Philosophy – from the Greek words:
philo – love of, affinity for;
sophos – wisdom.
Philosophy – the love of wisdom
Wisdom – from the Old Norse visdomr – the ability to think and act utilising knowledge, experience, understanding, discernment, insight and common sense – coupled with just judgment as to action.
Philosophy means the love of wisdom, the ability to separate truth from error, reality from illusion, and the subsequent discernment as to correct action. Professional philosophers use the word in specific ways according to which type of reality and illusion they are talking about.
A philosophical discussion on values in human behaviour such as what is right and wrong, or what actions are blameworthy or praiseworthy is known as Ethics.
When philosophy deals with the question of value in arts, such as whether something is beautiful or tasteless, it is known as Aesthetics. The philosophy of art is concerned with judgements of sense, taste, the emotions that art generates within the beholder, and standards of beauty. Both of these examinations of truth pertaining to values come under the umbrella term Axiology.
An attempt by the philosopher to codify the rules of rational thought is known as Logic. Logicians explore the structure of arguments that preserve truth or allow the optimal extraction of knowledge from evidence. Logic is one of the primary tools philosophers use in their inquiries; the precision of logic helps them to cope with the subtlety of philosophical problems and the often misleading nature of conversational language.
To be a logical philosopher means to not be swayed by emotionally appealing arguments to the detriment of the actual truth. For anything to be accepted as truth, the philosopher first has to ask the question: “Is it logical for me to accept this proposition?”
The study of methods to establish the truth separate from human error and to therefore understand how to verify evidence is known as Epistemology. This type of philosopher studies knowledge itself, the origin and structure of knowledge, and the limits of human knowledge. The main enquiry is to ask how we really know what we say we know, or “What kind of evidence do I need to accept this as true?”
When we have fully examined how we get to know reality, and turn our attention to the nature of existence itself, we will be in the territory of Metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of the nature of things. Metaphysicians ask what kinds of things exist, and what they are like. They reason about such things as whether or not people have free will, in what sense abstract objects can be said to exist, what is the brain/mind/self and the nature of consciousness, and whether or not there is an ultimate reality or God.
If philosophy is the pure human spirit of enquiry into what is real, true, good or beautiful, then it cannot be divided up by geography or history. And yet in ordinary conversation we do speak of Greek philosophy or 20th century philosophers. We also speak of Catholic or Jewish philosophy, as if it was an entirely separate category of search for truth, involving only those of a particular faith group.
In reality, all attempts to discern reality as separate from illusion are one, whoever is making the effort and wherever they are situated in the world or whatever point in history. Conventional speech alone presses us to define a philosophy in a particular way.
The philosophical rigour of great thinkers in India was already well established centuries before the likes of Aristotle and Socrates. They did not refer to themselves as Hindu philosophers, merely deep thinkers who grappled with the main questions of existence. Their capability for abstract thought was immense. They may not be well known to the West, but their conclusions are every bit as logical, although expressed in the ancient language of Sanskrit rather than Greek, German or English.
One great mediaeval philosopher by the name of Madhva was a logician. When he wrote his philosophical commentary to the Vedanta Sutra, there were already twenty-one other historical commentaries on the same text. In developing his logic, Madhva reasoned that since knowledge meant both an object and a subject, a knower and a known, there must be an individual reality and a universal reality, not merely a unitary reality. He put forward the concept that the universe was real and that the individual self within the universe was real. That there are a multiplicity of selves and a singular universe inferred some relation between the selves, and the selves and the universe. He reasoned that there must be an independent principle, a super-consciousness, to which all the individual expressions of consciousness must be connected:
“The fact of knowledge is indisputable. As there can be no knowledge without a knower, a known or knowable object, the reality of the knower and the objects of knowledge must be accepted. Even though we make mistakes, the possibility of knowledge has still to be admitted.”
