Theology Reconsidered: An Introduction

What follows is the Introductory chapter from a newly published, two Volume work entitled Theology Reconsidered.  The book can be purchased from Lambert publishing via their website; Volume I here and Volume II here.

 


When looking at the first mythological and philosophical works from antiquity, it is very easy to get lost in the “facts” surrounding these ancient works and lose sight of their true meaning and import to the people and cultures within which these works emerged from and out of.  Much of the modern academic and scholarly literature concerning these ancient “theo-philosophical” works falls into this category.  To a large extent, the purpose of this work is to try and “recover” said meanings of these ancient works as much as possible, and to look at them within a much broader theological, mythological and philosophical narrative that we find throughout Eurasia in the first millennium BCE, the so-called “Axial Age” of modern man.

In order to do this, we take a primarily intellectual journey through the mind of ancient man, as he sees the world and as is reflected in the earliest literary evidence of man, trying to understand these works not only within the broader “Eurasian” context, but also trying to look at them through the eyes of the ancient philosophers, theologians, priests and scholars who wrote these ancient texts, or in many cases were the ones to “compile” or “transcribe” these longstanding theo-philosophical traditions, but also to try and understand them within the theological, intellectual and socio-cultural context within which these works arose.  This broader meaning we call knowledge, which from a modern philosophical perspective is referred to as epistemology.

This knowledge is what Philo Judaeus takes great pain to describe in his exegesis of the Pentateuch, Genesis in particular, what the Neo-Platonists take pains to describe in their literature which arises in defense of their doctrines as Christianity takes root and begins to supplant and snuff out their schools of learning and wisdom, it is what is alluded to in the so-called hidden, or unwritten, teachings of Plato and that which is hidden, kept secret, by the followers of Pythagoras  and also in the Eleusinian mysteries and the alchemical Hermetic doctrines attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and also what the Upanishads refer to as Brahmavidyā, or knowledge of Brahman, that from deep antiquity is believed to be passed down from teacher to disciple – as Plato refers to in his Seventh Letter as that which is “brought to birth in the Soul, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter nourishes itself.”.[1]

After the author completed his first major work, the Snow Cone Diaries, we considered the writing “experiment” complete, the Work was done.  Following that exercise, and for reasons we cannot completely explain, we found it necessary to flesh out some of the ideas therein, reflecting a continued interest, and ultimately curiosity, concerning the advent, development, and evolution of what we term theo-philosophical developments of mankind which abound in the historical record, following the intellectual journey as it were up until modern times, what we refer to herein as the Information Age, where Information is at our finger tips, where activity is “informed” by its surroundings (Quantum Theory), and yet while we all for the most part (and in particular in Western academia) ignore the wisdom of the ancients.

The Snow Cone Diaries was somewhat manufactured in the sense that it was intentionally modelled after one of the most influential books that the author has read written by a modern self-proclaimed “metaphysician”, or philosophologer (i.e. one who studies philosophy) named Robert Pirsig entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, initially published in 1974 but which the author encountered and read during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in college, years of great tumult and change for most, the author being no exception.

After college, as is documented in Snow Cone Diaries, the author spent several years pursuing a career in professional tennis which in the end amounted to more so than anything else a time period of intense reading and personal analysis and introspection that led the author, in a manner that can perhaps best be described as “chance”, or if you believe in such things, Fate as it were, to Eastern philosophy and mysticism.  The author had been prepared for this adventure somewhat as he had majored in Ancient History as an undergraduate at Brown University and had written his thesis on the “Origins and Influence of Hermetism”.  In a sense then, the author’s initial, and now very persistent and long lasting, foray into Eastern mysticism was a natural extension of the intellectual pursuits of his undergraduate years.

The impetus and source of the author’s interest in Eastern philosophy, Kuṇḍalinī Yoga specifically in fact, stemmed primarily, at least at the beginning, from an interest in the mental and psychological demands of the game of tennis at the professional level, where many matches were determined by an individual’s performance at key points within a given match.  After spending a 6-9 months on the professional tour, mostly travelling in Europe, It became very clear that an individual’s success (which was of course almost entirely measured in Wins and Losses) while depending of course on physical attributes such as power, strength and fitness, at the same time very much depended upon what is referred to in sports as the mental aspect of the game.

This somewhat revealing and interesting component of the game, which arguably is an aspect of all professional sports but is more accentuated as it were in tennis given that it is mono y mono so to speak, became even more pronounced when two opponents were somewhat evenly matched as it were, and victory hinged upon just a few points – which as it turned out happened more often than you might think.  The author became somewhat intrigued by this phenomena, if we may call it that, and he became fascinated with what in professional sports is referred to as The Zone.

As such, it became very clear that in order to get into The Zone, there was a very well documented and well-studied connection between what peak performance and what we might call “clarity of mind.  In turn, this clarity was connected to, and in many respects seemed to be dependent upon, what are even in the sports psychological literature referred to as the development and cultivation of various rituals and practices, both on and off the court, before, during and after matches, in order to facilitate and/or “bring about” these states of mind where peak performance could be “attained”, or in Eastern philosophical parlance, realized.[2]

With this background then, the author while he was playing and studying, began writing – primarily about the so called “mystical experience” which was such an integral part of the Eastern philosophical tradition and its fundamental relationship to The Zone as it was understood in Sports Psychology.  The effort was centered around (and to a large extent this is also true for the Snow Cone Diaries as well as the current work) an attempt to establish a rational grounding, or intellectual footing as it were, within which these states of mind could be better understood and as such better integrated, or at least somewhat integrated, into what the author now calls the objective realist intellectual framework that underpins not just Western academia, but also is clearly the very rational ground of the Western mind, or psyche.

For despite all the author’s education and training, mental and physical gymnastics galore as it were, no one had ever even broached the topic or discussed with him this idea of peak performance and its relationship to the cultivation of clarity of mind, and the related states of consciousness that were associated to these “states” as it were, despite the fact that it appeared to be an almost empirically proven correlation between the two – at least in Sports Psychology circles.  It also became clear over time that this goal of peak performance as it were was not just dependent at some level upon these so-called states of mind, but in fact that that there seemed to be a very direct, causal relationship between the two.  Furthermore, these very same states of mind that were described in the Psychological literature around peak performance were not only clearly an exteremly significant, and somewhat undervalued and under practiced, component of competing as a professional athlete at the very highest levels, but that they were also an integral part of the mystical experience as well as it was described in almost all of the Eastern philosophical literature.  And of course, after some reflection, these states of mind seemed to be an integral component to success in life, however one might choose to define such a thing.

