Pages

Friday, July 4, 2014

Vallabhacharya

Vallabhacharya enriched the literature on Vedanta by developing new interpretations of Hinduism’s must important scriptures, namely the Upanishads, the Gita, and the Brahma-Sutra. He believed that Shankaracharya had wrongly interpreted the scriptures; he strongly disagreed with the Advaita doctrine, which holds that the physical world is a Maya or illusion. Vallabhacharya is considered to have played a major role in moving the Vedanta thought away from the abstract philosophical ideas of Shankaracharya and towards the bhakti, or the devotional schools of religion, that swept the country between the 14th century and 17th century. He preached the doctrine of Suddha-Advaita, which is essentially Advaita, or non-dualism, without any reference to the concept of Maya. The Suddha stands for pure, so the philosophy of Vallabhacharya is also referred to as ‘pure non-dualism.’ As the system emphasises Pusti or divine grace as the sole means of attaining supreme bliss, from a religious point of view, the school of thought founded by Vallabhacharya is also known as Pusti-marga, or the path of divine grace.

Vallabhacharya is credited with a number of religious commentaries and treatises. Unfortunately, a significant part of his literary creation is no longer extant. He had written two commentaries on the Brahma-Sutra – at first he wrote the Brhadbhasya, or long commentary; after that he wrote the Anubhasya, or the short commentary. Only Anubhasya is available with us. His commentary on Bhagavata, which is known as Subodhini, is also available. Vallabhacharya was of the opinion that the Bhagavata was the most logical and supreme holy text. Even though the Vedas, Gita and the Brahma-Sutras were works of authority, the doubts in their teachings could only be removed after a reading of the Bhagavata. Anyone making a critical study of the Bhagavata would automatically attain liberation from cycle of birth and death. The sixteen small treatises that he has written, Patravalambana, etc., are also helpful in letting us understand his system. The followers of Vallabhacharya further enriched the Suddha-Advaita school of thought through literary works that were composed not only in Sanskrit but also in many vernacular languages.

*******

A Tailanga Brahman from South India, Vallabhacharya was born in 1479 to a family that leaned towards practise of Vedic rituals and worship of Shri Krishna. According to one account, Vallabhacharya was born as a premature child. There was no sign of life in the newly born baby and he was presumed dead by the parents, who left him under a tree. Next day when the parents went to see the child, they found he him laughing under the tree, and being protected by a ring of fire. The pleased parents took the child back to their home. The family soon migrated to North India, and Vallabhacharya spent most of his life in the city of Varanasi.  By the time he was 12 years old, he had mastered all the Vedas, Purans and Agamas. Then he started travelling across the country; he visited many holy places, where he preached and won in debates against renowned religious scholars. The most famous debate in which Vallabhacharya participated happened at the court of Raja Krishna Deva of Vijayanagar. The Raja had organised a debate over the philosophical question of whether God is dualistic or non-dualistic. Considering it to be a divine call, Vallabhacharya participated in the discussion. In the debate that went on for 27 days Vallabhacharya defeated all the famous Pundits of the court. The king was pleased at Vallabhacharya’s religious scholarship, and he invested him with the title of Acharya.

*******

Vallabhacharya’s philosophy of Suddha-Advaita is pure monism. He does not believe in the concept of Maya or illusion, as Sankaracharya does, and he believes that entire world of matter and souls is real and is only a subtle expression of the Brahman. The Brahman is Purna, or prefect, and is Purusotama, which means the best of all beings. He is eternal, omnipotent and omniscient. The origin, sustenance, and the eventual destruction of the world are entirely due to the Brahman. As He has created the universe out of Himself for the sake of Lila or sport, He is both the efficient cause and the material cause of the entire creation. So in this point of view, the Brahman creates the world because He desires pleasure. The world is full of all kinds of individuals, good and evil, happy and unhappy. At particular periods of time, the world comes to an end in a phenomenon called Pralaya, when the entire world gets absorbed within the Brahman. But the Brahman remains unaffected by the values or the lack of values within His creation, because He has created the world out of Himself as a Lila, or sport. When Brahman transforms Himself into the world He does not undergo any change.

As the individual soul is an amsa, or a part, of the Brahman, it is also eternal. However, the body with which the soul is associated has to go through the cycle of birth and death. The soul is atomic, it is not omnipresent and it does not vary in size or shape according to the body that it inhabits. It is purely for the sake of diversity that the Brahman allows individual souls subject to the power of avidya, or nescience, and this is the root cause of the ideas of individualism and disbelief in the teachings of the scriptures. According to Suddha-Advaita he who observes all the Vedic rites and endeavours to discover the knowledge of the Brahman in accordance to the teachings of the Upanishads enjoys divine joy through the attainment of moksha or salvation.  To have knowledge of the Brahman is to know that everything in the world is the Brahman. To such a man the Lord or the Brahman manifests himself. Vallabhacharya preaches that the ultimate form of divine bliss happens, when the Lord himself desires to favour a particular soul. In such a case, He gives to the soul a divine body like Himself and plays with him for all eternity.

However, this form of divine bliss can never be acquired through prayers or by any other human effort, it can come only as a gift from the Lord. This idea of divine bliss achieved as a gift from the Lord is central to the Suddha-Advaita philosophy. Also, the path of attaining divine bliss through prayers and acquiring of scriptural knowledge is open only to the first three classes – the Brahamans, the Kshtriyas and the Vaishyas. But the path of receiving divine bliss as a gift is open to every individual. Suddha-Advaita philosophy states that the devotees who wish to seek divine bliss as gift worship the Lord not because he is the Brahman, or the highest entity, but because they ardently love Him. The most pertinent example of souls receiving divine grace can be found in the case of the gopis of Vrindavana, who had the chance of dancing and playing with Krishna. So one who yearns for the gift of divine bliss, must aspire to be the gopi, while worshiping Krishna as the supreme Lord. This, in essence, is the teaching of the Pusti-marga, whose followers are expected to dedicate their own self and their all belongings, including their family members, to Lord Krishna.

The verses that Vallabhacharya has written while dwelling on the concept of rasa-lila, which is a description of the relationship between the gopis and Krishna in Vrindavana, deserve a careful study. He must have anticipated the difficulties that individuals may face because of misunderstanding of the rasa-lila. He says that the rasa-lila described in the Bhagavata is both real and allegorical. If an individual chooses to take it as a real event, then he has to understand that there was not a slightest tinge of sensualism involved in the rasa-lila. However, if the rasa-lila is taken as being allegorical, then one can reach the conclusion that the gopis are the incarnation of Srutis, or the verses from the highest scriptures. When Srutis are said to enjoy the company of the Lord, it only means that the Srutis are always there where the Lord is. Vallabhacharya preaches that a devotee is not supposed to imitate the Lord; he is only tasked to serve Him, and hear the accounts of His lila. Anyone who hears with devotion the account of the rasa-lila between the Lord and the gopis is destined to attain salvation. The message that is embodied in the teachings of Vallabhacharya is certainly sublime and inspiring. It continues to serve as an infallible guide to many devotees.

In the field of pure philosophy, Vallabhacharya has made important contributions. He has accepted Vedas as the highest authority and while doing so he has preached that logic be above faith. His doctrine of divine bliss received as a gift from the Lord is considered to be the most exceptional idea in his teaching. Based on Pushti Marg literature, Vallabhacharya left the worldly life in the year 1531. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How Did Harappan Civilization Avoid War for 2,000 Years?

The Harappan civilization dominated the Indus River valley beginning about five thousand years ago, its massive cities sprawling at the edges of rivers that still flow through Pakistan and India today. But its culture remains a mystery. Why did it leave behind no representations of great leaders, nor of warfare?

Archaeologists have long wondered whether the Harappan civilization could actually have thrived for roughly 2,000 years without any major wars or leadership cults. Obviously people had conflicts, sometimes with deadly results — graves reveal ample skull injuries caused by blows to the head. But there is no evidence that any Harappan city was ever burned, besieged by an army, or taken over by force from within. Sifting through the archaeological layers of these cities, scientists find no layers of ash that would suggest the city had been burned down, and no signs of mass destruction. There are no enormous caches of weapons, and not even any art representing warfare.

That would make the Harappan civilization an historical outlier in any era. But it's especially noteworthy at a time when neighboring civilizations in Mesopotamia were erecting massive war monuments, and using cuneiform writing on clay tablets to chronicle how their leaders slaughtered and enslaved thousands.

What exactly were the Harappans doing instead of focusing their energies on military conquest?

Read More...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Nimbarkacharya (12th or 13th Century)

Regarded as a principal commentator on the Brahma-Sutra of Badarayana, Nimbarkacharya is generally believed to have lived in the 12th or 13th century. There is lot of similarity between his philosophical and devotional attitudes and those of Ramanujacharya. However, there does not exist any definite evidence about the period in which Nimbarkacharya might have lived. His remarkably short and lucid commentary on the Brahma Sutras is called Vedanta-Parijata-Saurabha, which means the odour of the heavenly flower of the Vedanta. In this commentary Nimbarkacharya has not made any attempt whatsoever to refute the arguments of other teachers, such as Shankaracharya, he does not even make an attempt to illuminate his own theories through appropriate arguments. He is also the author of Dasasloki, which is a small work of ten stanzas, and deals with the three realities – Brahman, Soul and matter.

Other than these two works, Nimbarkacharya is thought to have composed several other works, some of which are no longer extant. Known as Dvaitadvaita, which translates into “dualistic non-dualism,” the philosophy of Nimbarkacharya is similar to the Vishishtādvaita philosophy of Ramanujacharya. Both Nimbarkacharya and Ramanujacharya believed that the Brahman was the supreme creator, and the souls that the Brahman created were distinct, while still sharing in the same substance. The two teachers have also stressed on devotion to Krishna as the means of attaining salvation. According to some mythological accounts, Nimbarkacharya was a reincarnation of Lord Krishna’s weapon Sudarshana Chakra or the discus. These accounts state that Nimbarkacharya was a predecessor of Sankaracharya by many years. Some accounts claim that Nimbarkacharya might have appeared 3000 to 5000 years ago.

