India is the name of a modern nation state having a population of more than a billion people (one of every six people in the world is Indian) of a huge number of races, ethnicities, religions, languages and customs.

The name is derived from the river Indus and was conferred upon the region by the Persians: for them, it was the land across the river.

India is the only truly ancient civilization that still exists today, and it confronts us with an altogether other conception of reality than the one we take for granted. India challenges the idea that all humans are essentially alike or that they share the same reality or mentality or desires or values. read more

To take a trivial but pregnant example, India confronts us with a sense of light entirely different from that of the West: here beauty is of a glowing radiance full of enigmatic shadow-play rather than the clear, shining, blinding yet shadowless, “objective” light of the West.

India confronts us with a sense of time and space fundamentally different from ours. Time and space form part of the taken for granted background of our lives and we don’t think about them; they don’t raise any issues. But there is a basic distinction to be drawn between our (Western) and the Indian sense of time and space.

In India, time is more like space than it is in the West. Indian time is not sequential but contemporaneous; like spatial objects, all temporal events are there at once, all are contemporaneous; it’s just that our limited perspective cannot apprehend it in that way; for us, past and future are beyond our vision, just as great spatial distances are. Just because the carpet is all rolled up doesn’t mean that the design isn’t all there “at the same time.”

India is a place where reality is measured in eons. Time is cyclical and cycles of reality are repetitive and of very long duration: hundreds of millions of years for the larger cycles. There are universes side by side as well as preceding and following this one, and all are utterly identical, all utterly meaningless. The uniqueness of anything, whether of ourselves, events, nations, histories and even gods is an illusion. There is this deep conception in India of a wheel of birth and death, an endless round of emanation, fruition, dissolution and then reemanation. And every moment of one’s individual existence is seen as relative to this vast matrix.

Indian thought draws no clear line between myth and history. But of course even in the West history is a fabrication, because history functions everywhere as myth, as a sacred story. History is not a matter of simply what happened but of what to include and exclude and how to spin those events.

In India and in other archaic cultures, myths function as exoteric envelopes concealing mystical meanings that reveal cosmic truths.

There are four ages or yugas of time within one day of the god Brahma. These ages decline in perfection as they succeed each other. As did virtually all cultures, except post-Renaissance Europe’s, India’s views history as a decline from perfection at the time of creation to utter decadence and degeneration at the time of dissolution: when “property confers rank, and wealth becomes the only source of virtue, passion the sole bond of union between husband and wife, falsehood the source of success, sex the only means of enjoyment and when outer trappings are confused with inner religion.” This final age began on 18 February 3102 BC. The ages not only decline in virtue and happiness, they get shorter too. This last age or yuga, the Kali (or Dark) Yuga, will last 432,000 human years. In the first yuga, the age of beginnings, the so-called golden age, the law or dharma stood on four legs like a sacred cow; but in this, the final age, she stands precariously on only one. The grand total of years of all four ages is 10 times the amount of this last age, that is 4,320,000 years. This is called a great or maha yuga. One thousand of those is reckoned to be one day of the god Brahma, a kalpa, 4,320,000,000 years. And then there is a night too, equal in duration to the day. This period is divided in various ways in sub-cycles and each of these ends with a deluge or flood. Our era was rescued from the waters of dissolution by the god Vishnu in the form of a boar. Now the cycles do not end there. We’re about one-third of the way into the present day of our Brahma, but our Brahma is only one of many, part of ever larger cycles of his own, in which even he is only like one ant in a colony of ants.

Indra and the ants:

Indra creates the world (in one of the innumerable versions of the Hindu creation myth), using Vishvakarman (literally, World-Maker) as his architect, but he is continually dissatisfied with this detail or that and asks Vishvakarman to alter and add to his creation. Worn out with work, Vishvakarman complains to a higher authority, the god Brahma, who assures him that he will solve the problem. And sure enough, next morning a young, beautiful boy appears before Indra and addresses the god as “child,” already a hint that something unusual is up. The boy talks about having met all of Indra’s ancestors and also innumerable Indras in previous ages: “Who will number the passing ages of the world as they follow each other endlessly? Who will count the Indras in them all — those Indras side by side who reign at once in all the innumerable worlds and all those others who passed away before them? Even if it is possible to number all the grains of sand on earth or the raindrops that fall from the sky, no one will ever number all those Indras.” And Indras after all live within the days of Brahma, “and Brahma follows Brahma; one sinks and the next arises. There is no end to the number of Brahmas, to say nothing of Indras.” Universes, another myth says, bubble and break out of every hair pore of the sleeping god Vishnu.

