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Saturday, December 31, 2022

More of the same

 Atman is the “knower”, functioning in all individualized lives. Brahman is the collective aspect of Atman. Atman and Brahman are the same according to Advaita.

The “knower” cannot be the object of knowledge, because knowledge depends on the “knower”.

Atman, the “knower” is a witness to

                Several states of mind such as “I am sad”, “I am happy”.

                Several states of awareness such as “I am awake or sleeping or dreaming”.

                Aware that “I know this” and “I do not know that”.

That is about the essence of what Adi Sankara said. Learning to experience that state of being a witness is the essence of meditation. But Buddha is wrongly quoted as saying that there is no such thing as "atman". What does one meditate on then - a void?

In opposing the Buddhist view of anatman, he went on to say that if Atman and Brahman are illusions, not real, “all that remains are a group of impermanent things; permanent happiness and someone who can realize that permanent happiness cease to exist”. He further said: “Emptiness (sunyata) and absence of self (anatman) of Buddhism are dark and bleak concepts. If you can see Brahman in everything it is blissful and full of light”.

In his critique of the Buddhist ideas that we have only moments of consciousness and there is nothing called a “perceiver”, Gaudapada says: “In the absence of a common unchanging substratum it is not possible to be aware of change of consciousness from moment to moment. If there is no substratum, how can one be aware of momentariness of thoughts and the experience of pain and misery?  If all that exists is void, there must still be a perceiver of the void. Otherwise, who or what is there to assert that void?”

Learning about these intellectual discussions does not contribute one bit in one's spiritual journey, except to keep the flame of self-discovery going.  

Saturday, December 24, 2022

All Pervading, All Penetrating

 In Buddhist meditation, deep reflection on true nature of things should include meditation on the “I” as a body with form, name, life, and consciousness. Consciousness makes it possible for the “I” to be conscious of the “I”.

A component of “I” (the big and universal) is its own consciousness because without it “I” (the small, particular) does not arise. Conversely, a content of the consciousness is the “I” it is illuminating.

I do not know the purpose of life in general. But the purpose of consciousness is to help the individual life in which it operates to live. That means consciousness helps the “I” relate to the external world to survive through the mind and sense organs and organs of action. That means desire is a crucial inherent property or character of the mind. To survive is to eat and breath and not be eaten by someone else.  Survival instinct requires the individual to be curious and explore.

Exploration and curiosity are part of seeking a mate also. But that is a different story.

Exploration may yield something useful to survive which means hope is part of it. But exploration may not yield anything useful to survive but may land the “I”, the individual, in danger. Therefore, curiosity is always tinged with caution and anxiety. That is how the “I” learns to survive by trial, error and memory of past events.

In the process of taking care of individual needs to survive, the individual forgets that other individuals are also struggling with the same realities of life and living. The individual also forgets that the construction of the external world is the creation of the “I”, not the external world as it is, in its “suchness”.

Since “I” am partly made of my own consciousness and since consciousness arises in “me” and since the particles and energy I am made of pervade the entire cosmos (sarvavyapi) and also pervade every part of my inside (antaryami), why not consider my body as similar to a mud pot immersed in water, as had been suggested in the Vedic thoughts. The water inside the pot is the same as the water outside. When the pot breaks, the water remains as before.

Or consider myself as the wave, as the Buddhist teachings say. The wave is the water. The wave is a transient thing with a form. When the wave disappears it becomes one with water which was its base. 

At the core, everything is made of particles of matter and the associated energy which they carry. Reason does not lead us to a primordial cause, because if there was one, where did that come from? How can something come from nothing? Can there be a causeless cause? Since scientific studies suggest that the cosmos we live in and experience are made of particles and energy which have been there eternally making up the unseen aspects of the universe, why not call that particle-energy combination as the Brahman or whatever name any culture wants to call and merge with that? And why not concentrate on the present moment which is part of that eternity?

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Consciousness (chitta) and Mind (manas) (corrected version)

 In Sanskrit literature, the words Chittha and Manas are used interchangeably. Even the word pragna is used in the same sense as these two words. In addition, the definition of these words varies between different systems of philosophy. For example, the word Chittha may stands to mean (translated into English) consciousness, mind, thought, intellect, ego, and awareness.

Mind is considered to be one of the sense organs (in addition to the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin) in the Indian and Buddhist systems of philosophy. This sensory mind is different from the parts of the mind involved with thinking, intellect, ego, and action.

Given that our current knowledge of brain, mind and their functions have advanced immensely, it is better to peg the word chittha to consciousness and the word manas to the mind.

When we do that, we can talk about Chitta (consciousness) with its level, content, usual states, altered states and functions.  Similarly, manas defined as mind, has its component functions. Both the mind and consciousness require a life for their emergence.  If there is no life, there is no mind, there is no consciousness. Therefore, it appears that the primary function of the mind and the consciousness is to take care of the needs of the body with which they are connected.

To take care of the “individualized” life with which consciousness and mind are connected, both must relate to the world outside and to the inner person. They must relate to the outside world and interpret them through sensory inputs and proper interpretation in a way conducive to the welfare of the body and the mind of the individual. They should also be aware of the internal responses of the individual to external events and make sure they align with the perceptions generated from outside and from within the body.

The basic construction of the brain and therefore of the mind is primarily oriented towards selfishness – self-preservation. Given the higher faculties we humans are endowed with, including the ability to use language to express concrete and abstract ideas, it is our duty to train the mind not to be purely selfish and learn to look inward, relate to the rest of the world with love and compassion and reflect on the commonality of life and consciousness. In other words, develop spirituality.

Spirituality is using consciousness (chitta) to train the mind (manas) so it can

1.       Relate to other lives and the cosmos

2.       Recognize that our perception is not compete since we cannot know what it is like to be the other (true nature of things as they truly are) and therefore

3.       Develop compassion

4.       Recognize that my perception includes me as the subject of that perception and cannot be separated and therefore selfish by nature

5.       Try to see the outside world for what it is, as is, and not as I think it to be

6.       Recognize that everything I see and feel are separate with a form and a name, are impermanent and inter-dependent

7.       But, at the core, are part of the same whole

8.       Realize that happiness and suffering are part of life

9.       Therefore, not to create an imaginary world of permanent happiness, a land of honey and milk, a land somewhere else to escape to

10.   To acknowledge and accept that life and consciousness are mysteries to surrender to, admire and become humble

11.   To look for conditions for happiness here and now

12.   To acknowledge the fact that lives come and go and even Buddha, Shankara, Ramana, Jesus and Ramakrishna had to leave this earth

13.   To develop our own purpose and direction for a meaningful life

14.   Of humility, loving-kindness, compassion, sharing and caring AND

Live a life of Peace within oneself and Harmony with the rest of the world and the cosmos.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Virtue, Dharma and Moral Relativism

 I came across several items under the term Virtue in Western philosophy. In the Classical teachings, there are seven cardinal virtues. Four of them are general and include Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice. Three are theological: Faith, Hope and Charity and I have read somewhere that Charity is the only essential virtue in this category. In Christian theological literature, charity stands for Divine mercy or grace.

