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The Wisdom of the Vedas
By J.C. Chatterji
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 1992 Theosophical Publishing House
All rights reserved.
The name Veda (or, as in the plural, Vedas) literally means Wisdom or Science, but is given, technically, to the oldest literature of the Indian people. This literature, going back to thousands of years before the beginning of the Christian era, consists traditionally of two definite groups, known as Mantras, which are the primary compositions, and Brahmanas, which are a sort of illustrative commentary on the Mantras. In the following pages, too, the name will be used in the same traditional sense, meaning the whole collection of both the Mantras and the Brahmanas, and therefore including, of course, the famous ten or twelve Upanishads.
Neither in the Mantra nor in the Brahmana portion are the Vedas a systematic treatise on the Vedic view of life that is to be presented here. Yet all the elements of this view are to be found scattered in the different parts of the Vedic literature and have been gathered together and treated systematically by various writers from very early times. What is to follow here is a similar, though very brief, treatment of the Vedic material on the subject. This treatment follows, moreover, the general traditional understanding of the matter, but in a manner which is intended to facilitate its comprehension by those not specially acquainted with the ancient way, of viewing life. The Vedic view of life, then, both as reflected in the literature of the Vedas and as followed in India to this day, may be summarized as follows:
There is nothing absolutely stable, nothing permanently abiding, in the whole of the objective universe, which is but a system of ceaseless "goings on" (jagati, collective movement) with everything in it continually moving and changing (jagat).
This ceaseless movement in the universe, however, is not merely a mad dance; there is method in it and the movements are arranged in groups and "made to dwell" (avasya) within limits and for periods of various lengths, so as to give them what looks like stability, more or less enduring.
What gives the systems of movements this apparent stability, orderly arrangement, and regulated sequence is not any property of the movements themselves, but is something other than the movements, being a power that rules them (ish) and "makes them dwell diversely" and in order.
The exact nature of this power, whether feeling or unfeeling, conscious or unconscious, intelligent or unintelligent, whether absolutely stable and abiding or only apparently so—all this cannot possibly be definitely known nor can the power be directly contacted by way of the movements. Indeed, the movements themselves are cognized not directly but only inferentially as the cause of the sensations which alone are experienced directly and intimately. The power ruling the movements is thus doubly and impenetrably veiled from us by the sensations directly experienced and by the movements inferred as the sources of the sensations.
A Direct Approach
But while our entrance to the core of things by way of the senses is thus effectually barred, there is nevertheless a gateway of direct approach to what lies beyond the veil of sense perceptions and even beyond the movements, and, standing there, imparts that apparent stability and order which we experience in regard to the ever-fleeting show of the objective universe. This gateway of entering directly into the heart of things is, however, one which can be discovered only if we turn our attention away from the objective universe and dive down deep into what constitutes the subjective nature of every one of us as an individual. "Nowhere else is there a way of reaching" the heart of the universe.
It is true that, in regard to what we are as individuals subjectively, equally as in the objective sphere, all is movement. We find that our bodies as well as our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and all mental states, i.e., all that conglomerate vaguely called the mind or soul—all these are continually moving and changing; in all of them there is nothing whatsoever that is absolutely stable and permanent.
Still we have a feeling—an illusory feeling, no doubt—that even though we, as individuals, be only ever-shifting aggregates of "mental states" and "complexes" and equally ever-hanging aggregates of bodily cells, we are yet somehow stable and abiding entities, so that every one of us has the experience: "I am one and the same person yesterday, today, and the day after—the same John Smith from childhood to death." And illusory as is the feeling of stability and continuity in regard to the ever-changing complex of an individual ego or soul, this illusion, like all others, must have a basis in fact and in an actual experience of the fact. This fact is to be found in the presence—as the ground of our existence, and back of all mental states and all physical aggregates, and, as it were, wrapped up in them as in so many coatings (kosha)—of an entity that does not change, and is, therefore, a timeless Being (sat). And we have the direct experience, however vague, of this Being in the uttermost depths of our existence: we feel that we are. In the Vedic language, this Being, in the aspect that constitutes the ultimate Self and ground of our existence, is called Atman; but in translating Atman, as used in this connection, by "Self" one has to bear clearly in mind that "Self" here is not anything like what is generally understood by the English words "mind," "mental states," or even "soul" and individual "spirit." The "Self," as an equivalent of the ultimate Atman in man, is other than all mental states, other than even "spiritual" states, such as feelings of love, joy, charity, and the like, insofar as these also come and go, grow and decay, and are subject to change. The Atman is what substantiates these mental and spiritual states, so that they are then felt and experienced as the individual ego or "I."
