Taking Credit for Buddha’s Work

Photo by Ganesh Kumar B N on Unsplash

Having attention is the brain’s superpower, writes Amishi Jha in her book Peak Mind. Every moment, our mind is bombarded by signals from our sensory inputs. To prevent our brains from being overloaded, the brain filters out the unnecessary noise and keeps our attention on what’s important. Imagine that you are in a coffee shop. People are walking in and out, baristas are taking orders and making coffee while music is playing in the background. In the midst of this, you can focus on the conversation you are having with your friend. If not for our attention superpower, we would be paralyzed by the sheer load of information we have to process and act on.

While it’s a superpower, it’s hard to hold on to your attention. Over the past few years, I’ve squandered countless hours and a fair amount of money on productivity techniques and lifehacks to boost my attention. I have read books like Digital Minimalism, Deep Work, Focus, Atomic Habits, and the Power of Habit. I have learned techniques of using a Pomodoro Timer or using Time Blocking. I have done various productivity courses each having its own philosophy. All these techniques are really good, but they all fail for a simple reason. Attention is fragile. A notification ping on the phone and you drop everything and are scrolling infinitely.

A quick fix, you might think, is to just keep the phone in another room. That way you have outsmarted all the software engineers and psychologists who designed those addictive apps. Now try to focus on a task for 30 minutes. You will fail because your mind will start wandering. It has found an interesting thing from the past or a future activity to plan.

If you cannot hold your attention, the only thing you will achieve is to generate revenue for social media sites. At the same time, if you can better your attention span, you can achieve wonders.

Here is a recent example of someone deep in action with amazing focus.

In Game 1 of the 2018 Eastern Conference NBA finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics 108-83. After the game, Cavaliers’ star Lebron James was asked about a stretch where the Celtics scored seven straight points. “What happened?” James repeated back to the reporter. He paused, and it seemed like he might dismiss the question, but then, “the first possession, we ran them down all the way to 2 [seconds] on the shot clock. [The Celtics’] Marcus Morris missed a jump shot. He followed it up, they got a dunk. We came back down, we ran a set for Jordan Clarkson. He came off and missed it. They rebounded it. We came back on the defensive end, and we got a stop. They took it out on the sideline. Jason Tatum took it out, threw it to Marcus Smart in the short corner, he made a three. We come down, miss another shot. And then Tatum came down and went ninety-four feet, did a Eurostep and made a right-hand layup. [We called a] timeout.” 

It’s not just basketball. It works for anything you want to master. The challenge is in finding a technique that can help improve your attention span.

This is the end of the road for psychologists like Amishi Jha. They are excellent at identifying the problem, running experiments, and documenting the details. They know about various techniques used by successful people. For example, athletes use visualization as mental practice; golfers will practice swings in the mind and these mental rehearsals activate the motor cortex of the brain the way physical movement does.

Psychologists also know why many of the lifehack techniques don’t work. Imagine that you figured that time blocking is a wonderful technique. When you decide to focus for 30 mins on the presentation you are working on, your mind wanders. At this point, you have set goals, done your visualization, and are staying positive. The reason attention still wanders is that you need attention to implement any of these techniques, which is the original problem anyway.

At this point, science has given up. They can’t find a solution to increase your attention. Instead, in a sleight of hand, they offer you a solution – Meditation or Mindfulness or ancient teaching without the attachment of religion. This solution is not something found through the scientific process. It’s just an appropriation of a technique from the ancients.

This is not like when Einstein predicted that gravity can bend light and later experimentalists confirmed it. In this case, Buddha and his predecessors, the rishis of India had already proved that all of this works. These rishis subjected themselves to various techniques and came up with not just one, but many ways to maintain attention. They are the original scientists.

Now the research is simplified. Just prove that works by submitting it to folks in the army, students, firefighters, and whatnot. After running a battery of tests, they find that – hey this stuff works. Papers are produced, books are written and an expensive consulting business is started.

I just picked on Peak Mind because it was the most recent book I read on this topic. There are many others in this genre. They all follow a simple pattern of here is a problem and the answer in Buddhism, but without Buddha and karma and reincarnation. In a recent podcast, many high achievers admitted to practicing various dharmic practices.  Hence it is lucrative to remove “otherworldly mumbo-jumbo” from Buddhism and sell it as “mindfulness” to corporates, hospitals, and stressed out people.

Upanishad Notes: How Advaita refutes Buddhism

Photo by Ganesh Kumar B N on Unsplash

While there were debates among the astikas (who abides by Vedas), there were similar debates between astikas and nastikas (Buddhists, Jains).

The prerequisite of these debates was that you would understand the opponent’s position well enough to state it and then debate. Let’s understand the process better — let’s look at a refutation that happened 1300 years back. Here, it was Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s guru’s guru) refuting four schools of Buddhism.

Different schools of Buddhism

These were the Srautrantika, Vaibhashika, Yogachara Vijñānavāda, and the Shunyavada. All of them explored the question: is there an external world apart from us and came up with different points of view. We are a species that delight in metaphysical observations and can come up with darshanas that captivate and startle. In a dharmic venture, there is no monotheistic understanding. Instead, in trying to understand the world, these ambitious mind explorers came up with different explanations of reality.

The srautrantikas believed that when you perceive something it exists out there. For example, if you see a flower, it means that there is a flower right there in front of you. We also have unique experiences based on the object; the experience you have when you eat a mango differs from the experience you have when you eat roasted cashew.

