Thursday, December 24, 2020

Plato’s Demiurge, Aristotle’s Prime Mover

There is a difference in the way Plato and Aristotle philosophize about the divine principle which creates and maintains the universe. Plato says that the original creator of the universe is a world-architect. Aristotle says that the original creator is a world-mover. In his dialogue Timaeus, Plato uses the word “Demiurge” to refer to the God who designs and builds the universe from the preexisting chaos. In Physics and Metaphysics, Aristotle argues that the prime mover is the first uncaused cause of the universe. Plato’s cosmology is grounded in architecture and craftsmanship, and Aristotle's cosmology in motion and action. Thus, Plato is inclined towards idealism, and Aristotle towards materialism.

The Complex Foundation of Primitive Societies

The Stone Age cultures were not simple; they were built on a complex foundation of systems of beliefs and norms of behavior. The notion of supernatural forces predates religious theory; practical politics predates political theory; the codes of morality and acceptable behavior predate moral theory; spoken language, predates the rules of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary; creation of various forms of art, predates the theory of aesthetics. Theory does not precede action. The theory of every subject is developed centuries or even several millennia after the subject has been acted upon and turned into a fundamental feature of human existence. Every philosophical idea is developed in a social and political context which is a creation of the men of action.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

A Brief Picture of Man’s Journey From Objectivity to Subjectivity

Objectivity is the natural condition for all creatures on this planet, including man. The pre-civilizational man was naturally objective. He lacked the power to introspect and examine the essence of his being. The outside world was all that he could sense. It is not clear how the first mythological stories got created, but these stories inspired the rise of all kinds of cults and quasi-religious movements which first led to the rise of the first tribal communities and then to the city-states. The first philosophical theories were born in these primitive tribal communities and city-states. Now man’s mind was being torn between the objective and the subjective. Along with the outside world, there was a second world that he could sense. This was the world inside him, the world of his being. He was now capable of introspecting, rationalizing, judging and, in the case of some men of advanced intellect, doubting what his senses were telling him about the outside world. Through the conflict between objectivity and subjectivity man’s mind kept evolving. In a few thousand years, man became capable of creating modern civilization.

The Dating of the Ancient Hindu Texts

The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Mahabharata, and many other ancient Hindu texts cannot be dated by using conventional historical methods. In his 1899 book The six systems of Indian philosophy, Max Muller writes, “Whatever may be the date of the Vedic hymns, whether 1500 B.C.E. or 15,000 B.C.E., they have their own unique place and stand by themselves in the literature of the world. They tell us something of the early growth of the human mind of which we find no trace anywhere else.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

On Derrida’s Reading

In the 2003 documentary film Derrida, there is a scene in which the film’s director Amy Ziering Kofman is asking Jacques Derrida, “Have you read all the books in here?” (She was referring to Derrida’s large personal library.) Derrida’s answer: “No, only four of them. But I read those very, very carefully.”

Monday, December 21, 2020

Machiavelli on Savonarola, the Unarmed Prophet

In the 1490s, Girolamo Savonarola launched his movement for religious purity in Florence, a city-state that had prospered under the rule of the Medici family. From the enthusiastic response that his sermons received from the Florentines, Savonarola was convinced that he could mobilize the masses and capture power in Florence and the rest of Italy. The first part of his plan was to drive the Medici out of Florence. 

To weaken the Medici, Savonarola declared a war on their greatest achievement: art. He declared that the art that the Medici were patronizing—these works of art included female and male nudes—was a sign of Florentine decadence and debauchery. His followers started rampaging through the mansions, museums, and gardens to find and destroy the debauched art that Savonarola had condemned. The climax of the anti-art movement came on 7 February 1497, a day known as the “bonfire of the vanities”. On this day, in the center of Florence, Savonarola’s followers burned works of art, literature, and things like mirrors, cards, dice, musical instruments, luxurious garments, and ornaments. 

But the “bonfire of the vanities” proved to be the climax of Savonarola’s political career. He was excommunicated by the Pope on 12 May 1497. Being excommunicated, he lost his credibility and the Florentines turned against him. He was executed on 23 May 1498.

In chapter six of his book, The Prince, Machiavelli notes that Savonarola failed because he was an unarmed prophet, unlike Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus who were armed. Machiavelli writes: “If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long—as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.”

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Search for the God of Atheists

The western atheists, armed with Enlightenment intellectualism (which smacks of scientism) and Jacobin revolutionary zeal (which seeks to spill rivers of blood for creating a utopia), abandoned God in the eighteenth century. Since then they have been trying to find someone that they can put in God’s place. In the eighteenth century, they tried Voltaire, Rousseau, and Robespierre. In the nineteenth century, they tried Hegel, Marx, and Engels. In the twentieth century, they tried Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. But these human gods failed to serve as a replacement for the god of paradise. Now we are in the twenty-first century, and the atheists are still questing for an answer to the eighteenth century question: “Who will occupy the space vacated by God?”

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Nature of Philosophy

Ninety percent of the good philosophy is translation, exposition, expansion, or refutation of the philosophy of the great philosophers of the past. A learned philosopher would know that the edifice of new philosophy stands on the giant shoulders of the past philosophers, and he would accept as his first duty the task of interpreting the works of those philosophers who precede him in the areas of philosophy that are of significance to him.

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Subtle Coup d’état of 21st Century

The time when tyrants used to seize power by taking control of a nation’s military and police is long gone. The coup d'état of twenty-first century does not happen with the intrusion of armed troops, tanks, and fighter planes into the capital city. If you want to seize power in a nation, you take control of its mainstream media; its academia; its big businesses which operate in critical areas like healthcare, art, banking, and digital services; its local community organizations; and its key bureaucracies. In this kind of coup d’état, the transfer of power to the invading political faction happens in a subtle and underhand way. Most people, even those in the government, do not realize, until it is too late, that their way of life is being stolen.

Wisdom is Wiser than Technical Philosophy

Wisdom that comes from practical experience is far more important than technical philosophy which comes from rationalizations and abstractions. Much of twentieth century philosophy is a failure because it is too technical and lacking in practical wisdom. The irony of the twentieth century is that in this period, probably for the first time in history, the non-philosophers, the men of action, started appearing wiser than the philosophers.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Intellectuals and Barbarians: Poison and Medicine

The boundary between medicine and poison is tenuous. The Ancient Greeks used the term “pharmakon” to describe both medicine and poison—closely aligned to “pharmakon” is the Greek term for ritual sacrifice of human victims: “Pharmakos”. In the pharmakos ritual, the Greeks would sacrifice human victims to provide a healing touch (medicine) to their society in the time of a great calamity (famine, plague, civil war, or invasion). The poison-medicine analogy can be used for the intellectuals and barbarians. The intellectuals believe that with their ideas they are protecting (healing) society from the poison of barbarism. But the boundary between intellectuals and barbarians is tenuous. Most intellectuals are barbarians in disguise. Many of those whom they brand as the barbarians are the real intellectuals. History tells us that every great empire is forged by people of barbaric passions and energy, and the decline of a great empire happens when it becomes stable and prosperous and the over-educated and pampered (intellectualized) progeny of the barbarian founders inherit the empire.

Krishna’s First Line in the Mahabharata

Krishna speaks his first line in the Mahabharata in the Adi Parva (Swayamvara Parva) section—the venue is the royal palace where Draupadi’s svayamvara (the ceremony in which a girl of royal bloodline and marriageable age selects her husband from a group of eligible suitors) has been organized. To test the skill, strength, and divine powers of the contestants at the svayamvara, King Draupada, Draupadi’s father, has arranged a device in which a fish revolves above a pool of water. The contestants must string a steel bow, and, while looking into the pond where a reflection of the revolving fish is visible, shoot the fish in the eye with a steel arrow. The one who manages to accomplish this superhuman feat wins Draupadi’s hand in marriage. The five Pandava brothers have arrived at the ceremony disguised as Brahmin priests. When all the contestants fail to string the steel bow and hit the target (or have been disqualified for being lowborn, like Karna), one of the Pandava bothers, Arjuna, picks up the steel bow. He strings it with ease and with gaze fixed on the reflection in the pond, he shoots the steel arrow, which hits the target, the fish’s eye. The kings, princes, demigods, and saints who have arrived at the svayamvara are infuriated to see that a man, who is attired like a Brahmin priest, has managed to accomplish the feat at which all of them have failed. They blame King Draupada for humiliating them by allowing an unknown Brahmin priest to be the winner of the svayamvara. They rush forward to kill him. But to get to King  Draupada they have to pass through the Pandava brothers. 