Small Yet Great
As the Atman or ultimate Self in the individual, this ever-abiding, timeless Being is "smaller than the small" (anor aniyan), that is, infinitely small, and has no measurable magnitude. Anything that has a magnitude which can be measured, no matter how small the magnitude—anything, in other words, which is not either infinitely small or infinitely great—is perishable, is not abiding. There is no example anywhere in the universe of a thing of measurable magnitude which is at the same time ever-abiding and absolutely stable. And because the ultimate Being is stable, this Being, as Atman or the ultimate Self in man, is magnitudeless, is smaller than the smallest. And because the Atman in the individual is smaller than the smallest, is like a point (anu), we feel the Atman to be nowhere, located at no definite spot, and yet, as it were, everywhere in the body. Atman, the ultimate Self of man, seems to be present wherever attention, i.e., a particular mental function or movement, is directed.
At the same time, and paradoxical though it may seem, Atman as the abiding Being, is "greater than the great" (mahato mahiyan), that is, infinitely great. This is the reason why we can experience the universe as something spreading itself out in boundless space, and have also the feeling that we reach out even beyond the universe, beyond every limit which may be imagined in space. The ultimate Being in us seems to outrun the uttermost reaches of our senses. It would be impossible to have these experiences if Atman were only "infinitely small," like, say, a mathematical point.
But it might be thought that, in order to have the experience of wide-reachingness in space, Atman need not be infinitely great: a limited greatness (like the extent of the universe, which must, after all, be limited) would equally serve the purpose. This cannot be. For whatever is of limited extent and has therefore a measurable magnitude is, as noted above, perishable and cannot be abiding. But Atman is abiding Being; Atman, therefore, besides being infinitely small, must also be infinitely great; or, as the Vedic texts have it, Atman is both "smaller than the small" and "greater than the great." That is to say, Atman is beyond all space, everywhere and nowhere.
Being, Awareness, and Joy
Furthermore the ultimate Being is not an unconscious, unintelligent Being; on the contrary, the ultimate Being is Awareness (chit) itself. Because the ultimate Being is awareness, and because this Being is the real and ultimate experiencing subject in an individual, the latter is aware of anything objective, whether through the senses or only mentally. Awareness is felt, in experience, to belong to what abides in us as the ultimate ground of our existence and not to anything else which, even though a purely mental fact, can yet be experienced as something other than the Self, the experiencing subject.
The Being as Atman is also feeling. Feeling is the very root and ground of our existence as conscious entities. And this feeling is joyousness (ananda); to live and to be is joy; suffering is only when we are not able to live and to be as we would. Suffering is not the essential nature of Being, but joy (ananda) is; it is joy that is the root of all love and peace and bliss.
Thus Atman, the ultimate Self in man, is pure Being (sat), objectless Awareness (chit), and unclouded Joy (ananda).
One Common Ground
And Atman, the ultimate Being, is timeless and spaceless.
As such, the ultimate Being is only one Being (ekam sat), one Atman in all individuals. There cannot be many ultimate Beings, many Atmans. Plurality has meaning only when there is any division either in time or space, or in regard to attributes.
In regard to attributes, the ultimate Being of one individual entity cannot in any way be distinguished from the ultimate Being of a different individual. The ultimate ground in one case is just as pure Being, Awareness, and Joy as in the other. Distinctions and differences in the attributes of individual subjects are caused only by the objective contents of experience, by what comes to be placed, as it were, in front of the pure Being and Awareness and seems to color the feeling of pure Joy. There can therefore be no distinction in regard to attributes between the Atman in one individual and that in another.
Nor can there be any division in Atman in regard to time and space. There can be no meaning in the statement that there are, in different places, different Atmans, all absolutely alike in regard to attributes and all infinitely great, i.e., all equally occupying every conceivable space, or, which is the same thing, all equally beyond every space limitation. It is equally meaningless to say that, while Atmans are all ever-abiding, there existed in the past some Atmans that have ceased to exist now, or that, while there are now other equally ever-abiding Atmans, they too will cease to exist in the future. Thus there is but one ultimate Being that is the one common ground, one Atman, one undivided Self, in every separate individual and in the universe.