This is what we experience daily, and it is natural to wonder how could anyone even have a position other than this? That’s where the Vaibhashika person comes and says hold on. We don’t see the flower just because it is out there, but because of the process that happens because of it. When you look at a flower, the eyes process that, and the mind creates an image of the flower. This is like the modern position that light waves hit our retina, resulting in some electrical activity in the brain creating the perception of the flower. The biological software processes signals from the biological hardware.

On hearing this, you can accept that it is a detailed and refined view than the srautrantika position. Now that we are here, what could be a position that could be a refinement of this?

The Vijñānavādin, brings a radical perspective — there is no external object. It is not like saying 2+2 = 5. The Vijñānavādin is saying there is no 2 or 5. Everything you perceive is just in your mind and what you feel as real is just an illusion. For example, in your dream, you will see new worlds and old friends, but the moment you wake up, all of that disappears. Vijñānavādin says the actual world too is similar, an illusion. If you thought that was rad, just see what the Shunyavadin has to say. The Shunyavadin takes it up a notch further and says that nothing exists. There is no external world, no mind. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Everything is shunya.

If your mind goes into DEFCON 2,  no one will blame you. We have ninety billion neurons entangled in a network of one hundred trillion synaptic connections. Only rishis with neurons which have seen the flashes of light between the extremities of darkness can come up with such darshanas.

To summarize, the Srautrantikas and Vaibhashikas, called the realists, agree that there is an external object, while the Vijñānavādins and Shunyavadins (the idealists) don’t. From now we will use this terminology.

Advaita is similar to Vijñānavāda. Gaudapada also argues that your waking world is like the dream world – a projection of the ultimate reality — Brahman. All of us, all the surrounding things are all are just names, forms, and behavior of Brahman. Now that the positions are clear, it’s time for Advaita to refute them.For that, Gaudapada uses a simple technique. Since the various Buddhist schools have been debating each other, he piggybacks on those arguments.

And so it starts.

The realist poses this question to the idealist. If you say that there is no external object, but just awareness, it seems odd. I can touch flowers, fruits, and feel happy seeing the Ram Mandir getting built. Each of these is a different perception inside me. If you say that there is one consciousness, then that conciseness is homogeneous. If consciousness is homogeneous, then the experience should also be homogeneous. Instead, our daily experience shows that diverse objects give us diverse perceptions. This means that there is a secondary object apart from this consciousness thing.

The idealist refutes it. The idealist rejects this from the standpoint of absolute reality. Look at a pot. If you have an external view, it will look like an object which exists. Now consider the same pot from the point of view of clay. There is nothing called pot, it is just a name, form, and behavior. Take a piece of cloth. It cannot exist without the thread, and you can say that the thread is the reality. The cloth is just a name and form imposed on the thread. Does the thread exist though? It is made of fibers and the thread is a name/form superimposition on the thread. Take it deep and deep and you end up with consciousness as the substratum on which everything else is a name and form. Hence, when you stand at the point of consciousness and look around, there is nothing else that differs from it.

The idealist continues: Hey, you realist, you had mentioned that it is diverse external objects which cause diverse experiences for you. In your dream world, you can eat an apple, drink lemon-soda, and experience happiness of the bhumi puja of Ram Mandir. In your sleep, all your sense organs have shut down. Your eyes are not seeing, your tongue is not tasting, and yet you have such diverse experiences such as all these. So saying that an external world causes diverse experiences is not true.

That works for the dream world, but what about the real world? Are we living in a Matrix to say that this is an illusion? Is this consensual hallucination? Gaudapada says, yes. Your waking world does not differ from the dream world. There is nothing apart from Brahman and whatever you see, feel and perceive is just Brahman with name, form, and behavior. This difference between the external and internal is all in the mind.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Now that the realists have been taken care of, Gaudapada turns towards the Vijñānavādins. So far he used the arguments by Vijñānavādins to refute the realists, but now it is time to take care of them. It might seem that Vijñānavādins and Advaitins were twins lost at the Kumbh Mela. Both of them claim that the world is illusory.

While that looks similar, there is one major difference. While Advaita says that Brahman is unborn, unchanging, and deathless, Vijñānavādins say that consciousness is momentary. If Advaitins think of Brahman as sunlight, always present and always shining, Vijñānavādins think of it as a strobe light, which flashes on and off. Reality is nothing but a stream of this consciousness hitting you at a fast rate creating an illusion of reality.

The problem here is that Vijñānavādins do not distinguish between consciousness and mind. They use the same word (Chittam) for both. When you experience a flower, a vritti is formed in your Chitta. When you smell the flower, you get another vritti. This happens at such a fast rate that it seems continuous. It is like a packet with awareness and context hitting you constantly. With meditation, you can slow down your awareness and see this happen in slow motion.

The Advaitin then asks, if consciousness is constantly born and dies, what leads to its birth again? Is it born from something which exists or something non-existing? Also, if what we perceive are flashes of consciousness, then how do you perceive the gap between two events? Is it blank? This does not sound right. The Advaita position is that just the vritti dies, but the consciousness never dies. Those who say that consciousness dies are looking for footprints of flying birds.

With all the three gone, the remaining one is the Shunyavadin. Gaudapada does not refute Shunyavada explicitly. Shankara in his commentary just mentions that they are like people who are trying to grasp the sky with their hands. A later debater says that if everything is empty, then you, Shunyavadin are also empty and hence there is no need to debate you.

These back-and-forth arguments illustrate the rigor of arguments among the various darshanas. Going through this process helps us understand each of the darshanas clearly. The people who discovered these darshanas because of their tapas are no longer with us, but these discoveries are still being talked about and they still captivate and startle.