*******

Nimbarkacharya was born to a pious Brahman couple of the Tailanga order in Andhra Pradesh, in Southern India. He mastered all the Vedas at a very young age and people started arriving from all directions to have a glimpse of the wonderful boy. When he became a teacher of Vedanta, his immediate disciple was a man called Srinivasa, who wrote a commentary on Brahma Sutras, entitled Vedanta-Kaustubha. Srinivasa’s work is considered to be of utmost importance for gaining insight into the philosophical ideas of Nimbarkacharya. Beyond this, not much is known about Nimbarkacharya’s personal life. However, we do have the traditional stories about many supernatural feats that he is said to have performed. One of these stories tells us about the reason why the saint started being called by the name of Nimbarkacharya.

Brahma, the eternal creator, arrived to the ashram where Nimbarkacharya lived with his parents, in the disguise of a Sannyasin. At that time the sun was about to set, and Nimbarkacharya’s father was away. When the Sannyasin asked Nimbarkacharya’s mother for something to eat, she could hardly utter a world, as all the food in the house had already been exhausted. Seeing that the Sannyasin was about to go away, Nimbarkacharya said, “Dear mother, the Sannyasin must be offered food to eat, otherwise we will be violating atithi dharma.” In response the mother said that there was nothing to eat in the house, and as the time for sunset was drawing near, there wasn’t even time for her to cook fresh food. In that era, Sannyasins did not consume food after sunset.

However, Nimbarkacharya was determined to fulfil atithi dharma. He said to the Sannyasin, “Please start preparing for your meal. I will go to the forest and return quickly with roots and fruits. I promise that the sun will not set before you have finished your meal.” The young boy materialised his Sudarshana Chakra and placed it on a neem tree located at the ashram. As the Chakra could shine like a sun, it created the feeling of a bright day in the area around the ashram. Even Brahma, who was in the disguise of the Sannyasin, was struck with amazement. Within minutes Nimbarkacharya returned from the forest with roots and fruits that he gave to his mother, who served them to the Sannyasin. As soon as the Sannyasin finished eating, Nimbarkacharya removed his Sudarshana Chakra from the neem tree, and instantly it became dark night.

Brahma emerged out of his disguise and he conferred on the boy the name Nimbarka, which is derived through a combination of two different ideas – nim, which stands for the neem tree, and arka, which means the sun. Since then he is known by the name of Nimbarkacharya.

*******

Like other ancient teachers of Vedanta, Nimbarkacharya considers the Brahman to be the highest reality. The Brahman is eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. While being the sole cause of the entire universe, the Brahman itself remains without any cause. Brahman alone is responsible for the creation, the maintenance, and the eventual destruction of the entire world. According to the Nimbarkacharya, the Universal Self, which is the Brahman, wishing to be many, transforms Himself into the form of the world. As the Brahman is transforming Himself, it makes Him the material, as well as the efficient cause of the world. The soul and the world are different from Brahman, because they are endowed with qualities different from those of Brahman. At the same time, they are not different from Brahman, because He is omnipresent and they depend entirely on Him. Many theorists have held that Prakriti, the primal matter, is the cause of all material objects. Brahman is the material cause in the sense that Prakriti operates under Brahman’s directions. Nimbarkacharya has not cared to explain in what sense Brahman is the material cause and the efficient cause of the world.

Nimbarkacharya has refuted several objections to the doctrine of causality of the Brahman. He has propounded the famous Vedanta doctrine of lila, which stands for creation as a sport. Brahman is the creator, preserver and destroyer of the world, but he is not an external creator, like the potter who uses a lump of clay to form a pot. Being also the material cause of the universe, the Brahman is immanent, like the clay in the pot. As He possesses the attribute of being infinite, His potentialities cannot be exhausted in a single universe. He is immanent in the universe and at the same time He also transcends it. By virtue of being both immanent and transcendent, the Brahman is both, the inner soul and the essence of the world. Hence on one hand the Brahman is the creator and the controller of the entire world and on the other He is also the source of infinite beauty, auspicious qualities, bliss, tenderness, and every other positive attribute. At times, Brahman has also been described as being Nirguna, which means that the Brahman is free of all the inauspicious attributes that are always there in the physical world.

The ethics that Nimbarkacharya preaches is closely linked to his theology. He states that there are five means of attaining salvation – Karma, or work; Jnana or knowledge; Upasana or meditation; Prapatti or self-surrender to God; and Gurupasatti or devotion to the spiritual preceptor. Each of these can lead to salvation either separately or jointly, and all individuals, irrespective of their caste, states of life, inclinations or capacities, can resort them to. According to Nimbarkacharya, Karma cannot be the direct means of attaining salvation. When deeds are preformed in a selfless spirit, and in accordance with the teachings of the Vedic scriptures, it purifies the mind and leads to the rise of spiritual knowledge, which in turn makes the attainment of salvation possible. So Jnana or knowledge is necessary for salvation. Good Karma prepares the mind for the ultimate rise of knowledge. Along with good Karma, an internal control of the senses is also incumbent on anyone who desires knowledge and salvation. Nimbarkacharya lists the ways by which Upasana or meditation can be preformed for salvation. As Prapatti means complete self-surrender or resignation to God, one who resorts to this means is required to emerge from the cocoon of his individuality and become dependent on the Brahman or Krishna in ever aspect of his life. In Gurupasatti individuals surrender themselves to a spiritual preceptor, who leads then on the path of salvation.

To Nimbarkacharya, the Brahman is more of a personal God, and not the impersonal absolute conceived by Shankaracharya. Nimbarkacharya conceives of his Brahman as Krishna or Hari, accompanied by the celestial consort, Radha. This makes his philosophy slightly different from that of Madhavacharya and Ramanujacharya to whom Brahman is Narayana or Vishnu. In Hindu mythology Krishna is considered to be an avatar of Vishnu so on this regard there might not be much difference between the philosophy of Nimbarkacharya and that of Madhavacharya and Ramanujacharya. Essentially the Nimbarkacharya doctrine promotes the concept of a loving relationship and friendship between the supreme God and individual beings. He is considered to be a prominent teacher of the Radha-Krishna sect, one of the most popular and influential religious movements in India.

According to Nimbarkacharya, a spiritual journey may begin with the feeling of awe and reverence, but it ends in eternal love and friendship. He is thought to have contributed significantly in popularising the Radha-Krishna religious movement that has millions of adherents all over the world till this day.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nagarjuna

Almost every school of Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism regards the Indian sage, Nagarjuna (2nd or 3rd century), as the second Buddha. Nagarjuna founded the Madhyamika School, which is an important tradition in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. Madhyamika means the middle way and it has had a major influence on development of Buddhist thought in China, Tibet and later in Japan. Nagarjuna’s ideas are important not only due to his contributions to Buddhism, but also from the point of view of his general philosophy. He calls into question many of the most fundamental concepts that are harboured by many ancient and even modern thinkers. He taught that wisdom lies in realisation of “Shunyata,” or emptiness. This system does not mean “non-existence,” or nihilism; rather it means absence of independent existence.

In his doctrine of Shunyata, Nagarjuna preaches that the phenomena have no intrinsic existence by themselves. This is because every phenomenon comes into being through conditions that have been created by other phenomenon, and of their own, they have no existence, they are completely devoid of any permanent self. Hence Nagarjuna preached that there is neither reality and nor non-reality, there is only relativity. This concept of emptiness or Shunyata has had fundamental implications for the development of many subsequent philosophical models in India, Tibet, China and Japan. By weaving an anti-metaphysical and epistemological stance with an ethics of action, Nagarjuna has managed to influence the development of Buddhism and few other traditions of South Asia. The concept of nirvana, which lies at the core of the Buddhist belief system, is influenced by his philosophy.

*******

We do have two biographies of Nagarjuna, one in Chinese and other in Tibetan, but these were written many centuries after his demise and compromise mostly of mythological material. Very little is known about the actual life of the historical Nagarjuna. Most scholars agree that Nagarjuna was born in an upper-caste Brahmin family in Southern India, but later he converted to Buddhism. The dates in his life are quite amorphous, but some of the verses attributed to him are advises to a powerful king. As he was advising a king, it can be inferred that he had acquired a degree of influence and fame in his life. If these verses are taken as a reference, then it is possible to say that Nagarjuna must have lived in the 2nd or the 3rd century.  While he was in his teens, Nagarjuna moved to the northern India, where he joined Nalanda University in present-day Bihar. It is here that he is understood to have come in contact with Buddhism.

The reason why Nagarjuna decided to convert to Buddhism is not fully understood. According to a Tibetan account, it had been forecast that Nagarjuna would die at a very young age. The concerned parents took their child to a Buddhist monastery, where the condition of his health improved dramatically. The Chinese mythology offers a more dramatic version in which an adolescent Nagarjuna uses his yogic powers, to enable himself and few of his friends, to sneak into a king’s harem and seduce his mistress. The guards detected the youngsters. With his yogic powers Nagarjuna was able to escape, but his friends were caught and put to death. The shock of the death of his dear friends made Nagarjuna realise how dangerous the pursuit of sensuous desires could be. He renounced the world and sought enlightenment in Buddhism.

Soon he became a fully accomplished scholar and teacher. His adroitness at magic and meditation earned him many followers. Eventually he was appointed as the abbot of Nalanda. The moral discipline at the monastery had seen some amount of decline since the time Buddha preached his religious ideas. Nagarjuna played an active role in establishing a system of pure Buddhist way of life at the monastery. In some legends, he was befriended by nagas, celestial snakes who inhabit the bottom of the ocean or in some unseen realm. Many centuries ago Buddha had made the nagas the guardians of the “wisdom literature”, known as the Prajnaparamita Sutras. The nagas invited Nagarjuna to their hidden realm and returned the wisdom literature to him. These were the works that Nagarjuna brought back to the world. Some mythological accounts have alluded that he was known as Nagarjuna because of his close association with the nagas.

Wherever he might have found the wisdom literature, which contained the words of Buddha, Nagarjuna is traditionally regarded as the sage who systemised and propagated the works extensively and thereby led to the revival of Mahayana doctrine. He also presented the philosophical system of Madhyamika, or the philosophy of middle way, which steers a flawless course between two extremes of existence and non-existence. The commentaries on the wisdom sutras that Nagarjuna has composed also elucidate the Madhyamika doctrine. It is not known for how long he lived. Some Buddhist texts have suggested that he lived for 600 years, but they are probably identifying him with a second Nagarjuna who is known for his writings on Tantra. Again there are interesting mythological accounts about how he might have died. He is reputed to have decapitated himself with a blade of holy grass. According to traditional belief he could only loose his life by his own will and by his own weapon.

