Throughout its course, the central quest of Brahmanical thought has been to gauge the essence which binds the universe together, the unity that lies behind the diversity of the phenomenal world. The early Vedic religion had sought to deify the forces of nature as anthropomorphic gods whose power could be harnessed by propitiating them through magical rituals. Yet even in that early Vedic period the same obsession was discernible in their simplistic efforts to examine the nature of a unifying principle, arriving at naive conclusions. Thus they pronounced that Food was the fundamental essence of the universe:
”I – the Food – am the cloud, thundering and raining.
They feed on Me – I feed on everything.
I am the real essence of the universe, immortal.
By my force all the suns in heaven are aglow”
This unrelenting search for a unifying force led to the devaluation of Vedic gods and ritualism. At the stage of the Upanishads the naive invocation of the gods through rituals gradually transformed into profound philosophical introspection and insight. The sages of the Upanishadic period, looking outward sought to find the unifying link in the phenomenal world and looking inwards to find the connecting source of ones own being. Thus arose the concept of Brahman, the all-embracing universal essence and the parallel emergence of the concept of Atman as the innermost essence, a reflection within of that external unifying force which was at once both ubiquitous and immanent.
Numerous were the dialogues wherein the sages explained through analogy, the manner of comprehending that unifying reality that underlies all diversity: the analogy of salt dissolved in water which is no longer visible and can only be detected through taste, whichever part of the water one sipped; the analogy of the fig whose seed when split open revealed nothing, yet was responsible for creating a giant Fig tree; the analogy of the broken earthen pot which despite the destruction of the pot was still clay; the analogy of the chariot and the charioteer to explain the presence of the soul within the body; The analogy of the spider that spins a web and sits at its centre like Brahman creating the world and then entering into its every atom; the metaphor of the two birds on a fruit tree, one eating the fruit the other watching it eat, representing the Atman and Brahman; the metaphor of butter inherent in milk which was like Brahman discernible through the churning of meditation; the analogy of sparks that fly out of fire and return to it as souls emerging from Brahman and merging back into it.
The Atman was the innermost essence of every being. The Atman was also the reflection of the Universal Essence and eventually the concepts of Atman and Brahman became synonymous. The Atman in fact embraced all states of man’s consciousness as explained in the famous verses of the Mandukya Upanishad – the waking state, the dreaming state, the dreamless deep sleep state and the final state beyond all states of silent, peaceful bliss. In the waking state it looked outwards experiencing gross matter; in the dream state it looked inwards and experienced subtle objects accumulated in dream memories; in the deep sleep stage which is deesireless it experienced spiritual bliss. In the third sublime and thoughtless stage of deep sleep the Atman reflected the supreme Godhead, the source of all, the creative principle. But it was in the last stage of ‘Turiya’ that the true nature of the Atman was revealed – neither inward nor outward consciousness, nor both; neither knowing nor unknowing; it was without characteristics, undefinable and inconceivable, one without a second, quiescent, peaceful and blissful – Brahman. The Atman was in fact all four stages combined together. The Atman is described in the Bhagvad Gita thus:
” It is neither born nor does it die, coming into being and ceasing to be do not take place in it. Unborn, eternal, constant and ancient, it is not killed when the body is slain……Weapons do not cleave it, fire burns it not, wind dries it not…..it is eternal, all-pervading, stable, immovable and everlasting…..It is unmanifest, unthinkable and immutable…….Some look upon the Self as a marvel, as a marvel another speaks of it, and as a wonder another hears of it, but though all hear of it none know it.”
In contrast with Jain and Sankya theology which regarded matter and spirit as distinct, in Brahmanism the Atman was both matter and spirit at once, the source of all and the essence of all. This was the Monism of Brahmanical thought as contrasted with the mechanical Dualism of Jain and Sankhya theology.
It was in the Bhagvad Gita that the ancient pre-Aryan Dualistic Sankhya theology and cosmology got merged and synthesized with Monist Brahmanical thought. Matter and Spirit as Purush and Prakriti were terms continuing to be used but now with a totally different inflection – they appeared distinct to the mind of the thinker on account of the workings of Maya illusion, while in fact being two sides of the same coin of Brahman, two conjoined aspects of the Universal Essence merely appearing as two.
Furthermore the Purush, Jiva or Atman did not ascend to any summit of the universe upon liberation to abide in total isolation (Sankhya and Jain theology) but merged with Brahman of which it was always an inseparable part, like a spray of water drops thrown up by the turbulent ocean through the force of its illusory power of Maya. the Atman did not experience any isolated bliss separated from matter as the Sankya Purush did at the roof of the universe in a state of Kaivalyam nor did it like the Jain Tirthankars remain detached and aloof. The Godhead in Brahmanical thought on the contrary at the macrocosmic level was the creator of the mirage of the world, a glorious dream of His, and at the microcosmic level incarnated into His dream world as an Avatar time and again when that world experienced atrophy and lack of cohesion on account of the erosion of righteousness (Dharma). The Godhead far from being in a state of isolation was thus perpetually concerned and active in ordering His universe and restoring equilibrium to it. As Krishna in the Gita asserts ”If I did not act relentlessly, these worlds would perish”
As compared with the isolation and disinterested detachment of Sakhya’s Purush and the Jain Tirthankars, the Supreme Being in Brahmanism thus engaged Himself fully in the joys and sorrows of the phenomenal world through His incarnations as Avatar.
