Friday, October 18, 2013

Britain and Hinduism 9: Ending the Kali Yuga

Bhima traveling alone through a forest finds the path blocked by a large monkey who claims to be too old and weak to move out of the way. The strongest of the Pandavas tries to lift his tail and pass by, but cannot move it a hair. Realizing someone of awesome power is before him, Bhima falls to his knees and asks the monkey who he is. It is Hanuman, the son of Vayu from a previous age, and thus Bhima’s older brother. In telling when he is from, Hanuman sums up briefly a uniquely Hindu aspect of Time: it has a moral dimension reflected in the quality of human virtue that changes in a cycle of four Yugas (eons).

In the first, the Krita (Perfect) Yuga, Virtue is whole and stands firmly on four legs. Life is effortless and the Vedas are an integral whole open to all eyes. In the Treta Yuga Virtue diminishes by a quarter but is still stable on three legs. Various diseases, lust, and natural calamities afflict people, and they undertake sacrifices and penances to avoid them. The Ramayana is set in the latter part of this period.

In the Dwapara Yuga half of Virtue remains intact, maintaining an unsteady balance on two legs. Dishonesty is a growing factor in human relationships and meritorious achievement requires great effort. The Vedas are in four parts and unknown to many. The war at Kurukshetra occurs at the end of this period and only Krishna’s presence on earth prevents the immediate onset of the degenerate Kali Yuga, when only a quarter of Virtue survives, standing unsteadily on a single leg. Evil is rampant in this final phase. Most people no longer remember the Vedas or know their own spiritual nature; only one in four is honest.

We are now in the Kali Yuga that began with the death of Krishna 16 years after the end of the Kurukshetra war. Gandhi’s political advent in South Africa a century ago marked the beginning of a period of transition, and the hugely positive changes since then signal that we are moving towards a new age of virtue. The Brahma Kumaris say we are now in a time of “Confluence,” with potential for revolutionary positive change.

How rapidly we realize that potential depends on each of us becoming aware that the corruptions of the Kali Yuga have blinded us to the nature of the world and of our own true selves. This whole series of posts has aimed to remedy that situation and in this one I look specifically at the origins and significance of Hinduism.

Who We Are

In September 2009, Nature published the report of a genetic mapping project by an Indo-American team of scientists that had studied some 500,000 genetic markers in a diverse sampling of the Indian population. As one of the senior researchers told the Press, the team found evidence that “castes grew directly out of tribe-like organizations during the formation of Indian society,” and that the proportion of shared genes in the population ranged from 49 to 80 percent.

That evidence blew out of the water the ludicrous colonial-era theory that the caste system was a means of preserving the racial purity of White blond protoEuropean “Aryans” from the Caucasus, the “original Brahmins” the British credited with composing the Vedas while driving their chariots and cattle up and down the high Himalayan passes.

The genetic evidence pointed to the emergence of the caste system from an accommodation among indigenous tribes.

How did that happen? 

Most probably, it was the result of a successful effort to end the conflicts endemic among the many tribes of India by compiling their sacred lore into a work all could revere, the Vedas. Supporting that theory is the fact that the Vedas are the only Hindu texts considered divine in origin (shruti); all the rest are remembered works of human composition (smriti). The distinction makes sense only if the former contains the ageless Seen reality (veda) of the tribes. It is likely the compilation was done by the Saptarishis, the seven sages memorialized by ancient tradition as the stars pointing to Polaris.

Modern readers usually find Vedic hymns repetitive and often mundane, but to their original tribal audiences they must have been powerfully evocative of their commonalities of worship and ritual. The hymns celebrated Agni, sacred to all as ruler of altar and the hearth, cleanser, protector, receiver of sacrifices and messenger to the gods. They praised all things the tribes held in awe, the Sun and the Moon, Wind Thunder and Storm, the starry wheel of heaven and the lovely dawn. They propitiated the gods of the hunt and husbandry, weapons of war and the tools that built altar and home. They expressed wonder at the eternal mysteries of the spirit-world that lay beneath the great cycles of seasonal growth, death and rebirth. In all things the Vedas made obvious the deep kinship of the tribes, ending conflicts and allowing them to settle into a system of interdependent castes.

