- Religion and Philosophy
Truth-what it is
August 9, 2009
Basic ideas from Ancient Indian Philosophy-Duel of Brahman and Maya
I continue with cultural and philosophical discussions. I want to describe some of the basic ideas from ancient Indian philosophies. I will also describe some colors of life of some of the people, who propagated these thoughts in recent times.
Different from Christian or Muslim style
Before I start let us notice one fact. If you look at religions which originated in Middle East (some times called Abrahamic religions), rituals, discipline to be followed and philosophical aspects are quite entangled together. It is perhaps difficult to separate them. For example they have some sort of belief-system to start with. The idea of belief is important for them. To accept these basic beliefs without any question is a part of discipline one has to follow.
In Indian religions (and also I think in China or Japan) the rituals and philosophical aspects are quite separated. Rituals are considered to be more for fun and originate from traditions. They may be followed only in some communities. There are millions of gods and goddesses and a lot more stories associated with rituals.They give all the colors to life. There is almost no discipline or belief-system to be followed compulsorily. Most of ritualistic aspects are your own. You follow what ever you feel comfortable with and enjoy. There is no compulsion on going to temple etc. Some people never go. Philosophical aspects are often visible in rituals but reverse direction intrusion is almost not there.
Even existence of god is not necessary
There is nothing like conversion in Hinduism. You just become a Hindu, if you adopt to some of the ideas or just declare yourself to be so, if you like. You can follow other religions too together with it. There is no exclusivity involved, quite unlike Abrahamic religions. Even existence of god is not necessary (see schools given below). Rituals do give all the colors to Indian life style. But I am not talking about them. Though in photos enclosed which I have added just for enjoyment, you may see some of these colors. I am going to talk here about mainly philosophical aspects only. I will describe some philosophical schools briefly then talk in much more details, ideas from one school currently the most popular one in India, Advaita Vedanta.
In almost all philosophical thinking specially those considered religious ones questions which one comes across in the very beginning are "What is universe?", "Who are we?", "Why do we exist?", "What (or Who) is God?" etc. Answers to these questions generally have to be true ones. So very first question, one is puzzled about it "What is truth?"
Creating a model for universe with as less contradiction as possible
In India also, people thought about these questions even more than 5000 years back. A general philosophical system was developed, with the aim of answering these questions. Most of what I am writing is from my understanding of these ancient ideas and experiences. Practically all these ideas are very ancient, mostly from prehistoric times and have been repeated in Indian poetry, literature, rituals, stories etc. millions of times for several 1000 years.
Main goal was to create a model of universe with as less contradictions as possible. So quite a bit like you first argue out what should be basic assumptions or what are called in today's style of Science or Mathematics axioms. Then try to derive from them various statements (like Theorems in Mathematics) by rational or logical deductions. I think this much clarity about what they were doing was there right from beginning, thousands of years ago. I admire it a lot that so long back, they could think so clearly about what they wanted to do, in quite a similar style as today we adopt in Scientific studies. In fact they used other tools too, which are not used today in professional Science studies. It is a different matter to decide whether the model works or not? Is it true or not? Does it serve some purpose or not? But certainly whole effort has some eternal enjoyable beauty.
I will write later about how I learnt about these ideas, history etc. Let me just make one remark before I start. It does not seem to be just Indian. You see a similar beauty and ideas in Chinese thinking and as well as in Greek thinking of ancient era (Socrates had for example said something like this "all things have the same form and to know that you have to close your eyes and meditate for three hours"- a sentiment very similar to Indian ideas). There must be other cultures too who may have developed similar ideas.
Orders/Manifestation of truth- rope/snake puzzle
Suppose a person sees a rope but does not initially see properly and for a moment fears that it is a snake. But within a second he/she realizes that it is a rope and not a snake. Though still in his/her memory, that moment is preserved as a momentary fear of snake, quite clearly. Now question arises what is the truth for him/her at that moment? One will have almost no hesitation to say,"well! it is a rope, So it was a rope- that is the truth"
But Philosophers in those ancient times did not feel satisfied. They said, "at that moment even though "absolute truth" is that it was a rope, but this person did not see at all the rope. For him/her it was a snake for that one moment, if you just depend on his/her senses. But later he/she realized that it is a rope so then he/she also feels that at that moment also, it was a rope." Thus they argued that at that moment both possibilities can be considered as truth for that person, depending on with what perspective you are looking at truth.
This led them to make their first axiom. The truth may be one but it can have several manifestations or orders. Each manifestation in its own perspective may also equally represent truth.
Truth without manifestation (real truth) - different schools
If you assume that truth of snake for that person at that moment is only a manifestation of actual truth of the object being a rope, then several questions do arise. What are actual or absolute truths and how do we decide that we are perceiving a truth and not a manifestation of it? Which is manifestation and which is actual truth? When do we see only manifestations and when actual truth? Is there more than one truth?
Today's Scientists are also puzzled by these questions. For example there is no method in Science today to determine whether red color for me or you looks exactly the same or not. Einstein's theory also sort of says every thing we can study is relative to some thing.
Rishis, tirthankars, monks and books written by them
These questions puzzled Indians quite a bit and a lot of thinking, studying, science, art and spiritualism developed out of the desire to find answers. There have been several schools and different opinions about these aspects in Hindu philosophy.
