EPILOGUE ON DISCOURSES ON HINDU PHILOSOPHY SCHOOLS
(I-DISCOURSE BY N. R. SRINIVASN, MAY 2012)
Adi Sankaracharya while paying his obeisance to Lord Viswanatha in Varanasi during his whirlwind tour of India to propagate his newfound philosophy of Advaita offered his prayers to him as follows:
"Oh! Lord Viswanaatha! My first sin is that in spite of my knowing (while teaching others) that God is beyond mind and speech, I have tried to describe you through the several stotras (hymns) composed by me. This betrays lack of conformity between my thoughts and my word. Next, having convinced of the scriptural sayings that God pervades and permeates everything in the manifested universe, I have been preaching this truth to all. Nevertheless, I have come to Varanasi to have your darsan (viewing). This shows that my thoughts, words and deeds are at variance with one another. This is my second offence. Thirdly, I have a firm belief in the teaching of scriptures that the same Aatma (self) is imminent in all beings and there is no difference between the so-called Jeevaatman (individual soul) and the Paramaatman (Supreme Soul). While I have been proclaiming this Truth in all my discourses, I have now come to stand before you as if we two are separate and different from each other. This is my third lapse. Hence I pray that I may be absolved of all these three sins, of which I am guilty."
Evidently, he had lot of rethinking on his recent postulations, which served the need of the hour to fight the growing tendencies of atheism and Nehalism. He had not also given up the then traditional religious practices like Moorti Upaasana (iconic worship), Naama paaraayana (chanting names of the Lord) and Teertha-yaatra (pilgrimage). In fact, he regularized Shanmatas (Six traditions of worship of various deities) and Panchaanana Pooja (worship of five icons together). He did not live long to revise his earlier thoughts on Advaita Philosophy inspired by further studies of vast number of Upanishadas he had not touched upon. His first detailed commentary was on Vishnusahasranaama of Puranic origin. It was therefore left to other great scholars to make an in-depth study of various Upanishads for further review of the earlier thoughts. The later philosophers were all great scholars too from Advaita School. Commentaries from some of these great scholars are easily available to all in the widely understood English language. Some of the commentaries by recent profound scholars are still in Sanskrit language and therefore accessible to few well read Sanskrit scholars. It is a pity that at present study of Sanskrit has gone to the background.
The profound philosophy underlying Upanishad gives rise to several interpretations by Vedic scholars, which is mainly divided into Advaita (non-dualist), Dvaita (dualist) and Visishtaadvaita (non-dualist qualified).
The Upanishadic statements are enigmatic in character and they are spread out in various Upanishads. Schools of Philosophy strongly believe that all Upanishads are devoted the exposition of a single connected system of thought and have come out with their individual philosophy in the light of their understanding the meanings of these texts that have been expounded by them. The Upanishads abound in different kinds of statements that appear to be contradicting one another. There are mantras that declare that Brahman is Nirguna, pure Consciousness and Bliss. It expounds that Brahman is the only one (Tadekam), non-second Reality. At the same time in some other context various auspicious qualities are attributed to Brahman (Rudram) which has given birth to stotras like Vishnusahasranaama.
There are statements that expound that there is no duality whatsoever, but at the same time, other texts describe elaborately duality and the process of creation, dissolution and others. Knowledge of oneness of the Aatmann is declared as the means of liberation in many Upanishads. At the same time, Upaasana or meditation upon Brahman has been outlined as described in Mahaanaaraayana Upanishad. Therefore, we find in Upanishads duality texts as well as non-duality texts and there are statements affirming both oneness and differences.
The Monistic Advaita School gives all importance to the unity texts (like Aatmabodha) and explains that duality and others are to be sublated. The School of Advaita expounds the principle of Adhyaasa or super-imposition and explains the phenomenal world as false appearance (Maaya) due to Adhyaasa or super-imposition.
