Buddhist Philosophy 1: The Golden Age of Indian Thought
For this lecture, please read the opening eight hymns of the Rg Veda.
To understand the Golden Age of ancient Indian philosophy (1000 BCE – 200 BCE), which produced many revered thinkers, including the Buddha (563 – 483 BCE), one of the world’s most revered thinkers, it is important to cover the origins of Hinduism, the Vedas and the Upanishads.
The Origins of Hinduism
‘Hindu’ is the Persian name for India, Persia and India having traded extensively for thousands of years. The English speaking world borrows the term from the British, who get the term from the Persians. The Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism, were composed between 1500 BCE and 500 BCE, bringing together many traditions from many regions with many gods, with 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 aspects 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 monistic 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 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.
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 the Vedas, there are several passages that foreshadow the Upanishads and their more monistic understanding of the metaphoric narratives. 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
A popular metaphor that fits well with this is 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.
The Upanishads (beginning in 800 BCE, most having been written by 600 BCE) were philosophical teachings about the soul/self (atman) and how to release the soul from desire and identity to merge with the great One and All (the goal of moksha or nirvana, discussed last time). The Upanishads frequently interpret the stories of the Vedas as metaphoric teachings, instructions for the truly wise on how to develop the mind/soul/self. The self (atman) was to be united with the supreme reality, oneness, and spirit of all, Brahman. ‘Upanishad’ means “sitting down near/beside”, (upa, ‘near’, ni, ‘down’, sad, ‘sit’) as these are the close teachings of the priest, philosopher or master who has taught the Vedas for a long time and knows their secret and hidden ‘inner’ meaning. The students who were talented and advanced would sit down beside the teacher after the normal lecture to get the advanced, inner teaching that the normal students were not ready to hear. Unfortunately, there are no authors to which the texts are ascribed, having been lost to history. Perhaps some of these teachings are as old as the Vedas, and were only written down after 800 BCE. There are over 200 Upanishad texts, though there are 10 central Upanishads.
One of the most famous sayings from the Upanishads is Tat Tvam Asi, “That is you”. No matter what “that” you are looking at, it is in fact your own self because all is one and there are no complete or permanent separations between any two things. This means there is no complete distinction between any ‘this’ or ‘that’, and thus no complete distinction between atman and Brahman, or between any of the gods and Brahman. This is similar to another passage of Zhuangzi the Daoist, one of my favorite skeptical passages of philosophy, which says, “A sage too has a this and a that, but his that has a this, and his this has a that”. Notice the monism that unites all connecting not only the various Hindu gods together but all individuals in the singular One of reality.
In Indian artwork, for all schools of Indian thought including both Hinduism and Buddhism, one of the most common hand gestures or ‘mudras’ is the thumb and index finger touching forming a circle with the rest of the fingers extended, much like the ‘OK’ hand sign. The thumb and index finger are symbolically pinching the seed, grain or essence of a thing. While we may be skeptical of spiritual powers associated with hand gestures, hand and finger positioning has been shown to stimulate the same areas of the brain as counting, numbers and language. This is likely because the development of number and language systems went ‘hand in hand’, so to speak, with the earliest gestures for primitive communication. We naturally begin and often continue counting on our fingers, and use our fingers to point, intend and indicate. The sages instructing students in the Upanishads and the Buddha are often portrayed displaying the essence/grain mudra, as it is associated with not only teaching, and teaching about essences (such as, the self is essentially, at bottom, basically an illusion), but also on a deeper level the supreme One which is the true undifferentiated reality supporting and consisting of all particular things and all individual selves.
Just like the unorthodox systems of Jainism and Buddhism would do later, the Upanishads point beyond particular duties to ritual, sacrifice, caste or class to the supreme goal of self-liberation. This had a great appeal to those who were not Brahmins, the priests who formed the top level of the caste system. While the Upanishads did not say to abandon the caste system, the teachings were applicable to all. As we will see, Mahavira who founded Jainism and the Buddha both had great appeal as they openly said that one did not need to be reborn as a priest to have a shot at nirvana. Rather, one could have it in this very life and not need to reposition oneself for a better life through karma. Both Mahavira and Buddha were warrior’s sons and so were second class themselves. We can see that, as the Upanishads caught on and became one of if not the most influential source in the further developments of Indian thought, people increasingly questioned the Vedas and the caste system even as they continued to retain them as many still do today.