Main desire in all these schools was to seek knowledge and understanding about truth without manifestation. Their differences are more about methods to be used and about the nature of final goal. For example is it to get knowledge about just truth (enlightenment) or to be one with truth (nirvana) or to get oneself rid of desires of life, sins etc. and not to be born again (moksha). Various tools were described to study truth and achieve these goals. People who studied them or preached, generally lived in secluded places in forest initially to learn and meditate about these aspects. They also often ran large schools called ashram around them and even prince and princess used to study in such ashrams. But many of them studied and meditated just for their own thirst for knowledge. They are respected as a rishi (a sage), or a tirthankar or simply a monk. I do not know equivalent word in English to describe a "rishi" - closest description I can think about is a hermit who is dedicated to development of science or knowledge, self-spiritual aspects and welfare of people. These sages could be either males of females.
Some of these schools are considered independent religions, today. Jain tirthankars (see below) are very few and in this sense they are much more special and respectful. Practically all in India worship them, again irrespective of whether they belong to Hindu, Jain or Buddhist religion. Buddha as a monk is indeed unique and is adored by the followers of most religions in India, practically as a God. Almost all of these schools were influenced by four most ancient books Vedas- Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda, written perhaps more than 5000 years back (initial versions are only by oral communication -they are called "shrutis"- some thing you heard, only later versions called "samhitas" are the compiled vedic literature). Though shrutis survive perhaps much more in rituals because of their poetic form. Some other books which influenced a lot of over all development of philosophies and styles are Bhagavad Geeta supposed to have been written by Krishna who lived a little more than 5000 years back and Upanishads. It is interesting to note that Samkhya School (see below) which denied the existence of God was considered (and still is considered ) an orthodox school. Another interesting point to note that the theorists of much later Mimamsa School, even with their emphasis on ritualistic conduct, decided that the evidence allegedly proving the existence of God was insufficient. They argued that there was no need to postulate a maker for the world, just as there was no need for an author to compose the Vedas or a God to validate the rituals.
The Six āstika (orthodox) schools are:
1. Samkhya, a strongly dualist theoretical exposition of mind and matter, that denies the existence of God. Samkhya is an enumerationist philosophy that is strongly dualist. Samkhya philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two realities: Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (phenomenal realm of matter). They are the experiencer and the experienced. Samkhya School was founded by Rishi Kapila, who lived in prehistroic times.
2. Yoga, a school emphasizing meditation and discipline closely based on Samkhya and founded by Rishi Patanjali around 2nd century BC. Yoga Sutras written by Patanjali describes the basic ideas of this philosophy. It is built on the foundation of Samkhya, Upanishadic, Buddhist and Jain thoughts.
3. Nyaya (or school of logic - see details below)
4. Vaisheshika, an empiricist school of atomism founded in 2nd century BC by rishi Vaisesika espouses a form of atomism and postulates that all objects in the physical universe are reducible to a finite number of atoms.
5. Mimamsa, an anti-ascetic and anti-mysticist school of orthopraxy. The foundational text for the Mimamsa school is the Purva Mimamsa Sutras of rishi Jaimini (3rd century BC).
6. Vedanta, the logical conclusion to Vedic ritualism, focusing on mysticism. Vedanta came to be the dominant current of Hinduism in the post-medieval period. It has three subschools Advaita Vedanta, Dvaita Vedanta, Vishishtaadvaiata Vedanta.
The nāstika (hetrodox) schools are:
1. Buddhism founded by Gautama Buddha around 6th century BC.
2. Jainism an ancient religion in India which is supposed to have been started by its 24 Tirthankars. The first Jain Tirthankar Rishabh Dev is supposed to have lived in prehistoric times, perhaps much before 5000 years. The last of Jain Tirthankars Mahavir Swami lived around the same time as Guatama Budha ( 6th Century BC).
3. Cārvāka, a skeptical materialist school with philosophical skepticism and religious indifference (see details below).
Let me just describe a few basic ideas from Nyaya and Carvaka schools first. I will then describe much more details from the Advaita Vedanta.
Nyaya School which is considered to have been founded by Medhatithi Gautama and Aksapada Gautama about 400-500 BCE. It is also some times called Tarka Vidya (knowledge by argument) or Vada-Vidya (knowledge by debate). In the opening sūtra (verse) of the Nyāya Sūtra, composed by Aksapada Gautama, it was claimed that the ultimate purpose of it is the attainment of liberation (niḥśreyasa), attained by knowledge of the sixteen categories (padārtha), which are:
- means of valid knowledge (pramana);
- objects of valid knowledge (prameya);
- doubt (samshaya);
- purpose (prayojana);
- example (drstanta);
- conclusion (siddhanta);
- the constituents of a syllogism (avayava);
- argumentation (tarka);
- ascertainment (nirnaya);
- debate (vāda);
- disputations (jalpa);
- destructive criticism (vitanda);
- fallacy (hetvabhasa);
- quibble (chala);
- refutations (jāti); and
- points of the opponent's defeat (nigrahasthana).
According to the Nyaya Sutra, there are four means of attaining valid knowledge: perception, inference, comparison, and verbal testimony. The sutras ultimates implicitly develop a theory of causation. Cause and effect should be homogeneous in nature, and yet the effect is a new beginning and was not already contained in the cause.
Rishi Carvaka lived in 6th century BC or perhaps earlier. His ideas are contained in the book written by him Bārhaspatya-sūtras. Let me mention a few of his ideas in his poetry format (which was common format to express all forms of thoughts in ancient times, the language used was mostly Sanskrit, some times also Pali).