The great logical philosopher Jayatirtha
His student, Jayatirtha, wrote in his book of logic, the Tattvasankhyana Tika:
“The independent principle is that which does not depend on any other for its own nature and existence, self-awareness or for becoming an object of knowledge to the selves and for the free and unfettered exercise of its own powers”
The philosophical enquiries of the Indian philosophers led them into an area of knowledge which today we would term Theology, the study of theos or God. Although theology is considered today to be a separate discipline from philosophy, one more interested in sectarian religious dogma than scientific examination of the truth, the ancient Indian philosophers saw no such hard distinction. They simply saw that their line of enquiry into the ultimate reality led them to the very reasonable conclusion that there existed an independent reality that had unlimited awareness and volition, and the infinitesimal consciousness of the limitless number of individuals was somehow connected and given sustenance by this one entity.
But if this was true, and to understand that truth was to be situated in wisdom, the next step would be to act in the light of that Truth. And a modern thinker would say that this is the point at which philosophy ends and something called religion begins.
Narada Muni, son of Brahma, instructs his disciple Srila Vyasa, and requests him to write the Bhagavata Purana
It is said that Vedic injunctions are made large by the Puranas, or histories, since within these texts we can learn of how the Vedas have been implemented historically in the lives of humans, gods, sages and kings. By reading of the interplay of Vedic lore in the lives of real people we can be inspired to follow their example, and be warned of the consequences of acting in a manner contrary to Vedic dharma. Also written in the Puranas are descriptions of the compassionate, knowledge-giving actions of the many avatars of Sri Vishnu and the appearance of the Supreme Godhead, Sri Krishna.
The Puranas present selected events rather than a strict chronology. There are eighteen Puranas, notionally divided into three sections according to the predominating influence in the mind of the reader. The Puranas for those largely predominated by the influence of sattvika guna, or the ‘mode of goodness,’ for instance, will focus on Vishnu (Narayana), his incarnations and devotees. Other Puranas may focus on god Shiva or goddess Shakti.
Traditionally, there are five subjects of a Purana:
- Sarga or ‘Creation’
- Prati-Sarga or ‘Secondary Creation,’
- Vamsa or ‘Family Trees,’
- Manvantara or the ‘History of the Manus’ the creative gods, and finally
- Vamsa-anu-caritra, the details of the dynasties of kings and saints.
The Bhagavata Purana or Srimad Bhagavatam contains ten topics explained in 18,000 verses, a third of which describe the activities and speeches of Krishna. The verses are divided into 335 chapters, 90 of which are the tenth canto, the narrations of Krishna. According to a verse in the second canto of the book, the contents are as follows:
Śrī Śukadeva Gosvāmī said: In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam there are ten divisions of statements regarding the following: the creation of the universe, subcreation, planetary systems, protection by the Lord, the creative impetus, the change of Manus, the science of God, returning home, back to Godhead, liberation, and the summum bonum. (Srimad Bhagavatam 2.10.1)
In his commentaries to the Chaitanya Caritamrita, the extensive biography of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Srila Prabhupada writes:
These verses from Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam list the ten subject matters dealt with in the text of the Bhāgavatam. Of these, the tenth is the substance, and the other nine are categories derived from the substance. These ten subjects are listed as follows:
(1) Sarga: the first creation by Viṣṇu, the bringing forth of the five gross material elements, the five objects of sense perception, the ten senses, the mind, the intelligence, the false ego and the total material energy, or universal form.
(2) Visarga: the secondary creation, or the work of Brahmā in producing the moving and unmoving bodies in the universe (brahmāṇḍa).
(3) Sthāna: the maintenance of the universe by the Personality of Godhead, Viṣṇu. Viṣṇu’s function is more important and His glory greater than Brahmā’s and Lord Śiva’s, for although Brahmā is the creator and Lord Śiva the destroyer, Viṣṇu is the maintainer.
(4) Poṣaṇa: special care and protection for devotees by the Lord. As a king maintains his kingdom and subjects but nevertheless gives special attention to the members of his family, so the Personality of Godhead gives special care to His devotees who are souls completely surrendered to Him.
(5) Ūti: the urge for creation, or initiative power, that is the cause of all inventions, according to the necessities of time, space and objects.
(6) Manv-antara: the periods controlled by the Manus, who teach regulative principles for living beings who desire to achieve perfection in human life. The rules of Manu, as described in the Manu-saṁhitā, guide the way to such perfection.
(7) Īśānukathā: scriptural information regarding the Personality of Godhead, His incarnations on earth and the activities of His devotees. Scriptures dealing with these subjects are essential for progressive human life.
