Asian Philosophy 1: Indian Thought, Hinduism & the Vedas
For this lecture, please read the opening eight hymns of the Rg Veda.
Since this is the first lecture of the course, and because we are studying Eastern philosophy rather than Western, it is important to introduce philosophy and why the West does not have a monopoly on it.
Human thought, and thus the human world, is dominated by pairs of opposites. It is often useful to think of these opposites in terms of positive and negative. Good is positive, while bad is negative. Happy is positive, while sad is negative. Being is positive, while non-being is negative. Full is positive, while empty is negative.
Notice that “positive” does not always mean happy or good and “negative” does not always mean sad or bad. When we say “order” and “chaos”, closure (stability) sounds good and openness (instability) sounds bad. However, when we say “freedom” and “restraint”, openness (unconstrained) sounds good and closure (constrained) sounds bad. When we want stability or order, openness is bad (“chaos”). When we want to be free and unconstrained, openness is good (“freedom”). A person, place or thing can be positive in some ways and negative in others. It depends on context, position and location. In many ways, places and times, happiness and solidity are good and in others they are bad.
Also, no particular thing is perfectly good or completely solid. We judge the table (and the wheel, as Laozi the patriarch of Daoism will explain soon) to be simply solid and the space around it to be simply empty, but no table is immortal or unbreakable, and no space is a perfect vacuum. Even outer space is full of dust, light and everything else in the universe. In the same way, particular things that are good or make us happy do not always make us happy and do not make everyone happy. Often, things that make one person happy continue to make another unhappy because they make the first person happy.
Human belief/judgment has its own special pairs of opposites. The most basic is belief (positive) and doubt (negative). Belief is an answer or answering, and doubt is a question or questioning. In politics, conservatives lean towards believing and affirming the institution (often looking to the stability and consistency of the past) while progressives lean towards doubting and questioning the institution (often looking to the openness and change of the future). In systems of thought, dogmatists lean towards answers and affirming the truths of the system (“There are certain facts, morals and truths.”) while skeptics lean towards questions and doubting the truths of the system (“Are there certain facts, morals and truths?”). According to Hegel, one of my favorite philosophers, human thought is an endless battle between dogmatism and skepticism. This battle is also a symbiotic evolution requiring both sides.
When we look at the history of human thought, from its origins in shamanism to its evolution and specialization with religion, philosophy, art and science, we can see that both dogmatism and skepticism play necessary roles. Without a base that is assumed and unquestioned, nothing new can be produced. However, without reaching for the new and questioning the old there is no growth to improve and fit new circumstances. The great thinkers in human thought, across all systems, incorporate the old while bringing us the new. Often they are called heretics in their time and only canonized after they are safely dead because they have to question the very system that they stand for.
Many unfortunately believe that philosophy was born in ancient Greece, when in fact wisdom is universal to human kind even though it is difficult to achieve. The wise, though rarer than we would like, have been celebrated in all cultures, and their wisdom has similarity across all cultures even though their beliefs can differ widely. While the word ‘philosophy’ is an ancient Greek word, great thinkers and questioners can be called philosophers and wise sages in any culture.
It should also be mentioned that philosophers were not welcome in ancient Greece as they questioned the ways of things (traditional polytheism) and as such Socrates was put to death for “inciting the youth to riot”, Aristotle was chased out of Athens after the death of his student Alexander (a foreign Macedonian who conquered Athens by the sword, Aristotle being an unwelcome foreigner from Strageira in Athens himself), and Heraclitus, my favorite Greek philosopher, complains that his city state Ephesus exiled their best thinker for questioning things and it would be best if all Ephesians went and hanged themselves to leave the city in the abler hands of children.
What is philosophy? Philosophy has been called “thinking about thinking”, questioning and answering the very process of questioning and answering itself. The ancient Greek philosophers (such as Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato) critically examined their own thinking and their traditions of thought and brought new answers by questioning the human mind and society. While these Greek thinkers should be read and admired, they were not the first or only ancient thinkers to ask abstract questions about thought itself.
The Greek word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”. What is wisdom? The German philosophers Kant and Hegel tell us that there are dueling parts of our individual mind that fight and cooperate on the individual level just as dogmatism and skepticism fight and cooperate on the social level. These two parts are understanding and reason, and these correspond to knowledge and wisdom. Understanding tries to hold things set and steady (the conservative force) while reason tries to challenge and rearrange things (the progressive force). Knowledge is a set understanding, while wisdom is the ability to reason. All systems of thought use both understanding and reason to produce both knowledge and wisdom.
