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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Upaniṣads: Water is the Original Substance

The Upaniṣads contain several hymns which advance the theory that the original substance of the universe is “water.” (A similar theory is attributed to the Ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (624—548 BC), who preached that water is the essence of all matter.) Here’s the translation of verse 5.5.1 from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (translations by Valerie Roebuck): 

“In the beginning the waters were all this. The waters created truth; truth, brahman; brahman, Prajapati; and Prajapati the gods. The gods worship truth (satya). It has three syllables: sa-ti-yamSa is one syllable. Ti is one syllable. Yam is one syllable. Truth is in the first and the last syllable, falsehood in the middle: so falsehood is surrounded on both sides by truth, and becomes truth. Falsehood does not harm the one who knows this.” 

In verse 3.6.1 of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, the Vedic philosopher Gargi Vachaknavi begins a discussion with Sage Yājñavalkya with these words: 

“Yājñavalkya, since all this is woven on the waters, as warp and weft, on what are the waters woven, as warp and weft.”

The Chandogya Upaniṣad emphasizes the cosmic importance of water in verse 7.10.1: 

“The waters are greater than food. So when there is not a good rainfall, living things suffer, thinking, “Food will be short”. When there is a good rainfall, living things are happy, thinking, “Food will be plentiful”. All these are the waters, shaped: earth, middle-air, sky, mountains, gods and human beings, domestic animals, birds, grass and trees, and wild animals, all the way down to worms, flying things and ants. All these are the waters, shaped. Worship the waters.”

In the Katha Upaniṣad, verse 4.6 suggests that the atman (soul) was originally born from water:

He who was formerly the offspring of heat (tapas)
Who was formerly born of the waters—
He who, having entered and dwelt in the secret phase,
Looks out through beings—
This is that. 

In the Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad, the creator god Brahma declares in verse 1.7 that water is his natural world:

“Brahma says to him, “The waters are my world: that world is yours.” He wins as his victory the victory, the attainment, that is Brahma’s—the one who knows this, the one who knows this.”

Monday, October 19, 2020

Aquinas and the Duel Between Parmenides and Aristotle

The presocratic philosopher Parmenides, who is often seen as the founder of western metaphysics, believed that all material things, and their changing forms and motions, are a reflection of the same eternal reality, the “Being.” He preached the monistic principle “all is one.” In his Physics, Aristotle rejects Parmanedian monism by noting that a thinker who denies the multiplicity of things, and all the changing forms and motions, is not engaging in natural philosophy. In the thirteenth century, Aquinas assumed that, with Aristotle’s assistance, he could appropriate the “all is one” Parmanedian God while avoiding the pitfalls of monism. In his Compendium of Theology, Aquinas writes: "If we gather together the various points established thus far, we perceive that all perfections in God are in reality one. We have shown above that God is simple. But where there is simplicity, there can be no distinction among the perfections that are present. Hence, if the perfections of all things are in God, they cannot be distinct in Him. Accordingly they are all one in Him.” (Translation by Cyril Vollert). But Aquinas was unable to bring Parmenides and Aristotle together and the duel between the two Ancient Greek philosophers continues.

The Teaching of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads

The cosmos is eternal, limitless, and absolute, but this does not imply that man is insignificant. The significance of man lies in the fact that he is not only the ultimate interpretation of the cosmic forces but also their ultimate interpreter. The Supreme Principle of the universe, the One who creates the universe out of nothingness, by bringing space, time, and matter into existence, is closely related to man’s mind. This is a key teaching of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads—these ancient texts preach that man must endeavor to relate himself to the Supreme Principle (the One) of the universe.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad: On the Identity of the “One"

The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, which is clearly related to the Katha Upaniṣad, and is a part of the Black Yajurveda, is named after the Sage Śvetāśvatara whose name means “the one who possesses white horses” (which means, the one who has pure faculties). The philosophy of the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad is close to the Samkhya school—it talks of creation emanating from the dual principles of Purusa (the cosmic spirit) and the Prakrti (the cosmic material principle). Samkhya denies the existence of god but Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad subordinates the Purusa and Prakriti principles to a supreme god or the “One.” The text offers a view of the “One” in its Fourth Adhyaya (fourth book). Here’s the first verse of the fourth book (translation by Robert Ernest Hume, 1921):

1. The One who, himself without color, 

by the manifold application of his power (sakti-yoga) 

Distributes many colors in his hidden purpose,
And into whom, its end and its beginning, the whole world 

dissolves—He is God!