When a procession of ants appears in the hall where the boy and Indra are talking, the boy laughs, and when Indra asks him what is so funny, the boy at first declines to tell him: “The seed of woe and the fruit of wisdom are enclosed within this secret,” he says. But Indra presses him and finally the boy replies: “This secret destroys worldlings deluded by desire and pride” (referring here to Indra’s desire to improve the universe he is designing and to take pride in it)], but finally the boy answers: “I saw the ants O Indra filing in long parade. Each was once an Indra, but now as a result of many rebirths each Indra has become an ant. This army is an army of former Indras.”

Piety and high deeds elevate the beings of the universe to the rank even of gods, but wicked deeds sink them back into the worlds below: into pain and sorrow, into being incarnated as vermin or pigs. It is through deeds that one attains one’s rank in any birth, whether as a brahmin or a god, or as a diseased, deformed or monstrous being.

But, and this is the main point, the boy continues, “Life in the cycle of countless rebirths is like a vision in a dream. The gods, humans, trees and stones are alike, all merely apparitions in a fantasy. Death administers the law of time; that is the overriding law of this fantasy, which is of course the world as we know and live it — the ‘real’ world. Perishable as bubbles are all the beings of this dream. Hence, the wise are attached to neither, neither the evil nor the good. The wise are not attached to anything at all.”

The Indian carries this idea of cyclical, repetitive time, and his and everything’s insignificance in the face of such a vast vision, around with him in his conceptual baggage; it is part and parcel of his personality and his culture, just as our progressive view of history and our idea of ourselves as unique individuals is of ours, for the Western mind believes in the singular world-changing event, like the coming of Jesus or the French Revolution. But when the god Vishnu as the boar reincarnated our world by raising up the earth (symbolized by a woman hanging on to the end of the boar’s tusk) from the depths of the waters, he whispered to her, “Every time I raise you this way…” implying that this act is only one more repetition of an endlessly repeated event. This deflates our idea of the uniqueness and singularity of any occurrence. Everything has already happened and will happen again in exactly the same way. The Indian view of space and time undermines the foundations of all Western ideals and values. The West reveres innovation and individual creativity at the expense of continuity and tradition.

So Indian time is a kind of biological time, a cyclical time in which repetitions of events and repetitions within repetitions, cycles within cycles, are happening both simultaneously and in succession ad infinitum. Within such a framework of non-uniqueness any individual, any event, appears small and insignificant. Western time is historical and so each event and each individual life is a unique occurrence, and so they seem somehow special and valuable. Such a “Western” sense of time lends an importance to events and to individuals: We seem to matter.

So because of the Indian view of time as occurring as a vast cyclical and repetitive symphony (as do one’s lives) in comparison say with medieval Europe’s view of the cosmos as a small, temporally limited arena in which events and persons are singular and unrepeatable, in India the very idea of personal ambition is viewed as absurd vanity.

In the Hindu view of the world, nothing is static; there is no abiding, only a relentless originating, growing, decaying, vanishing and reemerging of all. (And in Hindu sculpture, this time sense is carved into the stone.)

To reemphasize, the Hindu view of time and history is not only repetitive and cyclical, it is also degenerative. We live in the Kali Yuga, the final, and most degenerate period in this day of Brahma, in this cycle of time: “The rulers on earth will be wanting in tranquility, strong in anger and taking pleasure in lying and dishonesty. They inflict death on women, children and cows. They are prone to take the paltry possessions of others. They are ambitious, of little virtue and greedy. They will support undisciplined barbarians. Money alone will confer nobility. Power will be the only definition of virtue. Pleasure will be the sole reason for marriage and lust will be the only justification for womanhood. Falsehoods will win disputes. Land will be defined as that which is dry of water. Boldness and arrogance will be the equivalent of scholarship. Only the poor will be honest. Being well dressed will signify propriety. Because they are so oppressed by their rulers, people will take to hiding in valleys where they will gather honey, fruits, vegetables, roots and flowers. Suffering from the elements, they will wear tree bark and leaves. The average life span will be about twenty-three.” In other words, with the breakdown of civilization, people will become tribals again.

