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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Cosmic Cycle according to the Vedas

(Revised version)

When performing rituals, Hindus take a symbolic vow called samkalpa. When saying the mantra, you might have heard them say “ ȧ̇ḍhyabrahmanah ḍviti̅ye parardhe svetavarȧha kalpe vaivasvata manvantare”. The meaning is as follows.  “ȧ̇ḍhyabrahmanah” means “belonging to the current Brahma”. “ḍviti̅ye parardhe” means “second cycle of 1017  years” . The word kalpa stands for one day of Brahma. The current day is called svetavarȧha. Therefore, we say svetavarȧha kalpe . As we will see later, each day of Brahma is equivalent to 4,320,000 days and this is ruled by 14 kings called the manus and the name of the current Manu is Vaivasvata. Therefore, we say Vaivasvata manvantarey.

Two other clarifications. There are specific names for the 14 Manu kings. Their names are: swāyambhuva, svārociṣa, auttami, tāmasa, raivata, cākṣuṣa, vaivasvata, Sāvarṇi, dakṣasāvarṇi, brahmasāvarṇi, dharmasāvarṇi, rudrasāvarṇi, raucyadaivasāvarṇi, and indrasāvarṇi.

 There are specific names for numbers going from 10 (daśa) to 1017 (para̅ rdha). They are:

            10 daśa (see the similarity to the French deci of the decimal system)       

102   śatam

            103  sahasram

            104 ayutam

            105 lakṣam

            106 prayutam (million)

            107 koṭi (10 million)

            108 arbuda

            109 abja

            1010 kharva

            1012 mahạpadma

            1013 śamku

            1014 jaladhi

            1015 anta

            1016 madhya

1017 parạrdham

Tamizh also had specific numbering systems with names. These are known from before the days of Tholkappiam (at least 300 BCE)    

Amazing, is it not? The fact they had specific names must mean that they used them for some measurements. We know they needed numbers to measure the dimensions of the altar for the homa (fire sacrifice). They were also used in trade.

On the other end of the scale, the time it takes for 15 winks of the eye is called a Kashta. 30 Kashtas make a Kala. 30 and 1/10th Kala is called Muhurta. Thirty Muhurtas make a day and night (one full day). 30 complete days make a month and 12 months make one year.

One month of humans is equivalent to one day and night of pitris, days leading up to full moon being the day and the other 15 days making up the night.

One year of humans is equivalent to one full day of the gods, the six months of uttarayana (sun “moving” north) being the day and the other 6 months (dakshinayana) making the night. 12,000 deva years (year of the gods) is called one yuga. The cosmic cycle is divided into yugȧs, as described below. They go in cycles. In other words, there is no beginning and end, as the western traditions suggest. Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer thought this is more in line with scientific findings.

The basic four yugas are Krita, Treta, Dwapara and Kali. (Scholars tell us that these names come from the game of dice). Krita yuga is the first, made of 4,800 years of the gods. Of these, 400 years make the morning and 400 years make the evening. The day and the night are made of 2,000 deva years each. Treta yuga is made of 3,600 deva years, of which 300 years make up the morning and 300 years make the evening. Dwapara yuga is made of 2,400 deva years, with 200 years of morning and 200 years of evening. Kali yugȧ, which is the present one has 1, 200 deva years, with 100 years of morning and 100 years of evening. Please note the arithmetic progression of the numbers of years.

One cycle of the four yugas adds up to 12,000 years of the gods (deva years) (4,800+3,600+2,400+1,200). Since 1 day of the deva is made of 1 year of 360 human days, 1 year of the devas equals 360 human years. Therefore,12,000 deva years is equivalent to 4,320,000 human years.   One cycle of 4 yugȧs is called 1 mȧhayugȧ.

One day and one night of Brahma (Not Brahman, the Primordial source, but the creator in each cycle) is made of 1,000 such mahȧyugȧs each. (We can call it the celestial day) A full day of Brahma is equivalent to 8,640 million or 8.6 billion years. During the day of one Brahma composed of 4.32 million years, the reigning kings are called Manu. There are 14 of them each ruling for 71 6/14 chathur yugȧ years. The current Manu is called Vaivasvata.

