneous conclusions.

Given Kripal’s work in the paranormal now, as evidenced from the initial article I read, my guess is eventually you will come to some of these conclusions yourself if you have not already. But until then, until you can sit quietly for an hour on a regular basis and focus your attention on something, anything at all – a mandala, a mantra, a picture, anything – and do it for a few years, I would advise you to keep your opinions about the life of a sage who spent six months in direct contemplation of the divine completely uninterrupted, or those who have dedicated their lives to the practice of meditation and serving others as the monks of the Ramakrishna Order have, whose teachings and scholarship you have directly attached and called into question, to yourself.

Furthermore, I would ask you if one of your students published Kali’s Child and whose scholarship was subsequently taken apart as forcefully, completely and thoroughly as yours has done by later scholars (speaking specifically about Swami Tyagananda’s and Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s work criticizing the thesis and underlying scholarship of Kali’s Child) I would ask you what you would advise your student to do? Continue to defend a thesis which is altogether entirely indefensible (which if you haven’t come to this conclusion yourself by now I truly feel sorry for your students of Comparative Religion) or perhaps get a third edition of the book to press, correct the myriad of linguistic and philosophical inconsistencies and misunderstandings that plague the work itself, as well as issue a letter of apology to the Ramakrishna Order for calling into question their scholarship from top to bottom, while at the same time hiding behind some sort of perverse (excuse the pun) reverse racism or accusations of homophobia rather than simply defending your argument.

We all make mistakes, one’s character is defined by how we manage through them and what corrections and modifications we make to not only ourselves, but also the work which we produce as well as the people that we hurt along the way. None of us are exceptions to this basic human philosophy – be we a Ramakrishna “insider”, a Western academic “outsider”, an Easterner holistic philosopher or practice of yoga, or a Western rational deterministic empirical realist.

 

 

[1] Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana, 2010. Pg 397.

The Philosophy of the East: The Legacy of the Indo-Aryans

Introduction

Throughout academic parlance in the Enlightenment Era intellectual and philosophical development throughout mankind’s history has been divided into Eastern and Western branches.  The Eastern branch of thought and development for many centuries was looked upon as “Oriental”, a term that has fallen out of favor in academic and intellectual circles in no small measure due to the fact that it implied and originated within the context of the colonization of a good part of the “Eastern” world and Western academic pursuits into understanding the nature of theological and philosophical, as well as socio-political development of the so-called East – an outsiders view that came with its own bias that is considered by most scholars to be one of supremacy and dominance that looked down upon the cultural and religious systems of the East with not disdain per se but most certainly with a sense of arrogance and superiority.

The problem however, despite these known biases, is that the classification of East versus West does have a certain clarity and clean delineation in modes of thought however, modes of thought that are divided at least intellectually by what could be termed reductionist versus holistic.  In other words, even if the classification of certain ways of thinking and development as a whole doesn’t have a specific geographical divide between East and West (although one could argue that in fact does), the tendency to break things down into parts and explore their relationships as individual automata and their interactions does in fact characterize Western thinking more or less since Hellenistic antiquity and the tendency to look at individuals within the context of their relationship to the whole, or the universe at large, does in fact characterize “Eastern” modes of thought to a great extent.

Charlie had spent a great deal of time considering and outlining as best he could the theological and philosophical development in the West, starting with ancient cosmological and theistic systems based upon the worship of deities, sacrificial practices and such that were steeped in mythology and then evolved into the monotheistic forms of religion which we are most familiar with and dominate the Western intellectual and theological landscape today – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and out of which, mostly in reaction to, arose our fascination toward science proper which although has allowed for great advancements in science and technology has to a large extent left us with a very objective and reductionist view of reality.

There were parallel developments to the East however, to the East of ancient Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire which evolved very much independently to Western theological and philosophical development.  Specifically we’re referring to the Vedic and Indo-Aryan tradition which arose out of ancient India based upon the philosophy of the Upanishads, the mythology of the Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutras and other ancient Indian texts and their subsequent interpretation from 2500 BCE onwards, the tradition of Buddhism which stemmed from the teachings of the great and influential Siddhartha Gautama who himself was greatly influenced by ancient Vedic religious doctrines and practices even if he rejected them for the most part, and in Taoism which took root in China and the far east from the middle of the first millennia onwards and still thrives today.  These theological and philosophical systems of belief are interesting to analyze not just in the wisdom which they present but also as contrasting and opposing modes of thought to the reductionist and rationalist way of thinking which underpins modern science as well as the overall worldview of the West.

Arguably one of the unique contributions of Indo-Aryan philosophy (to which Vedanta and Buddhism ultimately owe their heritage) to modern day theology and spirituality is their fundamental belief in the individual nature of the religious experience and the faith in what is variously referred to as “realization”, “liberation”, “enlightenment”, or “nirvana” all of which are various terms used to describe the state or act of direct experience of the divine in this very life – juxtaposed with the focus on an afterlife in heaven which characterizes most if not all of the Western theological traditions.  This fundamental belief lies at the heart of the Vedic philosophical system, which is the philosophical and mystical counterpart of Hinduism proper, as well the theo-philosophical system of Buddhism.  [Taoism has a slightly different bent in that it focuses on the way and the balancing of opposites as the path to peace, tranquility and happiness rather than as enlightenment itself being the ultimate goal of life, more akin to Buddhism with its emphasis on the way than Vedanta per se].