The Dvaita School gives primary importance to dualistic texts and explains away unity texts in a secondary manner. It is the same way as Jnaanamaarga (path of knowledge) and Bhaktimaarga (path of devotion)being stressed upon as means to Moksha. Bhedaabheda School gives equal importance to both the texts and expounds that he one, non-second reality Brahman itself has in reality become the Self and matter. The Dvaita School admits the reality fully of this universe of individual selves and matter and also Brahman and its perfections, and repudiates the views of oneness. This is appealing to many who follow Bhaktimaarga.
Ramnuja on the other hand nurtures the principles of body-soul relationships as propounded in Brihadaarnyaka Upanishad. Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad expounds Brahman is the inner controller (antaryaamin) of all entities. The creation of the universe is not directly through modification of Brahman into the form of universe but through his body. He expounds the reality of all the three entities and their differences also: 1) Easwara (Supreme Principle); 2) Chit (the soul or sentient); and 3) Achit (non-soul or non-sentient). According to him God alone exists and all else we see is God's attributes or manifestation. He stresses on Saranaagati or complete surrender to the Supreme Will.
How then are these apparently contradictory philosophies to be reconciled? Upanishad is like our beloved and merciful mother and a teacher of the highest caliber. As a clever mother offers her crying baby various fruits, sweets and other edibles to bring peace to it, the Upanishads make use of various methods to bring peace to souls suffering from various birth cycles. It is therefore left to the individuals to choose philosophy of their choice and seek solace.
Ancient Western Philosophy and the Hindu Wisdom:
By S. Karthikeyan | Jun 01, 2016
Does the ancient western philosophy bear any resemblance to the Hindu thoughts of the corresponding historical period? This is the question being discussed in this article. Western philosophy is only 2600 years old, whereas all the major Upanishads which form the fundamental corpus of Indian philosophy are still older by at least 500 years, even by the most stringent and parsimonious estimation by the most unfriendly scholars of the west.
Various means of contact between the West and the East were already operative even before 600 BC, the year of inception of Western philosophy. With the establishment of the Achaemenes Empire under Persian rulers, the mutual contact acquired a new dimension paving the way for exchange of thoughts and perceptions about human life. As such, the question raised deserves careful consideration by a detailed discussion.
What is now known as western philosophy is generally classified into the following six chronological periods namely,
- Classical Era – from 600 BC to 300 BC
- Hellenistic Era – from 300 BC to 1 BC
- Roman Era – from 1 AD to 500 AD
- Medieval Era – from 500 AD to 1500 AD
- Early Modern Era – from 1500 AD to 1800 AD
- Modern Era – from 1800 AD onwards.
Of the above, for the sake of limiting our survey to the ancient Western philosophy, we may remain concerned with the first two eras only, namely, the Classical Era and the Hellenistic Era. Within this limitation too, we are particularly concerned about the enquiry regarding the ultimate reality or the Supreme Being.
The timeline of classical Western philosophers starts with Thales (624 – 546 BC) and ends almost with Euclid (325 – 265 BC), all being Greeks. It appears that only Greeks had philosophy during this period in the west. The Hindus had already finalized by that time a full-fledged philosophy dealing with the secrets of existence and life and had also established an excellent system for its propagation, even reaching down to the layman, through the medium of literary compositions such as the epics, apart from the higher texts of purely philosophical discussions. Until Socrates (470 – 399 BC) came up with his dialectics for resolving contradictions in arguments and thereby arriving at the truth, Athens had no place in what we now know as Western philosophy. Mythology, oracles and sophists ruled the roost in Athens in the Pre-Socratic period. Even Socrates believed in the Oracles of Delphi. All the Pre-Socratic Western philosophers came from the Eastern Greek settlements in Ionia, an ancient region of the central coastal Anatolia which is currently a territory of Turkey. The name ‘Ionia’ finds mention in Hindu texts as ‘Yavana’, which term, interestingly, is said to have been used by Hindus to indicate barbarian people of the West. With no tradition to boast of, pertaining to intellectual life of rational thinking and creative compilations, these people at that time apparently deserved this epithet. There are references in Mahabharata regarding the Yavana soldiers participating in the Kurukshetra war.