1. No life after death
The Carvaka believed there was no life after death
Springing forth from these elements itself solid knowledge is destroyed when they are destroyed— after death no intelligence remains.
The Carvaka believed in a form of naturalism, that is that all things happen by nature, and come from nature (not from any deity or Supreme Being).
Fire is hot, water cold,refreshingly cool is the breeze of morning;By whom came this variety?They were born of their own nature.
3. Sensual indulgence
Carvaka believed there was nothing wrong with sensual indulgence, and that it was an enjoyment to be pursued.
That the pleasure arising to man from contact with sensible objects, is to be relinquished because accompanied by pain— such is the reasoning of fools. The kernels of the paddy, rich with finest white grains, What man, seeking his own true interest, would fling them away because of a covering of husk and dust? While life remains, let a man live happily,let him feed on butter though he runs in debt;When once the body becomes ashes,how can it ever return again?
4. Religion is invented by man
The Carvaka believed that religion was invented and made up by men, having no divine authority.
The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons. All the well-known formulae of the pandits, jarphari, turphari, etc. and all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in Aswamedha, these were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests, while the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night-prowling demons.
With all that Carvaka still held truth, integrity, consistency, and freedom of thought in the highest esteem. He is respected even today also, very much as a rishi in India who enhanced basic knowledge in new directions.
Advaita Vedanta School
The key source texts for all schools of Vedanta are the Prasthanatrayi—the canonical texts consisting of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahman Sutras (written by Rishi Badaryana or Veda Vyas, who also wrote Mahabharata- He lived in Krishna's time).
In recent times, first person to explicitly consolidate the principles of Advaita Vedanta was Adi Shankaracharya, who lived around 7th century AD. Let me first describe basic ideas of Advaita Vedanta. Then I will describe a little more about Shankaracharya, and some other persons responsible for popularity of Advaiata Vedanata today.
The unique truth- truth, Brahman, universe (or god) are essentially the same
Advaita Vedanta assumes that there is only one absolute truth and all other realities are manifestations of this unique reality. If one assumes that there is a unique truth then question arises what is this unique truth (it was called by them Brahman). Advaita Vendanta argues that this truth clearly has to include the whole universe, otherwise, we will have a problem that some thing is there in the universe but is not true. Thus unique truth assumption includes assumption that this truth includes whole universe.
Advaita philosophy considers Brahman the unique truth to be without form, qualities, or attributes. This reality Brahman, is an Absolute: it is not limited by any mental conception or duality, whether personal or impersonal, existent or nonexistent, formless or manifested in form, timeless or extended in time, spaceless or extended in space. It is simultaneously all of these but is bound by none of them. It is at once the universe, each individual being and thing in the universe, and the transcendent beyond the universe. In its highest manifested poise, its nature may be described as Satchidananda—infinite existence, infinite consciousness, and infinite delight or bliss—a triune principle in which the three are united in a single reality. In other words, it is a fully conscious and blissful infinite existence.
Shankaracharya actually proposed that one should try to describe this unique truth Brahman by "neti neti" meaning "not this, not this", because Brahman cannot be correctly described as this or that. Reason is that moment you try to describe it in words, some thing will be left out in your description and that being reality should have been part of this ultimate truth. Advaita goes further and says that while Brahman lies behind the sum total of the objective universe. Brahman is beyond the senses, beyond the mind, beyond intelligence, beyond imagination. Indeed, the idea is that Brahman transcends and includes time, causation and space, and thus can never be known in the same material sense as one traditionally 'understands' a given concept or object.
Maya -the agency manifesting truth
Why is Brahman beyond our senses, mind intelligence etc., while it does include all of it? The reason Advaita School argues is because of an agency Maya - which causes the unique truth Brahman to get manifested into different realities. According to Adiviata, Maya is the complex illusionary power of Brahman which causes the Brahman to be seen as the material world of separate forms. Maya has two main functions — one is to "hide" Brahman from ordinary human perception, and the other is to present the material world in its place. Maya is also said to be indescribable, though it may be said that all sense data entering ones awareness via the five senses are Maya, since the fundamental reality underlying sensory perception is completely hidden. It is also said that Maya is neither completely real nor completely unreal, hence indescribable. Its shelter is Brahman, but Brahman itself is untouched by the illusion of Maya, just as a magician is not tricked by his own magic. Maya is temporary and is transcended with "true knowledge," or perception of the more fundamental reality which permeates Maya.
Atman -soul is the same as the ultimate reality Brahman
Advaita School sees the soul within each living entity as being fully identical with Brahman - the all-pervading truth. The question arises, if our soul (Sanskrit word for soul is atman) is the same as the universal truth then why does each one of us feel to have a different soul? That is because Advaita argues, we are under the influence of Maya and its illusionary power.
Adi Shankara says that just as the same moon appears as several moons on its reflections on the surface of water covered with bubbles, the one Atman (soul) appears as multiple atmans in our bodies because of Maya.
Water of the ocean inside a pot feels I am the pot
I like another analogy of Advaita even better. Suppose you think of water in an ocean as Brahman. Now if you put an empty pot in the ocean, the water inside the pot, even though it is just like water in the whole ocean, gets the shape of the pot and starts feeling that I am the pot. This feeling that "I am" such and such is caused by Maya. To get true knowledge that one (or our soul) is just the ultimate reality, one has to get out of influence of Maya, and identify with the whole water of ocean. Moment you get out of influence of Maya, Advaita argues you get identified with the Brahman and you (or your atman) become the whole Brahman, which includes every thing. You sort of become all knowing universal soul of every one living or nonliving.