Following the model of Robert Pirsig then, and because the author felt strongly that the ideas that he was exploring, presenting and analyzing were best understood only within the psychological and mental context within which the author himself initially encountered and confronted such ideas, the author felt compelled to take his initial more “academic” works and wrap them around a loosely fictional character which he named Charlie, as well create additional (also loosely fictional) characters to which Charlie was “responding” and “reacting” to in order to try and establish the empirical reality and power of the nature of mind, and along with it the fundamental truth and power of the ancient art of meditation and mysticism to which it is integrally tied.  For perhaps the hallmark of the Eastern philosophical tradition is the emphasis and description of the art of meditation and its relationship to the attainment of these states of mind, what the author calls the Science of the Mind as it were, an altogether Eastern discipline.

Using Charlie as his mouthpiece then, we essentially argue in the Snow Cone Diaries, as Pirsig had done before him, that not only are our current (Western) intellectual models lacking in some very basic and fundamental ways – given the lack of emphasis and focus on the mind and experience itself as basis of reality as we understand it – but that these limitations had, again as Pirsig had argued before him as well, significant implications on how society in the West functioned and how individuals within that society behaved toward each other as well as the nature of the relationship between individuals and (Western) society as whole to the world around them in general.[3]

Given the level of effort and personal sacrifices that were made to publish Snow Cone Diaries, and given that the author is by no means a full time writer and first and foremost has a demanding professional career and responsibilities as a parent that were and are first priority, we never thought that he would embark upon a subsequent work.  We thought we were done.  However, our interest in ancient philosophy and the art of meditation did not dwindle, and the author’s meditation practice continued to flourish and grow and (as it is wont to do as any persistent and schooled meditation practitioner will tell you) the practice itself continued to have a profound impact on us in the following ways as it pertains to this work specifically:

  1. Our own personal conceptions of the nature of reality and the disconnect between it and commonly held and systematically taught “belief systems” which we are taught from early childhood and are presented as “empirically true” in the West,
  2. a continued and increased dissatisfaction of the current prevailing “Western” worldviews and belief systems,
  3. a deeper appreciation for the eternal truths that the very first philosophers from classical antiquity, as reflected in the term the Axial Age, were trying to convey and seemed to be missed or passed over in much of the scholarly work surrounding these ancient texts and authors,
  4. that in fact there were many more parallels and commonalities between these various belief systems that were compiled in classical antiquity throughout “Eurasia”, much more so than was reflected in most if not all of the scholarly and academic work surrounding these traditions, and
  5. the disciplines surrounding the study of the philosophers of deep antiquity were “siloed”, in the sense that the Sinologists (Chinese) weren’t collaborating with the Vedic or ancient Sanskrit scholars and the “Classicists” who studied the ancient Greek philosophers didn’t seem to be collaborating with either of these two disciplines either

Given these facts, and after studying the various traditions from antiquity, again as reflected in the so-called Axial Age, even from a layperson’s perspective it seemed that there were underlying similarities and patterns that were being missed primarily because these disciplines in and of themselves independently requires such a rigorous and deep level of knowledge about the specific domain.  Those that could understand and read ancient Chinese script were not necessarily the same people that knew and could read Vedic Sanskrit, and these people of course were not necessarily the same people that knew ancient Greek or Latin, and in turn these people were not necessarily the same people that could read cuneiform of the ancient Sumer-Babylonians or the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians for that matter.

However, given that we now live in the Information Age, and that the translations of many of these texts, as well as the underlying meaning and etymologies of the various terms and words of the ancient languages themselves as reflected in the ancient writing systems that developed in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE throughout Eurasia, are now readily available, the time seemed to be ripe for a generalist of sorts to pull together the knowledge from all these somewhat disparate domains and bring them together in some sort of cohesive whole, in a more comprehensive and somewhat more scholarly fashion than had been done in Snow Cone Diaries, which was more of a personal journey tan it was an intellectual or academic one.

So given that the disciplines and domains of study and research described herein continued to impress themselves upon the author, and given our continued interest in ancient philosophy, and writing even after the publishing of Snow Cone Diaries, we ended up publishing two interim works thereafter that summed up and further explored some of the more esoteric and less well known aspects of Hellenic philosophy and their subsequent influence on the development and foundations of early Christianity, as well as an exposition of the philosophy of the Far East, the latter being and area of research that was relatively new to the author and that was not considered in the Snow Cone Diaries.[4]

The Far Eastern ancient philosophical tradition, what is referred to as ancient Chinese philosophy, which is covered in detail in the current work, is intriguing for many reasons but for the sake of brevity in this Introduction, suffice it to say that the Yijing, what is more commonly known as the I Ching, is arguably the most fascinating and intriguing theo-philosophical work from antiquity, hands down.  And the more the author studied it and was exposed to its origins and influence throughout Chinese history, the more impressed he was with its place as one of the greatest and most intellectual achievements in the history of mankind, one that reached far back into Chinese antiquity (3rd millennium BCE at least) and one that undoubtedly rivaled the Vedas and Avesta as representative of some of the oldest theo-philosophical treatises of ancient man.[5]

Furthermore, as the author began to understand more and more of the nature, content, structure and origins of the Yijing, the most prolific and influential of all of the ancient Chinese “philosophical” works, if we may call it that, it became apparent that its basic architecture, particularly from a numerological and metaphysical perspective, shared many common characteristics of ancient Pythagorean philosophy, in particular as reflected in the symbol that perhaps more so than anything else has come to represent said philosophy, namely the Tetractys.  Following this intellectual thread as it were, the author published what was supposed to be a small academic piece on the similarities from a numerological and arithmological perspective between “Pythagorean” philosophy, or what we know of it, and classical Chinese philosophy as reflected in the I Ching, what is referred to in this work as its more modern Romanized form, i.e. the Yijing.[6]

 

This work in its current form is to a large degree an outgrowth and evolution of the intellectual journey that is documented and mapped in the Snow Cone Diaries, and in particular an outgrowth of research done after Snow Cone Diaries was written exploring the nature and origins of early Hellenic philosophy and its relationship to early Chinese philosophy as well as ancient Vedic or Indo-Aryan philosophy as reflected primarily in the Upanishads, the latter of which was rigorously and systematically studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York under the guidance of Swami Adiswarananda to whom this work is dedicated to.