References

Upanishad Notes: How Advaita refutes Samkhya

6 darshanas in sanatana dharma

Though the six darshanas in Hinduism disagreed with each other, no one was excommunicated, put in house arrest, or burned at the stake. Instead, proponents of these darshanas would fight virulently but verbally. They would study the opponent’s position, debate and refute it. Let’s look at an example when an Advaitin refuted Samkhya 1300 years back.

If you observe our world, you will see creation and destruction happening. From the seed appears a tree. At some point, the tree dies but creating new seeds before that. Animals are born from few cells, and they die, but they create new animals as well. Mountains are formed from the earth and later they become part of the earth. Observing this pattern of cause and effect, a few millennia back, Kapila proposed the system of Samkhya.

Samkhya is one of the oldest darshanas with its main premise being the concept of pre-existence and transformation. For example, a tree comes from a seed, and thus you can say that the tree pre-existed in the seed. The effect (tree) pre-existed in the cause( seed) in an unmanifest form. With the birth of the tree, the cause transformed into the effect with a new name and properties similar to curd manifesting from milk. All the colors that later appear on the plumes of a peacock, pre-existed in the egg of the peahen. Extrapolating this, we can say that the entire universe pre-existed in cause from which it manifested.

The tree or curd are not something new coming into existence, but a change in the seed or milk. In Samkhya, each one of us, the Purusha, came from Prakriti. Prakriti is eternal unborn and undying. The Purusha which was unmanifest manifests with separate pure consciousness with a difference.

Compared to Samkhya, the Advaita advocated by Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s guru’s guru) is quite radical. According to him, the entire experience we have is a projection. Think of a movie screen showing Uri: A surgical strike. In the movie, there is cause and effect and karma, but the screen is unaffected by the movie. Today it could be Uri, tomorrow it could be Bahubali. Now think of your dream world. You manifest a brand new world during sleep and this world disappears when you wake up. Gaudapada argues that even your waking world is similar to the dream world – a projection of the ultimate reality — Brahman.

In this darshana, there is no unmanifest manifesting. It is not like Brahman is the cause and the universe is the effect. Instead, think of it this way. You see a snake on the road, but on closer examination, you find that it was a rope. You see some water in the desert, but on closer examination, you find that it was a mirage. The assumed reality is found to be an error. Similarly, the world is a projection that we take to be real.

If everything is a projection, then what is real? Think of a necklace and a ring which are two separate things, both made of gold. The gold does not disappear when the necklace appears like how the seed disappears when the tree appears. Instead, the necklace is just a name and form imposed on the gold. Nothing new is born.

To show the superiority of Advaita, Gaudapada uses two techniques to refute Samkhya. The first one is a logical argument and the second one, a technical one.

According to Samkhya, the cause is transformed into effect. Prakriti is eternal and is neither born nor destroyed. The effect, Purusha (think humans), is born and dies. If the effect is created from an unborn, immortal cause, then the effect should also be unborn and immortal. Instead, the final fate of every Purusha is a foregone conclusion. From planets to stars, solar systems to galaxies, black holes to swirling nebulae, amoeba to homo sapiens, nothing is everlasting. According to Gaudapada, the immortal Prakriti transforming into a mortal Purusha is illogical.

The second refutation is done using nyāya. In nyāya, the logic has to be illustrated with an example. According to Samkhya, there is a cause and an effect. Gaudapada argues that if Samkhyans say that Purusha came from Prakriti, one can ask where the Prakriti itself came from? If that Prakriti came from another cause, it can go backward endlessly (recursion without a terminating condition or anavastha dosha). Or if you argue that Prakriti is a causeless cause, he says that won’t work as well, as there is no udāhārana of a causeless cause. See this article for more details.

Even though these debates happened and victories were claimed, none of these darshanas disappeared. Samkhyans never were forced to accept Advaita as supreme. No committee met and decided what is kosher and what is not. No one was declared as a heretic and excommunicated. Just open the Gita and check the name of the second chapter.

References

Upanishad Notes: Difference between Greek logic and Nyāya

A simplified example of Greek logic is as follows

  • All men die
  • Socrates is a man
  • Socrates will die

Compared to this, Hindu Nyāya has some additional steps. The most common example used is that of the fire in the mountain. The steps are as follows

QuestionNyāya statementNyāya term
StatementThere is fire in the hillPratijñā
WhyThere is smokeHetu
So what?If there is smoke, there is fire, like in the kitchenUdāhārana
And?There is smoke in the hillUpanaya
So?Hence there is fire in the hillNigamana

One important step in Nyāya is udāhārana and just because one could not be provided an entire darshana can be refuted. An example of that would be Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s teacher’s teacher) refuting Samkhya.

According to Samkya, the effect pre-exists in the cause, similar to how a tree pre-exists in the seed. Like how the tree is born from the seed, purusha manifests from prakriti. Gaudapada disagrees with this and among the many tactics he deploys to refute Samkhya, one of them is the lack of udāhārana.

He argues that if Samkhyans say that purusha came from prakriti, one can ask where the prakriti itself came from? If that prakriti came from another cause, it can go backward endlessly (recursion without a terminating condition or anavastha dosha). Or if you argue that prakriti is a causeless cause, he says that won’t work as well, as there is no udāhārana of a causeless cause.

Reference:

अजाद्वै जायते यस्य दृष्टान्तस्तस्य नास्ति वै ।
जाताच्च जायामानस्य न व्यवस्था प्रसज्यते ॥ १३ ॥

There is no illustration to support the view of him who says that the effect is born from the unborn cause. Again, if it be said that the effect is produced from a cause which is itself born then it leads to a regressus ad infinitum.