*******

Nagarjuna is best known for his writings on the doctrine of emptiness, which is set forth in his famous work - Madhyamika-sastra (The treatise on the Middle Way). This work is also known as the Mulamadhyamakakarika, (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way). Nagarjuna is credited with writing many other works in which he addressed some of the fundamental issues of Buddhism and also Brahmanism. He has further refined his revolutionary ideas in the work, entitled the Sunyatasaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness). There is also the important treatise on Buddhist philosophical method, entitled Yuktisastika (Sixty verses on reasoning). In his first sermon, Buddha is said to have prescribed the idea of a “middle way” between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Nagarjuna expanded this ideal of a middle way into the philosophical sphere and developed the doctrine of a middle way between existence and non-existence, or between permanence and annihilation.

This Shunyata or emptiness must be of something, and the something that Nagurjuna had in mind is svabhava, which Buddhist scholars have translated as “intrinsic existence,” and “self nature.” Though this term has also been translated as “substance” and “essence.”  However, the full complexity of the term might never be understood without taking a complete overview of the way the concept of svabhava gets characterised in Nagarjuna’s philosophy. He preaches that emptiness only exists as long as svabhava understood as substance gets mistakenly projected onto some object or other.  So the existence of emptiness does not depend on specific phenomenon, rather for emptiness to exist there has to be some phenomenon mistakenly conceived. Nagarjuna’s criticism of substance gets applied not only to the world of objects and to the phenomenon around us, but also to our own selves and to others around us. However, he dissociates himself from the doctrine that denies the existence of the self. In one of his verses, he is quoted as saying, “If there was no self, where would the self’s properties come from?”

His Madhyamika philosophy does not deny that things like seeing, feeling, tasting and so forth take place, so there must be a self who feels these things. This difficulty gets negated once the difference between the idea of distinction between constitutive and instantiated properties is taken into account. Nagarjuna has preached that there is difference between the property that we see in an individual or object (resemblance to a bird in case of a bird, roundness in case of a circle), and those property that the individual or the object is then taken to instantiate (such as red feathers in case of a bird, pinkness in case of a circle). The fact that we describe a creature as a bird with red feathers, and not as a red object that has the property of birdness, is a reflection of our epistemic priorities. For its existence, the self depends upon the properties, which on their part acquire their existence as different aspects of mental and physical events by virtue of their being associated with a single self. So the self produces the basis for postulating the individual in whom the various properties of the self occur.

In the Madhyamika school of thought there is no substantial self, but there is also no substantial basis on which a non-substantial self cannot be built. The self also gets characterised by a mistaken self-awareness. What this means is that even though the self is essentially a sequence of properties or events, it does not regard itself in this way. The self mistakenly considers itself to be a substantial self, which is an unchanging cohesive agent distinct from the physical and mental properties. Hence, the self is deluded by an illusion. However, just because the self is under an illusion it does not mean that individual can afford to ignore the practical, moral and ethical considerations. Nagarjuna gives the example of a dream. In some cases it might be possible for us to see through a dream by the mere act of realising that we are dreaming. But the same will not happen in case there is a suspicion that the substantial self does not exist. Mere disbelief in the existence of the substantial self will not allow the self to become cognizant with emptiness of the self.

Nagarjuna postulates that the belief in svabhava is the cause of all suffering. Svabhava leads one to believe that things exist autonomously, independently and permanently. This kind of a system might foster a belief in the extreme doctrine of permanence. However, Nagarjuna also clarifies that it is equally mistaken to believe that nothing exists, which is the doctrine of annihilation. So the middle path, one that runs between the doctrines of permanence and annihilation, is the best possible path for everyone to tread. This middle path is essentially the doctrine of Shunyata, or emptiness, which symbolises not the absence of existence, but the absence of intrinsic existence.  Nagarjuna demonstrates that everything, including the Buddha and nirvana, lacks the autonomy and independence that has been falsely attributed to it. He considers various ways in which any particular entity could exist, and from there he goes on to prove that none of them is tenable because of the absurdities that would be entailed.  According to the Madhyamaka school, there is no such thing as ultimate truth, which stands for the theory describing how things actually are, irrespective of our interests and conceptual resources employed in describing it. The best that we can hope for is the conventional truth, which is generally coloured by the commonly accepted practices and conventions, and are arrived at through the process of observing the world with our linguistically formed conceptual framework.

Even though he is associated with religious belief, in a purely philosophical sense it is possible to categorise Nagarjuna as a skeptic like Descartes or Socrates. His teachings symbolise the idea of doubting the conventional explanations of the world. He was skeptic of the basic categorical presuppositions and criteria of proof assumed by almost everyone in the Indian tradition to be axiomatic. He believed that it was possible to understand Buddha’s teachings via a system of disciplined and methodical scepticism. He was a Buddhist reformer, he used many argumentative methods to refute the theories of his philosophical adversaries. In his famous work, The treatise on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna seems to be abjectly throwing away the elementary distinction between samsara, or the material world of suffering, and nirvana, or supreme enlightenment and bliss. He declares, “There is no distinction between the samsara and nirvana. The limit of one is the limit of the other.” As there is no difference between the material world and nirvana, owing to the doctrine of Shunyata, the change that a Buddhist brings into himself when he attains nirvana also leads to the improvement in the condition of the world. That is the true purpose of nirvana. The true Buddhist endeavours to attain nirvana so that he can in turn bring about a positive change to the entire world.

In the context of something that is the effect of a cause, he shows that it cannot be produced from itself, because in its turn, the effect must also be the product of a cause. It cannot be the product of something other than itself, because there must be a link between cause and effect. It cannot be the product of something that is same as itself and also different, or from something that is neither the same as nor different from itself, because such a cause cannot be possible. Such is the reasoning through which Nagarjuna reaches the conclusion that all phenomena are anutpada, or un-produced. In his work on motion, he poses the interesting question: Is gatam, or motion, happening on a road that is already travelled, a road that is currently being travelled, or on the road ahead. After a considerable amount of reflection, he reaches the conclusion that motion is not transpiring in any of these places and hence it cannot be found. The point is that he does not claim that motion is not happening, he only insists that it does not exist in the form in which it is typically conceived. This “not finding” of motion is the emptiness of motion.

Nagarjuna has also dwelled on the idea of relativity. He has taught that shortness exists only in relation to the idea of length. The determination of a thing or object is only possible in relation to other things or objects, especially by way of contrast. He also believed that the relationship between the ideas of “short” and “long” are not due to intrinsic existence or svabhava. In the history of Buddhism, Nagarjuna is the most significant thinker after the Buddha.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Makkhali Gosala

A contemporary of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, and of Mahavira, the last and 24th Tirthankara of Jainism, Makkhali Gosala is commonly regarded as the founder of Ajivika sect. Makkhali Gosala was a Niyativadin, or a determinist, who believed that every event in the world is preordained. He ascribed every cause to Niyati, or destiny. He did not believe in karma or the possibility of a man being able to influence the course of events through any action or effort. The followers of the Ajivika School believed that Niyati or destiny was like an inexorable cosmic force that controlled everything in the world, including the transmigration of souls, or the cycle of births and rebirths. Whereas other religious movements in the Indian subcontinent preached that an individual could influence the cycle of births and rebirths through better karma and by undergoing religious austerities, Ajivika School preached that human actions and choices could not overcome the force of destiny.

Whatever is known about Makkhali Gosala and his doctrine of Ajivika comes from the fragmentary references in Buddhist and Jaina sources. However, Ajivika was a rival school of thought, and many scholars believe that the references could be coloured with sectarian feelings. It is possible that the name Ajivika, which denotes lifeless beings, might have been conjured by observers who were outside the tradition. Even the name of the teacher is differently spelt in different Indian languages: in Pali it is Makkhali Gosala, in Ardha Magadhi it is Mankhalputta Gosala; in Tamil it is Markali. In some texts he has also been referred to as Maskari Parivrajaka. During the 3rd century BC, when Mauryan dynasty was reigning, Ajvika had many followers, but it faced a sudden decline for reasons that are not entirely clear. According to traditional accounts, both Buddha and Mahavira had personal interactions with Makkhali Gosala, but to what extent they were influenced by him is not known.

*******

The two main resources for information on the life and teachings of Makkhali Gosala are: the Jain religious text, Bhagavati Sutra, and Buddhaghosa’s commentary on the Buddhist Sammannaphala Sutta. According to most accounts Makkhali Gosala was born in a village called Sarvana, located close to Sravasti. According to the Jain tradition, the name of Makkhali’s father and mother was Mankhali and Bhadda respectively. Rainy season was at its height when Mankhali and Bhadda arrived at Sarvana. There they took refuge in a gosala, or chow shed, belonging to a wealthy Brahmin, to escape from the rains. While they were still in cow shed, Bhadda gave birth to a boy, who later became known as Makkhali Gosala. It is believed that he was named Gosala because of the fact that he was born in a cow shed. However, there is a Chinese tradition that records the teacher’s name as Maskari Gosaliputra, and states that Gosali is his mother’s name. That makes Gosaliputra, the son of a woman called Gosali.

For unknown reasons Makkhali left his parents while he was still quite young and turned into a homeless wanderer. According to some ancient texts Makkhali was a wanderer who always carried mascara, or a bamboo staff, with him. For the next 24 years, he lived the life of a wanderer; six of these years were spent at Paniyabhumi with Mahavira. The Bhagavati Sutra states that Makkhali Gosala was the disciple of Mahavira at Nalanda. The two teachers parted company because much doctrine related differences cropped up between them. Later on Gosala went back to Sravasti, the place of his birth, and there he became the leader of Ajivika sect. He is said to have died sixteen years before Mahavira. Some traditional accounts have accused Gosala of insincerity, purportedly because he practised religion not as a means of gaining salvation, but for the purpose of earning a living. But these are accounts written by religious rivals, so their accuracy is in doubt.

