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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Meditation in the Western Tradition

In the Western traditions, meditation is not emphasized. It is even viewed with suspicion. But, it was not always so. In ancient times, meditation was part of the tradition. In fact, Jesus himself comes from a sect in which meditation was emphasized. I am aware of two books which deal with this topic in the western tradition.

Evelyn Underhill (The Mystic Way:Essentials of Mysticism) considers mysticism as “interpretation of life by life”. In this book, she uses as her source, the experiences of saints and “the first hand declarations of those great lovers of the Absolute” taken from available texts during the first 400 years of Christianity. Her comments suggest that the Liturgy of the Mass is a remnant of the mystic tradition of Christianity.

 She suggests that Christianity began as a mystical movement and that “the Founder and those who succeeded Him possessed the characteristically mystic consciousness, and passed through the normal stages of mystical growth”.  Later she quotes St.Augustine  as follows: “Interrogate thyself, O man” and “make thyself a step to the things that be above thee”.

An ancient classic Christian book called The Cloud of Unknowing documents several anecdotes on the principles of meditation.

The author of this book written in the 14th century is not known and he follows the tradition of negative theology (via negativa) of Dionysius, the Aeropagite. The roots go back to the early era of Christianity.  The author says that He (God) cannot be reached through knowledge, intellect and reason. This is the same view as that held by the rishis of India as stated in the Upanishads.   Instead, he suggests a path of intense contemplation, humility and love of God for the sake of love and not seeking any benefits (this is called charity).

In this teaching, the goal is spiritual union with God through worship with “one’s substance”. It is going through a “cloud of unknowing” and feeling that He is in our own being. In explaining the “darkness”, the author says: “When I say darkness, I mean a lack of knowing……. It is dark to thee; for thou seest it not with thy ghostly eyes. And for this reason, it is not called a cloud of air, but a cloud of unknowing, that is betwixt thee and thy God”.

It further says that thoughts will fail in these efforts, because “For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held” (Chapter 6). In essence, we have “to keep our doors and windows open” and it is only by His Grace shall we “know” Him.  “Then will He sometimes peradventure send out a beam of ghostly light piercing this cloud of unknowing betwixt thee and Him….” (Chapter 26)

One can see very clearly the similarity of these thoughts to those of the writings of the Upanishads and Buddha. All of them talk about the One Supreme, that One inherent in every one of us, about the futility of knowledge and reason to comprehend and about  the importance of contemplation (meditation) in our spiritual endeavor. 

There is the story of Martha and her sister Mary, both sisters of Lazarus, who was revived back to life by Jesus. The unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing says that this story is a metaphor for Active and Contemplative aspects of the teachings of the Holy Church. (It is easy to see the similarity to the karma (action-oriented) and gnana (knowledge oriented) paths described in Gita).

 In fact, there are three steps in our movement towards the Divine, says the author. The first is Active, in the form of practice of mercy and charity. The next is a mixture of active and contemplative. This stage is called meditative on “the Passions of Christ” and the “Joy of Heaven” and the final step is the perfect contemplative. This is not much different from what Adi Shankara said about moving from action in performing yagnas, moving to action without expecting results, to bhakti and then to knowledge.

The description of those who have reached the final stage of contemplation is similar to the description of the self-realized souls in the Vedic religion. For example, it says that those in the active stage of life respond to dualities of life such as praise and curse, good and bad, pain and pleasure. But those who have reached the final stage of contemplation feel no such dualities.

In the story of Martha and Mary, Martha is the one doing all the cooking, serving and entertaining. She even complains to Jesus: “Ask her to help me” pointing to Mary. But, Jesus sees Mary deeply involved with listening to the teachings, and contemplating on them and Jesus approves of it. He even says that Mary’s approach is a better method for spiritual advancement.

The book on The Cloud of Unknowing also puts down all pretenders of meditation, meditation on saints and angels and the claims of those who claim they have seen angels and saints. “Surely he that seeketh God perfectly, he will not rest him finally in the remembrance of any angel or saint in heaven” (chapter 9). References are made to such statements as “how a man shall draw all his wit within himself” and “how he shall climb above himself”.

