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DHARMA – AHIMSA – ATMA
It was nearing the end of the month of September. The shraman was busy organising the sale of the vegetables he had grown for the Guru. Siddhartha Gautam thought of nothing else but home. He could not cook. He could not wash his clothes and even had difficulty in bathing unless somebody helped him. He did not even know where to go to fill his water pot with drinking water. He could not beg although the shraman had fixed him up with an appropriate begging bowl together with a staff and clothes.
The Vedaparaga, unusually, came one day and sat beside him under a tamarind tree.
He said that the young man was losing weight and generally looked unhappy but to the surprise of Siddhartha he asked if he was from patrician stock. The one time prince answered truthfully upon which the Guru exclaimed that he had heard of the Sakya Maharaja but never been to his kingdom, being so far away.
The shraman soon finished his work pertaining to selling the vegetables he grew and resumed his routine without hesitation but said to Siddhartha that he was not at home in the north, the language being the main problem for him. He had decided to return to Dakshin Desha. Siddhartha said that he meant to travel as well but in the westerly direction and engage in intellectual discussion with like minded people. The shraman asked him to wait till the seminar the Guru was in the habit of holding in October every year when scholars and students gathered to debate their own ideas and learn about the many axioms enunciated in the Vedas.
Maha Bir Maiti who was talking to his usual Saturday gathering in this manner stopped and said that in one of the lectures the Vedaparaga was opening his discussion on the subject of atma but before telling his audience about the Guru's talk he proposed to say something about the subject to his Saturday audience himself.
He said, 'Atma in ancient times meant deha, the body of beings, but these two parameters became separated pretty quickly. The white British and consequently the westernised Indians of today equate atma with soul whose origin was in ancient Greek philosophy. The Greek philosopher Socrates (470 – 399 BCE) urges people to be virtuous because virtue is knowledge and knowledge is the path which leads one to know that which is true. The soul, an important constituent of a sentient being, becomes vicious if the person acts viciously. Eudaimonia, happiness, comes from a virtuous soul.
Plato(c.428 -347BCE) implies that a child in the mother's womb has a soul and it knows everything about its past. The process of birth obliterates its memory. Hence humans can not even get a glimpse of their past lives. The body decays and disappears but the soul is immortal.
Aristotle (384 -322 BCE) emphasises that the soul is a feature of the body that is it does not exist as a separate entity. Because of this it steers a being to act in certain manners. He identifies three types of soul however which are:
(1) Nutritive Soul which provides the body with nourishment and makes it grow and reproduce.
(2) Sentient Soul distinguishes animals from plants and allows sentient beings to feel sensations.
(3) Rational Souls are possessed by humans only and not by other living creatures.
In the theories of Pythagoras of Samos (c.570 – 480 BCE) the soul never perishes and just wanders through the bodies of humans and beasts.
There is this idea of Homunculus, a little person inside the head of a human who interprets ideas and guides the body. There is another homunculus inside this one and a further smaller one inside this smaller homunculus and so on ad infinitum.
In the western world the early humans identified the Roman word anima, breath, as the agent that embodied. Breath came to be known as soul later.
The embodiment of an immutable soul became accepted by many religions such as the Pharaonic Egyptian faiths, Early Greeks or Romans and the indigenous Americans. This embodiment is what is known as reincarnation and the idea was propounded for the Greeks by Orpheus. The Orphic notion of soul was similar to atma, prevalent among ancient and, possibly, today's Indians. The soul was immortal but got trapped in the prison of bodies. There was also the idea of 'The Wheel', the prison, which really is equivalent to the Indian concept of samsar.
There are further similarities between the Indian and Orphic cosmology. Thus in the latter there is this cosmic egg, which is the Brahmanda for the Indians. The phenomenal world appears in this egg and disappears in it after an appropriate time.
The Orphic soul has three worlds to inhabit:
(1) The Terrestrial, which is the material world in which the soul encounters bodies.
