The remarkable eclecticism of Hindu philosophy
PAVAN K. VARMA
IN the times we live in today, it is essential to know the remarkable audacity of thought that was invested in the foundations of Hinduism, and in making it a faith that has stood the challenge of time to become sanatan, or eternal. Unless we understand the reasons for this, it becomes difficult to counter the organized efforts being made to reduce this great religion to its lowest common factor, a victim of a series of brittle and superficial diktats that show a spectacular ignorance of the conquering eclecticism that has always been its hallmark.
The Rig Veda, written sometime before 1500 BCE, has this remarkable hymn (Nasadiya Sukta) on creation:
There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?
There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night or day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards with the creation of this universe? Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.1
This hymn, perhaps the first recorded rumination in Hindu philosophy on the origins of the universe, is remarkable for its eclectic tone and tenor. There are no certitudes; no injunctions for obeisance; no religious commands, or call to ritual. There is awe, there is wonderment, but, above all, there is query, an emphasis on the need to ask, to probe, to go beyond conventional categories of thought to the realm of speculation, and an invitation to ideation. The questions signify an impassioned yearning for truth, but this yearning is willing to accept that the answers may need to embrace negation even as they seek to find the right assertion, and that, in this process, the path to truth can be many things but not simplistic or dogmatic.
The etymological meaning of Veda is sacred knowledge or wisdom. There are four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva. Together they constitute the Samhitas that are the textual basis of the Hindu religious system. To these Samhitas were attached three other kinds of texts. These are, firstly, the Brahmanas, which is essentially a detailed description of rituals, a kind of manual for the priestly class, the Brahmans. The second are the Aranyakas. Aranya means forest, and these ‘forest manuals’ move away from rituals and incantations and magic spells to the larger speculations of spirituality, a kind of compendium of the contemplations of those who have renounced the world. The third, leading from the Aranyakas, are the Upanishads, which, for their sheer loftiness of thought are the foundational texts of Hindu philosophy and metaphysics. Because they come at the very end of the corpus of the Vedas, they are also collectively called Vedanta, or the end of the Vedas, expounding the uncompromisingly non-dual nature of the cosmos – Advaita.
The word Upanishad literally means ‘to sit down near’ at the feet of a master or teacher who shares with his pupils spiritual truths or wisdom. One has to imagine a setting in a forest along the Ganga sometime as far back as 1500 BCE or earlier, where a sage, who has spent decades perhaps in the search for truth and wisdom, shares his thoughts, most often elliptically, with a group of students eager to begin their own journey in unravelling the mysteries of life. The conversation is not in the form of a formal dialogue, but through parable and suggestion, story and allusion, or statements of deep penetrative insight into what constitutes the transcendent reality underlying our lives and this universe.
The authors of the Upanishads are not known, nor do we have their exact chronology or date. It is certain that initially they were, like all Hindu texts, orally transmitted from generation to generation, and only reduced to text in classical Sanskrit sometime around 600 to 400 BCE. The Upanishads do not constitute a single volume compiled separately. In fact, the exact number of Upanishads is not known either, but by common consensus there are about twelve principal Upanishads attached to the Sama, Yajur and Atharva Vedas. Shankara wrote commentaries on ten of the principal Upanishads: Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka.
An important point needs to be noted here. From the very beginning, Hindu religion had two distinct strands. The first was preoccupied with ritual and prayer and gods and goddesses, and at a baser level with superstition and magic potions and spells and the like. This strand dwelt on the power and potency of a pantheon of Gods, and the ritualistic actions by which they could be accessed and worshipped through the intervention primarily of the priestly class, the Brahmans. Very early on in the Vedic age we come upon an endless array of deities or quasi deities, many of them representing, quite understandably, the dramatic forces of nature that were looked upon by early humans with wonderment and reverence. Hence we had gods like Indra, who controlled the elements, or Agni, fire, or Aditi, who is an early version of the Mother goddess, symbolizing the mysterious powers of procreation.
But, as the Aranyakas and Upanishads show, as does the hymn on creation from the Rig Veda referred to earlier, there was, also from the very beginning, an equally strong strand that sought to understand the origins and meanings and purpose of life, and to explore what could be the one unifying force underlying the bewildering multiplicity of the universe. This strand was less taken up with ritual and divinities and the practice of religion and more with the philosophical substratum underlying the practice of religion. These two strands crystallized in time into two distinct schools: that of karmakanda, which privileged the paraphernalia necessary for the practice of religion, including all the rites and rituals, and jnanakanda which gave primacy to the pursuit of knowledge and insight and mystical perception as the path to moksha or spiritual salvation.
In comparison with the other great religions of the world, Hinduism was probably not unique in nurturing two such divergent approaches, but it is almost certain that no other religious tradition so far back in time had such a pronounced emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself largely divorced from the ritual of religion.
