The Radiance of a Thousand Suns - The Myths Of India
The Radiance of A Thousand Suns: The Myths of India
► India lay in the fact that it was largely set apart by its physical boundaries – the Arabian Sea and a large desert, the Thar, to the west; the Bay of Bengal to the east; and to the north, the towering, snowcapped Himalayas that separated India from China.► Yet remote, obscure India beckoned to the West for centuries. First for its silks and spices. Then, later, for its approach to contemplating the “Big Questions” – eternity, good, evil, and the meaning of life. With a cosmic view completely at odds with traditional Western thought, India has long been interested in the transcendent and the immortal, the idea that creation and destruction are an endless cycle, that the soul is an essence searching for perfection through reincarnation.
How do we know what the ancient Indians believed?► When the Aryans arrived in the Indus Valley sometime between 1700 and 1500 BCE, they brought along Sanskrit, the oldest known written language of India. Although Sanskrit died out as a “living language” by about 100 BCE, it was used – like the Latin of medieval Europe – as the “learned language” of poetry, science, philosophy, and religion.► Forming the core of Hinduism’s beliefs and practices, the collections of Sanskrit hymns, poetry, philosophical dialogues, and legends all exist in an imposing set of texts that include, most significantly, the Vedas and Upanishads, the epic poems Ramayana and the Mahabharata – which contains an important section called the Bhagavad-Gita – and the Puranas.
► The oldest sacred Sanskrit writings, the Vedas were thought to be composed beginning about 1400 BCE over a period of nearly 1,100 years, an era in India’s history called the “Vedic period.” The Vedas are considered to be older than the sacred writings of any other major existing religion, including the Hebrew Old Testament. Only the ancient Egyptians pyramid texts are older. Like many mythic and religious documents, the Vedas probably first existed in oral form for centuries, and may go back as far as 4000 BCE.
► There are four Vedas, beginning with the oldest and most famous, the Rig-Veda. (The later Vedas include Sama-veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda.)► The Vedas have been studied not only for their religious significance, but for their connection to the early history of the Indo-European languages, including the Greek, Latin, Germanic, and Slavic language families, which as derived from archaic Sanskrit.► The word “Veda” means “knowledge,” and sacred knowledge in particular. Roughly equivalent to the Hebrew Psalms of the Old Testament, the Vedas are poetic collections that provided the songbook for the holy rites of the early Vedic religion. The Rig-Veda contains more than one thousand hymns, totaling more than ten thousand verses – an enormous number, compared to the 150 biblical Psalms.
► Upanishads are deeply philosophical works, one hundred and eight of which have been preserved; they appeared between 800 and 600 BCE and formed a basic part of Hinduism as it evolved.► Expressing the idea that knowledge brings spiritual uplift, the Upanishads also introduced the notion that one lifetime is not enough to gather all the necessary knowledge. By accumulating knowledge over many rebirths, one can finally be rejoined with Brahman and achieve moksha, the ultimate “release” or “salvation” that is the true goal of all human beings.
► Another key source of India’s myths is the Mahabharata, one of the longest literary works in history, more than seven times the combined length of the Iliad and the Odyssey.► The second of India’s two epic poems in the Ramayana, which supposedly describes events that took place 870,000 years ago.► Lastly, there is a large collection of Sanskrit texts called Puranas, which were compiled between the early centuries of the Common Era and as recently as the sixteenth century.
What role did myth play in ancient India?► There is no equivalent word for “myth” in India’s numerous languages.► That does not mean that there were/are no myths. It simply means that, to them, the myths were truths.
► With the introduction of the Upanishads between 800 and 500 BCE, a striking shift in India’s mythic mind-set took place. The emphasis was no longer on the simple, ancient belief in sacrificing to individual gods who could provide protection, send a good husband, or bring rain to make the plaints grow. The emergence of the Upanishads ushered in a new era of far more abstract belief, in which the many gods of ancient times were reduced to the single concept called Brahman, and the emphasis was placed on escaping an endless cycle of death, rebirth, and reincarnation in order for the human soul to link with Brahman, the Absolute Godhead.
