Vedanta sees no conflict between material needs and spiritualitybut a balance between the two. What it sees is a clash of values rather than a clash of civilizations. This can be useful for understanding the turbulent world today’ – N.S. Rajaram.
A striking feature of European and now American society is the conflict between new knowledge and old beliefs. This is often the case when scientific advances are seen to threaten long-held beliefs. Galileo’s persecution by the Church and the hostility to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution are only two examples. That this is not just a thing of the past is clear from the fact that there are fundamentalist groups in the U.S. that want to stop the teaching of evolution in school. Several states have passed laws requiring the so-called ‘Creation Science’ based on the Bible to be taught along with Darwin’s theory.
Rational and spiritual thought
Such a conflict between the rational and the spiritual (or belief) never arose in India, except as part of the debate. This is because Hinduism and its offshoots like Buddhism are not based on dogmas but exploration of the mind and spirit. “Accept nothing on my authority,” said the Buddha. “Think, and be a lamp unto yourself.” The Gayatri mantra, the greatest of all Vedic prayers says: dhiyoyo nah pracodayat, meaning “inspire our intellect.”
There is no appeal to blind faith in any of this. In fact it is a rejection of blind faith. Further, the Vedas are apaurusheya, meaning they do not rest on the authority of any human like a prophet. In fact the great Vedantic thinker Acharya Madhva (1238 – 1317) cautioned: “Never accept any human as authority. Humans are subject to error and deception. One deludes oneself in believing that such a human— free of error and deception ever existed and he alone was the author.”
In fact Madhva’s skepticism went so far as to question the authenticity of many passages in the Mahabharata. He went on to compose a celebrated work known as Mahabharata TatparyaNirnayadedicated to setting guidelines for distinguishing between authentic passages and interpolated passages. It was only in the 19th century, 500 years later that Indian and Western scholars came up with the same idea.
Shankara also in his commentary on the Brahmasutras cautioned against taking any scripture (Shastra) as infallible. He noted that they are human creations based on knowledge and experience (gnana and karma), that should not be taken as the word of God. In other words it is human creation or paurusheya.
This principle of truth independent of human authority is what is followed in science. If we honorNewtonand Einstein as great scientific sages because of their discoveries and not the other way. It is the same with great spiritual figures like Krishna.Krishnais seen as great because his teachings are great. At the same time, a Hindu is free to reject or modify any teachings if new knowledge comes to light.
This means, as in science, India’s tradition, including its spiritual tradition attaches the greatest importance to critical thinking. That is the meaning of the Gayatri mantra.
Further, where natural science looks at the material world, the scope of Vedanta includes the human and the spiritual worlds—or Man’s place in the Cosmos. (No gender intended in the word ‘Man’). Because of this open approach we can study human conflicts that are beyond the reach of science and also Western humanities, most of which derive from Christian theology. I can illustrate this by contrasting Western and Vedantic approaches to human conflicts, like the one the world is faced with today.
Clash of values: Daivic and the Asuric
Samuel Huntington in his influential thesis of Clash of Civilizations envisions a world in which future conflicts occur between civilizations. His analysis is geopolitical and does not take into account human tendencies or gunas.
Vedanta, however, sees the world differently.Different ages are dominated by different gunas— sattva, rajas and tamas. All humans are a combination of these gunasand this in turn creates Daivic (divine) and Asuric (demonic) personalities.
In the Hindu cosmic theory, since the beginning of the present historical cycle, the world has seen ages or yugas, dominated by these, with sattva declining from Krita Yuga to Kali Yuga. According to this theory, we are now poised at the end of a yuga cycle, passing through a yuga sandhi as we enter a new cycle of yugas. The idea was later borrowed by Arnold Toynbee.
A Yuga Sandhi is a time of turbulence. It is a period of transition that brings out a conflict between light and darkness: between enlightenment and ignorance, between spirituality and materialism. Of course no one can live without basic material comforts; the problem arises when the desire for material needs overwhelms people and leads to the despoliation of the world around us. What is needed is balance. When the balance is upset we land in a different yuga. For that we need to go through a Yuga Sandhi. This is what seems to happening in the world today.