So while this work can at some level be considered to be extensive revision and expansion of the academic and intellectual pursuits that are reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, it is distinctive from the author’s first major work in many respects and represents a much deeper dive into the material covered therein, as well as covers topics and areas of inquiry that are not covered.  Having said that, this work is much more “academic” in the sense that it represents – at least from the author’s perspective – a much higher level of scholarship than is reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, and of course the personal narrative, Charlie himself, has been put to rest (God rest his Soul).[7]

Given the extent of the material covered in this work, the author in no way intends to represent it as an exhaustive study of any of the specific topics that is covered herein.  In fact, each chapter or section of the work could be covered, and is covered, in much greater length in a variety of works that are cited as references and for further study and research.  The author has however taken great pains to try and refer to, and directly cite, the most influential and comprehensive works that cover the various topics in question and of course the interested reader can follow these lines of inquiry and these references to learn more about any given topic.

The specific source material that is used is not only cited directly throughout as footnotes, but is also covered from a much broader perspective in the Sources and Bibliography section at the end of the work.  Perhaps more so than other works from before the 21st century, an era the author refers to as the “Information Age”, this work stands directly on the shoulders of many academics and scholars that have toiled and taken great pains to open up the world of antiquity to the modern Western reader and scholar through countless translations and historical books and records, many of which are now electronically available and upon which easy access the author has greatly relied.

There are no doubt particular sections or chapters which the author has glossed over in a manner that may be considered to be “superficial”, particularly by academics and scholars who have spent the better part of their professional careers studying and writing about the specific topics in question.[8]  However, each of the lines of thought represented in each Chapter of each Part of this work represent a coherent and cohesive whole and in their entirety, and of course for the sake of brevity (as ironic a term that may be given the length and scope of this work), is intended to show as complete a picture as possible in one text.

The approach from a reference and bibliography standpoint is to have significant footnotes and references directly within the material itself rather than, as is the case with most academic works, at the end of a chapter or even at the end of the work.  The footnotes, the explanations and small intellectual excursions which are reflected in the extensive footnotes that are included directly in the text not only serve to give credit to the reference material and the work and analysis put in by other academics and scholars on whose research and work mine ultimately depends and builds upon, but also as sidebar notes that may be of interest to the reader that provide direct links and references to works that the reader can refer to if they are interested in a certain topic that is not covered in detail in this work.[9]

The footnote style that is used is essentially adopted from the writings of Swami Nikhilananda (1895 – 1973), one of the foremost Sanskrit and Vedic scholars in the West in the 20th century.[10]  Nikhilananda’s works have in no small measure influenced the author, as he studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center which he founded in the middle of the twentieth century which was led by the author’s teacher, Swami Adiswarananda from 1973 until his passing in 2007.[11]

In this context, Vedānta, and more broadly what we refer to as “Indo-European philosophy”  in this work, is a central and constant theme throughout this work, in particular with respect to the modern conception of ancient Indian philosophy as it is presented in the teachings and works of Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902), one of the foremost proponents and most influential of the modern “Indian philosophers”.[12]  From the author’s perspective, Vedānta, as reflective of one of, if not the, oldest and richest of the Indo-European theo-philosophical traditions, can (and should) be leveraged as an intellectual and theo-philosophical benchmark of sorts for the recasting of the definitions of knowledge and reality in the West, one of the main thrusts of this work.

 

The work is divided into 4 major sections, Books or Parts, following more or less the intellectual development of mankind since the dawn of “history”, history in this sense being marked by the invention and widespread use of writing after which we have a “direct” or “first hand” exposure to the mind of man, or at least into the minds of the authors of the works that are covered herein.

  1. On Creation and On Metaphysics, Parts I and II: how the ancients looked at the world and defined reality and knowledge (),
  2. On Theology and Physics, Part III: how we came to our current, modern conceptions of reality and knowledge in the West (Part III), and
  3. On Ontology Part IV: a deeper and more comprehensive look at the nature of reality, Being in the sense that it was looked at by Aristotle and Plato as understood through a modern Western intellectual lens, and in particular in light of the knowledge of the East.

The chapters and sections in each of the respective Parts, or Books, are designed and written as much as possible to be modular as much as possible.  By “modular” we mean to say that they are written with the intention, again as much as possible, of being stand-alone essays or dissertations of their respective topics such that the reader can read a particular chapter without necessarily reading preceding chapters.  That is to say, the design of the work itself is such that it need not be approached or “read” in a sequential fashion from start to finish.  And of course as such, some material and content is repeated in the various sections and Parts of this work so that said “modular” design is achieved.  Given the breadth of the topics covered herein, this type of modular design is not only intentional but is almost required in order for the work to have value.  For if it is not read, it of course cannot have the intended impact or influence on modes of thinking which to a large extent the intended purpose of the work.

One of the main underlying themes of the work, especially in Parts I and II, is an exploration and analysis of the potentially shared origins of not just the mythology of the first “civilized” peoples in Eurasia, which the “Laurasian” Mythos hypothesis of Witzel, but also an expanded version of said hypothesis which analyzes and discusses the potential shared the origins of “philosophy” – what is referred to again as theo-philosophy throughout following the terminology of Snow Cone Diaries which brings attention to the fact that the earliest systems of “philosophy” from antiquity are not just analytical or rational systems of thought, but are also fundamentally theological in nature.

Parts I and II of this work are primarily focused on this area in history, the 3rd to 1st millennium BCE when we have introduced into the historical record evidence and documents that outline the Mythos of these early Eurasian peoples, specifically the creation narratives (what we refer to as cosmological or theogonical narratives), which is followed by a detailed analysis of the subsequent theo-philosophical tradition which emerges from, and is fundamentally and intrinsically related to, the underlying comsogonical narrative, i.e. again the respective Mythos.

Part III focuses on intellectual developments that take place in the West post classical antiquity from the intellectual developments that characterize Hellenic philosophy, through the advent of more orthodox religious or theological developments, straight through the Enlightenment Era and Scientific Revolution periods of Western intellectual history where effectively the worldview is overturned and Science, as we define it in more modern terms, begins to eclipse the dogmatic religious and theological worldviews that had dominated the intellectual landscape in the West for some thousand years prior, the so-called “Dark Ages” .

