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Jim Powell lives in Santa Barbara, California where he enjoys surfing, writing, playing piano, and painting. His other books include Mandalas: The Dynamics of Vedic Symbolism, Energy and Eros, The Tao of Symbolism, Eastern Philosophy For Beginners, Derrida For Beginners, and Postmodernism For Beginners. Jim has a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Sanskrit and Indology. His thesis was on Vedic mythology. He also holds a Master’s Degree in English Literature and wrote a thesis on Mark Twain’s relationship with the Mississippi River.
Joe Lee is an illustrator, cartoonist, writer, and clown. With a degree from Indiana University centering on Medieval History, Joe is also a graduate of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey’s Clown College. He worked for some years as a circus clown. He is the illustrator of a baker’s dozen of For Beginners books including, Barack Obama, [Howard] Zinn, Shakespeare, Postmodernism, Deconstruction, Eastern Philosophy, and Global Warming among others. Joe lives in Bloomington, Indiana with his wife Mary Bess, son Brandon, cat George, and the terriers (or rather terrors) Max and Jack.
The Philosophies & Religions Of India
India. The very name conjures up images of snowy Himalayan peaks that seem to rise even higher than the moon's orbit, of icy waters tumbling swiftly over dizzying precipices, of deep, thunder-voiced waterfalls blending in with the growling of young bears in their caves, of breezes bellowing through stands of bamboo, of the drone of bees intoxicated with sips of sweet mango blossoms, and of the resonant mantras of yogis chanting in their caves.
Just as the Himalayan summits rise up as the measure of all mountains, for many Western thinkers, Indian spirituality—exemplified by the meditations of yogis in their caves—has come to represent the peak of Indian culture. Yet there is a problem with these kinds of images. For Westerners have thought of India as a land of Gods sitting serenely atop pink lotuses floating on the cosmic waters; of Gods who have magically sprouted 3 heads and 5,000 arms; of naked fakirs sleeping on beds of nails; of snake charmers mesmerizing dark-hooded cobras; of elephants bathing in the moonlight; of turbaned rajas twiddling their dark, ornate mustaches while entwined with their lovers in impossible knots of flesh; of swarms of sagacious sahibs, worshippers, and sadhus swallowing sweetmeats.
The problem is that these are all Hindu images. And although introductions to Indian philosophy tend to center on Hinduism, India is far from being all Hindu. Verily, Hindus make up only about 60 percent of a diverse population of over 400 distinct religious communities. The waters flowing down from those Himalayan peaks quench the thirst not only of Hindus, but of Jews, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims—to name just a few.
And just as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand harbor native populations celebrating their own religions and philosophies, and speaking their own languages, India teems with a million tribal peoples speaking their own unique tongues and worshipping in distinct ways. India's population speaks 325 languages, representing 12 language families. India, in other words, is so ragtag, so multiform, that one does it violence by attempting to reduce it to a single, Hindu culture.
Geography has been a major force in the shaping of Indian religion and philosophy. For the subcontinent of India hangs like a giant triangle from the underbelly of Asia: To the north and northwest tower some of the world's highest mountains, the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and the Sulaiman ranges. East-ward, dense tracts of jungle present an impenetrable barrier. A coastline humming with breakers pulsing in from the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean embraces the remainder of the subcontinent. For thousands of years these natural barriers discouraged foreign invaders from all but one direction: the West. Kipling's famous line "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," was possible only because a great Western power—the British Empire—did meet India, and conquered her. And similar meetings have been taking place for thousands of years. As each wave of Western invaders entered the subcontinent, Indian religion and philosophy changed.
Indian philosophy, is something like a banyan tree. Called "The Many-footed," banyans, for thousands of years, have provided shade, forming natural outdoor meeting rooms that have acted as schools, temples, and marketplaces.
The banyan begins its life as a single trunk that rises from a tiny seed. Yet its widespreading branches eventually form a vast canopy, spreading out to shade an entire acre. As these branches expand outward, they send down aerial roots that reach the ground, penetrate it, and become secondary trunks, often rivaling the original trunk in size. So substantial are these aerial root-trunks, that often one cannot distinguish them from the original.
The six trunks forming the basis of Indian religious and philosophical thought are, in historical order, as follows:
The Indus Valley Trunk (c. 3000-1500 B.C.)
The Indo-Brahmanical Trunk (c. 1500-600 B.C.)
The Indo-Shramanical Trunk (c. 600 B.C.-300 A.D.)
The Indic (Hindu, Buddhist, Jain) Trunk (c. 300-1200 A.D.)
The Indo-Islamic Trunk (c. 1200-1757 A.D.)