Here’s an excerpt from the translation of the verses which describe the struggle between the Pandava brothers and their rivals at Draupadi’s svayamvara:

“Then the monarchs with gloved fingers and upraised weapons rushed in anger at the Kuru princes, Bhima and Arjuna, to slay them. Then the mighty Bhima of extraordinary achievements, endued with the strength of thunder, tore up like an elephant a large tree and divested it of its leaves. And with that tree, the strong-armed Bhima, the son of Pritha, that grinder of foes, stood, like unto the mace-bearing king of the dead (Yama) armed with his fierce mace, near Arjuna that bull amongst men. And beholding that feat of his brother, Jishnu of extraordinary intelligence, himself also of inconceivable feats, wondered much. And equal unto Indra himself in achievements, shaking off all fear he stood with his bow ready to receive those assailants.”

At this point, Krishan speaks his first line in the Mahabharata. He is addressing his brother, Balarama, who is pointing out Bhima and Arjuna:

“And beholding those feats of both Jishnu and his brother, Damodara (Krishna) of superhuman intelligence and inconceivable feats, addressing his brother, Halayudha (Valadeva) of fierce energy, said, 'That hero there, of tread like that of a mighty lion, who draweth the large bow in his hand four full cubits in length, is Arjuna! There is no doubt, O Sankarshana, about this, if I am Vasudeva. That other hero who having speedily torn up the tree hath suddenly become ready to drive off the monarchs is Vrikodara! For no one in the world, except Vrikodara, could today perform such a feat in the field of battle. And that other youth of eyes like unto lotus-petals, of full four cubits height, of gait like that of a mighty lion, and humble withal, of fair complexion and prominent and shining nose, who had, a little before, left the amphitheatre, is Dharma's son (Yudhishthira). The two other youths, like unto Kartikeya, are, I suspect, the sons of the twin Aswins. I heard that the sons of Pandu along with their mother Pritha had all escaped from the conflagration of the house of lac.' Then Halayudha of complexion like unto that of clouds uncharged with rain, addressing his younger brother (Krishna), said with great satisfaction, 'O, I am happy to hear, as I do from sheer good fortune, that our father's sister Pritha with the foremost of the Kaurava princes have all escaped (from death)!’"

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Divine is Compassionless

The man who expects the Divine to be compassionate is a sinner who expects the Divine to break His own laws. The notion that the Divine is compassionate is a falsehood propagated by the morally degenerate and theologically ignorant religious authorities who want to gain power by selling compassion to the gullible and frightened sinners. The Divine is not compassionate; His standard of justice is immutable. Chance events are possible, but miracles are not.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Fall of Modernity (Umberto Eco’s Words)

“In the past men were handsome and great (now they are children and dwarfs), but this is merely one of the many facts that demonstrate the disaster of an aging world. The young no longer want to study anything, learning is in decline, the whole world walks on its head, blind men lead others equally blind and cause them to plunge into the abyss, birds leave the nest before they can fly, the jackass plays the lyre, oxen dance. Mary no longer loves the contemplative life, and Martha no longer loves the active life, Leah is sterile, Rachel has a carnal eye, Cato visits brothels, Lucretius becomes a women. Everything is on the wrong path.” ~ Umberto Eco’s description of fourteenth century Europe (in his novel The Name of the Rose). Eco's words can be used to describe the dilemma of modernity. Decades of easy life has imbued people in the major democracies with the notion that the good times will last forever and that it is their birthright to live in a free, prosperous, and stable society. This has turned them into children and dwarfs. They are no longer capable of being handsome and great, and the fate of their civilization is uncertain.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Definition of a Philosopher

I define a philosopher as a man who is moved solely by the desire for the truth, and by the suspicion—which inculcates in him wisdom and the humility which comes with wisdom—that the truth is not what appears to him at this moment.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Veda Vyasa and the Writing of the Mahabharata

Veda Vyasa is the prolific thinker, compiler, and composer of Hindu mythology and philosophy. He classified (“vyasa” means classified) the four Vedas. This explains his name Veda Vyasa. He is the composer of the epic Mahabharata. According to traditional accounts, his composition of the Mahabharata contained 100000 verses, but the extant editions of the Mahabharata do not contain that many verses. The critical edition of the Mahabharata, developed by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), contains around 89000 verses (excluding the Harivamsa). 

After finishing the Mahabharata, Veda Vyasa became engaged with compiling the eighteen Maha Puranas which contain 400000 verses. Another name of Veda Vyasa is Krishna Dvaipayana—the term “Krishna” in his name indicates that he was dark skinned, and the term “Dvaipayana” indicates he was born on an island (“Dvaipa” means island). 

In some versions of the Mahabharata, it is stated that since Veda Vyasa was intimately acquainted with all the characters in the epic, he was asked by Lord Brahma to write the story. Vyasa said that the story was long and complex, and he would require the assistance of a scribe. Lord Brahma then suggested the name of Lord Ganesha. But Lord Ganesha said that he would accept the task on one condition: Vyasa would have to dictate without any break. 

To ensure that his composing of the verses would match the speed of Lord Ganesha’s swift writing, Vyasa put forward the counter-condition that Lord Ganesha would write only after he grasped the meaning of the verses. After every few verses, Vyasa would throw a difficult verse and in the time that it took for Lord Ganesha to grasp its meaning, Vyasa would compose the several new verses in his mind. This explains why the Mahabharata verses are a mix of easy and difficult ones.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Fearsome Mainstream Media

There is no doubt that the mainstream media is warlike, polemical, and fearsome. Most popular journalists are not impartial reporters. They are the frontline fighters for the political and financial establishment. Their real job is to conceal the  establishment’s misdeeds from the public and disseminate the establishment’s propaganda. Those who rely solely on the newspapers and TV to keep abreast of current events know nothing except lies and propaganda.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Vampires and the Political Cabal

The vampires feed on human blood but they get vaporized in sunlight. They can hunt and thrive only in the darkness. The counterpart of the vampires in the real world is the cabal of corrupt politicians, crony capitalists, and nihilist intellectuals—they too feed on human blood; they too thrive in the darkness, when there is lack of transparency. Sunlight is the mortal enemy of the vampires, and transparency is the mortal enemy of the cabal. The vampires cannot stop the sun from rising. During daytime, they hide indoors, in caves, forests, or their castles. But if the members of the cabal win in the elections, they gain the power to destroy transparency by subverting the freedom of the people and corrupting the legal and administrative systems. The vampires are not real; the cabal is a reality in every nation.

The Quest for Mathematical Philosophy: Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant

Descartes and Spinoza believed that by following the mathematical method, philosophy would achieve its historical destiny, and provide the certain answers to the metaphysical questions which have been with mankind since ancient times. Kant desired to follow the path of Descartes and Spinoza—though he did not use the mathematical method, he was hopeful that mathematics, science, and philosophy could come together in a “historical singularity” which would create a knowledge revolution. He believed that through mathematics and science, the scope of philosophy could become limitless and infinite possibilities could be created for mankind. 

In his Preface to the Second Edition of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes: 

“In the earliest times to which the history of human reason extends, mathematics, among that wonderful people, the Greeks, had already entered upon the sure path of science. But it must not be supposed that it was as easy for mathematics as it was for logic in which reason has to deal with itself alone to light upon, or rather to construct for itself, that royal road. On the contrary, I believe that it long remained, especially among the Egyptians, in the groping stage, and that the transformation must have been due to a revolution brought about by the happy thought of a single man, the experiment which he devised marking out the path upon which the science must enter, and by following which, secure progress throughout all time and in endless expansion is infallibly secured.”

In the same paragraph, after a few sentences, he writes: 

“A new light flashed upon the mind of the first man (be he Thales or some other) who demonstrated the properties of the isosceles triangle. The true method, so he found, was not to inspect what he discerned either in the figure, or in the bare concept of it, and from this, as it were, to read off its properties; but to bring out what was necessarily implied in the concepts that he had himself formed a priori, and had put into the figure in the construction by which he presented it to himself.”