 In preparing for a contemplative life, the author recommends three initial steps:  Lesson, Meditation and Orison. By these he means reading (listening), thinking and prayer. Thinking as the author describes seems to be about one’s own weaknesses and about the goodness of God. It is not the “silence” as suggested in the oriental spirituality. He also emphasizes the intensity of feeling required in the thinking and the prayer. Just as suggested in the Gita, this author recommends “ thou shalt have discretion as in eating and in drinking, and in sleeping and in keeping of the body from outrageous heat and cold, and in long praying and reading, or in communing in speech with thine even-christian. In all these shalt thou keep discretion, that they be neither too much not too little”; but not in your efforts in prayer.

An interesting passage in Chapter 59 is a quote, the source of which is not given. It states: “There is no man that may ascend into heaven, but only He that descended from heaven, and became man for the love of man”.  It is so similar, not surprisingly, to the Vedic tradition.

“Look on nowise that thou be within thyself” says the author in Chapter 68.

In Chapter 73, the author states that He can be experienced only by His Grace at His time of choosing. Sometimes He bestows his grace after we exert our efforts. Sometimes, we profit by the teachings of others who show us a way.
More recently, Mindfulness meditation seems to be catching everyone's attention, probably because of its secular nature. In addition, recent scientific studies  have documented its usefulness and have established its effects on the structure and function of the brain.  

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Kurukshetra Battle (Continued) - Maha Bharatha Series 38

My eyes were clouded with tears when I read Section 43, immediately following Bhagvat Gita. In this, Sanjaya describes the scene just before the battle starts. Yudhishtra gets down from his car and proceeds towards the opposing army on foot. All his brothers are surprised and concerned and ask him why he is walking into the army of the foe. Krishna knows and tells them all to calm down. Yudhishtra knows that it is proper to pay respect to Bhishma, Drona and Kripa before this battle. And he does it because it is the proper thing to do. His high sense of values made him do that. I wish this section is better known among those who read or speak about Maha Bharata.

The Kauravas do not know either why Yudhishtra was walking right into their army. They think that he was afraid and was coming to surrender. But, Yudhishtra makes a bee-line to Bhishma first, bows to him, touches his feet and says: 'I salute you, O invincible one. We come to battle. Grant (us) your permission in that matter. Give (us) also your blessing." Of course, Bhishma does so. He says: “I am like an eunuch, bound with the Kauravas owing to their wealth and have to fight on their side. But I will pray for your victory”.

Yudhishtra goes to Drona and Kripa also. The same scene is repeated. All of them say “I have to fight for the Kauravas; but will pray for your victory”. Yudhishtra says: “That is my wish too, that you fight wholeheartedly for them but pray for us”. Finally, Yudhishtra comes to Karna and says: “I know you have decided against taking arms because of your dislike of Bhishma. Please come to our side. You can go back to the Kauravas after Bhishma is killed”. Karna declines, of course. Then, Yudhishtra announces that anyone from the Kauravas will be accepted by the Pandavas, if they choose to do so before the battle starts. Yuyutsu born to Dhrithrashta of   a non-kshatriya wife is the one who switches sides.

The later part of Book 6 gives detailed descriptions of the battle day by day, as narrated by Sanjaya to Dhritrashtra. Here, we learn the names of several formations of the army, what their arrangements are and which hero occupied each position etc. We learn the names of several weapons that were used. It is obvious that this war happened after the iron-age had settled in. There is mention of several celestial weapons and one of them is called satagni which from description appears to be some kind of missile! It appears to me that Sanjaya mentions the names of each of the 100 kaurava princes as they get killed by Bhima just as he had vowed. The only son of Dhrithrashtra left alive was the one he had by a non-kshatriya wife (by name Yuyutsu), who survived to perform the ceremonies for his 100 half-brothers.

