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Monday, December 16, 2013

Marquis de Condorcet

Marquis de Condorcet (Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, (1743 – 1794) was a mathematician, philosopher and political scientist from France. He belonged to the Age of Enlightenment and played a major part in the French revolution. He was an advocate for free public education, equal rights for women and for people of all races. It is no wonder that his ideas were not accepted universally at his time.

His book on A Historical Review of Progress of the Human Mind (published in 1802) is a classic and it reviews the progress of civilization up to his time. The style is simple and the logic is clear. The first two paragraphs alone are worth reading many times. Here they are: 

Man is born with the faculty of receiving' sensations. In those which he receives, he is capable of perceiving and of distinguishing the simple sensations of which they are composed. He can retain, recognise, combine them. He can preserve or recall them to his memory; he can compare their different combinations ; he can ascertain what they possess in common, and what characterises each : lastly, he can affix signs to all these objects, the better to know them, and the more easily to form from them new combinations.

This faculty is developed in him by the action of external objects, ……… It is also exercised by communication with other similarly organized individuals ………………………. and the development of this faculty already in their possession  of a language for the communication of their wants, and a small number of moral ideas, from which are deduced their common rules of conduct, living in families, conforming themselves to general customs that serve instead of laws, and….”

The following are a few more quotes from that book.

He calls errors of civilization as those based on prejudices. These prejudices are established because “men retain the errors of their infancy, their country, the age in which they live, long after truths necessary to the removal of these errors are acknowledged”.

His list of prejudices include “conversion of enmity and cruelty towards an enemy as a virtue, consignment of women to a life of slavery or obedience, assumption of familial role of wars and battles against the other groups and the development of superstitions”.
Superstitions, prejudices and authority are the three blocks to reason and proper knowledge of the world we live in”.

Commenting on the fact that many institutions support morality of the people by giving false explanation and pretense, he asks how we can trust a system that operates on the principle that “men of enlightened mind have a right to deceive the people, provided they impose only useful truths”.

One of his concluding statements is: “… the exertions of the last ages have done much for the progress of the human mind, but little for the perfection of the human species; much for the glory of man, somewhat for his liberty but scarcely anything for his happiness”.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


(Please note that this is the first time I am using standard scheme of transliteration to write Sanskrit words using English alphabet. It takes more time to compose. But it is worth the effort)

Moka and mukti have the same verb root – muc (pronounced as in book), to let go, release. Mukti is the process and the moksha is the final state. This has different names in different systems of philosophy of India.

It is called apavarga in the Nyaya-Vaiseshika system. This is complete cessation of effort by the soul and its absolute detachment from the body and the mind. In this state there is no happiness or suffering.

In the Samkhya-yoga system it is called Kaivalya (root word, kevala, meaning to stand apart from). This is because of the eternal isolation of Purusha from the Prakriti with its modifications. Since bondage is not a property of Purusha, once the jivan attains this state, it reaches the eternal blissful state of the Purusha.

In Mimamsa, it is called moka which is the stopping of the cycle of samsara and hence release from the cycles of pain and pleasure.

In Buddhism, it is Nirvana, a state of void, state beyond atman. There is Peace, but not the bliss (ananda) of aḍvaita.

In Jainism, it is nirvana, but defined as disintegration of the krmika sarira ( body with actions).

In aivism, it is reaching the abode of bliss which is Kailasam, the abode of Lord iva. In Vainava faith, it is reaching Vaikuntam, the abode of Vinu. In vaitam in general, it is Swargam for the “salvaged” souls. Obviously, it is “narakam” for the “bad souls”.

In Sktam (Devi/Sakti worshippers) it is called apara̅jita.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Speech at Funerals – Is it a new Ritual?

Today is November 7, 2013. It is exactly five years since my “angel” passed away. It amazing how difficult it is for me to use the word, “died”! That sounds so final. It just does not sound final. It IS final. I know it; yet seem to deny.

During her final days, Ramaa (my angel) told me: “no speeches for me, please. No bhajans (prayer and chanting) either. Just feed our friends”. That was her last request about how the funeral should be. I agreed totally. My request to my children is the same. Please let me go in peace. Let the occasion be simple, subdued, dignified. Celebrate life with meals and friendship. No speeches, please!

I was at a funeral not long ago. The beginning was dignified. Soon, it deteriorated to the usual long-winded speeches! Why do we have to speak at funerals? When did it become a part of the death ceremony? It certainly was not so until about 15 or 20 years back. It has become a part of the procedure particularly in Indian funerals. I had the painful experience of attending a funeral in which the body was still there for “viewing”, when talks and music were going on for at least an hour or two! It was so bizarre and uncomfortable, we had to leave!

Why do we have to speak at all at funerals? Why do we have to speak for so long? Is it to please the dead? It cannot be, since the dead cannot hear us anyway. Is it to please the family? If so, most of them are not in a mental state to hear all this, particularly the humor. In fact they may not agree with the speaker’s assessment. Having lived with the deceased, they know the wrong impressions the speaker has. They know the real person. But, they are not going to get up and raise an “objection” even if they are given an opportunity to do so. The speaker will not and cannot talk about the “real’ person with the “warts and all” since it is not appropriate.

(The speeches are worse in weddings! Yes, it is a good time for the parents or the couple to thank the folks who came. Beyond that, what is the need? Actually, the way some of those folks speak about the virtues of the bride and groom, one would think that the speakers were talking about Rama and Sita, divine couples! ) 

Why we do we speak at funerals and weddings? Why do we speak so long and sound so “phony”?

That made me read and think about rituals. Rituals are necessary part of a society and culture. The word itself comes from a Latin root called “ritus”, which means “to fit together”.  It is meant to bind us with the cosmos and with the larger society. (Do you see the similarity of the root word to the Sanskrit word rthum, which means “sacred custom or Divine Law”).

Rituals are usually celebrated during important changes in seasons and during cosmic events (eclipse). Rituals are practiced during changes in our personal lives, such as birth, wedding and death. This is the basis of the 40 samskaras in the vedic tradition.

Rituals are meant to be spiritual. They are useful to bring a sense of group identity and togetherness. They are to connect us with the cosmos and the divine. They are to bring the families and the community together at times of happiness and sadness. They are helpful to get children involved and teach them the traditions which they, in turn, can pass on.

Have rituals lost their true meanings and spiritual connections? Have we changed these into occasions for showing off wealth, social connections and status, or our own ego?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Brahman and Atman - 2

What are similar concepts in the sacred texts from other traditions?

Lao Tze says: “The Tao which can be expressed is not the unchanging Tao; the name which can be named is not the unchanging name”. This appears to be close to the definition of Atman and Brahman.