 

What is Vedanta?

The ancient Indo-Aryan civilization sprung forth in the Indus valley region in modern day India and Pakistan (to the ancients Eastern Persia), and was the source of the “Vedas”, some of the oldest extant literature of mankind.  This ancient Indus Valley civilization, from which one of the great world renowned religions called Hinduism was birthed, spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from circa 3300 to 1300 BCE, roughly aligning with the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization although contact between the two civilizations was limited if not absent entirely based upon the archeological record.  The civilization from which Hinduism emerged is traditionally associated with the Indus valley, a river system from which an ancient culture could grow crops and thrive, a similar relationship to the Sumerians and their Tigris/Euphrates and the Egyptians and their Nile.  This relationship with water and its fundamental existence and prerequisite feature for the source of life, clearly left its mark on the Cosmology and creation mythology of all of these ancient cultures.  The Hindus believed in the Cosmic Waters (apas in Sanskrit) as the source of the known universe, just as the Egyptians had their concept of Nu and the Ancient Sumerians had their Apsu.[2]

Their theological doctrines and philosophy, as reflected in the Vedas, was a core part of their society and from a very early stage and the social structure even was architected to reflect this, namely that the sacred teachings of the Vedas were to be protected by a specific class of society, the Brahmins.  In some respects the establishment of a priestly, learned class that was kept separate from the rest of the society (the Kshatriya or ruling/warrior class, the Vaishyas or the merchant class and the Shudras or laborers being the other classes of society in classic Hindu culture) reflected developments to the West where first the priests, then the philosophers and then finally the Church itself (the Imam in the Muslim community) became the established authority on matters dealing with intellectual development, education, or course religious matters and ultimately eternal freedom.

Although in antiquity Vedānta referred more specifically to the philosophic portion of the Vedas (Vedanta literally means “end of the Vedas”), the bulk of the content coming from the Upanishads, over time Vedanta took on a broader meaning to represent the body of work and knowledge that interpreted the meaning of the Upanishads, which in turn incorporated the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras more directly into the philosophic tradition.

The primary sources for what is considered modern day Vedanta are three main collections of verses or texts are the Upanishads[3], representing the end of the Vedas or the philosophical and mystical portions of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” from the epic poem the Mahabharata, and the Brahma Sutras which was an attempt at consolidating and synthesizing Vedantic philosophy from the 2nd or third century CE.  Vyasa is the supposed author attributed to the works of the Mahabharata and the Brahma Sutras, while the Upanishads are considered to be the divine inspiration of the rishis, or seers, who fully realized and codified the knowledge of Brahman as put forth in the Upanishads.  The three works together are also referred to as the Prasthanas, or canonical books, that form the foundation of the philosophy of Vedanta and form the foundation of Hindu religion even to this day.

The Vedas are the oldest Indo-Aryan Sanskrit[4] texts and are the oldest extant Hindu scripture.  The Sanskrit word véda means “knowledge” or “wisdom” and is derived from the root vid, “to know”.  Like many other religious traditions, the Vedas are said not to have been recorded and authored per se, but were revealed to these ancient rishis, passed down from generation o generation from teacher to student in a long standing oral tradition, and then documented and transcribed by scholars and sages somewhere between the second and first millennium BCE.  Vedanta, somewhat literally translated as “the end”, or “goal”, of the Vedas, represents the philosophical or metaphysical tradition of the Hindus and represents the philosophical portions of the Vedas, i.e. the portions of the Vedas that do not deal with sacrifice, ritual or dharma (righteous action).

Vedānta is also sometimes referred to as Uttarā-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘latter’ or ‘higher’ inquiry, as juxtaposed with Purva-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘former’ inquiry which deals with ritual and sacrifice described in the Samhita portion of the Vedas and Brahmanas while Vedanta proper expounds upon the more esoteric teachings of the Āranyakas and the Upanishads.  As defined by Shankara, perhaps the greatest of all the Vedic philosophers in antiquity, the term Upanishad is in effect a veiled reference to the content of the Upanishad itself, namely Brahmavidya, knowledge of Brahman, and Atmavidya, knowledge of Self.

The corpus of Vedic texts, all transcribed in some form of Sanskrit, include the Samhita, which are collections of mantras from the four Vedas, the Brahmanas which are prose texts that describe Hindu sacrifice and ritual, some of the older Upanishads such as the Mukya, Chandogya, Katha and Brhadaranyaka which deal with esoteric ideas and concepts describing the nature of Brahman and the soul (Atman), and other sutra (literally “thread”) literature dealing with Hindu rituals and sacred rites.  Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas and may also include Aranyakas, literally “forest texts”, as well as Upanishad texts which again represent the philosophical and metaphysical, or perhaps better put mystical, interpretations of the sacred rituals.