Swami Vivekananda on why Hindus don’t say “My god is true and yours is not”

Swamiji starts by telling the history of the Middle East and the evolution of religion there. In the world of tribes, each tribe had its own god. If the tribes were allied with each other, they would have a common name like Baal or Moloch. When one tribe conquered another, their king would take over and claim that their god was superior as well. For the Babylonians, Baal-Merodach was superior. For Jews, Moloch-Yahveh was supreme over other Molochs. The supremacy of the gods was decided by humans through battle.

In India too, this issue was there. Here is where we differed because:

the great good fortune of this country and of the world was that there came out in the midst of the din and confusion a voice which declared एकं सद्विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति — “That which exists is One; sages call It by various names.” It is not that Shiva is superior to Vishnu, not that Vishnu is everything and Shiva is nothing, but it is the same one whom you call either Shiva, or Vishnu, or by a hundred other names. The names are different, but it is the same one. The whole history of India you may read in these few words. The whole history has been a repetition in massive language, with tremendous power, of that one central doctrine. It was repeated in the land till it had entered into the blood of the nation, till it began to tingle with every drop of blood that flowed in its veins, till it became one with the life, part and parcel of the material of which it was composed; and thus the land was transmuted into the most wonderful land of toleration, giving the right to welcome the various religions as well as all sects into the old mother-country.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

Due to this concept of oneness is everyone and everything, apparently contradictory ideas can live in harmony. This is the one lesson that India has to offer to the world. This is a concept that missionaries will never understand. They will never understand what Ishta is. The intolerance that they exhibit and the religious persecution around the world are because they don’t have the concept of unity in everything. Swamiji says:

If you go to other countries and ask Mohammedans or people of other religions to build a temple for you, see how they will help. They will instead try to break down your temple and you too if they can. The one great lesson, therefore, that the world wants most, that the world has yet to learn from India, is the idea not only of toleration, but of sympathy.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

We have examples of Kings building temples for Mohammedans and Christians and offering refuge to Jews and Zoroastrians. The differences in our way of worship did not matter.

It is impossible that all difference can cease; it must exist; without variation life must cease. It is this clash, the differentiation of thought that makes for light, for motion, for everything. Differentiation, infinitely contradictory, must remain, but it is not necessary that we should hate each other therefore; it is not necessary therefore that we should fight each other.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

The Origin of Onam

Boat Race for Onam via WikiCommons

The popular narrative of Onam goes like this. There used to be a king who ruled Kerala called Mahabali. During his time — according to a popular saying in Malayalam — there was unity among people, who were honest and all around prosperity. Consumed by jealousy, Indra approached Vishnu and requested him to remove Mahabali. Vishnu took the Vamana avatar and asked Mahabali for three feet of land.

The charitable king agreed and Vamana, who was a little boy, grew to a gigantic form. With his one feet, he measured the earth. With the next he measured the entire universe. Mahabali realized who he was dealing with and offered his head for the third foot of land. Vamana placed his foot on the king’s head and pushed him to paataal. Before leaving, the king asked for one boon, — to visit his people once a year — which was granted. Onam is the time when Mahabali visits Malayalis

By Raja Ravi Varma

If you hear this version, Mahabali is a martyr and Vishnu is a villain. Why on earth would Vishnu take an avatar to get rid of someone who had all the noble values? Now you can add the liberal, subaltern flavor to this. Vamana being the avatar of Vishnu was a savarna, who pushed a dalit down. This of course is a perfect example of brahminical patriarchy. There is even an Aryan Invasion version of Onam. Something seems to be incorrect here.

What is the truth as per our scriptures though? In fact, Parikshit had the same question and he asked it to Shukracharya. To know the truth behind this literary conceit, you just need to read Bhagavatam.

Let’s look at the sequence of avatars. In the list Vamana comes after Parasurama. This may not be a well know fact outside Kerala, but Parasurama is credited with the creation of Kerala. It is said that when he threw his axe and land arose from the sea. So if the Mahabali event happened earlier with an earlier avatar, then he obviously was not in the land we call Kerala.

For the next point, we need to go into the details of devas and asuras. The devas and asuras are children born of the same father. Kashyapa Prajapati had children with his wife Aditi and Diti. Though they were born of the same father, the children had different natures. The children of Aditi had more sattva in them, while the the children of Diti turned out to be asuras.

We all know the story of Prahlad who was the son of the erasure king Hiranyakashipu. Prahlad had a son named Virochana and Mahabali was his son. During his youth, Bali went for a war with Indra and lost his life, but the Asura guru Shukracharya revived him back to life. Shukracharya wanted his disciples to vanquish the devas. Bali wanted his revenge.

Onam Feast By Rohan S on Flickr

This was a time when Vishnu stood back. He had noticed the arrogance of the devas and wanted to teach them a lesson. Shukracharya had noticed this as well. That was the opportune moment for him. When the forces of Shukracharya and Bali were combined, the asura strength increased. Bali attacked Indra and defeated him. Bali then following Shukracharya’s instructions, ruled the devaloka as well.

Even when he was without a throne and was wandering around, Indra did not approach Vishnu and ask for his help in making Bali disappear. Who approached Vishnu and triggered the Vamana avatar?

That was Aditi. Seeing the sad state of her son, she approached her husband Kashyapa, who advised her to perform a vrata. Pleased with her vrata, Vishnu appeared before her. Aditi explained the homelessness of her son and pleaded with him to do something. Seeing her hard austerities and heart felt plea, Vishnu promised to find a solution.