May He endow us with clear intellect!

In the next three verses of the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad’s fourth book, the One is pantheistically identified: 

2. That surely is Agni (fire god). That is Adltya (sun god). 

That is Vsyu (wind god), and That is the moon. 

That surely is the pure. That is Brahma. 

That is the waters. That is Prajapati (Lord of Creation). 

3. Thou art woman. Thou art man. 

Thou art the youth and the maiden too. 

Thou as an old man totterest with a staff. 

Being born, thou becomest facing in every direction. 

4. Thou art the dark-blue bird and the green [parrot] with red eyes. 

Thou hast the lightning as thy child. Thou art the seasons and 

the seas. 

Having no beginning, thou dost abide with immanence, 

Wherefrom all beings are born.

Perfect Happiness is Unachievable

The thinkers of Ancient Greece believed that the Gods are envious of human prosperity and happiness, and that they interfere to ruin the life of all those who lust for great riches and perfect happiness. Commenting on the fate of Croesus, Herodotus writes in his Histories: ‘‘presumably because God was angry with him for supposing himself to be the happiest of men.’’ Only the Gods can be perfectly prosperous and happy. The chorus in, Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon warns: 

In fame unmeasured, praise too high, 

Lies danger: God’s sharp lightnings fly 

To stagger mountains.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Indian Obsession With Chronology

In the study of ancient history and philosophy, the need for accurate chronology cannot be denied, but in the case of ancient Hindu texts there is an inordinate amount of emphasis on chronology. For many present day Hindus chronology has become a way of glorifying their ancient heritage. Too often you encounter people who (without furnishing any evidence) boast about some texts being from the tenth or even fifteenth century BC. They are convinced that their culture is great because it is ancient. To my mind, the aspect of being ancient is not critical. The critical questions are: What are the key learnings from these ancient texts? What was the culture in which these texts came into being? What kind of people composed these texts? What is the relevance of these texts in our modern times?

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Rigveda on Language and Pronunciation

The importance of pronouncing words in the right way and using grammatically correct language is emphasized in several verses of the Rigveda. The Vedic sages insist that while reciting the hymns if correct language is not used and if the words are not correctly pronounced then the gods are not appeased. The hymn 26 of Mandala 7, which is attributed to Vasiṣṭha Maitravaruni, opens with a verse which notes that Indra is pleased with sacred formulations or correct chanting of hymns. Here’s a translation of the verse 7.26.1 (The Rigveda, by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, OUP, 2014):

“Soma, unpressed, does not exhilarate Indra, nor do pressings unaccompanied by sacred formulations (exhilarate) the bounteous one. 

For him I beget a hymn that he will enjoy, a newer manly one, so that he will listen to us.”

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Ancient Greek Acceptance of Imperfection

The Ancient Greeks could not conceive of the perfectibility of man because they were taught by Homer and Hesiod that even the Gods are not perfect. Zeus would have sounded like a hypocrite if he exhorted the mortals to perfect themselves since the Gods have all the imperfections which bedevil the mortals. The pre-socratic philosopher Xonophanes laments, “Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the Gods everything that is a shame and a reproach amongst men, stealing and committing adultery and deceiving each other.” The situation in Ancient Hindu literature is similar. The Hindu Gods often conduct themselves in the fashion of the imperfect humans. The notion of man being perfected by reason, atheism, and science was born in eighteenth century France during the Age of Enlightenment.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Dating of the Rigveda

Most scholars place the Rigveda between the twelfth and ninth centuries BC. Since the text mentions several metals except iron, the inference might be drawn that the Rigveda was composed before the dawn of the Iron Age. It could be a Bronze Age text. The manufacturing of iron began in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, the geographical area of the Rigveda, between the twelfth and tenth centuries BC. The work on the Rigveda could have started earlier than the twelfth century BC, perhaps between the fourteenth and tenth centuries BC, or even in the second half of the second millennium BC. The rich tradition of Vedic gods, rituals, mythologies, cosmological queries, and the linguistic and poetic conventions on which the Rigveda has been developed would have to predate the text by a number of centuries and could even have originated in the third millennium BC. On astronomical grounds, which assume that the ancient Hindus had the ability to chart the sun’s course, some scholars (noted by Arthur Anthony Macdonell in his 1917 book A Vedic Reader for Students) have placed the oldest Rigveda hymns as far back as the sixth millennium BC.