Modern-day psychologists have a modified version of virtue (s), which they say is practical. That list includes Wisdom, Temperance, Courage, Justice, Transcendence and Humanity.

It is too bad that Western philosophy has become too academic and not grounded adequately on living this life in this complex world. In addition, in this era of scientific approach to problem-solving, the emphasis is on how to modify these qualities into measurable items, as if they become scientific and acceptable once a number is given. Look at the multitudes of scale to measure psychological traits just as empathy and compassion.

In addition, western ideas suffer also with the need for “yes” or “no” answers. Shades and nuances make people uncomfortable.

Why not the western world incorporate the Indian idea of Dharma in its vocabulary with a full understanding of what that word means? It has already accepted words such as karma, avatar and guru! Thinking about the word Dharma, it is clear that in the English language there is no one all-encompassing word to capture all the components of that concept as expressed in that Sanskrit word. Some close approximation may be found in words such as virtue, meta-ethics, and moral relativism. 

Dharma allows for a range of options depending on the circumstances. It even says that when there are competing “good” answers, choose the one which will cause the least harm. That becomes moral relativism in the western school of philosophy and therefore suspect. Is it not possible to develop rules of conduct but with exceptions built in based on strict definitions arrived at by consensus and developed with input from the members of the society?

Saturday, December 3, 2022

What is Spiritual Freedom

 The word Freedom stands for an important concept and can have several meanings, depending on the context. Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? In his famous illustrations of Four Freedoms for all Americans, Norman Rockwell included Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.

This triggered my thoughts on what Freedom means from the Spiritual point of view. Desire and Fear have been listed as the most important triggers for human follies from the early days of civilization. This is particularly emphasized in the Vedic Hindu philosophy and Buddhist teachings. Now we know that these two basic emotions are triggered easily and are related to the survival of all species.

Based on my understanding of Buddha and of J. Krishnamoorthy, spiritual freedom is

            Freedom from fear and anxiety

            Freedom from concepts and dogmas, which means

            Freedom from the past and the future

            Freedom from orders and commands

Which will give me

 Freedom to experience my inner self and the Universe, and

Freedom to live a life of peace within and

a life of harmony with nature and the cosmos.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Does light always illuminate?

 Having gotten up early in the morning, I was standing in my balcony and looking up at the beautiful sky. It was before sunrise and there was this partial moon, and I could see Venus and Jupiter also. A little later, as expected, these three celestial objects could not be seen. That got me to thinking about the contradiction in the commonly stated philosophy that light removes darkness and illuminates everything. That is why light is commonly compared to consciousness which makes us aware of ourselves and of everything else outside of us.

Light does remove darkness, illuminates, and makes things known. (tameva bhantam anubhati sarvam; tasya bhasa sarvamidam vibhati says Kathopanishad 2:2:15) But does it? My observation this morning, which everyone else also has experienced, points to something else. Light can also “hide” things. Or at least it can make us “blind” to things which exist in reality. After all, those planets are still “hanging” in the space even during the day!

In a way, darkness IS, because light is. They “inter-are”. Light can illuminate as well as hide. Knowledge can uncover as well as it can cover. Knowledge can be a hindrance to further knowledge if the mind is not curious and open. That is why we need the mind of a child, a beginner’s mind, an innocent mind to see things as they truly are. Is that not what Buddha said?

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Same Passages and Different Interpretations

 In his book on Srimad BhagavadGita Rahasya, Bal Gangadhar Tilak refers to Advaita, Visishtadvaita, Dvaita philosophies as cults! I looked up the meaning of the word “cult” and found that its dictionary meaning is: “a system of spiritual beliefs and ritual”. When I tried to define it further, I found that a cult has some specific components. They are core beliefs, a charismatic leader who often demands loyalty, and a group of followers who have undue respect for that figure. Using these criteria, I do not think it is fair to call Adi Shankara, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya as cult leaders.

Leaving that aside, the three of them wrote commentaries on Brahma Sutra, Bhagavad Gita and a few Upanishads. In these commentaries, each one of them interpreted a few passages from the same three sources in different ways. Variations in interpretation of a very small part of the foundational texts led to profound divisions within the Vedantic tradition.

There are several examples. Here are two:

The first is a concept in Bhagavad Gita which was interpreted differently by Adi Shankara, Sri Ramanaujacharya and Sri Madhvacharya. They are in Slokas 12 and 13 in Chapter 2. 

In 2:12, Lord Krishna says: “It is not indeed that I did not exist at any time, nor you, nor these kings….”. Sri Ramanujacharya took it to mean that “I” (the Lord) and “You” (Arjuna, the human) are separate. Sat and asat are separate. This interpretation led to duality and to Visishtadvaitam. In this system, you and the Lord are separate, but you are enjoying the bliss of His presence all the time. You do not wish to let go of that bliss. When you and the Lord are separate, the only way to experience Him is through devotion, Bhakthi.

If I understand correctly, the example used to describe the relation between a bhakta and the Lord in this system is that between a baby-monkey and its mother. The baby has to make some effort to cling to its mother, if it wants to be with its mother.

Sri Madhvacharya took this one step further by interpreting sloka 2:13 to mean that this separation between sat and asat is permanent. That is pure duality, Dvaitam. In this method, you just surrender. The example used in this situation is the relationship between a kitten and its mother. The kitten does not have to make any effort. The mother will pick it up by its neck, ever so gently and take her wherever she goes.

There are many other variations of dvaitam. There are also variations of advaitam, the most notable being Zen Buddhism.

One other example is from Bhagavat Gita. The words are: परमात्मा समाहितः. This can be parsed into परम् आत्मा समाहितः or आत्मा परम् समाहितः. The meaning changes depending on the way the words are sequenced. One says that the enlightened person merges with the paramatman. The other says that the atman joins something other than oneself.

Similar origins of sub-groups within every religion based on interpretations are well-known. The followers of different interpretations of the same texts fight based on what they were taught as children and their loyalty to the interpreter whom they and their families venerate. In my childhood days, I have witnessed such feud between followers of Shiva and of Vishnu played out on my street! It is so silly and childish.

This is one reason I believe that each one of us should go to the source and read for ourselves. And think on our own as part of our spiritual journey and more important expose our children to these nuances and variations.

I like the following quote whose author is not known to me but have seen attributed to Goethe: “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings”.



Friday, November 11, 2022

Do I know the meanings of the words I use?

 Just because I know the word “advaita” and use that word does not mean I really do know all about it. It is like a non-medical person talking about a “stroke” or “leukemia”.

My own approach to concepts outside of my field of study is to get the contexts in which the word is used and out of that infer its meaning or meanings. I do not have to know everything about that word or concept unless I wish to be a scholar in that field of knowledge.

I am not interested in becoming a scholar in advaitic philosophy. But I like the principles it expounds and wish to use those principles in my understanding of this cosmos, mystery of life and personal inward journey. To that extent I would like to understand the origins of the word “advaita” and its different meanings.

This word has been used in the Upanishads and therefore goes back at the least 2,500 years. In his conversation with King Janaka (the Vedic Janaka and not the puranic Janaka) Rishi Yagnavalkya uses this word (advaita) as part of Brahma Vidya as recorded in Brahadaranyaka Upanishad 4:3:32 (सलिल ऐको द्रष्टा अद्वैतो भवति).