(8) Nirodha: the winding up of all energies employed in creation. Such potencies are emanations from the Personality of Godhead who eternally lies in the Kāraṇa Ocean. The cosmic creations, manifested with His breath, are again dissolved in due course.
(9) Mukti: liberation of the conditioned souls encaged by the gross and subtle coverings of body and mind. When freed from all material affection, the soul, giving up the gross and subtle material bodies, can attain the spiritual sky in his original spiritual body and engage in transcendental loving service to the Lord in Vaikuṇṭhaloka or Kṛṣṇaloka. When the soul is situated in his original constitutional position of existence, he is said to be liberated. It is possible to engage in transcendental loving service to the Lord and become jīvan-mukta, a liberated soul, even while in the material body.
(10) Āśraya: the Transcendence, the summum bonum, from whom everything emanates, upon whom everything rests, and in whom everything merges after annihilation. He is the source and support of all. The āśraya is also called the Supreme Brahman, as in the Vedānta-sūtra (athāto brahma jijñāsā, janmādy asya yataḥ (SB 1.1.1)). Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam especially describes this Supreme Brahman as the āśraya. Śrī Kṛṣṇa is this āśraya, and therefore the greatest necessity of life is to study the science of Kṛṣṇa.
Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam accepts Śrī Kṛṣṇa as the shelter of all manifestations because Lord Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the ultimate source of everything, the supreme goal of all.
Two different principles are to be considered herein—namely āśraya, the object providing shelter, and āśrita, the dependents requiring shelter. The āśrita exist under the original principle, the āśraya. The first nine categories, described in the first nine cantos of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, from creation to liberation—including the puruṣa-avatāras, the incarnations, the marginal energy, or living entities, and the external energy, or material world—are all āśrita. The prayers of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, however, aim for the āśraya-tattva, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Śrī Kṛṣṇa. The great souls expert in describing Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam have very diligently delineated the other nine categories, sometimes by direct narrations and sometimes by indirect narrations such as stories. The real purpose of doing this is to know perfectly the Absolute Transcendence, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, for the entire creation, both material and spiritual, rests on the body of Śrī Kṛṣṇa.
The Sanskrit word Itihasa means ‘It happened thus’ and the texts are histories, normally written by an author who was contemporary with the events. The Mahabharata was written by Srila Vysadeva who witnessed many of the events described therein; and the Ramayana was composed by Sri Valmiki who was a contemporary of Sri Ramachandra. The Itihasas do not have to follow the structure of the Puranas, but they may also contain elements of the five subjects nonetheless. The Chandogya Upanisad (7.1.4) mentions the Puranas and Itihasas as the fifth Veda. The Bhagavata-Purana (1.4.20) also states, “The four divisions of the original sources of knowledge [the Vedas] were made separately. But the historical facts and authentic stories mentioned in the Puranas are called the fifth Veda.” Madhvacarya, commenting on the Vedanta-sutras (2.1.6), quotes the Bhavisya Purana, which states, “The Rig-veda, Yajur-veda, Sama-veda, Atharva-veda, Mahabharata, Pancharatra, and the original Ramayana are all considered Vedic literature. The Vaishnava supplements, the Puranas, are also Vedic literature.”
The Bhagavad-gita is a dialogue contained in the Shanti-Parva section of the Mahabharata, but the nature of the conversation ranges from Upanishadic verses through to the highest devotional theology. For this reason it is much loved and commonly known as Gita-Upanishad or Gitopanishad.
Since the times of Adi Sankaracarya in the early mediaeval period, it has been common for all schools of thought to establish their systems of philosophy on three texts, the Upanishads, the Vedanta Sutra and the Bhagavad-gita, collectively known as prasthana-trayi or the ‘three foundations’.
Uddalaka speaks to his son Svetaketu in the Katha Upanishad (For an extract of their conversation see end)
Samhita, Brahmana and Aranyaka
Samhita means ‘that which has been collected and arranged.’ A samhita brings out the meaning of the particular Veda in the shape of mantras systematically arranged. In addition to the samhita portion, each Veda has a part known as a brahmana and another section called an aranyaka.