Seen from this Vedantic perspective, what we are seeing around us is no clash of civilizations, but a clash of values or dharmas. This is an age-old conflict, between the material and the spiritual. Most evil in the world is due to an excessive desire for the material. This tendency is called Asuric by the ancients. The spiritual or the trait that seeks harmony is called Daivic. We may call Daivic as divine and the Asuric as demonic. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita describes the Asuric traits as follows:
“The Asuric (demonic) traits are ignorance, deceitfulness, excessive pride, ego, harshness, and rough speech. Such people know not when to act and when to desist from action. They believe in nothing, have neither truth nor purity. They live only by desire. Driven by desire and unsupported by beliefs these souls without enlightenment, with their terrible acts can destroy the world. With their insatiable greed, drunk with vanity and ego and sunk in ignorance they hold on to doctrines of falsehood bringing misery to life.
“Immersed in endless worries that only death can end, they know nothing beyond self-indulgence without limit. They think only of accumulating wealth through wrongful means. In the folly of their ignorance they think: ‘I got this today, I have that more to get. I have so much now but I’ll get more. I have killed that enemy, but I have more to kill. I am the lord of all I survey. I am fruitful, strong and happy. I am rich and grand. I have no equal.’ ”
It is not hard to see that the world today is in thrall to Asuric forces, but it was not always so. There were ages when Daivic tendencies ruled the planet. Krishna describes Daivic as:
“Fearlessness, purity, courage in seeking knowledge, generosity, restraint, learning, uprightness, gentleness, honesty, loyalty, compassion for the living, humility, fortitude and absence of excess pride— these are the virtues of the Daivic. The Daivic leads to freedom and the Asuric to bondage.”
The three gunas
The Vedantic view is that there are three fundamental tendencies (or gunas) that control nature (like daivicand asuric) and therefore the history of any era. These are: sattva(light or purity), rajas (power or aggression) and tamas(darkness or ignorance). Any combination of these determines the history of an epoch. Particularly dangerous is the combination of tamas and rajas— aggression driven by ignorance. This is what we call fanaticism.
Tamas sees sattva or light of knowledge as the enemy. Its goal is to destroy sattva and plunge the world into a Dark Age. This has happened many times in history. This is what forces of fanaticism are trying to do to the world today. The rule of Taliban in Afghanistan was an example of bringing darkness by a combination of rajas and tamas— force and ignorance. So was Nazism. Defeating Hitler was not enough; the tamasic root of Nazism had to be eradicated. It is the same with any fanaticism. It is a negative spirit that needs to be eradicated from the mind and soul of people.
This is the great enemy of civilization. This is also what ancient sages like Krishnawarned against. The lesson is that tamas cannot always be conquered by sattva alone. This means force or rajas must be employed, but employed judiciously. The ignorance of a child can be cured by education, but not the willful ignorance of a hardened fanatic. It can only be eradicated through force. It is a great error to believe that fanatics bent on plunging the world in darkness will respond to a gentle message. Deluded people sometimes project passive resistance as sattva or ‘spiritual force’. But any kind of passivity is only tamas.
Sri Aurobindo, one of modern India’s greatest yogis said: “The sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfillment of justice as the holiness of the saint. To maintain justice and to prevent the strong from despoiling, and the weak from being oppressed is the function for which the Kshatriya was created. Therefore, says Krishna in the Mahabharata, God created battle and armor, the sword, the bow and the dagger.”
In symbolic terms it means that leaders who combine force of personality with wisdom are needed in times of crisis. Abraham Lincoln was one such leader, as was Sardar Patel. There was steel in them, but also wisdom and compassion.
In summary, ancient Indian sages like Krishna and Vyasa saw evil in the world as being due to the rise of Asuric tendencies driven by a combination of tamas and rajas. The way to rid the world of evil is to fight it with Daivic forces made up of a combination of sattva and rajas.