On direct translation to English, this word means “a state of no-two” or non-duality. The word also stands for the name of a system of philosophy called Vedanta (the end of the Vedas). Vedanta is the first of the Uttara meemamsa school of philosophy. The others are visishtadvaitam and dvaitam. As pointed out by Kanchi Periyaval, everyone in the Vedic religion were followers of advaita known as smarta (meaning followers of advaita smritis) until Ramanujacharya arrived.

The other terms I have seen used in relation to advaita are: mayavada since the concept of maya is central to this system of thought; vivartavada because of a metaphor Adi Sankara used. That was the metaphor of rope (the real, in light) being mistaken for a snake (imagined, in darkness and ignorance of the real).

In the western literature, it was probably the German philosopher Earnst Haeckel who first used that word, according to Bal Gangadhar Tilak.  Haeckel is also said to have translated the word to mean: “Monism”. Monism is different from monotheism. Monotheism is about One God. Monism goes beyond God and is about the One IT (tat) out of which the gods came.

Advaita which means “no two” or non-duality is used to indicate “Non-duality of subject and object” which results in the subject grasping on to objects and also to indicate that the subject is part of the awareness of the duality.

It is also used to mean non-duality of atman and brahman.

The word also indicates that there is no other reality except Brahman and therefore what we experience as atman is Brahman. Brahman is the only eternal, immutable base of this cosmos.

Hope I got it correct and have explained to help future students start their studies of advaitic philosophy with a basic understanding.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Upasana, Vidya, Puja and Dhyana

 The word Upasana (aupasanam) came to my attention when reading Chandogya Upanishad. The straightforward translation from Sanskrit to English is “seated next to”. But I did not realize that Upasana is also referred to as Vidya in the Upanishads with such examples as Madhu Vidya and Pranava Vidya (Swami Sivananda lists 28 vidyas. See Brahma vidya is one of them. 

Brahmavidya is all about Brahman including knowledge about Brahman and methods to attain Brahmagnana. According to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, these include pravritti marga  which is a renunciatory path and nivritti marga which is a path of action. . 

Pravritti marga is also called Samkhya in Bhagavad Gita. This path leads to sannyasa or asceticism. One renounces everything in this world including the body and its needs.

Buddha tried this path before he went on his way. He thought that one needs the body and the mind to meditate, understand the universe and reach a state of bliss. He rejected torturing the body. He rejected indulgence of senses also. That is why his path is called the middle way. 

Bhagavad Gita suggests a similar path, a path of action but without attachment to worldly rewards. This is Nivritti marga. This path is like several roads going to the same destination. These include doing one’s assigned duty according to sruti also called srouta karma, which is performing yagnas and aupasana as recommended by the Mimamsa school;  performing one’s assigned duties (such as ashrama dharma, kula dharma etc) according to the smrithi, also called smartha karma; and pujas, rituals, japas and penances as explained in the Puranas, also called pauranika karma.

Coming back to the topic, the words Upasana, Vidya, yoga, and karma are inter-related. 

Adi Sankara defines Upasana as: “ consisting in making a current of similar ideas to flow continuously”. The similarity of this definition to Patanjali’s definition of Dharana which is translated to mean “unbroken stream of concentration” is striking. This is concentration and complete exclusion of all other ideas, as defined in the Buddhist teachings on mindful meditation. 

At this stage of concentration (dharana), duality is still there. It is still knowledge about a thing and not an experience. One example given is that of looking at crystals of sugar. The eye sees the crystals and thinks it is sugar. It may indeed be sugar. But it is the taste that tells you for certainty that it is sugar. It is by using the appropriate sense one can experience the truth. 

It is the same with understanding and becoming one with Brahman. You can learn, meditate and be still at the state of duality and knowledge. That is the state of Upasana. Only by going beyond that state of duality (of upasana, puja and japa) can one reach gnana, the ultimate truth which is Brahman. 

Historically, Upasana transformed into nama smarana after the Vedic period. Meditation on OM and Gayatri Japam, both to be performed with full understanding of the meaning came later. Initially meditation was about Brahman without form and attributes – Nirguna Brahman. Then came the concept of Ishvara, Brahman with a form or Saguna Brahman.  Saguna Brahman may be Shiva or Vishnu or Rama or Krishna or any one of the Ishta devatas (chosen deity). Meditation can be and often is on one’s chosen deity with a form. Nama smarana became a dominant mode with the arrival of the puranas and the emphasis on Bhakti marga. 

Although the path of devotion (bhakti) was always there, this path became prominent particularly after the writing of Puranas. Puranas together with the advent of Tantric ideas which emphasized mantra, yantra, tantra and mudhras formed the basis for puja and japa with mantra towards one’s favorite deity - variation of Saguna Brahaman (Brahman with a form). They are meant to purify one’s mind and to help merge with the object of worship. This is a state of siddhi or reaching or getting close to the Divine. But the subject still stands apart from the object of worship. The heaven reached is impermanent whether it is Kailasam for those who worship Shiva or Vaikuntam for those who worship Vishnu. 

But Bliss is when Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without form) is experienced- state of Sat Chit Ananda. That is Samadhi. 

One path (deep devotion) leads to siddhi (reach the object  of focus) and the other (deep meditation) to samadhi (absorption into the object of focus). 

One other point to make about meditation. If the goal of meditation is to control the mind from its running after impressions and thoughts generated by the functions of our sense organs, the first four steps of Patanjali’s Yoga Sastra will be helpful. In Buddhism, it is Mindful meditation with focused attention on the breath and body. 

If meditation is about inward journey, the second four steps Patanjali’s Yoga Sastra point the way. This is “deep looking” or Vipassana in Buddhism. 

The problem for a beginner is that he or she often gets stuck with the first four steps or stops after controlling the mind. 

If Upasana is “making a current of similar ideas to flow continuously”, puja is an eminently suitable method. Performed with full understanding, puja can help the mental current to flow continuously towards a form, our chosen deity, the object of the puja. Similarly, during japa the mental current flows continuously towards a sound. 

In puja and japa, the focus is on Saguna Brahman with a form but as an object of realization. It is to obtain siddhi  or obtaining what one desires. 

In meditation or dhyana which is also mental activity, Brahman is not an object to be known, but the essence to be realized and experienced as one’s own. It is brahma gnana which in Advaita is the same as atma gnana. The end stage is eternal bliss, samadhi. 

Upasana and puja are easier to practice since they use props to focus on. In Adi Sankara’s words: आलम्बनविषयित्वात् सुखसाध्यानि. Meditation on a formless, quality-less abstract called Brahman, which requires control of the mind, focused attention, and avoidance of distractions, is much harder. That is why Lord Krishna says in Bhagavat Gita (12:5) that “it is very difficult for embodied beings to reach (to think of, to meditate on) the unmanifest”.

It is easy to write a thesis or give a discourse and sound erudite. But am I qualified to express these thoughts? What is my current state – siddhi or samadhi? Or, nowhere near both of those states? 

Yet, cannot help sharing useful, helpful insights and in the process guide my own inward journey. 