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Heidegger’s Fundamental Question

Heidegger’s book What is called thinking? is based on a lecture course that he gave in 1951 and 1952. He was looking at the problem of thinking since the 1920s. In the book on which his reputation stands, Being and Time (1927), the fundamental question that he tries to answer is: What is it to think? He fails to answer this question. His question is unanswerable, because it is not possible to comprehend the process of thinking when the self itself is identified through the process of thinking, and the process of thinking is the sole method of gaining knowledge. To know what it is to think, man must first transcend the process of thinking and find another way of identifying his own self and gaining knowledge—but this is not possible.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Philosophers and Their Methods of Philosophizing

Philosophers use various methods to express their philosophy. The dialogue is the oldest method, used by the ancient Greek thinkers like Socrates and Plato. Aristotle does not use the dialogue method—his philosophy comes in the form of lecture notes. Several works of Hegel and Heidegger are in the form of lecture notes. Parmenides and Lucretius use the poetic method. Descartes and Spinoza use the mathematical method. Augustine uses the autobiographical method. In the modern age, some philosophers have devoted years, or even decades, of their life to develop a system of philosophy. Kant’s three Critiques and his works on ethics constitute a philosophical system. Hegel has produced systematic philosophy through multiple works. Schopenhauer devoted much of his life to producing a single work of systematic philosophy, The World as Will and Representation. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness too is a work of systematic philosophy. Cicero, Aquinas, Bacon, Machiavelli, Leibniz, and Rousseau have produced long essays and books, but their work is not systematized—the same is the case with the works of philosophers like MacIntyre and Strauss. Seneca, Aurelius, Voltaire, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Russell, Wittgenstein, Camus, Derrida, and Foucault have philosophized through long and short essays. Several incomplete philosophical works have become immensely influential: for example, Plato’s Critias, Pascal’s Pensées, Marx’s Capital, Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Kant’s Notion of Transcendental Apperception

What we presuppose to know about a thing is not known to us as a thing. This means that the presuppositions of empirical experience are not empirical—they are transcendental. Immanuel Kant’s view of the mind is based on his notion of transcendental apperception, which is not the same as his transcendental idealism. 

Apperception is the mind’s capacity to judge according to rule. Without apperception, perception cannot happen. The act of perception runs parallel to the act of apperception. To perceive a thing, the mind must make a judgment based on certain rules—this is the act of apperception. Transcendental apperception is the mind’s ability to tie together all experience. It implies a unity of the self; the self itself appears as a thing that can be perceived as other things outside the self. Transcendental unity of apperception represents the junction at which the perception of the self and the perception of the things undergo a synthesis—the synthesis is made possible by the categories which unite the self and the things that are being perceived. (Kant uses the terms “unity of consciousness” and “unity of apperception” interchangeably and it seems to mean that a man is consciousness of not just one experience but of many experiences.) 

Without transcendental unity of apperception, knowledge would be impossible, since we cannot be aware of even the passage of time, an attribute which lies at the root of all experience, and thereby, all knowledge.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The Pitfalls of Total Freedom

The anarchists demand “total freedom”—freedom from all legal, moral, and political constraints. To be free from everything is to be alienated from the national culture and be nothing. A man who is nothing can have no values. He cannot have freedom as a value and he is easily enslaved. Thus, the anarchist ideology of “total freedom” has nothing to do with freedom as a value. It is an ideology of total enslavement, or fascism and nihilism. Freedom is a value within the framework of a national culture. If it is made to transcend the nation's culture, then it ceases to be a value and becomes a fascistic and nihilistic force which leads to the degradation of all values (legal, moral, and political).

On Vedic and Upanishadic Philosophy

The Vedic Samhitas, especially the Upanishads, can be seen as mankind’s first attempt to develop a theory of the universe and a theory of the moral principles on which virtuous men should ground their way of life. These texts do not offer systematic philosophy or experimental science. They are the outpourings of the philosophical minds which desired to understand how humanity fits into the structure of the universe and tried to find the answers to the fundamental questions of metaphysics, ethics, and politics. These fundamental questions remain unanswered to this day.

Monday, December 7, 2020

On The Anu-Gita

The Anu-Gita, a treatise on Dharma (morality, ethics, righteousness), is embedded in the Mahabharata’s Ashvamedhika Parva. The Sanskrit term “Anu” is translated as "continuation, alongside, subordinate to”—thus, the title “Anu-Gita” can be regarded as a continuation to the Gita (the Bhagavad Gita) which is embedded in the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata. Here’s a passage from the Anu-Gita which asserts that knowledge is the only value that is endless:

Days end with the sun’s setting, and nights with the sun’s rising;
the end of pleasure is always sorrow, and the end of sorrow is always pleasure.
All associations have dissociations for their end, and life has death for its end;
All action ends in destruction, and all that is born certainly dies.
Everything is transient, everything ends;
Only of knowledge, there is no end.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Story of Dushyanta and Shakuntala

In the Mahabharata, the story of Dushyanta, king of Hastinapur, and Shakuntala, daughter of Rishi Vishwamitra and the apsara (angel) Menaka, is described in the Adi Parva (Sambhava Upa-parva) section. Dushyanta is on a tour in the forest. He reaches Rishi Kanva’s hermitage where he encounters Shakuntala who is a great beauty. For the king, it is love at first sight. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange between Dushyanta and Shakuntala:

Dushyanta said to Shakuntala: “Marry me according to the Gandharva form, for this form of marriage is said to be the best.”
Shakuntala: “O king, my father has gone from the hermitage to collect fruits. Kindly wait for a moment. He will bestow me upon you.”
Dushyanta: “O beautiful lady, O faultless beauty, I desire you yourself should accept me. Know that I exist for you. Know also, my heart is completely in you, One is certainly one's own friend, one can certainly depend on one's own self, Therefore, according to the ordinance (scriptures), you yourself should bestow your own self on others.”

Dushyanta and Shakuntala have a Gandharva marriage (in Hindu law, Gandharva marriage is contracted by mutual consent and without formal rituals). Soon it is time for Dushyanta to leave for Hastinapur. Before departing, he gave Shakuntala his ring as a proof of their marriage, and promised that he would return to take her to his kingdom. 

One day, Rishi Durvasa, known for his temper, arrives at the hermitage.  Shakuntala was engaged in thinking about Dushyanta and she forgets to serve food to Durvasa. In a fit of anger, Durvasa cursed Shakuntala that the man, whose thoughts had filled her mind, would forget her. Shakuntala was shocked; she pleaded for mercy. Durvasa relented and proclaimed that her man would remember her when she showed him the proof of their marriage.   

After that Shakuntala left for Hastinapur, carrying with her the ring that Dushyanta had given her. She hoped that Dushyanta would remember her when she showed him the ring. But on the way she had an accident and a fish swallowed the ring. Now Shakuntala had no proof of her marriage with Dushyanta. When she reached Dushyanta's court in Hastinapur, he could not recognize her. But a sage who had managed to recover the ring from the fish arrived at the king’s court. Once Dushyanta saw the ring, his memory was rekindled and he remembered Shakuntala. 

There was a royal marriage between Dushyanta and Shakuntala, who became the queen of Hastinapur. Their son Bharata becomes the founder of the Kuru Dynasty and the ancestor of the Pandava and the Kaurava clans.

The Banana Peel Republics

The confused and disorderly manner in which America has conducted its elections, makes it seem like a banana republic. If this country becomes an actual banana republic, then what happens to the nations which have traditionally enjoyed the status of banana republics. Their standards would decline further. They might be known as the banana peel republics. When America becomes the world’s banana republic, banana peel is all that will be left for the traditional banana republics. But America would continue to be the superpower, since a banana would always rank higher than a banana peel.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Victory Often Comes to the Lying Side

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” ~ Mark Twain

More than hundred years after Twain, in our time, thanks to digital technologies, a lie can travel around the world several times while truth is putting on its shoes. The standards for assessing the available evidence are probably poorer today than in the time of Twain. Falsehoods are now far easier to propagate in a world that is connected by the Internet. Those who control the information flow on the Internet (political establishments, media houses, tech companies, and academics) possess the power to sell any lie and subvert any moral norm.

Draupadi’s Rejection of Karna: from Ramesh Chandra Dutt’s Mahabharata

In his poetic translation of the Mahabharata called The Mahabharata: The Epic of Ancient India, Romesh Chunder Dutt (1848 – 1909) gives an account of Draupadi’s svayamvara (the ceremony in which a girl of royal bloodline and marriageable age selects a husband from a group of eligible suitors). Draupadi rejects Karna by declaring that she would not wed a lowborn—thus, Karna was denied the opportunity to prove his talent in archery.

Here’s an excerpt from Dutt’s translation:

"Uprose Karna‚ peerless archer, proudest of the archers he, And he went and strung the weapon, fixed the arrows gallantly,

Stood like Surya in his splendor and like Agni in his flame,— 
Pandu's sons in terror whispered, Karna sure must hit the aim!

But in proud and queenly accents Drupad's queenly daughter said: 'Monarch's daughter, born a Kshatra, Suta's son I will not wed.’

Karna heard with crimsoned forehead, left the emprise almost done, Left the bow already circled, silent gazed upon the Sun!"

Friday, December 4, 2020

The First Verse of the Mahabharata

The critical edition of the Mahabharata, compiled by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), is collated from 1,259 ancient manuscripts and consists of 18 Parvas and 73,787 verses (excluding the Harivamsa). 