How does maya do it - can one know?
The question arises how does Maya do it and makes you feel confined in your pot or soul. Now Advaita argues that this is some thing one will never come to know. Reason they argue is that Brahman is action-less, shapeless, desire-less. All actions, shapes, desires are because of influence of Maya. In particular your desire to know how maya does it, is because of influence of Maya. Until you are under the influence of Maya obviously you can not know how Maya does it. But moment you are out of influence of Maya your desire to know, how Maya does it will no longer be there, as you are now all knowing brahman. Thus Maya's action or style remains unknown for ever.
The need for this model-meditation, yoga, universe
Why did Advaita School feel need to create this model or study the whole universe together? Before them people studied objects by going through rational arguments, experimentation and going to minute and more minute objects. Quite similar to what scientist do today. Scientists studied atoms, then very soon they realized still it is not most elementary and now currently they concentrate on what are called subatomic particles. In India also similar phase was there before Advaita ideas were taking shape. At some stage people felt that "No! This is not going to work. With each minute object there will be a need to go further and this may go ad-infinitum."
This led them to go in reverse direction and they started studying the whole universe together.
Another aspect they felt was that in rational arguments or experimentation there is no space to study sleep. Specially deep sleep (when you sleep for some short time one has the sleep in which one sees dreams etc. after that one gets what psychiatrist call a deep sleep. In India since ancient times it has been identified as memoryless sleep). They felt that studying oneself in sleep can not be neglected. After all one spends almost 1/3rd of life in that state. This led them to invent new tools like yoga, disciplining mind and body and meditation etc.
You might ask all this is great but what is the evidence? How do we know some how that this model is the true one. It is difficult to decide. Advaita says use scriptures, rational arguments, look at experiences of those who tried to get out of influences of maya to convince your self first that this is not just a theory but reality, before you attempt to get out of influence of Maya. One hard evidence provided is that during memoryless sleep (deep sleep) you are not under the of influence of Maya and your soul is the same as all knowing brahman. Question does arise how does one know?
Identifying with brahman
Well! still even if you assume that it does not help much. You want to be brahman while you are awake. Advaita argues that follow your own method, every thing or any thing which is described above in all schools of thoughts or what ever be your religion, use it to identify your self with brahman. One method which they suggest is meditation. Meditation is essentially a process with which you are trying to become calm in other words you try to get out influence of maya. Suppose you think of identification with brahman during memoryless sleep, as identification because of darkness then blindness from maya (that is identification with Brahman) via meditation may be thought of as some thing because of a lot of light - some thing similar to blindness when suddenly you get into an area with light from a light-bulb of thousands of watt.
Satchidananda,Sthitaprajna- soul is essentially an alibi
Once you assume that the soul is the same as Brahaman it is also interesting to try to understand nature of soul and nature of person who has achieved true knowledge. It is argued by advaita that soul being Brahman is action-less, desire-less unchanging. It does not matter whether you are dead, alive, criminal, animal or even a stone. It does not matter what you are doing, it remains same. All the action desires etc. are due to maya and feeling you have under its influence. Soul is not affected by it. In other words soul is always with you but just doesn't do any thing, doesn't feel any thing. It is just with you all the time, Just an alibi for every thing. Understanding this itself may be getting quite close to understanding ultimate reality and identifying with it.
A person who has identified himself with brahman is unmoved by what ever happens. For him Scriptures etc. are useless. In fact Advaita argues that scriptures, rational arguments all other tools are useless moment you are convinced of ultimate reality - Brahman. Then it is just between you and Brahman. You have to just learn by mediation etc. to be calm to identify yourself with Brahman. It does not mean a person who understands Brahman becomes colorless or without a feeling. Getting identification with Brahman is said to make one Satchidanand- one with Pure Being (Sat), Consciousness-Force (Chit-Tapas), Bliss (Ananda). He is strong being in the state of Ananda (bliss or enjoyment) during this identification with brahman. A person, who is always in this state of being aware of brahman is called Sthitaprajna. Nothing will move such a person. He will be doing every thing, but will be at the same time detached from everything.
Krishna and Raja Janaka were sthitaprajna
Not many persons in Indian history have been identified as sthitaparjna. Perhaps Buddha or Mahavira in recent times may have been. Hindus have many gods and godesses and their avatars (reincarnations). Not many of them also have been identified as sthitaprajna. Two persons who have been clearly identified as sthitaprajna are Krishna and Raja Janaka (who lived much earlier than Krishna). Krishna was aware of him being brahman all the time. That does not mean he was calm or action-less. Indeed he was opposite. He is considered to be one of the most colorful personalities in Indian history and culture. He danced all the time with many pretty women (there is a festival called Navaratri during October-November, during which Indian girls and boys dance for nine days, all night with a very colorful style, in his memory) , he fought many wars. He preached in Bhagavad Gita- the knowledge about truth, in a very colorful manner and of all the places in a battleground, just before the battle called Mahabharata was going to start. He was at the same time very romantic and one of the best experts of Yoga. As far as I remember he is the only one in Indian cultural history or mythology, who showed his identification with Brahman and its strength in a public place in front of hundreds of people.