► Making that cosmic leap involved another notion introduced with the Upanishads – that of karma, the law of cause and effect which dictates that every action has consequences that influence how the soul will be reborn. Unlike the Egyptian or Christian notion, in which proper behavior might guarantee a pleasant afterlife, this Indian concept – simply put – held that living a good life means the soul will be born into a higher state in its next incarnation. An evil life did not mean eternal damnation but a rebirth of the soul into a lower state, possibly even as an animal. This ongoing cycle of life-death- reincarnation continues until a person ultimately achieves spiritual perfection, at which point the soul enters a new level of existence called moksha (“release” or “salvation”), in which it is joined with Brahman, the divine godhead.
► As these more abstract religious concepts took hold, the old rituals were not abandoned, but made part of a new order that was contained within a concept call dharma – an all-inclusive sense of moral and spiritual “duty” with implications of truth and righteousness as well. In essence, dharma means the correct way of living. Maintaining dharma is believed to bring rhythm to the natural world and order in society. When dharma is not upheld, the result is uncertainty, natural disaster, and accidents.
► Essential to maintaining dharma was careful adherence to sacred religious observances and the social order. Every man was supposed to do his duty as defined by his station.► For women, there was only one dharma: Obey the father when unmarried, the husband when married, and the son when widowed.
► There were four principal castes systems (or social classes), each with its own rules of behavior, particularly regarding marriage. Marrying outside of one’s caste – like an English aristocrat marrying a “commoner” – just wasn’t done. It was not dharma.► On top of the caste system were the Brahmins, the priests and scholars concerned with spiritual matters; next came Kshatriyas, the rulers and warriors who administered the society; beneath them were the Vaisyas, the merchants and professionals who managed the society’s economy; and then the Sudras, the laborers who serviced the society.► For centuries, one large group has ranked below even the lowest, Sudra caste. Known as Dalits (“broken” or “ground down”), they were the “untouchables” who performed the most menial tasks and existed outside the four castes – giving us the English word “outcast.”
The River Ganges► The Ganges, revered as the physical manifestation of the goddess Ganga and had been associated with purification since ancient times. Bathing in the waters of the Ganges is still a lifelong ambition for Hindu worshippers and, each year, thousands visit such holy cities as Varanasi and Allahabad in pilgrimages to do just that. Temples line the banks of the Ganges and ghats (stairways) lead down to the river, where the pilgrims come to bathe and carry home some of its water. While some come only to cleanse and purify themselves, the sick and crippled come – just as thousands of Christian pilgrims flock to such “miraculous” sites as Lourdes – hoping that the touch of the water will cure their ailments. Others come to die in the river, because the Hindus believe that those who die in the Ganges will have their sins removed.
► Another later symbol of the order permeating Indian society was the construction of Hindu temples.► Constructed to venerate a particular deity, these temples, now located across India, housed the god, whose devotees came to the temple for a glimpse of the divine in order to absorb the god’s power and carry that power with them in their daily lives. When they came to the temple, worshippers expressed adoration, made offerings, and sought blessings. Often adorned with erotic sculptures celebrating the Hindu pantheon, these temples represented another step in India’s evolving society. Not satisfied with approaching the divine through trees, animals, rivers, and natural rock formations, the kings sponsored the making of idols of Gods and Goddesses in metal and stone that were enshrined in temples.
► Between 800 and 1300, vast temple complexes came into being. They were controlled and managed by brahmins, who once again came to dominate society… Caste hierarchy manifested in the temple tradition too, with caste based on occupation determining whether one was allowed to enter the temple or not. With rituals came the idea of pollution. Those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy – sweepers, cobblers, and other menial laborers – were the most polluted.
If it’s all an endless cycle of birth and destruction, where does the Hindu Creation begin?► Maybe the “One” knows. Maybe the “One” doesn’t know.► There are many to choose from.
1.►A supreme goddess lays three eggs in a lotus, and from the emerge three worlds and three gods – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. When the first two of these gods refuse to make love to their “mother,” she reduces them to ashes with her scorching gaze. But Shiva agrees to do the deed in exchange for the goddess’ fiery third eye. Once he has received it, Shiva shows no mercy – he uses the third eye to incinerate his mother and revive his two sibling gods. Deciding to populate the world, the godly trio realizes that they need wives. So, they divide the remains of the cremated goddess into three ahs heaps and, using the power of the third eye, create three goddesses. Together, these three gods and three goddesses populate the cosmos.