The brahmana portion lists what rituals are to be performed and exactly how they are to be done. When the mantras contained in a samhita are converted into a ritual action called yajna, the brahmanas serve the purpose of a guidebook or a handy manual explaining how each word should be understood.
The word aranya means ‘forest’ and the aranyakas are texts for ‘forest dwellers,’ those who have renounced sensory pleasures and now live in the tranquil forest of contemplation. These texts are meant to explain the inner meaning, the doctrine or philosophy contained in the samhita as mantras, and in the brahmanas as yajnas. According to the aranyakas it is important to understand the reasons why yajnas are required to be done, and not merely their actual performance.
The Upanishads come towards the end of the aranyakas. Their main theme is philosophical enquiry and an urgent recommendation to rise above the mental states that keep the soul within the cycle of repeated reincarnation. This message is in contrast to other sections of the Vedas which tend to attract the soul to celestial enjoyments or power and beauty within this world and the next. Because of these two, somewhat contradictory, messages the Vedas are considered to have two portions. The first is the portion dealing with ‘actions’ or ‘ritual’ and is known as the Karma Kanda. The second portion deals with ‘higher knowledge of the self’ and is consequently known as the Jnana Kanda. These are also referred to, respectively, as the Purva Mimamsa and the Uttara Mimamsa.
The Vedas were first orally preserved in spoken Sanskrit or ‘purified language,’ as a chain of recitation from guru to disciple, then written down in Devanagari, the written form. Sanskrit has 46 characters and each has a precise pronunciation.
It may appear to be a paradox that the deva worship recommended in the beginning of the Vedas is negated by it in the later sections. Certainly it is strange for the western reader who may, rightly, expect to notice consistency within the same holy text. But there is a central commandment running through the Vedas: so long as we wish to enjoy the world we must worship the devas and perform karma; and as soon as we understand the temporary nature of material happiness and the transience of our short lifetime we must take to cultivating knowledge of the self, or jnana.
The word upa-ni-shat means to ‘sit by the side’ and refers to the student of the Vedas who is called forward to receive higher instruction. In the Upanishads we find that the very same gods who are the objects of obligatory worship in one portion of the Vedas are described as themselves being either students or teachers of higher knowledge. Indeed, even in the Vyakaran section of the Vedas, a dictionary of Sanskrit terminology, the word devanampriya or ‘beloved of the gods’ is synonymous for ‘fool.’ In the Taittiriya Upanishad (2.5) and in the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad (2.3.33) there is a stinging comparison of the bliss attainable by the soul who has become free from material entrapment compared to the soul who enjoys celestial happiness in the heavenly realms. After a progressive analysis – which reads like a multiplication table – we learn that the happiness of a young man in the prime of life here on earth is surpassed by the bliss of the self-realised soul by 100 to the power of 10. But when men learn of the paltry ‘bliss’ attainable in this world, and they try to practise yoga, they tend to fall out of favour with the gods themselves. The Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad (1.4.10) says that the gods do not like men who try to realise their inner self and often choose to send temptations and distractions their way. Many are the aspirant yogis who have become confounded by the intrigues of the gods.
The Upanishads are so important to the philosophical and theological strength of the Vedic path, that the religion itself was often known as Upanishad Dharma. Although the number of the Upanishads is variously calculated, most schools of the Vedas count at least ten to thirteen as being of great importance. Accordingly, these are studied the most. Srila Prabhupada has regularly cited from the Katha, Kena, Chandogya, Mundaka and Svetasvatara Upanishads, and of course has published his own commentary on the Isha Upanishad.
The Brahma Sutra or Vedanta Sutra
The Sanskrit word sutra means a ‘summarized code’ and in the Skanda Purana and Vayu Purana the definition is given: ‘when a thesis is presented in few words, but with great volumes of meaning and, when understood, is very beautiful.’
Vedanta means ‘the end of knowledge’ and is meant to be the ultimate Vedic text in the matter of exploring the nature or ‘perfect being’ of Brahman (spirit) and its relationship to matter. The Vedanta Sutra covers the nature of the infinitesimal, individual being and the infinite being. Since describing the relationship between them must include analysing how the individual living being falls into ignorance and suffers the nature of forgetfulness and illusion is examined.