Exact translation of Sanskrit terms according to experts: Brahman is really "opening up which lets every thing arise or come-into- being"
I have used English terms for original Sanaskrit terms, which are commonly used in translation. I wanted to keep basic ideas simple. Though generally Indian philosophers and experts in these ancient philosophies are not happy about these equivalent terms. They insist that these terms do not describe exact meaning. It may seem hair splitting by experts. But some of it indeed may be important. Let me just describe a few examples.
Experts say Verbal forms rather than noun or adjective forms are more appropriate
First of all experts insist that almost all these terms originally in Sanskrit are meant to be sort of verbs. So for example they say that nothing changes for Brahman when we understand it or get a sudden glimpse of understanding. The change occurs in us . Even the knowledge of Brahman (the unique truth) was always with us. Just we did not allow ourselves to be aware about it. We have to open up our selves, allow our being to be clear visioned. This opening up should be to such an extent that we are in accord with the nature of Brahman. Then the truth with its entire reality (or Brahman) is reveled to us automatically, without our having to do any thing further.
With these ideas the term Brahman was defined. A little better description or translation of the term Brahman (remember even as I described above it includes both being and not-being) according to them is "opening up which lets every thing arise or come-into- being" or "allowing the self-unfolding to grow". Similarly exact translation of "Sat" according to them is not exactly just "pure being". Its actual meaning is "that which is in a state of being" and here "being" should be considered as verb and not noun, it should be considered as "occurrence of being". Thus it is "passing over from not being to being". In a way it includes both being and not being states together.
Brahman and Sat thus permit mysterious arising of "being" from "not being". This arising always originally occurs as some kind of illumination. This illumination is called by them "Chit". This 'emergent' illumination is 'free' and 'redemptive' opening up according to them. Hence it is also said about it that it is "ananda" (bliss). "Atman" is not exactly self or soul according to them. It is a partial manifestation of "Brahman". The word "Atman" translates to to "exhele" and "breathe". Thus "Atman" is rhythmically drawn in and drawn out like breath. It will be drawn in and drawn back to "Brahman" (while in deep sleep, when a person knows nothing more of his usual constitutive individually split-up finite nature ).
According to these experts when a person disciplines himself (via meditation, body disciplines, knowledge etc.) and reaches a state, a frame of mind and spirit which consists of highest concentration on the all sustaining immediate unveiled reality (unique truth) then the being of the person participates in full measure in that illumination. This illumination far surpasses thinking of a person who understands himself/herself as ego consciousness of a subject. If a person achieves this highest concentration of his/her possibilities of thought, then he/she recognizes that the idea of a human being as a limited, self contained, ego-centric subjectivity or personality is a restricted "Maya" bound distortion of reality, giving a false picture. This peculiar tendency to restrict oneself is called "ahankara (ego-maker)." The word "Maya" stems from root "ma" and "matri" which means "measure" or "mark off" (the word "meter" in English also has the same root). Thus according to these experts whenever measuring takes place, things are divided and subdivided, segmented, "Maya"- illusion occurs. It is due to this "Maya"-illusion that world can be seen only as agglomeration of measurable parts.
I hope this gives you all the abstract ideas of advaita vedanta. Let me now give some colors to it. Let us come back to Shankarachaya.
Shankaracharya is considered an amazing figure in cultural history of India. He lived just for 32 years. But in those 32 years he changed quite a bit, whole style of philosophical thinking in India. He wrote many books. He inspired many others to write summaries and books, expanding philosophical ideas in Upanishads, Vedas, Bhagavad Gita etc. He traveled all over India. He founded 4 mathas (some thing similar to Ashrams or temples, places of learning) in 4 corners of India. These mathas are still functioning as schools of learning. He revived back an old tradition of appointing in each of these mathas heads who are students of previous heads in one of them (Guru-Shishya Parmpara or student-teacher tradition). That tradition is still followed, not only in these organizations but also many other organizations. Thus he culturally sort of re-unified India after a long period by bringing back diversity, colors (of old stories etc., different paths), singing (he composed devotional songs which are still among most popular ones). He touched almost all aspects culture, life, religions, philosophies, arts while remaining aloof from every thing also as a person who had taken sanyasa (a person who takes snayasa renounces all worldly thoughts and desires, and spends the rest of his life in spiritual contemplation. That person develops vairāgya, or a state of dispassion and detachment from material life).
In his time Buddhism was very popular in India. He is said to be the person responsible for bringing back the old tradition of India of depending also on these ancient ideas from other schools apart from Buddhism. In India concepts like conversion or religious wars or forcing people to change religion etc., were unheard of before Europeans and Muslims came to India. Generally leaders of two schools of thought had a shastartha (a sort of verbal duel in which both leaders will argue their points and one, who lost the arguments had to follow and become part of the school of the winner). This Shankaracharya did all over India. He never lost.
Human Shapes of Gods and Goddesses
Another interesting aspect some people think is because of Shankaracharya is human shapes of many Gods and Goddesses. In ancient times many God and Goddesses represented nature, they often did not have human form. Now they have. Some people think that Shankaracharya popularized this change. He felt that human shape will help them to be popular.
Though he was considered to be one of the most wise persons, in his time in India, he was also very polite.
I like the story of his encounter with Chandala very much. The word Chandala was then used for a person who may be doing mostly labor type job, coming from a lower community and may not have gone through regular education. Here is the story
Shankaracharya and Chandala- encounter
One Summer noon in Varanasi, Shankaracharya after taking a bath in the holy Ganges was proceeding back with his disciples. The Great Acharya saw a Chandala, coming along with his dogs in his way. He told the Chandala “get away, get away - move away, move away”.
