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Dharma, Karma, Yoga: The Foundational Speculations of India
Due to the wide diversity of streams of thought and the holistic connection between religious and philosophical beliefs in India, it is often daunting to approach any attempt at a summary of the philosophical content of Indian traditions with conclusive sounding statements. Hinduism is an umbrella term for the religion of the majority of people in India and Nepal, and of India‟s approximate population of 900 million people, 700 million identify themselves as Hindu.1 However, a definition of what
Hinduism is, or is not, becomes problematic because the term gathers together many related religions and philosophies which do not share a single historical founder, a unified system of beliefs or a central authority.2 Additionally, the issue of multiple and differing qualities of translations from Sanskrit, Pali, and Hindi languages further complicate understanding. The Western student of Indian philosophy must even shift the idea of category3 to accommodate the diversity and interwoven nature of the subjects involved in this pursuit. Despite these challenges, we can identify some key commonalities and crucial differences which have played major roles in the development of Indian thought and which continue to be significant in our current time.
Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism, (Great Britain and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pgs. 1, 5. This estimate is taken from the March 1991 census of India. 2 Ibid. 3 Gavin Flood (ibid. 7,) refers to “prototype theory” as being the most effective in describing degrees of category membership where there is relation of “family resemblance” with very fuzzy edges, and where “members of a category may be related to one another without all members having any properties in common that define the category.” This theory was developed: George Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
The central philosophical questions of Indian philosophy, or darshana, (meaning “vision” or “worldview”), began much as Western pre-Socratic philosophy did - with seeking the nature of absolute reality. Is it changing? Is it eternal? Is it made of more than one thing, or is it a monism? Is it immanent or transcendent, or both? Of all the diverse religious and philosophical beliefs of Bharat (the Republic of India), the various traditions are primarily divided on how they approach this one central question. During the period 600 – 200 B.C.E. especially, different interpretations of the nature of absolute reality, the nature of self, and solutions to the problem of suffering arose. The most notable and enduring of these philosophical deviances from the main stream are Jainism and Buddhism. The challenges raised by Jainism and Buddhism were integrated into the “Hindu” foundations and responded to through the Epics – the most popular being a portion of the Mahabharata called the Bhagavad Gita. These enduring living traditions – Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism – disagree about a few key philosophical issues, but largely share many common concepts. The history of Indian philosophy begins with the collection of sacred texts known as the Vedas. The Vedas can be considered the backbone of Hinduism‟s spiritual and philosophical beliefs and practices to this day. It is generally accepted that the earliest content within the Vedic collection is primarily of the Aryan culture‟s influence mixed with elements of the Dravidian Indus Valley culture. The Sanskrit speaking Aryan culture came to dominate the Indus Valley over time, and what we presently know of these peoples is from the Sanskrit verses which were passed via oral traditions for many hundreds of years prior to being recorded in any existing writing. These early Vedic writings are composed of hymns to gods such as Indra, Varuna and Agni, as well as rituals for ceremonial sacrifices to gain the blessings of these deities, which are primarily personification of features and forces in the natural world. These earlier components of the Vedas are considered to be divinely transmitted and there is a great deal of emphasis on the power of words and language employed to bring about the desired conditions. “In the
Vedas, brahman means „prayer‟ or „sacred word‟ and the power that these contain”.4 It was believed that our human lives were dependent on the correct ritual interaction with the gods and goddesses, or devas (shining ones), to secure order and balance in an otherwise hazardous world.5 Absolute reality in the
Vedic verses is regarded as a cyclical, changing, order which provides structure and rhythm to existence.
The cosmic order, rta/rita, is an important concept in all of Indian philosophy because it shapes a moral interaction between humans and a type of divine justice which leads to the widespread acceptance of doing one‟s duty to uphold and support existence itself.
The concepts of dharma and karma arise from this
moral interaction with the cosmic order. Dharma, a complex network of inter-related social and moral duties was originally based purely on one‟s place in the caste system and the family, but has changed and expanded through time as Indian philosophers grapple with the question of how it is best to live. Beginning around 800 B.C.E., a tradition of commentaries upon the hymns and rituals of the earlier Vedic verses took a more philosophical turn. These increasingly philosophical commentaries are known as the Upanishads. The Upanishads are considered part of the Vedas and are acknowledged to be inspired, but human in origin. The Upanishads were the closely guarded “secret teachings” of the Vedic tradition and were passed from a guru to student disciples only after extensive proper training. The training prescribed by the Upanishads includes manana (reflection) for obtaining intellectual conviction, and dhyana (meditation) for gaining direct experience.7 This dhyana/meditation is a form of yoga meant to prepare the student for contemplating the ultimate truth - to enable him to grasp the unity of existence as directly and compellingly as the multiplicity and diversity of the world is grasped – and for that comprehension to become a permanent influence on the disciple‟s life.8 This form of meditation
John Bowker, Beliefs That Changed the World: The History and Ideas of the Great Religions (London: Quercus Publishing, 2007), p. 102 5 Ibid., p. 100 6 th John M. Koller, Asian Philosophies, 5 ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2007), p. 12 7 M. Hiriyanna, The Essentials of Indian Philosophy (Bombay: George Allen & Unwin (India) Private Ltd, 1973), p. 26 8 Ibid.