History says that Ionia was under the rule of the Persians from 550 BC to 336 BC as part of the Achaemenes Empire which comprised of western parts of India also. This position in particular helped the Ionians to have access to the great works of the Sages of India. Contacts with the already matured teachings of the Vedas must have influenced the Ionian Greeks to tread a new path different from the traditional Greek beliefs and religious practices and to formulate theories about the ultimate reality, independent of mythology. It cannot be the other way round, with the Greeks influencing the Vedic tradition, since the perfection, extent and depth that the Hindu thoughts reached by that time compared to the infancy seen in the West makes such a suggestion less than tenable. Karl Jasper’s theory of Axial Age is only a myth in the light of the above facts. Karl Jasper says that philosophy and new religious thoughts evolved simultaneously in the East and the West during 800 BCE to 200 BCE, in spite of having no mutual cultural or other contacts. His facts are wrong. As explained above, mutual contacts with the west and the east already existed, before the start of the so-called axial age. It is because of his western bias that Jasper ignored this historical fact. Further, he conveniently forgot the rule of the Persian Empire, simultaneously over the west and east, for a period of two centuries that fall within his ‘axial age’. Moreover the Major Upanishads were already revealed, when the western philosophy was yet to totter as an infant. Veda Samhitas are still older. So, the theory of Axial Age is only an undue favor showered on the westerners for satisfying their false pride.
In spite of their contacts with the great treasures of the Hindu philosophy, what the Ionians could obtain was some fringes; that too, apparently through Persian versions or simple translations. And they could not digest fully what they thus obtained, because of the deflection their intellectual orientation had with that of the Hindus at that time. This deficiency in comprehension reflects in the teachings now presented as theirs. The matter undergoes further aggravation with the fact that none of the writings of the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers is available in full; everything said about them and to be theirs now, including their life time, are only conjectures made upon surviving fragments of such writings. This is in sharp contrast with the Hindu scriptures which have been preserved almost intact from still older periods to the present day. May be, the ancient Indians were poor in keeping a chronological record of events in the name of history, but they keenly preserved their most valuable treasures of intellectual and cultural outputs very safely.
Thales of Miletus (Ionia) is considered as the first in the line of classical western philosophers; according to Bertrand Russell, western philosophy starts with him. Thales’ most famous contribution was his cosmological thesis that the world had its origin from water. In this context we may recall the Upaniṣadic teachings about the origin of the universe. Praśna (1.4) says that at first the pair of Rayi and Prāṇa was created. Chāndogya follows up this by saying that from this energy water came up first and from water, food is created (6.2.3 & 6.2.4). Bṛhadāraṇyaka also says that it is water that was first produced (1.2.1). But, unlike Thales, it may be noted, the Upaniṣads go deeper and hold that this energy was created from out of SAT (Chāndogya 6.2.1 & 6.2.3). It is interesting to observe that Western philosophy maintains all through its history this peculiar trait of not searching for the ultimate and, if at all searching, not finding the search successful. The West is seen to have squandered their temporal and intellectual resources in arguing for or against the proposition that there exists a personal god; or, on the other hand, in asserting or refuting that the ultimate reality is matter. Their inquisitiveness has not so far matured enough to acquire the higher truth of the unity of matter and spirit, the unity that is Ātmā.
Contemporary to Thales were Anaximander (610 – 546 BC) and Anaximenes (585 – 525 BC), both belonging to Miletus of Ionia, like Thales. Of these, Anaximenes held air as the primary substance of which all other things are made. This is in deviation to what Thales said. It appears that Anaximenes went by the Prāṇa route ignoring the Rayi that Thales upheld. On the other hand Anaximander was close to the Upaniṣadic teaching. He said that the beginning or first principle was an endless, unlimited primordial mass (the ape-iron), subject to neither old age nor decay, that perpetually yielded fresh materials from which everything we perceive is derived. According to him, the universe originated in the separation of opposites in the primordial matter. All dying things are returning to the element from which they came (ape-iron). This is only a repetition of what is stated in Chāndogya 6.10.2, 8.1.1, 8.1.3, 8.1.5; Bṛhadāraṇyaka 1.4.3 & Gīta 2.28, 9.4; and Kaṭha Upaniṣad 2.18 and 9.7. Chāndogya 6.10.2 says that whatever comes out from ‘SAT’, the pure existence that was there in the beginning does merge into it at the end. In 8.1.1, 8.1.3 and 8.1.5 Chāndogya say that Ātmā encompasses everything that exists in this universe and also everything that is yet to come into existence; that Ātmā does not grow old and cannot be destroyed. Bṛhadāraṇyaka 1.4.3 indicates that creation took place on separation of opposites. Kaṭha 2.18 says that Ātmā is without birth or death; He has no origin, no transformation and no decay. According to Gīta 2.28 the beginning as well as the end of all beings is the Undifferentiated. Gīta 9.4 holds that Ātmā, the ultimate principle of existence, pervades the entire universe whereas 9.7 says that in the beginning all beings originate from the ultimate principle and in the end merge into it.