Chandala asked Shankaracharya
1. By saying ‘Move away, Move away’ do you wish to move matter from matter or you mean to separate spirit from the Spirit? You have established that the Absolute is everywhere - in you and me and yet you want me to get away from you as if I were different. Is it this body, built up of food that you wish to keep at a distance from that body which is also built up of food? Or do you wish to separate Pure Awareness which is present here from the same Awareness present there?
2. Does it make any difference to the sun when it is reflected in the waters of Ganges or in the dirty waters of the cesspools in the streets of Chandalas? Is there any difference in the space as such, be it in a golden pot or in a mud pot? In the self-existing ocean of Blissful Consciousness, in the inner self, where there are no waves of agitating thoughts, how can there be this great delusory distinction - this is a Brahmin and this is an untouchable?
Sankaracharya was shocked to hear such profound idea coming from the mouth of a dog-eater Chandala. He felt, "Lord Siva has assumed this form just to teach me a lesson". He bowed to the Chandala with respect and composed then and there five verses called the ‘Manisha Panchaka’. Every verse ends thus: “He who learnt to look on the phenomena in the light of Advaita, is my true Guru (teacher), be he a Chandala or be he a Brahmin”.
Verse 1. True knowledge is realization that man is not an object but Pure Consciousness that shines in all three states: wakefulness, dream sleep and deep sleep. The Pure Consciousness is the Witness, the Indweller in all bodies from the Creator brahman to an ant. The one who realizes this knowledge is my Guru, whether he is a Chandala or a brahmanna. This is my conviction.
Verse 2. I am brahmann, the Pure Consciousness appearing as this universe. My Avidya (ignorance/nescience) made of three Gunas (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas) has dreamt all this up. He who realizes this knowledge of the eternal, pure and supreme brahmann, is my Guru whether he is a Chandala or a brahmanna. This is my conviction.
(Sattva = virtue; Rajas = motion and passion; Tamas = darkness)
3. He who under the tutelage of his Guru has attained the realization that the whole universe is subject to destruction, meditates on brahmann constantly with tranquil and pure mind, burns his past and future sins in the fire of knowledge, and subjects himself and his body to Prarabdha karma. This is my conviction.
4. Animals, men and gods experience the pure consciousness as 'I.' The reflection (light) of the Pure Consciousness on the insentient mind, senses and body make them appear sentient. Objects come into perception because of this consciousness. The mind, the senses and the body conceal the Self, though they receive light from it. They are like the clouds hiding the sun. The Yogi who meditates on the Self is my Guru. This is my conviction.
5. The Self, being brahmann, is the eternal Ocean of Bliss. An infinitesimal fragment of that Bliss nurtures Indra and other gods. The sage attains realization by meditating on the Self with tranquil mind. He whose mind identifies with the Self is not only a knower of brahmann but brahmann Itself. His feet, irrespective of whose they are, are fit for worship even by Indra himself. This is my conviction.
Another person who in recent times influenced a lot of cultural aspects and popularized Advaita Vedanta is Swami Vivekananda. Just like Shankaracharya he lived for a very short period (1863-1902). But in this short span he had a big impact to change the whole style of cultural, social and religious aspects in India. I consider him and Gandhi to be responsible for bringing back quite a bit, some of the confidence lost in Indian style during British and Muslim rule period in India.
Can you show me God?
A story famous about Vivekananda is that he wanted to join some ashram to learn Indian religious aspects. He went to many gurus and asked them "can you show me god?" Only one Ramakrishna told him "Yes I can". He joined Ramakrishna's school. I do not know what he learnt there about god. Vivekananda had strictly forbidden every one from describing any mystical ideas or events associated with him. But he gave lectures all over world on Vedanta.
He had a dream. Seeing poverty and misery of people in India he had felt that only way to improve these conditions, is to have a modern school teaching Science and technology in every village in India. With this dream he sailed to USA with the idea that with his knowledge about India and lectures on it, he may be able collect and attract enough money to work towards this idea. He was perhaps the first one to use Indian philosophy knowledge as a tool to do some social work in India and to popularize some ancient Indian ideas in West as well as India. He was quite successful. He started the well known Ramakrishna Mission. It is still among the most strong social and cultural organizations in India.
Let me end discussion about Vivekananda with another popular story related with him. Almost certainly, not a true one but quite popular and I like it.
Walking on water
Once after returning from USA he was walking on the bank of some river in Bengal. One Monk came near him and asked him "You are waiting for boat to cross the river. With all your knowledge you have to wait. Look I can just cross", and he started walking on water. Then he came back to Vivekananda. Vivekananda asked him, "quite amazing! How much time you spent on learning this art?". The monk said "11 years". Vivekananda remarked," some thing which you can do by paying just a small coin to the boatman for that you wasted 11 years of your life?"
How did I learn about all these philosophical ideas
You might get a feeling that I must have taken some course in Indian religion or philosophy. That is not at all the style in India. You mostly learn about these abstract ideas also in stories which grandmother tells you and your mother or father explain a little more in your childhood. Lot of it may not have been even told. Mostly you listen to what elders are talking or stories you hear during a ritual being performed. Or a book, you may buy near a temple just for 10 rupees (about two dimes- these are not subsidized by temple etc. so people who sell them make money out of it). Most of those stories in such books are just local stories spread around from time immemorial. Many may not be true but they do have common themes. The concepts like truth- maya, brahman, one has to be detached to learn some thing etc. are quite visible in almost all aspects of Indian life, though they may practically never be stated in very abstract forms. That is how I learnt most of these aspects. It is enjoying to understand abstract concepts from books. But I feel the abstract concepts of philosophy often develop from the colors and pain/enjoyment of life.