2.►A golden egg floats in the primordial waters. The golden egg is broken in half by the god Brahma in his role as the creator. The two halves of the egg shell then form heaven and earth. The mountains, clouds, and mists originate from the egg’s membranes, the rivers from its veins, and the ocean from the egg’s fluid.
3.► The god Vishnu lies resting on a many-hooded serpent – often a mythic symbol of regeneration, since it shed its skin – whose numerous coils symbolize the endless cycles of time. When Vishnu assumes the form of an all- consuming fire that destroys the universe, rain clouds appear and extinguish the flames, leaving behind a great sea. Lying on the serpent floating in this immense sea, Vishnu falls into a deep sleep. A lotus sprouts from his navel, and within the lotus is Brahman, the creative force that sets in motion the process of regeneration once more.
5.► Manu is the first man, son of Brahma and Sarasvati, and his story has clear parallels to that of Noah and the other Mesopotamian flood survivors. When the world is threatened by a flood, Brahma takes the form of a fish and tells Manu to build a large boat and store on it all the seeds of living things on earth. As the floodwaters rise, everything is submerged, but Manu’s boat lands on the highest peak in the Himalayas. Eventually the floodwaters recede, and Manu makes an offering to the gods, which produces a beautiful woman named Parsu. She and Manu become parents of the human race.
How do you get ten gods in one?► Simple. Count their “avatars.”► In the breadth of Indian myth, gods often appear in many physical forms called avatars. Based on a Sanskrit word meaning “descent of a deity from heaven,” an avatar isn’t simply a disguise that a god slips on and off – like Zeus becoming a thunderbolt or a swan and then turning back into Zeus again. Nor is it a simple manifestation, such as the goddess Ganga appearing as the Ganges River. An avatar is an entirely separate entity. In Hindu myth and theology, an avatar can be human or animal and have its own name, personality, physical characteristics, and purpose in life.
What is Nirvana?► Nirvana is the concept of being peaceful and blessed that describes one’s state of mind in Buddhism.► Known to millions from those rotund little statues that show him sitting with his legs crossed, in the lotus position, his eyelids serenely closed, the palms of his hands turned up, Buddha is a universally recognizable character. He was born Siddhartha Gautama around 563 BCE on the Nepal-India border, about 145 miles southwest of Katmandu, according to archaeological excavations completed in 1995.
► Beyond those meager details, however, there is little concrete information about his life. Buddhist legend suggests that the Buddha’s mother, Maya, dreamed of her son coming into her womb in the form of a white elephant. According to folklore, earthquakes attended the Buddha’s birth. And Buddha himself claimed that he was an incarnation of the ancient Hindu god Indra.► And then there is the well-known “biography” that starts with Buddha’s decadent youth in the palace of his warrior-caste father, King Suddhodhana. When Suddhodhana receives a prophecy that his son will not become a great ruler if he sees the pain of the world, the father tried to shelter his son, even prohibiting the use of the words “death” and “grief” in Siddhartha’s presence. Each time his son leaves the palace Suddhodhana orders the servants to go before him, sweeping the streets and decorating them with flowers. Another legend says that Siddhartha is given three palaces and between 10,000 and 40,000 dancing girls to keep him occupied.
► But reality catches up with Siddhartha. After he marries the princess Yasodhara and has a newborn son, the twentysomethingish Siddhartha has a series of visions – or actual encounters. In the first vision, he sees an old man. In the second, he sees a sick man, and in the third, a corpse. In the fourth vision, he meets a wandering holy man. The first three visions convince Siddhartha that life involves aging, sickness, and death – that “everything must decay.” The vision of the holy man convinces him that he should leave his family and seek spiritual enlightenment.
► Following these insights, Siddhartha renounces his family and wealth, and becomes a wandering monk practicing extreme forms of self-denial and self-torture for the next six years. Living in filth and eating only a single grain of rice some days, he pulls hairs from his beard, one by one, to inflict pain. But Siddhartha eventually realizes that extreme self-denial and self- torture can never lead to enlightenment, and abandons the practices.► One day, Siddhartha wanders into a village and sits under s shady fig tree, known as the bo, or bodhi, tree (“tree of wisdom”), determined to meditate until he gains enlightenment and completes his quest for the secret of release from suffering. As he sits in meditation, Siddhartha is tempted by the evil demon Mara, much as the biblical gospels tell of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. First, the demon sends his beautiful daughters to seduce Siddhartha. But Siddhartha resists. Then the demon threatens the young man with devils. But Siddhartha stands firm. In a final act, the devil throws a fiery discus at Siddhartha’s head, but it is transformed into a canopy of flowers.