The Vedanta Sutra was composed by Srila Vyasadeva as an exegesis of all the Upanishads and is compromised of 555 sutras divided into 192 adhikaranas, logical arguments or syllogisms, each of which consist of five parts: 1.Visaya (thesis or statement) 2.Samsaya (doubt in the tenability of the statement) 3.Purvapaksha (presentation of a view opposing the original statement) 4.Siddhanta (determination of the ‘final conclusion,’ by quotation from Vedic texts) 5.Sangati (confirmation of the final conclusion by quotation from Vedic texts.
All schools of thought in India have their own commentary on the Vedanta Sutra written by the original preceptor of their lineage.
The distinction between matter and spirit is introduced in the famous conversation between father and son in the Katha Upanishad. I read it here.
On October 6th, 1969, in London, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada gave a lecture about the Vedas. He began as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen, today’s subject matter is the teachings of the Vedas. What are the Vedas? The Sanskrit verbal root of veda can be interpreted variously, but the purport is finally one. Veda means knowledge. Any knowledge you accept is veda, for the teachings of the Vedas are the original knowledge…”
The Vedas, Vedangas, Upangas and Upavedas
The Vedas are one body of knowledge divided into four, the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Veda. Each of the four Vedas has several, slightly variant recensions known as sakhas. In each of those sakhas there are three portions: the Samhita, Brahmana, and the Aranyaka.
The Rig Veda contains many Sanskrit hymns of praise directed to many devas or gods, in truth many aspects of the one, single divine. What in later ages became known as slokas, or metrical verses, were originally known as rigs. Each rig is a mantra and a number of such rigs or mantras make up a poem known as a sukta. The Samhita portion of the Rig Veda contains more than ten thousand rigs (10,170 to be precise) grouped into 1028 poems or suktas.
The word Yajur is derived from the word Yaj or worship. The word Yajna, meaning sacrificial worship, is also derived from this stem. The Yajur Veda spells out the ritualistic procedural details of worship whereby all the rigs of the Rig Veda can be employed.
The word Sama means to ‘make peaceful’ and the Sama Veda contains music to make the gods peaceful and pleased with the worshipper. In order to attain the grace of the gods who are being propitiated, the priest sings the rig mantras to the seven notes of the musical scale rather than the strict upward and downward notes of the Rig Veda chanting.
The Atharva Veda draws its name from the rishi named Atharva who revealed it. The mantras in this Veda are for protection.
The Vedangas are the various ‘limbs’ of the Vedas and include texts on pronunciation of the mantras (Siksha) texts on grammar and poetic metre (Vyakaran and Chanda) as well as a dictionary (Nirukti). Since Vedic yajnas or rituals have to be performed in exactly constructed arenas and according to the phases of the moon and stars there are also handbooks for mathematics, astrology and ritual detail (Jyotish and Kalpa)
The Upangas are the ‘subsidiary limbs’ and consist of texts that support the performance of ritual and the comprehension of their importance and intrinsic philosophical basis. They include Mimamsa, the ‘deep analysis of a subject worthy of reverence,’ Nyaya, the system of logical deduction and analysis of evidence; histories or Purana, and the Dharma Shastras, codes of living for civilised people.
The Dharma Shastras describe household duties, personal work, cleanliness, eating, and ceremonies related to life-cycle events such as weddings and funerals. There are 18 such texts, known as smritis, written by 18 rishis such as Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara, and the smritis all bear their names.
The Upavedas are texts dealing with corollary subjects important for organizing the various features and essential elements of civilized human society. Ayur-veda explains an elaborate system of medicine; the Artha-shastra describes polity and economics; the Dhanur-veda focuses on ethical warfare and the Gandharva-veda teaches music.
The Pancharatra is a group of texts as old as the four Vedas and has the same transcendental origin. They were ancient even in the time of the Lord Krishna’s appearance in this world, and are mentioned in the Shanti-parva section of the Mahabharata.