Following Anaximenes comes Pythagoras (580 – 500 BC) of Samos in Ionia, who is said to have visited India. Unfortunately, it seems that what he picked up from India was only some obscurantist teachings that led him to believe in transmigration. He set up an esoteric group of his followers in his home land, which pursued ascetic practices.
In contrast to this, Xenophanes of Colophon (570 – 480 BC), Ionia, who is known as ‘Feuerbach of Antiquity’ for his pooh-poohing of traditional Greek religious beliefs of his time (as done later by Feuerbach (1804 – 1872 AD) against Christianity in his famous work ‘Essence of Christianity’), taught that God has no human form and that He is eternal, having no birth or death. He declared that God does not intervene in human affairs. These ideas are identical with the teachings contained in Gīta 2.20, 5.14, 5.15 & 10.8 and Kaṭha 2.18. In the cited verses Gīta asserts that the ultimate principle is eternal and devoid of birth and death; it does not perish even after the body is lost (2.20); it is the origin of all beings and everything exists because of it only (10.8). Neither does it create any Karma nor does it assign such Karma to any particular person; everything happens according to the very nature of things (5.14) into which it has already manifested. It does not recognize any Karma as good or evil (5.15). (Kaṭha 2.18 is identical with Gīta 2.20).
Close to Xenophanes comes Heraclitus of Ephesus, Ionia (535 – 475 BC) who is known as the ‘weeping philosopher’. He is often quoted for his saying that the universe is in a flux. He declared, “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not”, which, apart from indicating that this world is ever-changing, also asserts that, underlying all such changes, there is something not subject to change. This is exactly the opening mantra of Īśa (ईश) Upaniṣad, wherein it is said that Īśa, the ultimate reality, pervades everything that exists in this ever-changing world. Mantra 8 ibid clarifies that this Īśa is omnipresent and self-existent.
Heraclitus further mentioned about the unity of opposites, “An object is a harmony between a building up and a tearing down”. In this connection particular mention is due to Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.10.1 and 6.10.2, which say that everything in this universe comes from and returns to SAT, which implies that phenomenal existence is a process of ‘building up and tearing down’. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad says in 1.4.3 that as a prelude to creation, Ātmā divided itself into two complementary halves; therefore everything here exists to be like halves. For every such half there must exist its complementary half. The universe is therefore said to exist in opposites. Moreover, Gīta 2.28 says that everything emerges from and finally dissolves into the undifferentiated, which indicates that phenomenal existence is a process of ‘building up and tearing down’.
Heraclitus had an equally famous contemporary, Parmenides of Elea, Ionia (515 – 450 BC). He was the founder of the famous Eleatic School. The only source providing an insight into his teachings is a few fragments of a poem ‘On Nature’ written by him, wherein he declared that existence is necessarily eternal. “How could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; nor is it if it is going to be in the future. Thus, is becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of. Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike, and there is no more of it in one place than in another, to hinder it from holding together, nor less of it, but everything is full of what is”, says in 8.20 of his poem. This is verses 2.16, 2.20, 2.23 & 13.27 of Gīta retold. In 2.16 Gīta defines what ‘SAT’ (Reality) is. SAT is that which exists and never ceases to exist. That means, reality is something that always exists; it never disappears; nor does it come out from a state of non-existence (Gīta 2.20). Gīta 2.23 declares that weapons cannot destroy it, fire cannot burn it, water cannot wet it and wind cannot dry it. Gīta 13.27 says that Ātmā evenly pervades in every being. All these show that the vision of Parmenides about existence is only a reflection of the already existing great Hindu teachings on the same subject.