The Indo-Anglican Trunk (c. 1757-present)
The entire lush, tangled canopy of Indian religious and philosophical systems with all its Gods and Goddesses, images, and symbols, rests atop these major trunks. What's more, this banyan tree of Indian religions and philosophies is a talking tree. It talks to itself, and has been doing so for thousands of years. For religion and philosophy, in India, have never been a single, unified tree. This talking tree sounds and resounds with the ongoing conversations, snippets of gossip, polemics, arguments, criticisms, and plagiarisms each trunk has exchanged with all the others, down through the ages.
The Indus Valley Trunk (c. 3000-1500 B.C.)
Indus Valley, Inc.
The word "Hindu" was originally a Persian term for the area of the Indus River. Then, Alexander the Great called the people who lived on the banks of the Indus Hindus.
However, long before Alexander the Great came to India—long before Hinduism existed— an ancient civilization thrived on the banks of the Indus. Scholars know very little about this ancient Indus Valley civilization. They do know that, like the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the settlement flourished because it lay in a great river valley. From about 3000 B.C. to about 1500 B.C, it covered 750,000 square miles. Then, suddenly, it disappeared.
Its two largest cities, Mohenjo-Daro and Harrapa, sheltered some 80,000 inhabitants in orderly, streets laid out in an east-west/north-south grid. The citizens enjoyed the benefits of a public drainage system, municipal wells, and even public garbage collection.
Everything was so uniform that even the size of the bricks from which the houses were built were the same.
Fortified citadels, sitting atop raised mounds, crowned both Mohenjo-Daro and Harrapa.
Surrounding these were government halls and temples. The view from these raised citadels took in streets teeming with shoppers. In fact, the great bazaars of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, seemed to have served the same function in the ancient world as shopping malls do today. And it was through their arts and economic power—rather than arms—that their influence spread. Archaeologists have found very few weapons, but lots of intricate jewelry made of shells from the Gulf of Oman, gold from Afghanistan, and copper from far inland. These artifacts indicate that the bazaars sat in the very hub of a vast network of trade routes. Evidently, their artisans were wonderfully skilled.
What little we know of the religion and philosophy of the Indus Valley is based on the temples and various objects within them. These temples surrounded vast central courtyards with large central bathing areas for ritual bathing. Flanking the bathing areas were brick platforms—possibly used for ritual altars. Archaeologists have unearthed large numbers of lithe terra-cotta figurines, possibly goddesses, and numerous soapstone seals inscribed with a script that no one has yet convincingly deciphered.
On one of these seals, however, is the image of a horned figure positioned in what appears to be a yogic posture. The figure, which has three faces, looks out on a veritable zoo of animals, which surround him. Is he, as some scholars argue, an early form of the Hindu God Shiva, Supreme Yogi, Lord of Creatures? Nobody knows.
Archaeologists have also unearthed large numbers of polished stone phalli. Many of these elements:
* ritual bathing
* goddess worship
* a yoga god surrounded by animals
* phallus worship
* a concern for social order
* architecture laid out in an east-west grid
are found in what later would be called Hinduism.
The Indo - Brahmanical Trunk (c. 1500-600 B.C.)
Caterpillar: The Brahmans were the priests of the Aryan tribes.
Alice: Aryan tribes?
The Aryans were fair-skinned Caucasians. For decades scholars have tried to figure out where these wandering herdsmen and warriors came from, and when, but they left behind no historical records. It seems they had a homeland, possibly in the oak-forested Russian steppes. But they left their homelands, some traveling north and west, establishing Athens in Greece. Others ventured as far as what is now Spain, and another group migrated into what is now England and Ireland. Still another pushed into Persia, where they established an empire.
No one knows for sure the exact history of the Aryans in India. The best guess is that around 1500 B.C. waves of these hostile nomads spilled into the Indian subcontinent from the northwest, through the passes of the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan and into the valley of the Indus River. Scholars used to think the Aryans destroyed the Indus Valley civilization, but now believe that the Indus Valley civilization disappeared all on its own.
These invaders spoke a dialect of Indo-European. It would eventually evolve into Sanskrit, the ancient language of India.
Alice: Indo-European? Sanskrit?
Caterpillar: The Indo-European family tree of languages has as its trunk a language called Proto-Indo European. This is an ancient tongue spoken by that loose group of tribes inhabiting the ancient oak-forested Russian steppes. Around 2500 B.C. they dispersed— one branch spreading in conquering waves across Europe-and the other driving southward through Iran and Afghanistan into India.
Alice: Does this mean that Greek, Latin, Old high German, and Sanskrit are just daughters of the Proto-Indo-European mother tongue?
Caterpillar: That is what linguists have proven. For instance, they found similarities between Sanskrit and such distantly related Indo-European tongues as Lithuanian, Latin, Irish, Persian, and English.