Indian records give several examples. Beginning with a pure sattva period known as Krita Yuga, we have come to the end of Kali Yuga, the age of evil of a special kind called theocracy, where tamas is presented as spirituality. It binds people rather than releasing them. Five thousand years ago, at the end of Dwapara Yuga, India faced a similar threat that exploded into the Kali Yuga. At that juncture, at the Dwapara-Kali Yuga-sandhi, Krishna warned the world of its dangers and told his followers what needed to be done: evil must be fought and destroyed.
Conclusion: Vedanta and rational thought
By allowing materialism to run rampant we may now have reached the end of our journey, but a question remains: how relevant is Krishna’s 5000-year old message today as we enter another yuga-sandhi? My own view, derived from the Gita, Sri Aurobindo, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata is that the Vedantic approach, which was the worldview thousands of years ago, is still relevant. Whatever the merits of prophets and their prophecies, the Vedantic wisdom is eternal. Prophets and sages are human and hence, as Madhva says, subject to error and deceit.
We no longer live in the Vedantic milieu of Krishna and his contemporaries—an age in which Vedanta offered a rational way of looking at the world. To them Vedanta was a description of reality, part of their everyday thinking, much as science is to us today. Vedanta shaped their worldview just as science has shaped ours. This allowed them to combine human affairs and spiritual vision into a true synthesis. We have lost this vision. It is the source of much of our problem. We adopt purely material approaches to what are really problems of the spirit.
This is illustrated by looking at great ancient figures like Krishna. He was a great teacher and a great warrior in a just cause. We now have great warriors, full of rajas, but the world needs to recognize what it is really fighting— tamas. The message of the Gita is Vedanta and Krishna is the sage who embodies Vedic (and Vedantic) wisdom at all levels. Our goal should be not merely worshipping him as an icon but following his teachings to spiritual and intellectual freedom and apply it in action. Wrongly applied devotion results in tamasic blindness and inner slavery. This is what we call fanaticism, which has made much of the world vulnerable to outer slavery.
The Teacher is to be emulated, not blindly worshipped. Ultimately, the enemy is tamas. A teacher can only be a guide, but the effort has to come from within every one of us. This is what the great Brihadaranyaka Upanishad means when it says: tamaso ma jyotirgamaya— “Lead us from darkness to light.”
We no longer live in a Vedantic milieu. Most of us calling ourselves ‘rational’ do not see the world in Daivic and Asuric terms. With that we have lost the rational basis for spirituality that our ancestors possessed. We react to crises in a piecemeal, ad-hoc spirit. Vyasa and Krishna knew the causes and where they would lead: the combination of tamas and rajas would try to overwhelm the world and plunge it into a Dark Age. And they told us also how to fight it— with a combination of sattva and rajas, or righteous force.
This is what we are seeing today in our struggle against terror— a combination of rajas and tamas ranged against civilization. It is no clash of civilizations but a clash of values or dharmas— the Daivic and the Asuric. For civilization to survive, the Daivic forces—sattva and rajas— must combine to defeat the Asuric combination of tamas and rajas.
None of this is to suggest that Vedanta is infallible or beyond question and debate. It is a human creation and as Madhva cautions us, nothing human can be accepted as the ultimate knowledge. It is a guide that gives a different way of looking at the world from Huntington’s. Both should be seen as open to question and debate. What we need is understanding not blind obedience.
This Vedantic idea of Yuga cycles dominated by different values is one of India’s most significant contributions. It was borrowed by the famous historian Arnold Toynbee though he did not go into its spiritual-metaphysical analysis based on gunas.
Acknowledgment: I am grateful to General Ved Prakash Malik, former Chief of the Indian Army for suggesting that Huntington’s approach was limited and an alternative vision based on values held better promise.
Image credit: (Youtube) Geethanjali – Music and Chants
(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2015)
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