The next step in the evolution of Indian society involved discussions (Upanishads) among the country’s best and brightest that led, over time, to a coherent philosophy, a universal worldview and a humane value system. The Upanishads postulated an indefinably abstract and undifferentiated Brahman as the basic reality of the universe. From its manifestation as the Universal Soul (Paramatma) there emerged the endless diversity of Creation, governed by a Law (Dharma/Rita/Satya) inherent in every particle and pervading the cosmic reaches of Space and Time. A flux of endless delusion (Maya) cloaked the unity of Vasudev Kutumbakham, God’s family.

The Upanishads asserted that individual souls are of the same divine substance as the Universal Soul and thus immortal; but blinded by Maya, they are unaware of their true nature and must learn of it through long experience of repeated material reincarnations. The most enlightened souls escape the cycle of rebirths by merging with the Universal Soul (moksha); all others continue to be reborn until the cataclysmic end of all things (pralaya) at the conclusion of a Mahayuga.

In this dispensation the highest attribute of virtue/wisdom is the dispassionate observance of personal dharma; death is of little consequence as it only opens the door to a new life; and possessions are a hindrance to those seeking a clear view of the realities governing their soul’s progress.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata

The spare and noble philosophy of the Upanishads entered the everyday life of India through the Ramayana and Mahabharata, composed millennia apart and entirely different in significance and spirit, but unified in their concepts of what is of value in life and what is without worth. Celebrated by every generation in sacred legend, drama, dance and song, the two epics laid the foundations of a unified Indian culture and consolidated it as a civilization. They also marked key stages in the political evolution of Indian society.

The Ramayana records and extols the step up from caste-federation to unitary State. It is important to note how differently this change occurred in Europe and India. In Europe, unity came through conquest and oppression. India accomplished the transition peacefully because the Kshatriyas already had the established role of ensuring security, and it was necessary only to define the qualities and responsibilities of the king.

The Ramayana takes that in hand. Rama is not a military dictator. In the devotion to his father, love for Sita, loyalty to Laxman, and generosity towards Kaikei, he is the archetype of the good family man. He goes to war not to extend his kingdom or for profit but to regain his wife. In misfortune, he is graceful, in victory, modest. Rama is the God-king next door, neighborly, considerate and kind. Those qualities make him accessible to all Indians regardless of caste or social status, a point the Ramayana is at pains to underline. The gods applaud Rama sitting comfortably on the ground with the lowborn forest-dweller Guha. The Prince of Ayodhya eats the fruit a poor woman offers him after biting into it to make sure it is sweet; Lakshman protests but Rama silences him; she acts out of love. That unforced love of the ruler is the basis for Ramrajya, the ideal State.

The Ramayana also makes clear the iron commitment necessary from the ruler. Rama goes willingly into exile to uphold a pledge his father made; he sends away his beloved wife because of murmurs among the citizens of Ayodhya that Sita’s pregnancy soon after returning from Ravana’s clutches implied a violation that made her unfit to be queen. The lesson in both cases is the same: the integrity of the ruler is the ultimate guarantor of the safety and security of the State; it must be beyond moral reproach. The personal happiness of the king cannot take precedence over that fundamental consideration.

Ravana serves as a negative foil to Rama in every way. Although a man of great accomplishments –thus the ten heads – he is arrogant, vicious, tyrannical, feared, and endlessly self-indulgent. Ramarajya is a time of golden contentment to the people of Ayodhya; Ravana’s rule brings disaster and ruin to Lanka.

The Mahabharata tells of a much later stage in India’s national life, when the ideals of Ramrajya are long gone and corrupt power-hungry men have control of the State. The whole work is a guide to survival in dark and confusing times. Ugrasrava, the narrator of the epic, lauds its high worth. “As the sun dispels the darkness, so does the Bharata by its discourses on religion, profit, pleasure and final release, dispel the ignorance of men. As the full moon by its mild light expands the buds of the water lily, so this Purana broadens the human intellect. With the lamp of history it illumines the whole mansion of nature.” The Mahabharata is the “fifth Veda” he says, outweighing the others because it makes their mysteries explicit.

Some 3000 years after its composition, the epic remains a sophisticated and surprisingly relevant work of political, philosophical and moral guidance. Consider, for example, the hidden significance of the origin and nature of the Pandavas and Kauravas.

Although always referred to as “cousins,” the two sets of siblings, are unrelated by blood. Pandu cannot father children because he is cursed with instant death if he has sex; his five sons are the progeny of different gods invoked by his two wives. Yudhisthira the firstborn is the son of Dharma. Maruti the Wind begets Bhima of immense strength. Indra king of the gods and wielder of the thunderbolt fathers Arjuna, the perfect warrior. The twin Aswins, skilled in the arts and husbandry that support life, are the parents of Nakula and Sahadeva.