In that portion a description of the transcendental abode Swetadwipa is given, ‘a domain inhabited by devotees of Narayana, whom they worship through their knowledge of pancha-ratra.’ The name pancha-ratra means ‘Five Nights,’ and indicates a series of instructions given by Lord Narayana to His devotees over five consecutive nights. Narada Muni heard them first and shared them with Lord Shiva, Lakshmi Devi, the Kumaras and others. There are said to be around two hundred texts including the Ahirbudhnya Samhita spoken by Shiva, the Lakshmi Tantra, and the Narada Pancharatra. Srila Prabhupada writes:
The scriptures known as the Pañcarātra-śāstras are recognized Vedic scriptures that have been accepted by the great ācāryas. These scriptures are not products of the modes of passion and ignorance. Learned scholars and brāhmaṇas therefore always refer to them as sātvata-saṁhitās. The original speaker of these scriptures is Nārāyaṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is especially mentioned in the Mokṣa-dharma (349.68), which is part of the Śānti-parva of the Mahābhārata. Liberated sages like Nārada and Vyāsa, who are free from the four defects of conditioned souls, are the propagators of these scriptures. Śrī Nārada Muni is the original speaker of the Pañcarātra-śāstra. (Sri Caitanya Caritamrta 1.5.41)
The theology of the Pancharatra is solely focused on the Personality of Godhead. The texts describe the appearance and character of the Lord, and the many avatars He takes for functions such as creation of the world and deliverance of the conditioned souls. It also describes methods of ritual worship, prayer and the employment of mantras.
When Narada Muni visited his disciple Srila Vyasadeva, he told him that although he’d compiled so much Vedic literature, he had not yet composed the ‘spotless glories of the Supreme Lord.’ So the great rishi set about writing the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad Bhagavatam. Its 18,000 verses in 350 chapters all tell of the Lord and His devotees, with a full ninety chapters entirely dedicated to the accounts of Krishna’s appearance and activities in the world. In the 11th book of that great work is described what took place when the Supreme Lord Krishna was about to leave the world and return to His eternal abode. Krishna gave His parting instructions to His friend Uddhava, a conversation which is now recorded in the section known as the Uddhava Gita. In chapter 27 the Lord also explains Pancharatra worship.
Mantra (sacred sound) Yantra (sacred geometry) and Tantra (sacred ritual) are all part of the teaching found in the Pancharatra.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu asked his close follower Sanatana Goswami to compile a handbook for Vaishnava life. The book was to describe everything from the daily activities of a devotee through to temple worship and the celebration of festivals. So with help from the revered Gopala Bhatta Goswami, who’d spent his youth and education as a priest in Sri Rangam, a temple town in southern India, he collected verses from some two hundred scriptures, including twenty-five selections from Pancharatra sources. From this effort was born the manual Hari-Bhakti-Vilasa.
Srila Rupa Goswami also gives credit to the Pancharatra as being one of the legitimate sources of conclusive evidence on the nature of Godhead and the methods of developing our relationship with God. Again, Srila Prabhupada writes:
Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has said in the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (1.2.101):
aikāntikī harer bhaktir utpātāyaiva kalpate
He clearly mentions in this verse that one must refer to the Vedic literatures and other, supplementary literatures and follow the conclusion of the Vedas. An invented devotional attitude simply creates disturbances in the transcendental realm.
Since the Pancharatra scriptures give directions for the worship of the Lord, particularly in deity worship, and since many of the ancient mantras have been included in the Hari Bhakti Vilasa, they can still be found being chanted today by all members of the Vaishnava sampradayas, including the members of ISKCON.
A lone eagle soars high in the sky above the craggy foothills of the Himalayas, wheeling and gliding on the thermal currents. Her golden-brown wings, extending to a gloriously feathered span of five feet, catch every breeze.
At times she seems to hover, so perfectly balanced are the calculations of her own forward movement and the counter-thrust she feels from the wind. Deep below her, over a mile away on the slopes, a small rabbit ventures out of its burrow. It’s just a grey speck in a greyish landscape but she sees it. Making a large circle so as to descend behind her prey, she calculates the distance, her own speed, and the speed of the rabbit, then plunges quickly down and forward. The rabbit has no chance.