From the point of view of the Absolute, all aspects of existence — creation, duration, destruction (dissolution) are one and the same — are simply changing phenomenal expressions of one divine substance. Creator and creation are in Hinduism the very same being, made of the very same stuff, that is, the divine is immanent in its creation. Hindu wisdom’s goal is to develop the power to rejoice at even the most harrowing expressions of existence, to accept them as the dark but necessary tones of the cosmic symphony.

Indra slays the limbless brahmin-demon, Vrtra, and, thereafter forever guilty of killing a brahmin, is pursued eternally by an ogress. Indra killed the brahmin-demon in order to release the waters of the cosmos, which had been contained within the demon’s energy, and so create the conditions for life to arise and be sustained. But in releasing those waters, in creating the conditions for life to arise, Indra destroys wholeness too. Dismemberment of wholeness is the gods’ original sin, which is reenacted in the sacrifice (which turns one into many and then reverses the process and achieves a final unity). Through sacrifice, man becomes a god and enters heaven within the sacrificial ritual but also within this very life. The sacrificer takes the form of a bird; the ritual chants are the bird’s wings. But this is the ideal; it is only the gods who can perform the rituals flawlessly. Man is imperfect. Error and disorder are his distinguishing marks.

Still, one does attempt a flawless performance by adhering strictly to the conditions and elements of the ritual, which are incredibly detailed and extensive; for example, in reading from a sacred text, it is often prescribed that the book must be placed on a stand, not held in the hands.

The sacrifice is a cosmos which gets violently broken up and then gets put back together again; the sacrifice alternates (as does the universe itself) between two poles — disintegration and reintegration, death and birth: “When the sacrifice had its head cut off, its sap flowed away and entered the sky and earth; when the sacrifice had its head cut off the vital sap flowed away and therefrom those plants grew up; that vital sap thus supplies and completes it.”

* * *

In India, the past is valorized, and present and future are always seen as a devolution from a period of glorious, paradisiacal beginnings. Whereas in the West, knowledge is something to be discovered, in India knowledge is something to be recovered, for everything has already been discovered. The language of Sanskrit is one of the original lifelines to past knowledge and its recovery, and has about it an essentially sacred and pure character.

This is translated into architecture too. At first, buildings were constructed in wood; and later when stone came to be used, the wooden models were transferred to stone, even when the details served no structural purpose, in caves for example, simply because wood was the original and therefore, the valorized material. The ivory carvers of Vidisha who carved the stone gateways at the Sanchi stupa translated the techniques of carving ivory into stone. Caves conserve old forms — wooden structures — and this shows a yearning for the old and the foundational, the pastoral and the tribal way of life.

* * *

Another aspect essential to Indian society is that tribal pockets have always and indeed still do exist in its midst. The tribals’ presence gives to festivals their orgiastic, ecstatic, rapturous character, which usually involves trance. Such events restore to society its lost unity.

* * *

Religion (everywhere) is a thing done, not a thing believed. Hinduism combines monasticism and fertility; it aims toward a coincidence of opposites. Bodily mortification leads to an enhanced mode of life. Altered states are superior to ordinary life, which is considered to be a sort of wakeful somnolence.

Magico-orgiastic rites are the basis of Hindu culture and spirituality. Krishna’s level of divinity is directly proportionate to his ability as a lover. It is this tribal contribution combined with the stern sky-god patriarchy of the Aryan migrants that worked itself out as Hinduism.

Hinduism is excessive, cathartic, ecstatic and directed toward overcoming duality: you can only experience God by becoming God (I AM GOD). Contrast this with religions of law, reason and morality: restraint. In India, non-duality is the true nature of reality, but maya (or “magical measuring,” which is the process of creation itself) covers that up and makes the world appear as a multiplicity. “The blessed goddess Mahamaya, having forcibly seized the minds even of men of knowledge, leads them to delusion.” Maya is cosmic ignorance.