Parts of the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as Upanishads explore what have become the theological underpinnings of Hinduism, notions such as Brahman, the absolute or underlying nature of all things, and Atman, the individuation of the principle of Brahman in man or the soul as it is usually translated, the relationship of which represents the core pillars of Vedic philosophy.  The Upanishads however form the philosophical backbone of Vedanta and much like the ancient scripture of the Jews (Old Testament) or Zoroastrians (Avesta), the Upanishads and the rest of the Vedic scripture in toto represent an oral tradition that reaches deep into antiquity that was only later documented, dated by most scholars in the second and first millennium BCE.

The oldest parts of Vedic literature, the Rig Veda for example, give us a glimpse of the life of the Indo-Aryan  peoples who first settled and formed complex social structures in the Indus Valley some seven thousand years or so ago and the nature of the language of old Vedic Sanskrit points to shared linguistic and philological with Indo-Iranian culture and civilization that populated the region to the West dominated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Rig Veda is one of, if not the, primary source texts of mythology, rituals and belief systems of the people of the Indus Valley region, and is one of the oldest extant texts in the Indo-European language family.  It is thought to have been composed somewhere in the middle or end of the second millennium BCE (based upon philological and corroborated archeological evidence), roughly between 1700 and 1100 BCE.  Even though the text is interspersed with mythology and outlines the characters and principles from which the known universe was birthed, the text also states unequivocally the unknowable nature of the source of the universe/cosmos, marking its core philosophical bent and providing the foundation for the later Upanishads which were primarily concerned with the nature of Brahman and Atman and their realization and manifestation rather than mythology per se.

Fundamental to the Upanishad texts themselves and the broader Vedanta philosophic tradition as a whole is the establishment of the importance of self-realization as the goal of life.  In the Upanishads it is Brahman that represents the universal spirit that underlies all of the cosmos and all of its creation and it is through connection with Atman is that the individual can recognize their unity with all pervading Brahman.  This knowledge is called “Brahmavidya, or literally knowledge of Brahman, which reveals to the jiva the illusory nature of physical reality or maya, the universe being the “play”, lila of Ishvara. Brahman as espoused in the Upanishads, despite the tendency toward anthropomorphization, represents the ultimate unity of all things and creatures, animate and inanimate, and the belief in an indelible construct or consciousness which pervades the entire universe and which feeds and gives energy to all life.

 

Interpretations of Vedanta

The first attempt at compiling and synthesizing the teachings of Vedanta, their interpretation as it were, is contained in the Brahma Sutras (sometimes referred to as the Vedānta Sutras) which are believed to have been written somewhere around the 2nd century CE, the text being attributed to the mythical sage Vyasa who is also the author to whom the Mahabharata is attributed.  The Brahma Sutras are part of the Uttara-Mimamsa (Vedantic) tradition and are in essence a summary and compilation of the teachings of the Upanishads.  It is in the Brahma Sūtras that the teachings of Vedānta are set forth in a systematic and logical order, rather than the scattered and somewhat inconsistent manner which the teachings are presented in the Vedas given their deep historical and sometimes esoteric roots and their focus on ritual and sacrifice.

The Bhagavad Gita, or the “Song of the Lord”, has also played a significant role in the development of Vedantic thought over the centuries.  The text is a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata of which some of its oldest parts date from the middle or early part of the first millennium BCE.  The Bhagavad Gita is a portion of this mythological epic text and is a narrative of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna that takes place on the eve of a great battle.  Arjuna, whose name means “bright” or “shining”, is one of the five Pandava brothers, all sons of Pandu who are aligned against their cousins the Kauravas, descendents of Kuru in the Kurukshetra War.  This is he stage from which Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, gives his great teaching around the nature of duty, the soul, the universe and the path to liberation – the “Song of the Lord” which is undoubtedly one of the greatest epics of all time commensurate in stature and influence to the East as the Iliad or the Odyssey is in the West.

Arjuna voices to Lord Krishna great reservations and misgivings about the righteousness of the war in general and more specifically the duty to kill his enemies, who in this particular case were his cousins.  Krishna at one point in the dialogue reveals himself as God in a great vision to Arjuna and represented an example of the avatar tradition which is a marked and unique trait of the Hindu faith.  An avatar is a human incarnation of the divine, one who although is none other than the great Ishvara himself takes human form from time to time to show jivas the true nature of existence and lay out the path to liberation for each new age.

Krishna helps Arjuna understand why he must fight, and why it is morally right for him to do so, and the context of this dialogue forms the essence of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.  In the process of his expositions, Lord Krishna expounds upon key Vedantic philosophical constructs such as moksha (liberation), karma (action), and dharma (righteous conduct), forming the foundation of the practice of Yoga and helping the great prince understand that while it may seem immoral for him to go to war with his kin, it is nonetheless his duty to do so and it would in fact be immoral to abstain from fighting.  The metaphor is intended of course to not only justify the class differentiation which represented the fabric of ancient Hindu society but to hold Arjuna up to its people as a “shining” example of the just and moral life.

