Indian seers and thinkers developed their ideas about life and living over a long period of time. Several regions in India contributed to the ideas. The chronological order of development is perhaps difficult to identify, but it is relatively easy to identify evolutionary layers of development. Since the Vedas are now accepted to be the oldest literature available, a consideration of the Vedic text may help in tracing the order of development in the early period. The order of development of the later period can be traced through the epics and Puranas.
The early phases of development seem to focus on observation. It seems that Indian people even at that time had a good understanding of how to observe things and events.
Observation of external objects and events is made in two stages; the first involves transmission of information to the receiving human organs of knowledge such as the eyes and ears. This phase can be termed ‘physical darshan'; it is a stage in which information from external objects/events flows through to the human organs of knowledge. In the second stage, the information received in the first stage is transmitted from the organs of knowledge to the brain where it creates a mental image. An appropriate name for this phase is mental darshan. It entails a reorganisation of mental consciousness in a wave formation in response to the stimuli received first by the organs of knowledge. Indian people were however of the opinion at that time, that neither physical darshan nor mental darshan nor the two together could lead to a complete knowledge of the objects or events under observation. For that to happen, another step is required. That required step can be termed intellectual darshan. It involves a total and comprehensive analysis of an image that neural transmission creates in the mental consciousness. The result of the analysis is often accepted as the knowledge of the object/event under observation. This result along with the mental image becomes part of memory. It immediately throws light on the fact that mental images could also be created from objects and/or events stored in and retrieved from memory.
Physical Sciences explain how information is transmitted in the first stage from objects/events to human organs. The transmission in the second stage from the organs to the mind belongs to the subject of Neuroscience. The mental images created by memory can easily interfere with those related to the event currently under observation. An analysis too of such mental images created by memory often interferes with the analysis of the image of the object/event under observation. The resulting conclusion regarding the object of observation may be unreliable especially if the two images are unrelated or are incompatible. That perhaps is the reason for the following narration directed at the object of observation and the status of observer. A true image of Sun (or any other object) on a surface of water (in a pot for example) is possible only if the surface is calm. If the pot is disturbed such that it creates waves on the surface, the image (of Sun or of an object) does not produce a constant picture for observation-based conclusion. It produces a distorted image that appears to change and flicker. If the observation of the (mental) image is to be used as the basis for knowledge, observation of an image that flickers is unlikely to lead to a reliable conclusion. Vedic thinkers used the word ‘agyan’ for a conclusion derived from incomplete, unreliable or questionable information. This word is often used to suggest ignorance. This meaning seems incorrect. If the word ‘knowledge’ used in English is equivalent to ‘gyan’ in Sanskrit, the prefix ‘a’ (implying ‘not’) attached to gyan can only mean ‘no knowledge’. Hence, ‘agyan’ refers to a conclusion or knowledge based on incomplete, unreliable or unverifiable observation. The proper English word for ‘agyan’ could be ‘pseudo-knowledge’. Ideally speaking, the word ‘gyan' is associated with knowledge of truth or reality.
Experts may differ regarding the time the Vedic period began and ended. It is however fair to assume that the development of Vedic Sanskrit, the language used in the Vedas, occurred during this period. Words in Sanskrit were created and used to express and convey human observations and emotions. A large part of the Vedas uses a combination of words in metrical form. This method of expression must have a the part of this early development. Vedic Seers (or Scientists in present day terminology) knew that the meaning or knowledge a word implies has to be inferred either alone as it is or in the context of where it appears. For this purpose, they developed a discipline called Mimansa to interpret and find the correct meaning of a spoken (or written) text. A speaker (or writer) conveys a message to an audience. The field of Mimansa seems to be a direct outcome of intellectual darshan. The word used in the West for Mimansa is Hermeneutics that has a limited scope.
Vedic seers were deeply interested in finding ways to live a good life. The body of knowledge they generated can hence be classified as the science of life. Like any other science, it consisted of two parts: theory and practice. Further, to make the theory and practice useful and simple in life, it had to be described in words people could relate to easily and be frequently used in everyday life. Vedic words along with understanding of their meaning or Mimansa make it rather simple to decipher the message of the Vedas.