The Sankhya idea of the three Gunas of Prakriti, attributes of Nature,was also wholly incorporated into the Gita’s parlance with a whole chapter dedicated to qualifying attributes of each Guna as affecting man. But the Gunas were as illusory as the world in which they played their role. They did not affect the Godhead which transcended them. For Sankhya the Gunas were substantial.
The extreme asceticism of Jainism and Sankhya with corresponding total renunciation of action as pathways to salvation and liberation from matter do not find sanction in the philosophy of the Gita The central doctrine of the Gita on the contrary is concerned with the discharge of ones duty and the commission of righteous action (Karmayoga). Krishna calls those who refrain from action under the impression that this is a form of renunciation, as hypocrites and urges that nothing is more important than to do the duty to which one is born. He also condemns extreme asceticism as needlessly inflicting punishments on the body and the indweller within:
”Yoga is not possible for him who eats too much or for him who abstains too much from eating; it is not for him…. who sleeps too much or too little.”
”Those who practice grim mortification….torture their bodily organs and Me too, who dwells within the body…”
According to the Gita the path to salvation is not through renunciation and asceticism and withdrawal from active life, rather true renunciation consists in acting wholeheartedly, with dexterity in a dispassionate manner not seeking rewards and being neither euphoric in success nor dejected in failure. The true ascetic is one who has equanimity in all circumstances. This philosophy of commitment to action and total engagement in the world of the living, even for the Godhead as Avatar affirmed life and Krishna asserts that no living being can remain without action. Even when inactive his bodily functions in fact continue with furious activity therefore denial of action was a false renunciation and was hypocritical.was in total contrast to the life-denying pre-Aryan philosophies of abstention and resignation:
”None can remain really actionless even for a moment, for everyone is driven to action by the Gunas of Prakriti. That deluded man is called a hypocrite who sits controlling the organs of action, but dwelling in his mind on the objects of the senses.”
Brahmanism was also by contrast fully theistic and deeply concerned with devotion and worship of the Supreme Being. A whole chapter on Bhakti (devotional worship) is dedicated to ardent and personal devotion to the godhead. Krishna says in the Gita:
”with the heart serene and fearless, firm in the vow of continence (celibacy), with mind controlled and ever thinking of Me, let him sit having Me as his supreme goal”.”
This alone leads to enlightenment. Krishna explains whom he finds most devout and dear among men;
”….steady minded and full of devout self-surrender – that man is dear to me.”
All actions must be undertaken on behalf of Brahman and for Him alone.
No such call to devotional prayer towards a Godhead exists in the pristine philosophies of Jainism and Sankhya. Their spiritualism consists in emulating the example of the Tirthankars and individual release from the entanglements of matter.
The theism of Brahmanism was unequivocal and without qualification, a fundamental doctrine of faith to be pursued diligently as a primary goal to liberation. the very act of devotion won for the worshiper the path to liberation. This was different from the path to liberation in Sankhya and Yoga involving disciplines and practices leading to abnegation.
The theory of Karma and reincarnation existing in Sankhya and Jainism which was not present in the Vedas or the early Upanishads, also became a central doctrine of the Bhagvad Gita as clearly brought out in the analogy of casting off worn out garments to don new ones for a soul shedding the body and reincarnating into another. The concept of reincarnation even of the Godhead as Avatar, time and again, was however an innovation and refinement of Jain and Sankhya theology. No such reincarnation of the Godhead ( there being no Godhead) exists in the pre-Aryan philosophies of India.
With the passage of time however the pre-Aryan Indian disposition and obsession with resignation, renunciation and asceticism reasserted itself in the later epochs of Brahmanical thought, particularly in the non-dual Advait philosophy of Vedanta attributed to the sage-philosopher Shakaracharya in the ninth century A.D. The euphoric world affirmation so evident in the Vedic and Upanishadic periods disappeared, to be replaced by a concept as ascetic and passive as existed in the earlier indigenous thought of India, though now garbed in the sophisticated language of the non-dualist Advait philosophy. The Atman now began to resemble more and more the Purush of Sankhya as a passive, unattached, unconcerned and non-acting nucleus residing within. The Gita had already proclaimed that the Atman was actionless and not the agent of action, Prakriti (Nature)and its attributes the Gunas alone were the cause of activity:
” He truly sees who sees that all actions are done by Prakriti alone and the Atma is action less…. he who in imperfect understanding looks upon the Self as the agent (of action) – he does not see at all”
The Sankhya concept that ignorance (Avidya) caused the entanglement of the Purush (Soul) was also applied to Shankar’s Vedantic thesis. The sheathes of gross body (waking state), subtle body ( dream state), and causal body ( deep sleep state) now in Vedanta were illusions created by Avidya, ignorance, which both hid the Self and created the mirage of phenomenality. again like Sankhya, Shankar asserted that the illusion was to be dispelled by knowledge and Yoga disciplines which would reveal the radiance of the Soul within.