Just one scene that plays out every day in nature, but one which reveals how every species has a particular advantage in the struggle for survival. If you and I had the eyes of that eagle, we’d be able to see an ant from the tenth floor of a skyscraper. Eagles have such acute vision because they’re endowed with retinas that have a dense coating of light-detecting cells known as cones. Humans have around 200,000 cones per millimetre whereas eagles have 1,000,000, five times the amount. Like pixels in an image, the more cones, the clearer the picture and the further you can see. The part of the retina known as the fovea – in humans a one millimetre sized dip – is the part where vision is most acute. In an eagle the fovea is a much larger convex pit. They also see in bright colour, as well as in ultraviolet. Not only that, but because of the positioning of their eyes, they can see 340 degrees to our 180. Life is not all about being able to catch rabbits, but if you’re an eagle it is very useful.
The basic impulse of all life is to stay alive, and each species has some special sensory advantage that contributes to its fight for survival. Moths can smell other moths over a mile away, and a fish can hear over huge distances through the water. Even the humble housefly can walk upside down using sticker pads on its feet, and an earthworm can completely regenerate its own body. By comparison, we humans have strict limitations on our senses. We have greatly increased problem-solving intelligence, but our eyes, noses and ears are not the greatest in the natural world.
We tend to consider reality to be only that which we can see, smell and hear; but compared to other creatures we really don’t experience much of ‘reality’ at all. What is reality anyway? If we can only experience directly a very small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum – not even including ultra-violet and infra-red light – then does it mean that anything beyond what we can see is not real? The little rabbit was ‘real’ for the eagle, but any humans flying at that height would have missed it entirely. It would not have been ‘real’ for them.
That’s why eastern spiritual teachings begin with the principle that the five senses alone are insufficient to experience spiritual reality – if indeed there is any such thing as a spiritual reality beyond the physical world. The plane of spiritual existence cannot be proven by any sensory evidence – but neither can it be disproved. The Sanskrit word for ‘proof’ is pramana, and the closely related word for ‘evidence’ is pramanya. When one is able to provide evidence then one has proof that something is real, or that something really happened. The senses cannot provide this proof, hence the logical conclusion that sensory pramana is not good enough for understanding spiritual reality.
The next type of proof often comes from a logical deduction based on gathered evidence. It is known as anuman or ‘deduction.’ You did not see the eagle catch the rabbit, but you know that eagles do catch rabbits, and you’ve just seen an eagle eating what looks like a rabbit. From this you deduce that the eagle caught the rabbit.
But anuman can also be as unreliable as pratyaksha or direct sense perception. After all, it depends on sense perception followed by a logical deduction. For instance, you see smoke on a mountain and become fearful that there is a forest fire. Although it is true that there are many forest fires on that particular mountain close to your wooden home, and although it is true that last year the fire was so large that your house was threatened, you cannot conclude that it is indeed a forest fire. It may be a controlled fire from a mountaineers’ breakfast camp. You don’t know. Still the apprehension comes based on faulty deduction. Your pratyaksha was without fault – ‘there is smoke’ – but your anuman was faulty – ‘there is smoke again on the mountain, therefore it is a forest fire.’
The third method of gathering evidence or pramana is through shabda, or ‘authoritative knowledge,’ the speech of an expert eye-witness or knowledgeable person. When that person tells you: “No, I actually fed the already-dead rabbit to that eagle. I’m a zoo-keeper and I was trying to lure the eagle back to the zoo…” Or when a stranger on the telephone informs you: “No, please don’t worry about a forest fire, I’m the leader of the mountain rescue team and we’ve been having a training camp up on the mountain. We’re just finishing breakfast right now. I’ll make sure the fire is out before we leave.”
But since sense perception is faulty, and since even eye-witnesses and experts get it completely wrong, and since such knowledge tends to get compounded and then presented as truth, we are often left disappointed and looking for a fresh source of conclusive evidence. When finding our way to a house in an unfamiliar town we can take the risk of asking any strangers, but when our safety, prosperity, health, happiness is at stake we need the best possible opinions. And when the destiny of our life is the question, the ‘expert opinion’ must be absolutely reliable.
So in Vedic culture the ultimate shabda or authoritative knowledge is the Vedas. The Vedas are also known as shabda, and it is considered that the Vedas are the final word on reality or tattva, the truth free from imperfect sense perception, faulty deduction, and fallible experts.