Part III then goes on to look at scientific developments in the 20th century, Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics in particular, which call into question our modern (and pervasive) notions of deterministic, objective based frameworks of reality, what we refer to collectively as objective realism, which represent from the author’s perspective a somewhat unintended byproduct of the Scientific Revolution and which, given their limitations with respect to understanding reality from a comprehensive or holistic perspective (i.e. ontology, or the study of the nature of being or reality), require – in the same intellectual spirit and intent pursued by Kant, Pirsig and other more modern Western philosophers – a wholesale revision in order for not only the two theoretical pillars of modern Science (Classical Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics) to be understood in any meaningful way, but also such that the knowledge and wisdom of the East is integrated into our conception and understanding of reality as well.

Part IV covers in detail much of the material that was first introduced in Snow Cone Diaries with respect to the fundamental incompatibilities of Quantum and Classical Mechanics, going into (theoretical) detail not just with Relativity but also Quantum Theory, as well as some of the philosophical, and ultimately metaphysical, implications of Quantum Theory, covering two interpretative models in particular that the author thinks are relevant to the ontological questions that are the topic of Part IV – namely the Relative-State formulation of Quantum Mechanics by Hugh Everett as well as the pilot-wave theory that is attributed to Louis de Broglie and David Bohm.  The Metaphysics of Quality as presented by Robert Pirsig is also offered up as an alternate model for ontological inquiry given its adoption and incorporation of the direct perception of “intuitive” reality directly into its metaphysics as it were.

Part IV then offers up various alternative interpretations of reality that attempt to present and synthesize what we understand about the nature of reality both from a scientific perspective, as well as from what we might term a mystical or spiritual perspective, models which directly incorporate experiential reality into account when defining reality or the extent of knowledge itself, i.e. what is referred to as epistemology in modern philosophical nomenclature.  The models and analysis in Part IV directly take into account the role of active consciousness, cognition and perception, what in Quantum Theory has come to be known as the act of observation which from a Scientific perspective, at least again from the author’s standpoint, must be taken into account in any formulation of reality and in any definition of knowledge.

The alternative approaches to defining reality and knowledge that are presented and described in Part IV basically synthesize typically “Eastern” and “Western” worldviews, and from the author’s standpoint, are far better suited than existing philosophical or religious intellectual frameworks to prepare us not just as individuals to survive and thrive in the modern, Information Age, but also are much better suited to serve the society as a whole, from a national as well as global perspective, given the level of interdependence and interconnectedness of not just the human race, but also the natural world within which we live and depend upon for our survival moving forward into the future.

The last several chapters of Part IV, much more so than the author originally intended in fact, are dedicated to a fairly lengthy discussion of a relatively modern debate surrounding different ways or approaches to interpret, how best to understand, the life and teachings of the 19th century Bengali (Indian/Hindu) sage Rāmakrishna Paramhamsa, a tradition of course to which this author is closely linked from a theo-philosophical perspective.  Rāmakrishna in this sense, and how he is perceived and approached in these final chapters of this work, is the full manifestation of, and in turn the perfect example of, the limitations of Western “thinking” and the implicit epistemological restrictions and assumptions that while true, are fundamentally limited in their capacity to deal with anything that falls outside of the realm of Science proper and as such is dealt with as a case study of sorts for the need to integrate the Science of the Mind as it were into any ontological framework that we are to choose that would include the knowledge of the East along with the knowledge of the West.

This so-called mystical, or supraconscious experience, which is the intended result of the practice of the ancient art of meditation as it has been passed down to us through various classically Eastern theo-philosophical traditions – in the Upanishads in particular but also implicit in the writings and teachings of Plato and Greek Eleusinian mystery and Orphic traditions and of course in the teachings of Buddha as well – are presented as a necessary and integral component of any “redefinition” of reality and knowledge which, following any sort of rational interpretation of Quantum Theory must take into account the role of the observer and the act of cognition i.e. perception, into account in any coherent and complete model of reality.

Along these lines, various intellectual frameworks and models which include direct experiential reality are explored and discussed at length in Part IV, as well as in the Epilogue, with specific chapters dedicated to the re-interpretation of Upanishadic philosophy as presented by Vivekananda in the early 20th century as well as an objective analysis of the experiences and interpretation of the life of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna in particular who according to tradition of course was the primary influence and inspiration for Vivekananda’s teachings and life in general.

Rāmakrishna as a mystic then, and mysticism  in general – specifically defined by the practices and experiences associated with the direct perception of the ground of reality and existence itself which is the hallmark of Eastern philosophy – is not only one of the main, recurrent (and under emphasized) themes of ancient theo-philosophy in all its forms throughout Eurasian antiquity as reflected in the material in Parts I and II of this work, but also from an ontological standpoint represents one of the other main thrusts of this work which is covered in Part IV as well as summed up in the Epilogue which follows Part IV.

This “Western” view of Rāmakrishna, which is primarily represented in the book Kālī’s Child (a work which is critiqued at length in Part IV and the first section of the Epilogue as well) is from the author’s perspective a perfect illustration of the fundamental limitations of Scientific inquiry as we understand it in the modern Ear in the West.  An intellectual domain that rests squarely on the implicit, and very often left out, assumptions of not just empiricism and rationalism, philosophical modes of thought which characterized the Enlightenment Era for the most part, but also causal determinism and again objective realism, which provide the very basis for epistemology (i.e. our scope and understanding of knowledge itself) in the West, be they recognized as such or not.

Therefore when it comes to understanding, or again interpreting from a Western intellectual perspective, fundamentally Eastern theo-philosophical constructs such as Satcitānanda, Brahman, Purusha, Dao, or Nirvana, all words and terms that fall outside of Science proper in the West given their lack of empirical, objective reality and yet at the same time reflect concepts and ontological principles that are fundamentally required to come to any sort of understanding of any great sage, saint or prophet in the history of man – Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna included.  The choices we are left with given the modern Western intellectual landscape are the need to either study these domains specifically where these words and their associated meanings originate from, or alternatively expand our intellectual domain in the West to include some sort of corollary to these ideas, what they inherently mean and signify – the latter of which is the approach that Pirsig takes by formulating a new metaphysics which he calls the Metaphysics of Quality but what he unfortunately falls short of doing, a topic covered at length in the Epilogue as well.

