Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Microcosmic Origin of the Bhagavad Gita

The true message of the Bhagavad Gita, which seeks to remove the ‘materialness’ of man through a dialogic strategy of sublimation of consciousness, cannot be known without delving into its microcosmic roots. It is the recapitulation in poetic form of the ancient philosopher-scientists’ insights into the mystery of conscious experience.
Realizing quickly that the external universe is composed of dead matter, they abstracted it simply as the world of the sense-objects and instead focused on the human body, its anatomy as well as function. They inspected carefully the organs of the body and saw them for what they are: mere instruments for a spiritual first principle known as the purusa (pure personality). Consciousness is not a phenomenon that arises out of a mere collation of matter but an essential characteristic of purusa. This spiritual entity identifies itself so totally with the circuitry of the brain—its neurological processes—that it has become almost a neural (sensory-motor) entity. This causes purusa to experience births and deaths and afflictions in an endless cycle of existences. The solution then is to educate the purusa regarding his true nature, the ontological category to which he really belongs, which is the same as that of God (the supreme purusa), and to free him from the dharma of the senses by making him develop a “core consciousness” which is rooted not in matter but in the supreme pure personality.
The ancient seers were not content with sketchy outlines; they wanted to know how exactly purusa experiences the taste of sense objects. A hierarchy of neural entities stretching from the sensory receptors (vedas) upwards to the brain was discovered. However these researches remained exceedingly abstruse to the common man and they felt the need to make it both accessible and interesting. So they introduced into this philosophical and scientific account poetical elements like personification, etc.
There are three chief entities of the microcosm: (a) the spiritual personality (Visnu) of the same essence as God (b) the brain (Brahma) and (c) time (Siva). Above this trio however stands Krishna (God) the cowherd, as it were, of the sensory receptors. There has thus been a translocation of God to the neural realm! The import is that he is the supreme innervating entity (paramatma), the supreme actuator of this micro-creation. All those arrayed up against Arjuna, the jivapurusa connected to brain—are material personalities while he himself is purely spiritual in nature. The grief that he suffers in this gripping dharmic drama is also, in a sense, the grief of ontological confusion.
These material, neural entities which emanate, from the (non-literal) causative point of view, from the body of the supreme purusa, are categorized into several classes based on property and function (guna, karma; Gita 4.13). To each is assigned a specific dharma.  The function of some of them is to acquire knowledge or sense-data; for others, like the controlling nerves (devas) of the ‘sun’ (trachea) and the ‘moon’ (oesophagus) and other structures, it is to do motor-action and to subdue the visceral organs. Some engage specifically in the keeping of ‘cows’, the sensory receptors, and the processing of their sensory products; while for others the dharma is to aid and serve the other entities. To digress, the view, therefore, that the caste system of the external world is sanctioned by the Gita is a misinterpretation of the most horrendous kind and is a potent example of how deadly misinterpretation of scripture can be. Such an interpretation is not only wrong, it also is diametrically opposite to the teaching of the Gita which says that this kind of a material gradation among personalities is restricted only to the world of matter, to the sphere of the neural entities.
Now, in this micro-universe, the ignorant purusa works. He thinks himself to be a ‘man,’ a neural entity, and engages in ‘work’ (karma) as dictated by the vedas or the sensory receptors. Moreover, corresponding to his microcosmic ignorance, there is an equivalent ignorance reflected externally in the realm of praxis. The path of karma then becomes a path of microcosmic emulation.
There is mimicry by the material man of essentially two kinds of neuronal activity. In the first mode known as pravritti, alluded to by Krishna (3.14), there is a metaphorical sacrifice, a yajna, going on in the body. Krishna talks about anna sustaining all creatures and this anna, he says, is produced through rain which in turn is made possible by karma performed in yajna. This is the purely autonomic loop that does not involve the spiritual personality. Here, the ‘oblations’ are the transmitted signals; the channel (such as the spinal cord) through which these ascend to the ‘heavens’ (the base of the brain) is the ‘fire,’ and the deva, the activated nerve. The ‘rain’, of course, is oxygen and from it, respiratory metabolism takes place (‘food’ is produced) and from this ‘food’, the neural entities are further nourished.
But in the second mode, the ‘oblations’ of this internal yajna are offered to the spiritual personality. This is the path of nivritti or niskama karma. It is very clear from these microcosmic origins that the path of karma is purely material. Even in the second variant, the purusa continues to function as a material entity but does karma by offering to the supreme purusa. None of these reflects the true nature and function of purusa. As karma pertains only to the material, non-conscious units and not to conscious personality, its practice can be sustained only in the state of ignorance. The doer of karma—the neuronal man—must be instructed to cultivate knowledge of spirit and sublimate his consciousness. It is for this reason that the entire dialogic strategy of the Gita transitions from the karmic to the bhaktic.  To the jiva, it is recurrently told  that he is not a neural entity but an amsa (15.7) of the supreme spirit, not ksara but aksara, immutable (15.16), that like the ‘knower of the field’, he is distinct from the mind, body and senses and that for the one taking delight in atman, there is no karma (3.17). The glory of paramatma is brought before him so that his consciousness becomes undeviatingly rooted in spirit.
The great ontological crisis is thus lifted. However, as soon as the jiva comes out of material mode, his previous microcosmic emulations must also go for these dharmas which are rooted in the philosophy of karma are no longer compatible with his reclaimed status of spiritual personality. Therefore the final call-to-action of the Gita is of sole-refuge (eka sarana) in God forsaking completely all veda-ordained dharmas (18.66).