Thank you for listening. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

Addendum to "Can we build further on Advaita Concept?"

 Before I post my thoughts for the next week, I wish to add my meditations on the post last week on “Can we build further on Advaita concept?”.

I started the post by stating that “Advaita philosophy seems incomplete to me. The reason is that it deals ONLY with consciousness (pragnana)”. And towards the end I asked:  Why not consider Brahman as composite?”.

Reflecting on these thoughts further, it seems to me that there is one level of awareness which relates to one’s life (jivan) and its relationship to oneself and to the outside world. This is called variously as “Self’, “Soul” or atman. This refers only to consciousness and awareness of available information. That is what I said last week, namely “Advaita philosophy seems incomplete to me. The reason is that it deals ONLY with consciousness (pragnana)”.

In meditation, particularly Buddhist meditation, we are asked to meditate on “Body in the Body”, “Feeling in the feelings”, “Mind in the mind” and “Objects of the mind in objects of the mind” to understand “things as they truly are” or “suchness of things”.  This obviously means reflecting on Body, Mind and Consciousness. All of them, including consciousness itself,  become objects of consciousness. If so, who is the Subject- the Primordial Subject?

In other words, the content of Consciousness at this level is a composite of Matter, Energy and Awareness. That is what I said last week when I asked: Why not consider Brahman as composite?”. This is probably what is called Brahman.

We then are asked to reflect on the impermanence and inter-being of everything in the cosmos and, the “one-ness of things”.  This is the state beyond dualities and is called nirvana in Buddhism.

In Sanskrit, the knowable Universe or Cosmos us called “Mayaprapanca (मायाप्रपञ्च), often translated to mean “Illusion made of Five elements”. One meaning of the word "maya" is illusion as in magic. One can interpret it to mean an illusory power behind the universe. But in Vedic Sanskrit, there are other meanings such as: "extraordinary power", "mystery" and "power of creation". Why not call the cosmos "mystery made of five elements?" 

 Why not call the unknowable Brahman as Mayaprathrayam (मायाप्रत्रयं)” (“Mystery made of Three elements”)?

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Can we build further on Advaita concept?

 On deep reflection, Advaita philosophy seems incomplete to me. The reason is that it deals ONLY with consciousness (pragnana). What about life? What about that awareness which makes us aware that “we know” and that “we do not know”? Is consciousness the same as self-awareness, or awareness of awareness (meta awareness) or both?

With our present knowledge, we do not know what consciousness is and what makes it possible. It is not equivalent to or synonymous with brain or mind. We do not know how a physical structure comes with a capacity to be aware of itself. That is why it is called the “hard problem” by neuroscientists.

Is there only one common universal thing called “consciousness” which occupies several minds or are there several individual consciousnesses in individual bodies? How does that state of being conscious leads to self-awareness and the idea of “self”?

Advaita says that there is only one called Atman (self-awareness, a sense of Self) and that it manifests in several bodies as consciousness. It goes on to say that we think Atman is many by misidentifying with the consciousness of individual physical bodies. Advaita also says that there is a universal awareness on which the individualized atman rests and that is Brahman.

But Samkhya says that there are as many atmans or “self”s as there are bodies.

Once you accept that “consciousness” is of one living organism (jivan) and is composed of subject, object, and the process of “knowing”, and that self-awareness or meta-awareness is what is referred to as Atman, or self or soul, it is appropriate to use an analogy to explain “the one” showing up as many. That analogy is that of naming diseases.

When physicians diagnose typhoid or Lyme disease, these entities are not just floating in the air in concrete forms. They are expressions we created to describe a set of observations in a human body. Diseases need a physical body to manifest and get named.

When someone has fever, rash, delirium, low blood counts and a positive blood culture for the typhoid bacteria, we diagnose the person as having typhoid. When someone – some living “body” – suffers from a swollen joint, a specific kind of rash following a tick bite, we designate it as Lyme disease. Typhoid and Lyme disease will have the same general characteristics irrespective of the individual body in which they manifest.

I like to look at this awareness called Atman or “self” or “soul” or meta-awareness using the example of naming diseases. For consciousness to appear, there must be a body with LIFE. Life is the first mystery. If there is no life, we will not even discuss Consciousness. Consciousness is potential and needs a body to manifest. To a living body it becomes inherent.

We recognize a disease only when it manifests in a physical body. Diseases affect only a few.

Consciousness is universal in all living entities with a functioning neural system and is recognized in association with a physical living body. Individual consciousness is multiple.

What we call Atman is awareness of this awareness. This also “appears” to be multiple since it is associated with individual consciousness. “It is not so” says Advaita Vedanta. Advaita also says that the special awareness called Brahman on which atman rests and atman are the same, but we do not recognize that "oneness" due to our ignorance. 

Advaita means “non-dual" or “no two”. It says that the individualized consciousness and its associated Atman are relative truths.  Brahman is the only ultimate truth. What appears to be Atman is indeed Brahman. We misidentify our individual consciousness (pragnana) with Atman, Self. We do not recognize that Atman is the same as Brahman, the Ultimate Truth. In summary, there is only one atman which appears to be many, and Brahman and Atman are the same in different planes.

To explain these contradictions, Adi Sankara coined the concept of mithya for relative truth and maya for the appearance of many when there is only one.

Adi Sankara, who postulated these ideas also says that what Vedas (sruti) say must agree with reality we experience. “Just because Vedas say that “fire does not burn”, it does not make it true”.

What I see in this world of relative truth and experience are physical objects. Consciousness is “ethereal”, non-concrete and is about something, including itself. Even if I can remove my spiritual ignorance and see everything as ONE and even if they are only manifestations in my Consciousness, where did they come from?  

Here is where I come to my “gut-feelings”. Consciousness is only one level of explaining the Universe. We still have to look at the mystery of life itself. We have also to look at the root of roots (I used plural in full awareness), which is called ஆதிமூலம் in Tamizh language.

Ha, the mystery of life! How do inanimate particles and aggregate matter become animate? The same metaphor I used earlier to understand consciousness can be applied to “life” too. Life is a potential. Life is based on exchange of energy between two bodies. For potential life to get actualized, it needs a body, a form. Without a body where is life? Without life, the body is “dead meat” as rudely pointed out by Nisargadatta Maharaj. After a living body comes consciousness.

Consciousness can be interpreted to mean information or data in modern language. This requires a support, which is material in nature. And as Seth Lloyd pointed out “to do anything requires energy. To specify what is done requires information”. Information rests on or carried on particles and data in the micro-world (quantum world?) and on physical objects in the macro-world. For consciousness to manifest, a “living body” is needed just as diseases do. Body, life, and consciousness go together.

Consciousness is non-concrete and needs a support (ashraya, in Sanskrit) or a vehicle, a living body - for manifestation. That applies to the meta-consciousness too which leads to the concept of Brahman, the Root of roots?  Either Brahman is a combination of Matter, Energy and Consciousness or the trio came out of that One Root.

Brahman, as Brahman is understood currently, is Universal, Self-generated and Illuminator of all things. Why not consider Brahman as composite. Using Samkhya terminology, why not consider Brahman as a composite of Prakriti (matter), Purusha (energy) and Mahat (knowledge)? The First Principle of this Universe must have had all these three components. This still begs the question. What was there before? Why?