demands detachment from selfish interests, which is a necessary prerequisite – “no one that has not undergone a course of ethical training calculated to kill all egoistic impulses is qualified for serious study of the Upanishads.” 9 The student signifies the completion of this ethical training by entering the fourth stage of life and becoming a samnyasin – a renunciant who dwells in forest hermitage seated near the guru. In many ways, the teachings of the Upanishads seem to be essentially in opposition to the beliefs inherent in the earlier Vedic hymns and rituals. Amazingly, much like contradictory Christian doctrines being canonized, the Upanishads and the early ritual hymns are fitted together and are all considered parts of the collection of Vedic sacred texts which compose the more orthodox Hindu views. As the
Upanishads‟ teachings grew in social importance, new metaphysical realities emerged in Hindu thought
and society. The importance of the highest caste was shifted in a profound political-ideological sweep which turned the functions of the Vedic scholar/priests and their societal functions on their heads, along with the previous primary Vedic values of correct sacred words and exact rituals to gain favor and divine communion with their beloved gods. New values emerged from the Upanishads – values centered on the axis of the goal of moksha (liberation) from samsara (continual rebirth into the world, „wandering‟) – where words hold the power only of academic and intellectual interest, 10 but lack the dynamic experience of understanding reality. Where the previous Vedic values centered on affirmation and celebration of abundance in life‟s pleasures, the Upanishads set forth a world renouncing philosophy concerned with methods of release from the wheel of life. The ascetic samnyasin, and his yoga master guru, who leave behind the affairs of the community to seek enlightenment (moksha, liberation), were now the revered spiritual authorities in replacement of the priests who memorized the holy Vedic scriptures. Additionally, this path of renunciation was open to many, and not merely the high caste.
M. Hiriyanna, The Essentials of Indian Philosophy (Bombay: George Allen & Unwin (India) Private Ltd, 1973), p. 28 Ibid., p. 27
Many different views and schools arose out of the question of how moksha is to be obtained. One of the earliest movements in reaction to the Upanishads was that of the Jains. Rejecting the sacrificial rituals of the Vedic Brahmans (ritual experts) as well as the varnas (caste system) and what they viewed as the injustices and immoralities within society, they also withdrew into the forest, but due to their views became outside of society altogether.11 The Jains accepted the goal of moksha and set themselves to developing a highly sophisticated theoretical metaphysics of non-action with the aim of liberation via the elimination of karma. The idea of karma, or the idea that one‟s present is affected by previous actions, was common prior to the Upanishads, but the Jains took an extremely ascetic and austere approach to burning off these accumulations as quickly as possible, believing that the original state of human being (Jiva) is pure, and only the bondage of karma (action) holds us within matter and prevents us from the realization of our own enlightened nature. Thus, the Jains sought to create a refining process to burn away accumulated karma by a path of progressive purification as gold (the soul‟s inherent luminosity) can be separated from ore (matter).12 This path of purification is focused on living a combination of the “three jewels” of deep faith, right knowledge, and pure conduct which progresses towards complete self-restraint and the elimination of all passions until the soul attains “disembodied eternal liberation”13 and becomes a
Jina, (Conqueror), also known as a Tirthankara, (Ford-maker) – he who has conquered material bondage
and made it to the other side as pure liberated soul (Jiva). Unfortunately, it seems that the most recent Tirthankara, Mahavira, was born in 599 B.C.E. and the Jain tradition has greatly embellished his story.14 Personally, this writer would prefer something with a higher success rate but recognizes there is much to be appreciated in the Jains‟ theory of truth and philosophical developments. Pondering absolute reality, Jains posit the rich and complex many-sidedness,