The Upanishads are metaphysical poems, at once mystical and evocative. They resonate with a wisdom that is transparently a product of the deepest meditative insight, unhindered by structured presentation but robust, with a certitude of vision that is borne of unquestioned personal anubhav or experience. There is a Self, Atma, beyond definition and name and form or attribute because any attribute would only circumscribe its limitlessness. This Self is the highest reality. It encompasses all of creation: we are both part of it and its manifestation – Tat Tvam Asi, That Thou Art. The Self is the same as Brahman – Ayam Atma Brahma – the Self is Brahman. These utterances are two of the four Mahavakyas or Great Sentences of the Upanishads.
The Upanishads use Self and Brahma interchangeably. The apparent multiplicity of the world is an illusion. Once the ego and the senses are stilled through deep meditation, we realize our true Self, beyond all sorrow and pain, and realize that our true reality is ‘That’. All human differentiation then becomes false, a product of the illusion of Maya. In that non-dual, or Advaita identification with Brahman we partake of a bliss that is beyond mortal comprehension.
The Gita, whose text unfolds in the nature of a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna in the Mahabharat, did not purport to outline a rigorous or inflexible philosophical system. The votaries of Advaita Vedanta, Bhagwata theism, Samkhya dualism and Yogic meditation have all found in it ideas and passages in support of their predilections. The greatness of the Gita lies not on its philosophical chastity to any one school of thought, but to the solace it provides to the existential dilemma that often confronts human beings: one is born, one lives and one dies, and in between there could be joy but there is also sorrow and grief. There is no redemption from the starkness of this sterile, predictable charade, and all of a sudden the purport of ambition and achievement, of causes and goals, becomes opaque.
In this sense, Arjuna’s futility and weariness, was symbolic of ‘generic man’. He could not comprehend an imperative for action in a phenomenal world that was stubbornly inexplicable. The greatness of the Gita is that it enabled Krishna, through his discourse, to give purpose and meaning to the existential predicament of people like Arjuna.
The most important concept that the Gita enunciated was that of nishkama karma, of action, without attachment or thought of reward, as a consecration, done without selfish desire in a spirit of surrender. Krishna says:
Hear my truth about the surrender of works, Arjuna. Surrender, O best of men, is of three kinds.
Works of sacrifice, gift, and self-harmony should not be abandoned, but should indeed be performed; for these are works of purification.
Apart from Vedanta, the five other schools of philosophy were the Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, and Purva Mimamsa. All these schools were essentially guided by two fundamental tenets, investigation or mimamsa, and reflection or vichara. The investigation and reflection were about the ultimate nature of the world, and the consequential purposes of life. They overlapped in their concepts and reasoning in some respects, but their differences were equally marked, and in this sense, provide definitive proof of the eclectic milieu of those times, and the independence and robustness of thought they nurtured.
The depth and range of philosophical churning that marked the growth and evolution of Indic thought in its formative years must have few parallels anywhere else in the world, including Greece. This churning was characterized by a remarkable intellectual curiosity that refused to take anything for granted or to be confined to simplistic theism or conventional categories of personal prosperity and well being. The concerns here were larger, about causes and origins, the nature of things, the secrets of the universe, the exactitudes of logic and inference, and the relationship between mind, the senses and the body – a collective rumination that soared beyond the finitude of the known into the infinities beyond.
The rishis and sages who founded these systems grappled not so much with faith and Godhood. In fact, most of the six systems, including Vedanta, were at the level of pure philosophy, atheistic in tone, seeking instead to carry out a corrosive enquiry into the ultimate nature of substance and spirit. In this process, the emphasis was not on what dogmatically is, or what emphatically must be, or what necessarily should be, but what possibly could be. The felicity and energy with which these thinkers volitionally left familiar – and more comprehensible – shores to plumb the depths of the unknown is nothing short of amazing.
There is no concept of heresy in Hinduism, nor has anyone been burnt on the stake for blasphemy. In addition to the six major systems of philosophy, the Charvaka Lokayatika school provides a fascinating insight into the intellectual eclecticism of these times, and the degree of ‘deviation’ from conventional thinking that was tolerated. While it is true that several of the major schools of Hindu philosophy were less preoccupied with a personal God, and built their ideological structures on an atheistic template, the Charvakas openly denied the existence of god or of any supernatural forces, and argued a well thought out materialism.
The external world, they asserted, exists objectively, and is governed by verifiable laws and not by any supra natural force. Our only valid source of inference is direct perception (pratyaksha), and what cannot be perceived does not exist. The material substances that we can infer through direct perception are earth, water, fire and air. The world consists of varying combinations of these four fundamental elements (mahabhuta). Consciousness is not anything transcendental, but a product of the combination of these elements in a specific form and under definitive conditions. There is no soul that survives death. The body returns to the four basic elements that constituted it. Nothing remains to transmigrate or be reborn. The Vedas are bereft of all sanctity since they suffer from the three errors of internal contradiction, untruth, and meaningless repetition.