Monday, October 12, 2020

On The Rigveda’s Cosmological Hymn

The Rigveda makes references to the theories of creation of the world in several hymns from Mandala 2 to Mandala 9. In Mandala 10, for the first time, we find hymns dedicated to cosmology. The hymn 129 of Mandala 10 is a cosmological hymn, but it is a strange cosmological hymn because it states that the Gods came after the universe got created, which means that even the Gods don’t know when and how the universe was created. The hymn begins with a mention of the nonexistence where there is the ultimate source of creation, the “One,” which assumes a cosmic egg like form in the verse 3, and in the verse 4, the “primal semen,” the origin of all beings gets concretized. 

Here’s a translation of the hymn 129 of Mandala 10 (The Rigveda, translated by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, OUP, 2014):  

1. The nonexistent did not exist, nor did the existent exist at that time. There existed neither the airy space nor heaven beyond. 

What moved back and forth? From where and in whose protection? Did water exist, a deep depth? 

2. Death did not exist nor deathlessness then. There existed no sign of night nor of day. 

That One breathed without wind by its independent will. There existed nothing else beyond that. 

3. Darkness existed, hidden by darkness, in the beginning. All this was a signless ocean. 

What existed as a thing coming into being, concealed by emptiness—that One was born by the power of heat. 

4. Then, in the beginning, from thought there evolved desire, which existed as the primal semen. 

Searching in their hearts through inspired thought, poets found the connection of the existent in the nonexistent. 

5. Their cord was stretched across: Did something exist below it? Did something exist above? 

There existed placers of semen and there existed greatnesses. There was independent will below, offering above. 

6. Who really knows? Who shall here proclaim it?—from where was it born, from where this creation? 

The gods are on this side of the creation of this (world). So then who does know from where it came to be? 

7. This creation—from where it came to be, if it was produced or if not— he who is the overseer of this (world) in the furthest heaven, he surely knows. Or if he does not know...? 

Vedic theology does not commence with stories on creation as Western theology does. The Rigveda explores the cosmological issues in its final book (the Mandala 10).

Sunday, October 11, 2020

On The Vedic Devas

The a priori assumption can be made that the Vedic devas (gods) predate the Vedas. Since the Rigveda is dated between twelfth and ninth centuries BC, the conception of devas must have originated a few centuries before the twelfth century BC—if the first Vedic sages didn’t have a priori knowledge of the devas, they could not have created the hymns on the divine attributes and actions of the devas. 

The word “devas” relates to beings who are connected to swargloka (heaven). They exist to counter the influence of the demons for whom the Vedas use words like “Dasyus” and “Raksases”. In some instances, the word used is “adeva,” or the opposite of deva. In the Rigveda, Vrtra, the demon who had stolen the waters of the world, and was ultimately killed by Indra, the deva who is the lord of the heaven, is called adeva. In the Brahmanas, Puranas, and Ithihasas, the term “asura” is used for the demons. The Vedic mythology often makes it difficult to draw a line between the devas and demons because there are several entities which possess divine as well as demonic attributes.

The Rigveda notes that the devas are thirty-three in number—they are called the Trayastrinshata (Three plus thirty). The Brahmanas give a breakdown of the thirty-three devas—eight are Vasus (material gods); twelve are Adityas (personified gods); eleven are Rudras (consisting of abstract entities, atman, and the incarnations of Shiva); two are the divine twins, the Ashvins. The Yujurveda and Atharvaveda have hymns which talk about the thirty-three devas

Here are three verses from the Rigveda in which it's suggested that there are thirty-three devas (translations by Ralph T. H. Griffith, 1896):

Mandala 1, hymn 45, verse 2

“Agni, the Gods who understand give ear unto the worshipper:

Lord of Red Steeds, who lovest song, bring thou those Three-and-Thirty Gods.

Mandala 8, hymn 28, verse 1: 

“The Thirty Gods and Three besides, whose seat hath been the sacred grass,

From time of old have found and gained.”

Mandala 1, hymn 139, verse 11: 

“O ye eleven gods whose home is heaven, O ye eleven who make earth your dwelling,

Ye who with might, eleven, live in waters, accept this sacrifice, O gods, with pleasure.”

