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In Search of Immortality (An Introduction to Indic World-Views)

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Item Code: NAM809
Publisher: Manohar Publishers And Distributors
Author: Jaidev Dasgupta
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9789350980552
Pages: 225
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 300 gm
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Book Description

Indian world-views provide a rich tapestry of myths, symbols, concepts and philosophical ideas, many of which grew out of the Rig Veda, the oldest Indo-European literature, and led to nine philosophical schools and four major religions, namely, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. But because these are mostly present in highly philosophical and academic documents, an educated layperson rarely gets to enjoy and appreciate the value of these thoughts. One has to have the persistence, stamina and training to dive into these voluminous books and source materials. The so-called popular books, on the other hand, often reduce the whole subject matter to mere tales and legends with no critical perspective and intellectual substance left in them. Consequently, a layperson is denied the beauty and depth of these visions and philosophical insights, and lives with a very superficial, limited, and, at times, even distorted view that these ideas only pertain to religion and spirituality.

The present-day India is a culturally diverse and complex society. It has a long history of 3,500 years or maybe more. During this period people from different parts of the world have come here and made this land their home. Adherents of different belief systems with diverse customs, rituals, and viewpoints live here side by side. Due to this complexity it may be hard to reach a consensus on what is 'India' or 'Indian'. Therefore, it is important to clarify the sense in which the term 'Indian' is used in this book. The term 'Indian' has been used interchangeably with another term 'Indic', which specifically pertains to thought systems that originated in the Indian subcontinent. According to this definition, the Indic system includes Brahmanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, jainism, and Sikhism. Although other major thought systems, namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have been on the Indian soil for several centuries and they, especially the last two, have made a significant impact on Indian society, scholars consider them as the Semitic systems. The purpose of this book is to focus on Indic thought systems and introduce the subject matter of Indic world-views to readers in a simple and easy manner without foregoing a glimpse into their depth. Our journey begins at the Rig Veda and goes through the Upanishads, Puranas, the Epics, Manusmriti, Gurbani, and the philosophical systems to present their views and ideas, and how these thoughts progressed, changed over time and diverged on questions related to the human condition that any world-view has to address.

Knowing their own world-view not only gives people a better understanding of themselves, but also helps improve communication with other cultures. In a culturally diverse society, such as India, it is all the more important to have a better understanding of the world-views of its people because they provide a perspective on how these people see themselves, understand the meaning and purpose of life, and relate to others and the world at large. With this objective of fostering cross-cultural understanding, the book is written in a non-technical manner without assuming any prior knowledge of Indic thoughts on the part of the reader.

In this quick tour of the vast landscape of the subject matter, an attempt has been made to stay as close to the main ideas and concepts as possible without getting into overly subtle polemical arguments of the philosophical schools. To give readers a flavour of how the original thinkers conceived and addressed the world-view issues, many hymns, verses, tales and dialogues are quoted directly from the source books. The ideas are presented maintaining a general chronological order in mind without being too rigid about the dates. No attempt has been made to build an overarching scheme of thoughts borrowing ideas from different systems. Finally, wherever possible, the answers arrived at by these Indian thinkers have been juxtaposed to and compared with the answers provided by modern science, which is a dominant component of the present day world culture and is responsible for shaping its world-view. This serves to develop a better appreciation of where we stand today on these questions as compared to the ancient Indian thinkers. I personally find it fascinating that following different approaches in different times and places, people occasionally come to surprisingly similar answers.

A vast amount of literature exists on the subject of Indian mythology, philosophy, and religion. Many texts and eminent thinkers and scholars starting from the Vedic period to modern times have contributed to the present understanding of the emergence and growth of Indic thoughts. As expected, it is impossible to cover all of this material in this small book; but at the end of the book a substantial list of references is provided to assist anyone interested in exploring the subject further. The objective of the book is not to overwhelm readers with too much of information, but to give them enough to whet their appetite for the central ideas of Indic thought and to develop appreciation for the subject.

In this effort I have been helped and encouraged by many friends and family members. I thank them all for their support. I am especially grateful to Drs. Vasant Kumar, S. Swaminathan, Gotam Jarori and Sudesh Dhar for reading the draft versions of the chapters and giving valuable suggestions and advice for improvement. My deep gratitude also goes to Caleb Fountain, who carefully read the entire manuscript and made many useful suggestions. His editing has been helpful in improving the presentation without changing the style. I also acknowledge the interest taken by Siddharth Chowdhury at Manohar in publishing this work. Last but not least, I am thankful to my wife, Leena, for her patience and support throughout this project.