Together, the sons of Pandu represent the strengths essential to any civilization: Law, Power, the capacity for war and the skills for peace. Despite their disparate parentage the Pandavas share an indissoluble brotherhood, and Vyasa clearly intends the brothers to exemplify India's unity in diversity; it requires no stretch of the imagination to see in Draupadi the beautiful and fruitful land that all of them love.

The Kauravas are also not the natural sons of blind Dhritrashtra. His wife Gandhari (from Gandhara, modern Afghanistan), is childless and becomes pregnant only through the magical intercession of Vyasa. Throughout the Mahabharata Vyasa’s appearance signals didactic intent, and in this instance it underlines a theme that drives the narrative to the end. Gandhari’s pregnancy is abnormally prolonged, and upon hearing of the birth of Pandu’s first son she loses patience and induces birth. What emerges from her womb is not a baby but a horrible ball of flesh, hard as iron. Vyasa returns to remonstrate with her. If she had not lost patience, her son would have been of unrivaled splendor. However, all is not lost: he cuts up the ball of flesh into a hundred and one pieces, putting each in a separate jar. When the test-tube babies emerge, all boys except for the youngest, they seem normal, even splendid; but the Kauravas are inescapably demonic.

As the Pandavas exemplify the attributes of a healthy society, the Kauravas illustrate the monstrous consequences of incontinence. Dhrithrashtra’s congenital blindness and Gandhari’s decision on her wedding day to assume a permanent blindfold, establish a theme Vyasa returns to repeatedly in his depiction of the Kauravas: Evil is rooted in the incapacity or willful refusal to see reality. Every fateful choice as they spiral down to doom illustrates the delusive power of egotism, greed, anger, hate and envy. No Satan plots their downfall, for Hinduism has no such entity; what seals their fate is a failure of compassion, the inability to see the kinship of all things underlying the world’s vast differentiation; without that spiritual cognition, they lack understanding and misjudge reality at every turn.

Such hidden teachings appear throughout the narrative and have generally gone unremarked because attention has focused overwhelmingly on the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna on the battlefield at Kurukshetra. The spiritual teachings of the Gita have also overshadowed the advice on matters relevant to social and political governance in the Book of Peace (the longest section of the epic) and Book of Instruction, which follow immediately after the profound lamentation of the Stree Parva (Book of Women) at the end of the war.

It is important to note that while Vyasa emphasizes Kshatriya dharma in Krishna's counsel to Arjuna and the whole narrative hinges on a great war, the epic is solidly against the chest-thumping warrior code.

Understanding the Caste System

After the end of the Kurukshetra war Bhisma, the revered granduncle of the Bharata clan, lies impaled on a bed of arrows for an excruciating 58 days, waiting for the most auspicious time to die. It is the second dramatic freeze frame in the narrative. As the receding roar of armies underlined the urgency of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna on waging the battle of life, so Bhisma’s agony gives poignance and edge to the practical guidance he offers to Yudhisthira, the new Emperor. 

An issue he addresses at length and with the highest authority is the nature and significance of the caste system. Quoting no less a personage than Shiva, Bhisma says: “Brahma himself said during the process of creation” that the “distribution of human beings into the four orders dependent on birth is only for purposes of classification. Neither birth, nor purifying rites, nor learning, nor offspring, can be regarded as grounds for conferring the Twice Born status. Verily, conduct is the only ground.” Any “pious person “imbued with knowledge and science, purified from all dross, and fully conversant with the Vedas,” should be considered a Brahmin.” It is “by such acts that a Sudra may become a Brahmin refined of all stains and possessed of Vedic lore. … A Sudra who has purified his soul by pure deeds and subjugated all his senses deserves to be waited upon and served with reverence.” Contrarily, a Brahmin who does not conduct himself like one deserves no respect.

That was not just ideal theory; it was the lived reality of caste through most of Indian history, attested to by British observers before the great uprising of 1857 gave them a political incentive to lie. Monstuart Elphinstone’s 1841 History of India, written after many years in the country, noted that: “In the main, the Brahmin rules of life have been greatly relaxed. The castes below the Kshatriyas have now become extremely mixed and extremely numerous; a servile caste no longer exists. A man who loses caste is excluded both from all the privileges of citizenship and all the amenities of private life. As a rule, however, the recovery of caste by expiation is an easy matter.”