Plutarch refers to an inscription on a statue of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility located in the ancient city of Sais as follows: “ I am all that hath been, and that is and that shall be, and no mortal hath ever raised my veil”  (from The Source Book of Indian Philosophy by S.Radhakrishnan and Moore  page 624)

In the section on Exodus 3:14-15, God asks Moses to go to the people of Israel slaving away in Egypt and tell them that God sent him (Moses) to release them. Moses asks: “What shall I tell them when they ask which God?”. God replies: “Just say ‘I am’ has sent me”. Then says: “Yes, tell them Yahweh sent you” . Yahweh stands for God who cannot be named.

I mentioned Buddha’s view earlier. Buddha did not believe in atman as a separate entity. He said that he has looked deeply and never found an “atman”. Adi Sankara’s objection to this view is as follows: “When one accepts the position that both Atman and Brahman are illusions, not real….. all that remains is a group of impermanent things; and permanent happiness and someone who can realize that permanent happiness cease to exist”.  He went on to say that “anatman” and “sunyatta” (emptiness) are dark and bleak. If you can see “Brahman in it, it is blissful and full of light".

But, my understanding of what Buddha said is different. To him, the idea of anatman was not a doctrine. It was an insight which he thought will help people live a deeper life. What he meant was that everything in this world is made of things other than itself.  Man is made of “non-man” elements. Impermanence and anatman belong to the world of phenomenon. Nirvana is the ground and the basis of all this. Similarly, what we call Atman is made of non-atman elements. Everything is in everything else – inter-penetrating and interdependent.

What is the relationship between Brahman and Atman?

Ribhu Gita points out how the 4 Mahavakyas represent the relationship between Atman and Brahman in various stages. Thath thvam asi stands for meditation at the level of duality. Ayam atma Brahman is in the witness mode. Aham brahmasmi is in the undivided mode. Pragnanam brahma is in the mode of undivided Bliss.

A passage in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, states that particular notes of a drum or a conch or a lute have no separate existence apart from the general note of the instruments themselves - drum or conch or the lute. Particular knowledge of the universe has no validity apart from the intelligence which illuminates it. The particular note is the atman and the basic general sound of the instrument is the Brahman.

In Advaitha, Brahman is the same as Atman. Brahman is also called Paramatman and Atman is also known as Jivatman, when it identifies with the body .

In dvaitham, Jivatman stays apart from Paramatman even in Moksha (liberated state?), is full of bhakthi (devotion) towards Paramatman, and is therefore blissful.

In Visishtadvaitham, Jivatman is considered to stay apart from Paramatman, is full of devotion, but also fully cognizant that Paramatman is the indweller (antharyaami) of the Jivatman.

In Saiva siddhantham, the idea is that jivatman has a separate existence ( as in dvaitham), but it can lose its identity and merge completely into the Paramatman.

In Advaitha, Purusha is both Brahman and Atman. Prakriti is Maya. In Visishtadvaitham, Purusha is Paramapurusha, Narayana and Prakriti is Leela. 

Atman and Brahman in the light of modern concepts of Consciousness and Self

Since the word atman implies self, consciousness and super- consciousness, it is important to look at it from the point of view of the neurosciences.  Radhakrishnan states that the relationship between the self (the sense of I) and the consciousness is like that between fire and heat. Consciousness is an attribute of I, like heat is that of fire. I is the agent or the subject with an attribute called consciousness. Its object can be anything, including itself, the “I”.  As Sankara pointed out, something has to illuminate the consciousness; in other words something that makes consciousness what it is and that is Atman.

One neuroscientist refers to the“I” as a self-referring loop. In his book on I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter shows how it is possible to set up a video camera looking into a television monitor, and taking a picture of itself from the TV screen creating a picture of a picture of a picture, ad infinitum. He uses this analogy and points out that our nervous system functions in a similar manner and is thus capable of making self-referential, nested loops. In this process it uses language and semantics and an ability to build patterns out of abstracted view of the world it perceives. One such abstract pattern gives rise to the feeling of an “I”, a sense of self the knower and the doer.  He compares this with the self-referential loops of Godel’s theorem. In essence he thinks that our awareness of awareness ad infinatum is just the emergent property of the brain.

Scientific method breaks down things into manageable parts that can be manipulated and studies those components and then try to extrapolate. Problem comes when it tries to build the whole from the parts! That has not prevented scientists from looking at the components of such forbidden topics such as self, wisdom and consciousness.

The idea of self is both physical and philosophical. William James is credited with showing that the so-called “self” (he called it the me self) has four components: the material self, the physical self  dealing with one’s care of one’s own body with clothing etc, the social self that is recognized as a consistently predictable individual and the spiritual self which determines one’s internal philosophical values. The spiritual self is sometimes combined with the social self.

I will leave out for the present, the “self” as defined by philosophers and religious scholars who suggest that there is a non-material entity called self or atman or spirit, independent of the body which activates the functions of the human body, including that of the brain. I am also leaving out the study of “self” by neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio who suggest that there is a proto-self, core self and autobiographical self.

Based on the suggestions of William James, one group of neurologists defined self as “temporally stable, trans-situational consistencies in behavior, dress, or political or religious ideologies”.  Since patients with dysfunction in frontal lobe functions have been shown to exhibit dramatic changes in their beliefs and self-care, these neurologists studied 72 patients with fronto-temporal dementia. The studies included documentation of change in the core aspects of “self” as defined above, such as changes in style of dress, social presentation, political and religious ideologies and self-concept related to their work.

Imaging studies (MRI and SPECT) were also completed on these patients.  Seven patients showed dramatic changes in “self” as defined above. Six of those with change in their “self” showed clear structural abnormalities on fMRI with asymmetric loss of function in the non-dominant frontal lobe.
In other words, some of the components of what we call “self” in our daily, practical usage are represented in specific areas of the brain. That is not surprising at all. It is surprising that it took so long to figure that out.

To some neuroscientists the self as explained above is personal identity and when we use the term self it includes personal identity and in addition, a sense of awareness of the personal identity. Personal identity is made of 1. Spatio-temporal continuity of the body: The substances of which I am made have changed over the years and are new, but the changes occurred within the same physical structure. 2. Continuity of structure itself over the years: the body has grown taller or bigger or older and yet the person has continuity.  3. memory: All the individual moments of my consciousness are strung together as a continuous whole with the aid of memory. This was pointed out by Buddha long ago. 4. Continuity of personality although there might have been changes over time based on experiences or illness.

John Searle (John R.Searle  Mind: A Brief Introduction  Oxford University Press, New York 2004)  comes to the conclusion that the concept of self is needed to explain the notions of “rationality, free choice, decision making and reasons for action”.  In his own words: “… in order to account for free rational actions, we have to suppose there is a single entity X such that X is conscious (with all that consciousness implies), X persists through time, X formulates and reflects on reasons for action under the conditions of rationality, X is capable of deciding, initiating and carrying out actions under the presupposition of freedom and X is responsible for at least some of its actions”.  This X is the self. But is this atman as defined above – the principle which makes awareness of self possible?

Ancient scholars used much less words and said:  mano buddhi ahankarah chitham karanam antharam; samshaya nishchaya kurva smarana vishaya ami. In this classification, mind is the faculty of perception of each of the five sense organs. It is also the aspect with doubts (samshaya). Buddhi is the discriminative and deciding aspect (nischaya). Ahankara is the ownership portion, with the I, ego, volition. What is chitham? It appears that conscious mind devoid of thoughts is chetanam or pure consciousness. Chitham is that part of the individual mind which is made of memories of the past and mental formations (vikaras) based on memories (vasanas) and past experiences and also that function which makes it possible for the mind to function. Mental impressions formed without reflection constitute vasanas. All of these functions of the mind take place in the light of the Atman, although it is not touched by any of these activities of the mind or of the body.

But these descriptions still do not answer the metaphysical question of whether there is something over-arching, a “cosmic intelligence” which permeates the consciousness itself – the illuminator of the mirror.  Or is it a “strange loop”?

What is my own idea of Atman and Brahman, based on my readings and reflections?   

Atman or supra-consciousness is the Subject of all of our thoughts. Atman in the body is Jivan. Atman soaring free and reaching for its source is Brahman. The source is Brahman.

Brahman  is a concept to visualize a Primordial Principle which came or existed by Itself and from which all of this universe has come about. Some writings equate Brahman with physical basis of the Universe and also of the conscious aspect of the universe. I do not know whether there is a non-physical entity called Universal Consciousness, not dependent on any support and thus free from following laws of nature such as physical laws.

On the basis of logic, that Primordial entity called Brahman has to be a physical entity with energy and information (knowledge) inherent in it. It has to be “two-in-one” (matter and energy) or “three-in-one”(matter, energy and information). Energy acts on the matter to bring out the inherent, “potential” information (Knowledge) as manifest “information” in the form of various objects. The cause is in the effect. It is like butter coming from the curds on churning. If that potential information in Brahman is what is called universal consciousness and that is what is equivalent to what our ancestors called Atman when it is experienced in individual bodies, I find it acceptable.

That is where I am today. But, I know that there are dimensions not amenable to my senses and to my mental abilities.  Therefore, I continue to seek and understand. I do not know the destination. But, the journey is Blissful.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Brahman and Atman - 1

Brahman and Atman are one and the same.

Who or what is Brahman? The root word is brh, to grow or to expand. It is the Ultimate Reality, the ground of the universe, the primordial Source of everything in this Universe. That which pervades every aspect of the universe is Brahman. When I was struggling to write this passage, I went back to the Taittriya Upanishad, thanks to Kanchi Periyaval.  Taittriya Upanishad ( Volume 2, section 7) says: “Asadva idamagra aasit. Thathou vai sadajaayata. Thadaatmanam svayamakrutha. Thasmaat thath sukruthamucchyata ithi” .  Translated into English, it says: “In the beginning all this was but the unmanifest (Brahman). From that emerged the manifest. The Brahman created Itself by Itself. Therefore It is called the self-creator”.

Brahman is called Sat (Absolute Truth), chit (Absolute knowledge) and ananda (Absolute happiness) in a positive mode. Since It transcends all concepts and ideas It is called Nirguna (quality-less) and Ananta (infinite). In a negative sense it is referred to as “neti”, not this by negating the visible Universe.

A story from Sankara’s analysis of Brahma Sutra is quoted by Tilak (Gita Rahasya Vol 1 page 567). Baskali, a student asks his master Bahva: “Please explain what Brahman is”. Bahva would not give an answer. Baskali asks again and Bahva remains silent. After being pestered by Baskali 3 or 4 times Bahva says: “ I have been giving you the answer all this time. Did you not get it? The form of Brahman cannot be described in anyway and therefore, remaining silent and not giving any description is the truest description of the Brahman”.

The same Brahman is also called by different names in the different schools of thought. They are:  Paramatman, Satchidananda, and Parabrahman in his Nirguna (Quality-less) phase and Iswara,Narayana, Shiva, and Shakthi in the Saguna phase (with name and form).

Since everything came out of IT, a part of It is in every living and non-living matter. That “part” of It, individualized is the Atman.  “How did that One Brahman become the many Atmans? ”, “Is there only ONE Atman or are there several Atmans? ” and “What is the relationship between Atman and Brahman?” are the questions from which different darshanas and schools of thoughts began.

Atman is defined by the root word an (latin animus), to breathe and by its actions as follows: Aapnoti ( it takes what it wants); aadathey (it makes that object its own); atthi (it will experience that object) and asthi (will move about taking a form). In English, an equivalent word is soul, the self. However, the concept of soul is closer to the idea of sukshma sarira of the vedic concepts. The concept of Atman reaches a stage beyond soul.

A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy gives seven different meanings to the word Atman. According to the Advaita school, atman is “the substrate of the individual and identical with the Absolute Brahman”. Nyaya and Vaiseshika schools call it the substratum in which cognition resides. Sankhya and Yoga schools define it as attributeless, self-luminous omnipresent entity and identical with consciousness or purusha. The Upanishads say that atman denotes the ultimate essence of the universe as well as the vital breath in human beings. It is neither born nor does it die. It is imperishable.

 Buddhism denies that there is anything called atman. (more about this later)

Tilak says that there are three different meanings for Atman; rather, the word atman stands for three concepts. 1.the antaratman, the one deep inside, the animating principle, which is one with paramatman in the advaita system 2. The self, in the sense of ownership, volition and knowledge (jiva) and 3. The mind, as one of the sense organs (manas). (page 988, Gita Rahasya of B G Tilak)

According to the Upanishads, Atman (Brahman) is something that can only be experienced. It is something that cannot be explained since it has no indicative mark. However, Upanishads and other scriptures try to convey the concept of atman in different ways. One passage in Kathopanishad (II:ii:5) comes as close to a definition of an undefinable as possible.  The passage states: Na pranena na apanena matryo jeevath kashchana; itharena thu jeevanthi yasmin ethou upashrithou. In translation it means that no mortal lives by prana (breathing out) or apana (breathing in); but all live by something else on which these two depend. That is the Atman.

Kenopanishad (sloka 4)  says: Since the reality of my consciousness, by virtue of which I am the witness, exists equally in all. I am not a mere witness in a single body. And since differences, origination etc are not inherent in the witness, the non-dual eternality of the witness is possible” That witness is Atman.

Adi Sankara takes the Vedic statement that sarvam khalu idam brahma and then adds two variations: atma cha brahma and jivo brahmaiva na aparah.  (pages 70,71 and 187 of Sankara’s Teachings in his own words. Bhavan’s  Publication, 1964). He argues that Self is different from the mind because Self understands the states of the mind, such as “I am sad, I am glad” etc. It is common experience for all of us to feel “I know this” and “I do not know this”. Therefore, knowledge and ignorance themselves are objects of knowledge of a “knower” (Kshetragna). The Self of man (Atman) is that knower of “all including knowledge and ignorance”. Thinking cannot reveal Atman, since the process of knowledge is dependent on Atman, the knower. Atman has to be posited before knowledge. Atman is the light of the witness itself.

In Atmagnaana upadeshavidhi, Adi Sankara’s explains Atman  as follows: I have a witness and so have you. This witness, this “I” of each one of us is indicative of samashti or a collective “I” state. That is atman (and according to Advaita, it will be Brahman also).  The continuity and the memory portions of the “I” (the jivan) and the ownership portion are properties of the mind which is illuminated by atman and when atman identifies itself with this entity.

In another Bhashya, Adi Sankara says that perceptions can vary but the characteristic of the seer is the “unchangeability”. Mind is the perceiver but subject to errors and changeable. We also know and say: “my mind was not there” etc. We also know how we do not “know” anything when we sleep. When we are awake we know. Thus, we know about both “knowing” and “not knowing”. Therefore there is something proximal to it.  That is the consciousness or awareness of the “I”, the ultimate Subject and not an object of anything else. It is self-luminous and is Atman.

In conjunction with buddhi (intellect) and ahamkara (ego), the atman gives the sense of an individual self. When this witness (atman) identifies itself with ahamkara, then it is called jiva(n). This corresponds to the soul in the west.

Drg Drshya viveka proceeds as follows: the form is perceived and the eye is the perceiver; mind is the perceiver of the eye (that is why in Vedic psychology, the mind is a considered a sense organ); mind is perceived and that perceiver, that witness is Atman. Every thought has a subject and an object. The ultimate subject without object, which illuminates our mind, is the Atman.

 Here are some more descriptions of Atman:

Kena Upanishad says: Atman is shrottrasya shrottram manso mano yad; vaachoha vaacham sa u pransya pranah; chakshuh cha chankshuh …..  It is the eye of the eye; the life of the life.

Kathopanishad calls it:  jagatah prathishtaam  dhurdharsham goodam anupravishtam Guhahitham gahvareshtam puraanam.  It is the foundation of this universe. It is difficult to see. It is deep inside every one of us since it has entered into the cave of our hearts. It is ancient.

Kathopanishd also says: anneeyan hi atharkyan anupramaanaath. It is beyond arguments, being subtler than subtle.

Yoga vasishta says: chinmatra chetyarahitham anantham ajaram shivam annadhimadhyaparyanthm yat anadi nirramayam.  It is pure consciousness, boundless, undecaying and auspicious. It has no beginning, middle or end. It is without any blemish.

Tilak’s  argument for the existence of atman is as follows. Juxtaposition of the body and the mind is called a sanghatha. Sanghatha in Sanskrit means an aggregate, like an emulsion. What is the force that keeps them together and activates them? An aggregate cannot give itself the knowledge of its own existence. The thing for the benefit of which the aggregate organs function must be distinct from the aggregate of body and mind. That is atman – kshetragna (the knower). That kshetragna (atman) cannot be the organs of perception (gneya) since perception depends on kshetragna. This argument is well-stated in the famous question by Yagnavalkya : “How can you know the knower?”  

(October 2014) After posting this blog I was re-reading Isa Upanishad. There is a definition of Atman in this Upanishad also. That definition stimulated the following thoughts on Atman and Self.

The Sanskrit equivalent of the word “Self” is “Atman”. In any language a word is intended to carry a meaning and words are created by humans. Our ancestors who created these words are worthy of our respect. They were enlightened individuals. Yet, they were humans, like us. They were ahead of their times. But they created these words at a time when they did not have access to all the new knowledge we have of the human body, the mind and the universe. It is appropriate to revisit the meaning of these words and it is not a disrespect to our ancestors.  

The words Self and Atman were intended to refer to “something” apprehended by the human mind on the basis of perceptions of this world and of the universe. All of the experiences of our ancestors showed (still the same for us) that physical things and life-forms come and go and change. Lightning strikes. Volcanoes erupt. Oceans swell and swallow everything on their path. The sun and moon get covered for no apparent reason. In essence, this universe and this life are impermanent, imperfect, fantastic, mysterious and often frightening. 

Our mind looks for causes and motives all the time. Where did all of this come from? Where did I come from? Our logic keeps going backwards with these questions and comes to a point where it says “All of this must have come from ONE thing”. If so, what is that THING? How did that one thing become many? 

The words Self and Atman were created to refer to that ONE THING. It is a word to refer to a mental apprehension of a sensation/perception of a THING beyond what is available for apprehension. Isa Upanishad names that ONE as Atman and defines it as follows (Isa Up 1:8): self-generated, eternal, transcendent, pure, “all-knowing” and “knower of the mind.  

The definition is appropriate in contrast to the impermanent and imperfect frightening universe. But, the problem I see with the above definition is that the list also included one other characteristic, namely “body-less”. This is true of the definition of the spirit and the soul in Western philosophy also. If we can let go of this part of the definition, it will be more in line with our modern knowledge and we can stop finding twisted explanations and circular reasoning to get at the mystery of this Universe.

(to be continued)

And here is the quote for this month: from "The Centipede's Dilemma". By Katherine Craster (1841-74) in Pinafore Poems (1871)

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Quotes from the masters

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana, Roma and Sainath,

I hope you know by now that my primary purposes in writing these columns are 1. To bring to your attention the treasures “our ancestors, from both the east and west”, have left for us in the form of books and 2. To make you interested in reading them in the original and 3. To encourage you to think on your own in addition to reading them.

With those goals in mind, I have written about the meanings of symbols and rituals ( in the book with the title Symbols and Substance), about reading from the sacred texts, about concepts such as Dharma and Karma.  I wrote an entire piece on Balthazar Gracian’s writing (Blog from   January 17, 2012), one on Vidhura Nithi (Blog from September 15, 2011) and one devoted fully to Boethius ( blog from  October 1, 2012).  In addition, I have collected quotes from several other authors I have read. They are full of wisdom and observations of nature and human nature, true for all ages and all societies.

I plan to make these quotes parts of future blogs. I will add the references, hoping you go for the originals. Here are the first ones from Mr. Ambrose Bierce.