This analysis of course lends itself to one of the core and final arguments of this work, namely that the intellectual and metaphysical model that is applied to reality in the West, i.e. our ontological framework, while being extraordinarily powerful from a natural philosophical perspective, i.e. Science, is in fact an inadequate conceptual framework for the comprehension of the full scope of reality and therefore  is in need of wholesale revision and/or significant expansion and extension metaphysically and theo-philosophically speaking in order to support a more broad definition of reality through which a more complete and fuller understanding of existence itself can be at least approached.  Hence the title of Part IV of the work, On Ontology.

 


[1] See Plato, Letters.  Letter 7, aka Seventh Letter 341c – 341d.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 7 translated by R.G. Bury. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7%3Asection%3D341c.  While the actual authenticity of the letter by Plato is debated by scholars it does for the most part reflect the writing style and philosophy as presented by Plato from the author’s perspective and so while perhaps not written by Plato’s hand, still nonetheless seems to accurately represent something akin to what Plato would write, specifically with respect to the specific part of the work cited herein.

[2] The Psychology of peak performance was spear headed in the Nick Bollettieri Academy in the 70s and 80s by the now well renowned and prolific Dr. Jim Loehr, now founder and Chairman of the Human Performance Institute.  See https://www.jjhpi.com/why-hpi/our-people/dr-jim-loehr.

[3] An overview of Pirsig’s work and his invention of a new mode of thinking to address some of the inherent limitations of the modern, Western worldview which he refers to as the Metaphysics of Quality are covered in some detail in the final section of this work.

[4] These works are Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East respectively.  Both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2015.

[5] Tradition has it that Confucius is believed to have said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would spend it to contemplating and studying the Yijing.

[6] The original paper by the author regarding the similarities between Pythagorean philosophy and the Yijing is entitled “Numerology and Arithmology in Pythagorean Philosophy and the Yijing”, published in 2016 and can be found at https://www.academia.edu/27439070/Numerology_and_Arithmology_in_Pythagorean_Philosophy_and_the_Yijing.

[7] Two interim works were published by the author covering Hellenic philosophy and Chinese philosophy specifically that were leveraged as source material for some of the content herein, specifically some of the content in Parts I and II of this work.  See Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks (2015) and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East (2016), both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2016.

[8] In particular the author cites the sections on Enlightenment Era philosophy as well as Arabic/Muslim philosophy as examples of Chapters which could be expanded upon greatly and to a large extent do not do justice to the actors and individuals, and the belief systems which they put forward in their writings, described therein.

[9] The footnotes also incidentally serve as reminders and reference points to the author himself so as sections of material are revisited and/or reworked and/or revised, the pertinent sources are readily available.

[10] Swami Nikhilananda is a direct disciple of Sarada Devi (1853 – 1920), the consort and wife of the 19th century Bengali sage Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna (1836 – 1886).  He is also the founder of and subsequent leader of the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York from 1933 to 1973 and is one of the foremost interpreters (and translators) of Vedic philosophy into English in the 20th century.  He has authored definitive translations with extensive commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā, and he is also known for providing the definitive English translation of the Srī Srī Rāmakrishna Kathāmrita, commonly referred to in the West as the Gospel of Srī Rāmakrishna, a monumental work covering detailed teachings and events of the last few years of Rāmakrishna’s life as seen through the eyes of one of his foremost (householder) disciples, Mahendranath Gupta (1854 – 1932), or simply ‘M’.

[11] See https://www.ramakrishna.org/ for information regarding the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.

[12] Swami Vivekananda was the first to introduce Yoga and Vedānta to the West at the end of the 19th century.  He was the foremost student and spiritual successor of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna, a figure who is dealt with at length in Part IV of this work.  Vivekananda’s modern conception of Vedānta and Indian philosophy more broadly, is also covered at length in Part IV of this work.

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

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.

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.

Indo-Aryan Theology: Unity in Diversity

You didn’t have to go very far, or have too far out a view on the world, in order to be exposed to Yoga in the hustle and bustle of modern day.  Yoga was viewed as a means to better health, and most importantly, a better and more elegant body.  The pursuit of the peace and tranquility of the calmed mind was somewhat of an afterthought in modern day Yoga, but this pursuit of the understanding of the nature of mind, and its relationship and utility in the comprehension and experience of the divine, was in fact the legacy and core purpose of all systems of modern day Yoga, despite their focus on the body.

But the systems of Yoga, based upon the teachings of the Vedas and the branches of thought and belief that stemmed from the Vedas, represented the religion of the Hindus.  And to this end, Charlie wanted to understand their cosmology, their mythology around the creation of the universe, from which the philosophy of Vedas sprung forth, and from which their in depth, scientific approach to the nature of mind and its relationship to liberation and experience of the divine came from.

But in today’s world, this gap in thought of Eastern and Western world views still exists.  It still exists in a very profound way, as it underlies every person’s world view in ways that are so assumed, so baked into our psyche’s from childhood, that their very existence is unknown.  It is most pronounced when you look at the world of theoretical physics and its relationship to what we all see and perceive as real, the belief and blind faith in the mechanistic nature of things and the existence of individual objects and things that are separate from, and only outwardly perceived by, the individual mind or subject.  It was this blind faith that Gavin rested his arguments on really, that the subj-obj-mp of Pirsig[1] was real, and any other world view that contradicted this was unreal, or unverifiable truth.

In Charlie’s search for answers, in trying to understand where this religion of Reason and Logic, and this mechanistic view of the universe, came from that we all held so dear to our hearts and minds today, he found that the beginning of this logical and reasonable formulation of reality had very deep roots in the philosophy of the Vedas, the scriptures of the Hindus.  The unique contribution of the Indo-Aryan civilization was their fundamental belief in the individual nature of the religious experience and the separation between authority and power, and divinity.  This was distinct from the other ancient civilizations in that there was no history of a connection between theology and authority or royalty.  There’s doctrines and philosophy was a core part of their society and from a very early stage it was to be protected by a class of society, the Brahmans, in a way that protected it from being abused for power[2].

As Charlie looked for the creation myths of the Hindus though, he found their mythology was not so clearly codified and descriptive as its sister cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and certainly not as well transcribed and documented as the mythology and cosmology of the Greeks and Romans.  Charlie thought this was somewhat odd, especially given that the extant Sanskrit literature was fairly extensive.  But the creation mythology of the Hindus was spread throughout a few different texts and compilations, most notable the Rig Veda and the Puranas.  Furthermore, the legacy of the Hindus was more Vedantic philosophy than mythology and cosmology, and this was reflected in the works and interpretations of ancient Hindu literature which were much more focused on theology and philosophy than cosmology.