According to Vedic thinkers, knowledge based on the physical, mental and intellectual darshans is inferential in character. It can be identified as relative knowledge, never as absolute. Spiritual darshan was necessary for absolute knowledge and for a meaningful life. It now forms part of the science of life and living.
Each of the four forms of darshan can be identified by the four corresponding states which are the physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual. Mental darshan is the observation of the mental image of objects/events. Intellectual darshan aims at the analysis of the mental image. The inferential knowledge they lead to depends on the state of observer. In order to remove the subjectivity, scholars began to rely on the scholars’ collective opinion about objects and events. Objective knowledge is the word they associate with such common inference. The knowledge acquired in this fashion is still relative but accepted as scientific. In fact, modern science developed along this line.
Knowledge contributed by a small number of trusted people to is known as Testimonial. It must be emphasised that in all such cases, knowledge as conclusive evidence was still arrived at by individuals as observers. They are the subject that observes the object. If the people who are relied upon for a conclusion are biased or wrong, knowledge based on their conclusion is more likely to be biased or incorrect. A group of people often accept the Testimonial knowledge as more reliable and in some cases as absolute truth or absolute knowledge. Any knowledge accepted without proof is still an inference. Vedic seers consider spiritual darshan as essential for Absolute knowledge. Subsequently, they explained what Spiritual darshan is and how to make it a part of life. The process to this darshan is gradual and requires some practice. The discipline of Yoga addresses the practical part of the science of life. It explains how to move gradually from physical darshan to spiritual darshan.
Since physical objects/events are available only as mental images the initial attempt of yoga is to shift attention from physical darshan to mental darshan. This is described as Pratyahar in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. A continuous focus on the mental image is called Dharna. Once the state of dharna is achieved, an intellectual analysis of the image begins. Any conclusive result arrived at from the analysis of the mental image of an object/event is intellectual darshan. It is an inference of an individual. Any theory or doctrine developed as a result is therefore inferential. In the words of Aurobindo Ghosh (Upanishads: 7), such development belongs to the psycho-physical state of a human being. A continuous and deep state of dhyan eventually leads the person to a psycho-spiritual state (Upanishads:7). The state in which Spiritual darshan takes place is called the state of Samadhi in the yoga philosophy. In it, the difference between mental darshan and intellectual darshan disappears. This is also the state of of pure existence in which mental consciousness is free of any image created either by external stimuli or due to memory. The description by the yoga philosophy of how to negotiate the path of search for knowledge is now quite clear. It traverses from the physical (object/event assumed real in the beginning) to the mental (image) to the intellectual (analysis)and finally to Spiritual darshan. This last form of darshan is a direct perception of mental consciousness when it is completely free from residual images of objects/events created either directly from external factors or indirectly from memory. Vedic thinkers view this state to offer a vision of pure consciousness. Only when it is disturbed due to external stimuli or memory, it takes on an adjunct ‘mental’. It is then referred to as mental consciousness because it is attached to the created principle known as mind. In the same way, it is possible to think of physical consciousness and intelligence consciousness as adjuncts associated with the physical and intellectual bodies.
A statement of a creative principle is made in the 129th sukta of the tenth mandal of the Rig Veda. It says “there was neither sat nor asat in the beginning. What existed then was ‘tad ekam' or ‘That One’”. Some Scholars use the word existence for ‘sat’’ and non-existence for ‘asat’.
The acceptance of this statement would mean acceptance of ‘existence within the domain of non-existence’. Is it what Indian seers meant? If not, an alternative explanation has to be found. The meaning of Vedic words provides an alternative. In Vedic Sanskrit, both ‘sat’ and ‘a sat' refer to Truth as Reality. ‘Sat’ refers to Reality that appears to remain the same, Sat is the Reality that appears to change in time. In the case of Spiritual darshan, the mental consciousness always remain the same provided it is free of any disturbance created due to external stimuli or memory. In this particular case, it presents a vision of pure or absolute consciousness with no trace of disturbance of any kind. Hence, it can be identified with Sat. All other consciousness with adjuncts like the physical, mental or intellectual are therefore examples of Asat.