Ambrose Bierce

He was born in Ohio and studied in Indiana, lived during the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th (1842-1913). His writing skills were extraordinary. He is known as a supreme satirist. But, I find him more of a cynic than a satirist. Here are a few pithy definitions from his book on “The Devil’s Dictionary”.
Childhood: “The period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth”.
Consult: “To seek another’s approval of a course already decided on”.
Diagnosis: “A physician’s forecast of a disease by the patient’s pulse and purse”.
Religion: “ A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable”.
Peace: “In international affair, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting”.
Patience: “ A minor form of despair disguised as a virtue”.
Vote: “ The instrument and symbol of a free man’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country”.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

AAcharam - Conduct and custom

Aacharam plays a big part in the life of a householder following the vedic dharma., or Hindu religion. By simple definition, it means conduct and behavior. In other words it stands for external actions. But according to Kanchi Periyaval, aacharam includes inner character, outward actions and symbols one wears on the body. An extended meaning includes not just any practice, but established customs and traditional practices.

By further extension, the word aacharam includes both ethics and morals. Whereas ethics and morals deal essentially with relationship to this world, aacharam includes activities to purify one’s mind in preparation for spiritual practices. Aaacharam practiced with faith is said to remove the sins (papa) and produce merits (punya).  But it can do so only when practiced with faith.

It is also said that good and bad results as a result of aacharam may not be seen at once. They may show up only in the next birth. That is why followers of vedic religion are instructed to practice good aachara (sadaachara) and accumulate punya. Breaking aacharam will result in papa.

Kanchi Pariyaval talks eloquently and passionately about the need for not abandoning aacharas established in our dharma shastras. As much as I respect Periyaval immensely and his logic sounds excellent, I have problems with many of the statements because his premise is questionable.

For example, when you say “in your next birth”, the concept of next birth is assumed to be true and established. When you say that unless you practice with faith it will not succeed, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to circular reasoning. It is not logic at all.

Periyaval wants you to trust the elders. I do. I will. But, how can a human being with mental faculties suspend reasoning altogether? As Hutchins pointed out “What can be accepted for no reason, can be rejected also for no reason”.

I agree however with Periyaval when he says “just do not take convenient ones and let go of inconvenient ones by calling them superstitions”. He is perfectly correct.

Nor do I like the idea of “inventing” explanations to satisfy the persistent skeptics who keep asking questions. In essence most of the explanations for various aacharas given by modern scholars belong to this last group. These individuals have absolute faith in aacharas. They also know there is no valid reason applicable to the present state of the society. They are also afraid of breaking them because of bad consequences. Therefore they invent reasons.

The example I have chosen is not aacharam. But, it is to make a point. The modern so-called scientific explanation for performing homas (ceremonies using fire and pouring oblations that create smoke) is that the smoke can “purify” the air and get rid of mosquitoes etc. The word “purify” begs the question. Purifying from what pollution? Smoke from burning cow dung is considered to be insecticidal. I have big doubts about that statement.

But, our ancestors were not at all concerned about these issues. They were interested in appeasing the Gods and attaining moksha by performing homas. They thought they were sending their requests to the devas through food offerings. The devas were supposed to get pleased and send their blessings in the form of food and prosperity to the humans. The hygiene explanation is our invention without any proof. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Karma - Part 2

As stated earlier, most of us will not realize the identity of atman and Brahman in this life. What happens to this individual atman of a person who dies before such realization? He/she has to be born again and again till he/she works out his or her samchita karma and attains realization that he (atman, purusha) is different from prakriti (jata) and forever free and thus attains oneness with the Brahman.  Some do not attain this status even after several cycles of birth and death. They have to wait till the ultimate dissolution (mahapralaya) of this universe for such union.

When the body dies the gross portion is dead and is recycled. But the atman belonging to the subtle body portion of that individual needs support. This is provided by the subtle body composed of the other 18 elements of that person. In other words, portions of that “person” survive even after the physical body has died. This “person” attaches him or herself to another body that is born in the future to work out his/her “karma”. It is also called “the self that attaches itself to another gross body”. This process is explained in Brihadaaranya  Upanishad (4:4;3) as similar to a leach moving from one blade of grass to another. This cycle continues till there is realization and merger of the atman and Brahman of that person.

This logic of a subtle body staying alive to work out one’s karma becomes necessary for the following reasons. If you say that the atman (purusha, spirit) of a person who dies without realization (that atman is Brahman)  gets liberation or moksha automatically , then you accept that there is no virtue (punyam)or sin (paapa) as a result of your actions. That means you can do whatever you want since you will attain moksha anyway. This is what the one Indian system of philosophy (Caravaka system) says. 

If you say that the spirit alone survives and continues to act of its own accord, it is against the principle characteristic of purusha, which by definition does not act and is apathetic. Purusha does not take birth of its own accord and fall into the cycle of birth and death (samasara) since by definition purusha or spirit does not act and is apathetic. Therefore, it is necessary to postulate that the Atman of the unrealized man who has died has to remain united with something so it can get new births and get a chance for this unrealized soul to realize its own true nature (Brahman).  That something is the jata portion of the “person”  which perishes at death. Therefore, the only way the remaining sukshma or subtle portion of the person whose body has died is to take on the body of another “person”.

When the gross body disappears at death what can the associated Atman attach to? That is where the whole idea of the Atman in its subtle body attaching itself like a leech to the gross body of another individual comes in. The argument goes on to say that out of the 23 elements of the Samkhya system listed earlier, (starting with mahat, ahamkara, 5 gnanendriya, 5 karmendriya, manas, 5 panchatanmatras and 5 panchaboothas), only the 5 panchaboothas are lost at death. The Atman stays attached to the other 18 elements of that individual, until it realizes its separateness from prakriti (matter). The “body” which remains after death as the continued union of the spirit (purusha) with the 18 other elements of that individual is the sukshma sarira or Linga sarira. This is destined to take birth after birth.

There are different views on what the constituents of the sukshma sarira are. One group (Samkhya) says that there are 18 elements and another says 13 elements. Vedantha says that there are only 6 elements (thejas, apa and anna, prana, karma and dharmadharma). There is also a concept of another sarira or body subtler than the sukshma sarira between the sthoola sarira and sukshma sarira!! Buddhism has a whole different interpretation.

There are several sources for these ideas. One is Brahma sutra 2-3-15 which says “the mahat, the buddhi and the indriyas are effects of the elements and therefore can come into existence only after the elements are created”. The obvious question is   “how can they survive or live after the gross body is gone?” Brahma sutra goes on to clarify this in the next sutra (2-3-16) by stating that birth and death are associated with the body and not the soul. The soul lives forever till it attains moksha by realizing its unity with Brahman! To do that, it needs a body and therefore takes rebirths.  Another source is Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (Chapters 4:4 and 6:2).

This is obviously a complicated concept to explain the unexplainable. Even the words used are vague and denote nothing tangible. In my personal view, this complicated thinking was necessitated both to explain the fear of death and to explain the reasons for differing conditions of the human beings. How else can you explain the suffering of innocent children? How can you explain good people suffering and evil-doers thriving? The concept of Karma and rebirth also served a social function namely control of human behavior, encouraging people to behave well and accumulate punya (merit) so they can attain moksha at least in the next birth.