One deva is not subordinate to another—the lack of hierarchy is established in the assertions made by Indira and Varuna that they are obeyed by all the devas. However, there are hymns in which it is indicated that Varuna and Surya are subject to Indra, while Indra and the Asvins are subject to Vishnu, and even a relatively unimportant entity like Savitur is able to claim that his munificence cannot be resisted by Indira, Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman, and Rudra. Since the Rigveda sees all the devas as a manifestation of the omnipotent and omnipresent Paramatman, or the great soul and living principle, that is the undivided, timeless, and motionless author of the universe, there is no question of one deva being subordinate to another deva—all are equal, all are parts of the same Paramatman

If the devas of the Rigveda are classified on the basis of hymns dedicated to them, then we might conclude that Indra, who has two hundred and fifty hymns, or a quarter of the collection in the text, dedicated to him, is the most important. After Indra comes Agni who has two hundred dedicated hymns, Soma has one hundred twenty-three, the Asvins have fifty-six, and Varuna has forty-six. The supreme deva Vishnu has five dedicated hymns, while the powerful Rudra has three, and the devi (female god) of learning Saraswati has three.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Fundamentals of Sanatana Dharma

Classical Hinduism is known as Sanatana Dharma which means Eternal and Ancient Law, or the Law that was given to mankind by the devas (the incarnated gods) in the primordial times. The foundation of Sanatana Dharma is forged from Śruti (that which is heard), and its structure is forged from Smṛti (that which is remembered). 

The Śruti consists of the four Vedas (the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda) which the ancient sages received directly from the devas. The Vedic teachings were not written down for several millennia and were preserved through an oral tradition. The teacher would sing the Vedic hymns to his pupils who, when they became teachers, would in turn sing the hymns to their own pupils—thus the Vedic teachings were passed in a pristine form from generation to generation. The Vedas have four parts: the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions); the Aranyakas (explanation of the rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices); the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices); the Upanishads (discussion of meditation, philosophy, and spirituality).

The Smṛti (that which is remembered) consists of the sacred texts which are composed by the ancient sages: this tradition consists of Manusmriti, Yājñavalkyasmriti, Sankha Likhita Smriti, Parashara Smriti, the Dharmasūtras and Dharmaśāstras, the eighteen Mahapuranas (Major Puranas) and eighteen Upapuranas (Minor Puranas), the ancient epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana), the Arthasaśāstras, and several other texts. Yājñavalkya, the sage who flourished between seventh and eighth centuries B.C., gives the name of twenty Smṛti texts, several of which are no longer extant. 

In some classifications, a third category is added to the structure of Sanatana Dharma—it is called Itihasa (history). The two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are part of the Itihasa category. There is also the category of Tantra, which means the science of doing practical things. Much of ancient Tantra is no longer extant. The ancient sages felt that people in ancient times were not ready for such knowledge and they stopped teaching the Tantric arts.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Marriage of Surya and Soma

When the daughter of the sun god Surya (she is named Surya after her father) is getting married to the moon god Soma (who is on earth incarnated as the Soma plant from which the immortality granting Soma juice is derived), all the gods and other divine beings of the universe arrive to attend the ceremony. In the Rigveda, the marriage of Surya and Soma is described in the hymn 85 of Mandala 10. Here’s an excerpt which contains a description of Surya’s bridal dress and pomp (all translations are by Ralph T.H. Griffith, 1896): 

“Raibhi was her dear bridal friend, and Narasamsi led her home 
Lovely was Surya's robe: she came to that which Gatha had adorned.”
“Thought was the pillow of her couch, sight was the unguent for her eyes: 
Her treasury was earth and heaven..when Surya went unto her Lord.”

Here’s another description of the ceremony: 

“Soma was he who wooed the maid: the groomsmen were both Asvins, when
The Sun-God Savitar bestowed his willing Surya on her Lord.”
“Her spirit was the bridal car; the covering thereof was heaven:
Bright were both Steers that drew it when Surya approached her husband's home.”

Surya is implored to prepare an exquisite wedding voyage for her husband Soma:

“Mount this, all-shaped, gold-hued, with strong wheels, fashioned of Kimsuka and Salmali, light-rolling,
Bound for the world of life immortal, Surya: make for thy lord a happy bridal journey.”

The hymn ends with a number of verses in which gods are invoked to bless the bride: 

“O Bounteous Indra, make this bride blest in her sons and fortunate.
Vouchsafe to her ten sons, and make her husband the eleventh man.”
“Over thy husband's father and thy husband's mother bear full sway.
Over the sister of thy lord, over his brothers rule supreme.”
“So may the Universal Gods, so may the Waters join our hearts.
May Matarisvan, Dhatar, and Destri together bind us close.”