In Section 65 (it is 63 in the Sanskrit version), Bhishma is explaining why Pandavas are winning. In this section, the following ideas as expressed by Bhishma about the Supreme:  ”I worship Him who is called TAT, He who is Supreme, He who is existent at present and who will be for all time, He who is the highest Self, He who is the Soul of beings, and who is the great Lord. He is the creator of all beings. His body is un-manifest (avyakta). His mind is manifest (Vyakta).  The gods were created by His breath. With His heads, He pervaded (root word in Sanskrit is bruh which means to expand) the Heavens. His arms support the Earth. The three worlds are contained in Him and He is the Eternal Being. He is the Sat of Sat, ultimate Truth, Eternal”.

Some interesting Slokas from this section follow:

सर्वभूतानि भूतात्मा महात्मा पुरुषॊत्तमः
      आपॊ वायुश तेजश तरयम एतद अकल्पयत
मुखतः सॊ ऽगनिम असृजत पराणाद वायुम अथापि
सरस्वतीं वेदांश मनसः ससृजे ऽचयुतः

Friday, July 14, 2017

Kurukshetra Battle - Maha Bharatha Series 37

The details of the famous battle are described in Book 6, starting with the name of Kurukshetra. We learn that this was known originally as Tapas-Kshetra, a place for tapas, or penance. (Prof. Roberto Calasso, the Italian scholar translates tapas to mean ardor, intense burning of the thought). Since Kuru, the ancestor of the Kauravas did his penance there, the name changed to Kurukshetra.

In section 1, rules of conduct of war are described, such as “children and old ones should not be harmed. Unarmed adversary should not be attacked. Each soldier will have a “watch-word” which will identify him with the side he belongs to”.

As the troops are getting ready, Vyasa arrives. He is disturbed and tells Dhrithrashtra: “No use grieving now. This is destiny and cannot be prevented. This is the effect of kaala (time or lord of death). As regards victory, it is there where righteousness is”. In other words, the war was preordained, an explanation given for almost everything that happens in Maha Bharatha.

Vyasa offers Dhrithrashtra ability to see everything in the battle field. But, he declines saying that he cannot bring himself to seeing all his kith and kin being killed. Therefore, Vyasa gives a special celestial vision to Sanjaya, Dhrithrashtra’s charioteer so that he will see every detail in every corner of the battle-field and narrate the events to Dhrithrashtra at the end of each day.

Vyasa’s account of various planets at the time of the famous battle may be significant. Not knowing Vedic astrology, I am unable to decipher them. He mentions specific positions of each of the planets (including the moon, which we know is not a planet) in relation to the 27 stars. In this list there is mention of a white planet called kethu “blazing like fire, having attacked the Jeshta, and having passed beyond the constellation, Chitra”.  He also mentions Rahu as taken a position between constellations, Chitra and Swati. We know that there is no planet equivalent to Rahu or Kethu existent now. May be, he was describing a comet or a planet like Pluto which has gone out of the solar system! May be, they were twin planets.

Vyasa mentions that the constellation of seven-stars (sapta rishi mandala) has dimmed. He points out that Brihaspati and Sani approaching Vishaka have become stationary and that the duration of a fortnight has shortened by two days. There are descriptions of lunar and solar eclipses coming back to back and 2 eclipses within a fortnight etc. Such clear descriptions tell us that our ancestors were keen observers of the sky and of the stars and planets. These facts also suggest that Mahabharatha is based on some historical event very much like the Iliad of Homer in Greek history.  I hope some scholar has been able to establish the epoch when these events could have happened based on these descriptions of the planets and the stars. Indeed, I found one person who has tried to verify these dates with past calendars. (   September 1, 2010 by Ramesh Panchwagh)

In Section 4, Sanjay starts describing the land to Dhrithrashtra. He says that there are things mobile and immobile. Among the mobiles he includes three kinds: oviparous, viviparous and those that come from heat and damp (similar to the idea in the west about the origins of insects and flies from miasma). Of the mobile, viviparous are the most important. There are 14 species in this group, with seven living wild and seven domestic. It is interesting that man is included as one among the seven domestic creatures. Among the immobile, plants are included and Sanjaya lists four: trees, shrubs, creepers, creeping plants existing for only a year, and all stemless plants of the grass species. Here we also learn that the term valli (kodi in Tamizh) is specifically for creepers that spread horizontally) and the word for stemless plants such as grass in thruna.