Thus on a shravan month, on the Abhijit muhurta, Vamana was born. Mahabali was performing a yaga on the banks of river Narmada (not in Kerala), when Vamana appeared there. On asking why the child came there, Vamana said that he came for a dana of three feet of land. Hearing this, Bali ridiculed him, but Vamana did not change his request. Shukracharya, immediately realized who the boy was and asked Bali to withdraw his pledge to fulfill the request. When Shukracharya told him who the boy was, Bali realized that he was the same person who protected his grand father Prahlad.

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. Prahlad had advised Bali to rule based on dharma, but with his typical arrogance he responded back that he was not afraid of anyone. Prahlad warned him that one day Maha Vishnu would kill him, but Bali told him that the rakshasas were powerful than Vishnu. Even a person like Prahlad could not take this mindless self-righteous posturing anymore. He cursed his grandson that he would lose his kingdom and all his prosperity. When Bali asked for forgiveness, Prahlad asked him to take refuge in Vishnu.

Snobbishness can sometimes be entertaining, other times, it can destroy your life. When Shukracharya found that Vamana was not listening to him, he cursed the king as well. This guru-sapam, sealed his fate. The king went and washed Vamana’s feet in preparation for his dana. Seeing this some of his soldiers tried to attack Vamana. Bali stopped them. He said, the same god, who caused the destruction of the devas and helped with our victory is now doing the opposite. Please be calm. Thus Bali himself did not have an issue with what was going to happen.

When Vishnu was about to keep his feet on Bali’s head for the third boon, Prahlada also appeared there. Seeing him, Vishnu was happy. Prahlada pleaded on behalf of Bali to Vishnu. Vishnu then promised to give Bali something which was impossible for devas to attain. He blessed Bali to live in a place called suthala (made by Vishwakarma) with all the pleasures of life. Vishnu also agreed to protect Bali’s family and the boon to see the Lord whenever he wanted.

“According to Vedic texts, there are 14 worlds in the universe – seven upper worlds and seven subterranean ones. Atalam, Vitalam, Sutalam, Tala-Talam, Rasa-Talam, Maha-Talam, and Pathalam are the seven lower worlds, all of which have been described in detail in the Puranas.

Of these, Pathalam is the lowest world inhabited by Nagas, the serpent people and is said to be a dreaded place. Sutalam, on the other hand, is considered by the asuras as equivalent to or even more desirable than ‘swargaloka’.

Revisiting the Onam myth

As Bali prepared to go to suthalam, he asked Vishnu to bless him with his feet. To satisfy Bali, Maha Vishnu kept his right feet on Bali’s head and blessed him. After Bali went to suthalam, the Indra was returned to power.

The part of Bali going to suthalam instead of paatalam has been lost. Even if Bali went to suthalam, he can still come to visit his subjects once a year.

Thrikkakarayappan by Ramesh NG on Flickr

But here is an interesting bit. With the false narrative that is going on, one would think that it is only Mahabali who is celebrated and Malayalis dislike Vamana. But there is a tradition where we keep two banana leaves and two seats and serve feast on them. This is for both Maha Vishnu and Mahabali. Also, one of the traditions followed now, is the creation of a floral decoration called the pookkalam. At the center of the the pookkalam, we keep a clay pyramid called Thrikkakarayappan. Thrikkakara is one of the few temples dedicated to Vamana and keeping Thrikkakarayappan, is honoring Vamana as well.

Finally, why is the festival called Onam? It comes from the name of the month of the birth of Vamana. Shravanam -> Savanam -> Avanam -> Onam. As the name of the month moved from Sanskrit to Malayalam, this change happened.

Bhagavatam, Vishnu Puranam, Vamana Puranam, Mahabharatam, Yoga Vasishtam, and Narayaneeyam reveal the special bond between Mahabali and Maha Vishnu. The name of the festival itself comes from the birth month of Vamana. The traditions followed now also reflect this divine relation. When there was no animosity between them, why is such a narrative prevalent today? Instead of propagating that version, it is better to remember that Onam is a time when both Maha Vishnu and Mahabali come together.

References:

  1. Speech by Swami Chidananda Puri
  2. Thiruvonam – Aitheehyavum Yadharthyangalum
  3. Revisiting the Onam myth
  4. The origin of the name Onam comes from a comment Prof. S Guptan Nair wrote in (2)

Swami Vivekananda on the Ahistoricity of Hinduism

Once Rev. Dr. John Henry Barrows (1847–1902) told Swami Vivekananda, that Christianity is the only universal religion. Swamiji considered this and responded that Vedanta and Vedanta alone can become the universal religion of man. He made the case with few arguments. One of them was as follows.

Most religions in the world in the world are tied to a founder. The theories and teaching revolve around the founder’s life. The fabric of these religions revolve around the historicity of the founder’s life. Challenge this historicity and the whole edifice crumbles. Remember the ruckus caused by Da Vinci Code which challenged the established narrative about Yeshua. Ever heard of the Gnostic Gospels?

What about Hinduism then? Swamiji says (Lectures from Colombo to Almora)

There is no man or woman who can claim to have created the Vedas. They are the embodiment of eternal principles; sages discovered them; and now and then the names of these sages are mentioned — just their names; we do not even know who or what they were. In many cases we do not know who their fathers were, and almost in every case we do not know when and where they were born. But what cared they, these sages, for their names? They were the preachers of principles, and they themselves, so far as they went, tried to become illustrations of the principles they preached.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

A religion based on the ahistoricity of it’s founders, but having every lasting (sanatana) principles has an advantage.