At the end of the day when Brahma goes to sleep, there is a pralaya or deluge called anvantara pralaya when only three of the seven worlds namely, bhu, bhuvah and svah cease to exist.

Each Brahma rules for 100 years, each made of 365 of brahma days.  At the end of the current Brahma there is a big deluge and all the seven worlds disappear. Then the cycle starts again, with a new Brahma and of course, new Vishnu, Siva etc. Even the Gods are not for ever!

(For the original source, please go to Book 12, Section 224 of the Sanskrit version and section 231 of the English translation by Ganguli)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Competition and Compassion

I was reading Kanchi Periyaval (KP) defending the varnashrama dharma, the duties of the four varnas. This word varna, unfortunately translates into caste system. KP argues that it was a good system. I do not agree with his conclusion. But, his arguments are worth thinking about.

He argues that equality and freedom do not go together. After completing a 10 volume History of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant said the same thing, in the same words.  Taking it further, one can say that it is not possible to let everybody compete for every job and expect societal harmony. If division of labor and the rewards are set by competition, each to his own ability, some will fall behind. Those with money, connections or physical strength will get ahead. There is bound to be disharmony. Therefore, the method of division of labor by the varna (caste) was meaningful, says KP. Every one carried out the assigned duties without competing and therefore there were no hard feelings and there is wisdom in the division of labor which allowed unity of heart, says KP.  Yes, but that was based on everyone accepting the role given to them by birth. Most likely some did not. They were kept in place by force or by ex-communication. They were coerced.

I feel that division of labor cannot be, and should not be, determined by birth ALONE as was done in the varna system.  Even the scriptures say so.

I agree totally with KP that all of us have to be united in heart even as we do different things. When we add Gita’s advice, namely we do our assigned duty with passion but without attachment to the results, it will indeed bring peace and harmony in our individual lives and in the society. There can be no growth in the civilization without inner satisfaction.

The big problem is that we live in a period in history when competition and pursuit of happiness are emphasized. When we compete, the emphasis is on the individual. In our desire to “win”, some of us are likely to use “unfair” means. Even if we win “fair and square” someone else loses. That someone will be jealous and unhappy. He may wait for his chance to get even. There will be no equality. Some will be unhappy. There will be some degree of disharmony.

Add to this sense of competition, the fact that it is for possessions in the “pursuit of happiness”. The word “happiness” is connected for most people and most often with material happiness. That leads to more inequality and also to perceptions of inequality. There is more competition so that “I can get what he has”. More jealousy. More emphasis on individual happiness and individual success. That leads to greater isolation and sadness.

Nothing I have said so far is theoretical. We see this every day. How can we escape this cycle?

We need to connect with others who are also in the same dilemma. Buddha said:"My blood is red; so is yours. My tears are salty; so are yours”. I have to connect with the one source, common to all. We need to replace, or at least mix, Competition with Compassion.

The other part has an easier answer. But, it is difficult to achieve without individual effort. That is, to modify the words “pursuit of happiness” with the words “pursuit of inner happiness and harmony”.

In Buddhist meditation, methods are available to achieve these goals. They are called the Brahma Viharas. They are: Love (maitri), Compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity(upeksha). Meditation on and practice of these four items will make us connect with other lives with empathy and compassion. Once we feel connected with other lives in a deep way, we will be happy when others are. How can I make you happy without making myself happy (sympathetic joy) and not feel happy when you are,  when I feel that we are of the same source and material? How can I hurt you without hurting a part of myself? And, when I experience the entire universe and all creatures as extension of me, how can I not be in a state of equanimity? 