This is held not as a matter of mere inference, but as a positive fact of experience on the part of men called Yogis and Rishis, who, it is maintained further, have been produced in an unbroken chain of succession down to this day, and whose positive experience and vision can be acquired by anyone, duly qualified, anywhere in any country and at any time. It is recognized, moreover, that this is the experience also of all true seers in other parts of the world who have been vaguely called "mystics."
This ultimate All-aware, All-joy Being, the Atman, the ultimate Self, both of the individual and of the universe and everything in it, is in reality beyond all predicates and names, as beyond all strictly logical formulation in thought. As such the Atman is referred to, in early Vedic texts, in a manner which is indefinite, no doubt intentionally. Atman is spoken of merely as "That One" and as the "One Being." But when a name is given, That is called Purusha, the Person; and in later literature Uttama-Purusha or Purushottama, the Supreme, the Ultimate Person within humanity and the universe.
The Atman is also called Brahman, though, strictly speaking, this name should be confined, as will be seen later, to a particular aspect of Purusha, the Ultimate Person.
Two Seeming Realities
We thus get apparently two fundamental realities or principles:
(1) Purusha as the one ultimate, timeless and spaceless Being and Self of humanity and the universe; and
(2) The system of ever-changing movements which constitute the universe and whatever is ever experienced as an object—movements which are apparently other than, and antithetical to, Purusha, the unchanging Being.
In reality, however, the system of movements, as the root of objectivity, is not a separate independent reality at all, but only Purusha appearing in a second role, but without ceasing, even for a moment, to be the abiding, unchanging, and unmoving Being that he in himself is. Movement without something moving has really no meaning. And what really moves, or rather appears to be moving, is only Purusha in another aspect—the aspect in which the endlessly enduring and the infinitely great, the timeless and spaceless Being appears, in the first instance, as the starting point of all that exists in time and space as well as of both time and space themselves. That is to say, Purusha appears as the infinitely small, or, to use a later expression, as the "Benign Point" (shiva bindu). In other words, there is only one reality, only one principle, and that is Purusha; so that the root of objectivity is only Purusha in another phase, the phase of self-limitation, or, as it is called in the Vedas, the phase of "sacrifice" (yajna)—Purusha sacrificing ceaselessly by the ceaseless "negation" and the limitless "contraction" of his own timeless and spaceless Being, yet without suffering the least diminution or change in that ultimate Being that is himself.
To put this in the language of the famous Purusha-Sukta section of the Rig-Veda, the aspect in which Purusha appears as the self-sacrificing source of the objective universe is, as it were, only a "quarter" of himself, while "three quarters" remain unmanifest beyond all objective thought and experience. That is to say, what appears as the universe is but a very limited aspect of Purusha, while what remains unmanifest is unlimited, is incomparably great. That this is the real significance of the Rig-Vedic text—which might be misconceived as meaning that Purusha is capable of an actual division, so that one measurable part appears as the universe while three equally measurable parts lie beyond—will be seen from another verse of the Vedas, perhaps a later one, which endeavors to define this relation between the two aspects of Purusha in quite a different manner. In the form of a paradox, it declares:
That which lies beyond is Plenum, [full and undiminished]. That which appears as this here [i.e., as the universal] is also Plenum, equally full and undiminished. Out from Plenum, Plenum arises. Plenum having been taken away out of Plenum, what remains is still the same [undiminished] Plenum. (Brih. Up. 5.1.)
The purport of this paradoxical statement is that Purusha, the timeless, spaceless Being, cannot possibly be really divided: the division, as unmanifest and manifest, is only apparent; Purusha in the aspect that becomes the universe is as full and complete as the aspect that transcends the universe and remains as ever undimmed and unchanged, without undergoing in any way any diminution whatsoever.
Excerpted from The Wisdom of the Vedas by J.C. Chatterji. Copyright © 1992 Theosophical Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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Table of Contents
Foreword to the First Edition by John Dewey,
Foreword to the Third Edition by Kurt F. Leidecker,
Introduction by David Frawley,
A. On Vivarta, the Athanasian Creed, and the Christian View of Immanence,
B. On the term Dullness,