John Bowker, Beliefs That Changed the World: The History and Ideas of the Great Religions (London: Quercus Publishing, 2007), p. 124 12 th John M. Koller, Asian Philosophies, 5 ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2007), pgs. 34-35 13 Ibid., p. 37 14 Ibid., p. 31
or anekanta, of existence and affirms both permanence in substances and change in forms/modes of those substances. This goes against the Upanishads‟ teachings that Brahman is absolute, unchanging reality, and so Jainism, (along with Buddhism), is considered to be heterodox to the Vedanta (the settled conclusions of the Vedas taken as a whole15). Though the view of absolute reality differs, Jainism shares the same goal and essential methods prescribed by the Upanishads‟ teachings, but perhaps with a bit more enthusiasm, intensity and eccentricity. Indian philosophy, in general, is the pursuit of practical ways of living well and reducing suffering, or dukkha. About a generation later, Siddartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha (the Enlightened One, the Awakened One), presented another vision of absolute reality and the path to liberation. The son of a king, Siddartha had rejected his life of worldly pleasures and joined the ascetic forest-dwellers and studied with the gurus. Finding worldly indulgence and world renouncing to be but different sides of the same coin, he sought the “Middle Way” and gained Enlightenment. Instead of taking his Enlightenment as an opportunity to be liberated from the world of physical matter and rebirth, the Buddha returned to teach what he had realized about the nature of suffering (dukkha) and a new goal concept of nirvana.16 The “Four Noble Truths” taught by the Buddha are a metaphysical revolution in response to the previous ideas of the Absolute (Brahman), the Self (Atman) and the problem of suffering (dukkha), based on the assertion of a new metaphysical concept of Dependent Arising (pratitya-samutpada). The Buddha taught that nothing exists separately by itself and nothing is permanent. There is no absolute unchanging reality (Brahman) and there is no independent soul/self being reborn (Atman). There is only a constant flow of moments of appearance, one giving rise to the next, with the
M. Hiriyanna, The Essentials of Indian Philosophy (Bombay: George Allen & Unwin (India) Private Ltd, 1973), p. 151 Compare Hiriyanna’s discussion (Ibid., p 28) on the goal of the Upanishads also being “liberation while still alive,” known as jivanmukti, for further reflection on whether the Buddha’s nirvana/Enlightenment was truly a “new” concept/goal. The primary difference in the concepts of jivanmukti and nirvana, historically, seem to do with orientation to participation in the hermitage vs. larger society, respectively.
consequences of karma working themselves out in sequences of reappearances.17 Born into a condition of ignorance about the true nature of constantly changing interconnected processes, we desperately crave to be or have a separate and permanent self.18 This craving for separateness and permanence due to ignorance (avidya) is a wrong orientation and gives rise to all forms of dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction). By aligning ourselves to the true nature of Dependent Arising via the Eightfold Path, we can obtain
nirvana, the extinction of craving for a separate and permanent self. As this craving for separate
permanence is the root of all dukkha, when it is extinguished, then a life of peace and joy free of suffering is attained.19 With the rise of Buddhism, the goal of moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth into the world) was still seen as a goal, but shifted the focus back into spiritual participation within society. Buddhists also rejected the varnas (caste system) and a response was needed from the Vedic authorities to speak to and lead the masses of people through these philosophical challenges while reasserting faith in the authority of the Vedas. These responses came in the form of the Epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – which are moral guides to life which focus on the issue of dharma. Dharma literally means that “which holds together” and signifies the basis of all social and moral order. How is it that we should live? What is it our duty to fulfill? These questions are the glue of the primary philosophical explorations of these two great Epics.
