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Monday, December 10, 2012

What is meant by Sacred? - 2

  Before you read this, please read Section 1 of this series, "What is meant by Sacred?"  posted on November 21, 2012.

Similar statements in different traditions
“Most people do not listen to God, but adore Him; It is better not to adore but to listen”
 Tolstoy in A calendar of Wisdom

In this section, I bring together similar statements from the writings of a few traditions. The idea is to show that the traditions are more similar than some of the less informed followers will lead you to believe. Although I have read books from all the major traditions, and have a large collection, I have included only a few examples here.

Philosophy is always in search of fundamental truth of existence and how the truth presents itself to our experience.  This implies discussions of unity and diversity, universal and particular, the relationship between these two, things as they are and as they are perceived by us and the triad of knower-known-knowledge.

Philosophy ultimately has to have a practical value. This is where religion and science come in.

Religion tries to relate to the question on primordial events. It tries to answer troubling questions on human existence. How did it all come about? Who did it? Why?

Science relates to questions at the physical level and tries to answer the questions on “how” of things in the observable universe. It cannot answer the why.

Religion (spirituality  also) is the telephoto lens of our brains. Science is the close-up lens.

Metaphysics is at the intersection. What we call metaphysics today was called natural philosophy till two centuries back. The name metaphysics was given to Aristotle’s writings on “being qua being” or the nature of the primary substance that exists on its own and is the first cause of all things ( Prakriti, Parama Purusha and Brahman or Ishvara in Vedic concepts). Since Aristotle’s book on the primordial substance came after his book on physics, this was called metaphysics.

In Sanskrit, different points of views are called “darshana” and not philosophy.  Then, there is vignana for study of phenomena and pragnana for study of the inner self. Look at the root word gna, to know which is the same as gnosis of Latin.

There are two schools of metaphysics – Idealistic and materialistic.

Idealistic view is that the universe is “mental”, that reality is the expression of the mind.  This encourages the spiritualism (gnana marga) and religion (bhakthi marga).

Kanchi periyaval expressed it succinctly in just two pages. He argues that both the inanimate and the animate must have come from the same source.  That source could not have used something other than itself to create the objects of the universe since that would mean another independent substance.  That primary source is the substance AND the spirit behind all that we see. The multiple objects we see and experience are illusory. Similar views are expressed in the philosophies of all other traditions too.

Materialistic view is that reality is ultimately physical, it is about things and processes. This drives scientific approach.

All the philosophical questions of all traditions can be grouped into two areas.  The first is, “How did this Universe and various forms of life come into being?  What is the relationship of one human to another, to other life-forms and to the Universe”?  The second question is “Now that we are here, what are we supposed to do (that is, purpose in life)”?  The second question was reframed based on the visible observation of suffering in life and certainty of death. The new question is “How can I get liberation from this cycle of birth and death and attain moksha, nirvana, or Heaven?”

Answers to these questions are almost the same or very similar in different traditions. The following are some examples.

One Primordial Force

All traditions agree philosophically that all aspects of the Universe are activated by one Supreme Force with Its Supreme Intelligence and Supreme energy. That single primordial force is called by different names in different cultures. For example, IT is called Brahman (Parama purusha, Parabrahman) in the Vedic Hindu tradition. This same Primordial Source is called Allah in Islamic and Yahweh in the Jewish traditions, Wakanda in Sioux, Orenda in Iroquois,and Mulungu in Bantu. There are several names for this Original Source in the Christian tradition. One is God-head. The other is the Holy Spirit. Yet another is the “Father in the Heaven”. All the ancient traditions recognized such a single, primary “divine” central force from which everything flashed forth and derived their energy for function.

Religion also deals with the same phenomenon but from emotional and intuitive and anthromorphic point of view. The same Supreme Force and Supreme Energy is known in this system as God, “Bare Pure One” (Plutonius), “Perfect Beauty” (St.Augustine), “Godhead” (Eckhart), Jehovah (Jewish), Zeus (Greek), Jupiter (Roman), “Father in Heaven” (Christian), Dharmakaya (Buddhist), Allah (Islam), Ahur Mazda (Zoroastrian), Ishvara,Bhagvan or Purushottaman (Vedic).

 Yekam satyam vipra bahuda vadanthi says Rg Veda of the Hindu Vedic tradition.  The meaning is that  there is only one truth; people call it by different names. In the western tradition, Plutarch said about the same thing: “One sun, one sky over all nations, one deity under many names”.

I define the word God as “a chosen representation of the Primordial Force”. There are thus several chosen representations of the original primordial force. We are born into a society or family belonging to one tradition which gives us one “god”. That one may be Shiva, Allah or Jesus. Yet, each of them is a chosen representation of that One. As pointed out by Immanuel Kant, “There is only one religion, but there are different faiths”. We did not choose. We were given one. It was chosen by the society and the family we were born into. As adults, we can and should choose our own pantheon of gods. Denying that chance to choose is rude.  

One Destination, Different Paths

In discussing different religions seeking the same common source, Vedic teaching says  “The Lord is like an ocean. Religions are like rivers. All rivers end in the same ocean”.

A.Toynbee has an essay in the book “This I believe” in which he quotes Symmachus: “The universe is too great a mystery for there to be only one single approach to it”. (Symmachus is reported to have said this to the Catholic Church when it was winning the “wars” with support from the Roman Emperor)

Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana is quoted by Diana Eck as follows: “ ....... he says there is only one path through the forest and he knows the right path, but I say there are many paths and how can you know the best path unless you have walked them all. He walked too long on one path and he does not know there are other paths. I am one hundred and one, and I know that sometimes many paths go to the same place”.