Parmenides further says in 8.55 of his poem, “They have assigned an opposite substance to each, and marks distinct from one another. To the one they allot the fire of heaven, light, thin, in every direction the same as itself, but not the same as the other. The other is opposite to it, dark night, a compact and heavy body.” This also is something that we find in Gīta; Parmenides is simply writing on the concept of Kṣetra and Kṣetrajña contained in chapter 13 of Gīta. In verse 13.26 it is stated that whatever exists in this universe is a product of the union of Kṣetra and Kṣetrajña.
The last of the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers was Anaxagoras (500 – 428 BC) of Clazomenae, Ionia. He brought the Greek philosophy from Ionia to Athens. According to his teachings ‘all things existed from the beginning, but in infinitesimally small fragments of themselves, endless in number and inextricably combined’; ‘they existed in a confused and indistinguishable forms’. ‘Mind (Nous) arranged the segregation of like from unlike. This peculiar thing, called Mind, a thing of finer texture, stood pure and independent, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same. This subtle agent, possessed of all knowledge and power, is especially seen ruling in all the forms of life’. This is rather a lesser version of Gīta 2.28, 9.4, 13.27, wherein the concepts of the undifferentiated, the all-pervasive nature of the ultimate reality and the uniform presence of that reality in all beings are discussed.
Now we come to the legendary Socrates (470 – 399 BC) of Athens, whose most important contribution to Western thought was his dialectical method of enquiry. He used this method in arguments to bring out contradictions in propositions so as to arrive at the truth. He did not author any book; whatever is known of him comes to us from the words of others, particularly Plato, his famous disciple. Socrates used to say, “I only know that I know nothing.” This is what we see in mantra 2.2 of Kena, which, commenting on the secret nature of the ultimate reality, says so: ‘I don’t think that it can be known easily; I don’t also think that we don’t know or do know’.
According to Socrates, if at all there is something real it is not the object of senses; being graspable by the senses is not the criterion for anything to be real. This idea of reality is only an echoing of the Upaniṣadic teachings (Kena 1.3, 1.4 & 1.5; Kaṭha 6.9 & 6.12; Muṇḍaka 3.1.8 Śvetāśvatara 4.17, 4.20), all of which consistently hold that the ultimate reality is not graspable by the senses. Socrates says, in Plato’s Republic, that people who take the sun-lit world of the senses to be good and real are living pitifully in a den of evil and ignorance. This again is a reflection of Kaṭha 2.6, in which it is declared that those who do not see anything beyond this sunlit world render themselves to be felled by death again and again, the import being that they will never see peace and happiness.
For Socrates “Virtue is knowledge” and “Virtue is sufficient for happiness.” This is only a paraphrasing of Gīta 4.33 & 4.38; Kaṭha 5.12; Śvetāśvatara 6.12 & 6.20. In Gīta 4.33 pursuit of knowledge is held in greater esteem than that of material objects. Gīta 4.38 declares that nothing is sacred as knowledge. Kaṭha 5.12 and Śvetāśvatara 6.12 & 6.20 say that there is no lasting happiness without knowing the ultimate reality. Further, Socrates believed that the best way for people to live was to focus on self-development rather than the pursuit of material wealth. This belief was apparently derived from Kaṭha 4.2, Muṇḍaka 1.2.7, 1.2.10 and Gīta verses 9.22 & 12.8. Kaṭha 4.2 states that only the immature people go after cravings for material possessions; the wise, on the other hand, do not go after transient pleasures as they know what real bliss is. Muṇḍaka 1.2.7 warns that those who pursue material pleasure do really walk into total ruin. A similar caution is contained in Muṇḍaka 1.2.10 wherein it is stated that those who consider material pursuit as supreme are simply foolish, since material pleasures are not permanent and are followed by sorrows. Gīta verses 9.22 & 12.8 say that those who are committed to the pursuit of the ultimate reality are assured of a happy life.