Two other statements found in this book are significant: 1. All creatures support their life by living upon one another. 2. Everything springs from the earth and everything, when destroyed, merges into the Earth.

In his description of Bharata Varsha (the ancient India), Sanjaya recounts Bharata, Manu and Ikshvaku as its inhabitants. Malaya and Vindhya mountains are mentioned. So are many well-known rivers such as Ganga, Kauveri and Tamra. He says that Saraswati is seen in some places and not in some other places along its route. Now we know that it does not exist anymore, although evidences of an ancient river bed are there. Among the people, dravidas, andhras and keralas are mentioned. Also mentioned are Mlcechas, Chinas, and Huns. It appears that the word mleccha referred to the uncivilized and a related word called meluha was used in the ancient Akkadia kingdom. 

In section 12, when Vyasa describes planet Swabhanu, he says that the diameter is 12 yojanas and the circumference 42 yojanas (3.5). For moon, he mentions 11 and 38 and to the sun (?) it is 10 to 35. It is clear that these are approximations to the value of pi.

In a later chapter, Sanjaya says: “Victory is not won by just might, but by truth, compassion, righteousness and energy”

According to this text by Ganguli, Bhagavat Gita starts with Section 25 of Book 6. I will not cover these sections which are so well-known.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Ethics - subjective or objective?

Ethics as is practiced today is based on objective principles. Ethical principles must be verifiable or measurable. Ethics is based on values. Values can be experienced and described.  I agree that, if we base our decisions on everyone’s inner “values”, there will be chaos since each one has a different view of life. Everything becomes relative and acceptable. However, we know that some values are universal by their consistency over the centuries and by their presence as the core values of all cultures and religious traditions.

As pointed out by Tilak in his book on Gita Rahasya, for the past two centuries, ethical decisions have been defined by:         1. the effects on observable external things and events. This includes respect for autonomy, beneficence (bring about good), non-beneficence (do no harm) and justice.

                                                2. knowing the reasons behind the decisions.

The second has two components according to the Indian concepts. What is the practical reason? Even more important, what is the pure reason? Is the pure reason noble? If it is, you cannot judge the action alone as good or bad. It is difficult to know what the pure motivation of anyone is. That is why modern ethics places more emphasis on the visible effects, rather than on invisible motives.  It does try, though. That is why the law tries to establish the motive behind criminal offenses. We also know that the offender can hide behind “insanity” or some such defense.

This emphasis on pure reason is the focus of the entire Bhagavat Gita. Lord Krishna says that if your motives are noble and within the province of your duty and you perform your action without attachment to the results, you are forgiven even if it is a cruel act, such as going to war.

Take this one step farther. Both the practical reason and pure reason must be based on the foundations of humanity and collective consciousness of humanity. You can call it a Divine Principle, if you want. This is Dharma of the Vedas. This is based on the premise that the “force” that activated all animate and inanimate, moving and non-moving things is present in all of them. It connects the individual with the collective and the universal. That is why the basic common teachings of all religious traditions consist of non-killing, truthfulness, love for all life-forms, compassion, and non-stealing.

Modern ethics puts emphasis on the primacy of the individual and on objectivity. Autonomy (? Self-interest) and maximum good for the maximum numbers are the guideposts. These are reactions to the past excesses over centuries of rulers and religious fanatics who punished innocent “common” people without any proof of wrong-doing (except questioning authority), purely on personal whims and fancy.

The Vedic system puts emphasis on the equability of Reason based on the following facts: 1. The Spirit (Atman) in you is the same as the Spirit in the others. Treat others as you would like to be treated. 2. Disinterested performance of one’s duty based on one’s position in the family and the society without discrimination and without expecting favors is of importance, because it is pure reason. 3. Ethical principles cannot be rigid. They have to be contextual. 4. Realities of worldly affairs tell us that certain conflicts cannot be reconciled, as pointed out at several episodes in the Maha Bharata and more recently by Joseph Campbell in his book on Oriental Mythology (page 123-124, Penguin 1976). For example, justice and mercy; destiny and free-will; harm and no-harm; truth and lie. That is why exceptions to rules are part of the mythological stories of India. 5. By nature, self-interest is often the motive behind individual actions. But we have to make sure it does not harm others. Universal welfare should be the primary focus of ethical principles.