Seeing the Light

St.Thomas Aquinus is quoted as saying “….it may be said that the light is not a medium in which God is seen, but one by which He is seen..” (Quoted by Swami Akilananda in his book on Hindu Psychology, Harper Bros 1946, page 49). 

Gospel of Thomas says: “There is light within a man of light and it illuminates the whole world. When it does not shine, there is darkness” (24).

A Vedic teaching with exactly the same meaning is in  Mundaka Upanishad. (2:2:10) “Thameva bhantham anubhathi sarvam, thasya bhasa sarvamidam vibhati”.  The meaning is: “ Because of His Light everything is illumined; because he shines, everything is made visible”.

Where can you find God?

In the Greek version of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says: "Where there are [two, they are not] without God, and when there is one alone, [I say,] I am with him. Raise the stone, and there you will find me; cleave the wood, and there I am." 

This is similar to the story of Prahlada. Hiranyakasipu, the father of Prahlada, is fed up with his son talking about Lord Vishnu all the time and asks angrily “Where will you find your Lord Vishnu?”.  Prahlada  answers : “He is in the stone, He is in the pillar, He is in the wall”. The father takes a sword and strikes the pillar and the Lord appears from inside the pillar.

"I" am the beginning and the end

Revelation 22:13 says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End."

Here is a passage from the Proverb section of the Bible. (8: 23 to 25): “From ages past, I am. I existed before the oceans were created, before the springs bubbled forth their waters into the earth; before the mountains and the hills were made. Yes, I was born before gods made the earth and fields and high

In Gita, Lord krishna says this in several places. “The Self is constant, birthless, eternal and ancient” (2:20). “I am birthless and beginningless...” (10:3). “I am the source of all, everything is produced out of me...” (10:8) and “I am the beginning, the middle and the end of beings” (10:20)

"I" am inside everyone

John 14.20 says: “A that day ye shall know that I am in my Father and ye in me and I in you”.

Gita (4.35) says: “Acquiring spiritual knowledge by which you will see all creatures in yourself and in Me.”

And Isavasya Upanishad (6,7) says: “He who sees all beings in his own body and his own soul in all beings..”

Thou art That

 “Thath thvam asi ‘” is  a famous passage from the Chandogya Upanishad. These Sanskrit words translate to “You are That”.

In Exodus (3:14), Moses asks God what to tell the people when they ask about the source of the message. God asks Moses to say “I am has sent me”. Another version says: “I am that I am”.

He is small and large; and complete

Gospel of Thomas says “Kingdom of Heaven is like mustard seed, smaller than all seeds” (19 and 20).

Similar statement in Katha  Upanishad (1:2:20) says:  “Anoraneeyan mahattho mahiyan... “ This translates to “He/It is smaller than an atom and larger than the largest...”

One piece of writing by Plotinus (4.9,8 and 5, 7-26) is an uncanny reproduction of a Vedic chant.

The Vedic chant is: “poornam ada poornam idam poornaath poornam udachyathe; poornasya poornam aaday poornameva avasishyathat”. The translation is: “ That is Complete. This is complete. From that Complete came this complete. Even after taking away the complete, the Complete is full”.

Plotinus says: “Knowledge is a whole, and its parts are such that the whole persist and the parts are derived from it. The seed too is a whole and the parts into which it naturally divides are derived from it; each part is a whole, and the whole persists as an undiminished whole which the matter divides – all the parts comprise a unity”.

May the hearts be in unison

In John 17.21, Jesus is reported to have said: “My prayer for all of them is that they will be of one heart and mind, just as you and I are, Father – that just as you are in me and I am in you….”

A similar passage in Rg Veda 10. 191-194 is well-known. It says: Samaani vaa aakuthih samaana hrdayani vaa; samaanam asthu vo mano yatha vaha susahaasathi which means : “ One and the same be your intention, And may your heart be in unison, united be the thoughts of all, that all may happily agree”  

Breath is Life

All traditions emphasize the importance of breath to life. They also knew that one way to control the mind is to control the breath. Focusing on breath as a way to still the mind and  connect with the Divine has been in practice for centuries in the Christian tradition also.

God is said to have “formed a man’s body from the dust of the ground and breathed into it the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7).

Job (33:4) says “For the Spirit of God made me and the breath of the Almighty gives me life”.

In Kaushitaki Upanishad we see: “I am the prana” (the source of breath)…..      Life is the breathing spirit. The breathing spirit is verily life”. 

Life is an illusion

“The present world is only an illusory pleasure” says Qu’ran (2:185). This is one of the fundamental tenets of Vedic religion. The illusory nature of the universe is called Maya in Sanskrit.

Other examples

A Chapter on Job in the Bible, where the Lord reveals Himself to Job is very similar to the passage in Gita where Lord Krishna shows His all encompassing Universal Form (Vishvarupa) to Arjuna.

Sura 2:83 of Qua’ran says: “Worship none but God, be good to your parents and kinstock, to orphans and to the poor. Keep up the prayer and pay the prescribed alms”.   The first portion is similar to the teachings of Taittriya Upanishad which says: “Worship your mother; worship your father; worship your teacher; worship the unexpected guest….”

Many aphorisms in the Bible are similar to passages in Thirukkural in Tamizh, Vidura Nithi and Shanthi Parva in Sanskrit. For example, psalm 21:23 says “Keep your mouth shut and keep out of trouble”. It is similar to “Mounam sarvartha sadhakam” (Silence is golden).  Verse 16:33 of Gospel according to Thomas says that “We toss the coin; God controls the decision”. It is not much different from the universal sense that things are “in God’s hands” and we do not control everything.

For more comprehensive and scholarly collection of writings on God, Truth, Good, Evil, Time, Faith, Self-Knowledge etc, please read Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy (Harper Colophon, 1944) and also Tolstoy’s  A Calendar of Wisdom (Scribner, 1997).