The Institute began its project for creating a critical edition on 1 April 1919 and the project was completed on 22 September 1966. The work on Harivamsa took another five years, and was completed in November, 1971. With Harivamsa, the text consists of 79,860 verses. It is said that the original composition of Veda Vyasa contained 100,000 verses.

Here’s the opening mantra of the Mahabharata: 

नारायणं नमस्कृत्य नरं चैव नरोत्तमम्
देवीं सरस्वतीं चैव ततो जयम् उदीरयेत् 

Om! Having bowed down to Narayana and Nara, the most exalted male being,
and also to the goddess Saraswati, must the word Jaya (victory) be uttered.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Theism and Liberty

"What light is to the eyes—what air is to the lungs—what love is to the heart, Liberty is to the soul of man." ~ Robert Ingersoll’s famous observation. In our time, most educated folks would reject this view of liberty because they are atheists. They do not believe in the existence of the divine and the soul. Liberty is a value within the framework of the moral values which are derived from the religious teachings. Outside the framework of religious moral values, liberty is destructive. Ingersoll was an agnostic. I can empathize with agnosticism—since the divine is unknown and unknowable but religion, which is founded on the desire to approach the divine, is tangible; its theological philosophy can be a tool for personal and social growth. To reject religion altogether, when you belong to a culture whose religious tradition stretches back to more than two thousand five hundred years, is to reject all of past intellectualism and tradition—all philosophy, science, political theory, and art—and embrace moral nihilism and political corruption.

The Concept of Svayambhu

Every effect has a cause. An unending series of causes has led to the world of plurality that exists today. But in philosophy, we have to theorize about the first cause. Aristotle theorized that the universe began with the Prime Mover, which is itself uncaused. In Hindu philosophy, the concept of Svayambhu is used to describe the first cause. While every effect has a cause, Svayambhu is uncaused by any cause other than itself. “Svayambhu” is a Sanskrit word created from two terms: “svayam,” which means self; “bhu,” which means manifested or arising. Thus Svayambhu is generally translated as "self-manifested", "self-existing", or "created by its own accord”. In the Vedic and Puranic texts, there are the descriptions of the rise of Svayambhu Manu, who is the first man. Some verses describe Krishna as Svayambhu, the self-manifested.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Concept of “Sat-cid-ananda”

In the Vedanta tradition, the Brahman, who is the unchanging reality or the prime mover and creator of the universe, is related to the concept of “sat-cid-ananda”—“sat” means being, existence, or truth; “cid” means consciousness or awareness; “ananda” means happiness, joy, or bliss. Thus “sat-cid-ananda” can be translated as being, consciousness, and bliss. The references to these three attributes of the Brahman can be found in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chandogya Upanishad, Taittiriya Upanishad, and other ancient texts. There are several theistic traditions which relate “sat-cid-ananda” to Vishnu, Shiva, and Krishna. Since the Vedanta traditions are mostly monistic, they relate “sat-cid-ananda” to the Brahman.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Metaphysics of Shankara and Kant

There are parallels between the metaphysical thoughts of Shankara, the philosopher and theologian of Advaita Vedanta, who is generally placed in the 7th century AD (some scholars place him in the 5th century BC), and the eighteenth century German Philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant has theorized that reality has two components: the phenomenal world and the noumenal world. The first is the world that we perceive (the world that exists inside our own minds and can be experienced); the second is the world of things outside our own minds (this is the world of things as they really are, but our mind lacks the capacity to comprehend this world). Shankara divides the reality into two categories: Vyavaharika and Paramarthika—the first is the reality that corresponds to our phenomenal experiences and exists inside our own mind; the second is the reality of what truly exists, which is the Brahman, the ultimate mover and creator of the universe, that encompasses everything that exists. Shankara’s two categories of reality are meant to establish his monistic and religious position of one ultimate reality consisting of the Bahaman. Kant is not openly a monistic (though there are traces of monism in his thought)—his focus is on developing a secular interpretation of reality.

The Philosophical Mind Versus the Non-philosophical Mind

It cannot be philosophically demonstrated that things exist outside the perceivers mind and that the information gathered by the senses is an accurate picture of reality. A non-philosophical mind is never plagued with doubts about the reality of existence—it plays the game of life without questioning the senses. It is only the philosophical mind that is capable of doubting the senses and treating existence with skepticism. A philosophical mind is a rare entity. Majority of the people are non-philosophical—they plunge headlong into the game of living the life of laborers, farmers, soldiers, scientists, businessmen, politicians, etc., without being plagued with philosophical doubt. Philosophical doubt is a trait of the philosophical minds.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Gaudapada and Buddhism

The Advaita Vedanta philosopher Gaudapada has used words like “Buddha,” “Asparsayoga,” and “Agrayana” in a few verses in his Māṇdūkya Kārikā which is a metrical commentary on the Māṇdūkya Upaniṣad—this has led many scholars to suggest that Gaudapada was either influenced by Mahayana Buddhism or was a Buddhist philosopher. But this is denied by the scholars of the Advaita Vedanta school. They assert that Gaudapada is not referring to the traditional founder of Buddhism when he uses the word “Buddha.” He is denoting the knower of the truth. 

On the usage of “Asparsayoga,” they say that this term is not the same as the Buddhist concept of “Nirvana”— “Asparsayoga” in Advaita Vedanta tradition means the state of bliss that is achieved when there is no contact (no sparsa) of the senses with their objects but only with the self or the atman. It certainly cannot mean nirvana, which in the Buddhist tradition means total oblivion—the presence of the term “yoga” in “Asparsayoga” indicates that this concept is not pointing towards oblivion but at the attainment of Ultimate Reality which is the Brahman (the underlying principle of the universe). It is suggested that the word “Agrayana” (which Gaudapada uses only once in his Kārikā, in the verse 90) denotes Mahayana, a major school of Buddhism, but the Advaita Vedanta school holds that Gaudapada’s usage of the word has nothing to do with Mahayana. He means “Prathamatah,” that is, in the first place. 

Gaudapada’s dates are mired in controversy—he has been placed between the 5th and 7th centuries AD on the basis of the general consensus that his great follower Shankara was born in 788 AD. But some scholars have used historical references to place Shankara in the second century BC—if this is true, then Gaudapada could be a predecessor to the Mahayana Buddhist thinkers like Nagarjuna. In his work, Shankara has tried to move Advaita Vedanta away from Buddhism by noting the differences between the two schools—for instance, in his commentary on the Katha Upaniṣad, Shankara notes that while Hinduism believes in the existence of the atman (soul), Buddhism denies it.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Bhagavad Gita and the Isa Upanisad

Krishna’s instruction to Arjuna on the Bhagavad Gita at the battlefield of Kurukshetra was a revival of the knowledge that he had taught long ago to Vivasvan, the Sun God. Krishna reveals this in verse 4.1 of the Bhagavad Gita: “I taught this eternal science of Yoga to the Sun-god, Vivasvan, who passed it on to Manu; and Manu in turn instructed it to Ikshvaku.” Vivasvan was the teacher of Yajnavalkya, the sage of the Shukla Yajur Veda. Thus, the disciple of Krishna was the teacher of Yajnavalkya. The connection between Krishna and Yajnavalkya through Vivasvan might be the cause of the similarities in the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Isa Upanishad. There are eighteen chapters in the Bhagavad Gita, and the Isa Upanishad contains eighteen verses—devotion to Krishna is the theme of both texts.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Rousseau, Napoleon, and the Politics of Religion

Early in his life, Napoleon was influenced by Rousseau’s teaching that religion is dangerous since it exists in competition with the state—religion promises happiness in the other world when the state is responsible for providing the means of achieving happiness in this world. At the beginning of the French Revolution, Napoleon, then a young artillery lieutenant, wrote, “Dear Rousseau, why was it necessary that you have lived only for sixty years! For the interest of virtue, you had to be immortal.” Napoleon was as much influenced by the atheistic and anti-tradition political thought of the Enlightenment as the Jacobins were. After Napoleon acquired power, he had a change of heart. He realized that if he tried to suppress religion, he would lose support of the people and then his government might be overthrown like the government of the Jacobins was, so he allowed the traditional practice of religion. Jean Chaptal, Napoleon’s minister for Internal Affairs said: "The boldest operation that Bonaparte carried out during the first years of his reign was to re-establish worship upon its old foundations.”

On Solzhenitsyn’s View Of Communism

"For us in Russia, communism is a dead dog, while, for many people in the West, it is still a living lion.” ~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in a BBC radio broadcast, 15 February 1979. 

