Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Ear of the Ear and the Eye of the Eye

It is easy in the West to become tied down in the grandeur of the more familiar civilisations of Greece and Rome, when thinking of ancient times. Yet to discount the peoples that lived beyond the then known world is to risk a heavily shackled view of the achievements of mankind. Yet civilisations of towering monuments, great works of art, grand scale conflicts and intricate philosophies existed far beyond the boundaries of Europe, and in many cases, long before it. One such civilisation is India. Homeland of one of the oldest religions in existence, beliefs in many gods arrived long before the tales of Zeus and the Olympians did in Greece, and is still held true today by more than one billion people on Earth. The put this in context, in 2010, there are more followers of Hinduism than there are people in living in Europe. Let us delve within this lore, which is both ancient and modern, and consider a small work which is rightly labelled a classic.

Photograph of the Periyar River, in the public domain.
Just as Zeus ruled over the House of gods in Greece, there is at the pinnacle of Hindu belief Brahman, who is far above the more familiar gods such as Shiva and Ganesha. But in many ways, this is a very mundane comparison.  For Brahman cannot truly be described as a god. ‘God’ is too narrow a term. Reading Hindu mythology and literature is a highly recommendable exercise in opening the mind. A god is a manifestation of Brahman in the physical world, a reflection of the greater power. Think of it like this. You walk along the water’s edge of a vast lake, and suddenly you spy ripples striking the bank. You cannot see where the ripples come from, as the lake is too great in size, and their source is unseen to your eyes. In traditional mythology, a god would be a ripple, yet Brahman is the source of that ripple.
There was once a student who asked a wise man “Who sends the mind to wander afar? Who first drives life to start on its journey? Who impels us to utter these words? Who is the Spirit behind the eye and the ear?” The sage, who was a learned man, considered his question and replied:

Brahman as the source of a ripple
Photograph taken by Sven Hoppe.
“It is the ear of the ear, the eye of the eye and the Word of words, the mind of mind, and the life of life. Those who follow wisdom pass beyond and, on leaving this world, become immortal.
There the eye goes not, nor words, nor mind. We know not, we cannot understand, how he can be explained: He is above the known and He is above the unknown.”

Imparting his learned judgement, the old man teaches his student the wisdom of old:

“ What cannot be spoken with words, but that whereby words are spoken:
            Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore,

   What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think:
            Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore,

   What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see:
            Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore,

   What cannot be heard with the ear, but that whereby the ear can hear:
            Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore,

   What cannot be indrawn with breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn:
            Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore. ”
                               - THE DEFINITION OF BRAHMAN

The student understands how foolhardy he had been to comprehend such a force, one intricately woven in the fabric of all things, so omnipresent yet invisible. In Nature, when a man is in awe at the flash of lightning, Brahman is neither the man nor the lightning, but the wonder in the flash of the lightning. For the man and the lightning are both ripples in the lake. The teacher’s lesson is that the fool is he who states “I know well”, yet no truth does he know. Darkness there is, for he who does not know Him, yet the light of truth shines for he who does. For true knowledge is acquired only in the “ecstasy of an awakening which opens the door of life eternal”. A man who is truly aware of Brahman is truly in a state of paradise, a concept known in the Indian religions as Nirvana.

Mount Semeru, where Creation was said to have occurred
Photograph taken by Jan-Pieter Nap.

There is too a story of the gods who futilely comprehend the nature of Brahman. It is said that once upon a time, through the matter of Brahman, the gods won a great victory, and in their pride they thought “We alone attained this victory, ours alone is the glory”. Brahman was aware of this and appeared before them. The gods shouted “Who is this being that fills us with wonder?” The gods turn to Agni, the god of fire, and ask him to go and see who this being is. Agni approached Brahman, who asked the god “Who are you?” “I am the god of fire, he said, the god who knows all things”. “What power is in you?” asks Brahman. “I can burn all things on Earth” replied Agni. Brahman placed a blade of straw before him, saying “burn this”. The god of fire strove with all his might, yet not so much as a spark could he produce. He returned to the other gods and told them of his failure. The gods turned to Vayu, the god of the air and sent him before Brahman. “Who are you” asked Brahman. “I am Vayu, the god of the air he said, Matarisvan, the air that moves in space”, replied the god. “What power is in you?” enquires Brahman. “In a whirlwind I can carry away all there is on Earth”, Vayu assures him. Once again, Brahman produced a blade of straw, and commanded Vayu to “Blow this away”. The god of the air strove with all his might, yet the blade was as unmoving as the roots of the mountain.  Vayu returned to the gods and relayed his failure. So they turned to Indra, the god of thunder. Indra ran towards Brahman, but this time, he disappeared. In the same corner of the Sky rose a being of radiant beauty. She was called Uma, divine wisdom, and she was the daughter of the mountains of snow. “Who is that being that fills us with wonder?” asked Indra. “He is Brahman, the Spirit Supreme”, she answered, “Rejoice in Him, since through Him you attained the glory of victory”. Among the gods, Agni, Vayu and Indra excelled all others, for they were the first to come near Brahman, and the first to know him as the Spirit Supreme. Thus Indra, the thunderer, excelled all other gods, since he was first among them all to comprehend Brahman and learn he was the Spirit Supreme, and achieve his own Nirvana.

This is just the beginning of a large corpus of the Sanskrit scriptures, known as the Upanishads. Each Upanishad takes as its focus a different lesson, ranging from considering Brahman to spiritual bliss, karma, death, immortality and rebirth. Each Upanishad is short and succinct, yet told with eloquence and wisdom. I wholeheartedly recommend any to pick it up and give them a read. The collection of Upanishads is a light book, not at all overlong and easily accessible from Amazon at an extremely nominal price:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Upanishads (Classics)
(An excellent hybrid of readability and poetic quality)

Oxford World's Classics:
Upanisads (Oxford World's Classics)
(A slightly bigger work, which contains more background information)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Upanishads (Penguin Classics)
(An excellent hybrid of readability and poetic quality)

Oxford World's Classics:
Upanisads (Oxford World's Classics)
(A slightly bigger work, which contains more background information)

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