In the Isha Upanishad, we find:
Onward, descending, go whoever are slayers of the self. Unmoving, the One is swifter than the mind…It moves. It moves not. It is far, and it is near. It is within all this, and it is outside of all this….What delusion, what sorrow is there, of him who perceives the unity! The bright, the bodiless, the scathe-less, the sinew-less, the pure…Appropriately he distributed objects through the eternal years. Into blind darkness enter they that worship ignorance. Into darkness greater than that they that delight in knowledge. Other, indeed, they say, than knowledge! Other, they say, than non-knowledge!…Knowledge and non-knowledge: He who this pair conjointly knows, with non-knowledge passing over death, with knowledge wins the immortal. Into blind darkness enter they who worship non-becoming. Into darkness greater than that they who delight in becoming. Other, they say, than origin! Other, they say, than non-origin…Becoming and destruction: He who this pair conjointly knows, with destruction passing over death, with becoming wins the immortal.
Notice this passage suggests that the One moves and does not move, is knowledge and the opposite of knowledge, is the permanent and eternal as well as endless transformation, both evolution and decomposition. It warns that you can fall into ignorance by preferring any one of these to its opposite, as you would then be following a part, not the whole. Remember that Vishnu is the great savior and preserver god in the Hindu tradition, and Shiva is the great destroyer and transformer god. This Upanishad is quite compatible with seeking a union of Vishnu, Shiva and all of their incarnations as not only Brahma, the singular One personified as a god, but Brahman, the One as unpersonified, as beyond personifications and anthropomorphism.
In the Katha Upanishad, a dialog between the sage Naciketas and Yama, god of death, the good is praised above the pleasant. As the sourcebook points out, this is very similar to what Socrates argues in dialogues written by Plato. The highest mind is to be pursued, rather than the simple passing pleasures. Naciketas says to Death, after being taught: “Ephemeral things! That which is a mortal’s, O End-maker, even the vigor of all the powers, they wear away. Even a whole life is slight indeed. Yours are the vehicles! Yours is the dance and the song!”. This passage uses ‘vehicles’ as vessels or individual things that convey pleasure or anything else. The vehicle is a popular metaphor for teaching or school in Indian thought, and as we will see the various schools of Buddhism are known as vehicles.
Yama replies that those who teach that reality is some part rather than the whole are blind men led by a blind man. This is, in fact, the origin of the phrase, “blind leading the blind”. Yama says, “Him who is the bodiless among bodies, stable among the unstable, the great, all-pervading self, on recognizing him, the wise man sorrows not”. Yama uses a metaphor used by Plato through the mouth of Socrates, the self as charioteer, the body as a chariot, and the senses and passions as the horses. Yama tells of a complex stack of higher and truer selves:
Higher than the senses are the objects of sense. Higher than the objects of sense is the mind, and higher than the mind is the intellect (buddhi, also ‘consciousness’ or ‘awareness’, just as the Buddha is the ‘awakened one’). Higher than the intellect is the great self. Higher than the great is the unmanifest. Higher than the unmanifest is the great person. Higher than the person is nothing at all. That is the goal. That is the highest course.
In the Mundaka Upanishad, we read:
There are two knowledges to be known, as indeed the knowers of Brahman are wont to say: a higher (para) and a lower (apara). Of these, the lower is the Rg Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda (the four principle Vedas, the central canonical and dogmatic texts above which there is no other). Now, the higher is that whereby that Imperishable is apprehended. That which is invisible, ungraspable, without family, without caste, without sight or hearing is It, without hand or foot, eternal, all-pervading, omnipresent, exceedingly subtle, that is the imperishable, which the wise perceive as the source of beings…He who knows that, set in the secret place of the heart, he here on earth, my friend, rends asunder the knot of ignorance…What that is, know as being and non-being, as the object of desire, higher than understanding, as what is the best of creatures!…Taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanishad, one should put upon it an arrow sharpened by meditation. Stretching it with a thought directed to the essence of that, penetrate that imperishable as the mark, my friend…As the flowing rivers in the ocean disappear, quitting name and form, so the knower, being liberated from name and form, goes unto the heavenly person, higher than the high. He who knows that supreme Brahman, becomes very Brahman.