Outside of the esoteric notions of Brahman and Atman which are explored and eulogized in the more esoteric parts of Vedic scripture, there does also exist in the tradition a parallel notion of anthropomorphic deities consistent with the pantheon of gods that colored the mythology of the rest of the cultures from antiquity – The Greeks, Persians, Romans, Egyptians, etc.  This concept of God, or Ishvara, is present in the Upanishads and the Vedas as well (and is topic of the Puranas, one of the other canonical works of Hinduism proper), but at least within Vedanta is subservient to the higher, more abstract, truths elucidated throughout the Vedic literature –   Brahman alone is real, and it is through knowledge and realization of Atman and its ultimate unity with Brahman that the cycle of birth and death can be broken and the bondage of desire and attachment be rent asunder.

The core premise of the Upanishads and Vedanta in general then, and what distinguishes the philosophical system from the Western philosophical and theological traditions, is the belief in each individual’s (Atman) ultimate unity with the divine light that permeates the entire universe that is omnipresent and all-pervading (Brahman), and the intrinsic innate ability of all individual souls (jivas), to achieve the experience of this unity directly and therefore become fully realized beings free from all suffering and bondage – a state called moksha in Sanskrit.  Although from the absolute perspective, Brahman and Atman are one and the same, indistinguishable entities, we do not realize this as such due to our belief in the reality of the human form and the physical world, the ultimate source of all suffering and delusion according to Vedanta.  [One can see the clear parallels to Buddhist doctrine here despite the different semantics and the different focus on the “path” rather than the esoteric philosophy itself.]

Brahman then, as conceived by the Hindus which is the word we use in modern parlance to describe the people of India who descend from the people of the Indus Valley region, is a self-evident construct that was is not just as old as civilization itself, it is in fact as old as mankind and is the source of life.  The ancient Vedic religion from which Vedanta emerged was steeped in ritual no doubt, consistent with all of the hunter-gatherer societies throughout the world and from which modern civilization eventually evolved, but the essence of the rituals was not lost and the highest form of teaching in the Vedic tradition was not the rituals per se, but the meaning behind the rituals, an idea that was part of the tradition itself since inception.

While the Hindus kept their various gods and goddesses, they also held true to the messages of the great rishis of old and laid out perhaps a sophisticated system of psychology, theology and metaphysics whose ultimate objective was the realization that God (Brahman) did in fact exist, could in fact be realized just as clearly as the realization of the world of objects all around us are realized by our (physical) senses, and that in fact we as humans were fundamentally designed for this realization, our individual consciousness being simply a reflection of this broader sometimes anthropomorphized principle of the universe, i.e. Brahman.  According to the Hindu faith, this heaven on earth so to speak was the birth right of all of us – no passage or gateway or ticketing required.

The authors of Vedic scripture in fact took pains to apply as systematic and comprehensive an intellectual framework as possible, alongside guidelines on morality and ethics that were based upon virtues like justice and duty, in contrast to its Western religious brethren that laid out more specific rules of conduct that were baked into the fabric of the theology – a trademark of Judaism and Islam and a source of much of their rigidity and inflexibility to adapt to modern times in many respects.

 

The End of the Vedas: Yoga and Samadhi

Another aspect of the teaching which was unique was the metaphysics and theology laid out the reality of a divine superconscious state, samadhi in the Yogic branch of Vedanta, which corresponds more or less to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, along with a natural philosophy and system of ethics which for the most part – independent of the caste system, remnants of which can still be found in modern India – evolved independent of authority and power.  Although the Hindu caste system which is embedded in the fabric of Vedic literature had/has its draw backs no doubt, reflecting a system that is anything but a meritocracy, one advantage to the system is that there is a clear demarcation between the ruling class – Kshatriya to which Arjuna belongs – and the priestly class, the Brahmins, allowing for independent development of philosophic thought and “freedom of religion” so to speak that is definitely not a characteristic of Western theological development.  This separation of classes allowed sages over the centuries to pursue the end of these Vedas without the risk of persecution.

In Hinduism then, and in its branches like Buddhism (for Buddhism is to the Hindus what Judaism is to the Christians, Buddha was a Hindu like Jesus was a Jew) presumed this fundamental distinction between church and state, or perhaps more aptly put this individuation (to borrow a Jungian term) of religion.  The Hindus did not codify these separation principles into law per se, as has been done in modern American and European society (i.e. the West) after centuries of religious persecution, but the principle of religious freedom represented a core, integral part of Hindu culture just the same.

And from this social acceptance of the individual expression of the divine, many great sages and seers, known as rishis , had been born since the dawn of man that perennially personified this apex and goal of the Hindu religious system – namely the realization of the divine in this very life.  The Indo-Aryan theological tradition (which includes Buddhism and Yoga as well as Hinduism/ Vedanta) more so than any other allows for, and in fact insists upon, the existence of sages and seers throughout history who literally incarnate the divine and eternal truth underlying the universe and re-establish the core tenets of the Vedas, translating the eternal message for each era and each people as the need arises.  Krishna, Buddha, and Chaitanya, Ramakrishna and countless others are examples of incarnations where Ishvara himself has taken human form to shed light upon the mysteries of the universe.