One other aspect of the Karma and rebirth concepts is the idea of samskaras or innate dispositions. Indian psyche does not consider an infant a clean slate or tabula rasa of the western ideas. Each child is born with certain innate tendencies or samskaras as a residue from the karmas of the past lives. In his remarkable book on the portrait of the Indian people Sudhir and Katharina Kakar  write: “ The karmic balance from a previous life and thus the innate dispositions with which one enters the present one serve to make a Hindu more accepting of the inevitable disappointments that afflict even the most fortunate lives. Yet whereas the notion of inherited dispositions can console and help to heal, it can also serve the purpose of denial of individual responsibility’. (The Indian: Portrait of a People. Sudhir and Katharina Kakar. Penguin Books. 2007. Pages 195-196)

To my way of thinking, Karma and rebirth are concepts that have been accepted as if they represent reality.  Just because there is a word to express a concept, just because it was given to us by our ancestors whom we respect and adore, just because the word has been repeated for several centuries and just because several people believe these words and associated concepts, the word karma and the concepts the word stand for, do not become real. (See my posting on Words).

We have to accept the fact that once the body dies, it is dead! Nisargadatta Maharaj says that it becomes “dead-meat”. There is no way of proving or disproving the existence of subtle body and its re-entry into another physical body. Nor can we experience such a possibility if it were true since the body and its circumstances will be different. As my mother said: “ no one who died has come back and told us what happens next”. It is reasonable to question old concepts. Questioning the concepts and realigning them to current knowledge is not being disrespectful to our elders.

Part of the problem is that we retain the old idea of panchaboothas (space, air, fire water and earth) as the basic elements. They are philosophical concepts. According to earlier Upanishads, only three elements were posited as making up the substance of this universe.  But these elements based on philosophical speculation will have to be replaced by physical elements that have since been proven to make up the structure of everything in this universe, namely carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, iron etc. These elements get recycled.

As I said earlier, it is reasonable to question the concepts developed by our earlier. In fact, our elders would want us to keep asking and seeking. Any good teachers would. In fact, Adi Sankara recommended that we reinterpret old dogmas when new facts emerge. In his book on Gita Bhashya he says:  “Certainly sruti cannot be an authority as against observed facts. Even if hundred Veda texts declare that fire is cold and devoid of light they cannot become an authority on this point”. (Na hi prathyaksha virodhe shrutheh praamaanyam. Na hi shruthishathabhih sheethognih. Aprakaasah ithi bruvath praamaanyma upaithi). (quoted from Sankara’s Teachings in His own Words by Swami Atmananda. Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan, 1964, page 75)

Here is how Buddha puts it:   “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 analyse, and when the result agrees with reason and conduces to the good of one and all, accept it and live up to it”. (This is a reproduction of advice from Buddha, according to the translation of original Buddhist canons by Paul Carus published in 1894. I have not laid my eyes on the original. But found this on a statement about this book with the title The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, published by Samata Books of Chennai. This was on the cover of another book by Samata Books on Yoga vasishta.)

It is interesting to note that the theory of karma (Indian), the theory of providence (Christian) and the theory of natural laws (materialistic) are equivalent concepts. They try to explain why good people suffer and bad people enjoy and also why innocent children suffer. They also give some hope for the future.

There is a concept in the western traditions similar to that of Atman which suggests that the “soul” needs a “body” to occupy at the time of final “Judgment”.  The human being is considered a compound of soul and flesh. The soul is divine, immortal and immaterial. (Compare with the Parkriti of Samkhya or Parabrahman of Vedantha) This soul enters the fetus and animates it. (Look at the common roots of the words animal and prana; anema stands for breath, wind and life in Latin and the word an is breath or life in Sanskrit). The soul stays with the flesh during life. At death, the soul departs the body but continues to be sentient. Now, the soul is a spirit. This spirit reunites with the body at the time of last Judgment. Based on the sins and merits of the person, the reunited soul and flesh go either to heaven or fry in hell. So the body is needed for this final event. This may explain the system of burial in the western cultures. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Karma - Part 1

The word Karma has thousand different meanings depending on the source and the philosophical tradition. Strict dictionary definition of karma is “action, deed”, based on the root word kru, meaning to do. This includes physical, verbal and mental activities. A dictionary of Indian Philosophy defines Karma as: “action, deed, cause and effect and accumulation of past actions”. This last definition dominates all of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies.

Prof. Wendy Doniger points that there are at least six different levels of meaning. 1. Action, based on the root verb, which is kru, to do. 2. Ritual action as used in the Vedas. 3. Morally charged action as shown in the Upanishads. 4. Morally charged action with consequences for the future and even after death. 5. Therefore, an action which has carry over effect in the next birth of the cycle. 6. Action with good or bad effects which can be transferred to another person. (Hindus – An Alternative History  2010. Penguin,  page 169)

According to the Mimamsa school of Vedic philosophy, Karma consists of prescribed and prohibited actions as given in the Vedas and their main purpose is liberation (moksha) of the soul. According to this school, there are four kinds of karmas. They are:  nitya karmas (to be performed daily such as agnihotra), naimitthika karmas (to be performed on special occasions such as annual ceremony for the departed), kaamya karma (prompted by a desire such as success in travel, job) and nishiddha or prathishiddha karmas (those that should be avoided).  The first two have to be to be performed by the humans to please the Gods and the Gods in turn will be pleased and satisfy the needs of the humans.

One of the basic tenets of Mimamsa school is that man’s actions in this world will have results (Phala). They may lead to accumulation of positive phala (punyam) or lead to bad results  (paapam).  Pratishiddha karma will bring about papa janma (evil births), kamya karma will bring about punya janma (good birth) and nithya karma MUST be performed in order to avoid (pratyavaaya) evil results.

According to this school, Yagna in the form of Karma and srushti (creation) in the form of praja (people) came out of the Parabrahman at the same time.  Portions of the Vedas which are commands or instructions for performance of yagnas are called Vaakyas or Vidhis. The rest of the Vedas based on mystic experience and philosophical in content is called artha vaada and these parts of Vedas “not germane to karma are of no importance”.

On the other hand, Vedanta school says that “the authority of a passage is not based on whether it states a fact or prescribes a course of action, but its capacity to generate fruitful knowledge”. Therefore Sankara says most of Vedas dealing with Karma are only to remind us (gnaapaka) not commands (karaka). However, one should perform these actions not as the sole means for liberation, but only as a mean to purify the mind (chittha suddhi), for universal welfare (lokhakshema) and prepare oneself for liberation.
In Vaiseshika school, the word karma stands for physical motion or movement in one of five cardinal directions.

