hinduism

Book Review: The Ramayana (retold by R. K. Narayan)

The Ramayana itself is, of course, one of the great works of world literature. It is the story of a prince, Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who has been unjustly exiled from his kingdom just as he was to be crowned king. During his exile in the wilderness, his beautiful wife Sita is kidnapped by a powerful demon. With the assistance of Hanuman and other members of an intelligent race of monkeys, Rama is able to defeat the demons, rescue his wife, and is restored to his kingdom.

The overarching storyline itself is a great field from which to extract allegories for the spiritual life. Rama, to unite himself with beauty (of which Sita is the embodiment), must overcome evil, with its weapons of delusion, ignorance, and temptation. Once the soul is able to unite itself with beauty, it is restored to the Kingdom from which it fell and was exiled.

The mini-stories within the Ramayana also each present such possibilities for extracting ethical and spiritual allegories. Sprinkled throughout the Ramayana are jewels of wisdom and always present is the remarkable example of Rama, a man of perfect virtue.

From the perspective of a Christian, the Ramayana can be seen as one of those many pre-Christian foreshadowings of the Incarnation of Christ. Rama, as an incarnation of a god who suffers to restore justice in the world and defeat the forces of evil, and whose deeds are often mysterious and occasionally even apparently morally questionable but which are always done with great wisdom and the knowledge that good will be the final result, can be seen in these senses as a type of Christ-figure. He can also be seen as a symbol of the human soul, exiled from the Garden and seeking its way back through overcoming of self and of the external evils of the demons, to be finally united with the eternal beauty in the Kingdom of God.

This particular telling of the story, a shortened prose version by the acclaimed author R. K. Narayan, is a wonderful introduction to the Ramayana as it provides an engaging outline of the story while weaving some insightful commentary about the epic and its reception in Indian culture throughout. I also recommend viewing the opera Ayodhya by S. P. Somtow, an operatic version of the Ramayana composed in 2006 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the coronation of the king of Thailand.

Book Review: The Rig Veda, translated by Wendy Doniger

The Rig Veda is one of the great classics of world religious thought. A collection of disparate hymns to various deities, foremost among whom are Indra, Agni, and Soma, it has come a long way from its roots in the syncretism of Aryan and pre-Aryan Indian religious systems. While the culture it reflects is a semi-nomadic warrior society that has recently conquered and subdued a settled agrarian (and ostensibly peaceful) culture of the Indus Valley, by the Upanishadic era (beginning in earnest circa 500 BCE) the hymns it contains were being reinterpreted along more mystical, spiritual, and even incipiently monotheistic lines.

Doniger does a fair job in capturing all of this in her selections and commentary in this book. The sample size is fair, as this contains about 10% of the actual Rig Veda. It is, alas, not always entirely representative of the source material, however. This is due to an unfortunate disposition toward those minute and stupid things modern academics are interested in. The table of contents, for example, in which the various hymns featured in this sampling are listed by theme, reveals an interesting predilection toward the obsessions of liberal academics. Indra, the primary god of the Aryan religious system, has 21 pages total of this book, for example, and Soma, both a god and a hallucinogenic plant whose use was widespread in the Vedic religious system, has 18 pages of hymns dedicated to him. The theme of “women,” however, which, outside of natural sexual desire and the need to perpetuate society and species through procreation, was not an especially intense concern of the Vedic authors, receive a whopping 32 pages, more pages than any other subject! The result is that, rather than presenting a sample representative of the content of the Rig Veda and the concerns of the society from which it emerged, Doniger instead provides a sample that entirely reflects the concerns of her academic colleagues.

All of this is unfortunate, but it does not make the book entirely worthless, as such academic idiocies so often do. The positive aspect of this concern with academic fetishes over all else is that Doniger does not, as Eknath Easwaran and other translators of and commentators upon Indian religious texts so often do, allow the superstitions and predispositions of modern Hinduism to determine the content or commentary. Modern Hindus, under the influence of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, among other later works, read back their monism and its accompanying mysticism into the Vedic texts and many academics, in their grovelling before foreignness, one symptom of the rampant Western self-hatred of the academic, are all too happy to oblige them in this ahistorical outlook. This is, of course, entirely unhelpful for the honest interested party who really seeks to understand a text within its historical and cultural origins rather than within the mythology and ex post facto justifications that have grown up around it.

To summarize, I applaud Doniger for her willingness to be honest about the polytheistic warrior culture of the Rig Veda. I only wish she were as honest about her own atheistic sex-fetish culture in academia. If she were, this sample translation of the foremost Veda would have been of more value. As it is, I recommend it as a decent introduction insofar as the reader is aware of the biases of Doniger and her compatriots.