In Shankar’s Advait philosophy there is also a subtle veering away from theism, matching the atheism of Sankhya. At the preparatory stage the initiate is permitted indulgence in all the normal virtuous activity of a householder – performance of good and charitable deeds, without attachment to rewards or fruit, austerities and self-denial ( celibacy etc), worshipping in the normal dualistic manner with prayers to deities and ancestors. As he proceeds to advance in his meditations a stage comes when his efforts are rewarded by a vision of God. He is warned to exercise restraint for this vision is no more than a sublime manifestation of dualistic ignorance, Avidya, and must be transcended. The divine personality superimposed on Brahman is no less a mask than ones own personality is a sheath veiling ones innermost Self. The temptation to persist with such a sublime error at the penultimate stage of realization of truth must be strongly resisted and overcome as nothing more than a final delusion. The Adept would then pass beyond the illusory creator of an illusory creation to the ultimate reality of the supreme truth, consciousness and bliss (Sat-Chit-Anand) which alone is Brahman.
For Shankar’s Advait, a personalized God or creator was an illusion to be overcome. Brahman appearing as the Supreme Lord God was no more than enacting an illusory play (Leela) , and remained beyond all definitions and to be realized and experienced as such through thoughtless meditation. This rejection of the Godhead appears to go against the theistic premise and begins to resemble more and more the Sankhya pilgrim’s path seeking salvation devoid of any God like inspiration, with the difference that in Advait the soul is not isolated but is an integral part of a holy supreme unity, Brahman.
We thus appear to have come full circle from the atheistic and pessimistic pre-Aryan philosophies of abnegation, through the glorious life affirmation of the Vedas and Upanishads, to the synthesis and amalgamation of the Sankhya philosophy into the language of the Gita and finally to a revived stoic asceticism and denial of any reality to a personal Godhead in Shanker’s Vedanta philosophy. Yet the force of theism reasserted itself. First the sage Ramanuja in the eleventh century A.D. challenged the erudite Vedantic non-dualism with his dualistic approach to worshiping a personal God, believing that love and adoration of God (Bhakti) won liberation and not knowledge to end the Avidya of ignorance. He won an eager and significant following. More significantly in the Bhakti movement of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D. poet-saints like Sur, Tulsi, Meera, Raidas, Kabir and Nanak, among others, enthralled the multitudes with their ardent devotional songs to a personal God in a theistic storm of revival. They took the cue for this from the invigorating devotional premise of the Bhagvad Gita.
The trinity of Sagun Brahman – Brahma-Vishnu-shiva
Temple deity – Lord Rama
In the ultimate analysis, Hinduism today is an amalgam of all these diverse streams of thought.The concept of a Universal Essence, ubiquitous as Brahman and immanent as Atman is entrenched in Hindu psyche and theology, both respected and revered. At the same time the personal Godhead appears to have displaced Brahman in popular imagination, in temples, hearth and home becoming the real objects of worship. The philosophically inclined veer towards Advait practices of meditation for the realization of the unequivocal truth of Brahman, while the vast majority of humbler folk gravitate towards a personal deity whether as the supreme godhead or its Avatar, for worship and spiritual sustenance. That Godhead’s threefold representation as creator, sustainer and annihilator, Brahma (distinct from Brahman), Vishnu and Shiva, and their feminine counterparts, Shakti, are the major deities to whom temples are dedicated together with their reincarnated Avatars, Rama and Krishna.They are the subject of colourful invigorating mythology, the grand epics and scriptures, art and culture, and the daily religious rituals, worship, prayer and deeply felt faith. The only depiction of Brahman is in the syllable Om which is pronounced before every prayer and adorns places of worship and homes symbolically inscribed within a glowing sun.
The symbol Aum representing Brahman
There are no temples dedicated to Brahman ( Nirgun brahman – Brahman without attributes) The supreme Godhead now represents him wearing a mask of personality and form as the favoured option (Sagun Brahman – Brhaman with form and attributes). Shanker’s Advait monastries (Muths) are the secluded substitute to temples where Brahman is to be realized by adept monks and followers through esoteric practices stern disciplines and meditation.
To complete the picture of amalgamation, the cosmology of the pre-Aryan religious disciplines have bequeathed the concepts of Karma, the soul, its transmigration in rebirth and its eventual liberation aided by Yogic disciplines of the Yoga Sutras to Hinduism becoming embedded in Indian culture and civilization as the pillars of the faith.
The further evolution of this grand synthesis of diverse spiritual inspiration and philosophical disciplines have further spawned the philosophy of the Tantra, Kundilini, Yoga and an accompanying range of meditative practices into the daily spiritual lives of the Hindu.
The absence of a centralized Church, leaves the worshiper free to move from one to the other at will, selecting the spiritual experience of his choice without fear of excommunication or digression from inviolable dogma. He can practice Advait meditation in the morning, worship at a Rama temple in the afternoon and seek to arouse his Kundilini in the evening with total freedom., or worship not at all as a soul suffused by the darker shades of matter with many reincarnations awaiting him before liberation which is eventually guaranteed in any case.