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse was one book which I read during my first visit to USA. It had an exceptional influence on me and stimulated quite a bit some of my thinking. I was 25 then and mostly lost in my own research work and enjoying my stay in USA. The book is perhaps just about 90 pages. I started reading it at night and could not sleep until I finished it completely.
I was a little stunned initially. "Here I am about 25 but this guy who may have perhaps never visited even India understands philosophies and style of India much better than me." Though later I understood that my feeling was not up to mark. Herman Hesse had interest in Indian philosophies specially Buddhism for a long time. He did go through a lot of pain in his life. But I feel that he had developed a deep understanding about over all life, abstract concepts of these ideas, very early in his life. Such a person can understand concepts from anywhere very well. I read another one of his books, Demian which was written earlier. His deep understanding is quite visible in that one itself. I thought it was based on Greek/mid-eastern mythology of Abraxas etc. I learnt later that he was also influenced by the concept of Maya and Psychological ideas of Carl Jung (who was his friend).
Let me describe a little bit from Siddhartha. I think that explains in a very colorful way and a very satisfying style ideas from Advaita Vedanta. The book is also available for free on internet.
Siddhartha, the hero of the novel is a son of a sort of head priest. But he felt he can not get actual knowledge in his father's ashram. He leaves his home to join the ascetics with his companion Govinda. The two then set out in the search of truth and enlightenment. The story takes place around Gautama Buddha's time. Two friends reach Gautama Buddha's Sangha and listen to his lectures. They are highly impressed by the enlightened one (Gautama Buddha). His friend joins Gautama Buddha's Sangha. But Siddhartha feels enlightenment can not be learnt in this manner by verbal talks etc. from another person. He has to find his own path. Siddhartha goes from asceticism, to a very worldly life as a trader with a beautiful courtesan as lover, and back to asceticism as he attempts to achieve this goal. In the end he spends time with a boatman Vasudeva, who had a strange shine on his face and spoke very little. But he always directed Siddhartha to river for answers to any questions, "listen to the river". Siddhartha initially does not hear any thing.
Here are some of the excerpts of his conversations and thinking in the end. Just enjoy!
"Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the realisation, the knowledge, what wisdom actually was, what the goal of his long search was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think every moment, while living his life, the thought of oneness, to be able to feel and inhale the oneness. Slowly this blossomed in him, was shining back at him from Vasudeva's old, childlike face: harmony, knowledge of the eternal perfection of the world, smiling, oneness."
Vasudeva's listening gave Siddhartha a stronger sensation than ever before, he sensed how his pain, his fears flowed over to him, how his secret hope flowed over, came back at him from his counterpart. To show his wound to this listener was the same as bathing it in the river, until it had cooled and become one with the river. While he was still speaking, still admitting and confessing, Siddhartha felt more and more that this was no longer Vasudeva, no longer a human being, who was listening to him, that this motionless listener was absorbing his confession into himself like a tree the rain, that this motionless man was the river itself, that he was God himself, that he was the eternal itself."
"he realised that everything was in order and natural, that Vasudeva had already been like this for a long time, almost forever, that only he had not quite recognised it, yes, that he himself had almost reached the same state."
"When someone is searching," said Siddhartha, to Govinda "then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don't see, which are directly in front of your eyes."
Look, my dear Govinda, this is one of my thoughts, which I have found: wisdom cannot be passed on. Wisdom which a wise man tries to pass on to someone always sounds like foolishness."
Siddhartha bent down, picked up a stone from the ground, and weighed it in his hand.
"This," he said playing with it, "is a stone, and will, after a certain time, perhaps turn into soil, and will turn from soil into a plant or animal or human being. In the past, I would have said: This stone is just a stone, it is worthless, it belongs to the world of the Maja; but because it might be able to become also a human being and a spirit in the cycle of transformations, therefore I also grant it importance. Thus, I would perhaps have thought in the past. But today I think: this stone is a stone, it is also animal, it is also god, it is also Buddha, I do not venerate and love it because it could turn into this or that, but rather because it is already and always everything-- and it is this very fact, that it is a stone, that it appears to me now and today as a stone, this is why I love it and see worth and purpose in each of its veins and cavities, in the yellow, in the gray, in the hardness, in the sound it makes when I knock at it, in the dryness or wetness of its surface. There are stones which feel like oil or soap, and others like leaves, others like sand, and every one is special and prays the Om in its own way, each one is Brahman, but simultaneously and just as much it is a stone, is oily or juicy, and this is this very fact which I like and regard as wonderful and worthy of worship.--But let me speak no more of this. The words are not good for the secret meaning, everything always becomes a bit different, as soon as it is put into words, gets distorted a bit, a bit silly--yes, and this is also very good, and I like it a lot, I also very much agree with this, that this what is one man's treasure and wisdom always sounds like foolishness to another person."