*******

Even though Makkhali Gosala believed that personal intervention by a human being cannot mollify Niyati or destiny, he exhorted his disciples to abide by a strict code of moral observances. It is believed that the followers of the Ajivika School used to worship the Ashoka tree as God. They did not believe in the caste system and denied the authority of the Vedas, but their life was marked by severe asceticism. They would refrain from the ritual of bathing daily and would keep their body dirty for many days. They shunned household life and often avoided wearing proper clothes. At times they used mat clothing to cover their nakedness. They also tended to carry a bunch of peacock feathers in their hand. According to the Bhagavati-Sutra, there were certain fruits and roots that the Ajivikas would abstain from. Some traditional accounts suggest that there were as many as four different levels of austerities that the Ajivikas practiced. Likewise, there were four different types of Bhahmacharya that they followed.

Certain rituals was involved in the way the members of the sect went about collecting alms. Instead of begging in every house, they would be in every second, or third or fourth, or fifth or sixth or even the seventh house. It is not clear why they refrained from begging from every house that they passed. Under certain conditions, some of the Ajivikas would not expect anything except lotus stalks as alms. There were those members of the sect that were allowed to beg from every house, but they could not accept alms if there was a flash of lightening. Some Ajivikas used to perform penances by entering large earthen vessels in which they faced all kinds of discomfort. As Makkhali Gosala did not believe that any human action could bring salvation, it is not clear why he preached such austerities to his followers. Some scholars believe that Gosala preached religious observations, even though he did not that they served any purpose, because he considered such acts to be a time-honoured tradition.

In the Bhagavati-Sutra, we have an interesting account of an experiment that Makkhali Gosala and Mahavira did together. They uprooted a large plant so that it was destroyed completely. But after the passage of sometime, a new plant germinated out of the destroyed plant. From this experiment, Makkhali Gosala developed the idea that all living beings are subject to a cycle of rebirths. Using this knowledge, he came up with an approximate number of rebirths of various types that any living entity must undergo before it could reach a final beatitude. He also states that all living beings and their souls are bereft of any force, power or energy of their own, and hence are incapable of changing anything. All the transformations that they undergo in their life are purely due to Niyati or destiny. The pain or pleasure that they experience during the course of their life is in accordance to their destiny. References in Jaina texts lead us to believe that the sect had scriptures., unfortunately none of the Ajivika scriptures are extant today.

The Ajivikas believed that there exist five types of atoms: earth, water, fire, air and life. Amongst these only life is endowed with the power of gaining knowledge. All five types of atoms, Ajivikas believed, are eternal and indivisible. They are capable of combining with each other and assume all kinds of forms that we get to see in the material world – things such as human beings, mountains, plants, gold, etc. It is not possible for ordinary human beings to perceive atoms, which can only be observed through divine vision. The life atom is also imperceptible, and it is capable of entering into anything crafted from other four atoms. When it enters a body, which is made out of other four atoms, it acquires all the qualities of the body and becomes one with it.  Even mental states such pleasure and pain are atomic in their nature. The doctrine also states that in case all living beings attained moksa, or salvation, the well of the world would dry up. To prevent such an eventuality from happening, even those souls that have attained moksa keep coming back to the material world.

Some ancient texts have depicted Ajivika leaders as ending their lives voluntarily by deliberately starving themselves or by drowning when they felt that their physical strength and mental powers were on the decline. The sect had a system of dividing various living beings on the basis of colours – black, blue-black, green, red, yellow, and white. However, there is no clear idea about what qualities these different colours signified. This sect is known to have flourished for several centuries after the demise of Makkhali Gosala. Many scholars believe that Ajivika School was a dominant religious movement in the Indian sub-continent till about fifth century AD. However, in South India, the sect is thought to have continued in existence till thirteenth or fourteenth century AD. Emperor Ashoka is known to have made several valuable gifts to the sect, including two cave dwellings. There also exists evidence to suggest that King Dasaratha, who was the grandson of Ashoka, patronised the sect. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Madhavacharya

Regarded by devotees as an incarnation of the wind God Vayu, Madhavacharya propagated the Dvaita or “dualist” school of Hindu Vedanta philosophy in 13th-century. He stated that there exist two different realities in the universe. The first is the independent reality, which is the Brahman or the supreme God, and the second is the dependent reality, comprising of universe, matter and souls. He preached that the Brahman is complete and independent of all that is other than the Brahman. Even though the dependent reality cannot exist without the will of the Brahman, its very dependence creates a distinction between the Brahman and everything else that exists in the universe. Madhavacharya identified the Brahman with Lord Vishnu, and he argued that any system that allows identification of the atman, or the human soul, with the Brahman, would undermine Vishnu’s supremacy. Hence he insisted that we must have a distinction between atman and Brahman. This invariably leads us to the dualist view.

It is Madhavacharya’s bold stand on Dvaita philosophy that distinguishes him as a Vedanta philosopher from Shankaracharya and Ramanujacharya. Shankaracharya who had preached the Advaita philosophy, which says that Brahman and the universe are one. Ramanujacharya had preached a blend of Dvaita and Advaita. While being of the view that the knowledge given by the Vedas is the only correct knowledge, Madhavacharya also recognised and carefully examined the different levels of correctness. In his teaching he has especially emphasised on the epistemological aspects. He has defined himself as Tyaktaveda, or a preacher of the realist viewpoint. He has argued that the Brahman and the human soul are different entities because our daily experience of separateness from Brahman and of plurality in general is presented to us as an undeniable fact. He emphasises on the validity of sensory experience in order to refute the Advaita school of thought. He says that by terming the knowledge acquired through senses as an illusion, the Advaita philosophy undermines the ability of human beings to know anything, since we must always keep questioning our sensory experiences.

Madhavacharya is thought to have written 37 texts, in which it is possible for us to detect an unity of purpose. Each work serves as an interpretation of some other works of his, so the entire range can be taken as the parts of a single whole. He is considered to be one of the important philosophers of the Bhakti movement.

*******

According to one popular tradition, Madhavacharya was born on the auspicious day of Dussehra in 1238 AD at a small village near the town of Udipi on the west coast of India. It is said that at the time of his birth, there were sounds of divine drums from heavens. Some sages predicted that the Wind God had taken birth for revival of Vedic dharma on earth. Narayana Panditacharya who was a contemporary has written Madhavacharya’s biography called Sumadhvavijaya. We learn from the Sumadhvavijaya that the name of Madhavacharya’s father was Narayana Bhatta and that of his mother was Vedavati. The work narrates the numerous miraculous feats that the saint is known to have preformed during his lifetime. Since childhood, Madhavacharya showed a precocious talent for all things spiritual. When he was only eleven years old, he was drawn to the path of renunciation, and joined a reputed monastic order near Udipi. At the time of initiation in sanyasa, he was given the name of Purnaprajna. The teachers at the monastic order soon realised that the young Madhavacharya was already well versed in the religious rituals. He could recite the Vedas flawlessly and he was always filled with supreme effulgence that made everyone’s minds fill with reverence.

Barely 40 days after he become an ascetic, Madhavacharya managed to defeat in debate an expert group of Vedic scholars led by Vasudeva Pandita, who was famous for his erudition all over the country. Overjoyed by the precocious talent that Madhavacharya had displayed, the leader of the monastery consecrated him as the head of the empire of Vedanta and conferred on him the title of Ananda Tirtha. Thus Madhavacharya came to have three names. Purnaprajna was the name given to him at the time of Sanyasa. He became Ananda Tirtha when he was consecrated as the head of the empire of Vedanta. Later on he realised that the Vedas talk about him as Madhava and he decided to utilise the name for himself. When he began writing his commentaries on the Vedas, Madhava became his nom de plume. He soon acquired immense popularity by the name of Madhavacharya. This is the name by which he continues to be revered by the followers of his teachings. It is noteworthy that both names, Ananda Tirtha and Madhava, are similar - they mean, “one who creates sastras and brings immaculate bliss.”

While he was still in his teens, Madhavacharya set on a tour of South India. He visited many holy places and met and debated with Vedic scholars. He also delivered discourses and preached his Tyaktaveda or religious truth to the people. In clear terms he refuted the age-old beliefs, and stated that spirituality should not be mixed with superstitions. During this era, Hindu thought was dominated by Shankaracharya’s Advaita philosophy. But from the very beginning, Madhavacharya was profoundly dissatisfied with Advaita thought and this often brought him in conflict with the religious establishment. He attracted severe criticism from the members of the orthodoxy, but he remained unperturbed and soon after returning to Udipi, he began working on his commentary of Bhagwad Gita. Refuting the Advaita philosophy became the most compelling ambition in his life and he spent much of his adult life arguing against this point of view and establishing a case for Dvaita philosophy. He established his school of thought by coming up with convincing arguments in favour of Dvaita.

In a course of time, he was filled with the desire of touring North India. The holy centre of Badri, which was located in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, beckoned him. During those days, it was believed that Vyasa used to reside in a remote place in these mountains. According to a popular legend, one night while he was in Badri, Madhavacharya disappeared from the ashram. He remained missing for many months and his followers were filled with the apprehension that he had perished in the desolate mountains. But their fears proved to be unfounded when he appeared one fine morning looking resplendent and joyful. He told his disciples that he had ascended to the mythical mountain called Mahabadari, where he met Vyasa. He presented his commentary of Bhagavad Gita to the Vyasa and received his blessings.  When he was back to Udipi, Madhavacharya began writing his famous Brahma-sutra commentary, which had the effect of further enhancing the appeal of his message. A man of great physical stamina, he used to travel a lot. The number of his disciples kept growing, and his influence spread around the country. During this period he also established a temple by installing the statue of Shri Krishna, which he had found in the ocean.

The 37 works that Madhavacharya wrote during his lifetime include, the four commentaries – on the Bhahma Sutra, on the opening passages of Rg Veda, on the Upanisads and on the Bhagavad Gita. He also wrote lengthy expositions of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata. Then there are his ten treatises devoted to the inquiry into the Brahman. There are several other works that are devoted to explaining his opinion that it is possible for a human being to make his entire life an expression of the inquiry into the Brahman. He also composed lyrical pieces that can be sung during religious ceremonies, and continue to be popular till this day. Through his works and his preaching, he contributed seminally to the revival of Vedic religion in the country.