Therefore if any one or more of these persons in India’s religious history, any one or more of these Incarnations, and any one or more of our prophets proved not to have been historical, it does not injure our religion at all; even then it remains firm as ever, because it is based upon principles, and not upon persons.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

Then what about the faith in various gods that we have? Swamiji again uses the concept of Ishta and explains

Yet as I have said, our religion has ample scope for the authority and influence of persons. There is that most wonderful theory of Ishta which gives you the fullest and the freest choice possible among these great religious personalities. You may take up any one of the prophets or teachers as your guide and the object of your special adoration; you are even allowed to think that he whom you have chosen is the greatest of the prophets, greatest of all the Avatâras; there is no harm in that, but you must keep to a firm background of eternally true principles. The strange fact here is that the power of our Incarnations has been holding good with us only so far as they are illustrations of the principles in the Vedas.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

This is a unique feature of Hinduism and in general about Indian historiography. While comparing Indian and Western history, we find that the lack of personal details. For example, we have a good idea about Plato’s lineage, how he got his name and who his siblings were while we have scarce information on where Aryabhata was born, who his parents were or who his teachers were. The Indian attitude always has been to preserve the principles as that guides us along the path. In that sense, it does not matter who said it or when they said it. If the principle is important, it will survive and will be passed down generations.

The stories in हितोपदेश (Hitopadesha – good advice), the पंचतन्त्र (Panchatantra – five principles) or the philosophical observations made in poetic form in the सुभाषित (subhashitas – “well said” ideas) – are abstracted observations with pseudonymous characters, that were likely to have been inspired from real events. The names or the specifics in the stories are far less relevant than the lessons themselves.

Ishta – Swami Vivekananda on why Hindu sects don’t quarrel

Street Corner Missionaries

Wherever I go in the world, I see Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on the roadside with pamphlets in various languages. I have seen this both in United States and Europe. Every year the church sends crores of rupees to India to convert Hindus and Love Jihadis target Hindu girls. To Hindus, who are used to multiple sects living together, multiple darshanas accepted as scripture and being followers of various gurus with radically different styles, this intolerance is an alien concept. Swami Vivekananda, using the concept of Ishta, explains why various sects never quarreled in India.

In a speech given in Jaffna, following his address at the Parliament of Nations, Swamiji noted

“The Shaivite does not say that every Vaishnavite is going to be damned, nor the Vaishnavite that every Shaivite will be damned. The Shaivite says, this is my path, and you have yours; at the end we must come together. They all know that in India. This is the theory of Ishta. It has been recognised in the most ancient times that there are various forms of worshipping God. It is also recognised that different natures require different methods.”

According to Hindu tradition, based on various proportions of sattva, rajas and tamas, we all have different nature. Based on that nature, there are different method of worship and hence what works for you may not work for me. Most of us understand this innately, without understanding the yogic aspects behind this. Swamiji warns that the idea that there is only one way for everyone is “injurious, meaningless, and entirely to be avoided.”

Woe unto the world when everyone is of the same religious opinion and takes to the same path. Then all religions and all thought will be destroyed. Variety is the very soul of life. When it dies out entirely, creation will die.

Vivekananda

Swamiji then introduces the Sanskrit word “Ishta”. He calls it my way. Now my way is good for me, but probably not for you. Similarly your way is good for you, but not for me. Missionaries hate this. For them, your way is the highway to hell and my way is the only way. Hence the Hindus have to be converted either by force, by incentives or through educational institutions. They talk of love, but the goal is the destruction of our way of live, because it is different.

You see extreme versions of this even now. A missionary was killed in Andaman on an adventure to convert the natives. They are found in crossfire in war zones. They have served as spies. They show up in hostile countries with the Bible speaking of love. Mother Theresa fooled an entire generation with her story of compassion. Swamiji counters:

Their love does not count for much. How can they preach of love who cannot bean another man to follow a different path from their own? If that is love, what is hatred? We have no quarrel with any religion in the world, whether it teaches men to worship Christ, Buddha, or Mohammed, or any other prophet. “Welcome, my brother,” the Hindu says, “I am going to help you; but you must allow me to follow my way too. That is my Ishta. Your way is very good, no doubt; but it may be dangerous for me. My own experience tells me what food is good for me, and no army of doctors can tell me that.

In India, we have the freedom to worship the formless or a thousand forms., go to temples or perform pujas, do kriya or yoga. But “the moment you quarrel, you are not going Godward, you are going backward, towards the brutes.”

Reference

Going from sthula to sukshma

silhouette of man meditating on rock cliff during golden hour

Photo by Indian Yogi (Yogi Madhav) on Unsplash

There are such varied types of religious practices, but not all may suit you. Based on the level of sattva, rajas, and tamas, your affinity towards a practice may vary. I like to think of each of us as

α * sattva + β * rajas + γ * tamas

Based on the values of α, β and γ, you may like going to temples, but may not like sitting for meditation. You may like reading the Upanishads, but you may not like chanting. Whatever be the practice, the goal is to increase the value of α and lower β and γ.

Unfortunately you cannot increase the value of α by swiping right on your screen. It is a journey with many intermediary states, starting with focus on the gross and going subtle. At all times, our indriyas are showing attractive sights and triggering thoughts on what’s next. The goal of practices in Sanatata Dharma is to take you from the sthula to the sukshma. Let’s take a look at two concrete examples from the field of meditation and japa.

In Raja Yoga, the goal is to awaken the coiled up energy dormant in your body and make it rise from the base of the spine to the crown of the head along the sushumna nadi, which can be imagined as running parallel to the spinal cord.