A distinguishing characteristic of Asat is that it introduces a feeling of multiplicity in life. Ishopanishad deals with the concept in terms of pairs of opposites and attempts to reconcile them. Ken and Mandukya Upanishad consider Asat in three parts. When the three parts are combined with Sat, the result can be interpreted as statement regarding That One in four parts. Mandukya Upanishad states the four parts as ‘chatuspaad of self’. ‘Chatuspaad of self’ is its four fold description or its narration in four parts. Ken Upanishad introduces the four parts in the form of a story and thereby lays foundation for the Puranic concept of narrating life in terms of stories.
It seems that the Vedic ideas evolved over a long period of time. Its ideologies presented in the Upanishads must also have taken a long time to evolve. It is possible that evolving concepts played a primary role in the compilation of Vedic text as it is available now in the present form. The name of Ved Vyas is accepted as the person who compiled the Vedas. They are four in number and each has four parts. In view of the statement in Mandukya and Ken Upanishads, each Veda exhibits a chatuspaad or four fold description consisiting of Physical, Mental, Intellectual and Spiritual aspects.
The physical body of a person is used for performances that are repeated again and again. The same characteristics of repeatability are followed in Rituals as well. The purpose of mind is to bring in focus what is being done and to use a framework of how to make a body repeat an action. Intellect is used for analytical development of a theoretical framework for the reason of an action. A person of course stands apart from the physical, mental, and intellectual bodies that he or she is endowed with. The Vedas exhibit the same features: Brahman for physical body, Aranyak for mental body and Upanishads for the intellectual body of the Vedas. Samhita stands apart from these three: it is the Spiritual body of the Vedas.
Another feature of the Vedic period that stands out is its proposal for movement of human beings from their physical moorings to spiritual height. This feature was built on during the epic period in the form of Purusharth or the aim of human life. This too is expressed in four parts; artha, kam, dharma and moksha. Moksh or liberation is the highest form to aim for in life. The journey begins with physical body as the means or arth. The desire or kam comes from the mental body. Dharma is linked to the intellectual body. Freedom, independence or moksha from these three are reached in the spiritual body.
Moksh is the ideal state for people to strive for. Another thought developed perhaps during this period: the attainment of the ideal state can also lead to a living technique that can free the physical body from physical ailments, mental body from mental ills and make the intellectual body free from error in making decisions. Is it possible for a human being to attain such a status in life? This threw in a concept of an ideal person. Scholars made the epic period famous by narrating the story, in puranic mould, of two ideal persons of the era. The story of Ram as an ideal person is narrated in Ramayan. A later version of Ramayan makes the author claim to observe the omnipresence of Ram and Sita in the created world. This is in line with the statement in Ishopanishad according to which this world is permeated by Isha or the Lord. This is perhaps the reason why Ram of Ramayan is given the status of an incarnation of God. Ram is considered an example of how to lead an ideal life. Indeed, the life of Ram shows how to put the theory of Science of Life in practice.
The other epic is known as Mahabharata. It is a story involving war between two sections of people, one good and the other bad. The story describes in some detail the theory and practice of Science of Life introduced first in the Vedas. It was done to present before people a way of life that has been lost with the passage of time. Krishna is an ideal person of the time, elevated to the level of God incarnate. He explains the importance of Sankhya and Yoga, the theoretical and practical parts of the Science of Life. Another important feature of life and living emerges from these explanations.