I believe that in the West, communism will never be seen as a dead dog. This is because communism is a child of the West. It is Western philosophy and movement. It was founded and propagated by Western intellectuals, politicians, oligarchs, and trade unionists who operated from London, Berlin, Paris and other Western cities. The Western nations could avoid communism because they were aware of the nature of this ideology. They knew that communism had the potential to bring a totalitarian regime into power. 

The Russians, in the early decades of the 20th century, had no knowledge of communism. They didn’t have the intellectuals and politicians who could refute the communist arguments and warn them about the great destructive power of the communist ideology, so it was easy for Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin to convince the Russians into believing that communism would transform their country into a paradise.

Friday, November 27, 2020

On the Navya-Nyaya Theory of Language

The Navya-Nyaya school holds that spoken language is the primary language since it is logically prior to written language. The language of gestures precedes spoken language. It is something that the humans have learned from the animals which use bodily signs to communicate. Written language enables us to create long sentences, express complicated ideas, and gain a better understanding of the meaning of the spoken words. Like the language of gestures in the case of human beings, written language exists parasitically in spoken language. 

The Navya-Nyaya philosophers accept the old Nyaya belief that Sanskrit is a divine language bequeathed to humanity by the Brahman who is the creator of the objects in the universe and he has delineated the relationship between meaning and the objects. The spoken words are merely sounds; they become language when they are endowed with meaning. This task, according to the theorists of the Navya-Nyaya school, was accomplished by the will of the Brahman. According to the Nyaya philosophers, the languages are a product of nature and not convention.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Dialectical Method of Hindu Philosophy

A dialectical methodology is one of the characteristics of Hindu philosophy—the philosophers are devoted to establishing their philosophical positions, but they treat the views of their opponents with respect. Several schools of philosophy have been in existence for more than 2500 years and they have always had significant philosophical differences but each school formulates its arguments after listening to the arguments from the other schools. The dialectical method of philosophical discussion proceeds through three steps, namely Purvapaksa, Khandana, and Uttarapaksa. The philosopher begins by stating the views of his opponents—known as the Purvapaksa. After that he offers the refutation for the arguments of his opponents—known as the Khandana. Finally, he offers his own theory—known as the Uttarapaksa (in some texts Uttarapaksa is described as Siddhanta or conclusion).

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Carvaka View of the Four Purusarthas

Out of the four Purusarthas, which are used by the ancient Hindu texts to define the ultimate objectives of life, the Carvakas (the school of empiricists and materialists) accept only two: Artha (prosperity, economic values) and Kama (pleasure, love, psychological values). The Carvakas reject Dharma (virtue and moral values) and Moksha (liberation, spiritual values). Dharma is rejected because it is based on the teachings of the scriptures whose authority, the Carvakas maintain, cannot be accepted by rational men. They reject Moksha because it entails release from the materialistic entanglements which, they claim, can be attained only on death and no one who loves life would want to end his life. According to the Carvakas, the purpose of life is attainment of the worldly pleasures. They preach that Artha (prosperity and economic values), and Kama (pleasure, love, psychological values) are the only ends that rational men would strive for.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Machiavelli: Unarmed are Despised

In The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli writes, “For among other evils which being unarmed brings you, it causes you to be despised." Machiavelli is right. No one respects the unarmed and the weak. The meek do not inherit the earth, the strong and the armed do.

Metaphysics is Rationalistic

Every metaphysical theory in the history of philosophy is a rationalistic system. This is because metaphysical theories are established by reasoning, and they cannot be proved or disproved by perception and experimentation. They must be accepted or rejected on the basis of faith and arguments. In the Advaita Vedanta, the Upanishadic saying, “Sarvam khalvidam Brahman neha nanasti kinchana,” is used to argue about the falsity of the world and establish that nothing exists except the Brahman which is the supreme soul or the universal spirit, and the prime mover of the universe. This is a metaphysical position which cannot be proved or disproved—it has to be accepted or rejected on the basis of faith or arguments.

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Importance of Philosophical Skepticism

Skepticism is an antidote for the pitfalls of dogmatism and cultism. Skepticism creates fresh philosophical problems which compel the philosophers to give up dogmatism and cultism and question the soundness of the traditional ways of thinking. They start taking a critical and analytic approach and come up with new theories through which their philosophy becomes richer. Immanuel Kant recognized his debt to skepticism when he said, “Hume’s skepticism arose me from my dogmatic slumber.” Skepticism is the cry of a free mind; the philosophers who outrightly reject skepticism are not free minds.

The Doctrine of Purusarthas

In Hindu philosophy, the doctrine of purusartha defines the ultimate objectives of life. The four purusarthas are: Dharma (virtue, moral values), Artha (prosperity, economic values), Kama (pleasure, love, psychological values) and Moksha (liberation, spiritual values). Most modern scholars insist that Dharma is the primary purusartha, or the purusartha which brings meaning and significance to the three other purusarthas, but the truth is that the primacy of any purusartha has not been established in the ancient texts.
In the Mahabharata (Santiparva, Adhyaya 161), Yudhishtira asks his brothers to name the purusartha which they believe is the highest. Arjuna says that Artha is the highest; Bhima favors Kama, which he insists contains the essence of both Dharma and Kama; Nakula and Sahadeva are supportive of Arjuna’s position that Artha is the highest, though they add some modifications of their own. Vidura, the uncle of the Pandavas (and the Kauravas), gives a short speech to explain the tenets of Dharma.
Finally Yudhishtira speaks—he dwells on the transcendence of Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha. Perhaps because he never lies, he admits that he does not know which purusartha is the highest or if there is any hierarchy among the purusarthas. This discussion between the Pandava brothers happens after the Kurukshetra war.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Performance of Duty is the Fulfillment

“Karmanyeva adhikaraste, ma phaleshu kada chana; Ma karma phala hetur bhurh, ma te sangostva akarmani,” Krishna says to Arjuna in the verse 2.47 of the Bhagavad Gita. While a man is free to choose the actions which he will perform, he lacks the power to determine the fruits of those actions. He is the cause of his actions, but the consequences are not in his control. It is not necessary that his actions will lead to the consequences that he desires. A moral man will not be paralyzed by the thoughts of the consequences of his actions.. He will not be deterred from the performance of his duties. The action, or the performance of the duty, is a source of fulfillment for him.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

"Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” ~ Immanuel Kant in his essay, “Idea for a General History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” (1784). These are wise words from Kant—the timber of humanity is crooked and the proof of that is the conduct of the democratic nations in the year 2020. What have these nations not done in the year 2020 to destroy their healthcare, economy, social life, and political culture? Perhaps history will record this year as the annus horribilis. There are still around forty days remaining in this year—in forty days they could invite even more poverty, shabbiness, corruption, and hopelessness into their country.

The Fable of the Bees: The Importance of Vices

In his 1714 book The Fable of The Bees, Mandeville describes a society of bees which takes the collective decision to ground its way of life on the ideas of reason, morality, discipline, and honesty. Initially the bees seem to do well but eventually their culture collapses into a dystopia from which they never recover. The moral of Mandeville’s story is that in order to survive and thrive, a society needs not just the virtues but also a range of vices: selfishness, envy, competition, mysticism, and exploitation. The book ends with these lines:

Bare Virtue can't make Nations live
In Splendor; they, that would revive
A Golden Age, must be as free,
For Acorns, as for Honesty.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Bhagavad Gita: On the Striving for Perfection

“Among thousands of men perhaps one strives for perfection, and among thousands of those who strive perhaps one knows me in truth,” Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. From this line, I infer that man is not a creature of pure reason (faith plays a critical role in his life). He is not born for total freedom (he is a political and social animal). He is capable of achieving materialistic perfection (there will always be flaws and contradictions in his life). The attempts of the atheists to perfect themselves have failed. Instead of becoming better people, they brought woe on themselves and on others. But spiritual perfection can be achieved by a man who makes a genuine effort to master theological philosophy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Hindu Philosophy of Moksa

Moksa (salvation or liberation) is not the only concern of Hindu philosophy but it is one of the chief concerns. Since the Vedic age, the Hindu teachers have been conjecturing about the ways of attaining moksa. The six schools of Hindu philosophy present varying concepts of moksa. The Sankhya school, being jnana yoga, preaches moksa through metaphysical knowledge. The Yoga school, being dhyana yoga, preaches that moksa comes through meditation and asceticism. The Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools see knowledge as the path to moksa. 

The passage 1.1.4 in the Vaisesika-sutra says: “The Supreme Good (moksa) comes from the knowledge, produced by a particular dharma, of the essence of the Predicables, Substance, Attribute, Action, Genus, Species, and Combination, by means of their resemblances and differences.” The passage 1.1.1 in Nyaya-sutra says: “Moksa is attained by the true knowledge of the means of right cognition, the objects of such cognition, doubt, purpose, instance, conclusion, discussion, debate, sophistry, fallacy, quibbling, faulty reasoning, and losing (a debate).” 