Out of Africa

Scientific studies using genetic markers indicate that modern humans left Africa and reached South-East Asia and India around 60,000 years ago and Europe about 40,000 years ago. The reason they migrated out of Africa in that period is presently a matter of speculation that requires support from further research. Why after leaving Africa humans kept moving forward to distant lands also remains to be explained. Whether it was shortage of food or climatic changes or bands of nomads kept following their animals in search of food and water, or simply a sense of adventure that impelled humans to explore new territories, is not known. Whatever the reasons, humans by this time were certainly well out of their animal-like existence. Based on the available information, it is believed that these ancestral humans displayed modern behaviour, and prior to dispersal out of Africa they went through radical changes in technology, economy, and social patterns. For example, the manufacture of complex, multi-component tools such as spears for hunting indicates their ability of abstract thinking required for building such tools. Archaeological evidence suggests that adjacent groups engaged in either trading or exchange of goods. Ritual burials indicate that perhaps these people had some kind of a religious belief. Body ornamentation with shells and pigments was probably used as a means for communicating symbolically a person's gender, social group, or status.

In later periods the art of symbolic representation touched new heights when the descendants of these humans engaged in cave paintings, engravings, and sculptures. Although the ancient remains do not tell what these artifacts meant to their makers and why they were created, scholars believe that they are the representations of mythological figures, stories, and magical rites prevalent in those times.

The overall picture emerging from the evidence above is that in the last 80,000 years or so modern humans have been constantly marching towards a better understanding of the world, and becoming more intentional and purposeful in their actions. The signs of purposeful behaviour and the ability to organize discreet activities across space can be found even in the primitive humans or hominins as early as 750,000 years ago, when they displayed the sense of spatially organizing life-supporting activities such as stone chipping, tool use, and processing and consumption of floral and faunal food.

The intrinsic curiosity of humans to know about the world and build a world-view could be instinctive. There may be a knowledge instinct built into human nature, which is driven by the imperative to survive. It is well known that the pressure to survive had been working not only on humans but also on their ancestral animals for millions of years. With this evolutionary past, it is not hard to assume that this pressure structured and programmed the human mind to view the world in a self oriented manner; and created a pre disposition for understanding the world in a fashion that would improve human survival. It is this orientation that causes a human being to see itself separate from the rest of the creatures and the world. He sees the world as something other than himself, and is instinctively driven to learn more about it, organize, control, and master it as much as possible. Thus the most basic drives for food, sex, shelter, and safety force humans to organize experiences in a way to make some sense of themselves and their world, learn important lessons, and derive rules for living a purposeful life.

These attempts to organize experiences by ancient humans might have led to the formation of early world-views, which later on might have given shape to different mythologies. Mythology is a system of symbols and tales that provides a means for humans to understand the world. It gives a world picture with an explanation of the origin of the universe, of the origin of humans and their place in the world, and helps them sustain through life. Human beings in every age need such a picture or world-view for them to feel connected with their surroundings in order to align with it mentally and emotionally to conduct life in an organized and meaningful way. It is like having a plan that points to a life goal towards which people direct their energies. All hopes, dreams and ambitions, thoughts, choices and actions are directed to reaching the goal. Everything a person does or does not do and whether these actions are right or wrong are determined by this world view.

About mythical ways of thinking, it is hard to guess when exactly such thinking started. But whether the mythologies are the stories of gods or of heroes, they always revolve around human existence and its concerns. Writing about deities, Joseph Campbell remarks: ' ... all deities - no matter of what people - are of this nature, sprung from the common ground of the human imagination, though turned to the local aims and needs of a given folk, in a given place, at a given time [Historical Atlas of World Myth, vol. 2, pt. I; Campbell, p. 29]'. Stories of creation are not only the ways of understanding the origins of this world and of mankind, they may also influence views on time and causality, and may play a crucial role in defining the purpose of life. Similarly, rituals, though perhaps inspired and supported by mythological tales, are organized actions developed around events of human life such as birth, puberty, initiation, harvest, hunting, war, sacrifice, marriage, and death. Even the idea of what exists or does not exist, or what is real or not real, may be determined by how the world is viewed. For example, belief in the existence of spirits might arise from nature being viewed as animated.

World views change over time. There was a time when the earth was believed to be at the centre of the universe, and the sun, moon, and the rest of the heaven were supposed to revolve around it. But today we know that the earth and the rest of the planets of the solar system orbit around the sun. The model of the world changes with time as humans observe it more closely and gather new information. So one may start with a belief that the gods are responsible for bringing rains, but over time the pattern may become clear that rains come only during a specific season and no amount of offering prayers to the gods would attract rains in other seasons. As the regularities and patterns in nature become increasingly obvious, the world becomes more comprehensible and predictable letting people think in a more systematic and logical manner. Thus mythical thinking is only an early phase in the development of a world picture. As the picture becomes more mature with time, it reaches a stage when it allows philosophical and critical thinking and scientific probing of ideas that were held dearly, and paves the way for either supporting or refuting them, with a possibility of altering the world-view.