Yogic anatomy defines seven chakras — whirlpools of energy, whirling constantly and exhibitng myriard colors — at different parts of the sushumna nadi. The seven chakras are the muladhara, at the end of the spine, swadishtana, just above the reproductive organs, manipura at the navel, anahata at the center of the chest, visudha at the throat and sahasra at the crown of the head. There are different colors, symbols and sounds assigned to each of these chakras.

What’s interesting is the symbol assigned to each of these chakras and what it represents. The muladhara is represented by a square and means gross matter. The swadhistana, represented as a crescent, means liquid state. The next three are triangle (fire), a star, like the one on Israeli flag (vayu) and oval (akasha). The last two are of a different league. Thus as the Kudalini rises, it goes from gross to subtle.

Some people cannot meditate and find japa more conducive to their nature. While Kundalini goes from gross to the subtle, in a practice like japa too there are variations. Ideally you want to do a silent japa, because only one indriya is involved. Some people who start doing silent japa are usually seen snoring or lost in deep thoughts after a while. This usually means that the person has not developed enough concentration to do silent japa. Such people are asked to do the japa a bit louder so that multiple indriyas are now involved. For people who cannot focus on one single mantra like “Om Namah Sivaya“, they are asked to do chant something more involved like the sahasranama. For whom even that is hard, they are asked to do bhajans with musical instruments so that the jnana and karmendriyas are all involved and the chances of mind moving away to other thoughts are less.

Attention is beginning of the spiritual journey. As the practice becomes perfect, you go into higher planes where realization is possible. This one-pointedness comes through regular and incessant practice: as Patanjali has said, ‘Nairantarya abhyase. There are no shortcuts. As the influence of indriyas are diminished, deep mental states are achieved. Finally, from a state which language cannot describe, realization is achieved.

References:

The 2019 Kumbh Mela – A Travelogue

Sunset on Yamuna at Kumbha Mela

When I told people I was going for Kumbh Mela, the most common questions besides, “Why”, were, “Isn’t it so dirty?”, “Aren’t you afraid of stampedes?”, “What happens at Kumbh Mela?”, “Why is it called Kumbh?”. What made all these questions interesting was that, they were not asked by secular people, but by Hindus.

But the best question I was asked was, “What is the Kumbh Mela?”

On an impulse, I attended the 2019 Ardh Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj and found answers to the above questions. This was not my first trip to Uttar Pradesh, but my first Kumbh Mela. Since I had been to UP before, I was not surprised by the questions of cleanliness. But, the Uttar Pradesh of 2019 is not the same as Uttar Pradesh of the 1990s. What shocked me was the cleanliness at the Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of people in the planet.

We will get to the cleanliness at the Kumbh Mela. Before that, it is important to answer the question: What is the Kumbh Mela?

The Origins

The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering of people in the world. No other religion or country has anything of this magnitude. Do a search and you can read the statistics yourself. It is larger than the population of many countries. Once in twelve years, the Kumbh Mela is held at four places — Prayagraj, Haridwar, Nashik-Trayambakeshwar, and Ujjain. In the middle of the twelve year period, the Ardh Kumbh Mela occurs at Haridwar and Prayagraj. This year, the Ardh Kumbh Mela ran from Makar Sankranti to Maha Shivarathri day.

There is a reason why the Kumbh Mela occurs every twelve years. The Mela occurs when the Sun, Moon and Jupiter are in certain zodiac signs. The moon takes one month to go through all the signs, the sun takes a year and Jupiter, 12 years. The Kumbha Mela occurs when Jupiter enters the same sign again and that is once is twelve years.

Nityananda Misra’s book on Kumbha

A good book to read about Kumbh Mela is Nityananda Misra’s Kumbha. In the book, he cites the many origin stories. According to one, the origin of Kumbh Mela is connected to the Samudra Manthan. When the Kumbh containing amrit came out, the drops of nectar fell into the locations where the Mela is held currently. Two other traditional accounts are also popular about the origin of the Kumbha Mela. As per the first, Garuda was assigned the task of carrying the amrita-kumbha to the abode of Vishnu. While flying to Vishnu’s abode, Garuda stopped at four places—Haridwar, Prayaga, Ujjain, and Nashik—putting down the kumbha on the earth for some time. As a result, these places became sacred and the tradition of the Kumbha Mela started. As per the second account, once Kadru enslaved Vinata, the mother of Garuda. To release Vinata from bondage, Garuda brought the amrita-kumbha from the Nagaloka. As he was flying to the ashram of his father Kashyapa, Indra attacked Garuda four times. The amrita from the kumbha spilled at the four places and the tradition of the Kumbha Mela started.

Another version I heard goes like this: our rishis observed that the confluence of rivers at certain latitudes during certain times had forces which affected people. This secret, known only to a few, soon became part of Hindu social consciousness. Now crores of people comes to partake in that royal bath and attain mukti. No one is inviting them to come. None of the people coming there are asking for any scientific proof for any of these origins. It does not matter what any text book says or if anyone rewrites them.

The Experience

Now with crores of people visiting the Kumbh Mela, the question on cleanliness was legit. What I saw though, surprised me.

Kumbh Mela 2019 The view from Triveni Sangam bus stop
The view from Triveni Sangam bus stop

This is what I saw when I got off at the Triveni Sangam, bus stop, along the banks of Yamuna at Prayagraj. What you see is the vast area of the Kumbh with the Yamuna, deep far inside. As you walk towards the Yamuna, there are numerous temporary shelters all around.

Kumbh Mela Changing rooms for women all around
Changing rooms for women all around

These are changing rooms for women after they take bath in the holy rivers. This is the view of the banks of Yamuna at the Sangam. For the amount of the people who were at that place, it is clean.