The Samkhya system posits Prakriti and Purusha as the two forces at the beginning of this cosmos. Prakriti is composed of three gunas or qualities in equilibrium. They are satva (calm, pure, steady,illuminating), rajas ( active, energetic, passionate) and tamo (ignorant, lazy, inert, dull). Both inanimate (jata) and the sentient beings (Jiva) come out of prakriti. When the saatvic portion is dominant, it is the jiva. When the tamasic portions dominates, it is the jata. Karma is rajasic portion which acts on the other two in the the process by which the perceptible cosmos comes out of the imperceptible prakriti.   

Oxford English dictionary defines Karma as “a noun (in Hinduism and Buddhism), the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as affecting their future fate”. The root word in Sanskrit denotes: “action, effect, fate”.  This is the definition closest to the current understanding of the word.

Wikipedia defines Karma as “action or deed”  “which causes the entire cycle of cause and effect  (i.e., the cycle called samsara)”.

In Buddhist doctrines, Karma “is the law of moral causation” and includes concepts of rebirth. It is the law of cause and effect applied to daily life and to cycles of birth and rebirth.

The classification of Karma (like all classifications) depends on what purpose it is classified for, its origins and quality.            

Actions are meant to achieve some goal. Since the original use of the word was related to Vedic duties, karma was classified under three headings. They are: Shrauta karma as laid out in sruthi’s or Vedas to attain moksha (liberation);  Smaartha karma  performed for individual benefit (purushaartha) and based on smrithi’s and Pauraanika karmas such as pilgrimage, fasting etc also for liberation.

Action can be bodily actions (kaayika karma), vocal (vaachika) or mental (maanasika).

Karma can be of the saatvik variety (noble), raajasik ( passionate) or thaamasik (dull, not wholesome).
Karmaas can also classified as karthavya karma (duty, have to be done) and vihitha karma (proper action depending on one’s circumstances).

Bhagavatha purana divides karma into two classes: pravruthha karma and nivruttha karma. Pravruttha actions follow sensory demands and lead to worldly benefits. Nivruttha actions lead inwards and lead to activities performed for the welfare of the others and without attachment to fruits of one’s actions. Bhagvat Gita teaches this kind of actions (nivruttha).

Also, the results of one’s actions may carry over to subsequent births. This is a major feature of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. In this interpretation, the word karma takes on a different connotation. The residue (actions whose results have not been experienced in this life) produced by acts performed earlier during this life or in a previous life is called Samchitha karma (accumulated). Accumulated karma is latent. Praarabda karma is the residue of samchita karma working itself out during the present life. Aagami karma is the result of acts performed during this life which will mature in the normal course of events and carry over into next life as Samchita karma.

The word karma stands for both the actions and their consequences. The way the word is used, it stands not only for our actions in this life but also for actions in the “previous” lives. It assumes that rebirths and previous lives are given. According to this philosophy, the entire purpose of human life is to work out one’s karma. Once we have experienced the results of all past actions and do not accumulate any more “karma” in this life we can obtain liberation (moksha).

If we accept such a definition of karma, we also accept that all events in life, good and bad are consequences (papa and punya) of our past karma, in this life and in previous lives. This attitude has the advantage of making us deal with misfortunes and suffering in this life with equanimity.  Faith in this concept will lead to a fatalistic attitude and a tendency to attribute our misfortunes to karmas from our past life.

If we accept such a definition of karma, we accept the concept of rebirth also. Indeed, the concepts of karma and rebirth are inseparably linked in the Vedic and Buddhist philosophies.

It is very clear in the writings of several philosophers that the Karma theory was developed to explain the common observation that some good people and innocent children suffer in this world, whereas some “horrible and cruel” people enjoy all kinds of wealth and luxury. How can that be? If you say that God is responsible, God becomes an unreasonable, non-benevolent, and unfair entity or one who plays favoritism.  You need a different explanation. The theory of Karma provides this explanation.

The other possible reason for this karma theory is that we are all afraid of death and we wish to have some hope for a better place to “live” after death. By saying that good karma accumulates punyams and takes you to heaven may be a motivation for a few to be good. The fear that bad karma will lead you to hell may be a deterrent for a few people.

Those are the two possible reasons for the development of this concept of Karma. But, how did the concept of karma get connected with the concept of rebirth? Where is the philosophical support for the concept of rebirth?

This question is important for a skeptic like me because I do not find any fact that is visible, verifiable or can be deduced by inference to support the idea of rebirth. I find these concepts depend on circular reasoning and assertions without proof. How can “I” living in this impermanent body come back and enter another physical body. That assumes that a spirit which is very specific but different from the body exists. I do not see how “I” which is a concept created by my impermanent brain, can “live” once the physical body is gone. There is no logic or physical proof to support this idea. But the karma philosophy thinks otherwise. It does so by introducing concepts of Gross body (sthula sarira) and subtle body (sukhsma sarira).

To understand this we have to understand some fundamentals of Samkhya philosophy and its view of of how cosmos and life originated. According to this materialistic, atheistic philosophy, evolution of cosmos was a gradual process starting with the original matter (Prakriti) and energy (Purusha) and ending in individual lives with their organs of sensation and actions. The sequence is follows.

In the beginning there were two self-created, subtle (imperceptible) entities called Prakriti and Purusha. Prakriti stands for matter and Purusha stands for emerging pirnciple. Prakriti is mutable and needs Purusha to become active. But Purusha is not associated with any qualities or action. Although it gives power to prakriti to evolve, it is actionless, untouched and unattached. Purusha of Samkhya is called jiva or atman of an individual person by the Gita and the Vedanta literature.

               The Prakriti  evoles with the help of Purusha into
Percpetible and subtle -  Mahat (reason) (also called buddhi, mathi, gnana)
               Perceptible and subtle-   Ahamkara (individuation) (taijasa).
At this stage there are two major subdivisions.  1. Perceptible and subtle forming the basis of the organic world coming out of the saatvik aspect and consists of organs of senses (5), organs of action (5), and the mind.
2. Also perceptible and subtle coming out of the taamasic aspect and the basis of inorganic world. They form the basis of smell, sound, sight, taste and touch. These are called panchatanmatras.
 These panchatanmatras in turn give rise to panchaboothas or primordial visible or Gross elements of smell, sound, sight, taste and touch. When the five gross elements or panchaboothas come into contact with the eleven subtle organs, organic universe starts. This applies to every individual creature.

In other words, only the five boothas (the final step) which make the gross body of each individual are visible. The other 18 elements are not. But they exist.

In this order of evolution, the concept of Karma applies only to Reason and Intellect (mahat,buddhi,ahamkara) , which are evolutes of Prakriti. It does not apply to Purusha or the spirit which is quality-less. Karma does not apply to Atman (individualized aspect of the spirit or purusha) which is identical with Brahman and therefore free.