These great sages, these rishis, personified the goal of oneness with the divine, the perception of the kingdom of heaven within, and realized the end of the Hindu scriptures.  And they all accomplished this in their own unique way and yet at the same time each of them reestablished the validity of these ancient scriptures, renewing the people’s faith in their content and precepts which had been born so many thousands of years prior.  To all of these great sages the mind and body, and reason and logic itself, was to be used to realize the truth of this oneness.  That was its sole purpose of existence.  This truth was the great gift that was handed down from the ages from the Vedas.

 

 


[2] You could argue that all of these traditions stemmed from one ancient source mythology, and in fact some scholars in modern times had started looking at and for such similar roots as put forth by E.J. M. Witzel in his The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, but it seems more plausible that an explanation of the similarities in the cosmologies of these ancient civilizations stems from individual cultures and societies having similar challenges and relationships with the environment which governed their existence from which their similar mythologies emerged, which in each case was defined by their relationship with the river system that their civilization grew and evolved around.  The river system was the source of their food and sustenance, and framed their idea of the passage of time and sense of order.  Therefore these basic principles were reflected in each of the different civilization’s cosmology to a large extent.

[3] The word Upanishad is derived from the Sanskrit root sad, which means to ‘to loosen’ or ‘‘to attain’ or even ‘to annihilate’, combined with the prefixes “upa” and “ni”, which denote ‘nearness’ or ‘sitting beside’ and ‘totality’ respectively.  You can therefore translate the meaning of Upanishad to mean something along the lines of “that which is attained completely and entirely whilst sitting beside or near to”, referring to the tradition of sitting beside a teacher and learning, the educational practice that is embedded in the Vedic tradition itself from inception.

[4] Sanskrit was the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism and Jainism and virtually all of the ancient texts of these religions were authored in Sanskrit.  Sanskrit’s position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.  The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, and it was the language used in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan peoples that described their cosmologies and rituals that survive and whose underlying rituals and theology carry into Hinduism and Buddhism even to this day.  This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

Buddhism 101

Origins of Buddhism

Buddhism originated out of the Hindu and Vedic culture just as Christianity emerged out of and in reaction to orthodox Judaism.  The historical figure we know today as Buddha was raised on the northern Indian/Nepal border in the foothills of the Himalayas as a prince from an affluent ruling family, living and teaching somewhere between the end of the sixth and early part of the 4th centuries BCE but dated by most scholars to have lived and taught in the 5th century BCE.

What we know about the historical figure named Siddhartha Gautama who later became known as Buddha is from texts written in Pali (an extremely close relative to Sanskrit[1]), and other somewhat later Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese texts that were transcribed no sooner than some 2 or 3 centuries after his death and in some cases not fully codified until the 2nd or 3rd century CE.  The texts cover what is supposedly his direct teachings to not just householder disciples but also covers specific guidelines and rules for the establishment of a monastic order as well, along with some materials (written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE) which outline the basic facts of his life, the latter being interspersed with some basic facts as well as a variety of mythical accounts that had become associated with the historical figure who is attributed to the founding of one of the world’s greatest and lasting religions that still thrives to this day.

The mythical narrative surrounding the birth, life and death of the Prince Siddhartha is consistent with the narratives of most pre-historical heroic figures (Jesus, Hercules, etc.) and starts with stories of his immaculate conception into a ruling family in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India.  It is said that upon his birth, which his mother did not survive, he was visited by a great sage who predicted that he would either be a great ruler of men or a great religious teacher and reformer (holy man).

His early childhood and young adulthood was spent living the life of luxury within the confines of multiple palaces and exposed to all the pleasures and luxuries of life.  It is said that his father, given the prophecy upon his birth, took great pains to shelter him from any outside influences that would expose him to the suffering and harsh realities of the world.  He is said to have married and had a son (Rahula) and spent 29 years in this sheltered and elaborate existence as a great prince with no want or desire left unfulfilled.

After this illustrious and heavenly upbringing it is said that one day he left his palace to view his subjects first hand, despite the misgivings and sheltering instincts of his father, upon which he saw first and old man on the verge of death, then a diseased man in great suffering followed by the corpse of a dead man and lastly by an ascetic monk, all of which completely transformed his view of the world, drove him to great compassion for the plight of his people and inspired him to renounce his royal pedigree and live the life of a wandering monk to search for Truth and the secret to the end of suffering, leaving his wife and child behind.

Siddhartha then spent the next several years practicing various forms of yoga and asceticism to try and find the path to enlightenment and an end to suffering, each successive path and each successive teaching yielding no answer to what he considered to be the basic problem of life for all people and which he saw as his ultimate goal and purpose.  It is then said that after practicing austere forms of renunciation and deprivation, he followed settled down under a Bodhi tree (believed to be in Bodh Gaya, India) resolved to sit in deep meditation until he solve the problem of human suffering or died trying.

