Ancient History & Civilisation


The “Puranas”—The reincarnations of the universe—The migrations of the soul—“Karma”—Its philosophical aspects—Life as evil—Release

Mingled with this complex theology is a complex mythology at once superstitious and profound. The Vedas having died in the language in which they were written, and the metaphysics of the Brahman schools being beyond the comprehension of the people, Vyasa and others, over a period of a thousand years (500 B.C.—500 A.D.), composed eighteen Puranas—“old stories”—in 400,000 couplets, expounding to the laity the exact truth about the creation of the world, its periodical evolution and dissolution, the genealogy of the gods, and the history of the heroic age. These books made no pretense to literary form, logical order, or numerical moderation; they insisted that the lovers Urvashi and Pururavas spent 61,000 years in pleasure and delight.30 But through the intelligibility of their language, the attractiveness of their parables, and the orthodoxy of their doctrine they became the second Bible of Hinduism, the grand repository of its superstitions, its myths, even of its philosophy. Here, for example, in the Vishnupurana, is the oldest and ever-recurrent theme of Hindu thought—that individual separateness is an illusion, and that all life is one:

After a thousand years came Ribhu

To Nidagha’s city, to impart further knowledge to him.

He saw him outside the city

Just as the King was about to enter with a great train of attendants,

Standing afar and holding himself apart from the crowd,

His neck wizened with fasting, returning from the wood with fuel and grass.

When Ribhu saw him, he went to him and greeted him and said:

“O Brahman, why standest thou here alone?”

Nidagha said: “Behold the crowd pressing about the King,

Who is just entering the city. That is why I stand alone.”

Ribhu said: “Which of these is the King?

And who are the others?

Tell me that, for thou seemest informed.”

Nidagha said: “He who rides upon the fiery elephant, towering like a mountain peak,

That is the King. The others are his attendants.”

Ribhu said: “These two, the King and the elephant, are pointed out by you

Without being separated by mark of distinction;

Give me the mark of distinction between them.

I would know, which is here the elephant and which the King.”

Nidagha said: “The elephant is below, the King is above him;

Who does not know the relationship of borne to bearer?”

Ribhu said: “That I may know, teach me.

What is that which is indicated by the word ‘below’, and what is ‘above’?”

Straight Nidagha sprang upon the Guru,* and said to him:

“Hear now, I will tell thee what thou demandest of me:

I am above like the King. You are below, like the elephant.

For thy instruction I give thee this example.”

Ribhu said: “If you are in the position of the King, and I in that of the elephant,

So tell me this still: Which of us is you, and which is I?”

Then swiftly Nidagha, falling down before him, clasped his feet and spake:

“Truly thou art Ribhu, my Master. . . .

By this I know that thou, my Guru, art come.”

Ribhu said: “Yes, to give thee teaching,

Because of thy former willingness to serve me,

I, Ribhu by name, am come to thee.

And what I have just taught thee in short-

Heart of highest truth—that is complete non-duality.”*

When he had thus spoken to Nidagha the Guru Ribhu departed thence.

But forthwith Nidagha, taught by this symbolic teaching, turned his mind completely to non-duality.

All beings from thenceforth he saw not distinct from himself.

And so he saw Brahman. And thus he achieved the highest salvation.31

In these Puranas, and kindred writings of medieval India, we find a very modern theory of the universe. There is no creation in the sense of Genesis; the world is perpetually evolving and dissolving, growing and decaying, through cycle after cycle, like every plant in it, and every organism. Brahma—or, as the Creator is more often called in this literature, Prajapati—is the spiritual force that upholds this endless process. We do not know how the universe began, if it did; perhaps, say the Puranas, Brahma laid it as an egg and then hatched it by sitting on it; perhaps it is a passing error of the Maker, or a little joke.32 Each cycle or Kalpa in the history of the universe is divided into a thousand mahayugas, or great ages, of 4,320,000 years each; and each mahayuga contains fouryugas or ages, in which the human race undergoes a gradual deterioration. In the presentmahayuga three ages have now passed, totaling 3,888,888 years; we live in the fourth age, the Kali-yuga, or Age of Misery; 5035 years of this bitter era have elapsed, but 426,965 remain. Then the world will suffer one of its periodical deaths, and Brahma will begin another “day of Brahma,” i.e., a Kalpa of 4,320,000,000 years. In each Kalpa cycle the universe develops by natural means and processes, and by natural means and processes decays; the destruction of the whole world is as certain as the death of a mouse, and, to the philosopher, not more important. There is no final purpose towards which the whole creation moves; there is no “progress”; there is only endless repetition.33

Through all these ages and great ages billions of souls have passed from species to species, from body to body, from life to life, in weary transmigration. An individual is not really an individual, he is a link in the chain of life, a page in the chronicle of a soul; a species is not really a separate species, for the souls in these flowers or fleas may yesterday have been, or tomorrow may be, the spirits of men; all life is one. A man is only partly a man, he is also an animal; shreds and echoes of past lower existences linger in him, and make him more akin to the brute than to the sage. Man is only a part of nature, not actually its center or master;34 a life is only a part of a soul’s career, not the entirety; every form is transitory, but every reality is continuous and one. The many reincarnations of a soul are like years or days in a single life, and may bring the soul now to growth, now to decay. How can the individual life, so brief in the tropic torrent of generations, contain all the history of a soul, or give it due punishment and reward for its evil and its good? And if the soul is immortal, how could one short life determine its fate forever?*