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Madhavadeva’s Nama Ghosa: a Landmark Text

The chief literary oeuvre of Madhavadeva (1489-1596 CE), the foremost exponent of the sole-refuge (eka sarana) school in the post-Sankaradeva period, is the Nama Ghosa (The Proclamation of Pure Devotion). This text, which enjoys canonical status among the adherents of this school, is based primarily on the Bhagavata Purana. It celebrates the pure, joy-filled devotion (bhajana) to Krishna, the supreme spiritual personality (parama purusa, paramatma), forsaking all ‘materialness’ (krishata, in the author’s own words) engendered by the jiva’s default allegiance to primal matter. Madhavadeva has internalized the message of the Bhagavata—its call-to-action as well as its philosophical rationale—with the aid of the lucid commentary of Sridhara Svami and supplemented it further with apt translations from the other primary texts of the Vedantic-puranic tradition such as the Bhagavad Gita.
Madhavadeva’s Nama Ghosa (NG) is a landmark ‘essence-text’ in the history of spiritual thought in India not only because its author shows extreme courage for his time to boldly assert the supremacy of pure devotion over the path of microcosmic emulations technically referred to as karma, but also due to the revolutionary impact of some of its pronouncements on society. Spiritual and social reforms go hand in hand in Madhavadeva. This made the preaching of the eka-sarana faith also very much a social movement. In the modern period, some scholars have glossed over this important social aspect. In their view, Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva sought merely to establish equality for all on the spiritual plane without seeking to disturb the status quo in the social order. This is a mistake of epic proportions.
The society of the time was organized into a hierarchy on the basis of a system of varna and asrama which laid down separate ‘ordained duties’ (dharmas) for the different categories and castes. This was essentially born of a philosophy of bheda or difference which saw man as a part of matter (prakriti) rather than as a spiritual personality. It sought to emulate the material ‘personalities’—the sensory and motor units in particular—of the microcosm.
However, the philosophy of pure devotion championed by Madhavadeva in the NG, which runs counter to such a philosophy of difference, is that of intrinsic equality. Here, man is an amsa, a (tiny) part, as it were, of God. Madhavadeva says, “You are eternal, unstained, Narayana. We too are your amsas” [v. 273]. In fact, here, the very doing of pure bhakti is predicated on the existence of a transcendental society in which all members are essentially of one kind; all are purusas or pure personalities. They are by nature immutable (unlike matter) and, hence, not subject to placement at different levels on a material scale. Therefore, the bhaktic philosophy envisages a kind of society which is modeled on Vaikuntha, the transcendental society, in which the governing ideal is one of equality. In the NG, we find perhaps the most clear and emphatic rejection of caste in the entire corpus of Sankaradeva-ite literature: noho jana ami cari jati, cario asrami noho ati [v. 670]. “Know that we are no member of the four castes nor do we adhere to the system of four asramas”.
The embracing of such a philosophy and its widespread dissemination among the masses automatically put the conception of the ‘dharmic’ society at peril and in threat of diminution, if not eventual extinction. For caste, it now was logically concluded, could be sustained only in the state of ignorance (avidya, maya) in which there is the identification of the self with matter. The NG thus contains the framework of a unique philosophical rejection of caste based on the contradictions between two opposite ideologies.
Many a page in the history of medieval Assam is riddled with instances of persecution of the leaders of the Sankaradeva movement. It is in consequence of the preaching of the idea that was carried in germ form by the NG. There was a nexus of religion and politics in this period with the preservation of dharmic ideals weighing heavily on the decisions of the rulers.
For scholars and students of religion, the NG offers, on reflection, several instructive lessons. It challenges the traditional and rote interpretation of a religion. It points to the pitfalls of stereotyping and opens up the mind to newer possibilities. The idea of ‘two Hinduisms’, one mutually opposed to the other, is perhaps unimaginable to some, even more so in a scenario where we are keen to present a religion as a monolith. Yet, as we saw above, that is precisely the impression one gets on studying the NG. Left to themselves, the dharmic one would retain the caste-system and the truly bhaktic one would abolish it. Madhavadeva clearly says [v. 599] that the doing of karmas is antithetical (birodhi) to the singing of the Lord’s glories. Does not such a word-selection fly in the face of the conventional understanding in which the path of karma is seen to be supplementary or even a prerequisite to bhakti? How can such irreconcilable differences be explained? Madhavadeva’s NG forces us to raise these interesting questions.
The fact is that, as with any religion, there have always been two contradictory currents of thought operating within Hinduism. The first is that of the status quoist; the second, that of the reformer. The reformer always challenges the misinterpretation of the former. The reformer’s prime strategy is that of engaging with the orthodoxy through a dialogue (samvada). In the dialogic strategy of the Gita, for instance, the dharmic side is represented by Arjuna and the bhaktic one, by Krishna. It would seem that Madhavadeva’s NG has no dialogue but there is the author and the reader (or listener)! It is through this dialogic strategy that the individual and social consciousness is sought to be sublimated. The final verdict of Krishna in the Gita [18.66]: “Forsake all dharmas, O Arjuna” (sarva dharman parityajya), may be understood in the context of this dialogue between two opposing ideologies.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Determining the Universe of Discourse: The Prerequisite of Meaningful Translation