The report of the first census of British India in 1871 said of the Brahmin caste: “there are few trades in which some of its members are not engaged. So minute and endless are the ramifications of caste, that, when Mr. Prinsep took a census of Benares in 1834, no less than 107 distinct castes of Brahmins were found in that one city.” That was nothing new: Bhisma noted a long list of occupations that disqualified a Brahmin from officiating at a religious ceremony.

How did we get the idea that caste preserved pure bloodlines and was an iron system of class oppression? We got it from European theorists who judged Indian realities by their own historical experience of societies formed by layers of defeated tribes. The conclusion that conquering Brahmins imposed the caste system on the diversity of India is patently absurd if we consider that they are about 4 per cent of the population.

Caste conflicts as they now exist are a legacy of the 1871 census which, for the first time, enumerated  groups and presented the system's fluid realities in a Procrustean hierarchy. It set off a great and rancorous competition among groups that was without precedent because it was never before necessary: throughout Indian history, evident in such illustrious examples as Chandragupta Maurya and Shivaji, caste status was open to radical adjustment.

The hierarchical British ordering of castes was deliberately malignant; as Dharampal noted, two-thirds of royal families in pre-colonial India belonged to groups now classified as “Other Backward Castes.” That was nothing new; the Mahabharata mentions Eklavya not only as the low caste boy brutally treated by Drona but also as the Nishada king who led an army at Kurukshetra.

From the British perspective, downgrading the status of influential castes was effective psychological warfare and sound political strategy. It set off bitter inter-caste altercations at every level as groups jockeyed for status; and the issues were petty beyond belief because there was nothing substantive involved. The murderous quarrels we read about today over such things as an upturned mustache or a turban tied too high were as unknown in precolonial India as the Hindu-Muslim “riots” the British engineered.

The Indian Intellectual Tradition

The compilation of the Vedas by the Saptarishis, the formulation of the philosophy of the Upanishads, the didactic use of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, all indicate the extraordinary capacity of Indian society to understand and meet existential challenges. The intellectualism evident in the formation of Indian civilization came to rich fruition in the millennia that followed.

Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), perhaps the most articulate voice of the Indian Renaissance in the early 20th Century, noted in an essay in Arya the “strong intellectuality” of Indian tradition. It was “at once austere and rich, robust and minute, powerful and delicate, massive in principle and curious in detail. Its chief impulse was that of order and arrangement … a seeking for the inner law and truth of things … of each human or cosmic activity.” Ancient India had assembled a “colossal literature” on “philosophy and theology, religion and Yoga, logic and rhetoric and grammar and linguistics, poetry and drama, medicine and astronomy and the sciences.”

India’s curiosity had “embraced all life, politics and society, all the arts from painting to dancing; all the 64 accomplishments, everything then known that could be useful to life or interesting to the mind.” Even on “such practical side minutiae as the breeding and training of horses and elephants,” each topic “had its Shastra and its art, its apparatus of technical terms, its copious literature.” Such intellectual labour had “no parallel before the invention of printing and the facilities of modern science,” Aurobindo noted; all “that mass of research and production and curiosity of detail was accomplished … with no better record than the memory and for an aid the perishable palm-leaf.”

He did not note two attendant marvels.

One was that when travel was slow, difficult and dangerous, India sustained across its vast distances an intellectual community that shared works, debated differences, and agreed on conceptual outcomes. Benares was the hub of that community; the Buddha came there from the foothills of the Himalayas, Adi Sankara traveled up from Kerala, Guru Nanak came from the Punjab and Raja Rammohun Roy and Swami Vivekananda from Bengal. These are only some of the most prominent of the millions of Indian travelers who brought to life the rich cultural and intellectual life of a civilization all recognized as a unity spreading from the Himalayas to the seas lapping the peninsular spread of the country east, west and south. The role of masses of anonymous itinerants in shaping Indian society and carrying its impact to the rest of the world has been little noted. They took our cosmology, the Zero and differential calculus to China, Persia and Arabia (from where they spread to Europe). The Tamil gopuram traveled across the Himalayas to become the Pagoda of East Asia. The unarmed combat taught in the Kalaris of Kerala went with the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma to the Shaolin monastery in China, and the manual he wrote there disseminated the art throughout the region. 