As Charlie started into the ancient mythology and cosmology of the Hindus though, despite his respect and admiration for the philosophical system that was born from this culture, he knew that he needed to understand the society and civilization within which the ancient traditions emerged – to better understand the context of not only the creation mythology, but also the underlining philosophy of Vedanta which clearly needed a unique social foundation in order to flourish as prominently as it did over the centuries, and in fact millennia.

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 marked 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.

You could argue that all of these traditions stemmed from one ancient source mythology but a more accurate explanation of the similarities in the cosmologies of these ancient civilizations is that the creation mythology of the individual cultures reflected each of their respective relationships and perspectives on the source and sustenance of life, 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 creation mythology[3].

This ancient Indus Valley civilization spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from c. 3300 to 1300 BCE, roughly aligning with the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization.  The Rig Veda in turn, as one of the primary source texts of the creation mythology of the Indus Valley peoples, is one of the oldest extant texts in the Indo-European language family[4], and is thought to have been composed somewhere in the middle of the second millennium BC (give or take a few centuries).  The Puranas, the other primary source of ancient Hindu cosmology, was complied at a much later date, somewhere in the second half of the first millennium BC, almost two thousand years after the Rig-Veda was authored.

In the Rig-Veda, the origin of the known universe is said to have originated from the fundamental cosmic principle, or cosmic waters, apas[5].  The first sentient being who emerged from this cosmic water from which all the major gods, earth, heavens, underworld, etc emerged was Tvastr.  From Tvastr then came the gods of the Sky and Earth, and then from this triad all the lesser gods came into existence.

Even though the Rig Veda is interspersed with mythology and outlines the characters and principles from which the known universe was birthed, the text it 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.

Neither being (sat) nor non-being was as yet.  What was concealed?  And where?  And in whose protection?  Who really knows?  Who can declare it?  Whence was it born, and whence came this creation?  The devas were born later than this world’s creation, so who knows from where it came into existence?  None can know from where creation has arisen, and whether he has or has not produced it.  He who surveys it in the highest heavens, he alone knows-or perhaps does not know.[6]

The Puranas on the other hand were composed much later than the Vedas, and were an attempt to consolidate and organize the belief systems of the Hindus.  The Puranas (from the Sanskrit purana meaning ‘old’) were written in Sanskrit verse, and are regarded as being compiled over many centuries, from around the 4th century BC to the end of the first millennium AD.   These works are considered to be sectarian works, sectarian in the sense that they do not ascribe to any specific form of worship or attempt to establish the supremacy of a specific god or deity.  Again, Charlie considered this to a particularly unique characteristic of Hinduism literature in general, its lack of political influence or intent to establish some form of authority.

The Puranas reinforce this conception of the known universe emerging from a causal watery principle or ocean as well.

After separating the different universes, the gigantic universal form of the Lord, which came out of the causal ocean, the place of appearance for the first puruṣa-avatāra, entered into each of the separate universes, desiring to lie on the created transcendental water.[7]

The Puranas also describe in detail the Hindu concept of the cyclical nature of time and order of the known universe, and take a more expansive view of the notion of time as compared to the mythologies and cosmologies of the Sumerians, Egyptians, and most certainly the Greeks and Romans.  As described in the Puranas, the Hindu concept of time, and in turn their concept of creation mythology in general, is framed the life of the mythical figure Brahma, who is the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe.  Brahma in this context is considered to have been created by Brahman, or Ishvara, and not necessarily equivalent to the Hindu conception of God.  In this cosmology, a universe endures for about 4,320,000,000 years, or one day of Brahma, and is then destroyed by fire or water elements back into the source.  After the dissolution of the universe, Brahma is said to rest for a day and then the cycle repeats itself all over again.

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.

But complementary to this creation mythology, and the true legacy of the Hindus and Indo-Aryan culture one might argue, is that the experience of the divine was a personal experience and was not the domain of any religious or political bureaucracy.  And this system of belief, this religion, held that there were many paths to divine illumination, and that each individual was free to choose the path, and the gods to worship, based upon their own preferences and desires.  This was the unique contribution of the Hindu faith, and what still characterizes the society of India today where all religious faiths and paths are equally respected and integrated into the overall society.

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.  They had not codified these principles into law per se, like the United States had done after centuries of religious persecution in the western world, but these principles represented a core, integral part of their culture just the same.  And from this social acceptance of the individual expression of the divine, many great sages and seers, also known as rishis[8], had been born over the centuries that personified this apex and goal of the Hindu religious system – namely the realization of the divine in this very life.  These were such historic personalities as Krishna Buddha, and Chaitanya[9], and modern day great sages like Ramakrishna, whose existence and their ability to practice freely radical forms of religious expression, could only have been possible within the society and culture of the Hindus who had an implicit belief in the freedom of religious expression, a belief that went back thousands of years and had its roots in the ancient scriptures of the Hindus, the Vedas.

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.

The primary sources for what is considered modern day Vedanta are three main collections of verses or texts – the Upanishads, 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 AD.  Vyasa is the author attributed to the works of the Mahabharata and the Brahma Sutras, and the Upanishads are considered to be the divine inspiration of the rishis, who manifested the knowledge of Brahman as espoused 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.

The Vedas[10] are the oldest Indo-Aryan Sanskrit texts and are the oldest extant Hindu scripture.  Like many other religious traditions, the Vedas are said not to have been recorded and authored per se, but were revealed to ancient seers or rishis, and then documented and transcribed by scholars and sages between the second and first millennium BC.  Vedanta, somewhat literally translated as the end, or goal, of the Vedas, represents the philosophical tradition of the Hindus and stems from the philosophical portions of the Vedas, i.e. the portions of the Vedas that do not deal with sacrifice, ritual or dharma (righteous action).

The corpus of Vedic texts, all transcribed in some form of Sanskrit, include the Samhita, which are collections of mantras from the four Vedas[11] 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 Upanishads which deal with esoteric ideas and concepts describing the nature of Brahman and the soul, and other sutra[12] literature dealing with Hindu rituals and sacred rites.  Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas and may also include Aranyakas[13], or forest texts, as well as Upanishads which again represent the philosophical interpretations of the sacred rituals.