* * *

Ritual is the workshop in which all reality is forged. It is guided by principles of resemblance. It assumes that what is natural is inherently defective; the natural is the chaotic, the disorganized, the unformed. What the creator god creates is not a cosmos (or a universal whole composed of ordered parts). True cosmos (order) is not generated by the primary creative act, but by ritual, which lends structure and order to a chaotic creation. And this is true in the present as much as it was at the time of the original creation, for life in the present too is intrinsically faulty without the formative structure that only ritual can provide.

It is an “emission” by Prajapati (Lord of Creatures) that is the primal creative act, but it is also a profane act. Cosmic procreation does not yield universal order and stability, but only a problematic metaphysical excess; and correlatively, biological reproduction does not give rise to a true human being. For true cosmogony and true anthropogony to come to be, a set of constructive rituals is required. So standing between Prajapati’s creation and true cosmos are the sacrificial acts of the gods that give form to formless nature. And likewise, between the procreation of every person and the true human being are rituals that make an actual human out of what at creation is only a potential human. Cosmogony and anthropogony are actualized only within the sacrifice and realized only by ritual “work.” In this sense, Hinduism radically devalues the abilities of the creator god (perhaps that is why creator god Brahma is no longer worshipped) who is portrayed as an inept progenitor of a defective product, of a world which is disorganized, deficient and degenerate. Furthermore, the myths of creation legitimize the audacious assumption of enormous power by certain humans (brahmins) who through ritual actions can put together coherently what Prajapati has messed up, that is, who can repair the damage done by the creator god. The cosmos must continually be reconstructed by sacrificial, ritual activity.

The construction of a sacrifice (a continuous and complete entity made out of the joining of discrete parts) = the reconstruction of the universe. The sacrifice is composed of counterparts of cosmic prototypes (analogues of transcendent correlatives); it operates with “images,” whereas the cosmos is composed of originals, but both have the same metaphysical essence.

This idea of substitution is at the very heart of sacrifice. To sacrifice and to be sacrificed are essentially one and the same. The victim represents both the deity and the sacrificer, both of whom are ritually sundered and then made ritually whole again.

Ritual does not merely symbolize or dramatize reality; it constructs, integrates, constitutes and creates reality. Ritual gives form to what is naturally formless; connects the inherently disconnected; heals the ontological disease of unreconstructed nature, which is the state toward which all beings perpetually tend. In Hinduism, all form is constructed rather than given. And both model and image are “works of art.”

Creation requires two conditions: it requires difference (i.e. male and female), the mitigation of excessive resemblance; and it requires enough similarity so that separate elements are capable of being joined together. So things must be differentiated but they must also be connected. Non-being is what is devoid of all connection; being is what is welded together. Reality is the result not of reduplicating the same nor of differentiating the dispersed but of creating a unity out of distinct but interrelated parts. And it is ritual (sacrificial) labor that effects both separation and unification of parts into wholes. Ritual order (the structured sequence of rites) lends its form to cosmic order.

Most spectacularly, it is the ability to link a visible, manifest, limited counterpart to its invisible, transcendent unlimited prototype that is the hallmark of sacrifice and the Hindu view of the reality. The unlimitedness of the transcendent is made accessible by these connections that reach out from the sacrifice. These connections perfect the limited. The inaccessible is made accessible by the play of resemblances and the manifest is fulfilled (and perfected) by participation in the transcendent.

In Hindu ritual, the devotee utterly surrenders his self to the deity and then recovers it by reversing the ritual process, taking the divine back into his heart, taking back into himself that which he had originally breathed into the sacred image, diagram or yantra. The sacred image both grows from inner vision and shapes it; eventually the sacred image (and the inner vision) takes on a definite, invariable form. The image has nothing to do with the outward gaze; it is not to be beheld but to be fixated upon. Yes, it is constructed from the outer world of what is seen, but it is in fact a reflection or a depiction of inner “vision.” The practitioner identifies himself with the divinities in the yantra or sometimes even identifies the various parts of the yantra with the parts of his own body; then he can exercise the power of the gods.

There are even rituals for laying curses, like petrifying or slaying someone, as well as subduing, causing hatred, bringing rain, winning a woman, finding a lost object, etc.