A small section of the Mahabharata is known as the Bhagavad Gita, and it is one of the most beloved stories of the Indian subcontinent.20 This story is about Arjuna, a man of the warrior caste, having
John Bowker, Beliefs That Changed the World: The History and Ideas of the Great Religions (London: Quercus Publishing, 2007), p. 148 18 th John M. Koller, Asian Philosophies, 5 ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2007), p. 57 19 Ibid. 20 John Bowker, Beliefs That Changed the World: The History and Ideas of the Great Religions (London: Quercus Publishing, 2007), p. 101
a moral dilemma about whether there is ever a just cause for killing one‟s friends, family, and teachers just because they are on the other side of the battlefield, and about what the karmic consequences of such actions might be. Krishna, as an avatar (manifestation) of the god Vishnu, guides Arjuna through this
dharma dilemma and posits that the key to life is to obey one‟s duty of dharma (to act correctly within the
social order/caste system), but to do so without attachment to the consequences. Krishna‟s response reflects the Upanishads‟ teachings that Atman (Self) is Brahman (eternal, unchanging) within the conditional samsara (continuous rebirth): Arjuna, when a man knows the self to be indestructible, enduring, unborn, unchanging, how does he kill or cause anyone to kill? As a man discards worn-out clothes to put on new and different ones, so the embodied self discards its worn-out bodies to take on other new ones.21 Additionally, Krishna emphasizes the path of understanding through yoga (Jnana yoga) in order to become detached from the consequences of action, karma, through fulfilling one‟s duty of dharma: Understanding is defined in terms of philosophy; now hear it in spiritual discipline (yoga). Armed with this understanding, Arjuna, you will escape the bondage of action (karma).22 Be intent on action (karma), not on the fruits of action; avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction! Perform actions, firm in discipline (yoga), relinquishing attachment; be impartial to failure and success - this equanimity is called discipline (yoga). Arjuna, action (karma) is far inferior to the discipline (yoga) of understanding; so seek refuge in understanding – pitiful are men drawn by the fruit of action.23 Here we find a direct response and rejection of the Jains “attachment to inaction” which then leads into an almost Buddhist styled approach in the recommendation of Raja Yoga: When he renounces all desires and acts without craving, possessiveness, or individuality, he finds peace. This is the place of infinite spirit; achieving it, one is freed from delusion; abiding in it even at the time of death, one finds the pure calm of infinity.24
The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), Chapter II, Verses 21-22 Ibid., Verse 39 23 Ibid., Verses 47-49 24 Ibid., Verses 71-72
While the goal of moksha is inherent to this text, this passage does seem to suggest, much like the Buddha‟s teachings, that if our craving for individuality is extinguished, we may find peace and joy within this life.
Later in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna rejoins this goal to the social structure by means of making it proper to a life-cycle (samnyasin/sannyasin) within the greater scope of one‟s dharma: One who does what must be done, without concern for the fruits, is a man of renunciation (sannyasin) and discipline, not one who shuns ritual fire and rites. Know that discipline (yoga), Arjuna, is what men call renunciation (sannyasam); no man is disciplined without renouncing willful intent. Action (karma) is the means for a sage who seeks to mature in discipline (yoga); tranquility is the means for one who is mature in discipline (yoga). He is said to be mature in discipline (yoga) when he has renounced all intention and is detached from sense objects and actions.25 As the text goes on, Krishna advises to Arjuna a path of discipline (yoga) which is actually a progression through the four traditional paths of yoga. Beginning with Karma Yoga, the path of service to others and mindfulness of dharma/karma through action, Krishna describes how one advances through Jnana Yoga, discarding false beliefs through introspection leading to conceptual understanding, and Raja Yoga, confronting/transcending the mind‟s contents.
Arjuna, a Kshatriya, or member of the warrior caste, has received Krishna‟s advice regarding the paths of yoga, but still fears: When a man has faith, but no acetic will, and his mind deviates from discipline (yoga) before its perfection is achieved, what way is there for him, Krishna?26 Krishna responds by advising the fourth path of yoga, Bhakti, the path of loving devotion: Of all the men of discipline, the faithful man devoted to me, with his inner self deep in mine, I deem most disciplined.27
The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), Chapter VI, Verses 1-4 Ibid., Verse 37
One who serves me faithfully, with discipline of devotion, transcends the qualities of nature and shares in the infinite spirit (Brahman).28 Though there is disagreement29, this does not seem to suggest that the Bhakti path will lead to moksha from samsara. However, it is certainly recognized as a valid and valued path for the masses of those not inclined to ascetic discipline and world-renouncing. This is a way for those living in society and
maintaining its functions to also participate in the spiritual ideals of Indian philosophy, and also reflects the religious attitudes towards the deities of the early Vedic scriptures.