Parts of the BrahmanasAranyakas, and Upanishads explore the core abstract Hindu and Vedic constructs such as Brahman, the absolute or underlying nature of all things, and Atman, the individuation of the principle of Brahman or the soul which represent the core tenants of Vedantic philosophy.  The Upanishads form the philosophical backbone of Vedanta however and much like the Ancient Greek traditions of Hesiod and Homer, the Upanishads (and the rest of the Vedic scripture) are considered by scholars to represent an oral tradition that was codified and documented in the second and first millennium BC, but represents a tradition that goes back millennia before, most likely back to the advent of Indo-Aryan civilization itself.

In Ancient times, Vedānta referred directly to the Upanishads, or again the ‘end of the Vedas, but 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 works along with the classic Upanishad[14] texts.

Vedānta is also sometimes referred to as Uttarā-Mīmāṃsā[15], 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 explicates the esoteric teachings of the Āranyakas and the Upanishads.  As defined by Shankara, a great interpreter and sage of Advaita Vedanta from the 8th century AD, Upanishad is in effect a veiled reference to the content of the Upanishads: namely Brahmavidya, or knowledge of Brahman, and Atmavidya, knowledge of Self.

The concept of God or Ishvara is also present in the Upanishads and the Vedas, but this construct is subservient to the concept of Brahman who/which is beyond the conception of the human mind and is most certainly beyond the language divined by humans to describe the world around them.  In the Upanishads, Brahman is the universal spirit that underlies all creation and Atman is that which is universal and all pervasive in each of us individually, our soul or spirit in the Christian traditions.  Brahmavidya in turn is the knowledge of this ineffable and indivisible construct of Brahman.  The concept of Brahman as espoused in the Upanishads is the belief in 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 our souls, or Atman.  The core premise of the Upanishads then can be seen as the belief in each individual’s unity (Atman) with this divine force that is omnipresent and all-pervading (Brahman), and the ability of all individual Jivas, or souls, to achieve the experience of this unity directly and therefore become fully realized beings and free from all suffering and bondage.  In essence, Brahman and Atman are one and the same and indistinguishable with illumination and distinguishing between the two, believing they are separate and distinct things and concepts, is the source of all suffering and delusion.

The first attempt at compiling and synthesizing the teachings of Vedanta was undertaken by the great sage Vyasa[16] in the Brahma Sutras, also called the Vedānta Sutras, codified somewhere around the 2nd century after Christ.  The Brahma Sutras are part of the Uttara-Mimamsa tradition of Vedanta 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.

The Bhagavad Gita[17], or the Song of the Lord, although in some schools of thought is not considered a purely Vedantic text, has played a large role in the development of Vedantic thought over the centuries. The Gita is a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata and is a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna on the eve of a great battle of Kurukshetra.  Arjuna understandably has reservations about the righteousness of going to war against his cousins, and he relays these concerns to Lord Krishna, who is a human incarnation of the divine.  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 Bhagavad Gita.  In the process of his explanations, Krishna expounds upon esoteric Vedantic philosophical constructs such as moksha (or liberation), and Karma and Jnana Yoga, the yogas of action and knowledge respectively.  Krishna also expounds upon and other philosophical concepts such as dharma and the field of action upon which liberation of the jiva is attained.

The authors of the Vedas, as reflected in the works of the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, applied their pure reason and logic to the breaking down of the cosmology of the ancients into a logical and reasonably sound belief system which connected the divine superconscious experience and state with the physical world, in a way that was independent of the establishment of authority and power, which allowed sages over the centuries to pursue the end of these Vedas without the risk of persecution.  This was and continues to be the unique contribution of the Hindu faith and society.  They recognized the existence of Brahman, or God, as well as the conception of the individual soul or Jiva, and laid out a conceptual system that linked the two and described how the two seemingly contradictory and juxtaposing principles could coexist in the same reality.

Brahman then, as conceived by the Hindus, was a self evident construct that was as old as civilization itself.  It was the chaos of the Greeks, the Nu of the Egyptians and the Apsu of the Sumerian cultures.  But the Hindu religious tradition built upon this construct of reality and expanded upon it, reasonably and logically and bereft of religious dogma.  And at the same time, they carried on the fundamental tenet that God can be realized, just as clearly as the realization of the world of objects all around us.  According to the Hindu faith, this heaven on earth was the birth right of all of us – no passage or gateway or ticketing required.

So their religion was much more integrated with their world view as the civilizations of the East evolved and matured.  This of course came at the risk of the usurping of religious dogma to establish the authority of those in power, but the system of belief which rested on the indivisible nature of the soul and the source of all things was kept alive in these societies in a more pure form of religious thought that was divorced from politics and power.  It was protected by the personification of these ideas in the likes of Christ, Buddha and Krishna among others, and in the monastic, renunciate societies that interpreted the scriptures for the purposes of illumination and realization rather than for the establishment of authority or power.

The content of the Vedas is very esoteric, and in some cases can be seen to contradict itself, and to this end many scholars have debated the origins of the material as well as the philosophical implications of the verses themselves.  To this end, the philosophy of Vedanta is said to have three primary schools: Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita, founded by ShankaraRamanuja and Madhvacharya respectively.

Advaita Vedanta, as outlined by Shankara in the late 8th and early 9th AD, is arguably the most influential and dominant sub-school of Vedānta, and according to this tradition Brahman is the only reality and the perception of the reality of the physical world and its constructs of distinct subjects and objects is due to the illusory power of Maya, the creative force which causes the individual to perceive individuation and separation within the realm of unity and non-division.

As a curled up rope in the dark may appear to be a snake, and as the true nature of the rope dawns to the individual as the lights are turned on and the rope is revealed for what it truly is, so the world around us appears to be real and when burned in the fire of light and knowledge when we are awakened, we find that the physical world around us is no more real than the rope in the dark.

Advaita literally means non-duality and it’s primary tenet is the non-dualistic nature of the relationship between Brahman and Atman.  As Brahman is the sole reality it cannot be said to possess any attributes, and it is only via the power of Maya that our perception of the reality of the physical world arises.  As such, it is the ignorance of this true reality that lies beyond the world governed by Maya that is the cause of all suffering and misery in the world.  Therefore, only upon true knowledge and realization of Brahman can liberation from the world of opposites and suffering be attained.