It is said that the Hindu marriages are modeled on the marriage between Surya and Soma.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Soma: The Vedic Celebration of Life

The Rigveda does not oppose Dionysian proclivities—it contains several hymns, which import the Gods for the good things in life: health, wealth, long life, prestige, and progeny. Their Dionysian concerns are most pronounced in the descriptions of the making and drinking of “Soma juice,” the elixir of the gods. The Soma plant is viewed as a God that has descended from heaven and made the mountain called Mount Mujavant his earthly abode. 

The hymns in Rigveda’s Mandala 9.74 and 10.94 provide an insight into the ritual of extraction and distillation of Soma juice from Soma plants. The Gods crave for Soma juice because it carries assurances of immortality (Mandala 8.48 and 9.113). When the Gods drink Soma juice, they become boastful. Here’s an excerpt from Mandala 10.119, which describes the gargantuan claims made by a God (probably Indra or Agni) after drinking Soma juice (translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith, 1896): 

1. This, even this was my resolve, to win a cow, to win a steed: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

2. Like violent gusts of wind the draughts that I have drunk have lifted me: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

3. The draughts I drank have borne me up, as fleet-foot horses draw a car: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

4. The hymn hath reached me, like a cow who lows to meet her darling calf: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

5. As a wright bends a chariot-seat so round my heart I bend the hymn: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

6. Not as a mote within the eye count the Five Tribes of men with me: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

7. The heavens and earth themselves have not grown equal to one half of me: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

8. I in my grandeur have surpassed the heavens and all this spacious earth: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

9. Aha! this spacious earth will I deposit either here or there: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

10. In one short moment will I smite the earth in fury here or there: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

11. One of my flanks is in the sky; I let the other trail below: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

12. 1, greatest of the Mighty Ones, am lifted to the firmament: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

13. I seek the worshipper's abode; oblation-bearer to the Gods: Have I not drunk of Soma juice?

Monday, October 5, 2020

Sky and Earth: The Parents of the Sun

Three thousand years ago, the composers of the Rigveda imagined the morning sun as a child born from the union of sky, the father, and earth, the mother. The hundred-sixtieth hymn in the Rigveda’s first mandala depicts the sky and earth as the two divinities who are the sun’s parents. The sky is the abode of eternity, where the sun resides, while the earth is the abode of mortality, where humans and other creatures reside. This hymn is credited to Rishi Dīrghatamas, who belongs to the Angirasa clan, one of the oldest Rishi families in the Vedic tradition, and known for his enigmatic and paradoxical apothegms in the Rigveda. Here’s Ralph T.H. Griffith’s 1896 translation of the mandala 1.160:

1. These, Heaven and Earth, bestow prosperity on all, sustainers of the region, Holy Ones and wise,

Two Bowls of noble kind: between these Goddesses the God, the fulgent Sun, travels by fixed decree [laws of nature].

2. Widely-capacious Pair, mighty, that never fail, the Father and the Mother keep all creatures safe:

The two world-halves, the spirited, the beautiful, because the Father hath clothed them in goodly forms.

3. Son of these Parents, he the Priest with power to cleanse, Sage, sanctifies the worlds with his surpassing power.

Thereto for his bright milk he milked through all the days the party-colored Cow and the prolific Bull.

4. Among the skillful Gods most skilled is he, who made the two world-halves which bring prosperity to all;

Who with great wisdom measured both the regions out, and stablished them with pillars that shall ne'er decay.

5. Extolled in song, O Heaven and Earth, bestow on us, ye mighty Pair, great glory and high lordly sway,

Whereby we may extend ourselves ever over the folk; and send us strength that shall deserve the praise of men.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Agni: The Offspring of the Waters

The Rigveda contains verses in which Agni is identified as Apām Napāt, the son of waters, who is conceived in the womb of the water laden clouds as lightning. Here’s an excerpt from the 35th hymn in the 2nd Mandala of the Rigveda (Ralph T.H. Griffith’s translation):

“The Waters' Son hath risen, and clothed in lightning ascended up unto the curled cloud's bosom; And bearing with them his supremest glory the Youthful Ones, gold-colored, move around him.” “Golden in form is he, like gold to look on, his color is like gold, the Son of Waters. When he is seated fresh from golden birthplace those who present their gold give food to feed him.”

In the above verse, Agni (Apām Napāt) is being depicted as a divine entity that emerges from the waters in the form of golden lightning.

Writing more than 2500 years after the Rigveda was composed, Sayana (also known as Sāyaṇācārya), the fourteenth century Vedic philosopher, has remarked that the name Apām Napāt designates Agni as the grandson and not the son of the waters—this is because the herbs and trees are born of the waters and Agni is born from the herbs and trees.