The Hindu view of the world is based on the idea that everything is identical to (or at least resembles) everything else on different levels of reality and meaning. This is the macro-microcosmic conception of reality. The cosmos is the human body writ large; a temple is a cosmic mountain writ small; a palm is a person’s life; and a horoscope too, which is a picture of the heavens at the moment of birth; so body = society = cosmos. And like society, the body too is a hierarchy.

Hindus are preoccupied with discovering or constituting linkages between what Westerners regard as distinct objects, acts or entities: i.e. linking together apparently unconnected things.

And ritual practice corresponds to, but indeed is superior to cosmic activity, for the divine procreative act results not in a cosmos but in a metaphysical mess, an ontological disaster. The creation of true cosmos is not simply a matter of the One becoming many but of the reintegration of the many into a new whole. Cosmogony is a secondary act (a ritual act) consequent upon creation, which is a formless emission. The bringing into existence of a viable human is the result of ritual rather than simply biology. Human life is a process of ritually reconstructing and refining a self out of the raw materials of ab-original creation. It recapitulates the bringing of cosmos out of primal disorganized creation through sacrifice.

The essential function of sacrifice is to consecrate, to make sacred: this is the word’s etymology. And the Indian mind has a sacrificial consciousness; it is a mind that attempts to create or find sacrality in everything. All beliefs, actions, and phenomena are metaphors for sacrifice, not the other way around. Sacrifice is the primary category of knowledge: hence, “man [cosmic and human] is the sacrifice.” The Buddhist stupa is made of parts whose names are borrowed from the terms of the Vedic sacrifice. The human body is a reduplication of the sacrificial arena: “man is fire; speech is the fuel; breath, the smoke; tongue, the flame; eye, the coals; ear, the sparks; hair, the sacrificial grass.” Or again: woman is the sacrificial fire into which the male seed is offered. “The vagina is her fuel; foreplay, her smoke; the womb, her flame; penetration, her coals; pleasure, her sparks.”

The five domestic sacrifices that every man must perform: 1) to the gods, minimally by exclaiming “svaha” and offering a stick of wood to the fire; 2) to the ancestors, minimally by exclaiming “svaha” and offering a vessel of water; 3) to the spirits, minimally by offering some flowers; 4) to fellow humans (i.e. brahmins), minimally by offering them some food; 5) to brahman (the Absolute), minimally by reciting a portion of the Veda, even if only saying “OM.” And one reason for offering these 5 sacrifices is that the life of the householder involves violence to living beings. The home has 5 slaughterhouses: the hearth, the grinding stone, the broom, the mortar and pestle and the water vessel; and these bind one with acts of killing. The 5 householder sacrifices redeem or expiate these violent acts.

Death is also a sacrifice, a repetitive, ritual act; each death repeats every other death and every other sacrifice: the voice of the dead enters the fire; his breath, the wind; eye, the sun; mind, the moon; ear, the directions; flesh, the earth; his soul (atman), the atmosphere; body hair, the plants; head hair, the trees; blood and semen, the waters. In fact, every moment of life is a sacrifice, every breath, an oblation: because when you speak you cannot breathe, so breath is sacrificed in speech, and vice versa.

In the case of the Primal Person, the cosmic man, the Purush, his head is the brahmin (the priest); his arms, the kshatriya (the ruler/warrior); his two thighs, the vaishya (the artisan/merchant /farmer); his feet, the sudra (the servant). The duty of each caste is: the brahmin learns the Veda; the kshatriya conquers earth; the vaishya wins wealth and prosperity; the sudra gains happiness.

The Sanskrit name of a thing expresses the nature of that thing in the realm of sound. So medical knowledge offers clues to the nature or character of illnesses and of drugs though tales or stories that disclose the origin of their names. Mythical etymologies are part of Hindu “scientific” description.

The human body and the whole universe are manifestations of divine substance and energy. The forces and faculties of the organism, which give it life and support it, are identical to their macrocosmic counterparts — the powers that do the same for the cosmos.