From an historical context Siddhartha Gautama life and teaching represents one of the many theo-philosophical streams of thought that emerged in the Indus Valley region at the time as alternatives to the older Vedic religion that was steeped in ritual and dogmatism.  These various religious movements are sometimes grouped together as Sramana and gave rise to not just Buddhism, but also the Upanishadic tradition of Vedanta, Jainism and later the Yogic philosophic traditions, all descending from the Vedic/Hindu theo-philosophical tradition of antiquity but all rejecting many of its orthodox positions regarding caste and ritual and all for the most part sharing core philosophic themes and terminology such as samskara, the psychology underpinning the cycle of birth and death, karma and the laws of action which underpin Indian ethics even to this day, and the possibility and reality of moksha, or liberation.

After supposedly sitting in deep meditation for some 49 days, being tempted during his practice by various demons and gods with all sorts of worldly temptations to lead him astray (think Jesus’s 40 days and 40 nights in the desert having been tempted by Satan), at the age of 35 Siddartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment and arose as the Buddha which we know his as to this day.  Upon emerging from this deep meditative and transformative experience, which was supposed marked by a great earthquake when his state of enlightenment was achieved, the Buddha had complete understanding and knowledge of not only the source of the world’s suffering but also the path to rising above it so to speak, to reach a state of nirvana which would yield an end the seemingly endless cycle of birth, suffering, and death which plagued mankind since time immemorial.  Although initially reticent to teaching this new found knowledge to the rest of mankind thinking that they were too steeped in ignorance and desire to every understand what he had come to realize under the Bodhi tree, he was supposed convinced by one of the great Indian deities Brahma Sahampati to at least try for the good of mankind.

And thus began the 45 years of teaching of Buddha, what is sometimes referred to as his Dharma or “way” as a complete explanation and exposition of the laws of nature and how they applied to the problem of human suffering and how the great cycle of birth, disease, decay and dying could be overcome by proper understanding of “reality”, or the shedding of ignorance “vijnana” which to Buddha was the ultimate source of suffering – ignorance of the true nature of the self and consciousness, i.e. that it was an illusion and that it does not in fact exist.

 

Buddhist Scripture and Philosophy

When analyzing the teachings of Buddhism, as reflected in the various textual sources which were compiled by his followers sometime after his death, we are left with very similar challenges and pitfalls when studying the philosophy of all of the great teachers in antiquity. While we can optimistically assume that his precise teachings and doctrines, words and phrases and terminology , were faithfully transcribed by his followers even if several generations of teacher and student transmission existed before any of the actual texts which codify his teachings were transcribed, we still nonetheless have to try and extract what he actually said and taught from the extant literature – for the texts were written in a variety of languages that a) in all likelihood do not reflect the actually language that he spoke, and b) we do know that he did not leave any written materials behind himself.

The most authoritative and oldest textual tradition surrounding Buddhism is the Pali Canon, also referred to sometimes by the Sanskrit Tripitaka, meaning “three baskets” denoting the three main treatises that make up the ancient scripture that is written in Pali, an ancient script very closely related to Sanskrit.  According to almost all scholarly accounts, it is the Pali canon that represents the oldest authoritative Buddhist scripture.  This strain of Buddhism represents what is referred to as Theravada Buddhism.

According to tradition, the transcription of the Pali Canon is the result of the Third Buddhist Council that was convened at the behest of the pious Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BCE) who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century BCE.  His intent for convening the council, much like the Christian councils that were convened in the 3rd century CE onward, was to standardize the teachings, texts and some philosophical elements of Buddha’s legacy from amongst the various factions that had sprung forth after Buddha’s death, leading to the existence of a variety of teachers and philosophic schools who disagreed on many aspects of the Buddha’s message and precepts.

As the tradition has it, the council lasted nine months and consisted of senior monastic representatives from all around the emperor’s kingdom who debated various aspects of Buddhist doctrine, culminating in the canonization of the scripture (the Pali canon) and forming the foundations of Theravada Buddhism.  After the council it is said that the emperor dispatched various monks who could recite the teachings by heart to nine different locations throughout the Near and Far East, laying the groundwork for the spread of Buddhist teachings and philosophy not just in the Indian subcontinent, but throughout the ancient world as far East to Burma and even as far West to Persia, Greece and Egypt.

The Tripitaka contains three major sections, the Sutra Pitaka (Sutta Pitaka in Pali), the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka (Abhidhamma Pitaka in Pali).  The Sutra Pitaka is the oldest of the three parts of the canon and is said to have been recited by Ananda, Buddha’s secretary at the First Council, a meeting of five hundred disciples of Buddha shortly after his death to compile his teachings.  The Sutra portion of the Tripitaka contains discourses in dialogue form between Buddha and his disciples and other contemporary figures on a variety of doctrinal and spiritual questions within which the philosophical heart of Buddhism is contained.  Another disciple of Buddha named Upali is said to have recited the Vinaya portion of the Tripitaka which deals mostly with rules governing monastic life, reflecting the strong undercurrent of renunciation and monasticism which has been a part of Buddhism from the very beginning.  The Abhidharma portion of the Pali canon is the youngest material and supposedly reflects the Buddha’s teachings to various deities in heaven during the final period of his Enlightenment and deals with various philosophical and doctrinal issues which help elucidate the some of the more esoteric and obscure aspects of the scripture.