In the Chanddogya Upanishad, we see Jabala leaving to study sacred knowledge and seek a teacher, so he asks his mother what family he comes from. This is important, as family is caste and ethnicity according to the tradition and purity laws. His mother tells him, and he in turn tells his teacher and sage, that when she was young she was a maid and got pregnant and does not know who his family is. His teacher replies that he will accept him as a student, as only a Brahmin, the top priestly caste, could answer that way. This is an interesting reversal, considering that the Brahmins are supposed to be pure and preserve their purity, while his mother’s story seems anything but top caste or pure. He then begins to be taught:
In the beginning, this world was just being (sat), one only, without a second. To be sure, some people say in the beginning this world was just non-being (asat), one only, without a second, from that non-being, being was produced. But verily, how could this be?…It bethought itself, would that I were many. Let me procreate myself…As the bees prepare honey by collecting the essences of different trees and reducing the essence to a unity, as they are not able to discriminate, ‘I am the essence of this tree’ or ‘I am the essence of that tree’, even so, indeed, all creatures here, though they reach being, know not ‘We have reached being’. Whatever they are in this world, whether tiger or lion, or wolf, or boar, or worm, or fly, or gnat, or mosquito, that they become. That which is the finest essence, this whole world has that as its self. That is reality. That is self. That art thou.
This is the place where this central thought, ‘Tat tvam asi’, is written. The sage asks Jabala to bring him a fig, and then cut it up. He asks what is inside, and Jabala says seeds. He asks Jabala to cut the seeds, and asks what he sees inside, and Jabala replies, ‘Nothing’. The sage responds, “That is the essence that you do not perceive, and it gives rise to the entire fig tree”. Then the sage asks Jabala to put salt in water so it dissolves and asks him to sip from several sides, and each time Jabala replies that he tastes salt. Like the inside of the fig seed, the sage says that the essence of all is hidden yet perceivable in all things equally.
In a hilarious passage of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, a student questions that master about how many gods there are repeatedly, and the master keeps changing his answer. At first, he says that the Vedic hymn to all the gods says there are 303 and 3003, which would be 3306 all together. Then he says there are 33, then 6, then 3 (likely Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma), then 2, then one and a half, and finally one, which is breath and Brahman. The sage goes on to teach the student:
There are two conditions: being in this world and being in the other world. There is a third condition that is being in sleep. By standing in this condition one sees both of the others…When one goes to sleep, one takes along the material of this all containing world , himself tears it apart, himself builds it up, and dreams by his own brightness, by his own light. Then this person becomes self-illuminated. There are no chariots there, no spans, no roads, but he projects from himself chariots, spans, roads. There are no blisses there, no pleasures, no delights, but he projects from himself blisses, pleasures, and delights. There are no tanks there, no lotus pools, no streams, but he projects from himself tanks, lotus pools and streams, for he is a creator. While he does not there know, he is truly knowing, though he does not know, for there is no cessation of the knowing of a knower, because of his imperishability…There is on earth no diversity. As a unity only is it to be looked upon, this indemonstrable, enduring being, spotless, beyond space, the unborn self, great enduring.
In the Maitri Upanishad, we read:
In this cycle of existence I am like a frog in a waterless well…In thinking ‘This is I’, and ‘That is mine’, one binds oneself with oneself, as does a bird with a snare…Therefore, by knowledge (vidya), by austerity (tapas), and by meditation (cinta), Brahman is apprehended…For thus has it been said: He who is in the fire, and he who is here in the heart, and he who is yonder in the sun – he is one.