BCC Intro Philosophy
Lecture on Indian Thought:
The Upanishads, Jainism and Buddhism
The Basics of Ancient World Cosmology
Many ancient cultures (including the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, and even the Hawaiians) have a very similar cosmology. Cosmology is the term used to cover the ancient study of the world, which included physics, psychology, biology, medicine, philosophy, religion and most areas of study all together as a single study by the educated and the wise.
The world was thought to be like a big person (making the individual person a microcosm or mini-cosmos within the larger cosmos or world). The elements, including fire, air, earth and water stacked from lightest on the top (fire and air) to heaviest on the bottom (earth and water). This was not only observed in nature (star fire above, winds next, then earth above water) but also in humans (the mind is fire and visions of light, which heats and activates the breath in speech like orders and commands, and the water in the lower regions and functions of the body which often was identified with chaos). Order and reason were identified with the higher elements (fire and air, mind and breath) and chaos and desire were identified with the lower elements (earth and water, flesh and fluid). When the stack of elements is in order the cosmos and the individual are in order, and when the stack of elements are out of order the cosmos and individual are out of order. The higher elements were believed to be eternal just as the cosmos itself and Being are eternal, and the lower elements were believed to be temporary like the individuals and beings are temporary.
One can find in religion and philosophy in ancient cultures (including Christianity, Buddhism, Indian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy) the same message repeated again and again: reason and the mind must be placed above and in charge of desire and the body. The eternal way of things is to be placed above the temporary ways and wants. This gains the individual wisdom, reason and insight into the workings of the cosmos. When the lower elements are in charge, there is ignorance and destruction. This framework is important for understanding each individual system of ancient thought as well as their overall similarities and differences.
Early India and Hinduism: The Vedas and Upanishads
‘Hindu’ is the Persian name for India (Persia and India are next door to each other and have traded for thousands of years). Our society borrows the term from the British, who get the term from the Persians. Hinduism may have many gods but there is an understanding that each god is one aspect of the great father and creator God, named by most traditions Brahma. Thus, even though there are many forms of worship that focus on specific gods, there is an understanding that it is all one interrelated tradition.
There are three paths of worship in Hinduism.
First, there is devotional worship, known as Bhakti Yoga (‘Yoga’ means ‘discipline’, or practice). In Bhakti devotional worship, the devotee prays, sings hymns, lights incense, and performs rituals to gain favor with the gods and heavens. It is impossible not to notice that most of what we call ‘religion’ the world over is in fact forms of Bhakti practice, devotion to particular gods and ancestral spirits. The two most populous forms of Bhakti Hinduism are Shaivism, the worship of Shiva (the transformer and destroyer) and his incarnations such as Ganesh (the elephant headed god), and Vaishnavism, the worship of Vishnu (the savior or preserver) and his incarnations (such as Krishna).
Raja yoga, the second path, is worship by meditation and asceticism (living in isolation, standing in place for days, chanting the names of God for hours, sitting on spikes, and other means of hard activity meant to gain a meditative state of insight). Notice that Christian monks could easily be seen as adhering to this ascetic path. If you enjoy jogging, and find it ‘spiritual’, this could be seen as a form of Raja yoga.
Jnana yoga (“zshna-na”), the third path and my personal favorite, is worship by acquiring knowledge and understanding the order of things through study and philosophizing. Notice that Greek philosophers and Christian/deist scientists of Europe like Newton can be seen as following this route. Indeed, Hinduism is so diverse and inter-accepting that it is hard to not see all of the forms of other cultures somewhere in one of its parts. This class itself could be seen as a form of Jnana yoga, designed to bring you closer to the core by studying the ways of the world (namely the religious traditions in their sameness and difference).
All are understood to work towards the same goal: liberation from the bonds of attachment and desire and rising into enlightenment and release.
First, there is hope for a better next life. Many are familiar already with the Hindu idea of reincarnation. This is not, as we learned in Shamanism, a form of afterlife particular to India, but in fact there is evidence that many tribal cultures and early Egypt believed that one’s present life will be reincarnated in another life on earth based on one’s actions and intentions. This interconnection is called ‘Karma’, which simply means ‘action’ in Sanskrit. Interestingly, physical causation is ‘karma’, just as metaphysical causation (next life physics) is ‘karma’, same word and understanding of cause and effect applied to a different sphere of existence. If you punch someone in the head, it is karma that makes their head reel backward, and karma that also weighs down your chance for a favorable life after death in the Hindu tradition.
Second, there is hope for release, for freedom from rounds of rebirth on earth. This can be thought of as dwelling in a heaven with one’s personal or family god, but also as a dwelling with the order of things without residing in any particular place. Bhakti yoga tends to favor the dwelling with a lord, while Raja and Jnana tends to favor the dwelling with the universe as a whole, however it is important to remember that some Hindus believe that both amount to the same exact thing (while others will insist that their school’s truth is ‘more true’, the same variation one finds in any religion and in our own culture). This release is also called Moksha and Samadhi, but in America we know this first and foremost by the same name as the famous grunge band, Nirvana.
