While examining different religious paths within Hinduism from the perspective of four patterns of transcendence (ancestral, cultural, mythical and experiential) it is interesting to see how each pattern found its dominance over four segments of Hinduism: Vedic sacrifice, the way of action, the way of devotion and the way of knowledge.
When Hinduism originated as a religion it was mainly concerned with sacrifices for ancestors. The sacred texts – called the Vedas – on which Hinduism was based were the main root of the many different branches of Hindu philosophy. The Vedas originated around 1400-1200 BC. They consisted of several different documents, the oldest of them called the Rigveda.
The Rigveda is considered to be the foundation of Brahmanic Hinduism. The main body of Rigveda’s text contains mostly hymns dedicated to the ancient Hindu gods. The second text of Vedas is called the Yajurveda. It was written in 1200 BC.
The main themes of Yajurveda are the sacred formulas recited by Brahmin priests during the performance of sacrifices. The third book of Vedas, Samveda (1100 BC), was also known as the Veda of chants. In its essence Samveda was an anthology of Rigveda writings. The last Veda is the Arthaveda (1200 BC).
It consisted of hymns, incantations and magic charms. The original Vedic texts were mostly comprised of hymns to gods and rules of sacrificial rituals; the purpose of which was to provide ancestors with food and means of sustenance in the kingdom of Yama (the afterworld). As a result of their devotion people expected certain favorable influences in their lives, such as good fortune and yet better life in the kingdom of Yama after their death. Sacrifices were supposed to be a means of survival in the kingdom of Yama.
As the Indian philosophies evolved, Hindus developed the concept of reincarnation. The essence of that concept lied in the belief that no one is able to remain in the afterworld forever and eventually should return to the cycle of life, death and rebirth. As transcendent as the concept of reincarnation was, it did not provide Hindus with an ultimate salvation from suffering. Thus every living thing must eventually suffer and die.
Such views resulted in further development of Hindu religion, Hindu philosophers such as Manu questioned the concepts of Vedas and laid the foundation for a philosophy that transformed Hinduism from a simple ancestral religion to a set of very complex religious and philosophical beliefs. Eventually the attempts of the Vedic texts to satisfy people’s need to have contact with the sacred reality have become insufficient. Even though the sacrifice was a way to 3 control the cosmos and insure well-being in the world of ancestors, it did not provide the means of liberation from the realm of maya: reality which Hindus lived in but thought of it as an illusion. Following the age of Vedas people of Hinduism looked for happiness through the way of action.
The way of action could be very well considered an example of cultural transcendence. The main doctrine of such philosophy told that one must do all the tasks presented to him/her by the place in society and social status; and the result of such rightful life would be the rebirth into a better social position. With time “the way of action” philosophy became less satisfactory for its followers, since it seemed to lack the total liberation from the infinite cycle of death and rebirth. As Hindu religion became more complicated and people began to look for total liberation from the circle of death and rebirth the segment of Hinduism known as the way of devotion came into existence.
Followers of the way of devotion based their beliefs on the myths about gods such as Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna. These gods were believed to be a manifestation of ultimate reality. Believers in the way of devotion were supposed to worship their god through sacrifices and rituals devoting their lives to the belief 4 and were expected to be saved from the realm of maya by the manifestation of ultimate reality to which they entrusted their lives. The essence of the way of devotion was a mythical transcendence, because it was heavily based on the myth about the encounters between mortal humans and divine beings (for example the legend of Krishna and Arguna) that described the main doctrines of this part of Hinduism to its pursuers.
Following the age of Vedas, texts known as Upanishads came into existence (1000-500 BC). Unlike the Vedas, Upanishads did not talk about the rules of sacrifices and did not contain hymns to gods. Instead, those texts concentrated on the essence of reality and on the supreme being ruling the cosmos-the Brahman. The Upanishads contained one hundred and eight writings.
The main theme of these writings was reality. But it was not the reality which we perceive (because everything we see and know is an illusion), but the reality that is real, that does not change; the reality that has answers to every question, including the one about suffering. In addition, Upanishads spoke of relationship between the world in which Hindus live, the Brahman, and the ultimate reality. In Upanishads Brahman was identified as the only true and absolute reality.
The Brahman was manifested in everything: one could 5 identify Brahman in very act of consciousness. By denying Brahman, one would be denying his/hers own existence. Hindu philosopher Sankara commented: “The existence of Brahman is known from the fact that it is the Self of everyone. Everyone is aware of the existence of his own Self.
No one thinks ‘I am not'”(Commentary on The Vedanta Sutras, I,1/1),(Berry 1967,p26)). The Brahman is everywhere, it is everything, but at the same time no one is aware of its being. The Upanishads used metaphors to draw the picture of Brahman existence. An example of such metaphors is the tale of the Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu.