The source of the concept of God, in the Christian anthropomorphic sense of the word, is from the inability of the mind of the jiva to grasp the subtle, abstract concept of the divine principle in a non-anthropomorphic way.  Therefore God, or Ishvara to the Hindus is a relevant construct to help us understand the unknowable, but its existence is also a reflection of Maya, and is illusory along with the physical world itself on top of which the all-knowing and all-seeing God resides.  But in reality, and philosophically speaking, according to Advaita philosophy there is no difference between the individual soul Atman, and the fundamental underlying stratum which permeates all animate and inanimate objects in the universe and cosmos, i.e. Brahman, and it is through knowledge, or jnana, that this truth can be realized.

Vishishtadvaita (literally “Advaita with uniqueness/qualifications”) Vedanta, as expounded by Ramanuja in the 11th and 12th centuries AD, is also a non-dualistic Vedantic school, but scholars mostly refer to this philosophical system as qualified non-dualism, as opposed to the pure non-dualism of Shankara.  The main difference between this school of thought and Advaita is that Brahman is asserted to have attributes (Saguna Brahman), attributes such as the individual soul and inanimate matter along with it.  Vishishtadvaita argues that Brahman alone is real, but that Brahman does indeed have attributes, and these attributes, or differentiated forms or manifestations of Brahman, are also real and not illusory as postulated in the system of Advaita Vedanta.   It asserts the reality of the physical world of the soul and the objects within it, despite its undifferentiated quality with Brahman.

Brahman, matter, and jivas are distinct from a relative standpoint, but in essence represent mutually inseparable entities and reflections of the indivisible Brahman.  Brahman therefore has attributes, and yet is attributeless at the same time, and it depends upon your perspective as to which aspect of Brahman you are perceiving or looking at.  Ramanuja argues that all of the main treatises of Vedanta – namely the Upanishads, the Gita and the Brahma Sutras – can only be interpreted in this way, i.e. that there is unity in diversity, and that Brahman is both with attributes and without attributes at the same time and all of existence is real and not illusory.  This school also propounds Bhakti or devotion to God (as represented by Vishnu), along with self-surrender (prapatti) as the ultimate path to liberation.

Dvaita Vedanta, or ‘dualistic’ Vedanta, was propounded by Madhwāchārya who lived in the 12th century AD.  This school of thought differs from the Advaita and Vishishtadvaita schools in that it identifies God with Brahman completely, and in turn with his various human incarnations such as Vishnu, Krishna, etc.  It regards Brahman, all individual souls (jīvātmans) and matter as eternal and mutually separate entities, as opposed to a manifestation of the one eternal substance or essence of Brahman.  This school also advocates Bhakti as the route to liberation, as does the Vishishtadvaita school, but expands upon this notion to include the concept of hatred or separateness (dvesha), and indifference towards the Lord, will lead the jiva to eternal hell and eternal bondage respectively.  Westerners can view this form of Vedantic interpretation to be the closest to the philosophy and dualism of Christianity, the existence of heaven and hell, etc.

No matter which of the Vedantic schools is considered however, consistent throughout Vedanta are the concepts of Brahmavidya and Atmavidya as the main purpose and goal of life, despite their different perspectives on the reality of the world of name and form as reflected in each of the three traditions of non-dualism, qualified non-dualism, and dualism.


[3] You could draw a connection here to the archetypal themes of Joseph Campbell, the archetypes emerging independently in the cultures stemming from their analogous lives and experiences that centered around these ancient river systems

[4] The Indo-European language family also contains Greek and Latin, although these languages are not directly related to the Sanskrit.  The languages do share many of the same roots for words though, and the structure of the languages is similar hence the classification of the languages in the same family.  It’s not clear whether or not they derived from the same root however.

[5] Ap (áp-) is the Vedic Sanskrit term for “water”, in Classical Sanskrit occurring only in the plural, āpas.

[6] Rig Veda 10. 129

[7] Bhagavata Purana 2.10.10

[8] Rishi denotes the composers of Vedic hymns.  However, according to post-Vedic tradition, the rishi is a “seer” to whom the Vedas were “originally revealed” through states of higher consciousness.

[9] Chaitanya (1486–1534), famous Bengali Saint known for his ecstatic devotion to Krishna.

[10] The Sanskrit word véda “knowledge, wisdom” is derived from the root vid- “to know”. This is reconstructed as being derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *u̯eid-, meaning “see” or “know”.

[11] The four Vedas are the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda and Atharva-Veda.

[12] Sūtra is an aphorism (or line, rule, formula) or a collection of such aphorisms in the form of a manual, or, more broadly, a text in Hinduism or Buddhism.  Literally it means a thread or line that holds things together and is derived from the verbal root siv-, meaning to sew (these words, including Latin suere and English to sew, all ultimately deriving from PIE *siH-/syuH- ‘to sew’), as does the medical term “suture.”  From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sutra.

[13] Aranyaka in Sanskrit can be translated to mean “belonging to the wilderness” or “from where one cannot see the roofs of the settlement” in English.  The Aranyakas were forest treatises composed and intended for those ascetics who had retired into the woods to contemplate the nature of reality and the universe, and it contained instructions and descriptions of elaborate rituals and rights that were deemed subj-obj-mpewhat dangerous and therefore needed to be practiced in isolation in the woods.

[14] Upanishad, derives its meaning from the Sanskrit root sad, which means to ‘to loosen’ or ‘‘to attain’ or even ‘to annihilate’.  Before this root are added the prefixes upa and ni, whichdenotes ‘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.

[15] The task of reconciling the different Vedic texts, indicating their mutual relations, is assigned to a scripture called the Mimāṃsā which means ‘investigation’ or ‘inquiry’.  In the orthodox Hindu tradition, Mimāṃsā is divided into two systems, the Purva-Mimāṃsā by Jaimini which is concerned with the correct interpretation of the Vedic ritual and Uttara-Mimāṃsā by Badarayana which is called Brahma-Mimāṃsā or Sariraka-Mimāṃsā which deals chiefly with the nature of Brahman, the status of the world and the individual self.

[16] The Brahma Sutras are attributed to Badarayana by subj-obj-mpe scholars as well.

[17] Scholars roughly date the Bhagavad Gītā to the period between 200 BCE and 200 CE.  The Bhagavad Gita occurs in the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata and comprises 18 chapters from the 25th through 42nd and consists of 700 verses.  Its authorship is traditionally ascribed to Vyasa, the compiler of the Mahabharata, although this is not certain by any means.

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