Introducing Indian Thought
‘Hindu’ is the Persian name for India (Persia and India are next door to each other and have traded for thousands of years). Our society borrows the term from the British, who get the term from the Persians. As we read in the Vedas, Hinduism brought together many traditions from many regions with many gods, but there are three levels that are equally interchangeable and separable. First, each can have a particular god that is the emphasis of one’s particular branch of the tradition. Second, the many gods are each one aspect of a single god, often the great father and creator, named by most traditions Brahma. Third, there is a philosophical monism that goes beyond god or not god, living or dead, conscious or unconscious, that is the One. Locals practicing devotional worship often operate on the first level, priests who study the Vedas often operate on the second level, while philosophers and unorthodox Indian schools that do not accept the authority of the Vedas such as Jains, Buddhists and the materialist Charvakas operate on the third.
As Hinduism was brought together as a tradition that brought together many separate people with separate traditions, first the Vedas spoke largely though not entirely on the first level, then particular passages of the Vedas and the later Upanishads spoke on the second level, and then many schools went beyond the Upanishads and understood a simple, neither theistic nor atheistic One to be the real underlying truth of the first and second levels. Vedanta, literally “Veda’s End”, debated back and forth between the second and third levels in the tradition of the Upanishads.
This came together over many periods in the history of Indian thought. About 2000 BCE, India was invaded by a fire worshiping people who likely came from modern day Iran. While European scholars previously argued that this was the spark of civilization migrating to India, we know today that the area was already well developed at the time, with great buildings and impressive public baths with plumbing.
Although the area was already developed, the fire worshiping Aryans were a big influence on the Vedas and ancient Indian culture, but scholars are critical of just how influential as it was said only recently that the Aryans civilized India and brought the Vedas with them. While the Vedas may have been strongly influenced by the Aryans, it is debatable how much is composed of earlier native Indian pre-Aryan traditions. The Nazis, following earlier German historians, believed that the Aryans were Germanic tribes who civilized not only India but Egypt, Greece, and Persia. The swastika, and Indian name for a symbol that can be found in much of the world, including tribal German lands, was thought to be the sun symbol of the Aryans, and so it was used by the Nazis. Unfortunately for this Germanic theory of history, we know that the Aryans were indeed from modern day Iran, what became Persia very soon after the Aryan conquests in India.
Next, in the Vedic period, 1500-800 BCE, the four Vedas were composed as oral traditions that eventually were written down in texts, including the foremost Rg Veda of which there are selections in your reader. The golden age of Indian thought followed from 800-200 BCE, the time when the Upanishads distilled the Vedic hymns to the gods into inner philosophical and psychological teachings, the six orthodox schools that follow the Vedas (Vedanta, Yoga, Mimamsa, Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaisheshika) as well as the unorthodox schools (Charvaka, Jainism and Buddhism) flourished, and the great Hindu epics (the Mahabharata and Ramayana) were written. After this, from 200 BCE – 500 CE is a period when the schools and traditions of the golden age were systematized into sutras or central texts. Finally, after 500 CE and up to the present time, is the period of commentaries written on the earlier systems and their sutras. This persisted through the period of conquest by Muslims of North India in the 1500s and then by the British in the 1800s.
The Three Paths
There are three paths of worship in Hinduism. First, there is devotional worship, known as Bhakti yoga (‘yoga’ means ‘discipline’, or practice). In Bhakti devotional worship, the devotee prays, sings hymns, lights incense, and performs rituals to gain favor with the gods and heavens. It is impossible not to notice that most of what we call ‘religion’ the world over is in fact forms of Bhakti practice, devotion to particular gods and ancestral spirits. The two most populous forms of Bhakti Hinduism are Shaivism, the worship of Shiva (the transformer and destroyer) and his incarnations such as Ganesh (the elephant headed god), and Vaishnavism, the worship of Vishnu (the savior or preserver) and his incarnations such as Krishna. Worship is often called ‘darshana’, or seeing/experiencing, and Hindus will say, I am going to the seeing, meaning I am going to see and be seen by the god. Another common form of Bhakti devotion is worship of a particular goddess such as Kali. Notice that, like a scientist, Bhakti practitioners also believe in learning by experience and seeing, but their subject matter is quite different.
Raja yoga, the second path, is worship by meditation and asceticism (living in isolation, standing in place for days, fasting chanting the names of gods for hours, sitting on spikes, and other means of hard activity) meant to gain a meditative state of insight. Raja means ‘force’ or ‘effort’, and India is famous for its forest sages practicing these techniques. As we will study soon, the Jains and later Buddhists became famous for their practices of discipline, training both the body and the mind. Jains would sometimes stand in the jungle for such long periods of time that vines would grow up their bodies, as depicted in some of their venerated images.