Caterpillar: Yes. For instance, the Lithuanian proverb "God gave teeth; God will give bread," reads almost the same in Lithuanian, Sanskrit, and Latin:
LATIN: DEUS DEDIT DENTIS; DEUS DABIT PANEM
LITHUANIAN: DIEVAS DAVE DANTIS; DIEVAS DUOS DUONOS
SANSKRIT: DEVAS ADADAT DATAS; DEVAS DAS DHANAS
Alice: That's remarkable!
Caterpillar: Another example: The Sanskrit word, Aryan, the Irish word Erin (the ancient name of Ireland), and the Persian word Iran, all branch out from an ancient Proto-Indo- European word. The Sanskrit word for ship is naus, which corresponds to the English words nautical and navigation. A god is a deva—which relates to our word divinity. Knowledge in Sanskrit is called Jnana, which relates to our word gnosis, Gnostic and knowledge. The number three in Sanskrit is tri. Our word for father, which is pater in both Latin and Greek, is pitar in Sanskrit. Our word for sweat is svet in Sanskrit.
And just as there are linguistic similarities between Indo-European languages, there are also likenesses among Indo-European myths.
For instance: The Greek God Zeus, the big guy in the sky with the big muscles and the thunderbolt, is the equivalent of the Roman God Jupiter and the Indian God Dyus Pitar. All of them hang out in the sky, look like Rambo, and wield a thunderbolt.
Alice: So Indian thought is not so exotic after all? Caterpillar: That's right! And there is an ancient cultural unity at the basis of the Indian and European-American psyche. After all, whenever Indo-European nations get in wars, we become like Indra or Thor, shooting Jupiter and Zeus and Poseidon missiles, which rain down from the sky like thunderbolts.
Yet Sanskrit, the language of the Indo-Aryans, is also quite different from English. It paints a view that life is based on essences.
For instance, in English we say:
The apple is getting ripe.
For us, the apple itself is the important thing, and its being ripe, is merely a characteristic a secondary quality.
But in Sanskrit, we would say:
The apple goes to ripeness.
In Sanskrit, ripeness is a universal essence to which apples, pears, mangoes—any fruit— must evolve.
And just as ripeness is a universal essence to which fruit matures, for the Hindu, there is a universal essence within the whole universe. But this is an abstract, spiritual essence.
Yet, individual things are important only if they mirror this abstract essence of the universe. Thus, for the Hindu, the lives of individual human beings, or the precise design for the layout of a temple or a city, the swelling sounds of a musical composition, the sensuous volumes of a sculpture, or the "flavor" of a poem all possess an essence.
Alice: Then what is the essence of a Hindu temple?
Caterpillar: Hindu temples, houses, and towns are all based on a geometric pattern called the vastu-purusha mandala:
The inner square, the essence, represents Brahma, The Creator of the universe. And it lies at the absolute spiritual core of the temple. The temple, in turn, sits at the precise center of the town, which rests in the exact midpoint of the country. Thus, the spiritual essence of the temple is the essence of the town, and the whole country!
Even Indian poetry has an essence—or rasa:
She, with eyes dark as water lilies
has full breasts, golden in hue,
with black nipples, pressed
so closely together, not even
the fiber of a lotus
can find space between.
Just as an Indian herbalist might mix essential oils of sandalwood and musk, an Indian poet might at times blend poetic essences. The essence ("flavor," "sap" or rasa) of this poem is a blend of the devotional and the erotic sentiments. Even though it describes a goddess, Uma, The Golden One, in devotional terms, the poem is suffused, like a dark lotus, with erotic sap.
Alice: That's poetic!
Caterpillar: Well, the Vedic .s were a poetic bunch. So most of Hinduism is poetic because most of Hinduism springs from the Vedas.
Alice: The Vedas?
Caterpillar: The Vedas, according to most orthodox Hindus, are eternal, nonhuman in origin, and contain all knowledge. When you hear them, they sound like a bunch of chants. Ancient wise men called rishis—or seers—heard and saw the Vedas in their visions.
While Hindus accept the Vedas as a timeless revelation, Western scholars of India have learned that they took centuries to be composed. During this long period, society, religion, and even the Sanskrit language of the Vedas changed considerably, in the same way that Shakespeare sounds different than English rap.
Excerpted from EASTERN PHILOSOPHY FOR BEGINNERS by JIM POWELL, JOE LEE. Copyright © 2000 Jim Powell. Excerpted by permission of For Beginners LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 16, 2000
This introduction to Eastern Philosophy, narrated by Alice (in Wonderland) and the Hookah-smoking Caterpillar is fun and intelligently written. Though I have a background in the study of religions, I found someting I did not know in amlost every section. Powell's descriptive passages are also quite nice. Powell, also the author of Derrida for Beginners as well as Postmodernism for Beginners, brings to to all his work the ability to clarify abstruse subjects in a humorous way.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.