(Please also see my blog on Wisdom and Compassion from   February 5, 2010)  

Monday, December 12, 2016

Further thoughts on thinking about faith - Part 2

When it comes to faith in the Scriptures, we face a special situation. Vedas are the sacred texts for the Hindus. They are called Sruti which means revealed knowledge. It was revealed to the sages (rishis). Therefore, rishis are called mantra drishta and not mantra karta, which means they saw (rather heard) the mantras and did not create them. In Mahabharatha, there is one discussion between Brighu and Bharadwaja (Book 12; Section 182)in which we are told that several rishis heard the “veda” mantras all at the same time. The question is who or what was the source? The answer is God. But, one can see (or hear) something in one’s mind by intuition or by visualization, and not because someone showed “it”.

We are also told that Hammurabi received his great code from Shamash; Moses got his directly from Yahweh; Mohammed  got his from Gabriel; and Manu from Swayambhu, the Self-Generated First One and so on. Who is the First one? Who has the most authentic Revealed sacred text? Is it not possible (actually most likely) that all of them are Revealed texts, and from the same Primordial Source.  It happens that He/She/It was given different names by people living in different parts of this One planet? Why not take the best from each one of them since they are all from the same one Source? Why do we fight to establish whose is the first revealed, the most original and the most sacred?

It is interesting that both people who go by absolute faith in old texts and follow the teachings literally and those who question and analyze, choose some areas and ignore others. Yet, they criticize each other. The faithful call the “doubters” as infidel and sinners. The open thinkers call the faithful as “die-hards”. Either way, why do we pick some of the teachings and ignore others? Although I agree that when we interpret the texts for ourselves we may get arrogant and self-righteous, that is no reason not to think on your own. In fact, self-discovered meaning may have a better and a more lasting impact.

I wish also to point out that ancient texts from many traditions ask each one of us to think on our own and not follow blindly. Here are some examples:

“Do not stifle the spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test everything; retain what is good” says The Bible (Thessalonians 3:13)

Sankara said: “Gnaapakam hi shastram na thu kaarakam……”, which translates to “Scriptures are for keeping you informed (of eternal Truths) and not for issuing commands”.

He added: “Na hi prathyakshavirodhey shrutheh pramanaam” which means: “ Veda cannot be an authority as against observed facts” and also that “even if hundred Vedic texts declare that fire is cold they cannot become an authority on this point”. (pages 72-75, Sankara’s Teachings in his own words by Swami Atmananda .  Bhavan’s Book, 1964)

In another context Sankara said: “Scriptural text is only informative. A scriptural passage supplies information of a thing existing as such; it cannot create a thing that does not exist”.( Sankara’s interpretative comments on Taitrriya Upanishad; translated by Swami Gambirananda in Eight Upanishads Volume 1 Page 275. Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta 1972)

Buddha said: “Do not believe in what you have heard; do not believe in doctrines because they have been handed down to you through generations, do not believe in anything because it is followed blindly by many; do not believe because some old sage makes a statement; do not believe in truths to which you have become attached by habit; do not believe merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Have deliberation and analyze, and when the result agrees with reason and conduces to the good of one and all, accept it and live up to it”. (This passage is a reproduction of advice from Buddha, according to the translation of original Buddhist canons by Paul Carus published in 1894. The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, published by Samata Books of Chennai)

           Section 3:7 of Qur’an starts with “ It is He who has sent this Scripture down to you (to Prophet Mohammed). Some of its verses are definite in meaning – these are the Mothers of the Scriptures. And others are ambiguous. The perverse at heart eagerly pursue the ambiguities in their attempt to make trouble and pin down a meaning of their own; only God knows the true meaning”…….. But, the latter portion of this verse says: “And those firmly rooted in knowledge say: "We believe in it (in the entirety of its verses, both explicit and allegorical); all is from our Lord"; yet none derives admonition except the people of discernment.” 