Nasadiya Suktam (Rg Veda 10: 129) said it best: “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?”     

 These are mysteries to appreciate, admire and surrender to in humility. I do. However, I hope it is not considered too arrogant to realign old thoughts with newer understanding of the universe and of the human mind. If we do not, what is the use of having been endowed with new knowledge and this glorious gift called mind?

Saturday, October 15, 2022

One Mind

 Thinking beyond duality, looking at the Essence of the Universe as is, 

The One Mind is the Open mind, that includes everything. 

The One Mind is the Universal Mind

"My" isolated mind relates to things, which means "me and the other", duality. 

My little mind which thinks, imagines and emotes 


the Universal, Big Mind 

Which makes “my” mind aware of its thinking, imagining and emoting

Are they the same?

Life is breath, rhythmic

Life is heart beating, rhythmic

"My" consciousness is complex and chaotic

But the Universal Consciousness is calm and continuous.

Like the wave and the water.

One moves and its base is still.

Wave and water are the same.

Without water there is no wave.

Why am I saying all this

At this time?

Because the "big mind" is taking "the little" mind there!

"My" little mind seeing itself as is, here and now.

Am I making any sense?

Do I have to?

Friday, October 7, 2022

Instinct, Intelligence and Intuition


We, humans, are driven primarily and instinctively by emotions to action. Most of the time they are reflexive and therefore, not always beneficial. Emotions can lead us astray and into danger.

We, humans, are also endowed with intelligence and a rational mind. We have to use this ability to reflect and act wisely for our welfare and for the welfare of others. We often misuse it to justify our actions rather than base our actions on proper use of intelligence. 

We, humans, are also capable of intuition, imagination, and insight. But we do not even know we have them and do not use them adequately and appropriately. 


Saturday, October 1, 2022

The "Wisdom of Five Fingers"

Natives of the island of Vanuatu Islands in the Pacific Ocean base their concepts of teaching their traditions to the children on the idea of "Wisdom of Five Fingers". In this concept, the little finger represents infants who are innocent and do not know anything. The ring finger represents children who are asking questions and are learning to do things. The middle finger represents independent adults who are doing things on their own. The index finger represents adults teaching their children. The thumb represents the elders of the society. They are just there, solid as a stone. Younger ones come to learn their traditions. The younger ones use the elders like a stone - to sharpen their knives!

This reminded me of an essay I had read several decades back in one of the issues of the Bhavan's Journal. In this essay the author explains the meaning behind the Indian way of putting the palms together in prayer or in greeting elders and guests. The little finger, which is farthest from our chest represents human ego. The ring finger represents human desires. The middle finger represents spiritual ignorance (which blinds us to the fact that Atman and Brahman are one). The index finger represents the Universal Force, the Brahman, which is in everyone (as Atman). The thumb closest to our chest is that Universal Force, the Brahman which is within oneself.

This also explains the chinmudra of Dakshinamurthy with the index finger and thumb touching each other which symbolizes the oneness of Atman and Brahman.

Ref: Neil McGregor. Living with the Gods.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Addition to Wants and Fears

 When I posted the earlier blog on Wants and Fears, I was thinking of the fundamental drives behind human activity and of all forms of life - a need to get food to live, a need to avoid dangers and get eaten and in-built drive to procreate. I was also reflecting on the hand-postures called mudras of the vigrahas or images of Hindu pantheon of Gods. One hand takes abhaya mudra which indicates "Do not be afraid, I am here to protect you" and the other hand takes varada mudra, which indicates " I will take care of your needs and desires".

Needs and wants lead to a desire and will to act. Desires may be fulfilled or may not be. That leads to anxiety. Even if one gets what one desires, there is always the possibility of losing it. That is also cause for anxiety. Attachment to objects of desire accentuates this anxiety. And also leads to anger against those who are preventing us from getting what we desire or taking away what we have etc., 

All of this is common sense. What is amazing is how our ancestors wrote about them centuries back and taught us how to avoid these natural human tendencies and lead a spiritual life. This reminds me to refer to Bhagavat Gita Chapter 2; verses 62 and 63. It is a beautiful summary of how our mind gets into trouble.

"Those who keep thinking of sense-objects, attachment towards these objects grows. Desire arises from this attachment. From desire arises anger. Delusion is the result of anger. Delusion leads to confusion which results in destruction of intelligence and thus to one's ruins". 

Friday, September 23, 2022

Wants and Fears


It appears that the modern, consumer-oriented, commercial, competitive, and complex world, is driven by never-ending “wants” and an atmosphere of living in constant “fear”.  Both the “wants” and the “fear” are driven mostly by ads and messages in the 24-hour news cycles and in the social media. Fear is driven by the existence of violence in the minds of a few who hurt innocent people for no understandable reason and the availability of lethal weapons in their hands. This danger is so pervasive that children have to learn how to protect themselves from this danger at schools.

 We know from the writings of people of wisdom from the past and modern neurosciences that actions triggered by “desire” and “fear” are the causes of our suffering.

Will it ever be possible to create a society in which the basic needs of every person - namely a roof over the head, decent nutritious food, basic education, and basic health-care needs - are available and accessible? Will it ever be possible for children to go to school to learn without fear and parents to be able to send their children to school without fear of losing them? 


Thursday, September 15, 2022

Dharma for the 21st Century - Revisited (2)

 This discussion on the importance of ethics and morals have been going on in Western philosophy also since the time of Socrates as documented by Jamie Susskind in his recent book with the title The Digital Republic. Most thoughtful people agree that the internet and social media are affecting human behavior in a self-destructive way and some rules and regulations are needed to make large corporations in control of Digital technology behave in a socially responsible way. How can such rules and regulations be developed and implemented in a democratic way, to allow private enterprise to thrive, to preserve First Amendment Rights and to build in boundaries for these multinational corporations? Jamie Susskind gives a thoughtful analysis and offers several ideas to consider.

My understanding of the book is that Jamie Susskind is clearly for developing some rules and regulations. He points out that moral standards based on societal values should guide development of these rules and regulations. In his discussions, the author points out how laws should be contextual. But details of what contextual means will be contested. Therefore, he says that exceptions should be clearly defined. This is where Jamie Susskind’s ideas triggered my thoughts on Dharma and how the principles of dharma include context, exceptions and rules for what those exceptions are.

Jamie Susskind also points out that moral standards and exceptions must come out of democratic deliberation by people who are affected (users of technology) and cannot be left to the corporations or politicians. The rules should not be solely for profits, feasibility, and ease of implementation. As David Attenborough pointed out People and the Planet should also be included in the equations, in addition to Profit. (He called it P, P and P).

When I thought about Dharma after reading the book, I realized that the following questions must be answered before developing and implementing laws, if they are meant to be fair, relevant, and practical. 

Does the law reflect societal values? This means participation by the public, which in turn requires a forum to express, freedom to express and public debate conducted in civility. In other words, ethical and moral values cherished by the society should be the guide in a democratic society. 

Is the law contextual? This requires revisiting it periodically, as context changes. As the semanticists will say “You cannot drive in a new territory with old maps".