Kumbh Mela The shores of Yamuna.
The shores of Yamuna.

What about toilets and human waste for an event that handles so much people. Dhananjay Joshi, who attended the 2019 Kumbh Mela writes

I saw the bogey of hygiene busted. Uniquely designed penta-urinals for men dotted every walkway. At a discreet distance were arrangements for women. I saw safai-karmacharis equipped with pressurised water hoses involved with their work. Thoughtfully named as ‘swachchagrahi’, they had a place they could call their own. For all 2,000 of them, massive, clean, brightly lit and well-insulated dormitories ensured that these health workers took responsibility for their tasks with missionary zeal. Their decentralised teams toiled under a distributed leadership model working round the clock in geographically dispersed teams to keep the 2,00,000 toilets squeaky clean.

And no, human waste does not flow into the holy waters. The Kumbh I had read about scared me into being wary of wading the filthy e-coli infested water. The Kumbh I saw was equipped with massive sump pits that collected human waste. Automated trucks sucked this sludge into tankers that would ferry it to the nearest sewage treatment plant. At the Kumbh, I missed seeing the rodents and the roaches entirely.

The main attendees of Kumbh Mela are the Sadhus. These sadhus, who live in various places around the country, come to the Kumbh to meet each other, share their experiences, and meet common people. Nag Sadhus, who are completely naked, even in the coldest of winters are an important part of the Kumbh Mela. Besides the sadhus, there are lakhs of kalpavasis — people who spend time at the Kumbh living an austere life — and much more amounts of ordinary people like me who visit for having the religious experience.

The main event of the Kumbh is taking a bath in the river. This year, the royal baths were on Makar Sankranti, Mauni Amavasya and Vasant Panchami. Among all these days, the bath on Mauni Amavasya is considered the most sacred. The baths in these sacred rivers connects a Hindu with the divine. Many millennia back, my ancestors would taken this holy bath, at the same location. By taking that bath, the connection between nature, humans, their ancestors, and the divine becomes real. The effect that it has on you cannot be described.

Kumbh Mela The boat from the shores of Yamuna to Triveni Sangam
The boat from the shores of Yamuna to Triveni Sangam

To get to the Triveni Sangam, you have to take a boat from the shores of Yamuna. There are many boatmen offering that trip for a price. This short boat ride, where you are escorted by gulls, take you to a set of parked boats around the Sangam area. This is where Yamuna meets Ganga and the invisible Saraswati. This is the point where you take a bath,

Kumbh Mela - Triveni Sangam
Triveni Sangam

Behind the Scenes

Kumbh Mela - the tent city
Tents at the Kumbh Nagari

The scale of Kumbh Mela is of Indian magnitude. Also, the problem of building facilities to handle vast amounts of people is not simple. There are other problems too. Most of the land where the Kumbh city is built is under water due to the monsoons. Once the monsoon drops off, there are two months to arrange the facilities for the crores of visitors. With our usual chalta-hai attitude, you expect a sloppy job. It is no ordinary task; but what amazed me was the perfection with which it was done. A 32 sq km area was organized as a city with 20 sectors with all the facilities you expect from a city.— police, hospitals, fire stations, clean water supply. Once the Kumbh Mela is done, the city is dismantled.

Crowd control is an important part of the event. To avoid stampedes and other disasters, the entire Kumbh Nagari and the bridges are monitored using CCTVs and drones. Misra writes, “If they concluded it was indeed overcrowded, they instantly relayed this information to the police personnel on the ground who would then divert the crowd to other bridges to balance the load. Sharma told Diego Buñuel of the National Geographic that it was crucial to keep the crowds moving, even if they were being sent the wrong way, as stopping the crowds would amount to hara-kiri.”

Kumbh Mela Kirtan at the Kumbha Nagari
Kirtan at the Kumbha Nagari

One of the common tropes about Kumbh Mela was about people getting separated, never to be found again. Or they discover each other after one child becomes a dacoit and the other a police officer. The arrangements that are done to prevent this at the Kumbh Mela is just phenomenal. As Misra writes, “At the 2013 Prayaga Kumbha, there were 17 lost and found centers (Bhule Bhatke Kendras) where people separated from their families could report themselves. The kendra would then make repeated announcements on loudspeakers and also put up the picture of the lost person on display screens and a website. On average, around 1,000 children were lost every day at the Mela and most of them were reunited with their families”. Also, “besides using CCTV cameras and public announcement systems, the administration also engaged as many as 160 volunteers who between them could speak sixteen languages and communicate with each other using a mobile application. It helped Bharat Bharati share photos of missing persons with the volunteers.”

Final Thoughts

Kumbha Mela The Divine Kumbh Mela
The Divine Kumbh Mela

What is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors? The Kumbh Mela is an experience that affects you both on the inside and outside. While walking in the Mela grounds, I knew I was part of a tradition that has continued for millennia. People of all age groups and gender belonging to various economic strata have walked these sacred grounds connected with a single purpose. The people on our boat were from Rajasthan. All of us reached the sangam and took the dip together. We spoke different languages, dressed differently, but there was a unity in our intent.

While I was leaving back to Kerala, the meta thought I had was about how Hindus preserve their memories. First, there is the story of the samudra manthan and how the nectar fell in various spots. The second one is about the triveni sangam. This is the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati. An invisible Saraswati, you say. The river, during it’s peak, did not even flow through that region. It flowed via Rajasthan, till natural events caused it to disappear. In 2019, we are still preserving these memories.