Speech

I move with the Rudras, with the Vasus, with the Adityas and all the gods. I carry both Mitra and Varuna, both Indra and Agni, and both of the Asvins.

I carry the swelling Soma, and Tvastr, and Pusan and Bhaga. I bestow wealth on the pious sacrificer who presses the Soma and offers the oblation.

I am the queen, the confluence of riches, the skilful one who is first among those worthy of sacrifice. The gods divided me up into various parts, for I dwell in many places and enter into many forms.

The one who eats food, who truly sees, who breathes, who hears what is said, does so through me. Though they do not realize it, they dwell in me. Listen, you whom they have heard: what I tell you should be heeded.

I am the one who says, by myself, what gives joy to gods and men. Whom I love I make awesome; I make him a sage, a wise man, a Brahmin.

I stretch the bow for Rudra so that his arrow will strike down the hater of prayer. I incite the content among the people. I have pervaded sky and earth.

I gave birth to the father on the head of this world. My womb is in the waters, within the ocean. From there I spread out over all creatures and touch the very sky with the crown of my head.

I am the one who blows like the wind, embracing all creatures. Beyond the sky, beyond this earth, so much have I become my greatness.

Rig Veda 10.125

Book Review: The Upanishads

The Upanishads are some of the most fascinating writings in world literature. They are a record of several hundred years of experience and wisdom in one of the world’s great mystical traditions. As such, they act as a powerful witness to the universality of the desire for eternity and transcendence, for the innate humanity of the longing for God.

This translation is an interesting one and may be useful for someone who is new to the Upanishads. Nearly all of the technical language is trimmed out and the universal aspects are emphasized, rather than those elements that are unique to the Hindu tradition. The great fault of this book, however, is that it seems to try too hard in many places to emphasis that universality. Rather than allowing the universality of the Upanishads to shine through on their own, the translation often seeks to imitate biblical language, more familiar to Western readers, and the commentaries focus more on making the Upanishads acceptable to a Judeo-Christian audience than on actually explaining the historical and cultural milieu of the Upanishads themselves. If it were not for this flaw, or if I were rating just the Upanishads alone and not the translation and commentary, I would rate this volume much higher.

Book Review: The Upanishads translated by Juan Mascaró

The Upanishads are, of course, among the great classics of mankind. The vast wealth of literature classed under this heading emerged from the spiritual golden age of India, a period during which the polytheistic and overly ritualistic religion of the Vedas was emerging into something simultaneously more spiritual and more philosophical. As with similar literature of a similar period from other places, such as Greece, the Upanishads often deal with the older literature in some novel ways, sometimes allegorizing upon it, often claiming to divulge a deeper meaning that has existed all along, and occasionally contradicting it.

When we zoom out a bit from the merely historical level, the Upanishads remain a fascinating example of the perennial nature of much mystical and philosophical thought. In this, they act as a demonstration of the universal accessibility of the truth at the heart of human life and existence. They are a reflection of the universal human condition and a testimony to the means by which man becomes master of that condition and, in a sense, transcends it. While their origins are in India, the Upanishads are part of the heritage of all mankind.

With this in mind, it must be admitted that it is a shame that the Upanishads have still not been fully explored by Christians in the discovery and appreciation of the “seeds of the Word” (as St. Justin Martyr termed the truths discovered and discussed by the pre-Christian philosophers). In this, the Upanishads contain a whole world of wisdom yet to be brought to its full fruition by exposure to and incorporation with the self-revelation of God in the Incarnation. I await the wonderful day this task will finally be taken up with the requisite erudition and sensitivity.

Juan Mascaro’s introduction is a bit too syncretistic to be realistic, but he certainly provides some decent pointers in the right direction toward understanding the Upanishads both on their own terms and in relation to Christendom. I think, however, that his style tries just a bit too hard to make the Upanishads as they are understood by modern Hindus fit in with Christianity in a way that is not possible if one is to allow both religious traditions to remain true to themselves. I recommend reading it nonetheless and extracting from it whatever is of worth to the reader. The Upanishads themselves I recommend for all readers interested in reading several of the great classics of spirituality.

The Tao in Cross-Cultural Comparison

The idea of an objective, transcendent, and eternal force, law, or “way of things” is one that is found in nearly every culture of the world. In schools of Chinese philosophy such as Taoism and Confucianism, this idea has been called the Tao, or Way; in ancient Greek thought as well as in later Jewish and Christian philosophy and theology, this concept was labeled as Logos, or Word; and, in Indian thought including both Hinduism and Buddhism as well as other varieties of Indian religion, the idea was first referred to as Dharma and later identified as Brahman. The content of these ideas as they were developed within their respective cultural, religious, and philosophical homes reflects both the diversity of cultural expression as well as a remarkable fundamental unity in thought across civilizations, geography, and time.