In each tradition and religion, there are purists, who interpret old texts (faithfully) strictly word-for-word and there are skeptics, who keep asking questions. Faith is easier on our psyche than doubt.That is the nature of human mind, and this schism is seen in every tradition. Here are some examples:                                       
Strict followers                        Questioners
Vedic (Hindu)                            Mimamsa, Tantric                    Caravaka
Buddhism                                  Maadhaythmika                       Yogachara
Christian                                    Several                                       Quakers/United Unitarian
Islam                                            Wahaabi                                    Sufi, Bahai

             Finally, I came across an important point about faith written by a reviewer of books in the website. The review was on a book by Kierkegaard on this subject of faith. The title of the book is Fear and Trembling, a classic. The reviewer points out that an important feature of faith is uncertainty. It is uncertainty that leads one to faith. Therefore, the position one takes based on faith has to be a way-station, not The Final Abode.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Further thoughts on thinking about Faith

                (In my usual habit of switching between topics of general interest and topics from Indian philosophy, here are some further thoughts on faith. I am writing  about this topic because of my interest in thinking in general and because there is tension between faith and reason almost always)               
                I have always felt that faith and reason are like two lenses of a camera, one for close-up and one for telephoto. You use them for different purposes. Reason based on evidence is the best approach, whenever possible. However, reason is always tinged with and modified by emotions. There are situations, several in fact, when reason fails. Reason alone cannot get us through. Faith has to come in. But, one needs to be cautious since faith can lead to unwise decisions based on hope and unreasonable behavior including cruelty. Besides, faith cannot lead to any answer. As pointed out by a writer unknown to me “faith may give you comfort; but it is the doubt that gets you an answer”.
                William James gives very clear guidelines on conditions under which one may wish to use faith for action. “Our passionate nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds” said William James. Obviously, options presented in response to philosophical, metaphysical questions fall into this sphere of thinking.  (address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities in 1896. Quoted in The Enduring Questions – Main problems in Philosophy. 4th Ed Melvin Rader (editor) Holt,Reinhart and Wilson Publishers, 1980).      

                William James gives us practical ideas on how to think about faith. There are three conditions that must be met for faith to be used as the primary mode of thinking. They are:  1. The option should be genuine and William James defines genuine option as one that is “living, forced and momentous”. He goes on to define these three words. Living, as opposed to dead, is to suggest that the option is “sufficiently exciting to tempt our will”. Forced, as opposed to avoidable, is to suggest that the decision cannot be escaped. Momentous, as opposed to trivial, is to suggest that it will make a significant difference in one’s life. 2. The individual cannot prove or disprove either option with adequate proof or reason. One is no more probable than the other. Reason alone cannot deal with this question. 3. The result of believing will make life substantially better. These guidelines should be helpful for thinking about faith-related issues.

In addition, we have to ask ourselves why we believe in one option over many others on different issues in everyday life.  Is it because that particular belief gives us some comfort or gratification? Is it because we were told when we were young that to be considered a good person, we have to believe this way? Do we want to identify ourselves with someone we love or admire through this belief? Or are we following this belief out of fear? Are we being coerced overtly or indirectly? Are we being threatened with consequences if we do not believe this idea? Do we have to believe in one particular point of view to be accepted in the family or the society? Is it because we do not want to disappoint someone important in our life? 

It is also good to remember what Christopher Hitchens said about faith: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”.

How much evidence and evidence of what kind are needed to base our faith? Jayarasi Bhatta was a philosopher who lived in India in the 8th century. His book which is entitled “Tattva upaplava simha” translates to The lion that devours all categories.  It is obvious from the summary of his writings that he belonged to the Caravaka school or something akin to it. He was a materialist and an atheist. It is amazing how easily he rejects all the pramanas (evidences in support of /sources of knowledge).   He says: Direct perception is not totally reliable since perception can be erroneous or illusory. Inference relies on inductive reasoning and therefore not reliable since there are no universally accepted premise to start with.  Finally, testimony is not reliable since this requires a reliable witness, the definition of which requires another source or evidence. He concludes that “none of the sources of knowledge are valid. Nothing can be known for certain”. You may say that he is a cynic or nihilist. But, his argument is interesting.