*******

Madhavacharya was of the opinion that the Brahman is the all-doer, and the thought of any individual doing anything is merely a case of illusion. The world of the Brahman is absolute by itself and it does not require any addition, improvement or correction. Truth can only be realised by dedicating one’s entire life in all its aspects to the Brahman. Madhavacharya has pointed out that according to the Isa Upanisad the faith in an all-doer Brahman does not have the effect of making an individual self inactive, it only makes the self full of activity. Only when the individual picks up the notion that he is a free agent that it becomes possible for him to do nothing, as he is free to do anything. By using this reasoning, Madhavacharya tries to prove that the notion of individual as a doer is likely to arrest activity and lead to misery. Thus any moral or religious ideal framed on the basis of individual being the doer is likely to give further credence to the illusion of individual doership, which in turn must lead to even more misery. Madhavacharya considers Karma to be the moral activity conducted by an individual while obtaining knowledge. Hence Karma becomes the spontaneous expression of knowledge.

By knowledge he means the appreciation of the truth that Brahman is the all-doer. In his theory of knowledge he notes that knowledge implies knower and the known. Unless both are present, knowledge is impossible. He preached that knowledge was an attribute, and hence distinct from the knower. He refuted the Advaita philosophy’s contention that Brahman is inconceivable. He said that to hold any knowledge, as being inconceivable is a contradiction by itself. In some passages, Madhavacharya says that wrong knowledge is a distortion, as it seeks to present real as unreal and the unreal as real. In order to be true, knowledge must be empirically acquired, and for that to happen two distinct sources are necessary – the knowing self and the apparatuses, or the sense, through which it knows. There are seven organs through which human being can gain knowledge; these include the five outward sense organs, which are the eye, ear, nose, tongue and skin. The other two are Saksin and Manas. Saksin is the self, and Manas is the mind. The five outward sense organs operate when they are in contact with reality on one side and on the other with Manas. Madhavacharya goes on to define many different types of knowledge, which a human being can acquire in his lifetime.

Experience must be the starting point of any philosophy. Madhavacharya states that the main task of philosophy is to find explanation for experience. Hence it is unwarranted to deny the reality of the world. He comes up with many arguments to refute mayavada, a core principle of Advaita philosophy, which he believed leads one to a belief in negation of reality. He states that whether a thing is spirit or matter, it must have three aspects to it. These are – Svarupa, which is essence; Pramiti, which is the state of its being an object; Pravritti, which is the attribute of its function. Anything that is real has to be real in all these three aspects, which Madhavacharya terms as three aspects of Satta, which is existence. He notes that every object is dependent on the Brahman for all its aspects. The richer and more complex the function of an entity and greater its causal efficacy, the greater will be its dependence on the Brahman. This is the principle on basis of which Madhavacharya fixes the gradation of world’s entities. The entities that are more complex, rich and possess a high degree of causal efficiency are more fully dependent on Brahman and hence deserve to get ranked higher in the order of creation. Release from bondage comes to individuals who are able to realise that while the world is real, its reality is derived entirely from the Brahman.

The Brahman is the source of everything. In every aspect It is independent, while the reality in the world is wholly dependent. Madhavacharya says that the Brahman needs to be wholly independent from everything else in order to maintain Its perfection. If everything were to be a part of the Brahman, then the Brahman would loose its perfection, or purity. Being the maker of the entire world, Brahman is in everything. It is the source. The entities that the Brahman creates are not an illusion, because anything created by the Brahman has to be real. Philosophy is a process brought about by the Brahman’s creative will, and it is the only tool to gain an understanding of the Brahman, who is the ultimate source of supreme bliss. Every entity in the world becomes dear because it contains the essence of Brahman. Madhavacharya has also contributed to Indian culture by establishing that philosophy is the only way of attaining supreme truth. He was of the view that the realisation of Brahman, or Vishnu, is the highest form of philosophical thinking. An individual can have salvation only by realising the truth through a process of philosophical reasoning. As he is the expounder of the path of bliss through realisation of Brahman, many devotees fondly remember him as Ananda Tirtha.  According to most accounts, Madhavacharya passed away in 1317 AD. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ram Mohun Roy

(22 May 1772 – 27 September 1833)
Ram Mohun Roy is widely credited with inaugurating the age of illumination in the country by making efforts for abolition of suttee, the funeral practice in which the widow used to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. He also spoke vehemently against the rigidity of the caste and dowry systems. He protested against polygamy and challenged the authority of the Hindu clergy. In modernising India’s antiquated and effete system of education, Ram Mohun Roy has played a seminal role. He campaigned for a more liberal and enlightened system of education, which could embrace mathematics, natural philosophy, and all the modern sciences. Brahmo Samaj, the movement that he founded along with Dwarkanath Tagore and other Bengali reformers, continues to flourish till this day. The movement has seen considerable success in its program of social and religious reform.

*******

Raja Ram Mohun Roy was born in 1772 to a prosperous Brahmin family living in British ruled Bengal. The first thirty years of his life are more or less veiled in obscurity. We do have many stories about how his preoccupation with reform during the early years of life led to conflict with his family. There are also stories of his travels to various parts of Eastern India and even as far as Tibet. But there is no clear historical evidence to back up these stories, so they may or may not be true. He had a liberal education, and gained a mastery of Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic. One of his earliest writings that have been traced is the – Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin (A Gift to Deists). This work, composed in Persian with an Arabic introduction, introduces us to Ram Mohun Roy’s reformist ideas in the field of religion. He also gained knowledge of Hindu and Islamic law, as well as literature and philosophy. In the works that he published between 1815 and 1832, he shows a remarkable mastery over Sanskrit and his mother tongue, Bengali.

He is thought to have learned Hebrew, Greek, and English during his travels outside his native Bengal. His capacity for mastering foreign languages was phenomenal. It is generally accepted by scholars that he did not make a serious study of English till the end of Eighteenth century, when he was in his 30s. Yet was able to develop a mastery over the language as is clearly demonstrated by his remarkable English compositions. Different languages for Ram Mohun Roy were also a source of philosophical and spiritual nourishment. He developed a cosmopolitan profile. The insight that he displays in his earliest writings shows that he must have read many of world’s scriptures. He must have also read a large number of works on subjects like literature and philosophy. His voracious reading provided him with enough intellectual ammunition to disentangle the eternal foundations of Hinduism from the debris of later centuries.

In Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin he introduces us to the ideal that truth is not a matter of majority opinion, “The followers of different religions, sometimes seeing the paucity of the number of believers in one God in the world, boast that they are on the side of the majority. It is to be seen that the truth of saying does not depend on the multiplicity of the sayers, and the non-reliability of a narration cannot arise simply out of the paucity of the number of the narrators. For it is admitted by the seekers of truth that truth is to be followed, although it is against the majority of the people.” That he felt legitimate pride in the spiritual heritage of his ancestors is borne out by the following famous passage: “By a reference to history, it may be proved that the world was indebted to our ancestors for the first dawn of knowledge, which sprang up in the East, and thanks to the goddess of wisdom, we have still a philosophical and copious language of our own, which distinguishes us from other nations who cannot express scientific or abstract ideas without borrowing the language of foreigners.”

*******

Ram Mohun Roy supported himself through the earnings from his small estate and by activities like money lending. He is also known to have speculated in British East India Company bonds. John Digby, a low ranked officer, employed him in 1805. Through Digby, Ram Mohun Roy was introduced to Western culture and literature. During the next ten years of his life, Roy drifted in and out of British East India Company service as Digby’s assistant. In 1815, he founded the Atmiya Sabha (friendly society) with the aim of propagating the doctrine of monotheistic Hinduism, or the idea that there is only one Supreme God, who is beyond human knowledge, and supports the universe. Many of Roy’s illustrious contemporaries, people like Dwarka Nath Tagore, Prasanna Coomar  Tagore, Nanda Kishore Bose, Brindaban Mitra and others were members of the Sabha. For the first two years of its existence, the Atmiya Sabha held its weekly meetings at the garden house of Ram Mohun Roy. There were recitations and expounding of sacred texts and singing of hymns that had been composed by Roy and other members of the Sabha.  

Between 1815 and 1819, Roy violated the longstanding tradition by publishing the Bengali translations relating to Sanskrit Vedanta and Upanishads. The work created a stir in the conservative Hindu society and aroused the interest of Roy’s European contemporaries. In appreciation of his translations, the French Société Asiatique in 1824 elected him to an honorary membership. His work, Abridgement of the Vedanta, got lengthy and appreciative reviews in important European journals.  At John Digby’s personal intervention, the Unitarian Society of London published the first volume of Ram Mohun Roy’s work between 1823 and 1824. The volume was re-printed in America in 1828. During the initial years of the 1820s, Roy found himself embroiled into a controversy with some Christian missionaries. Because of his outspokenness on various social issues, he courted the opposition not only of the traditionalists of his own country but also of the foreigners. To make his views clear, Roy wrote an essay -“First Appeal to the Christian Public.”

After 1819, the Atmya Sabha meetings were discontinued; two years later Roy founded the Calcutta Unitarian Committee, with a large number of intellectuals of Indian and foreign origin. With the intention of propagating a modern system of education in India, Roy and other members Calcutta Unitarian Committee collected a significant sum of money to run the Anglo-Hindu school, which was founded in 1822.  Roy was outspoken in his advocacy of the occidental sciences and vigorous in his criticism of the traditional system of education in the country. When the Bengal government proposed a more traditional Sanskrit college, in 1823, Roy launched a protest. He was of the opinion that classical Indian literature was not enough to prepare the youth of Bengal for modern life. Instead, he proposed a modern and a more westernised institution of learning.