In several dialogues, Socrates floats the idea that knowledge is a matter of recollection, and not of learning, observation, or study. Socrates is often found arguing that knowledge is not empirical, and that it comes from divine insight. According to Hindu scriptures, Ātmā, which is the ultimate cause of all, is SAT-CHIT-ᾹNANDA. CHIT is pure consciousness and knowledge is its manifestation. In human body Chitta is the center of all knowledge. Every being is born with some basic knowledge necessary for running the body. Every piece of knowledge said to be acquired by us is a build-up on this base. Among the internal faculties, Manas processes the signals picked up by senses from the outside objects, with reference to the stock of information already available in the Chitta. Such signals are only raw materials and the processed information constitutes the building blocks of the body of knowledge. With these blocks the Manas builds up cognizable forms and ideas that fit into the foundation existing in the Chitta at that point of time. It is thus we acquire knowledge and enlarge our knowledge base in the Chitta. That means, in the process of gaining knowledge what actually happens is not absorption as such from external agents, but an internal building up that is compatible with the existing foundation in the Chitta. In Chāndogya 7.18.1 teaches that one knows by reflection only; there is no knowing without reflection. So, we find that Socrates is only interpreting in his own way the teachings of Hindu scriptures in this respect also.
In Greek philosophical thoughts, Socrates was followed by his immediate disciples. Antisthenes (445 – 365 BC) of Athens was an ardent disciple of Socrates, who, abiding by the ethical teachings of his master, advocated an ascetic life to be lived in accordance with virtue. Life for him was to be lived through virtuous actions that liberate wise persons from errors; for, real and enduring happiness lies in such a life. This had been better declared already in verses 2.55, 2.70, 3.28, 3.34, 3.35, 3.41, etc. of Gīta. Incidentally, Antisthenes is regarded as the founder of Cynic philosophy because of these teachings. Western scholars appear to possess wonderful expertise in the art of nomenclature. Highlighting some aspects of a thing they brand the thing as belonging to a particular group. In course of time the brand name loses its original meaning and acquires new imports. This is what exactly happened to the word cynic. In contrast to its initial implication, a cynic now represents a pessimist skeptical of everything. However, Antisthenes was not a person belonging to the brand of what the word ‘cynic’ now signifies. He only advocated simple living as, according to him, virtue demanded it. He was also of the opinion that God is only one, who resembles nothing on earth and therefore cannot be understood from any representation. This is fully in line with his master’s teaching that reality cannot be known through the senses, which we have already seen above to be a repetition of Hindu teachings.
We find another important disciple of Socrates in Aristippus (435 – 366 BC) of Cyrene, a Greek colony in present-day Libya. To him the goal of life was to seek pleasure by adapting circumstances to oneself and by maintaining proper control over both adversity and prosperity. He lived a life of equal disposition to pain and pleasure. Whether insulted wildly or praised grossly he remained equally calm. Thus he was truly a Stitaprajña (person having a steady intellect) as described in Gīta 2.56. And his life was a demonstration of the teachings in verses 2.38, 2.45, 5.20, 5.21, etc. of Gīta, which exhort us to desist from getting dejected at the face of adversities and elated too much at fortunes.
The most outstanding of the students of Socrates is undoubtedly Plato (427 – 347 BC) who, through own writings, propagated the teachings of his master for the benefit of later generations. In Athens, he founded the ‘Academy’, which is the first institution of higher learning in the western world. Nearly everything he wrote was in the form of dialogues and nobody knows the exact order in which they were written. The principal themes that we are concerned with in his writings are (i) the reality and the world of forms and (ii) the class structure of society.