"...I can love a stone, Govinda, and also a tree or a piece of bark. This are things, and things can be loved. But I cannot love words. Therefore, teachings are no good for me, they have no hardness, no softness, no colours, no edges, no smell, no taste, they have nothing but words. Perhaps it are these which keep you from finding peace, perhaps it are the many words. Because salvation and virtue as well, Sansara and Nirvana as well, are mere words, Govinda. There is no thing which would be Nirvana; there is just the word Nirvana."
Siddhartha continued: "A thought, it might be so. I must confess to you, my dear: I don't differentiate much between thoughts and words. To be honest, I also have no high opinion of thoughts. I have a better opinion of things...."
Autobiography of a Yogi-Yogananda Paramhans
While Herman Hesse's Siddartha is only an imaginary guy. Some experiences of Yogananda Paramhans are very interesting. He describes them in his very interesting book "An autobiography of a Yogi" (available for free on internet). His interesting book is full of mystical ideas as well as very abstract concepts. Let me end this discussion with quotes from his book about two of his visions. The first one was while he was meditating with the help of his guru. The second one was while he was meditating in a temple of Godess Kali. You decide yourself whether his visions are truth or manifestations.
My body became immovably rooted; breath was drawn out of my lungs as if by some huge magnet. Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage, and streamed out like a fluid piercing light from my every pore. The flesh was as though dead, yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body, but embraced the circumambient atoms. People on distant streets seemed to be moving gently over my own remote periphery. The roots of plants and trees appeared through a dim transparency of the soil; I discerned the inward flow of their sap.
The whole vicinity lay bare before me. My ordinary frontal vision was now changed to a vast spherical sight, simultaneously all-perceptive. Through the back of my head I saw men strolling far down Rai Ghat Road, and noticed also a white cow who was leisurely approaching. When she reached the space in front of the open ashram gate, I observed her with my two physical eyes. As she passed by, behind the brick wall, I saw her clearly still.
All objects within my panoramic gaze trembled and vibrated like quick motion pictures. My body, Master's, the pillared courtyard, the furniture and floor, the trees and sunshine, occasionally became violently agitated, until all melted into a luminescent sea; even as sugar crystals, thrown into a glass of water, dissolve after being shaken. The unifying light alternated with materializations of form, the metamorphoses revealing the law of cause and effect in creation.
An oceanic joy broke upon calm endless shores of my soul. The Spirit of God, I realized, is exhaustless Bliss; His body is countless tissues of light. A swelling glory within me began to envelop towns, continents, the earth, solar and stellar systems, tenuous nebulae, and floating universes. The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being. The sharply etched global outlines faded somewhat at the farthest edges; there I could see a mellow radiance, ever-undiminished. It was indescribably subtle; the planetary pictures were formed of a grosser light.
The divine dispersion of rays poured from an Eternal Source, blazing into galaxies, transfigured with ineffable auras. Again and again I saw the creative beams condense into constellations, then resolve into sheets of transparent flame. By rhythmic reversion, sextillion worlds passed into diaphanous luster; fire became firmament.
I cognized the center of the empyrean as a point of intuitive perception in my heart. Irradiating splendor issued from my nucleus to every part of the universal structure. Blissful amrita, the nectar of immortality, pulsed through me with a quicksilverlike fluidity. The creative voice of God I heard resounding as Aum,1 the vibration of the Cosmic Motor.
Suddenly the breath returned to my lungs. With a disappointment almost unbearable, I realized that my infinite immensity was lost.
First, a delightful cold wave descended over my back and under my feet, banishing all discomfort. Then, to my amazement, the temple became greatly magnified. Its large door slowly opened, revealing the stone figure of Goddess Kali. Gradually it changed into a living form, smilingly nodding in greeting, thrilling me with joy indescribable. As if by a mystic syringe, the breath was withdrawn from my lungs; my body became very still, though not inert.
An ecstatic enlargement of consciousness followed. I could see clearly for several miles over the Ganges River to my left, and beyond the temple into the entire Dakshineswar precincts. The walls of all buildings glimmered transparently; through them I observed people walking to and fro over distant acres.
Though I was breathless and my body in a strangely quiet state, yet I was able to move my hands and feet freely. For several minutes I experimented in closing and opening my eyes; in either state I saw distinctly the whole Dakshineswar panorama.
Spiritual sight, x-raylike, penetrates into all matter; the divine eye is center everywhere, circumference nowhere. I realized anew, standing there in the sunny courtyard, that when man ceases to be a prodigal child of God, engrossed in a physical world indeed dream, baseless as a bubble, he reinherits his eternal realms. If "escapism" be a need of man, cramped in his narrow personality, can any escape compare with the majesty of omnipresence?
In my sacred experience at Dakshineswar, the only extraordinarily-enlarged objects were the temple and the form of the Goddess. Everything else appeared in its normal dimensions, although each was enclosed in a halo of mellow lightwhite, blue, and pastel rainbow hues. My body seemed to be of ethereal substance, ready to levitate. Fully conscious of my material surroundings, I was looking about me and taking a few steps without disturbing the continuity of the blissful vision.
The all-embracing vision disappeared.
Some months after writing this article, I started to study basic details of this model of universe involving Maya and Brahman etc. built by philosophers of Advaita Vedanta School, which I vaguely described above, in a series of articles on speaking tree website. The final language to describe the model uses mainly usual rational style, putting clearly axioms and basic concepts and giving reasons from observations, why should one have such axioms and then deducing statements from those. I am giving here link for the starting point of that series -part III (part I and II are more about History in India how this study started and a description of what I may do).
Pictures taken from the following links