(2) The Aerial in which the soul remains to be punished or otherwise before being thrown back into the terrestrial. Note that the concept of punishment was absent in ancient Indian thinking.
(3) The Ethereal in which the soul stays with the stars in perfect bliss (ananda).
In early human societies many believed the soul to have the form of a moth or a butterfly. Soul was regarded as the essence of life. Moments before death it condensed to become small enough to escape through the mouth. Windows used to be left open in the dying person's room for the soul to float away into the outside. Some believed that the soul became a cloud in the sky upon leaving the body. In Hungary souls were identified with doves which flew away as the body stopped breathing.
Maha Bir finished for the evening and asked the audience to assemble here the following Saturday when he will narrate to them about the dialogue between Siddhartha Gautam and the Vedaparaga.
Vedaparaga talked about Varnashram dharma. Siddhartha's identity was exposed so he said at question time that he did not understand what dharma was because everything seemed to be a dharma. For example he should not have left home. According to the dharma of his varna, class, he should have been a dutiful member of his family until it was his time to become the king. “Does dharma mean duty?” he asked. “Yes, that is so replied the Guru.
“But from examples you have given, it seems to me that it means code of conduct as well.”
The Guru smiled as he replied that that was true. After a brief pause he added in Sanskrit, “Na Dharmau Adharmau charata 'Avam Sva iti'; Na Devagandharva Na Pitara iti acchaksata 'Yam Dharma, Yam Adharma iti.”
At the Guru's request a senior student translated in Magadhi, “You won't find Dharma and Adharma, dharma's opposite, saying to the ones they meet: 'We are here in your midst; neither do devas, gandharvas nor the ancestors say – This is dharma, that is adharma.'
The Guru continued. He said that dharma has archetype, the original ideal model, or ectype, the reproduction or modified version. The ideal model should be followed but remember meta-dharma while considering rules and codes of conduct for societies or the functional entities of the phenomenal world. Meta-dharma ensures the important recognition that there will always be generalisation with the very important proviso that there will be inevitable exceptions to the ideal model of dharma. Human fallibility brings in apad which is being between the rock and the hard place.
There is this sprouting of dharma which aims for the mechanical functioning of the Universe without catastrophic failure. There are also those dharmas designed by humans and groups of animals which are expected to provide trouble free living for the appropriate beings. The natural dharma is protean. For example, rivers change course. An island can appear in the ocean; another can disappear. The vishwa, our Universe, will not be visible one day. It is the same for societal dharmas which should be revised and modified according to the contemporary circumstances.
The risis, sages, the ones with wisdom, have therefore designed varying laws for diverse groups of people. The law is modified for the same group if they reside at different places and at different times in their lives if necessary.
There is this descriptive dharma which states that humans should live in a non-violent, harmonious manner with nature. On the other hand, there exists this prescriptive dharma which says that it is allowed to cut down trees for building houses, chariots and bullock carts or for fire wood. However the strict emphasis always is on non-wastefulness. Even the king is advised to avoid profligacy while using available resources for himself and his family.
Siddhatha asked, “Maha Guru, I understand that today's topic is ahimsa, non-violence, but its opposite, himsa, is all pervading. You yourself hosted a high yajna yesterday. At the end the invited assembly ate roast ox. I witnessed its slaughter. It anticipated and cried well before the axe beheaded him. They twisted and pulled off the heads of the fouls with their fingers which were cooked with spices and indeed the offering was tasty. The birds shrieked in anticipation of pain and suffering. Why not eat grains, vegetables, milk products and fruit? Why prevent ambulant animals from completing their life-span and carry out their karma?
Vedaparaga took his time before he answered. He said, “Nobody should disagree with you that slaughter of living creatures is a despicable act of cruelty. It should be classed as adharma but it is not; all depends on the circumstances. There is this subject entitled The Laws of the Fishes which describes why big fishes eat live small fishes. The reason is survival and because the big fish is stronger than the little ones.