Like Socrates, Plato also is of the opinion that material world is not real. He conceives an unchanging world of Forms (or Ideas) from which the ever-changing material world is derived. Stanford Encyclopedias of Philosophy writes, “The most fundamental distinction in Plato’s philosophy is between the many observable objects that appear beautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) and the one object that is what beauty (goodness, justice, unity) really is, from which those many beautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) things receive their names and their corresponding characteristics”. In other words, for every aspect of material objects there exists a Form of its perfection; material objects are only relative derivations of this Form. According to Plato there exists an eternal world of such Forms and that is the real world. But he does not explain where this world of Form comes from, where it is situated and how it is sustained. In furthering his master’s teaching that the material world is not the real one, he introduces the concept of Forms and then introduces a new world of Forms. But his concept is not justified by any rational or plausible explanations. He does not direct his thoughts to the origin, cause or sustenance of his ‘real’ world of Forms.
What impact does he intend to make in human life with his concept? He does not give any clue. He left the teachings of his great master on the wayside and proceeded with his own immature conjectures. Socrates was most concerned about a happy social life; so he said, ‘virtue is sufficient for happiness’. Plato did not opt to brood over virtue, may be for fear of persecution by the establishment as in the case of Socrates; nor did he pursue his master’s concept of reality to its perfection. Instead, he remained contented with his intellectual acrobatics in the ‘World of Forms’. This straying away from proper enquiry into the cause of life and existence in this universe stayed with western thought throughout, so that they failed in arriving at the ultimate reality. Having started with Plato, this loss of direction was further compounded by historical events such as the fall of Achaemenes Empire and the shifting of the center of Greek philosophy from Ionia to Athens, which badly cut off Greeks’ access to Hindu thoughts, presumably forever. Even otherwise, Plato might not have been enthused by the Hindu teachings that Anaxagoras brought from Ionia to Athens and flourished through the thoughts and practices of Socrates, Antisthenes and all. Therefore, instead of appreciating their true value and pursuing them to their full bloom, he opted to employ his speculative skill in manipulating them for the purpose of arrogating their authorship to himself. One more reason for his attitude might be his aversion to the hegemony of the Achaemenes Empire over Greek settlements in Ionia, which distanced him from accepting anything that came via that route. He failed to gauge the real potential and depth of whatever fragments already received from the East. This resulted in his leaving the line pursued by his teacher and embarking upon a pursuit of his own, which unfortunately turned out to be a futile regimen of intellectual exercises, as already mentioned.
Let us now consider Plato’s theory on the class structure of society. According to him society has a tripartite class structure corresponding to the appetite – spirit – reason structure of the individual soul. The appetite, spirit and reason stand for different parts of the body. The class that corresponds to the “appetite” part of the soul is the Productive class representing the abdomen of the body. They comprise of the manual laborers and include merchants also. The spirit class is the Protective class representing the chest. They constitute the warriors or guardians of the society. Into this class come the brave, adventurous and strong people. The third class is the Governing class corresponding to the reason part of the soul. They represent the head of the body and consist of individuals who are ‘intelligent, rational, self-controlled, in love with wisdom and therefore well suited to make decisions for the community’. They are rulers of the society.
It can be seen that Plato is simply repeating the class divisions of Hindu scriptures with only one modification. He limits the classes to three as against four in the scriptures. We will see the details of the Hindu divisions – called Varṇa(s) in the scriptures – below. Plato’s restriction of the classes into three is defective. He covered only the abdomen, chest and head of the body, but ignored the legs. Without legs, the body is not complete. This mutilation finds expression in his class division also. It is evident that the merchants and agriculturists cannot be considered as mere manual laborers and also that the other two classes would require manual helpers in the discharge of their duties. Such helpers cannot be included in the ‘appetite’ class. This vindicates the four-fold class division of the Hindus.
Divisions of society into various categories or rather types have been there from ancient times. Hindu scriptures prescribe four types of people (Varṇa) in society, differentiated by the ‘colour’ of each individual. This ‘color’ does not indicate the color of the skin, but the inherent inclination in choosing the type of Karma for achieving one’s ends (4.13 of Gīta). Therefore, this classification finds expression in one’s Karma that he opts when left with many options. For this purpose, Karma(s) are divided into four categories, respectively dealing with education and learning, security and protection, food production and commerce, and finally, rendering manual assistance for the above three categories (For details see Gīta 18.42, 43 & 44). A close look will reveal that this is an “inner to outer” classification. Those who are naturally concerned with the inner-most aspect of existence are termed as the Brāhmaṇa (ब्राह्मण) and those concerned with the outer-most aspect as Śūdra (शूद्र). In between these two, come the Kṣatriya (क्षत्रिय) and the Vaiśya (वैश्य), according to each one’s closeness to the inner or outer aspects. Kṣatriya comes next to Brāhmana and Vaiśya comes before Shūdra.