Purusha is the force that activates the various subtle organs and mind which evolved out of prakriti. When purusha is united with the panchaboothas, the living world begins. At a global level (samashti) this Purusha is also called Prana or Hirankyagarba. It is called Atman at an individualized level of life (Jivatman).  This Atman which is none other than the Brahman becomes entangled in the web of life and forgets its original free state. In one view, this is maya. When the spirit (Jivatman, purusha) realizes that it is independent, forever free and is different from prakriti, the maya is dissolved and the jivatman reaches its original state of sat chit ananda. This is moksha.

Bhagavat Gita (7:14) implies that the three gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas)on the basis of which the universe evolves out of Prakriti is the Maya. Tilak (Gita Rahasya Vol II, page 1018) refers to a sloka in Sandilya Sutra which says: “O Narada, that which you see, is the Maya, which has been created by Me. Do not think that I possess the qualities, which are to be found in the created world”.  Maya is the Ignorance inherent in the quality of the senses and of the body which came out of the embodiment of the three gunas of the prakriti. The Atman is free from maya and is not the quality of the atman since it is purusha. But the Atman is thrown into confusion by the maya due to identification.

As stated earlier, most of us do not realize the identity of atman and Brahman in this life. What happens to this individual atman of a person who dies before such realization? He/she has to be born again and again till he/she works out his or her samchita karma and attains realization that he (atman, purusha) is different from prakriti and forever free and thus attains oneness with the Brahman. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Gist of Books I have read - On Dharma 4

This is the final part of essays on Dharma.

What do other traditions say?

In the Christian tradition, there are several kinds of virtues defined on the basis of writings of Greek philosophers such as Plato and early Christian theologians. Pope Gregory the Great codified a set of seven cardinal sins and also seven virtues to replace them. They are: pride (to be corrected by humility); envy (to be replaced by kindness); gluttony (to be replaced by abstinence); lust (to be taken care of by chastity); anger (equalized by patience); greed (to be replaced by liberality) and sloth (to be corrected by diligence). 

There is a comparable set of teachings in the Buddhist tradition. Lord Buddha gave his son Rahula the following  advice when he joined the Sangha: “Rahula, practice loving kindness (maître) to overcome anger. Practice compassion (karuna) to overcome cruelty. Practice sympathetic joy (mudhita) to overcome jealousy. Practice non-attachment (upeksha) to overcome prejudice”.

In another list of virtues according to the Western traditions, three virtues belong to theology – namely faith, hope and charity. The other four are worldly virtues: fortitude, justice, prudence and temperance.

In the Bible, the section of Proverbs has passages which emphasize wisdom, judgment and common sense in human behavior. In one passage, it says: “ for there are six things the Lord hates, no seven. They are haughtiness, lying, murder, plotting evil, doing wrong, false witness and sowing discord among brothers”. It also emphasizes righteousness and justice which taken together is dharma of the eastern philosophy.

Finally, modern schools of morality and ethics that come out of western philosophies are based on reason and emphasize objectivity. (Please refer to my essay on Dharma for the 21st century at, dated  June 16, 2009). In this system, important considerations in making ethical decisions include individual autonomy, individual rights, social justice, beneficience and the concept of “least harm”. All the modern schools of western ethics (dharma) and therefore, of laws, are built on combinations of these principles.

The various schools of ethics are: 1.Utilitarian – greatest good for the greatest number and greater balance of good over harm; 2. Rights of the individual and groups – best to protect and respect human rights; 3. Fairness or social justice – treat all humans equally; if unequal, the treatment should be fair and defensible; 4. Common good – to reach conditions that are important for the welfare of everyone; and 5. Virtue – based on some basic virtues such as honesty, integrity, courage, compassion.

Kakar points out how “dharma is an inherent force in human beings which holds the individual and the society together”. This is markedly different from the individualistic psychology of the west. The primacy of the individual is dominant in western ethics. Individual freedom is emphasized, and in my view sometimes over-emphasized. This gets combined with materialistic happiness, particularly in the modern version.

Materialistic ethics need not exclude happiness resulting from self-realization and connection with the others. If we can expand the meaning of the word happiness to include both material, worldly happiness and spiritual, universal happiness the ethics will be stronger.

The vedic dharma says, if I consider that there is only one Atman in this world, and the Atman of the other person is the same as mine, it is easier to practice charity towards the other. The new dharma (ethics) for the 21st century becomes a metaphysical dharma by including atman as common to all living beings and including both materialistic and spiritual happiness.

Dharma based on the realization of the Absolute Self in one self and in all living forms is subjective and therefore, can be interpreted differently by different individuals and groups. Conclusions arrived at by subjective methods sound arbitrary and unreliable to those trained under Aristotelian logic, objectivity and strict “yes or no” answers. However, when examined carefully, the concept of dharma includes fairness, principle of common good and common virtues and takes into account the fact that same rules cannot be applied to all situations, all the time.

What are the exceptions and how can one arrive at those conclusions? 

This is the subject of aapad dharma.   In a famous passage in the Mahabharatha, a bird advises King Sibhi how to decide between dharma and adharma when there is a conflict. He says: “That is dharma where there is no contradiction. If you see contradiction, look at the relative merits of the action to be taken and the opposite action. Follow the path of duty in which there is no opposition”.  It further goes on to say that one should be able to get proper insight into matters which might not be actually before the eyes or which may be matters of consequences in the future. In modern English parlance, this is Prudence. Prudence is nothing but foresight and providing for eventualities.

In another passage in the Mahabharatha, Draupadi is talking with Yudhishtra. She says that although killing is adharma (NOT dharma) in general, it is not so under the following circumstances: “when someone is trying to kill us, when someone is destroying your properties and possessions, when someone is killing your kith and kin, when someone is trying to poison you and a murderer”.

In another story on Vishvamitra, the sage does not find food for many days. He steals meat from a thief’s house and gets caught. The thief asks Vishvamitra how this situation came to be. Vishvamitra says: “ It is important to maintain life. I can repent and pay amends for this sin once I live”.

In more modern times, Bernard Gert has suggested that the definition of moral rules acceptable to all “rational, impartial” individuals should depend on the ability for most people to agree explicitly on conditions under which these rules may be broken, violated.  ( Morality: A new justification of Moral Rules. Oxford University Press, 1988) (

These explanations sound naïve and simplistic on the surface. But the point is that one cannot live a life in this imperfect world with rigid ideologies. Even dharma cannot be applied as written in scriptures all the time. Dharma implies context. Scriptures themselves tell you that there may me occasions when the rules may have to be superceded. Rules of Dharma have to be re-casted for each period in history, for each geographical area and for each society. The problem is that it can lead to everyone doing their own thing and using their own justification for doing so. Only those who spend time to reflect can develop their own internal policeman and follow dharma. Others need rules of law.