Read more from the Being Truly Human September 2016 Newsletter
An article by Phiroz Mehta reprinted from the June 1957 issue of Latin Teaching
Continued from part 1
This Vedic theme, in some form or other, has dominated by far the large part of all Indian thought and literature. The two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are shot through and through with this religious spirit. When discursive thought begins to be active in relation to revelation, then the logically formulated systems of philosophy come into being. The artistic, symbolic representation of Vedic revelation in the language of naturalistic, mythological, philosophical and mystical poetry held sway for nearly a millennium, or perhaps longer, before the era of philosophical activity set in. Earliest among the great systems is the Samkhya philosophy. Its reputated founder, the sage Kapila, seems to have flourished just before the time of Thales. The Samkhya propounds an atomic theory as part of its speculations on universal evolution. It upholds primordial nature, or root matter, as the unborn, uncaused, undying force which is the source of all manifestation, both material and psychical. No supreme God is postulated, but only an infinite number of eternal, perfect souls. The fulfilment of the ends of these souls is the raison d’être of universal evolution.
But by substituting evolution for creation the Samkhya undermines the foundations of supernatural religion. Here is a branching away from dogmatic Brahmanism — somewhat similar to that of the Milesian school from the Hellenic religion laid down in Homer and Hesiod. (Dogmatism follows the springtide of revelation when an organising body bends its energies to the task of damming the living waters). Such branching away helps to bring about a critical point of view. Logical criticism unfurls its banner; and reason assumes greater importance than faith. Thus Aniruddha says: “Only those sayings supported by reason should be accepted.” Two other great philosophic systems, the Nyaya of Gautama and the Vaisesika of Kanada, represent the analytic type of philosophy upholding commonsense and science, and are distinguished by their critical treatment of metaphysical problems. Using the methods of logical enquiry and criticism, the followers of the Nyaya are willing to admit as true whatever can be established by reason. The Nyaya attached great importance to free discussion, the very breath of intellectual life. We are immediately reminded of Socrates and Plato; of Aristotle’s “Some see one side of a matter, and others another; but all together can see all sides.” Gautama, an early Nyaya writer, like Aristotle, systematised the principles of reasoning. The Nyaya theory of causation bears close correspondence to Aristotle’s four-fold classification of causes — material, formal, efficient and final. The Vaisesika philosophy presents an atomic theory. It attempts a complete analysis of the objects of knowledge, in terms of seven categories, which appear to be more rigorously formulated than Aristotle’s ten.
Now as regards the nature of the physical world, there are both similarities and contrasts between Greek and Indian speculations. From Thales onwards, the Greek mind attempts, and successfully attempts, to break away from the limitations of dogmatic religion. Hesiod’s theogony was also a cosmogony, for the origin of the gods included the origin of the world. The multiplicity of myths and deities surrounding Homeric man proved a weariness, perhaps, to the Greek. So Greek speculation displaces Chaos with primary matter. Matter becomes matter in its own rights. It is not sacrificed on the altar of spirit, as in India, speaking generally, but is impounded into the service of philosophy. The Greek atomists develop a mechanical view of the universe, whereas the Vaisesika has a spiritual tendency since the operation of moral law is central to the whole system. Greek atomists postulate atoms as having only quantitative and not qualitative differences, according to Democritis, as being in motion, according to Democritus and Epicurus, and as possibly constituting souls, whereas the Indian Kanada postulates atoms as being different in kind, possessed of distinct individuality, primarily at rest, and altogether different from souls. Again, Empedocles presents earth, water, air and fire as the four primary elements of physical nature, a view which, especially because of Aristotle’s blessing upon it, enjoys a very long life in the western world. Indian speculation adds a fifth element, akasha, or ether, one variety of which is discrete and atomic, and the other, non-atomic and all-pervasive. Indeed, it is a superior sort of element.