It is from the Sutra portion of the Pali canon that we can glean the core of Buddha’s teachings to his disciples as it’s clear that the Vinaya and Abhidharma sections contain somewhat later material relative to the Sutra Pitaka.  It is divided into five sections of sutras which are grouped as nikayas, or “collections” – the Digha Nikaya or “Long Discourses”, the Majihima Nikaya or “Middle Discourses”, Samyutta Nikaya or “Connected Discourses”, the Anguttara Nikaya or “Numerical Discourses”, and the Khuddaka Nikaya or “Minor Collection”.

The other main thread of Buddhism which continues to thrive today is Mahayana Buddhism, of which the more widely known schools of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are representative.  Mahayana literally means “Great Vehicle” in Sanskrit and focuses and builds upon the Buddhist monastic tradition as articulated in the Tripitaka and establishes the path, rules and practices for those who want to pursue enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings as Buddha himself did, what are referred to as bodhisattvas, or “enlightened beings”, in the Mahayana tradition.  Although the Mahayana schools do not necessarily differ from the Theravada tradition which precedes it historically in terms of basic philosophical tenets and practices, it nonetheless developed a unique and relatively independent scriptural and philosophical tradition which codified and institutionalized specific doctrines, teachings and practices for the pursuit and attainment of enlightenment, what perhaps Buddhism in modern parlance is best known for.

The essence of Buddhism in all schools however is to be found in the Eightfold Noble Path and the Four Noble Truths, the latter of which outlines the true nature of reality and the causes of suffering and the former which addresses directly the path to end such suffering permanently.  Buddhism does not lay out a philosophic discipline per se, nor does it lay out any systemic laws or beliefs as is characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, but instead lays out some basic fundamental precepts about the nature of life and reality from which it establishes a path, the so called “Middle Way”, to rising above the seemingly endless trials and tribulations of life, resting on the fundamental assertion that not only is enlightenment possible, but that there is a specific path which when followed rigorously will lead to nirvana which in Buddhism is the ultimate goal of all sentient life.

 

Buddhist Metaphysics and Psychology

It is said that Buddha first taught the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths to his five companion ascetics just after attaining enlightenment as recorded in the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sutra, or The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma as the title is translated into English, a set of sutras which can be found in the Sutra Pitaka portion of the Pali canon.  In this teaching, Buddha is addressing his five fellow renunciate ascetics with whom he practiced sadhana (religious rites and practices) with, and he lays out his basic philosophy as it was revealed to him when he achieved enlightenment.  He rejects the two extremes of complete self-indulgence and total self-denial (renunciation) and puts forth a “middle way”, what has come to be known as the noble eightfold path, as the means to salvation and cessation of suffering.

After laying down the middle way, Buddha describes the nature of reality, or the Four Noble Truths, the proper understanding of which underpins the “right view” portion of the Eightfold Noble Path.  These four truths, the pillars of Buddhist philosophy, can be summarized as follows:

 

  • The Truth of Suffering: that the basic nature of life is characterized by varying types and degrees of suffering (duhkha), sometimes alternatively translated as
    “unsatisfactoriness”. Suffering in this context involves the mental and physical pain associated with the process of being born, being subject to disease and illness and ultimately death, as well as the stress and anxiety associated with attachment to feelings, objects and emotions that are in a constant state of change – the Buddhist notion of impermanence (anitya) and attachment or grasping (upadana). 
  • The Truth of the origin of suffering: that suffering has an ultimate source and it comes from the incessant craving or attachment (raga) of objects of desire and its conjugate the aversion of fear of undesirable objects, (dvesha) ultimately stemming from ignorance (avidya), or wrong knowledge, of our ideas of self and reality.
  • The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: that suffering indeed can be overcome via the cessation of the root of suffering, the ceasing of all craving or aversion of things that are impermanent that stem from ignorance, representing the ultimate goal of Buddhism.
  • The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering: that there is a specific path which if followed correctly will yield a cessation of suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path which consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration, the perfection of which yields a perfected state of being, nirvana, the final state of the cessation of suffering.

 

From the Sutra Pitaka, the “Connected Discourses” we find:

 

The perceiving of impermanence, bhikkhus [monks], developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion, removes all passion for material existence, removes all passion for becoming, removes all ignorance, removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”

Just as in the autumn a farmer, plowing with a large plow, cuts through all the spreading rootlets as he plows; in the same way, bhikkhus, the perceiving of impermanence, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion… removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”[2]

 

While The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path are the cornerstones of Buddhism, the school also lays out a fairly sophisticated causal and psychological metaphysical framework upon which the intellectual foundations of nirvana rest and upon which our ultimate misunderstanding of the nature of existence originates.