The Vedas were oral traditions, huge memorized lengths of stories and doctrines that were spoken and repeated. There are four Vedas, and these form the most ancient and respected source of Hinduism. Our scholars believe the Vedas to have been formed sometime before 1200 BCE, but many Hindu devotees believe that the Vedas are far older. The Rig (or ‘Rg’) Veda is the oldest and most central. The Vedas, compared to the Upanishads, are largely stories of creation and the tales of the gods, explaining how the universe was created and how things got to be the way they are.
The Upanishads (800 BCE) were a later development. These were more ‘philosophical’, teachings about the soul and how to release the soul from desire and merge with the great One and All. The Upanishads frequently interpret the stories of the Vedas as metaphoric teachings, instructions for the truly wise on how to develop the mind or soul. ‘Upanishad’ means “sitting down near and beside”, as these are believed to be the close teachings of the priest, philosopher or master who has taught the Vedas for a long time and thus knows something of their secret ‘inner’ meaning. Greek philosophy, particularly the pre-Socratic thinkers (philosophers before Socrates, of whom we have only fragments), shares an uncanny resemblance to many of the discussions in the Upanishads (all the more reason to see less of a strict separation between ‘West’ and ‘East’).
One of the most famous sayings from the Upanishads is Tat Tvam Asi, “That is you”. No matter what “that” you are looking at, it is in fact your own self because all is one and there are no complete or permanent separations between any two things.
As the Upanishads continued to gain teachers and followers, there was a new flowering of many schools of thought between 700 and 400 BCE that took much from the Vedas and Upanishads but developed the teachings in new directions. These new schools often rejected the caste system (still in place today in spite of these ancient rebellions) and thus gained massive followings among all classes and castes of India. Jainism was one of the first, but it was quickly developed and transformed itself into a religion that is possibly the most popular system of thought in history, Buddhism (Christianity, Islam and Science are contenders for first, second, third and fourth place depending on how and who one counts).
Some scholars today argue that Jainism and Buddhism helped develop Hinduism in response such that Hinduism looks as it does today (with an emphasis on total liberation AS WELL AS the goal of merit and reincarnation). However, Buddhism (which I have personally heard some Hindus describe as ‘Hinduism for Export’) flourished outside of India and thus became a much more international religion for dominating diverse empires, whereas Hinduism and Jainism largely remain confined to India even today (with significant minority populations in Canada, America, South Africa and many other places). Also, of course, Hindu gurus (teachers, sages) have become quite popular in giving religious insight to people in the ‘West’ in recent decades, particularly after the 1960s and the cultural revolution (it could be argued, even more popular than Buddhist or Jain teachers).
Jainism (650 BCE)
Jainism, or “Jain Dharma” (dharma means “teaching/law/order of the universe”) was and is practiced by Jains (not Jainists as some mistakenly say). There are currently 4 Million in India today, with many others in communities around the world including New York and Toronto. Jainism rose just before Buddhism, as Mahavira (650 BCE), the main teacher and founder of Jainism, lived just before the Buddha (550 BCE), though all of these dates are still in debate.
Jainism advocates two principles that are shared with Indian thought but credited to Jain innovation: Anekantavada, the multiplicity of reality or “non-one-ended-ness” and Syadvada, the hypothetical and imperfect nature of perspective and judgment. According to these two principles, all human beliefs and judgments are temporary and partial views of the greater whole.
Jains were also early proponents of the idea that the cosmos works in cycles: like the physical rising and setting of the sun, consciousness rises, then sets. People start to become awakened teachers and develop religion in the rising era, and people lose religion in the setting era. This is endless, like the cosmos. The cosmos becomes enlightened to its own self through us, and then loses consciousness of itself through us. Unfortunately, we currently live in an era of dimming religion and consciousness according to most Jain and Hindu teachers (the Hindus following the Jains in this picture).
Jain teachers and saints are known as Tirthankaras, “one who makes a ford” (cutting through water as order over chaos, as land becoming firmament in the chaotic waters). Mahavira (also Mahavir), the founder of Jainism, is understood by Jains to be the 24th Tirthankara. Like others of his time, Mahavira was a practitioner of austerities that are aimed at detachment from desire and multiplicity of the world: fasting, standing in jungles, going without food or luxuries for extended periods of time. Statues of Mahavira and other Tirthankaras show vines growing up their legs and bodies, as vines grow several feet in the jungle a day and so would grow up your body if you practice standing austerities for days at a time. Jains believe that these practices purify the self/soul/mind.