Life can be understood, says the Hindu, only on the assumption that each existence is bearing the penalty or enjoying the fruits of vice or virtue in some antecedent life. No deed small or great, good or bad, can be without effect; everything will out. This is the Law of Karma—the Law of the Deed—the law of causality in the spiritual world; and it is the highest and most terrible law of all. If a man does justice and kindness without sin his reward cannot come in one mortal span; it is stretched over other lives in which, if his virtue persists, he will be reborn into loftier place and larger good fortune; but if he lives evilly he will be reborn as an Outcaste, or a weasel, or a dog.35 This law of Karma, like the Greek Moira or Fate, is above both gods and men; even the gods do not change its absolute operation; or, as the theologians put it, Karma and the will or action of the gods are one.38 But Karma is not Fate; Fate implies the helplessness of man to determine his own lot; Karma makes him (taking all his lives as a whole) the creator of his own destiny. Nor do heaven and hell end the work of Karma, or the chain of births and deaths; the soul, after the death of the body, may go to hell for special punishment, or to heaven for quick and special reward; but no soul stays in hell, and few souls stay in heaven, forever; nearly every soul that enters them must sooner or later return to earth, and live out its Karma in new incarnations.39*

Biologically there was much truth in this doctrine. We are the reincarnations of our ancestors, and will be reincarnated in our children; and the defects of the fathers are to some extent (though perhaps not as much as good conservatives suppose) visited upon the children, even through many generations. Karma was an excellent myth for dissuading the human beast from murder, theft, procrastination, or offertorial parsimony; furthermore, it extended the sense of moral unity and obligations to all life, and gave the moral code an extent of application far greater, and more logical, than in any other civilization. Good Hindus do not kill insects if they can possibly avoid it; “even those whose aspirations to virtue are modest treat animals as humble brethren rather than as lower creatures over whom they have dominion by divine command.”41 Philosophically,Karma explained for India many facts otherwise obscure in meaning or bitterly unjust. All those eternal inequalities among men which so frustrate the eternal demands for equality and justice; all the diverse forms of evil that blacken the earth and redden the stream of history; all the suffering that enters into human life with birth and accompanies it unto death, seemed intelligible to the Hindu who accepted Karma; these evils and injustices, these variations between idiocy and genius, poverty and wealth, were the results of past existences, the inevitable working out of a law unjust for a life or a moment, but perfectly just in the end. Karma is one of those many inventions by which men have sought to bear evil patiently, and to face life with hope. To explain evil, and to find for men some scheme in which they may accept it, if not with good cheer, then with peace of mind—this is the task that most religions have attempted to fulfill. Since the real problem of life is not suffering but undeserved suffering, the religion of India mitigates the human tragedy by giving meaning and value to grief and pain. The soul, in Hindu theology, has at least this consolation, that it must bear the consequences only of its own acts; unless it questions all existence it can accept evil as a passing punishment, and look forward to tangible rewards for virtue borne.

But in truth the Hindus do question all existence. Oppressed with an enervating environment, national subjection and economic exploitation, they have tended to look upon life as more a bitter punishment than an opportunity or a reward. The Vedas, written by a hardy race coming in from the north, were almost as optimistic as Whitman; Buddha, representing the same stock five hundred years later, already denied the value of life; the Puranas, five centuries later still, represented a view more profoundly pessimistic than anything known in the West except in stray moments of philosophic doubt.* The East, until reached by the Industrial Revolution, could not understand the zest with which the Occident has taken life; it saw only superficiality and childishness in our merciless busyness, our discontented ambition, our nerve-racking labor-saving devices, our progress and speed; it could no more comprehend this profound immersion in the surface of things, this clever refusal to look ultimates in the face, than the West can fathom the quiet inertia, the “stagnation” and “hopelessness” of the traditional East. Heat cannot understand cold.

“What is the most wonderful thing in the world?” asks Yama of Yudishthira; and Yudishthira replies: “Man after man dies; seeing this, men still move about as if they were immortal.”44 “By death the world is afflicted,” say the Mahabharata, “by age it is held in bar, and the nights are the Unfailing Ones that are ever coming and going. When I know that death cannot halt, what can I expect from walking in a cover of lore?”45 And in the Ramayana Sita asks, as her reward for fidelity through every temptation and trial, only death:

If in truth unto my husband I have proved a faithful wife,
Mother Earth, relieve thy Sita from the burden of this life!46

So the last word of Hindu religious thought is moksha, release—first from desire, then from life. Nirvana may be one release or the other; but it is fullest in both. The sage Bhartri-hari expresses the first:

Everything on earth gives cause for fear, and the only freedom from fear is to be found in the renunciation of all desire. . . . Once upon a time the days seemed long to me when my heart was sorely wounded through asking favors from the rich; and yet again the days seemed all too short for me when I sought to carry out all my worldly desires and ends. But now as a philosopher I sit on a hard stone in a cave on the mountainside, and time and again I laugh when I think of my former life.47

Gandhi expresses the second form of release: “I do not want to be reborn,” he says.48 The highest and final aspiration of the Hindu is to escape reincarnation, to lose that fever of ego which revives with each individual body and birth. Salvation does not come by faith, nor yet by works; it comes by such uninterrupted self-denial, by such selfless intuition of the part-engulfing Whole, that at last the self is dead, and there is nothing to be reborn. The hell of individuality passes into the haven and heaven of unity, of complete and impersonal absorption into Brahman, the soul or Force of the World.

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