The other marvel, unremarked not only by Aurobindo but by everyone I have ever read, is that Indian society and civilization were possible only because of the quality of the general mass of our people. Their reverence for the divine, their respect for learning and their generosity of spirit are the bedrock on which our leaders built. Those qualities allowed the Saptarishis to unify the tribes by compiling the Vedas; they assured the impact of the epic compositions of Valmiki and Vyasa; without them, Gandhi could not have succeeded. The fact that Indians for many millennia have accepted Rama as the ideal man and Krishna as the exemplar of wise leadership speaks to the quality of the devotee as much as to the objects of worship. The “Indian Dream,” even at the nadir of the Kali Yuga, has always been of God, and that has shaped our intellectual constructs, our expectations from life, our destiny.

The Nature of Reality

In the heyday of their arrogant power Europeans were given to dismissing Indians as fatalistic losers and contrasting our backwardness with their own world-beating "progress." Those attitudes persist even after the poisonous nature of that progress is widely known and hundreds of millions of people have paid with their lives in imperial contests for its temporary fruits. Many Indians continue to think that our traditions are a drag on progress, that bhakti is superstition, and that Western Science is a superior form of knowledge. There is an element of truth in those assessments to the extent that tradition is tied to ignorance, bhakti to scoundrels, and science to the healing arts. But beyond that, the European intellectual tradition is not superior or even equal to that of our own. To see why, we have to ask about the reasons for seeking knowledge and the nature of reality. Compare, for instance, the vision of the cosmos presented in the Mahabharata (the language has been thinly edited), with what Science has to say on the matter:

In the darkness there appeared the mighty golden egg Mahadivya containing the true light, the eternal Brahman, wonderful and inconceivable, present alike in all places, the invisible and subtle cause of entity and non-entity, progenitor of all things seen and unseen. From Brahman there emerged … after many eons the oceans, the heavens, the earth, the air, the sky, the points of the heavens, the years, the seasons, the months, the fortnights, days and nights, and all things known to man.

What is seen in the universe, whether animate or inanimate, of created things, will at the end of the world, and after the expiration of the Yuga, be again confounded. At the commencement of other Yugas, all things will be renovated, and, like the various fruits of the earth, succeed each other in the due order of their seasons. Thus continues perpetually to revolve in the world, without beginning and without end, this wheel of Time that causes the destruction of all things.

Science has validated part of that vision, finding evidence of Mahadivya in the Big Bang; but it has not ventured to express an opinion on what comes before the universe winks into existence and what will follow its extinction. That is because both Beginning and End are “Singularities,” beyond which basic scientific laws are presumed not to hold. Past those points, Science is blind.

On what basis does Hindu cosmology assert a continuity of cycles, each beginning with a Mahadiya? How does it venture the view that in between cycles Brahman continues to exist as unmoving Witness, holding incipient the explosive energy of the next Mahadivya? What significance should we attach to the overall Hindu concept?

To answer those questions we have to look at the nature of thought. Does each individual generate his or her own thoughts? Or are thoughts preexisting constructs that we merely perceive?

The entirety of Hindu tradition leans towards the latter. In our schema for training the intellect, the student phase is aimed at finding out what is known already and gaining the right orientation of spirit to allow the pursuit of knowledge, an essentially intuitive process. To be successful, the seeker must be in full control of his passions and have the mind in a state of fine concentration; then, prolonged tapasya (worship oriented to understanding), will reveal the truth about the specific object of inquiry. Put another way, the dedicated seeker with a finely trained intellect will be able to read the thought forms that constitute the universe. 

The evidence-based approach of Western Science is also oriented to discovering the laws that order the Universe; where it differs from India’s insight-based tradition is in motive and aim.

Science seeks understanding in order to manipulate and profit; the sages of India seek it to know the will and direction of the Universe.

Because of that difference, even when Science focuses on pure theory, it must proceed on hard evidence, quantifiable proof; and when the secrets of the universe are unlocked, the “applied Sciences” take over to turn erstwhile mysteries into profit or power. We can see the unavoidably demonic results in a world economy that is killing the planet's life systems, in the existence of nuclear and biological weapons that could end all life, in obscene inequalities of wealth and poverty, and the use of mass fear to control the world.

What this means is that our self-discovery in exiting from the Kali Yuga must be more than regaining memory of the past; it must look to the future and understand how to respond to the grim context of Western modernity; it must envision and move towards a better world.


Part 10 will focus on what we can do to accelerate the end of the Kali Yuga

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8

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