Here, we come to THE critical difference between Jainism and the other schools of Indian thought. In Hinduism and Buddhism, karma can be positive (merit and blessing) or negative (demerit and sin). Thus, karma can either help you up or drag you down. For Jains, karma is ALWAYS NEGATIVE, always weight that keeps you down, always division or blockage between you and the ALL. Thus, one tries best to avoid accumulating karma and to destroy the karma one has already accumulated.
Jains are famous for their doctrine of the negativity of karma and the radical nonviolence that follows from this principle. Jains wear masks to prevent insects from flying in their mouths, sweep the ground to avoid killing insects (even though the killing would be unintentional, it would still be an accumulation of karma), influenced other Indian thought in promoting vegetarianism, and even don’t eat root vegetables as it kills (up-roots) the whole plant rather than that plucked from the plant.
The best way to understand the dual practice of avoiding karma AND shredding karma is the Metaphor of the Leaky Boat: You ride in a boat across water to a distant shore (Nirvana). Notice that water represents chaos and desire, and the land represents the firm and the enlightened. The boat is leaky, and water is pouring in. You have to BOTH plug the leaks (preventative principles like vegetarianism that prevent bad karma from getting IN you) and bail out the water that has already inside the boat (shredding karma, practicing austerities like fasting or standing in postures to get the karma you already have in this life OUT of you). Jains believe that it is only by this two-pronged strategy that the individual can be fully liberated and join back together with the cosmos and thus gain eternal life rather than round after round of rebirth.
Buddhism (550 BCE)
According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha, the “awakened one”, practiced austerities like Mahavira, but found that this way was not enough. Buddhism is famous for long periods of meditation, and this is quite like Jain austerities of standing in postures, but Buddhism suggests that it is through balance and not extremes that one will be liberated. The Buddha found Jain asceticism to be one sided and promoting of self hatred which is still attachment and duality.
According to the tradition and legend, Buddha’s father was the king of a kingdom in Northern India. When the Buddha was born, the king’s wise men told him that his son would be EITHER a great king OR a great holy man. The king did not want his son to be a holy man, but rather the next king, so to control his son he hid his son away in his palace and gave him all the luxuries in the world, hiding death and pain from him, surrounding him with dancing girls and servants and only healthy, happy, obedient people. At 29, the Buddha had become bored of this, and snuck out to see the city, taking along his trusted servant. In succession, the Buddha the Four Sights (an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man). When he saw the first three, his servant each time told him that this was unfortunately inevitable for everyone, but when he got to the fourth, the holy man (likely a Jain or proto-Jain), his servant told him that the monk was working on the first three (age, sickness, and death).
The Buddha was immediately envious of something more wonderful than he had ever possessed in the palace, and so he escaped into the jungle where he found sages practicing austerities. The Buddha did these Jain (or proto-Jain, depending on the scholar) austere practices in the jungle for six years, but he found that this brought no great enlightenment and in fact brought him self-hatred and self-denial (notice here that this is where Buddhism breaks away from Jainism as a direct criticism of Jain practice, taking much of Jainism with it in the process but seeking a middle way between denial and indulgence, attached to neither). The Buddha left the jungle disappointed. He decided to sit beneath a large tree, the Bodhi Tree (which one can go see in India today, a tree supposed to have been grown from the original in the original spot), and he vowed not to rise until he found complete and total truth or he would give up his life. After 49 days, at the age of 35, he realized complete enlightenment, Nirvana. This is defined in the tradition as the total extinction of greed (raga), hate (dosa), and delusion (moha), obtainable in this life by any being by overcoming duality and desire.
Major philosophical ideas of Buddhism
The Doctrine of the Middle Way:
In all things, as the mind splits things into opposites and prefers one while rejecting the other, one should always practice moderation between the extremes. As a criticism of Jainism, this means that one should balance pain and pleasure, being attached to neither, rather than chase pain and difficulty to liberate the self. The Buddha found Jain practice to be immoderate: too much de-emphasis of self is attachment to self hate, not detachment from particular things (as self-hate is particular and bound up with particular things just as much as self-love or pride is). One must love and hate the self, bringing the two together, to find detachment from many and complete identity in the One, the All.
Doctrine of Impermanence:
The Buddha taught that all things are impermanent. Thus, everything is constantly evolving, never the same twice. Only the great All is eternal, the One to which we all belong, but as soon as you say this it becomes a conception, a particular being separated from other particular beings, and then is simply a temporary being in your mind.
Codependent Arising (Pratityasamutpada):
Another major teaching of Buddhism is codependent arising of all phenomena. While this is a hard thing to grasp or discuss, it means that all things are themselves in so far as they are connected to every other thing. Opposites, such as heat and cold or self and other, do not anchor things in themselves or give things their true meaning, but rather all things exist dependent on all other things. While this may frustrate some, and they would say ‘this tells me nothing’, Buddhists believe that all things are impermanent, and so you should not expect to have final knowledge of any particular thing. Instead, you must investigate each thing you want to describe as best as you can, connected to the things to which you want to connect it.