A related concept which speaks to the metaphysics underlying Buddhist philosophy is the notion of “dependent origination” or “dependent arising”; Pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit.  At the heart of pratityasamutpada are the Twelve Nidanas, the basic psychophysical elements which constitute the set of interdependent and causally related principles from which Samsara, – a Vedic Sanskrit term which is adopted by the Buddhist tradition as well which signifies the repeating cycle of birth and death and is translated as “continuous movement” or “cycle of existence” – emerges.  It is the cycle of Samsara, which again is fundamentally characterized by suffering (duhkha), which Buddhism as a theo-philosophical system as a whole is designed to address and it is the notion of Pratityasamutpada which describes in detail the co-conspirators so to speak that underlie this phenomenon.[3]

The Twelve Nidanas are

  • ignorance (avidya), which yields
  • mental formations and habits (samskara), which yields
  • a sense of consciousness or mind (vijnana), which yields
  • the world of name and form (namarupa), which in turn yields
  • the existence of the sensory apparatus or “sense gates” (sadayatana), which yields
  • sensory impressions (sparsa), which yields
  • feelings or sensations (vedana), which in turn causes
  • cravings and desires (trsna), which yields
  • attachment or grasping (upadana), which yields
  • formation of new karmic tendencies, or “becoming” (bhava), which in turn yields
  • new life or “birth” (jati), which leads to
  • aging, decay and death (jaramarana).

 

Such is how the endless wheel of life is described in Buddhism, which again is fundamentally characterized by suffering and anxiety and via the proper understanding and proper practice (the eightfold noble path) of which can lead to nirvana and the cessation of suffering.  It is important to understand that although these twelve “causes” are connected as if in direct cause and effect link, the underlying philosophy links them in a much more holistic and interdependent manner, providing the basis for complex, interdependent life and the source of the belief in the existence of individual consciousness or a sense of “I” or “me”.

 

In one of his earlier discourses, the Buddha declares that we ought to regard any form of sensation and consciousness, whether “past, future, or present; internal or external; manifest or subtle…as it actually is…: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am’” (Majjhima Nikāya I, 130).[4]

 

Buddha also laid out a more psychological and process based view of how this illusory notion of self emerges, consistent with and complementary to the Twelve Nidanas.  This is the notion of Skandhas, which is the name given for the five functions or aspects of cognition, the detailed analysis of which yields the unavoidable conclusion that none of them can be said to represent “I” or “self”, another tool used by Buddha to help his students understand the concept of the not-self (anatman), as the association of the individual with one or more of these cognitive faculties so to speak is again the ultimate the source of our ignorance which is the ultimate cause of suffering.  These five aspects of cognition, or “aggregates”, are:

  • Form or matter: rupa, which represents the physical world as well as our senses which perceive it;
  • Sensation or feeling: vedana, the sensory processing aspect of interaction with rupa which is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral in nature;
  • Perception, conception, apperception, cognition: samjna, which is the act of recognition or recognized awareness of an object or idea;
  • Mental formations, impulses, volition, desire: samskara, the sum total of all mental habits, conditioned thoughts or ideas, opinions, compulsions or desires which are triggered by the perception of an object and the sensations or feelings associated with said object;
  • Consciousness or discernment: vijnana, that which discerns, determines or cognizes, that element of the mind which we associate with consciousness or ego.

 

The Skandhas are properly understood as interrelated concepts which together constitute the process by which we as rational, sentient beings interact with and experience the world.  The five aspects of this process all are strewn together in constant flux, each aspect connected to and in some respects causally related to all of the others.  The important deduction from the proper analysis of the framework however is that none of these aspects of “us”, when looked at closely really can be said to represent “I” or “me” in any truly meaningful way, hence the conclusion that this “self” which we so closely identify with is an illusion.  This is what has come to be known as the doctrine of “not-self” in Buddhism, anatman in Sanskrit, which sits in direct contrast to the Upanishadic notion of the eternally existent self, or Atman, upon which Vedic philosophy rests.

 

 


 

[1] Pali was mainly a liturgical language from Northern India which was very closely related to Sanskrit with most words existing in both languages with simple phonetic transliterations between the two.  It was primarily a liturgical language in the Indo-European/Indo-Iranian language family whose main historical significance is that it is the language of one, if not the, main source of Buddhist scripture and philosophy which is referred to as either the “Pali Canon” or Tipitaka, the latter term meaning “three baskets” in Sanskrit.

[2] Samyutta Nikaya, 22.102.  Translation by John D. Ireland 2006.  From http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ireland/wheel107.html#vagga-3.

[3] In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition Samsara is depicted by the “wheel of life”, or bhavacakra.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhavacakra.

[4] Coseru, Christian, “Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/mind-indian-buddhism/&gt;. Pg. 4, “The Not-Self Doctrine”

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