At this point, let us note that all the great religions of the world have originated in Asia. Out of eight or nine major religions, four spring up on Indian soil. During the sixth century B.C., a mass of speculations, philosophic and pseudo-philosophic, exercises unhealthy sway. In answer to the challenge of the times arises Gotama the Buddha. India witnesses such challenge and response several times in her long history. This emergence of new religions from time to time in India presents a contrast with Greece and the western world. The ancient Vedic theme is played several times. But it is played in an original manner each time. Thus, long centuries after the Vedic revelation, there come fresh revelations through Buddhism and Jainism, Sikhism and the various forms of Hinduism. Their theme is man’s salvation. Like Christianity, Buddhism and Jainism and the various forms of Hinduism are religions of salvation. Thus the historical course of Indian philosophy is illuminated at certain critical periods by the presence and teachings of the founders of great religions.
The discipline of the religieux is sometimes different from that of the philosopher, sometimes over and above that of the philosopher. Those like the Buddha had a trained intellect, as a good philosopher has; they were purified characters, like a true philosopher is; they lived the holy life, like a saint lives, and they had something more — this something more we shall consider in a few moments. Thus in India, it is as if a stream of the dazzling white light of divine inspiration plays with streams of the differently coloured lights of philosophic perception.
Heraclitus and Pythagoras were both contemporaries of the Buddha. Heraclitus teaches that everything changes. There is a perpetual flux of things. But his eye also perceives a universal rule of law, of the dominion of unexceptional causality. He says: “The sun will not transgress his measures. Were he to do so, the Furies, the abettors of justice, would overtake him.” And again: “Though this logos — this fundamental law — existeth from all time, yet mankind are unaware of it, both ere they hear it and in the moment that they hear it.” The Buddha teaches in India that everything, including self-consciousness, undergoes continual change in accordance with law. He says: “This being so, it becomes that; conditioned by this state of things, that state of things emerges.” If a new force is introduced into a particular situation, that situation changes in an appropriate manner. At a stroke the Buddha throws out the superstitious fear of capricious gods and of fickle spirits. All happens in accordance with law. Each person is a self-responsible, systematically active and creative being. The Vedas and Upanishads also had upheld law. The Vedic poet-seers exalted law by right of unquestioning faith, the Upanishadic spiritual geniuses by right of transcendent vision; the Buddha enthrones it by right of emancipated reason.
This law, in accordance with which all activity, natural, human and divine, proceeds, is the whole meaning of karma. Karma, in relation to man, is associated with the conception of the wheel of births and deaths, the doctrine of rebirth. Man’s fulfilment consists in his liberation from the wheel of births and deaths. Xenophanes mentions that the doctrine of metempsychosis was specially characteristic of Pythagoras. Herodotus suggests that the Egyptians presented the Greeks with this belief. But in fact, Pythagoras’ teaching bears closer resemblance to the Indian than to the Egyptian teaching. We must consider it in the fuller context of its fusion with the Orphic doctrines. Earthly existence is a prison-house in which the soul, which is of divine origin, is condemned to dwell. The Greeks offered no rational explanation for this. They presented only the elucidatory myth of the legend of Dionysus Zagreus. The race of mankind, which arose out of the ashes of the stricken Titans. contained both elements, the Titanic and the Dionysic, springing from the blood of Zagreus. So in man there is the constant struggle between evil and good. The glaring contrast between earthly imperfection and heavenly perfection, which lies at the core of both Orphic and Pythagorean philosophies, can be resolved by purification, atonement and redemption. Such purification can be effected, such atonement made, and such redemption won, only through a series of lives, for one life alone is all too short. Thus the soul finally escapes from this “burdensome circle of lamentation,” and approaches Persephone and her peers who will utter the redeeming words, “a god shalt thou be instead of a mortal.” This realization of godhood was the very theme of the Vedic mystic-seers who preceded the Orphics by a thousand years; and the process of purification and attainment is what the mass of Hindus and Buddhists hold to be the case to this day.
Continued in part 3 and part 4
Website Developer and Archivist
© 1959–2023 Being Truly Human