The Mīmāṃsā school insists that moksa cannot come through knowledge alone, for the individual must first perform all the actions which are good (in line with the teachings of the Vedas). The schools of Vedanta hold that moksa means being embraced and subsumed into the Brahman (the ultimate principle of the universe) and this end can be achieved by following the teachings of the Upaniṣads.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

A Brief History of History

History is the story of the political communities which were formed through the bonds of language, geography, culture, religion, and nationhood. The term “history” arises from within the Western civilization. The ancient Greek thinkers like Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, and Plutarch were the world’s first historians. Through their work the method of recording, analyzing, and understanding the past (the method of creating historical records) has developed. 

Since the time of Herodotus, historians have been playing a critical role in the evolution of Western philosophy, politics, and culture. During the Age of Imperialism (1750 to 1940s), while the Western imperialists were conquering colonies, their historians were engaged in investigating and analyzing the past of these colonies—they produced a massive collection of books and papers on the history of the Asian, South American, and North African nations. Today people in most parts of the world understand their past through the work of the Western historians. 

I am not a fan of the West, but I have to accept that the art of writing history is a unique Western achievement.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Wisdom of Somerset Maugham

Here’s a wise perspective from W. Somerset Maugham about the real state of the world (from The Moon and Sixpence): “The world is hard and cruel. We are here none knows why, and we go none knows whither. We must be very humble. We must see the beauty of quietness. We must go through life so inconspicuously that Fate does not notice us. And let us seek the love of simple, ignorant people. Their ignorance is better than all our knowledge. Let us be silent, content in our little corner, meek and gentle like them. That is the wisdom of life.”

The Vedic Quest for The Truth

The Vedic sages understood that certainty is not possible to man and that the quest for the truth is eternal. They believed that the truth is not the characteristic of the alienated, dogmatic, and misanthropic but of the free spirited and joyous—the ones who are ready to examine all sides of an issue. They kept their traditions oral and sang their hymns of the truth in the open. They realized that any truth cannot have the potential to become the truth until it is openly and clearly articulated in the presence of everyone who would care to listen. The ultimate philosophical and religious message of the Bhagavad Gita is revealed by Krishna to Arjuna when both were situated between two great armies in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. This signifies that people tend to discover the truth when they are engaged in performing their worldly duties and fighting for just causes. After listening to Krishna’s message, Arjuna says (verse 73): “By your grace, (my) delusion is gone; and I have gained recognition (of myself). Acyuta (Krishna), I remain as one from whom all doubts are gone. I will do what you say.”

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The River Sarasvati

The Rig Veda contains several hymns which depict Sarasvati as an important river and deity. But the location of this river is unknown. Some archeologists suggest that Sarasvati dried between 3000 BC and 1800 BC. Prof. Michael Witzel is of the view that the Vedic Sarasvati River is the cosmic river of the Milky Way which the ancient sages saw as the “road to immortality and heaven.”

The fifth verse in the hymn 10.75 of the Rig Veda associates Sarasvati with Ganga and Yamuna and some scholars use it to speculate about the river’s geographical location:

Here, o Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati—attend on this praise of mine, o Śutudrī, Paruṣṇī. 
With the Asiknī, o Marudvr̥ dhā, with the Vitastā, o Ārjīkīyā, harken, with the Suṣomā.

The seventh verse in the same hymn depicts Sarasvati as a beautiful woman:

Straight in her course, mottled, glistening, in her greatness she holds encircled the expanses, the dusky realms— 
the undeceivable Sindhu, busiest of the busy, dappled-bright like a mare, lovely to see like a beautiful woman. 

The hymn 7.95 describes the beauty of the river’s flow and the fertility and life that she brings:

1. She has flowed forth with her surge, with her nourishment—Sarasvati is a buttress, a metal fortress. 
Thrusting forward all the other waters with her greatness, the river drives like a lady-charioteer. 

2. Alone of the rivers, Sarasvati shows clear, as she goes gleaming from the mountains all the way to the sea. 
Taking note of the abundant wealth of the world, she has milked out ghee and milk for the Nāhuṣa. 

3. He has grown strong as a manly one among maidens, a bullish bull calf among the (river-maidens) worthy of the sacrifice. 
He provides a prizewinner to the benefactors. He should groom his body for winning. 

4. And this Sarasvati, the well-portioned, will harken to this sacrifice of ours, taking pleasure in it, 
being implored by reverential ones with their knees fixed. With wealth as her yokemate, she is even higher than her companions. 

5. Here are (oblations) being poured all the way to you (rivers), along with reverences. Take pleasure in the praise, Sarasvati. 
Being set in your dearest shelter, may we stand nearby it like a sheltering tree. 

6. And this Vasiṣṭha here has opened up the doors of truth for you, well-portioned Sarasvati. 
Strengthen, resplendent one; grant prizes to the praiser. – Do you protect us always with your blessings.

In the post-Vedic period, new attributes were added to Sarasvati and she became the multitalented goddess of wisdom and patroness of arts.

(Translations of the Rig Veda hymns by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, OUP, 2014)

Alexander and the Indian Philosophers

The story of Alexander’s encounter with a group of fifteen Indian philosophers (described by Plutarch in his Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans – the Life of Alexander, 64) was recorded by a man who was probably present at the scene, Onesicritus, the Cynic philosopher. He had accompanied Alexander on his campaign in Asia. Probably with the help of interpreters, Alexander asked the Indian philosophers a series of questions, which were difficult riddles whose answers could only be ambiguous. Here’s an excerpt from Plutarch’s description of the encounter: 

“He [Alexander] captured ten of the gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer, and then the rest, in an order determined in like manner; and he commanded one of them, the oldest, to be the judge in the contest. The first one, accordingly, being asked which, in his opinion, were more numerous, the living or the dead, said that the living were, since the dead no longer existed. The second, being asked whether the earth or the sea produced larger animals, said the earth did, since the sea was but a part of the earth. The third, being asked what animal was the most cunning, said: "That which up to this time man has not discovered." The fourth, when asked why he had induced Sabbas to revolt, replied: "Because I wished him either to die nobly or live." The fifth, being asked which, in his opinion, was older, day or night, replied: "Day, by one day"; and he added, upon the king expressing dissatisfaction, that unusual questions must have unusual answers. Passing on, then, to the sixth, Alexander asked how a man could be most loved; "If," said the philosopher, "he is most powerful, and yet does not inspire fear." Of the three remaining, he who was asked how one might become a god instead of man, replied: "By doing something which a man cannot do"; the one who was asked which was the stronger, life or death, answered: "Life, since it supports so many ills." And the last, asked how long it were well for a man to live, answered: "Until he does not regard death as better than life." So, then, turning to the judge, Alexander bade him give his opinion. The judge declared that they had answered one worse than another. "Well, then," said Alexander, "thou shalt die first for giving such a verdict." "That cannot be, O King," said the judge, "unless thou falsely saidst that thou wouldst put to death first him who answered worst." These philosophers, then, he dismissed with gifts.”

The dialogue between Alexander and the Indian philosophers is called Cynic in Greek and Roman tradition because the Cynic philosopher Onesicritus recorded it. Onesicritus believed that the Indian philosophers epitomized Cynic values because they practiced extreme asceticism—they lived naked and claimed to own nothing except the ground on which they stood. Diogenes Laërtius, the third century Greek philosopher, notes in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers that the skeptic philosopher Pyrrho of Ellis was inspired by Indian thought while he was in India with Alexander. Pyrrho started imitating the lifestyle of his Indian teachers. The school of skepticism and asceticism that he established after he returned to Ellis was based on the knowledge that he had gathered in India.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Riddle of the Rig Veda and the Sphinx

On his journey between Thebes and Delphi, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx—in order to pass, he must answer the Sphinx’s riddle: "What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?". Oedipus’s answer is: "Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and; in old age, he uses a walking stick". 

In the Rig Veda, a riddle similar to the one posed by the Sphinx can be found in verse 10.117.8:  “He with one foot hath far outrun the biped, and the two-footed catches the three-footed. Four-footed creatures come when bipeds call them, and stand and look where five are met together.”

This verse preaches that quantity is not the measure of power and effectiveness, because the more feet an entity has, the less autonomous and effective it is. The one-footed in the verse is the sun; the two-footed is a man; the three-footed is an old man who walks with the help of a stick; the four-footed is a dog; and the five-footed are the herds.