There are endless interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita and its content, and it is difficult not to question whether it is an opiate for the masses merely disguising political symbolisms, especially in regard to Krishna‟s conclusion of advising Bhakti yoga as the highest path to the infinite spirit of Brahman. Ananda Coomaraswamy urges us to not quickly dismiss this work, considering: …the Bhagavad Gita as probably the most important single work ever produced in India; this book of eighteen chapters is not, as it has been sometimes called, a “sectarian” work, but one universally studied and often repeated daily from memory by millions of Indians of all persuasions; it may be described as a compendium of the whole Vedic doctrine to be found in the earlier Vedas, Brahmanas, and Upanisads, and being therefore the basis of all the later developments, it can be regarded as the focus of all Indian religion. To this we must add that the pseudo-historical Krishna and Arjuna are to be identified with the mythical Agni and Indra.30
Ibid., Verse 47
The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), Chapter XIV , Verse 26 Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism, (Great Britain and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pgs. 126-127. In writing of the importance of the Bhagavad-Gita, Flood asserts: ”Yet above action is the path of devotion (bhakti-yoga) as a way of salvation. Indeed, even women and low castes can achieve liberation in this way, a statement in stark contrast to the orthodox brahmanical idea that only the twice-born have access to liberation through renunciation.” This writer finds many problematic issues with the above statement: primarily that this is a incredibly liberal interpretation of “liberation” and does not really equal “moksha” in theory or practical application within societal interpretation (until, perhaps, very recently), and secondly, the Upanishads had already opened up the path to moksha to a wider access than the twice-born (Brahmin caste). Krishna councils Arjuna, a member of the kshatriya (warrior) caste regarding the yogic path. There seems no strong evidence that the authors of the Epics had any intention of philosophically qualifying women and lower castes for moksha, though they may be happy in their lot of life through merging with Krishna (the Preserver of life and society) through theistic devotion. 30 Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1943), pgs. 4-5
It is common for exoteric religious canons to call on a sense of devotion and worship from the people to a God-form. However, the idea that the inclusion of Bhakti, (as a superior form of discipline for those not burning with desire to renounce the world to seek knowledge of God and Self), being a later addition to the original text can be satisfactorily dismissed. The Four Traditional Paths of Yoga have long been regarded as complimentary, as different aspects of the whole, like fingers on a hand: It is popular these days for a teacher or institution to develop some approach to Yoga that "synthesizes" or "integrates" these four paths of Yoga (along with other component aspects of Yoga). However, that is misleading in that they were never really divided in the first place. It is not a matter of pasting together separate units. Rather, they are all a part of the whole which is called Yoga. Virtually all people have a predisposition towards one or the other, and will naturally want to emphasize those practices.31 Additionally, as alluded to by Coomaraswamy, Krishna, the primary character of the entire Bhagavad Gita, is a Bhakti deity, and certainly not a figure emanating out of the other discipline branches of Yoga. Devotion to a Lord who is personal is the primary characteristic to Bhagavatas (those who worship a composite God-form consisting of Vasudeva, Vishnu and Krishna) and this God-form is known as the Preserver/Sustainer (of life, society, the world, etc.) and can also be recognized as a continuing form of
Vedic deities in charge of maintaining the order (rta) of the universe. Had the original intent of the
authors been to suggest the superiority of either Jnana (understanding/knowledge) or Raja (royal meditation), the hero guide of the Epic story would have likely been Shiva due to that God-form‟s association with ascetic world-renouncing gurus and samnyasin.
Perhaps the greatest commonality between the various darshanas, or worldviews, of India is the relative tolerance and acceptance of differing beliefs. Here generalizations can get slippery and should certainly not swing too broadly, but a foundational attitude within many Indian philosophical traditions can
Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati, Four Paths of Yoga: Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Raja, http://www.swamij.com/four-paths-ofyoga.htm . Accessed 08 Dec. 2009.
be found in application. Testimony, or shabda, as a separate and valid means of knowledge, is at home in Indian philosophical traditions,32 though it is barely regarded beneath the all consuming focus on perception in Western philosophy traditions. The idea that the mind and experience of another person can always only be known as an object, (and therefore unknowable by the knowing subject of self), seems to be a core belief across the Indian philosophical/religious spectrum. Though we cannot know the mind of the other, the spirit of Indian philosophy seems to persuade that we are bound (due to moral dharma, realization that we are all Brahman, compassion through wisdom, or need to practice ahimsa) to give due reverence to the many streams, threads, paths, visions of truth which are relative and proper to each person‟s understanding. To look at the differences in a hierarchical manner would be to miss the point.
The goal of Indian philosophy since the time of the Upanishads has been one seeking liberation, and this can be seen in the quest for enlightenment/moksha. A corresponding, but slightly less obvious goal has been another sort of liberation – freedom from the tyranny of words/language to have power over our “worldview.” In the Vedas, the correct words of power were absolutely fundamental to the entire worldview of the people. The Upanishads lower the importance of words and point to that which is beyond. The Jains seek to analyze how words are bondage to false concepts and the Buddhists remind us that words are empty of inherent existence and push beyond referential conceptions. Remember/Remember: Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference. No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding. Hence the personality or personalities of God – whether represented in trinitarian, dualistic, or unitarian terms, in polytheistic, monotheistic, or henotheisitic terms, pictorially or verbally, as documented fact or as apocalyptic vision – no one should attempt to read or interpret as the final thing. 33
John M. Koller, Asian Philosophies, 5 ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2007), p. 144 nd Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 2 ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 236
In conclusion, I find there is no proper conclusion, only many questions and many streams to explore in the mighty currents and tributaries of philosophical speculation.
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