In this story Uddalaka proves to Svetaketu the existence of the unseen Brahman. First Uddalaka asks Svetaketu to divide a fig; when to his question of “what do you see inside?”, Svetaketu replies: “nothing, father”; Uddalaka asks: “How can a great tree grow out of nothing?”. Later, Uddalaka asks Svetaketu to dissolve salt in water and then asks him to taste it. Even though the boy cannot see the salt in the water, he can taste every part of it.
Then Uddalaka compared two experiences to Brahman, saying that like salt, Brahman is present but unseen. “This whole world has that as its soul; that is reality; that is Atman; that art thou, Svetaketu”(Chandogya Upanishad)(Zimmer 1951 p.360). The Brahman is the Self and Self is the Brahman, that relationship was described by many metaphors in the Upanishads’.
Here is one of them from Heinrich Zimmer’s ‘Philosophies of India”: “” Space is enclosed by earthen jars. Just as space is not carried along with the jar when this is removed [from one lace to another}, so Jiva [i.e., the Self when contained in the vessel of the subtle and gross body], like the infinite space [remains unmoved and unaffected.
” It matters not to Space whether it is to be inside or outside of a jar. The Self, similarly, does not suffer when a body goes to pieces”. “The various forms, like earthen jars, going to pieces again and again, He (Brahman) does not know them to be broken; and yet He knows eternally”(Zimmer 1951p.359).
When talking about the Self (Atman) the famous description is “Nati, nati” (not so, not so), there are no words and symbols in human understanding to describe it, thus everything we know, every description we make, every symbol we construct is an illusion. Therefore, nothing known and used by people could be applied to Brahman. The question which evolves out of such a view is: “How would one get in touch with the Self, how is it possible not just to be aware of it but to physically touch it?”. Thus when one is aver of his/her true self he/she can know the reality that is 7 deathless.
Upanishads give an answer to this question by describing three states of consciousness. First is “the awakened state, where the sense faculties are turned outward, and the field of cognition is that of the gross body; 2. the dreaming state, where the field is that of subtle bodies, self-luminous and magically fluid; and the 3. the blissful state of dreamless deep sleep” (Zimmer 1951 p.
362.). The dreaming state was described as a short glimpse into the other dimension: the realm of gods and demons. This realm was considered to be similar to the realm of awakened consciousness, because as well as the awakened consciousness dreaming state had its illusions and was not free from suffering that was a result of constant change.
On the contrary, dreamless sleep was seen as something totally different because it only had a pure being with no consciousness, and therefore having no worries and no changes in itself. Upanishads see a dreamless state as the manifestation and human experience of the existing real Self that knows no change and is unaware of all the illusions. That was considered the state in which Atman exists. Such philosophy enabled people to experience the state of deathlessness for themselves and gave beginning to the segment of Hindu religion that had experiential transcendence in its essence.
The view portrayed in the Upanishads’ was that in order to gain liberation from a cycle of death and rebirth, one must discover the truth of Brahman which is all existent. In order to find Brahman one must look inside and find the Atman (the dreamless existence), which is the real Self and, consequently, the Brahman. When one succeeds in doing so, the truth will be revealed and the liberation from the realm of maya and therefore death will be attained once and for all. Philosophy portrayed in Upanishads’ implies that one can gain liberation by discovering the true Self.
To do so is to follow the way of knowledge. Ignorance of Brahman was understood to be the cause for the endless cycle of birth, life and death. After gaining the truth, the knowledge of Atman, one is freed from the life in ignorance, and, therefore, freed from constant rebirth. The way to find Atman was to engage in deep meditation.
A follower of the way of knowledge was to look inside and peel off layer by layer: any needs, senses, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and the awareness of the world, because all of that is an illusion which prevents one from seeing the true Self- the Atman. When the yogi (one who is engaged in meditation techniques) will be able to put away the consciousness itself (by this consciously putting 9 him/her self into the state of dreamless sleep), he/she will attain the knowledge of the Atman through which becoming a part of Brahman unaffected by ignorance. Shankara describes the difference between the one who is searching for knowledge and the one who attained it as “The man of knowledge sees this first in meditation, with his senses withdrawn; but the man of Brahman even at the time of dealing with the world sees the Self who has entered into all beings. Now the senses and mind are functioning in the response to events in the world, but the Self is not felt to be identified whit the body and mind.
It is universal, ‘Brahman, in the highest heaven’.”(Lingat .1973p.141) To conclude, when one examines the philosophy of Upanishads’ and the way of knowledge some connection to reality (as it perceived by those who just want to study the doctrine of the philosophy) could be found.
Logically such philosophy could fit into the mind and then find support in experiences of its followers. Many yogis who follows the way of knowledge seem to find inner peace and understanding of life. Transcendence offered by the philosophy of Upanishads’ seems to be real enough to follow the path which leads to it. That is why the philosophy of the way of knowledge was so widely accepted in the days of its emergence and later became a base for many other philosophies of India.
Robert, Lingat. The Classic Low Of India. University of California Press Berkeley, Zimmer, Heinrich, Robert. Philosophies Of India.
Chidester, David. Patterns Of Transcendence. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1990.