Apart from these various schools of thought and practices in Hinduism, there were two major religions, Buddhism and Jainism, which emerged around the same time, and although different in some aspects from Hinduism, allowed for the same openness in thinking, and certainly were, like Hinduism, deeply cerebral in nature. Buddha was born in Lumbini in 563 BCE in the royal kingdom of Kapilavastu, and lived to the age of eighty. As a young prince he was deeply influenced by the human suffering he saw around him. This suffering, he was convinced, was inevitable in a life that was both transient and unfulfilling, and meaningless beyond the superficial cycle of happiness followed by sorrow, joy followed by grief. He decided then to renounce life, and search for the truth that would lead to nirvana or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Buddha’s enduring concern was with dukkha or suffering inherent in incarnate life. On receiving enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, he enunciated the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path to liberation. The four truths, simply put, were that there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, there can be cessation of suffering, and the Eight Fold Path is the way to the cessation of suffering. The eight steps, or the middle way, which he enunciated were right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
This kernel of Buddha’s philosophy was taken to new extremes by later Buddhist thinkers. The Yogachara school of Mahayana Buddhism, asserted that only thought, in its ever-changing flux, is real, and there is no external reality whatsoever. This exclusive emphasis on the ephemeral mind as the only identifiable reality to the exclusion of all else took subjectivism to another level, and was called Vijnanavada. Another school, whose chief proponent was Nagarjuna (circa 150 CE), founded the Madhaymika school of Mahayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna postulated the theory of Sunyata or Emptiness, in which he denied not only the existence of external objects but also the perceiving self. Since there is nothing like a Self, and all things are transient and a product of dependent origination (pratityasamputapada), the entire world, mind and matter, is illusory. Nirvana is the outcome of the understanding of this nihilistic Void.
Between the thoughtful certainties of Advaita, which asserted the pervasive presence of Brahman signifying Sat Chit Anand – Being, Awareness and Bliss, and the contemplative certainties of Buddhism, which denied the existence of anything permanent amidst an ocean of impermanence and sorrow, was the deliberate ambivalence of Jainism. Although twenty-four Tirthankars or spiritual teachers had preceded him, Mahavira is accepted as the principal icon of the Jaina faith. Like the Buddha, he was born in a royal family, in the Muzzafarpur district of Bihar in 599 BCE, and died at Pawapuri in 527 BCE. Around the age of thirty, he too, like the young prince of Kapilavastu, left home to search for truth. After twelve years of intense penance and meditation, he acquired Kevala Jnana, or infinite knowledge.
As against the assertions of absolute truth, Jainism consciously postulates a doctrine of uncertainty. The significant point is that it does so not by simplistic rejection, but in keeping with the intellectual rigour of those times, through a considered theoretical structure of thought. Reality, Jainism says, is complex and admits a plurality and multiplicity of viewpoints, anekantvada. The search for truth must eschew absolutisms and accept the validity of partial standpoints, nayavada. No postulate can be made in such a manner that it denies the possibility of conditional predications, syadavada.
In support of such a deliberate doctrine of relativity, Jainism cites the parable of seven blind men examining an elephant, and depending on what part they are in touch with, come to a different conclusion of what it is. More formally, Jainism sought to debunk the proponents of ‘one-sidedness’ by its saptabhangi or seven-step theory, whose purpose is to establish that knowledge of reality is relative. The seven possibilities that the saptbhangi doctrine outlines are: maybe, it is; maybe, it is not; maybe, it is and is not; maybe, it is inexpressible; maybe, it is and is inexpressible; maybe, it is not and is inexpressible; maybe it is and is not and is inexpressible. The one word that is common to all seven viewpoints is ‘maybe’. In Jainism, ‘maybe’ is the antidote to dogmatism, and, in particular that of Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics.
The essential point is that Hinduism, and the Indic faiths that emerged from it, including Sikhism later, showed a tolerance to diversity of opinion and the ability to accommodate different points of view. They believed in dialogue to resolve issues, and evolved through civilized discourse. It is for this reason that their foundations were not brittle, and could provide a capacious framework to counter threats against them. If Hinduism loses its essential eclecticism it will lose its essential character. This does not mean that Hinduism is a passive religion. Nor does it mean that its followers must be pacific or incapable of asserting themselves against that which is wrong. What it does mean, however, is that Hinduism cannot become a poor copy of the Abrahamic faiths, insisting on a certain set of rituals and precepts as mandatory.
Hinduism, with its strong foundations of thought, has survived without one god only, one holy book, one church, or one set of prescriptive rituals. The attempt to forcefully straitjacket in a mould that is completely unfit for its character and evolution is something that all Hindus must collectively resolve to fight.
1. The Rig Veda translation by Wendy Doniger. Penguin, 1981, pp. 25-26.