The natural protocol within the scholarly community when it comes to translating key terms of passages (in any source language e.g. Sanskrit, Assamese) is first to associate them with their commonly held meanings and then proceed to replace them with their most appropriate English (or target language) equivalents. And this is how it should be because in no other way can we be assured of the fidelity of the translation. The resulting translation is very faithful and literal.
But if our primary obsession is not with the literal meaning of the words but rather with the meaning that their authors wished them to convey—or, rather, really wished them to convey—then there would be an additional layer of protocol that a translator would need to incorporate. Before associating them with their commonly held meanings, the translator must seek to identify the universe of discourse. He must know which universe to enter. In no other field perhaps this extended protocol applies with so much imperativeness as in the field of Puranic literature. No other field is so cryptic, no other so coded. Unless the translator—and here, we talk about the seeker of meaning rather than the literal translator—succeeds at the outset in determining the sense in which a term (or a set of words) is being used, he will never be able to grasp. Proceeding straightway to associating the terms with their common meanings would not be okay because there is no guarantee that these meanings would be in line with their implied meanings. Even the scholars of former times may have committed the same mistake. Therefore, before a real translation that lays bare the real meaning of words takes place, one must expend time and energy—and from personal experience, I would say that this can be considerable— in trying to determine the universe of discourse. The real translator must be ready to do this; otherwise, the translation may only be literal but bereft of meaning.

No Means apart from Bhakti for Purifying the Consciousness

According to the Bhagavata , for the purpose of purifying the consciousness, there is no means apart from devotion ( bhakti ): p. 148 ...