The society is a collective entity consisting of all these types. Each type is so important that without it the society will not prosper. (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.11 to 1.4.14). Therefore, mutual respect and understanding and also joint efforts by these four types are essential for the stability and progress of the society. So, what is required is not antagonism among the types, but their peaceful co-existence; for, nature’s diversity is not for contradiction or antagonism, but for ensuring physical existence. The scriptures, on account of their declaration that the whole universe emerged from and is possessed by a single ever-existent entity, cannot think otherwise. They recognize the diversity and at the same time go beyond it and see the unity that projects the diversity.
Since the said inherent inclination in choosing one’s Karma differs from person to person, even belonging to the same family, the classification based on Karma cannot be hereditary. For the same reason, caste has nothing to do with this classification. Castes are innumerable, but types (Varṇa) are only four. There is no scriptural instruction classifying the various castes into the four Varṇas. Moreover, the scriptures do not limit the applicability of this classification to any religious group; instead, they encompass the whole mankind. Since the actual occupation that one is forced to take up for earning a livelihood may not always coincide with his inherent inclination in choosing Karma, his Varṇa cannot be determined by his occupation either. So, the four-fold classification as per Hindu scriptures has nothing to do with caste or occupation, though religious miscreants, born of ignorance, practice discrimination in Varṇa structure and surreptitiously and dishonestly arrogate to themselves, favored positions therein, on the basis of caste and heredity.
Beginning with Plato, the Western speculative thinking took a decisive deviation from its enquiry into the ultimate reality. It restricted its domain into mere intellectual exchanges, often amounting to mutual refutations, without making any valid advance to the knowledge of the Supreme Being. At times we see its degradation into a debate between those who believe that God created everything and those who hold that there is no creator and that whatever is here now, always existed. These exercises are irrelevant to the pursuit of ultimate reality and therefore they command only little interest from us. We are therefore constrained to ignore such vagaries.
The prime objective of philosophy is to show the way to sustained happiness. To attain sustained happiness one should primarily know what he really consists of. Then only he can figure out the right deed (Karma) that he should engage himself with, so as to generate sustained happiness. So, a true philosophy worth that name asserts the importance and essentiality of self-knowledge as the only means to everlasting joy in life. All other speculative exercises constitute a shear waste. This is the reason why Hindu philosophy is unique in the history of speculative thinking.
Hinduism is not a bunch of ancient mythological concoctions extraneous to rational thought. It is true that just like any other ancient philosophy. Hinduism also presents its thoughts with some mythological coating, rather than resorting to outright deliverance, despite the fact that these thoughts are rational in essence. Those with credulous or antagonistic dispositions take the coatings as the essence and get themselves deceived. Hinduism is not a collection of myths, superstitions, rituals, observances and expiations, as assumed by both the types of people. Hindu scriptures, especially the Principal Upaniṣads and Bhagavad Gīta, offer a rational philosophy concerning the ultimate cause of existence of the universe and of life therein. Hinduism does not demand blind faith for its acceptance, since it expresses itself through pure rational thinking and coherence. It is also the most ancient rational philosophy of the world and therefore ancestral to all such philosophies ever dawned in history.
Hinduism does not consist in visiting temples, prostrating before idols, performing rituals and begging for fulfillment of desires. It consists in visualizing and realizing the unity existing among apparent diversities in the world. A Hindu worth that name should therefore endeavor to practice equality among themselves and also towards other religious identities. The more the Hindus practice discrimination among themselves, the more they alienate their own fellow beings by straying them away to other religious holds. India’s history is the prime testimony to this simple fact.