*******

The realisation dawned on Roy that occidental Unitarianism could not take root in the Indian soil. An indigenous institution, whose core values, while reflecting the teachings of Upanishads, were also inspired by Unitarian and other liberal Christian thoughts, could be more effective in bringing about social reform. The Brahmo Samaj was thus founded on August 20, 1828. In his work, History of Brahmo Samaj, Pandit Sivanath Sastri, has thus described a typical meeting of the Brahmo Samaj, “Two Telugu Brahmins used to recite the Vedas in a side-room, screened from the view of the congregation, where non-Brahmins would not be admitted; Utsavananda would read texts of the Upanishads, which were afterwards explained in Bengali by Pandit  Ramchandra  Vidyavagish, who would then preach or read the sermons, some of which were written by Ram Mohun Roy. Singing of hymns terminated the ceremony.” The meetings of Brahmo Samaj soon started attracting large number of sympathisers, and within two years Roy received enough in donation to purchase a house that could serve as a permanent place of worship for the members.

Many commentators have stated that along with the money from donations, Ram Mohun Roy invested a considerable part of his personal wealth for taking the Brahmo Samaj movement forward. James Silk Buckingham, Roy’s contemporary and the editor of Calcutta Journal, wrote, “He has done all this to the great detriment of his private interests, being rewarded by the coldness and jealously of all the great functionaries of Church and State in India, and supporting the Unitarian Chapel, the Unitarian Press, and the expense of his own publications… out of a private fortune, of which he devotes more than one third to acts of the purest philanthropy and benevolence.” The Brahmo Samaj soon became the fountainhead of all kinds of reform movements – whether in religion, society and politics – that have led to a wonderful renaissance of Hindu society. In 1829, Ram Mohun Roy was granted the title of Raja by the Mughal emperor in Delhi, Akbar II. The British did not recognise the title, but till this day Ram Mohun Roy is referred to as a Raja.

As a representative of Akbar II, Roy travelled to England, where he met with many Unitarians and also had an audience with King William IV. He died in Bristol, in 1833, while he was in the company of his Unitarian friends. The cause of his death was meningitis; he was buried in a cemetery at southern Bristol. The organisation that he had founded in India, Brahmo Samaj, was little more than a spark, but in a matter of few years’ new inspiration and strength came into the organisation, and the spark blazed forth into a popular movement for reform.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Dayananda Saraswati

February 1824 - October 1883
Dayananda Saraswati is the founder of one of Hinduism’s major reform movements, the Arya Samaj. A firm believer in India’s glorious past, Dayananda derived his principles from the ancient scriptures. He believed that the solution to the sociological and religious problems that Indians faced could be found within the Vedic scriptures. But his interpretation of the Vedas was the most egalitarian; he denounced idolatry, and ritualistic worship prevalent in Hinduism. He preached that the various ancient Hindu gods are really just manifestations of the one formless God, the Supreme Brahman. Even though caste feelings were very strong at that time, he preached equality of all human beings, and gave a new orientation to the Hindu faith. Till this day Arya Samaj regards untouchability as un-Vedic. Dayananda Saraswati was also very nationalistic in his outlook. The awakening that he created by preaching directly to the masses led to broader political movements for total independence.

*******

Born in 1824, in the town of Tankara, Gujarat, Dayananda Saraswati received an early education that was appropriate for a young Brahmin from a prosperous family. His family was strict in the observance of Brahmanical traditions and at the age of eight he was invested with a sacred thread. Perhaps it was because of his religious upbringing that during his childhood he was able to observe a number of incidents that would make him question many of the closest beliefs of Hinduism. According to one traditional account, Dayananda was 14 years old when he accompanied his father to the temple for overnight worship on the night of Maha Shivratri. At night, he woke up after hearing some sound, and saw a rat nibbling at the offerings that had been placed before the statue of God. Rats were also running over the statue. The young boy was surprised and he wondered how a God who could not even protect himself was expected to protect humanity. When the elders woke up, he tried to find out why God Almighty was so helpless, but he was rebuked. It is traditionally believed that this incident shattered Dayananda’s faith in religious rituals for the rest of his life.

The sudden death of an uncle and a younger sister had the effect of further intensifying his religious doubts. In his quest for understanding the limits of mortality, he was directed towards the practice of the ancient Indian system of mental and physical discipline, Yoga. In nineteenth century India it was normal for people to get married while they were still in their early teens. Dayananda Saraswati too was faced with the prospect of marriage, but having already decided that marriage was not for him, he ran away from home in 1846 and began leading the life of a wandering monk. Already he was disillusioned with classical Hinduism, and for the next fifteen years he led the life of a wandering monk, travelling throughout India. Finally he became the disciple of Swami Birajananda. At the time of his initiation as an ascetic, he got the name of Dayananda. His original name was Dayaram Mulshankar. It is popularly believed that in lieu of the guru-dakshina, or teacher’s fees, Swami Birajananda made Dayananda promise that he would devote his life for reinstatement of Vedic Hinduism in India. Dayananda spent more than two years with his guru. During this period of two years he became well versed in all the Vedas.

*******

After completing his religious education under Swami Birajananda, Dayananda travelled around the country and preached devotion to the Vedas. He believed that Hinduism had been corrupted due to the divergence from the founding principles of the Vedas. He gave a pragmatic, scientific and rational interpretation of the Vedas. He accused the priestly class of misleading the masses. There were numerous threats to his life from the entrenched political and religious establishment, but Dayananda did not waver from his chosen path of reforming Hinduism. On the subject of Dayananda’s interpretation of the Vedas, Sri Aurobindo has this to says, “There is then nothing fantastical in Dayananda’s idea that the Veda contain other truths of a science which the modern world does not all possess, and, in that case, Dayananda has rather understated than overstated the depth and range of the Vedic wisdom.” Sri Aurobindo goes on to say, “Immediately the character of the Veda is fixed in the sense Dayananda gave to it, the merely ritual, mythological, polytheistic interpretation of Sankaracharya collapses, and the merely mateological and materialistic European interpretation collapses.”

Dayananda attracted public attention on a large scale for the first time when he entered into a public debate with orthodox Hindu scholars in Benares. This debate was presided over by the Maharaja of Benares. While preaching the virtues of a Vedic way of life, he also made many fiery speeches condemning the caste system, idolatry, and child marriages. Social reform was as important an objective for him as the revival of Vedic thought. He was one of India’s first thinkers to put forth the two important ideals of nationalism – swadeshi, or insistence on locally made products, and swarajya, or self-rule. It is generally believed that Dayananda’s campaign for social reforms was partially a reaction to the rise of nationalism in India and partially a cause of it. Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland observes, "Dayananda's stern teachings corresponded to the thought of his countrymen and to the first stirrings of Indian nationalism to which he contributed." He further adds, "He was in fact the most vigorous force of the immediate and present action in India at the moment of birth and reawakening of the national consciousness."

The first meeting of the organisation that Dayananda Saraswati established, Arya Samaj, or Society of Aryans, was held in Bombay on April 10, 1875. Like every other reform movement in history, the Arya Samaj was devoted to purging the evils from the same society in which it had originated. Dayananda Saraswati was against untouchability. Arya Samaj continues to regard untouchability as un-Vedic. The organisation is credited with investing millions of people with the sacred thread that makes them equal in the eyes of society and God. The gates of Arya Samaj are open to people of all religions, and even to non-Hindus. The organisation postulates in principle equal justice for all men and all nations, together with equality of the sexes. The uncompromising attitude of Dayananda Saraswati’s Arya Samaj on the supremacy of the original Vedic teachings had the effect of instilling a new sense of faith and dynamism to the Hindu religion.

Dayananda Saraswati’s original plan was to establish a central Arya Samaj wing every major city, town and village in the country. Wherever he went, he opened a Samaj centre, which was constitutionally independent of the Samaj centres in other parts of the country. The Arya Samaj centre in Lahore was opened on the 24th June 1877. As the organisation had by now become quite large, Dayananda Saraswati felt that there was a need to clearly state the core principals on which the various Samaj centres should function on all times to come. The ten niyamas, or the code of conduct, for Arya Samaj, that Dayananda Saraswati formulated runs as follows:


  • The original cause of all knowledge and all that is known through knowledge is the Supreme Lord, Parmeshwara. 
  • The Supreme Lord God is Existent, conscious, all-beatitude, Formless, Almighty, Just, Merciful, Unbegotten, Infinite, Unchangeable, Beginningless, Incomparable, the support of All, the Lord of All, All-pervading, Omniscient and Controller of All from within, Evermature, Imperishable, Fearless, Eternal, Pure, Creator of the Universe. He alone ought to be worshipped.
  • The scripture of true knowledge are the Vedas. It is the prime duty of all Aryas to read them, teach them, recite them, and hear them being read. 
  • One should always be ready to accept truth and give up untruth. 
  • Everything should be done according to the dictates of dharma, or after giving due consideration to issues of right and wrong. 
  • The main objective of the Samaj is to do good to the entire world; i.e. to promote physical, spiritual and social progress of all humans.  
  • Love and justice, in accordance with the dictates of dharma, or righteousness, should regulate ones dealings. 
  • One should promote Vidya, or knowledge of subject and object, and dispel Avidya, or illusion. 
  • One should not remain satisfied with one’s own progress only, but should incessantly strive for welfare of all.
  • All men ought to dedicate themselves necessarily for the social good and the well being of all, subordinating their personal interest, while the individual is free to enjoy the freedom of action for individual being.


The niyamas, or the rules, that Dayananda formulated by himself continue to govern the functioning of the organisation. All the subsequent branches of Arya Samaj have been founded on the basis of these niyamas. These branches have Dayanada’s spiritual and cultural ideals writ large over them, and they are completely evocative of his versatile personality. The demise of Dayananda Saraswati in 1883 is shrouded in mystery. It is traditionally believed that he died after vigorous public criticism of a Maharaja in whose palace he had been staying. Circumstances suggest that someone close to the Maharaja might have poisoned him, but the accusations have never been conclusively proved.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ramanujacharya

Ramanujacharya is one of the first philosophers to develop a systematic and theistic interpretation of the Vedas. He is the leading expounder of Vishishtādvaita, which is a philosophy that, among other things, provides a synthetic view of the spiritual experience that can only come from a realisation of the Brahman, or the supreme universal spirit. The Vishishtādvaita of Ramanujacharya is often translated as - “Non-duality with qualifications.” The doctrine stands out by taking a middle ground between the other two classical expansions of the Vedanta, the Advaita and Dvaita philosophies. In essence, Ramanujacharya’s attempts have been focussed on defending the plurality of distinct individuals, qualities, values and objects, while affirming the substantial unity of all. He asserts that the Atman is real, and the world is real, they don’t have any separate existence from the Brahman. The principal goal of the Vishishtādvaita philosophy is to gain an understanding of the Brahman, who provides sustenance to the entire universe.