 Is the law reasonably flexible and allow conditions for exceptions? Yes, not twisted like a pretzel beyond recognition but flexible to suit the specific situation. In other words, there should be agreed-on provisions for exceptions as had been suggested by Jamie Susskind in his recent book on The Digital Republic and by Prof. Gert in his book on Morality: A New Justification of the Moral Rules (Oxford University Press, 1988). The public should be involved in making the conditions under which the rules may be broken. 

What are the mechanisms to enforce the law?  

Will the law be enforced without "fear or favor"? 

 I suggest an additional layer of consultation and discourse in developing societal values as I had written in my essay on Cabinet of Collective Conscience on January 29, 2013 ( The summary of that essay is that every head of a nation may wish to consult with members of a Cabinet of Collective Consciousness of the people of the nation. This should be a triumvirate made of a trusted person who is considered best in expressing the moral voice of the nation, a respected poet and a humorist, someone who can look at the foibles of the people and of the leaders and express them with civility and humor (harmless satire, court jester).  (Concluded)


Saturday, September 10, 2022

Dharma for the 21st century (revisited) - 1

     I have always felt that morality should be more important than legality and that moral standards are needed to guide legal restraints.  I wrote about developing new set of moral values and ethical standards for the 21st century and applied the well-established Sanskrit word Dharma for defining them. (, June 16, 2009) Later, I made it part of my book on Our Shared Sacred Space. A book I am reading currently (The Digital Republic by Jamie Susskind) stimulated me to update this idea.

Early societies functioned basically on moral values appropriate for the conditions of the societies in which they developed. Since the groups were small, everyone knew everyone else in the group or clan. Since the safety and welfare depended on everyone doing his or her “duties” properly without cheating, and the cheaters and disturbers of peace could be identified easily and ostracized immediately, there was no need for “laws”.

Laws came later when the groups became larger, jobs needed to keep the society functioning became diversified and complicated and particularly when people from outside the group came in as traders, warriors or seeking marital relationships. Before organized religions got established, these were unwritten laws or moral codes. These unwritten laws got codified by religious scholars and became laws sanctioned by religions. Those who broke these laws were ex-communicated or punished.

Written laws became necessary particularly to settle disputes on land, property ownerships, inheritance and bodily injuries.

All human societies have the same basic norms of moral conduct. The Golden Rule is the best example. The focus of this essay is on the Vedic Indian concept of Dharma and how ideas expressed in the book on The Digital Republic have been discussed for centuries in both the East and the West.

The strength of the Dharma concept resides in its foundational principles. Dharma acknowledges that human beings are different in their personalities. Their circumstances are different at different stages of life. Their roles and duties are different depending on their sex and positions in life. They perform different functions at different times in their lives. One rule cannot fit all. Therefore, Dharma allows for variables in setting rules of conduct.

These ideas are expressed in Maha Bharata Book 8, Chapter 69 in the form of a conversation between Lord Krishna and the warrior, Arjuna and later in Book 12 by Bhishma. Krishna points out that it is often difficult to discriminate between what should be done and what should not be in any given situation.  Between keeping one’s words and be truthful and having to kill someone because of that vow, killing is clearly worse. Krishna goes on to say that although truth is a great virtue, there are occasions when falsehood is acceptable as for example when life is in danger, or one is in danger of losing all of one’s property.

After giving some examples, Lord Krishna says: “Wish there is an easy way to know the difference between virtue and sin. Sometimes, scriptures help. But scriptures do not deal with all situations. Sometimes, you can reason it out. Whatever is inoffensive and whatever protects and preserves people is dharma”.

One other feature of the Dharma concept is that it is not rigid, the same for all times. It allows for exceptions to the rule and explains conditions under which assigned rules may be broken. The system also suggests methods to rectify for the lapses.

 Most importantly, the system prioritizes the importance of acceptable virtues. For example, not harming life is more important than telling a lie, if the lie was meant to protect a life. For example, if a helpless girl is running away from someone who is trying to kill her would you not want to help her by protecting her in your house? When the person chasing her comes to your house and asks for her, what is more important – saving a life or lying? Dharma concept says “saving life” takes primacy, by listing ahimsa (non-injury, protecting life) ahead of satyam (truth). 

(to be continued)

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Known, Unknown and beyond both

 Human mind categorizes everything, and categorization is always for a purpose. In general, it is to help understand a thing or a concept or a situation. This results in binary classification most of the time, such as “Black” or “white” and “good” or “bad”. Gradations in between are passed over or “pigeon-holed” into the nearest category. No wonder 0 or 1 algorithm originated with digital technologies created for a purpose.

But the real world is full of “may be” and “shades of gray”. It is more like the quantum world and indefiniteness of atomic particles and probabilities. Eastern traditions are better equipped to deal with uncertainties.

Now I can see that in meditation we are taught to think differently – rather observe things as they really are and not the way our mind categorizes. This kind of thinking will help our mind open to other possibilities such as

 “Life, no life, beyond both life and no life”

“Known, unknown and beyond the known and the unknown”.

“Measurable, unmeasurable, and beyond measurable”. 

“Beyond beginning and end”

“Universal self” in addition to individual life (jivan) and individual self (atman)

Friday, August 26, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 5 (Concluded)

In the Central Province of India (now Madhya Pradesh), there was a custom during a cholera epidemic for a priest to go from house to house collecting straw from the thatched roof of every house and burning them ceremoniously. Then a chicken was driven towards the direction of the fire carrying all the diseases away. A similar ceremony is described from another part of India in which a female black buffalo or goat was the “scapegoat”. The buffalo was driven out of the village never to return.

Then there is a section on the custom of bonfires in many European societies until as late as the 1700’s. These are eye-witness accounts. These were probably associated with human sacrifice initially, and then just beating or chasing away the victim chosen for this occasion, every year. (In my hometown, I have witnessed “sokkappanai”, which was probably meant to drive away evil spirits)

In his description of the bonfires, one can see practices like those described in the Vedas such as starting a new fire each year by churning or rubbing one wood with another and then maintaining it till next year in each house. He also refers to Agni as “born of wood and embryo of plants”.

There are several pages of examples from many societies on the isolation of girls at their first menstruation with emphasis on not having them see the sun (keep them in a closed room without windows or hut) and not have them “pollute” the earth.

In the section on souls, Sir Frazier thinks that ancient man probably thought that the soul can be stored away from the body temporarily. According to the Aristotelian idea of “contagion”, two items “once connected are always connected”. Therefore, the soul or spirit survives even after death of the body and can then be stored away in a secret place. Until the soul is found and destroyed the person cannot die even if he is killed!

(Samkhya philosophy says that even after the stula sarira or gross body dies, the sukshma sarira or the subtle body lives on and clings on to another body such as a leech does)

The soul can be deposited in a plant or an animal. Therefore, clans for whom an eagle is the repository of the soul, eagle is the totem and people from that clan will not kill an eagle – and consider it sacred. And this applies to different animals, birds and things in different tribes and cultures.

Interestingly, some tribes believed in several souls for each person.