In the following chapters we will discuss such a progression of thought starting from various speculations, insights and mythological stories in the Vedas, which formed the basis for a world-view in the Indian subcontinent several thousand years ago, and then see how these views led to more refined thoughts and philosophical systems in later periods. Some of these systems draw their support from the Vedas, whereas the others refute or challenge them. Five questions - pertaining to the creation of the world, time and causality, the human self, right and wrong actions, and the ultimate purpose of life - that perpetually haunt humans are the focus of these chapters. Over the last three millennia these views and thoughts have been the source of four major systems of faith - Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Hinduism - to emerge and grow in this subcontinent and spread out elsewhere. They also provided the basis for Indian art and literature and shaped the culture of people in this part of the world.

The Vedas And The Rest

According to the current state of knowledge, it is believed that somewhere around the middle of the second millennium BCE, bands of Aryans, or the Indo-Aryan speakers, migrated into northern India from Iran through Afghanistan. They were nomadic people. The Rig Veda, which is a collection of books of hymns belonging to different families and clans, provides a window to the life and culture of these Aryans. It is considered to be the oldest Indo-European literature. Although before the arrival of Aryans there was the Indus Valley Civilization in India, but there is no literature available from that period that would tell us how the non-Aryan, local inhabitants of Indus culture felt or thought about the world or what their beliefs were. Whatever we know of them is constructed based on the material recovered from the archaeological excavations. This is why the Rig Veda will be the starting point of our journey to understanding the early Indian world-view and following its evolution over time.

The word 'veda' is derived from the root word 'vid', which means 'to know', signifying wisdom or the knowledge possessed and followed by the ancient Aryan sages and seers. The Vedas are called sruti or 'revealed knowledge', which is believed to have been received by these sages during the moments of mystical experiences. The hymns or poems in the Rig Veda are apparently the insights uttered by these poet seers in such moments. In a hymn, poets compare themselves to craftsmen - ' ... men have formed for thee this song, like as a skillful craftsman fashioneth a car .. .' [RV 1.130.6; Griffith, p. 90] - suggesting that the knowledge thus acquired was framed into hymns. The insights are intuitive in nature, and perhaps for this reason they are considered as revealed, not as thoughts or ideas developed through the process of deliberate thinking. According to a creation myth, the Vedas, or the knowledge they contain, were produced as the world was being created following a sacrifice performed by the gods. Hence, the knowledge in the Vedas is considered to be sacred.




  Preface 9
  Notes 13
  Abbreviations 15
Chapter 1. Introduction 17
  Out of Africa.  
  The Vedas and the Rest  
Chapter 2. Where Did the World Come From? 25
  Early Speculations: Creation in the Vedas.  
  The Unknown Reality: Upanishadic Visions of Creation.  
  The One in Many: Creation Stories in the Puranas - Triune Principle of Vishnu,  
  The Great Lord Shiva,  
  The Dual Principle,  
  Mother Goddess Shakti.  
  Origin of Deities and Creatures.  
  The Substance of the World.  
  Dissolution of Universe.  
  The Sikh View of Creation.  
  Did God Create the World?  
  Creation in Buddhism and Jainism.  
Chapter 3 How Does It Work? 62
  Space - Creation of Space,  
  What is Space?  
  Time - Controller of All,  
  Fate or Endeavour,  
  Nature of Time.  
  Critical Assessment of Time and Causality.  
Chapter 4 Who Am I? 86
  In search of Immortality - Unseen Reality,  
  Perceiving the Self,  
  Brahman in Man.  
  Does Soul Exist? - No Soul,  
  Innumerable Souls,  
  Soul as Reflection of Brahman.  
  Quest for Self Continues.  
  The Law of Karma and Free Will.  
Chapter 5 How Do I Act! 128
  Declining Dharma in the World.  
  Law and Order in the Universe - Dharma and Rta,  
  Appearance of Order with Creation,  
  Guardian of Law and Order.  
  Supporting Dharma - Creation of Classes,  
  Switching from Class to Caste,  
  Caste specific Dharma,  
  The Common Dharma.  
  The Dhamma of Ashoka.  
  Difficulty with Dharma.  
  Individual vs. Society.  
Chapter 6 What is the Purpose of Life? 166
  Moving from Heaven to Earth - Heaven and Hell,  
  Samsara: the Cycle of Rebirths,  
  Liberation from Samsara,  
  Vairagya: a Prerequisite for Freedom,  
  Three Strands in a Braid.  
  Liberation in Philosophical Systems-No Soul,  
  No Nirvana,  
  Soul Attains Moksha,  
  Nirvana without Soul.  
Chapter 7 Enduring Elements of Indian Thought 201
  Bibliography 211
  Index 217
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