► After sitting for five weeks and enduring a world- shattering storm, Siddhartha finally achieves enlightenment. The roots of suffering are desires, he discovers, and one only has to reach a sate without desire to overcome suffering. Released from all suffering and from the cycles of reincarnation, Siddhartha becomes Buddha and decides to show other people the way, preaching a doctrine of compassion and moderation.► In a religious coming-out ceremony near the holy city of Varansi, Buddha preaches his first sermon to five holy men. This sermon, which includes the “saving truth” of Buddha’s message, is one of the most sacred events in Buddhism.
► As Buddha continues preaching throughout northern India, he attracts disciples and his fame increases. Soon stories begin to spread among his followers, describing his religious insight and compassion – along with tales of his magical powers. His followers believe that Buddha has lived many lives before being born as Siddhartha Gautama, and the stories describing the events of these lives, called jatakas, become the popular means of understanding Buddha’s message, which includes the concept of Nirvana.
► According to Buddhist belief, the perfect peace and blessedness is a state called Nirvana. Attaining Nirvana enables a person to escape from the continuous cycle of death and rebirth caused by an individual’s worldly desires, such as craving for fame, immortality, and wealth. In Buddhism, people attain Nirvana only when such desires are completely eliminated.► Buddha preached that Nirvana can be attained by following a Middle Way between the extremes of ascetic self-denial and sensuality, yet living in the world with compassion and by practicing the Noble Eight-fold Path, which consists of:
1. Perfect understanding, or Knowledge of the truth2. Perfect aspiration, the intention to resist evil3. Perfect speech, or saying nothing to hurt others4. Perfect conduct through respecting life, morality, and property5. Perfect means of livelihood, or holding a job that does not injure others6. Perfect endeavor, striving to free the mind of evil7. Perfect mindfulness through controlling one’s feelings and thoughts8. Perfect contemplation through the practice of proper forms of concentration
► At about the age of eighty, Buddha became ill and died. His disciples gave him an elaborate funeral, burned his body, and distributed his bones as sacred relics.► In Indian history, Buddhism reached a high mark of sorts when an Indian emperor named Ashoka converted in 262 BCE, renounced violence, and named Buddhism the state religion. In Buddhism tradition, Ashoka had become horrified at the cost of empire- building and embraced Buddhism. Today, Buddhism is one of the major religions of the world and it has been a dominant religious and social force in most of Asia for more than two thousand years. There are an estimated 364 million followers today.
► Emerging in about the same era as Buddhism did, the second major offshoot of Hinduism is Jainism. Like Buddhism, Jainism is traced to a man who is believed to be an actual historical individual. Mahavira is said to have been born to aristocratic parents in 540 BCE and was a contemporary of Buddha, though they may have never met. Nonetheless, as gods were said to have descended from heaven and showered flowers, nectar, and fruit on his father’s place. There are many legends about his extraordinary childhood, but as an adult, he is said to have lived an ordinary life until his parents died. Then, at the age of thirty-two, he gave away his possessions, left his wife and child, and became a wandering monk. The sky glowed life a lake covered in lotus flowers when this happened.
► Mahavira’s teachings form the basis for Jainism, which is centered on the belief that every living thing consists of an eternal soul called the jiva and a temporary physical body. Attaining release from the world of sorrows can be achieved by renouncing sin and violence, engaging instead in strict penance and extreme, disciplined, nonviolent conduct. In Jainsim, sadhus (holy men) and sadhvis (holy women) try to separate themselves from the everyday world through a vow of poverty and may not own any property except a broom, simple robes, bowls for food, and walking sticks. They may not live in buildings except for brief periods and must beg for all their food. They are not allowed to kill any living creature, and Jain monks wear a veil or mask over their mouths, so they don’t accidentally swallow any insects.
► Small in number, with some 4 million adherents worldwide, Jainism has been influential, nonetheless. Laypeople, or followers who are not priests or holy men and women, observe a less rigorous code of conduct, and support the priesthood. Many of them are businesspeople who have flourished, in no small part, because Jainists enjoy a reputation for scrupulous honesty in commercial activity that does not directly involve killing any living thing.