Frazier recounts mythological stories from cultures in all continents, which recount the story of a giant or a king who cannot be killed until his soul kept secret in a deep ocean or huge forest guarded by demons, or inside a bird or an egg is destroyed. The hero goes through the ordeal, find the secret hiding place of the soul of the giant or the king, gets hold of the bird or the egg and destroys it. Many myths and legends are based on such beliefs.

There are several passages to explain the importance of the Oak tree to the ancient Celtics, who considered this tree to be very sacred. (In Indian culture, pipal tree holds this sacred position)

Because oak tree was considered sacred, the celts also thought that mistletoe which grows as a parasite on the oak tree was sacred. Indeed, many European cultures, even the non-celtics thought that the mistletoe has magical and mystical properties and was capable of driving away evil spirits. 

In the West, kissing under mistletoe is still practiced during Christmas season. The current practice is related to a Norse mythology;  but in ancient times  men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe.  More significant, refusing was considered to bring bad luck.

Sir Frazier concludes by saying that mistletoe is what is referred to as the Golden Bough in the ancient Book of Nemi. That is the reason why he chose The Golden Bough as the title for his book.

Scholars do not agree with many of the explanations given by Sir Frazier. But no one denies that this book is a remarkable collection of religious practices in various ancient and modern cultures and that this book generated several serious studies in cultural anthropology.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Addendum to a post on March 21, 2021: Adi Sankara and C S Lewis - comparison of their concept

In an earlier post comparing the thoughts and writings of Adi Sankara and C. S. Lewis, I referred to laws of physical nature and laws of human nature. C S Lewis points out that we all know that we cannot choose to disobey laws of physical nature. If we do, the results will be definite and disastrous. But we can choose to disobey laws of human nature, which deals with human behavior in relation to others, other lives. These laws relate to whether we behave decently towards others.

Later I was amazed, but not surprised to learn that Vishnu Sahasranamam, a famous Hindu prayer, has mentioned the same two laws of Nature, one of Physical Nature and one of Human Nature, in Slokas (stanzas) 151 and 153. It goes on to say that both Laws are held together by Lord Vishnu. It is interesting to learn that the name Achyuta is used to refer to Vishnu, who controls both. The word Achyuta in Sanskrit means “steady”.

Just as there are physical laws of nature, there are laws of human Nature. The word Dharma can be applied to both. The Primordial Force behind both, bringing them together in harmony, is the same for all of humanity. But the names happen to be different.




Friday, August 19, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 4

       Sir Frazier suggests that the myths of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, of Aphrodite and Adonis in Syria, of Cybele and Attis in Phrygia (part of present-day Turkey) and that of Demeter and Persephone of Greece are counterparts of the same myth in different cultures. He also describes the Eleusinian mysteries as documented in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter in support of his suggestion. It is a story of a daughter and mother symbolizing seed and the corn according to Frazier. Demeter is suggested to be the Goddess of corn. Persephone living underground with Pluto for 6 months and on earth for 6 months is suggested to represent the growth of plants starting in the spring and going underground in winter. Spring festival is celebration of rebirth (arrival) of plants and animals and therefore the joy of the mother, Demeter on the arrival of her daughter, Persephone. He suggested that the celebration of Easter was probably borrowed from these ancient myths and celebrations.

Speaking of substitution of symbols and objects in primitive rituals, Fraizer points out the association of trees with spring and revival festivals and corn or barley with the harvest festivals. Symbolically corn may be called “the old woman” in the rituals. (In southern India, rice plays the main part in harvest festival)

He compares the spirits of the primitive rituals with the gods of later magical worships. Spirits are confined to one sphere of nature over which these gods have influence. Their specific names include wind-god, rain – god, tree-god, corn-god etc., The head of these “gods” (devas) also has a specific name such as Indra, Zeus, Jupiter, Demeter etc., and have more general influence over many things.

Primitive rituals such as harvest festivals do not have any priests (unlike religious festivals for the God), can be celebrated anywhere such as on the field (and not in the temples, which are late arrivals), and are celebrations and not propitiation to any God for favors. (This is true of Pongal of southern India, which is also a way of thanking the powers behind a good harvest, the cows and the bulls and the Sun “God”)

Sir Frazier describes rituals associated with harvesting of new crops such as corn, rice, and millet in various parts of the world and in ancient cultures. The first yield was considered sacred containing the spirits of nature and therefore special prayers were offered before eating the first yields. In this section, he refers to the Curumbars and Badagas of southern India, the custom of Pongal in the south and Navan in the northern India.

 He refers also to a Green Corn dance by the Seminoles of Florida. In similar rituals among the Thompson Indians of British Columbia, Canada, a prayer is offered just before eating freshly harvested first yields of Sunflower Roots. This prayer sounds like the prayer we in India offer, namely Brahmarpanam, Brahma Havih etc., It says: “Oh food, I am going to eat you so you can help me achieve great heights in my life etc.,”

There is a very good explanation for the practice of offering food, particularly the first harvest, to the Gods. In the sacred mode of thinking, food is infused with Divine Spirits and that food and harvest are gifts from the Gods. Therefore, man is obliged, bound by duty, to express his gratitude to the Divine benefactor by acknowledging that gift. This is about the best definition of Naivedyam in the Hindu puja.

In another section Frazier explains the meaning behind the offering of rice balls in the Vedic ceremonies. Rice balls represent ancestors. These rice balls are called Pinda and each Pinda represents an ancestor. Offering pinda is part of the funeral ceremony (anthyeshti) and annual ceremonies for ancestors. In the customs of southern India, there are seven balls of rice, representing seven generations.  During the ceremony, the Pindas are mixed suggesting merging of the latest one with the previous one.

According to Frazier, the rice itself is the hair; water sprinkled to make the pinda is the skin; mixing them gives the pinda a body and flesh; when it is baked it gets hardened and gets bone and finally when butter or ghee is sprinkled the body acquires marrow. I think the author is quoting this explanation from an ancient Sanskrit text because he gives them under parenthesis.

Frazier gives several examples of people transferring their physical or mental pain and suffering to a plant or an object or an animal and even to another person. He gives examples from ancient times and also from recent centuries. Although he talks about the “barbarous and the aboriginal” people with some sense of superiority of the European nations, he gives examples of “barbarous and the aboriginal” practices from England, Italy, Germany, Austria etc.,

In this section, he gives example of Rajah of Manipur and Raja of Travancore transferring their sins to someone in their kingdom. In one example, the subject who accepts all the sins of the king is sent out of the kingdom, not to return.

“Scapegoat”, we are told is a shortened version of “escape goat”, which refers to an object, plant, animal, or human who takes the blame (Or forced to take the blame) for someone else. The original scapegoat, we are told, goes back to Biblical times when the sins of the society were hoisted on a “goat” as part of Yom Kippur festival. However, we are also told that the goat was a wrong interpretation of the Hebrew word ez ozel, or Azazel, which meant an “evil spirit”.

There is a whole section on the sacrifice of a “scapegoat” in all societies, ancient and modern. This ritual was practiced when some one person is ill or a whole village is afflicted by cholera, plague, or smallpox. This was also practiced for removing the sins of individuals or of the society. Some were occasional events and some annual rituals. In many of these rituals, at the end of the ceremony when the “scapegoat” was sent away, people often said “Fly away, you devil. Never come back again” etc., There is mention of practices as late as the 16th and 17th centuries with humans as “scapegoats”, who were ceremoniously “sacrificed” (sent away).