This does not sit well with empirical scientists and philosophers. That an intelligent person can rely on a source of information whose validity cannot be immediately proven by direct sensory experience, experimentation or collected research, even the idea is a very strange one indeed. But that is the Vedic model, and is held to be particularly pertinent to discovering the nature of the transcendent, by definition that which is beyond the scope of the physical senses.
|Forms of Pramana
(Proof or Evidence)
|Pratyaksha||Sense Perception||Proof from directly witnessing only|
|Anumana||Logical Deduction||Proof from analysis of all available evidence|
|Shabda||Expert Testimony||Proof from an expert authority or reliable witness|
|Veda||Infallible Knowledge||Proof from the ultimate authority and witness|
The international governing body of ISKCON, the GBC, has issued the following resolution to all its centres in this millenium year of Sri Ramanujacarya:
310: Global Observance of Sri Ramanuja Sahasrabdi
Whereas Sri Ramanujacarya, the great Vaisnava saint who lived between 1017 and 1137, requires no introduction to the saintly, especially the Vaisnavas;
Whereas Sri Ramanujacarya’s 1000th anniversary is being celebrated around the world this year, 2017. According to the Sri Vaishnava calendar, his 1000th appearance day is on May 1, 2017;
Whereas although 1000 years have passed since the appearance of Sri Ramanujacarya, the years have not dulled the level of adherence to his teachings and attraction to his exemplary life. Millions of people now base their spiritual practices and religious conceptions on his words in both southern India, and due to emigration, in the western world also. In many parts of the world, ISKCON is associated very strongly with the Sri Vaisnavas;
Whereas our Gaudiya Acaryas including Srila Jiva Goswami, Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura have all referenced and commented on the teachings and life of Sri Ramanuja;
Whereas Srila Prabhupada used Sri Ramanuja`s works, amongst others, to give us the “Bhagavad-Gita As It Is”;
Whereas ISKCON Sriperumbudur and Kanchipuram are organizing grand celebrations this March in which international devotees, sannyasis, and leaders are participating in the 10 day festival at Sriperumbudur, the birth place of Acarya Sri Ramanuja;
Whereas following in the tradition of our acaryas, it would be a great opportunity for ISKCON to get the mercy of Sri Ramanujacarya, and to enhance our already good relationships with the Sri Vaishnava community globally, by having a “Global Observance” throughout the year, or particularly leading up to May 1, 2017;
That ISKCON centers worldwide have a “Global Observance of Sri Ramanuja Sahasrabdi”, leading up to May 1, 2017, or anytime through the year 2017, with suitable events and glorification befitting the venerable and worshipable Vaisnava Acarya.
Today is the day Britain begins its two year period of exiting from the European Union, the official beginning of what has been termed ‘Brexit.’ The country is surprisingly divided over our immanent departure from what started out as a trading partnership in 1973, and then gradually became ever more a state of monetary, legal and political union.
Perhaps its because of that creeping amalgamation of Britain into a European super-state, a situation that our forbears didn’t sign up for, that a majority of British people felt uncomfortable and wanted out. It was a slim majority, but a majority nonetheless.
To my American friends: Brexit is nothing like Texit, the idea of Texas leaving the union of the states of America. When your forbears signed documents to create the USA, they knew they were creating a political union – one nation with no national borders between the states. When Britain signed up there was no such agreement.
So today the exit begins.
Here’s a poem by my old friend, Madan Mohan Das. Its The Ten Fundamentals or Siksa Dasaka-Moolam; being the articles of faith deduced primarily from Caitanya Caritamrta and adduced as ten propositions by Bhaktivinoda Thakura.
- The Vedic truths are deemed self evident,
As have in pure succession made descent;
2. Which first that Hari is supreme decree,
3. He is possessed of omnipotency;
4. He is the source of bliss and rapture’s store;
5. That souls stand in between the land and shore;
6. Some bound by matter,7 and some bound no more.
All souls and worlds subsist in him alone,
8. And all are one with him, and yet not one.
9. The way to win his grace is said to be,
To sing his name in holy company.
10. And finally to gain the highest bliss
Of Krishna’s love, than which naught better is.