Jnana yoga (“zshna-na”), the third path and my personal favorite, is worship by acquiring knowledge, wisdom and understanding the order of things through study and philosophizing. This class itself could be seen as a form of Jnana yoga, designed to bring you closer to the core by studying the ways of the world. All three paths, or any mixture of the three, are understood to work towards the same goal: liberation from the bonds of attachment and desire, rising into enlightenment and release from the constraints of identity to join together with the whole.
There are two ultimate goals to this process. First, there is hope for a better next life. Many are familiar already with the Hindu idea of reincarnation. This is not a form of afterlife particular to India, but in fact there is evidence that many tribal cultures and early Egypt believed that one’s present life will be reincarnated in another life on earth based on one’s actions and intentions. This interconnection is called karma, which simply means ‘action’ in Sanskrit. Interestingly, physical causation is karma, just as it is also metaphysical causation (next life physics), an understanding of cause and effect applied to a different sphere of existence. If you punch someone in the head, it is karma that makes their head reel backward, and karma that also weighs down your chance for a favorable life after death in the Hindu tradition such that if you punch too many people, you get reborn a cockroach.
Second, there is hope for release, for freedom from rounds of rebirth on earth. This can be thought of as dwelling in a heaven with one’s personal or family god, but also as a dwelling with the order of things without residing in any particular place. Bhakti yoga tends to favor the dwelling with a lord, while raja and jnana tends to favor the dwelling with the universe as a whole, however it is important to remember that some Hindus believe that both amount to the same exact thing (while others will insist that their school’s truth is ‘more true’, the same variation one finds in any religion and in our own culture). This release is also called Moksha and Samadhi, but in America we know this first and foremost by the same name as the famous grunge band, Nirvana.
While moksha is the ultimate goal, via the more immediate goal of positioning oneself favorably for moksha either in this life (dwelling in the forest or a monastery) or in a next life, there are three other goals that Indian philosophy points to as desirable making four in total. In addition to moksha/nirvana, there is law or morality, ‘dharma’ (the term Jains and Buddhists use to describe their traditions and rules), pleasure, ‘kama’ (as from the Kama Sutra), and material well-being or comfort, ‘artha’. Clearly, the overall idea is that pleasure and comfort (kama and artha) are not in themselves evil, but one should pursue liberation through discipline (moksha through dharma), first and foremost. Buddhists symbolize dharma with a wheel, one of the earliest images of Buddhism found. Just like early Christians identified with the symbol of the fish before depicting Jesus, Buddhists identified with the wheel before depicting the Buddha.
Ancient India saw a great deal of development in science and technology. They observed the natural world and put phenomena into families and categories as did the ancient Greeks and as we still do today. The Romans would trade Germanic and Celtic slaves to India in exchange for Indian wootz, the metal most prized for weapons in the ancient world.
In mathematics the Indians were unsurpassed by ancient civilizations, developing the base ten system and the Indian-Arabic numerals we use today. They laid down the basics of symbolic equations, the concept and symbolization of zero, and invented the variable (originally a thick dot). All of this got picked up by the Muslims, who turned it into algebra, which then got picked up by the Europeans, who turned it into Calculus. Typically, we learn about Euclid and the Greeks doing geometry as the source of the Western mathematical tradition. Muslims were influenced by the Greeks and Euclid, but Euclid argued about lines drawn in sand and did not use equations. It was the Indians who invented the sorts of mathematical symbolism that the Muslims turned into step by step symbolic mathematics as we know it today and teach it up through high school.
In spite of all of these developments, Indian thought is typically anti-materialistic and concerned with spirituality or psychology depending on one’s vocabulary. Knowing the mind/spirit is knowing the essence of the whole as self-knowledge, or ‘atmavidya’. Hindus believe that one has an eternal self/soul/mind, the ‘atma’, as opposed to Jains and Buddhists who believe in ‘anatma’, or no-self (permanent self, anyway).