According to Alan Chan, a professor of philosophy, “a key term in the philosophical vocabulary, it [the Tao] informs early Chinese philosophy as a whole” (“Laozi”). The idea, however, “is interpreted differently” throughout the thought of the various philosophical schools of ancient China.

One of the earliest and fullest treatments of the Tao in Chinese thought is found in the philosophy of Kongzi (551-479 BCE), better known in the English-speaking world as Confucius (Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 1). For Kongzi, the Tao, as the Way of heaven, is largely a concept that reflects ancient Chinese morals and mores. He urged his students to “set your heart upon the Way, rely upon Virtue, lean upon Goodness, and explore widely in your cultivation of the arts” (Kongzi, The Analects, 7.1, in Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 21). In the thought of Kongzi, there was a golden age which had preceded the current age of decline. In that golden age, people observed all of the customs and conventions associated with propriety and virtue in ancient China. Since then, however, people had fallen away from observing the proper rituals and, as a result, Chinese society had entered a period of decline. While viewing the Tao in spiritual terms, as the Way of Heaven, Kongzi’s concern is largely social and political, rather than religious or otherwise metaphysical.

For Laozi (a legendary figure held by popular mythology to be a contemporary of Kongzi), the only other Chinese thinker whose ideas can be said to have had an influence equivalent to or greater than that of Kongzi, the Tao was something similar but simultaneously quite different (Ivanhoe, p. 161). Laozi maintained the earlier view, reflected in Kongzi’s thought, that the Tao is the Way of Heaven, the all-pervading and governing principle of the universe. He also maintained Kongzi’s view that there had once been a golden age during which people had been at harmony with the Tao, and therefore with themselves, with each other, with the world around them, and with heaven itself. They had lost their original harmony with it through too much ambition, striving, strain, and stress; they had thereby injured themselves by separating themselves from their nature and from the Tao. This is the point at which Laozi separates from Kongzi in his analysis and prescription. Rather than viewing the problem as fundamentally social and turning to traditionalism and social conservatism for salvation, Laozi viewed the problem as, at heart, a spiritual problem, a problem in the soul of man, and one whose only solution was in man’s soul and, according to Laozi, this solution often entailed a retreat from the social world altogether. According to Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy, in the view of Laozi, “man is built to be an individual incarnation of this whole [the Tao]. His good, his happiness – the very meaning of his life – is to live in correspondence and relationship to the whole, to be and act precisely as the universe itself is and moves” (Feng and English, Tao Te Ching, p. xiv).

In viewing the Tao in terms of nature, spirit, and the individual, Laozi’s thought departs widely from that of Kongzi, which viewed the Tao in terms of society, ritual, and organization. The two thinkers are agreed, however, in the fundamental assertion that there is a Tao, a Way of Heaven, a law, guiding force, and governing principle in the cosmos. In this harmony, they also find agreement with thinkers from a wide variety of other cultures; fascinatingly, many of these thinkers with similar ideas were their contemporaries and near-contemporaries.

In Greece, at the nearly the same moment that Kongzi and Laozi were developing and teaching their ideas of the Tao, the philosopher Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) introduced the concept of the Logos, a word meaning both “Word” and “Reason,” into Greek thought. According to Richard Tarnas, a professor of philosophy and psychology, in Heraclitus’s thought, the Logos was “the rational principle governing the cosmos” (The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 45). Frederick Coplestone, a historian of philosophy, describes Heraclitus’s logos as “the universal law immanent in all things, binding all things into a unity and determining the constant change in the universe according to universal law” (A History of Philosophy, p. 43). This is an idea, developed nearly simultaneously with the views of Kongzi and Laozi but thousands of miles away and in a very different cultural context, that bears a remarkable resemblance to the concept of the Tao in Chinese thought, especially in the thought of Laozi. The views of Heraclitus in regards to man’s relationship with the Logos are also remarkably similar to the views of Laozi. According to Coplestone, Heraclitus urged that “man should … strive to attain to the viewpoint of reason [that is, of the Logos] and to live by reason [the Logos]” (A History of Philosophy, p. 43), a view nearly synonymous with those of Laozi.