When I was reading these passages, I skipped some of them, because I could not bear reading about the cruelty to animals and even to humans designated as “scapegoats”! What human beings will do in the name of faith and belief is beyond “my” belief.

Some examples from India includes the practice of sacrifice of langar monkey, as a scapegoat to get rid of evil from a village, in one part of Assam. It was an annual event called Asongdat. In one part of Mysore state (of those days), when there was smallpox or cholera, the evil was hoisted on an image. This image was carried from village to village at midnight and dumped into the nearest river.

From Nicobar Island comes an eye-witness account of a yearly ceremony in which boats with sails were constructed, which was laden with a special kind of leaf, representing evil and sin, and was taken to the sea or a river to float away.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the ages - 3

 On Taboos:  Taboos can be of things or of words. In Sir Frazier’s words, they are like insulations “to preserve the spiritual force with which these persons are charged” or “inflicting harm to the outer world.”

In describing how taboos start, he says that taboo of any item made of iron started soon after iron-age began, obviously because of fear of a metal they had not seen before. We still encounter this kind of fear about new items civilization had not encountered before such as new vaccines and GMO.

The taboo against blood began probably because people believed that the spirit of the animal or the person was in the blood. And any place blood touched was also a taboo.

Touching the head of a person was a taboo for fear of harming the soul. There are several pages on what is done to hair removed from the head in different societies. Indeed, there is a whole book on this subject (William c. Innes Jr. Religious Hair Display and its Meanings. Springer. 2021)

There are pages and pages of examples of prohibition of saying out the names of people loud, particularly the names of Kings and of course of God. In an example from ancient Egypt, Isis (the daughter of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut and also wife of Osiris, God of the underworld) wants to be the Goddess but could not do so until Ra told her His real name. In the Old Testament, we read about the Creator God not giving his real name to Moses but just says “YAHWEH”. I have read (but do not remember the source) that in Vedic times, the name of Indra could not be uttered loud during yagnas lest “asuras” find out his abode.  

The book is full of examples of festivals and rituals, most often related to fertility and prayers for rain and good harvest. These festivals and rituals included sacrifice of an animal or a plant. Earlier versions included human sacrifice. Later effigies replaced human victims. In these festivals, effigies and images were taken in procession accompanied by frenzied dances and self-mutilations. Worship of images was common in almost all early civilizations. 

Civilizations that came later considered these practices as barbaric and condemned idol/image worship. In the Old Testament, one of the Ten Commandments Moses gave to the people of Israel was: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” (Exodus 20: 4,5).

The author discusses and compares Christianity and Buddhism in one section. As the author points out, these traditions started with the noble ideas of their Founders who emphasized poverty and celibacy. One system pointed towards bliss in another world and one emphasized relief of suffering in this world. Both emphasized individual efforts which was different from the old religious practices with emphasis on the community. According to the author, Christianity and Buddhism were breakaways from primitive religious practices which emphasized rituals and sacrifice for the sake of the survival of the group by praying to a God. 

(This is true of Hinduism also. Early rituals were performed around fire-altar and worship of several Gods with oblations. These “gods” were different from the creator-God, each one as the energizing spirit behind parts of Nature, such as Varuna (god of water and rain), Agni (god of fire) and Aditya (the sun-god). The emphasis was on "group and universal welfare" and not individual salvation. The arrival of the age of the Upanishads changed the focus to individual efforts and salvation. Worship with images of Gods and temples came later. Even with temple worship, the purpose was one of "thanksgiving" to the Gods for the bounties He/She bestows on the devotees.) 

The author points out that “civilization is only possible through the active cooperation of the citizens and the willingness to subordinate their private interests to the common good”.  This attitude was changed with the arrival of the Greek culture which emphasized rationality. Before that, cultures were celebrating festivals often connected with the cycles of season, arrival of rain, draughts, revival of life in the spring and their death or disappearance in winter. Dances, rituals, and sacrifices were part of these celebrations.

“The ecstatic frenzies which were mistaken for divine inspiration, the mangling of the body, the idea of new birth and the remission of sin through shedding of blood” which had their origins in ancient beliefs were called “savagery” by the Greek culture which took a more rational approach to events in Nature. When these rationalistic ideas spread to the Roman empire and then to the eastern regions, the new arrivals and the elite were forced to accommodate these earlier practices into the beliefs and customs of the original inhabitants because the masses were not ready to let go of them.

This happened to Buddhism when they had to adopt many of the gods of the Hindus since the common people were not ready to let go of their established practices. This is what happened to Christianity when it had to adopt the Winter Solstice celebration of Mithraites as the day of Nativity and the March Equinox ceremonies of Adonis and Attis as the Easter and Resurrection.

To learn the legends and myths of ancient Egypt, one should read sections on the celebration of Osiris in this book. This is an easy-to-understand summary of the complicated and incestual relationships among the ancient gods of Egypt. The author compares celebrations associated with Osiris to those of Adonis and Attis, all of them gods associated with agriculture, specifically corn.  The author quotes several passages from Plutarch’s book.

The way I understand, Ra is the Sun God. and His wife is Nut (sky goddess). Nut has extra-marital relationships. One of them is with Seb, the Earth god and Osiris is born of this relationship. Nut also has children by other connections: Horus, Set, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris marries Isis. Set marries Nephthys.

Ra gets angry because of Nut’s infidelity and curses Osiris. Osiris becomes the god of the netherworld (akin to Yama and Chitragupta of Indian mythology). He is also the god of corn. In this legend we learn that Osiris dies, was cut up into 14 parts and scattered throughout Egypt. The spots where the parts fell became sacred places.

Does this not sound like the legend of Sati (Parvathy) whose body was carried around by Shiva? In this legend, Sati’s dead body was carried around in a dance of destruction by Shiva and Lord Vishnu cut the body Sati’s body into 51 parts using His Sudarsana Chakra. These parts fall on earth (all within India, of course) and those sites became sacred pilgrimage sites for worshippers of Shakti.

Osiris is also brought back to life. According to the author, this may be the link to the legends of resurrection in Christianity since it corresponds in the timing of celebration to spring and arousal of life in the form of plants and animals.

Reading this part, I also noticed that most of the celebrations in all cultures are related to cyclic events of nature. Thus, those related to full moon are related to the Moon God; those that occur around the solstice are related to the Sun God. Those related to the god of Earth relate to sowing (spring, arrival of rain) and harvesting (just before winter). 

There is a description of a festival in ancient Egypt (documented by Plutarch and two other writers) around the time of winter solstice in which houses are illuminated with lamps one night a year. The festival itself is like Deepavali (Diwali) in India.

In the Egyptian legend, lighting of the lamps is said to be for helping Isis look for the body of Osiris. Osiris is considered to be the god of corn and the rituals enact effigy of Osiris made of corn being buried. The growing of corn from the body of Osiris is like the story of gods (devas) arising from the body of Prajapati in Indian mythology.