Vajasaneyi Samhita: Metaphysical and Theological Riddles

The Vajasaneyi Samhita of the Shukla Yajurveda contains several question-and-answer sessions among the priests in which metaphysical and theological riddles are indicated. Here’s one session in which the priest who is the hotr (the one who recites the invocations and litanies during the yajna) asks:

Who wonders lonely on his way?
Who is constantly born anew?
What is the remedy for cold?
What is the great corn vessel called?

The priest who is the adhvaryu (the one who manages the physical details of the yajna) replies:

The sun wanders lonely on its way,
The moon is constantly born anew,
Fire is the remedy for cold,
The earth is the great grain-vessel. 

The Vedic sage Yajnavalkya (who is dated between the eighth and the seventh centuries BC) is the founder of the Vajasaneyi branch. The word “Vajasaneyi” is a patronymic of Yajnavalkya.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Vedic Prayers for Power

Health, happiness, prosperity, and strength are the chief concerns of the Vedic sages. The four Vedas contain several hymns which depict the gods and humans regaining their powers through the chanting of hymns. The Yajur Veda begins with a hymn which is a prayer for health, happiness, prosperity, and strength. Here’s A. B. Keith’s translation of verse 1.1.1 of the Yajur Veda:

For food thee, for strength thee!
Ye are winds, ye are approachers.
Let the god Savitr impel you to the most excellent offering.
O invincible ones, swell with the share for the gods,
Full of strength, of milk, rich in offspring, free from sickness, from disease.
Let no thief, no evil worker, have control over you.
Let Rudra's dart avoid you.
Abide ye, numerous, with this lord of cattle.
Do thou protect the cattle of the sacrificer.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Anti-Communism of Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man: A Novel, became a communist in the 1930s after coming under the influence of communist intellectuals in New York. But in less than a decade, when he realized that communism was as dangerous as Nazism, he became a staunch anti-communist. The extent of Ellison’s disenchantment from communism comes out in a letter which he wrote to Roger Wright on August 18, 1945. While referring to the American communists, Ellison wrote in the letter: “If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn’t think they can get away with it. If they want to be lice, then by God let them be squashed like lice. Maybe we can’t smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell.”

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Chandogya Upaniṣad On Mind and Will

The Chandogya Upaniṣad has an account of a conversation between Narada and Sanatkumara—they discuss several philosophical and religious problems, including the problem of difference between mind and will. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Narada: “Blessed one, is there anything greater than mind.”

Sanatkumara: “There is something greater than mind.”

Narada: “Tell me about it, blessed one.”

Sanatkumara: “Will (samkalpa) is greater than mind. When one wills (samkalpayate), one thinks; then one utters speech-one utters it as names. In name the mantras become one, and in the mantras actions become one.

“These have will as their sole end, will as their self, and are established on will. Sky and earth have been formed (sam-klp-); air and space have been formed; the waters and heat have been formed, and rain is formed according to their will (samklpti). Food is formed according to the will of rain. The breaths are formed according to the will of food. The mantras are formed according to the will of the breaths. Actions are formed according to the will of the mantras. The world is formed according to the will of the actions. Everything is formed according to the will of the world. This is will. Worship will.”

(Translation by Valerie Roebuck)

Monday, November 9, 2020

Four Qualities of the Seekers of Brahman

In his commentary on the Brahma Sutra, Shankara, the seventh century AD philosopher of Advaita, says that the man who wants to gain knowledge of the Brahman, the ultimate mover and principle of the universe, must have four spiritual qualifications: first, he should possess the ability to discriminate between the real and the unreal; second, he should be indifferent to all pleasures and he should have the fortitude to perform actions without caring for the fruits; third, he should possess six virtues, which are shama (ability to control the mind), dama (ability to control the senses), uparati (ability to strictly observe one’s own dharma with dispassion), titiksha (ability to live with pleasure or pain, and hot or cold), shraddha (faith in guru and in the Upanishads), and samadhana (deep concentration); fourth, he should be filled with the desire for liberation. Shankara notes that the knowledge of the Vedic rituals and the ability to perform them is not necessary for those who seek knowledge of the Brahman.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

On Hegel’s Philosophy of History

In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel asserts that world history is the history of reason. To an unphilosophical eye, history might create the impression of irrational surges of emotion, mindless violence and chaos, and chance events. But a philosopher is capable of discerning the rational design towards which the disjointed and apparently mindless events of the past are driving humanity. The purpose of history is not to satisfy desires and spread happiness. Hegel writes: “The History of the World is not the theatre of happiness. Periods of happiness are blank pages in it, for they are periods of harmony—periods when the antithesis is in abeyance.” The suffering, the chaos, the trauma, the massacres, the instability—all the oppression that human beings have endured was for the purpose of fulfilling the design of the universal spirit. “That is to say, man is an object of existence in himself only in virtue of the Divine that is in him, — that which was designated at the outset as Reason; which, in view of its activity and power of self-determination, was called Freedom.” Human beings cannot defy the march of world history in which reason is immanent because the claim of the universal spirit rises above all particular claims.

The Upaniṣads On Human Senses

The senses are described in several verses in the Upaniṣads. Most of these verses say that there are eleven senses, known as indriya, but some verses take the number of senses up to fourteen. The five principle senses of perception are known as buddhindriyani or jnanendriyani, because they are used to control the buddhi or higher intelligence: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Then there are the five senses of karma or action, known as karmendriyani: larynx, hand, foot, and organs of elimination and generation. The eleventh sense is the manas or mind, which serves as the bridge between the other senses and the atman or soul. The three more senses that are mentioned in some of the verses are the inner senses, which are known as the antarindriyanimanasbuddhiahamkara (ego), and chitta (consciousness). In each individual, the operation of the eleven to fourteen senses (indriya) is managed by a particular deity.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Personal Freedom and God

The stoics of Ancient Rome believed that they were personally free even though their actions conformed to God's will. In his Moral Letters to Lucilius, the Roman politician and stoic philosopher, Seneca wrote, “I do not obey God, but I assent to what he has decided.” Since God is rational, the stoics believed that the actions of those who follow God must be in accordance with reason.

A Perfect Man is an Impossibility

A perfect man is a contradiction in terms—as Eliezer Berkovits notes in his essay, “God in History”: “Why ask for continuous miracles to rectify what goes wrong in the world? Would it not be simpler to ask for the creation of a perfect man, who would be so endowed by nature as to be incapable of committing any evil? The answer, of course, is even simpler than the question is naive. A perfect man is, in this sense, a contradiction in terms; it is an impossibility. A man incapable of doing wrong would not be human. The imperfection of human nature is inseparable from its most significant asset: Its potential for goodness, its capacity for responsible decision and action.” Unless a man has the capacity to be wrong, he cannot have the potential to be right—thus the concept of perfect man is a contradiction.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Words of Krishna and Yama

What Krishna says to Arjuna in verse 2.19 of the Bhagavad Gita, when both of them are at the battlefield of Kurukshetra, is very close to what Yama, the God of Death, says in verse 2.19 of the Katha Upaniṣad

Here’s verse 2.19 of the Bhagavad Gita:

य एनं वेत्ति हन्तारं यश्चैनं मन्यते हतम् |
उभौ तौ न विजानीतो नायं हन्ति न हन्यते ||

(Neither of them is in knowledge—the one who thinks the soul can slay and the one who thinks the soul can be slain. For truly, the soul neither kills nor can it be killed.)

Here’s Valerie Roebuck’s translation of verse 2.19 from the Katha Upaniṣad:

‘If the slayer thinks it slays;
If the one who is slain thinks it is slain:
Neither of them understands.
It does not slay, nor is it slain.

Taking inspiration from these verses in the Bhagavad Gita and Katha Upaniṣad, Ralph Waldo Emerson has written a poem called "Brahma":

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

History is Collectivist

History is not made by individuals. It is made by the collectives which are brought together by the forces of religion, mythology, nationalism, economic incentives and upheavals, political agenda, ideology, and technological and militaristic expansions. If an issue does not garner the support of a collective, it will not make history and will have no impact on mankind’s future.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Reason Does Not Inspire Morality

Pure reason is not practical—a system of morality based on rational principles will not find adherents. Reason might lead to material progress, but it will not lead to moral progress. A man of reason is often as irrational as a man lacking in reason. To inspire people to be moral, incentives other than reason are required but the nature of these incentives is not clear—is it mythology, religion, good genes, good upbringing, awareness of an illustrious intellectual and political tradition, political liberty, or is it something else? In his book God, Man and History, Eliezer Berkovits writes, “The evil done by the power that knowledge provides, has always eclipsed the good done by the same power. Notwithstanding enlightenment, man seems to remain an essentially unethical being.”