Nature is bestial and therefore is red in tooth and claw. All creatures use violence often for the sake of it or as sport but certainly for survival. You could not expect a lion or a tiger to exist on this earth without eating flesh. It is its dharma provided it kills only for food. The weak has a nervous existence for fear of being attacked by the stronger. The mongoose eats mice; the cat eats the mongoose; the dog kills the cat often for food; the hyena eats the dog and man eats all including static life such as plants and their produce.
Humans and animals fight often for the sake of it but usually for position, power and possessions. In the world of monkeys the head sits on top of the tree and he must be obeyed by all others. A group will go on a rampage, attack a weaker group and kill all the males including children. The booty will be the females and the territory. Humans are similar except they usually fabricate a case for the atrocity they commit as individuals or as a militarily powerful nation.
Siddhartha said, “But we must forsake himsa and strive hard for ahimsa at all times.”
The Vedaparaga agreed and suggested vegetarianism although it was not known, he added, whether a plant did not have the right to live its natural life and he dared to suggest that the plants probably felt pain while uprooted.
He quoted the ancient treatise of Arthashastra where the dharma encompassing himsa is expounded with unequivocal confidence. It is said that there is no animate or inanimate dharma where himsa is not perennial. “Look at the dharma surrounding our planet,” he said. “There exists this ever threatening potentially mortal danger from the atmosphere; this is Adhidaivic, examples being gale force wind, lightning and torrential rain causing deluge. They cause loss of life, land and crops. Then there are these earthly dangers from predatory animals or rulers of foreign domains, venomous reptiles and disease; this is classed as Adhibhoutic. Of course desire, greed and attachment in all of us result in inconsolable dukkha. This danger is Adhyatmic.
“The subject of atma remains abstruse and at times becomes controversial,” began the Vedaparaga, “I will merely outline to you very briefly what I understand about it.”
He mentioned that prakriti, matter, interacts with myriads of purusas which are scattered about in the Universe. The result is the evolution of buddhi, ego and mind. By a separate independent process fundamental particles of prakriti concatenate and build up various geometric forms such as humans, elephants and jivanus, bacteria. Purusas enter these forms giving rise to jivs each of which now comprises a small non-material entity and a body. This purusa is atma and the body, deha, comes alive when the atma enters it. It was the Vedaparaga's understanding that the atma enters the body at the moment of conception. The body, deha, can be likened to a chariot. The buddhi, intellect, is the charioteer and mind the reins. The senses are likened to the horses galloping along paths which are the objects which can be coveted by the senses or be attached to them. The senses are reluctant to let go of the paths aiming foolishly to reach their destination of which they have no knowledge and which does not exist.
Siddhartha interrupted by saying, “But sentient beings are hurtling through towards death which is the destination once we are born.”
The Guru shook his head as he said with unusual emphasis, “No. Death is merely the process which results in nirvan of our life-breath.”
“What is nirvan?” asked a member of the audience.
“It is blowing out such as it happens to the flame of a pradip, lamp, when the fuel is used up or the wick burns to nothing. Nirvan can happen any time as the flame of the lamp may be extinguished due to a sudden gust of wind or as a result of external objects smothering it such as water, sand or rags.”
The Vedaparaga said that the senses produce karma which results in effects. The atma becomes the beneficiary for the fruits of the karma performed. If it is according to the prescribed dharma of the society or nature, as appropriate to the case, the atma receives credit called punya. The opposite is pap which should be avoided.
It is necessary to keep a jiv's mind firm and the senses under control so that they will remain in a disciplined state like the well trained and appropriately guided horses of a chariot. If one does not follow this principle meticulously he or she will keep on being plunged into the doleful labyrinth of re-birth and re-death time and time again. On the other hand, the ones who can keep their senses under control escape the snares of samsar and hence become free from dukkha and do not embody again.