The concept of the Logos would later be taken up by both Jewish and Christian philosophers in the Greek-speaking world. It would be identified in those religious traditions with the Word of God. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Christian missionaries in China recognized the notable similarity between the Greek concept of the Logos and the Chinese concept of the Tao, and took up using the word “Tao” as a Chinese translation for the word “Logos.” For example, a 1911 translation of the Bible into Cantonese by the American Bible Society opens the Gospel of John with the proclamation:

In the beginning was the Tao,
And the Tao was with God,
And the Tao was God.
The same was in the beginning with God. (Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 8)

The word “Tao,” of course, is here being used to translate the word “Logos” in the original Greek of the biblical text.

In addition to this similar idea from Western thought, Indian thought also provides examples of concepts very similar to the concept of the Tao in its ideas of Dharma and Brahman. According to James C. Livingstone, a professor of religion, “in the Vedas,” which texts represent some of the earliest developments in Indian religion and philosophy, “the word dharma stood for an eternally fixed moral law that underlies the universe” (Anatomy of the Sacred, p. 362). So central to ancient Hindu thought was the concern for coming into concord with this law that, “in the later law books,” such as the Law of Manu, “dharma came to refer specifically to the duties and obligations of social life” (Livingstone, Anatomy of the Sacred, p. 362).

Whereas from its inception the Logos of Heraclitus bore a similarity to the Tao as it was developed in the thought of Laozi, the Dharma in its inception bears a much closer resemblance to the Tao as enunciated in the thought of Kongzi. As in Kongzi’s philosophy, the earliest Indian thought on Dharma viewed it largely as a matter of social important, a set of laws, rituals, customs, and conventions to be followed in order for people to attain social harmony and person prosperity. In later Indian thought, however, the Dharma would come to resemble something much more similar to Laozi’s more spiritual and personal version of the Tao.

In Hinduism, for example, the Dharma would be associated closely with the idea of Brahman, the “God [who] is being, awareness, and bliss” (Smith, The World’s Religions, p. 60). Just as meditation on the self-identification of the God of Judaism and Christianity as “I AM,” or the root source, underlying principle, and governing force of existence, in Exodus 3:14 would lead later Jewish and Christian thinkers to an identification of God with the Logos of Greek thought, this very similar description of the Supreme Being in Hinduism demonstrates the similarities of Brahman, Dharma, and Tao.

Also remarkably similar is the Hindu treatment of the relationship between man and Brahman. According to Hindu thought as developed in the Upanishads, a set of mystical, theological, mythological, and philosophical texts, the most important of which were written between 1000 and 600 BCE, Brahman is also identical with the atman, the personal soul of each individual human being. This identification of the atman with Brahman sounds very much like the identification of the Logos, as universal Reason, with the reason inherent in each person, as well as with Laozi’s concept of each man as intended to be an embodiment and reflection of the Tao. There is also a further similarity with Jewish and Christian thought here in the biblical assertion that human beings were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).

Although the Buddha (563-483), a contemporary of Kongzi, Laozi, and Heraclitus, rejected the Hindu concept of Brahman, in splitting with the Hinduism developing during the period of the composition of the Upanishads, his ideas concerning Dharma also present a noteworthy comparison here. According to professor and spiritual leader Eknath Easwaran, in the thought of the Buddha, “dharma expresses the central law of life, that all things and events are part of an indivisible whole” (The Dhammapada, p. 12). Here again there is emphasis on an underlying principle which in some sense unites and governs the cosmos. And, in the Buddha’s thought, yet again emphasis is placed on the need for each individual to come into harmony with that principle and thereby attain peace for one’s self and for the world.

Across cultural boundaries and, in the ancient world, nearly insurmountable geographic expanses, at a point in time nearly simultaneous, several of the great civilizations of the world, China, Greece, the Middle East, and India, saw thinkers introduce and develop concepts that bore a remarkable similarity to each other. As Kongzi and Laozi developed their ideas of the Tao in China, Heraclitus expounded upon the Logos in Greece, Jewish thinkers developed their first ideas about a God who is Being Itself, and the authors of the Upanishads and the Buddha taught about Dharma in India. In these ideas, there is a display of cultural uniqueness and of divergence in thought, but also, and far more noteworthy, a fascinating similarity in their assertion that there is a uniting and governing underlying source which transcends and yet remains imminent within it and that man, for his own salvation both as a species and as individuals, must come into harmony with this principle.

ReferencesChan, Alan, “Laozi”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Coplestone, Frederick. (1946). A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946.

Damascene, Hiermonk. (2004). Christ the Eternal Tao. Platina: Valaam Books.

Easwaran, Eknath. (1999). The Dhammapada. Tomales: Nilgiri Press.

Feng, Gia-Fu and Jane English. Translators. (1989). Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden. (2005). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy: Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Livingstone, James C. (1998). Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion, Third Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.

Tarnas, Richard. (1991). The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books.

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