Just as the body cannot exist without the soul, the material world cannot exist without the Brahman. All the sentient creatures and insentient objects have Brahman dwelling inside them. Ramanujacharya maintains that it is possible for us to gain knowledge of the Brahman through the use reason, but reason cannot be an independent means of knowledge. There can be cessation of ignorance only when reason is subservient to the teachings of the scriptures. According to the Advaita doctrine the idea that an individual is real comes from Maya or illusion, which in itself is a product of ignorance. Ramanujacharya argues that if there is ignorance, then there must be a person capable of being ignorant. If we assume that the world is nothing more than the Brahman, then that leads us to the absurd contention that Brahman is ignorant. Ramanujacharya goes on to say that since it is impossible for the Brahman to be ignorant, there must exist many distinct individuals, who are under the spell of ignorance. He also rejects the idea that the human mind is an illusion and hence all cognition must be illusory. As the world is real in a limited way, an individual must be held responsible for his own actions, and hence the subject of ethics is of crucial importance for Ramanujacharya.

In the Indian philosophical tradition, Ramanujacharya is regarded as one of the important philosophers. He took an uncompromising stand on the side of common sense and moral realism, and tried to move Indian philosophical thought away from the otherworldly and amoral systems.

*******

It is commonly believed that Ramanujacharya was born in the small township of Shri Perumbudur on the outskirts of modern day Chennai in 1017 AD. His Brahmin parents were known for their scholarship and learning in the Vedas. The family might have been bilingual, fluent in both the local vernacular, which is Tamil, and the language of scholarship, Sanskrit. Ramanujacharya displayed prodigious intellect from a young age; he also showed liberal attitudes in matters related to caste. He is said to have become friendly with a saintly man, going by the name of Kancipurna, who belonged to the Shudra religion and was engaged in performing services at the local temple dedicated to Vishnu. The young Ramanujacharya was impressed by Kancipurna’s devotion and he requested him to be his guru. The request shocked not just the members of the society but also Kancipurna, because, during those days caste feelings were strong in India and it was unthinkable for a higher caste man like Ramanujacharya to become the disciple of a lower caste person like Kancipurna.

Ramanujacharya got married while he was still in teenage, and shortly after that his father died. The family now moved to the city of Kancheepuram, where Ramanujacharya started studying Vedas under Yadavaprakasha, who was an accomplished teacher of Vedanta, which had its roots in both the Advaita philosophy and the Bhedabheda philosophy. At first, Yadavaprakasha appeared pleased to have a student as brilliant and dedicated as Ramanujacharya, but disagreements on the issue of proper interpretation of the Upanishads soon drove a wedge between them. Quite often Ramanujacharya used to point out the mistakes in the master’s exposition of the Vedanta. Whereas Yadavaprakasha was for an amoral, impersonal and non-theistic interpretation of the Upanishads, Ramanujacharya preferred a theistic interpretation. At times, Ramanujacharya even came up with his own interpretations in which he would dwell on the aesthetic and moral excellences of the Brahman. With his convincing style, he was able to convince many of his fellow students about the correctness of his philosophy. Instead of being pleased at the brilliance of his student, Yadavaprakasha became jealous.

It became obvious that Ramanujacharya’s alternative interpretations of the Vedanta had the power of threatening Yadavaprakasha’s authority. So Yadavaprakasha hatched a plan along with some other students to have his brilliant pupil murdered. He arranged for Ramanujacharya to go on a pilgrimage to Varanasi. However, a classmate learned about the plot while they were travelling. He informed Ramanujacharya that his life was in danger. It is believed that with the help of a hunter and his wife, Ramanujacharya managed to escape. He returned safe and sound to Kancheepuram, but refrained from making public the story of the attempt on his life. He even resumed attending Yadavaprakasha’s classes as if nothing had gone wrong between him and his teacher. On his part Yadavaprakasha kept quiet about the incident and pretended to be happy at seeing Ramanujacharya back. However, when a disagreement over the interpretation of scripture came up between them once again, Yadavaprakasha asked Ramanujacharya to leave the school. As he was still not ready to forge his own independent path, Ramanujacharya needed a teacher, so he went back to his childhood mentor, Kancipurna.

Kancipurna told Ramanujacharya that for the time being he should become engaged in manual service at the temple of Vishnu. As they were very close, Ramanujacharya often invited Kancipurna to his home so that they could have their meals together. One day, Kancipurna arrived for dinner, but Ramanujacharya was not there at home, so Ramanujacharya’s wife served the meal. When Ramanujacharya returned, he found the house washed and his wife having a bath after serving the meal to a low caste person. Feeling irritated by the false morals of his wife, Ramanujacharya decided to leave the household and become a sanyasi. Around this time, Yamunacharya had been looking for a successor to take his place as the head of the Mutt at Srirangam, as he himself was very old and close to the end of his life. Having already heard of Ramanujacharya through his disciples, he made up his mind to install Ramanujacharya in his place. Yamunacharya’s trusted disciple left to fetch Ramanujacharya to Srirangam. However, by the time Ramanujacharya arrived, Yamunacharya had already died. Once again Ramanujacharya found himself without the teacher that he had been questing for.

According to traditional accounts, when Ramanujacharya was taken to the body of Yamunacharya, he noticed that the teacher’s three fingers were folded into the palm of his right hand. When he inquired from his disciples, he was told that the three folded fingers symbolised the three unfulfilled wishes that the teacher had. One of the three wishes was that a commentary on the Brahma Sutra should be written. When Ramanujacharya pledged that he would devote his life in fulfilling the teacher’s last three wishes, the three fingers uncurled one after the other. The crowd at the cremation ground took this as a sign of Ramanujacharya being the true heir to Yamunacharya. Mahapurna, who was the senior most disciple of Yamunacharya, supervised Ramanujacharya’s initiation into the Shri Vaishnava fold. For sometime, Mahapurna served as a teacher to Ramanujacharya, who soon mastered verses of the Tamil Vaishnava saints. Once the period of his training was over, Ramanujacharya began his life as an independent and self-assured philosopher. He travelled across different parts of the country, and participated in debates with rival philosophies. Many rival philosophers whom he defeated in debates became the followers of his school of thought.

As his fame spread far and wide, Ramanujacharya gained control over many Vaishnava temples, whose rituals he standardised and reformed. To this day, the instructions that he once laid down are considered to be the norm for Vaishnava temples in all parts of the world. According to the Shri Vaishnava tradition, Ramanujacharya authored nine books, all of them in Sanskrit. We learn from the works of his disciples that he used to lecture in Tamil on the verses of the Tamil Vaishnava saints. The fact that Ramanujacharya has not made any explicit mention of the Alvars in his Sanskrit writings does seem remarkable given the central role that Alvars have to play in the Shri Vaishnava tradition. But most scholars believe that Ramanujacharya wanted to articulate his philosophy to the pan-Indian community and that is why he refrained from mentioning the local saints whose appeal is limited only to the Tamil society. As the foremost philosopher of the Shri Vaishnava tradition, he might have faced prosecution from the Chola king, Kulothunga I, who was a staunch Saivite. According to some accounts, the king tried to force Ramanujacharya to start acknowledging Shiva as the foremost God. But Ramanujacharya preferred to leave the kingdom and move into a neighbouring kingdom where he was allowed complete freedom for religious thought.

He returned to Srirangam only when Chola king, Kulothunga I, died. New Chola king was a Vaishnavite and he allowed Ramanujacharya to do his religious work freely.

*******

As a true philosophy of religion, the Visistadvaita philosophy preached by Ramanujacharya avoids the two extremes of blind faith in the authority of scriptures and the belief in omnipotence of reason. In his exposition of the nature of reality, he harmonizes the claims of revelation, intuition and reason. He accepts as the word of God, not only the Vedas, but also the Pancaratra, which are the Vaishnava Sanskrit texts dedicated to worship of Vishnu. He also places a similar spiritual importance to the utterances of the Alvars. Ramanujacharya was of the view that truth can only be found if the Vedas are taken as one unified corpus, whose aim is to express a singular doctrine. He felt that the mistake that his opponents were making is that they made interpretations based on isolated portions of the Vedas. Visistadvaita recognises the verifiability of the Vedic truth in spiritual experience. It relies on the knowledge given in sense perception, inference and revelation, while affirming that the Brahman is first and the final cause of everything in the universe. Both the Bhedabheda and the Advaita schools are classic forms of anti-realism, but Visistadvaita stands out by insisting on the reality of the external world.

Purely on logical grounds, Ramanujacharya has criticised many arguments of the Bhedabheda and Advaita philosophies, which typically conclude that the only undifferentiated consciousness in the world is the Brahman. Ramanujacharya argues that if this were so, then it would follow that all cognition is illusory. However, by the same philosophy such knowledge can be termed as being illusory and hence it cannot qualify as genuine. Ramanujacharya argues that even if the views expressed by the rival schools of philosophy were to be correct, they would only be so if some cognition were not illusory. According to the Visistadvaita School, the universe of the sentient and the non-sentient has its ultimate source in the Brahman. During the act of creation, the Brahman wills the man and becomes the manifold of sentient and non-sentient beings. Also the idea of the Brahman being the cause of all things does not imply that creation should have a beginning in time. The universe is a dynamic entity and the acts of Pralaya (dissolution of the universe) and Sristi (creation) keep alternating with each other. The purpose of the cosmic process of Pralaya and Sristi is to provide an opportunity to the sentient beings to realise their divine destiny.

Ramanujacharya asserts that consciousness is always recognition of some object, which is distinguished by a characteristic. This implies the view that all epistemic states, be it consciousness or perception, are intentional or object oriented. But the moment we accept that consciousness requires an object for its existence, it follows that it is not possible for a pure consciousness to exist. Hence, if consciousness exists, then it can only do so in a world that is full of plurality. Ramanujacharya goes on to defend the reality of the individual. While refuting the view promoted by the Bhedabheda and Advaita philosophies, he argues that the very idea that something can be ignorant presumes that there is an individual capable of being ignorant. Brahman is not an absentee God who makes the world and lets it go. Nor is He identical with the created universe. If every entity in the world were to be divine then there would be no need for individuals to make attempts to attain moksha (release from the cycle of birth and death. While being immanent in the universe, Brahman also transcends it. Ramanujacharya uses the concept of immanence to justify the intimate relationship between the God and the finite self; and he uses the concept of transcendence to establish the infinity and absolute perfection of the Brahman, which inspires reverence, humility and religion.

The theory of Karma consists of the application of the law of cause and effect to moral experience. It establishes the righteousness of the Brahman. According to the nature of the Karma performed by each individual, a certain amount of rewards or punishments get apportioned. This is the manner by which the divine righteousness ensures that the finite self, or the individual, becomes the cause of its own destiny. What a man sows, he reaps; nothing in the universe has the power to circumvent the moral law of Karma. From a purely ethical point of view, the law of Karma affirms the freedom of the self. However, if justice were to function purely through the rigorous process the law of Karma, then Mukti, or liberation would become impossible for any individual to attain. That is why the ethical religion entails that law of Karma can be overcome through the power of redemptive law of God. When there is absolute self-surrender to God from an individual, Brahman can intervene to transmogrify the law of Karma. Hence, punishment can also be seen to be born out of God’s mercy, as it nudges the individual towards the path of rightful spiritualism. Ramanujacharya also makes the point that avatara or divine incarnation has redemption as its central motive. A divine incarnation happens at critical moments of cosmic history in order to arrest the progress of sin.

The central idea of Vishishtādvaita is that Brahman is life of all life. This school of thought insists on the idea of God as redemptive love. It lays down the path of devotion and self-surrender, as the sole means of attainment of eternal bliss. He who desires release must maintain a physical and mental purity, while performing his duties with truthfulness, and practicing ceaseless meditation of the God.  Vishishtādvaita guarantees salvation to all finite beings, human, sub-human and celestial. Hence it is widely regarded as a religion of equality, peace and harmony. Ramanujacharya has served as in inspiration for the great teachers of Vedanta who followed him – Madhavacharya, Nimbarka, Vallabhacharya and others. Today the Vishishtādvaita philosophy has maximum number of adherents in India, even though a large number of these devotees might be referring to their belief system by a different name. The core ideas of Vishishtādvaita continue to be strong, even though the name of the doctrine has become confined to the scholarly circles. Ramanujacharya is believed to have died in 1137 AD.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ramakrishna Paramhamsa

An influential figure in the Hindu renaissance during the 19th and 20th centuries, Ramakrishna sought to reconcile trationalism with the orthodoxy of religious thought. Through his propagation of Vedanta philosophy, he us thought to have brought about a synthesis between the varied cultures of India. He had a broad view of religion and on many occasions he also explored for truths by studying Islam and Christianity. Much of his time was spent in contemplation of God he is thought to have attained the Advaita realisation. He was a forceful speaker, and had an enormous impact on people around him. Perhaps Ramakrishna’s greatest achievement come through his disciple Vivekananda who has given a definite shape to Ramakrishna’s religious and cultural philosophy.

*******

Ramakrishna was born on 18th February 1836, in a remote village called Kamarpukur, in West Bengal’s Hooghly district. His parents, Khudiram Chattopadhyaya and Chandra Devi, were very poor, but pious Brahmins. Their entire lives centred around daily worship of the family deity, Raghuvira, or Rama. While on a pilgrimage to the temple at Gaya, Khudiram had a vision of the deity, who told him about the coming child. So at the time of his birth Ramakrishna was christened Gadadhar, after the name of the deity in Gaya’s temple. During the early years of childhood, there was nothing unusual about Ramakrishna. The religious side of his personality became visible ply after he reached the age of six.

He was a born artist; he possessed an instinctive love for beautiful marks and colours. For hours he would sit alongside potters and observe them at their work. Soon he became adept at moulding clay and painting images on it. He also showed interest in music and poetry, taking great delights in singing traditional songs, and passages from Hindu epics. Studying at school and playing games with children of his own age seemed to have very little attraction for him. He was more comfortable in the company of the wandering monks, who, on their way to different holy cities, would often halt at the village rest house. In his mature age, he preached that God could only be realised through spiritual practises and not through book learning.

In 1855, Ramakrishna’s eldest brother, Ramkumar accepted the charge of a newly erected Kali Temple at Dakshineswar, near Calcutta. As Rani Rasmani, the well-to-do lady from Calcutta, who had built the temple, was from a lower caste, Ramakrishna’s orthodox mind was revolted at the idea of living within the temple’s precincts. According to some accounts, during the period when he lived at the temple with his brother, Ramakrishna refused to take the food that was being offered to the deity. In 1856, Ramkumar died, and Ramakrishna got appointed the new priest. From this point of time a more important phase of his spiritual life began. The temple’s environment and the priestly duties that he performed daily, stirred his soul. He developed devotion to Goddess Kali and would spent hours in prayers.

With time Ramakrishna’s devotion to Kali intensified, and he became intoxicated with the desire of seeing the Goddess face to face. The notion caught hold of him that his elder brother Ramkumar and other devotees had been blessed with a saintly vision of the Goddess. He started loosing interest in the performance of the priestly rituals, and he would spend hours sitting in contemplation before the idol of the Goddess. According to legend, after many days of prayers, he did have a vision.

The officials, who had been entrusted with the task of managing the temple, failed to understand Ramakrishna’s devotion. They thought that his non-ritualistic way of offering prayers to the Goddess was sacrilegious. But owner of the temple, Rani Rasmani, sympathised with Ramakrishna and she shielded the young priest from the infuriated officials. However, Ramakrishna started finding it impossible to attend to the normal duties of a temple priest. He was in need of rest. So for a while his nephew, Hriday, started acting as the temple priest. Thus freed from his duties, Ramakrishna had a forested area in the temple premises cleared and here he planted few holy trees, to prepare a suitable place for his spiritual practices.

The daily routine of prayers for many hours  took a serious toll on his health. For sometime, he was placed under the care of a physician in Calcutta, but this failed to heal him. Thinking that few weeks spent in the company of relatives would be beneficial for his long-term health, Rani Rasmani sent him to Kamarpukur, his native village. In 1859 Ramakrishna found himself back in Kamarpukur. But here as well he continued with his spiritual practises. His mother developed the notion that a marriage would be beneficial for him. In his simplicity, he agreed to a marriage proposal. According to some traditional accounts, Ramakrishna was in a trance when he told his mother and brother that his future mate was waiting for him in the house of someone called Ram Chandra. When inquiries were made, it was found that Ram Chandra had a five-year-old daughter called Saradamani; later on she would be known as Sarada Devi. Both the families agreed and the marriage got solemnised in 1859. Ramakrishna was almost 23 years old at this time, but such differences in age of bride and groom were typical in 19th century rural Bengal.

After his marriage, Ramakrishna stayed in his village for one and a half years, before returning to Dakshineswar temple, where once again he took charge of worshipping the Goddess.

*******

In or about 1862, a remarkable woman known as Bhairavi Brahmani, who was well versed in scriptures, arrived in a boat and walked up the terrace of the Dakshineswar Temple. Forty years old, she wore a saffron robe and her long hair was dishevelled, indicating that she was a female ascetic. She had arrived in search of a blessed soul to whom she had been commissioned by God, in a vision, to deliver a message. The moment her eyes set on Ramakrishna, she recognised the child of God. Ramakrishna accepted her as his teacher.

She demonstrated her powers by miraculously healing some of the symptoms that Ramakrishna was suffering from. Under her guidance, Ramakrishna started practising the various difficult disciplines of the Tantrik path, and he soon attained success in all of them. During this period he also had large number of visions, and he got to witness many divine forms.

Towards the end of 1864, an itinerant monk called Tota Puri, who was originally from Punjab, arrived at the Dakshineswar Temple. As he was a believer in the Advaita Vedanta School, he believed that the Nirguna Brahman, or the Supreme Absolute, was the only Truth, and the entire visible universe was nothing more than an illusion. Under Tota Puri’s guidance, Ramakrishna learned about Advaita Vedanta and he became versed in the art of withdrawing his mind from sense objects and meditating on the real and divine nature of his own self.

During this period, Ramakrishna also explored the religious paths of Islam and Christianity. Tota Puri remained in Dakshineswar Temple for more than eleven months and served as Ramakrishna’s spiritual guide. Along with the Advaita doctrine Ramakrishna continued to be attracted to the physical manifestation of the divine mother. Eventually he became convinced that the divine immanence existed in two distinct phases of Maya, or illusion – avidya-maya, and vidya-maya. The avidya-maya was materialism and it fixates the human soul to the world of sensory gratification. Through the vidya-maya a human soul can develop after it has experienced oneness with the Supreme Brahman and returned to illusory world. To such a soul, which has already experienced salvation, maya becomes vidya-maya, so that he or she can enjoy ecstatic union with God through the bhakti route.

As Ramakrishna became famous as a knowledgeable saint, the prominent intellectuals began flocking to him. During those days Brahmo Samaj, founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, was at the height of its popularity. Ramakrishna came in contact with several leading lights of the movement. People belonging to various denominations became attracted to his teachings of religious harmony, and Dakshineswar started resembling a sort of parliament of religions. Ramakrishna did not ask his elderly devotees to renounce the world; he preached the path of Karma-yoga for achieving detachment with the world while fulfilling all of one’s duties. He preached that one should give up the idea of ownership, and start believing that everyone and everything in the world ultimately belonged to God. However, he did pick up a band of educated youths from Bengal’s middle class families. He trained them to become monks and the torchbearers of his message to mankind.

One of these youths was a lad called Narendranath, in whom Ramakrishna saw great potential for being a future leader. He observed, “Ordinary souls fear to assume the responsibility of instructing the world. A worthless piece of wood can only just manage to float, and if a bird settles on it, it sinks immediately. But Narendranath is different. He is like the great tree trunks, bearing men and beasts upon their bosom in the Ganga.” Eventually he entrusted Narendranath with the task of consolidating the holy brotherhood by looking after the spiritual growth of all the members. On August 15, 1886, when Ramakrishna passed away, Narendranath was by his side.