The Upaniṣads on Kantian Moral Autonomy

Kant believed that the central moral value for an individual is autonomy—an individual is autonomous if he can give moral law to himself and does not have to make his choices on the basis of the injunctions of others. Something similar to the Kantian idea of autonomy is expressed in several verses in the Upaniṣads. Verse 7.25.2 in the Chandogya Upaniṣad says: 

“'Hence the symbolic statement on "self": "The self is below, the self is above, the self is in the west, the self is in the east, the self is in the south, the self is in the north. The self is all this." Seeing this, thinking this, knowing this-taking pleasure in the self, playing in the self, making love with the self, delighting in the self-one becomes one's own ruler, and wins freedom to move in all worlds. But those who know it in other ways are ruled by others, live in perishable worlds, and win no freedom to move in all worlds.”

Verse 1.6.2 in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad says: 

“as SUVAH in the sun, as MAHAH in brahman. He wins independence, he wins the lord of the mind: he is lord of speech, lord of the eye, lord of the ear, lord of knowledge. From that comes this: brahman, with space as its body, truth as its self, breath as its dwelling, mind as its joy, pervaded by peace, immortal. Worship it as such, Pracinayogya.”

Verse 3.10.5 in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad notes that when a man with rational mind has unhindered liberty, he can attain perfect bliss:

“And the one who leaves this world knowing this goes up to the self made of food, goes up to the self made of breath, goes up to the self made of mind, goes up to the self made of knowledge, goes up to the self made of joy. He moves about the worlds, with food at his desire, with forms at his desire. He continually sings this saman: ‘Oh, bliss ... ! Oh, bliss . . . ! Oh, bliss . . . ! I am food, I am food, I am food. I am the eater of food. I am the eater of food. I am the eater of food. I am the maker of verse. I am the maker of verse. I am the maker of verse. I am the first-born of law . . ., before the gods, in the navel . . . of immortality. You protect . . . the one who gives to me. I eat . . . food and the one who eats food. I have overcome the whole universe. I am light like the sun.’"

Verse 8.1.6 in the Chandogya Upaniṣad notes that without knowledge of the self, freedom and bliss cannot be achieved:

“Just as here worlds won through action perish, there worlds won through merit perish. While those here who pass on without having known the self and the true desires do not gain freedom to move in all worlds, those here who pass on having known the self and the true desires do gain freedom to move in all worlds.”

(Translations from The Upaniṣads by Valerie Roebuck; Penguin Books)

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Plato and the Roman Stoics

The stoics in Ancient Rome looked at Plato as a divine philosopher. In De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods), Cicero introduces a character called Quintus Lucilius Balbus who is comparable to the Greek philosophers and is a staunch stoic. Balbus accepts the authority of “Plato, that divine philosopher…” But Cicero was not looking at the Plato of the Republic and the Phaedo. To him, Plato was a philosopher of ethics and cosmology. The Timaeus, an early dialogue in which Plato presents an account of the formation of the universe and explanation of its order and beauty, was an inspiration for the stoics of Ancient Rome. The Epicurean character in De Natura Deorum, Gaius Velleius, tauntingly points out to the Stoics that Plato is their master.

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad on the Noumenal Universe

The earliest Veda, the Rigveda, presents a metaphysics that in our time we will understand as naive realism or commonsense realism. But the metaphysics of the Upaniṣads is much more diversified. Along with naive realism, idealism, and skepticism, the Upaniṣads have verses that make references to concepts similar to the Platonic Forms and the Kantian noumena. For instance, there are verses in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad which reject any attempt to investigate the noumenal universe through characteristics of the phenomenal universe. It is theorized in three verses (verse 2. 3. 6, verse 3.9. 26, and verse 4.2.4) that the noumenal nature of the universe cannot be defined by any characteristic of the phenomenal universe and that the noumena can be recognized only in terms of negative definition: “Neti, neti” (Not thus! not so!).

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Roots of Ancient Greek Culture

"What is Plato but Moses speaking Attic Greek?” ~ Numenius (the second century BC Greek philosopher who lived in the Roman City of Apamea). Three centuries before Numenius, Aristobulus (181–124 BC), the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of the Peripatetic school who lived in Alexandria, argued that the essentials of Greek philosophy and mythology were derived from Jewish and other ancient resources. He held that not only Plato and Aristotle but also the oldest Greek thinkers like Homer, Hesiod, and Orpheus owed an intellectual debt to Judaism and other ancient cultures. There are several similarities in the philosophical and mythological musings of Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and the ancient Egyptians—all four civilizations evolved between 3000 and 4000 years ago. They could have influenced each other and the Ancient Greeks. Numenius and Aristobulus tried to find the connection between the Ancient Greek thought and the philosophy and mythology developed by the Brahmins, Jews, Magi, and Egyptians.

The Individual Soul and Universal Soul

The ultimate exhortation of the Upaniṣads is that man should seek to unite his soul or mind with the universal soul, the Brahman (the undivided, timeless, and motionless living principle that is the author of the universe). Here are two verses (verse 2.2.3 and 2.2.4) from the Mundaka Upanisad  (translation by Valerie Roebuck):

Seize as your bow the great weapon of the Upaniṣad,
And set in it an arrow sharpened by contemplation.
Draw it with a mind that has attained the nature of that.
The target is imperishable: pierce that. 

The OM (pranava) is the bow, the arrow the self:
Brahman is its target, it is said.
It must be pierced by one who is not careless:
So, like the arrow, one will become of a kid with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Yājñavalkya and Xenophanes on God

Aristotle notes in his Metaphysics that Xenophanes, the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy and the teacher of Parmenides, did some cosmological theorizing and reached the conclusion that “The One is God.” The God of Xenophanes had no eyes, no ears, and no brains, but all of him saw, all of him heard, all of him thought, and he acted without toil. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, which is placed in the eighth or seventh centuries BC, Yājñavalkya, in response to a question from Uddalaka Aruni, defines the Brahman (the One who is the creator of the universe) in these words: “It is the unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought-of thinker, the unknown knower. Other than this there is no seer; other than this there is no hearer; other than this there is no thinker; other than this there is no knowledge.” (Verse 3.7.23; translation by Valerie Roebuck.)

The Quest for Truth in the Upaniṣads

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

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

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

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Stoicism: The Religion of Educated Men

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

The Four Mahavakyas of the Upaniṣads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Universe and the Great Soul

In Plato’s dialogue the Timaeus, the title character Timaeus of Locri gives a long speech in which he speculates about how the universe, which is as good as possible, got created by a benevolent Demiurge. Timaeus says: “…we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.” 

The conception of the world as a living creature with divine soul and intelligence probably originated between the fifteenth and ninth centuries BC—the Rigveda has several hymns which proclaim that the universe is a manifestation of the One, the omnipotent and omnipresent Paramatman, who is the great soul and living principle, that is the undivided, timeless, and motionless author of everything. The hymn 72 in Mandala 10 talks about the birth of the gods and the heavenly bodies of the universe from the One (translations by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, OUP, 2014):  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kena Upaniṣad: The Gods and “The One”

Once upon a time the gods won a great victory over the demons and they became arrogant. They boasted, “This victory is ours! This triumph is ours.” They failed to realize that the victory was won for them by the Brahman, with whose power the universe is created and in whom, at the end of the kalpa (aeon), it dissolves. The Brahman noticed the arrogance of the gods and appeared before them in the form of an Yaksha, but the gods failed to comprehend the identity of this wondrous entity. 

They deputed Agni (the fire god) to ascertain the identity of the Yaksha. Agni proclaimed that he had the power to burn down the entire universe—the Yaksha asked him to burn a straw. Agni tried but he failed to set the straw ablaze. Then the gods deputed Vayu (the wind god) to ascertain the identity of the Yaksha. Vayu proclaimed that he had the power to blow away the universe. The Yaksha asked him to blow a straw. Vayu tried but he failed to move the straw. 

After that Indra (the lord of the gods) was sent to investigate—the Yaksha presented before Indra a beautiful woman called Uma Haimavati. Indra asked her what this wondrous Yaksha was that had the power of hindering Agni from burning and Vayu from blowing. Uma Haimavati, who is the personification of wisdom, said, “This Yaksha is the Brahman. The gods are feeling pride over a victory that was won for them by the Brahman, so he has appeared as an Yaksha to teach the gods the lesson of humility.” 

Since the gods derive their power from the One, the Brahman, they must not become arrogant. This story, which I have retold in my own words, occurs in the Book Three and Book Four of the Kena Upaniṣad and can be seen from two angles: first, it’s a moral injunction that the entities in positions of power must avoid arrogance; second, it’s an evidence of the monistic metaphysics of the Vedic thinkers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Chāndogya Upaniṣad: The Creation of the Universe

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

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

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

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

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