It used to be the opinion not only of most Hindus but also European scholarship until very recently, that Jainism and Buddhism took parts of Hinduism and broke away to form their own traditions. Recently, new studies have shown that Jainism and Buddhism were forming at the same time as Hinduism was becoming an official tradition. The Hindus accepted the Vedas and Upanishads while the Jains and Buddhists broke from the Vedas to follow more Upanishad-like understandings, but Hinduism as a centralized tradition was, in part, a reaction to the development of the Jain and Buddhist traditions. Thus, similar doctrines of reincarnation and psychological skepticism/idealism may have developed at the same time or been borrowed by Hinduism in its fully developed form rather than borrowed from Hinduism as it was previously thought. Even so, there is some truth to the common Hindu understanding that “Buddhism is Hinduism for export”, as Buddhists took the ideas in the Upanishads and Indian tradition, removed the dietary restrictions, caste system and other traditional purity laws, and became possibly the world’s largest system of thought in history, although it is debatable whether Christianity or Buddhism has that title.
In sections of the Vedas, we can see several passages that foreshadow the Upanishads and their more monistic understanding of the metaphoric narratives. This is also how we can understand the Hindu Epics we will examine this session. Often, teachings of the ancient world that are legendary can be understood by the common person as a real and miraculous event of history while the elite and wise could understand the legend as containing a deeper truth that can be transmitted to the common people as a story to be taken as history but which is more properly revealed as a metaphor. Particularly aided by the plurality of stories and traditions accepted into Indian and Hindu thought, there is much room for skepticism and subjectivism concerning conflicting truths and the shared common meaning having more importance than the conflicts in literal meaning. This is reflected in these Vedic passages, which were then extended in the Upanishads and Vedanta.
In a hymn to Indra, the storm father god who was often the chief sky father all god until unseated by Brahman (a more abstract, all-godhead), we find that we should praise Indra, if indeed he does exist. It asks, if someone wishes to purchase Indra from me for a modest price, you can return him after he has slain the demons. This is surprising humor found in the central Veda, the Rg Veda.
A hymn to Vishvedevas asks, “Who hath beheld him as he sprang to being, seen how this boneless One supports the bony? Where is the blood of earth, the life, the spirit? Who may approach the man who knows, to ask it?”. The boneless One, a humorous portrayal of the monistic All which has no bones because it is one without any articulation or part, supports all the many things with their many parts. Whenever we say, “All” or “reality”, we are summing everything together effortlessly without any divisions and without leaving any particular thing out.
A hymn to frogs tells us that, just as Vedic priests gather together with their rituals, so too do the frogs gather around the pond croaking to celebrate the first rain. This is remarkably similar to a passage of Zhuangzi, the Daoist patriarch, who asks if the supreme wisdom of humans is any different from the chirping of baby birds, which we will read later in the course. Another hymn asks for blessings for the “liberal worshipers”, who will hopefully turn in faith to the gods rather than doubt their existence with philosophical monism. Notice that the hymn refers to these skeptical and philosophical individuals as “worshipers”, not as atheists or heathens.
It is just these sort of individuals who would go on to write the Upanishads, the Vedanta and both the orthodox and unorthodox schools of Indian thought, including the Jainism and Buddhism we will study in the next few weeks. As the Upanishads continued to gain teachers and followers, there was a new flowering of many schools of thought between 700 and 400 BCE that took much from the Vedas and Upanishads but developed the teachings in new directions. These new schools often rejected the caste system (still in place today in spite of these ancient rebellions) and thus gained massive followings among all classes and castes of India. Jainism was one of the first, but it was quickly developed and transformed itself into a religion that is possibly the most popular system of thought in history, Buddhism.
The Blind Men & The Elephant
As a final metaphor and concept that fits well with our material, the famous story of the blind men and the elephant originated in India and has served to illustrate how reality is always beyond each and every human perspective for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, and much later Europeans. The story goes that several blind men encountered an elephant, and each took hold of a part, and they got into an argument about the shape of the entire elephant. The one who holds a leg says an elephant is like a pillar. The one who holds an ear says an elephant is like a sail. The one who holds the tail says an elephant is like a rope. The one who touches a side says an elephant is like a wall. The one who holds the trunk says an elephant is like a tree branch. They then all get into a fight about which view is exclusively true. Of course, all of the views are partial perspectives, and if they could see the whole, they would know that they are each, in part, correct. Each has experienced one side of the elephant, first hand.
Rumi, the Sufi Muslim poet, retold the story as an elephant in the dark, surrounded by Hindus, showing his awareness of the Indian story’s source. He adds that an elephant’s back is like a throne, and it’s trunk is like a fountain. Like Zhuangzi, the Daoist from China we will study later, Rumi says that we should try to see the ocean, beyond each bubble of foam, and that if each of the Hindus lit a candle, they would all be able to see the elephant as a whole, together.