People in general do not want to die. They want to live or exist. They want to know. They want to be happy. The Spiritual Heritage of Sat-chit-anand (Existence, knowledge and bliss in Sanskrit) took possession of human thought. It was introduced in the Vedas and rediscovered in the Gita, which forms a part of the Mahabharata. According to the Vedas, two spiritual heritages are part of every person. One is Sat and the other is Asat (Rig Veda). The heritage of Sat makes a person sat-chit-anand, potentially at least. Asat provides the power to attain the ideal of sat-chit-anand in life. These powers are named as devas (gods in English) and help people achieve their potential. In the Vedic period, Agni was the power or deva that helped achieve optimum physical health. Vayu is the deva that guides senses and mind to their optimal performance. Indra is the god of intellectual health. This is narrated as a story in Ken Upanishad. It in fact introduces the concept of Yoga, the practical part of the Science of Life. Yoga as it is known now developed over a long period and was eventually put in concise written form by Patanjali. This work is known as Yoga Sutra.
This period also saw the emergence of Shiv as supreme deity of knowledge. With Ram as sat, Shiv as Chit and Krishna as anand, sat-chit-anand became part of Indian heritage.
The consequence of Indian thought beginning with the vedic period and continuing upto and past the epic period made India a very rich country. People from other parts of the world got attracted to its wealth. It became the reason for their invasion of India. Early invasions of the country were perhaps not so damaging. The later invasions began to destroy the spiritual, intellectual and material wealth of India. To guard against this loss, Indians began to idolise what they once idealised in their life. The idols of Ram, Krishna, Shiv and other gods were established in temples across India. A tradition of worship and prayer took root in the life of Indians. Yoga as a discipline that leads to unity of existence is now forgotten.
All the phases of development are deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. It is true that some prefer one over the other. However, there was seldom any animosity of one group against the other because of chosen preferences. This created a sense of tolerance among Indians towards other ways of thinking. However now there has emerged a group of Indians who prefer Western thinking. They are the people who promote intolerance against the heritage from ancient Indian thinking and refer to people who promote this ethos as intolerant. They have perhaps forgotten the ancient Indian thinking which makes it clear that, in absence of spiritual darshan, people can rely only on an inferential result of intellectual analysis of mental images. A system of higher education based on inference alone is a Western concept. A system of higher eduction based on spiritual darshan is an Indian concept. A blind acceptance of the Western system implies a lack of confidence in the Indian system. What people accept controls their behaviour in life. It is perhaps the reason why Indians have become materialistic and are looking to the West for solution to their problems. It shows a lack of self-confidence. The only way out of this state is to practice Yoga as it was during the Vedic period and as it is explained in the Gita of the Epic period.
It is also nice to revisit some of the statements of the past and how they can be applied for a better life. One statement from the Ishopanishad that is repeated in different form in the Gita ought to be looked at again. ‘Observe the Self in all existence and entire existence in the Self’ says Ishopanishad. ‘One who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me is never lost’ says Krishna in the Gita. The two statements ‘Me in all’ and ‘all in Me’ is clearly contradictory in nature from the point of view of knowledge emphasised in present day education. They are correct when seen from the point of view of how people learn. Everyone is seen to live within the world around them. Yet, the knowledge of the world without is based on the information obtained from the mental image formed within.
The idea of time and attribute (guna) explained in the Gita also points to inadequacy of present day education in leading a good life. The present concept is to divide time into three parts; present, past and future. The attributes are also divided into three parts; tamo, rajo and sato. The three fold division can be related to the physical, mental an intellectual parts of a human being. The ancient Indian system of knowledge from the Vedas and Epics, especially the Gita of Mahabharata, adds a forth, a spiritual dimension to human existence.
It can be appreciated that all human activities take place in the present, not in the past or future. Physical limbs work in the present. Mind thinks in the present. One may think of the past as stored in the memory. But the thinking about the past also takes place at the current instant. One can plan for the future, but the planning is also done at the current time. Two much thinking of the past while forgetting the present sows the basis for stress in life. Unnecessary thinking about the future could also become the reason for stress in life. A desirable stress-free life requires working in harmony with all parts of human life: the physical, the mental, the intellectual and the spiritual man must always live and work together in the present.
1. Sri Aurobindo.1988. The Upanishad. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust.