• Listen to today’s talk
    Just Be Yourself

Pre-Buddhist Thought in India

A talk given by Sankarankutti Menon Marath at 47 Lillian Road, London on 10th June 2001

The earliest archaeological evidence of any Indian civilization is found in the Indus valley in north India. The two sites of major importance are Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. They revealed a complex urban civilization reckoned to have flourished early in the third millennium BC over an area of some 950 square miles. Although we have a fairly good picture of the material aspects of their civilization, we know hardly anything about what the people felt, thought or believed in. There are a few artefacts however, which have a tantalizing similarity to aspects of Hindu religion. They are found on the steatite seals unearthed. They bear the image of a man seated in a yogic posture, a bull, a tree. The man could be the prototype of Śiva, the bull of Nandi, the bull associated with Śiva, and the tree of the banyan tree sacred to the Hindus and usually found in front of temples. The seals also have on them a pictographic script which has not yet been deciphered. Another pointer is the presence of clay images of a female which could be representations of the mother goddess.

The civilization flourished almost without change for a thousand years between 2500 and 1500 BC. It is the belief of experts that the Indus Valley was already in a state of collapse when the first Āryans began to come. These invaders were cattle-herding nomadic people who called themselves Āryans, meaning kinsmen or noble people. Their gods were natural forces. These gods were jealous and had to be propitiated with blood sacrifices. Their priests who officiated at these rites chanted hymns which they composed and were transmitted orally.

One group of related tribes who called themselves Bhāratas seemed to have had priests who were highly gifted poets and their hymns exhibit a richly poetic imagination. These hymns, collected and arranged in the first millennium BC and committed to writing in the second century BC, form the Ṛg Veda.

The Āryans, although warlike, were an uncomplicated people, dutiful and law-abiding. The chief among their gods were Dyaus, the god of the sky and the father of the gods (the Zeus of the Greeks and the Jupiter of the Romans), Mitra the sun god, Agni the god of fire, Yama the god of death, and Varuṇa the god of the heavens and moral law. After death those who had committed sins were sent by Varuṇa to the house of clay beneath the earth. Those who had spent their lives worthily passed into the celestial world of the Fathers where they dwelt forever in bliss in the company of gods and their own departed relatives.

From around 900 BC significant changes in their beliefs began to surface. The sages or the ṛṣis were questioning many of the old beliefs and practices and turning away from the sacrifice of numbers of animals and the rivers of blood. The old certainties were weakening. They began to search for answers which the old beliefs were not able to provide. Some of the later hymns reveal the new thinking. The best known of these is the one addressed to Creation in the tenth book of the Ṛg Veda, verse 129. The last lines especially are a clear indicator of the continuing speculation of the deeper aspects of existence. Where lies the origin of everything, and what is its nature?

Completely new ideas were also infiltrating the body of their religion. The indigenous population, who are believed to be the ancestors of the Dravidian people of south India whom they looked down upon as inferiors, gave them two enormously significant beliefs which were to change profoundly the outlook of the invaders. One of them was the law of karma. The naïve beliefs in the house of clay for the dead person whose life had been evil and a permanent abode in heaven among gods for the virtuous were displaced by the beliefs of the local people. If moral guilt is not expiated in one life, new lives will have to be lived until the expiation is complete. The consequences of what you have done are carried from body to body as one transmigrates. What you are in this life is the result of what you have done in past lives. The other important borrowings are the yogic techniques of meditation and asceticism for training the mind and for control of the body.

The priests reacted to the new mood of scepticism by introducing certain vital changes in the role of the sacrifice. The very act of sacrifice became supreme and the gods were relegated to a secondary place. The sacrifice and the ritual connected with it all had to be done without error, and the chanting of the hymns had to be word-perfect. Only then would the cosmos remain in harmonious order known as ṛta. Otherwise chaos would ensue and imperil the rule of righteousness that governs the universe.

These new developments were added to the Vedas in the form of appendices called Brāhmanas. The mere sound of chanting became sacred, possessed of the divine essence. The one who controlled the power residing in the sound was the Brahmin — that is, the priest.

By about 800 BC the sages were moving into forest hermitages in order to pursue their meditation and speculation. They had come to realize that the world of matter or phenomena would not give them the answer to the transcendental reality. They turned inward into themselves in their search. The record of their metaphysical dialogues and speculations are the Upaniṣads. They were seeking for an immortal essence from which originates and which contains and activates the entire cosmos, and which is also present in man. That entity they called Brāhman and that which is present in man Ātman. The teaching of the Upaniṣads is secret and was imparted only to spiritually ready adepts. There are 108 Upaniṣads, of which 18 are considered to be the most important.

What the Upaniṣads give of the probings of the sages is not a consistent or a unified whole. They are often confusing and contradictory. Theism is celebrated in some, in others food is seized upon as the source of everything, and so on. But it is the monistic approach to the ultimate which went farthest. And the sages who intuited the monistic conception of the ultimate essence transformed the whole course and horizon of Hinduism. What they perceived could be described as the greatest achievement of the Hindu sages. That source is beyond the gods, beyond birth and death, joy and sorrow, good and evil, all opposites, duality. It is unmanifested, indescribable, without qualities, eternally at rest. This is Brāhman and it is identical to the indwelling essence in man, Ātman. There is no separation. They are both one. As the Chandōgya Upaniṣad puts it tersely, “thou art that, tat twam asi.”

The name given to this monistic philosophy is Vedanta, that is, the ultimate Veda. However, the intuitions of the different sages arriving at the same vision had to be tidied up as it were, and presented as a clear, consistent whole, a system. This was accomplished by the great Śankara. In his commentaries and expositions be brought out the purport of what they had reached. What Śankara elaborated and brought out is the non-dualistic philosophy of Advaita Vedānta.

It taught that Brāhman is the only reality, there is none other, everything is an illusion. Further than that, when we look upon the phenomenal world of multiplicity and think it is the reality we are being ignorant. We are suffering from nescience, avidyā, a state of blindness as to the truth.

If Brāhman is the one and only reality without a second, how does one account for the many, the multiplicity, the phenomena of human beings, the animate and the inanimate world around, all the activities of existence, both pleasing, good and beneficial as well as painful and evil?

In order to understand the apparent connection between the one and the many, Śankara posits the principle of Māyā. Māyā is a difficult concept. He brings in analogies to help us to grasp it. A mirage in a desert creates the illusion of water, but the mirage cannot moisten one grain of sand. We see a snake in the forest, but on closer examination it is found to be no more than a length of rope. Nevertheless, the hope and fear had been very real indeed.

The power of Māyā veils the One and at the same time it projects the world of multiplicity. When we are embroiled in the phenomenal, the experience is the effect of Māyā. To be smugly content and conduct our lives as if there is nothing beyond the world of duality and not to wish and strive for true knowledge is also the effect of Māyā.

Gaudapāda, who was Śankara’s teacher, was probably the first one to systemize the monistic outlook in his commentary on the Māndukya Upaniṣad in these words: There is no dissolution, no beginning, no bondage, no aspirant; there is neither anyone avid for liberation, nor a liberated soul. This is the final truth. Only the one who had abandoned the notion that he has realized Brāhman is a knower of the Self, no one else.

Listening to these two statements you might well ask whether I have got my sources mixed up and taken the quotations from one of the Prajnāpāramitā sutras. No wonder orthodox Hindus of his time called Śankara a crypto-Buddhist. Was the Buddhist concept of Śunyatā derived from Hinduism or was it the other way round? We can only speculate, but can never be certain.

The way to liberation, mokṣa, kaivalya, from the not always unpleasant bondage to the world of appearance is arduous. Besides the austerities needed to purify oneself, one has to be perfect in conduct and cultivate a spirit of selflessness. Then the five sheaths of psychosomatic layers which conceal the true self in one have to be destroyed. They are:

  1. The gross body equivalent to waking consciousness.
  2. Faculties of sensation and action.
  3. Mind and the senses.
  4. Understanding and dream consciousness.
  5. Sleep, corresponding to deep sleep.

When they are torn away, the Self is known. This is not merging with the One, but Self-recognition. Thou art that. Māyā then is unreal.

Sānkhya and Jaina are the two other major philosophical systems of pre-Buddhist India. They are both thought to have originated in the pre-Āryan India and so are both of great antiquity. Both of them conceive of the world as deriving from two principles which interact and create the world of activity and phenomena.

In Sānkhya, the two principles are the life monads Puruṣa and the lifeless matter Prakṛiti. Infinite in number are the life monads. In their original state they are immaterial, possessed of nothing, no bliss, no power, cannot even bend a blade of grass, imperishable; they do not create: they exist in total isolation. Prakṛiti has three aspects which in its primal state are in perfect balance. They are known as guṇas — Sattva: indicative of lightness, goodness, joy; Rajas: of movement; and Tamas, of darkness, sloth.

Merely by being there in the vicinity of Puruṣa’s self-effulgence excites the three guṇas into activity. The result is that Puruṣa is engulfed in Prakṛiti and so comes to be in bondage by the guṇas which entwine like the strands of a rope act as the binder.

Puruṣa, however, is in actuality unaffected by the bondage even though its effulgence provokes activity in Prakṛiti and so generates life in all its manifold forms. Puruṣa is thus involved in an increasing round of birth, death and reincarnation. And the self-luminous Puruṣa illuminates all the processes of life and the growth of consciousness. Like the sun, Puruṣa is the generator of life, but is itself uninvolved, unaffected, and unaware.

Human beings are diversified by the manner of the blending of the guṇas in the individual. Sattva means goodness, perfection, facilitates enlightenment. It is the characteristic of gods and unselfish people.

Rajas means action, possessed of passion, ambition, vanity, pursuit of material benefits, heedless of the needs or the suffering of others.

Tamas is indicative of unconsciousness, which is the quality we associate with animals and the vegetable kingdom, lack of feeling, stupidity, absence of rectitude. It counterbalances the restlessness of Rajas.

The proportion of these is the source of the values of the universe, the wonders and equally the suffering.

It must be remembered that Puruṣa is eternally free. But the ceaseless activity of the mind creates objects and awareness and consciousness and so veils Puruṣa. When the mind is stilled and all its activities brought to an end, freedom from bondage is attained and the true nature of the Puruṣa is realized. The way to this liberation is through Yōga.

The very first verses of Patanjali’s Yōga Sūtra states: Yōga consists in intentionally stopping the spontaneous activities of the mind stuff. The goal is mokṣa, liberation. The process is to purge the mind of Rajas and Tamas so that only Sattva remains when it reflects Puruṣa. Then Puruṣa returns to itself and there is no world any more.

Jainism visualises the universe as a living organism shaped like a colossal human body. It is animated by a countless number of entities call Jīva, or life monads moving through it, each uncreated, imperishable, omniscient, all alike and full of bliss.

Opposed to Jīva is the second constituent of the universe, the Ajīva — that which is not Jīva. Ajīva embraces non-living principles. They are: ākāśa, meaning space; dharma, medium and or condition of movement; adhama, condition of rest or immobility; kāla, time which brings about change; and pudgala, gross matter, possessing taste, odour, and tangibility. Ajīva modifies, diminishes, and limits Jīva by any kind of activity. It pours into Jīva and its deposits stain it with hues ranging from light to dark. This is the karmic matter that is drawn into Jīva whenever there is any activity at all, thinking or action. The worst types of activities are the selfish ones and destruction of living creatures. In Jainism everything in the world is a life monad, animate, inanimate, sentient, and non-sentient, including fire and water.

The inflow of karmic matter can be dispelled only by a totally non-violent, disciplined life so that it does not enter many life-times to remove all the karmic matter. Since any activity brings in an influx of karmic matter, liberation can be a difficult if not a hopeless prospect. Contaminated Jīva sinks deeper and deeper into the universe; the darker the colour, the deeper the descent, so making ascent very hard.

When Jīva is totally freed from Ajīva it rises above the highest heaven to the top of the universe like a balloon where it remains inactive again in omniscient isolation eternally. This is the condition of mokṣa in which all the lost qualities are restored.

Neither Sānkhya nor Jaina has any connection with Vedic religion. However, Hinduism has appropriated almost all of the Sānkhya concepts. It is quite possible that respect for the sanctity of all lives which we find in both Hinduism and Buddhism has been derived from the Jaina religion. Jaina faith is a very logically formulated one. Like Buddhism, Jaina does not posit a God.


Great talk very revealing.

Professor Ken O’hara-Dhand, 7th October 2017

47 Lillian Road
SW13 9JF
United Kingdom

+44 (0)20 8748 3218


UK Registered Charity 328061

© 1959–2021 The Phiroz Mehta Trust