Epics from India often end discussions on ethical judgments by saying: “just watch the conduct of a few noble souls who act for the welfare of all people and lives, without expecting any rewards, with a pure mind and sacrifice their lives”. That is the basis of Dharma.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Sat (Reality) and Asat (non-reality)

How do you define reality? Sankara defines it as something which is changeless and eternal.

Is asat, opposite of sat or absence of sat?  Sankara defines asat as absence of sat. He also thinks that Sat can be of three kinds – 1. When it is pure, changeless and eternal - paramarthika  2.  With changes and impermanence – vyavaharika, (phenomenal)  and 3. Real sometimes, not real sometimes such as mistaking rope for a snake before you see the actual thing – called prathibhasika. The word Mithya is used to denote items 2 and 3.

How do various systems of Indian philosophy deal with this?

Charavaka says: Universe is real. Brahman is not. (since it is a concept and there is no direct proof)

Nyaya-Vaiseshika: Universe is real; so is Brahman.

Samkhya says; Universe is unreal (it is active only because of Purusha); Purusha (Brahman) is real.

Advaitham says: Brahman is real. Universe is both real and unreal (mithya)

Dvaitham: Universe is real; so is Brahman

Why did Adi Sankara bring in the concept of mitya and ma̅ya? If you say that Brahman created the cosmos, what did He use to create? If He used something other than Himself, then you cannot say that all of this Universe came from One. If you say He became the Universe, just as milk becomes curd (pariṇama va̅da), then the original has lost its originality. It is not there anymore. Change is not the feature of the original, primordial. This is why Ṣankara suggested that this universe is mitya, neither real nor unreal. It appears to be separate; but it is not. It is ma̅ya.

Buddhism says: Universe is unreal and so is Brahman (Atman). They are misperceptions by our senses and the mind. (Sunyatta)

All this means, no one knows for sure. That is where humility has to come in, as was shown by our ancestors in the Nasadiya Sukta of Rg Veda. I posted it on March 21, 2010. Here it is again.
It is the 129th hymn, in Chapter 10 of the Rg veda. It is attributed to Rishi Prajapathi, is about Parabrahman and is in Anuhstup chandas, 4 lines of 11 syllables each. It is called Nasadiya because it starts with the words: naasat aasit no sad aasit   which means “in the beginning there was no asat (opposite of sat, non-existent, un-manifest, non-being), nor was there any sat, being”. 

Here is my own translation of the Sukta with one word of caution. I am no scholar in either Sanskrit or Rg Veda.

“In the beginning there was no asat (non- existent, un-manifest, non-being), nor was there any sat, being. Then, there was no earth, no sky. In that state, who (what) was covering what? And for what purpose? Was there deep water?             (Sloka/Stanza1)

There was no death; no immortality either; There was no means for finding out the difference between day and night. Not moved by any wind, it was breathing by its own power. There was nothing else.                                               (Sloka/Stanza 2)

Some say that there was darkness or there was water enveloped in darkness. But, that all powerful Brahman covered by Maaya came into manifestation by austerity and transformation from that one Brahman.                                                         (Sloka/Stanza 3)

The seed of the mind of this, which first came into existence, became desire (kaama) (to create the world). Great minds have seen that this is the initial relation between the sat (the manifest, the being) and the asat, the unmanifest Parabrahman.       (Sloka/Stanza 4)

A ray fell transversely between them. If you say It was below, It was also above. Some of these grew bigger pervading on one side by Its own prowess and pervading everything on the other side.                                                                                  (Sloka/Stanza 5)        

Who is there who can explain how the sat (the manifest) developed and from whom? Who knows for sure? Even the gods came only after the sat came into being? Then, who is to know from where it came?                                                               (Sloka/Stanza 6)

The adhyaksha (the Primordial One) may know how the development of the Sat came about or did not come about. Perhaps, even He may not know that!"             (Sloka/Stanza 7)