The Hindu adept thinks of himself as a microcosmic sum of divine cosmic forces. He realizes this in meditation. He perceives the gods in (as parts of) his body. He awakens them through ritual (mudra or hand gestures and mantra or chanting sacred formulae) and places the deities in the appropriate places on and in his body (nyasa). He visualizes himself as the microcosmic counterpart of the world organism, the manifestation (maya) and energy (sakti) of the Absolute: the gods Brahma in the head, Indra in the neck, Agni (fire) in the navel, Surya (the Sun) in the eyes, Prajapati in the male organ, Serpents in the intestines…

Hindu physiology — which sees the body as the play of the god Siva, the male seed of potential, with the goddess Sakti, female power, both of whom live in all of us, in all of creation — is a vision based on yogic practice, not on empirical observation. Hindu medicine is a theoretical interpretation or superstructure explaining introspective intuitions. It is a visualization of archaic experience systematized through geometric symmetry and numerological correspondences, all expressed on the anatomical, physiological plane.

* * *

Yoga means “to bind” or “to yoke” (and the English word “yoke” is indeed cognate with “yoga”). In India there are four classical types: 1) Karma, the yoga of work or duty; 2) Jnana, the yoga of knowledge; 3) Bhakti, the yoga of devotion; 4) Raja, the yoga of body-, breath- and mind-control. The goal of all these yogas is to realize the Self’s or Pure Consciousness’s isolation from the world of matter and change, and this includes mind, which in India has always been considered a physical organ.

Hatha yoga (the yoga of force), the one familiar in the West, is a branch of Raja yoga. Ha means sun; Tha means moon; and yoga is their union. It attempts to control the subtle breath (prana), forcing it out of two subtle channels spiraling around a subtle spine. Centralized, the prana or breath is forced into the subtle spinal channel; there it awakens the kundalini or serpent power (a goddess) who lies somnolent at the base of the spine, forcing her to rise up that channel through the various chakras or energy centers in the subtle genitals, navel, heart, throat, between the eyes and up to the top of the head where a 1000-petaled lotus lying dormant there, now bursts into blossom (the Supreme Self attained).

This is a reversal of the process of creation; as the kundalini, the serpent power rises, the world and the devotee are reabsorbed into an undifferentiated unity of bliss. The blood issuing in three channels from the neck of the goddess Chinnamasta’s decapitated body is this subtle breath, and in drinking it with her severed head she illustrates this reabsorption, her achievement of this unified state.

Death is necessary for the continuation of life: this conundrum is at the heart of sacrifice. Sacrifice is a (indeed, the) constructive activity par excellence, creating the human being, the afterlife and the cosmos as a whole; and also it is a social instrument, defining individuals and classes and situating them within the ritual universe. Vedic belief maintains that it is possible (and in fact necessary) to correlate elements lying on the three planes of reality: the macrocosmic (i.e. the divine), the ritual (i.e. sacrificial) and the microcosmic (i.e. the plane of the self and society). The connection among these three planes is not made to reduce them to any one level but to make truth visible and to explicate the levels in terms of one another. The aspect that relates these levels is resemblance, which functions as a central principle or “rule” that generates and governs all sorts of knowledge.

In death, one does not immediately join the ancestors (the truly and completely dead); one must be made over into an ancestor through rituals, analogous to the way a child is made into a true human. The once integrated parts of the human body are dissolved and redistributed throughout the cosmos: the voice goes into fire; breath into wind; eye into the sun; body into the earth; self into space; hairs into trees, etc. The child, the sick and the dead are regressions into the fundamental condition of pre-ritual defectiveness. Sacrifice is the medicine that cures these deficient creations, these debilitated forms. It is said that in the afterlife a man is united with, that is, becomes the objects he has sacrificed (a good reason to sacrifice only the very best). One’s ritual accomplishments in this life are the measure of one’s “life” in the afterlife.

The entire socio-economic exchange system of the culture is based on the sacred principles of sacrifice. The patron who employs the brahmin to perform a sacrifice is called the jajman (literally the sacrificer). This involves exchanges of gifts and services in which the entire society is involved, for every sacrifice involves the whole community. This became generalized to include all exchange within the society, even for totally non-religious purposes. Payments are actually gifts and are not based on economic, exchange or commodity value, but on the hierarchical status of the persons involved in the exchange; and this relationship determines exchange values. (This of course has been viewed by Marxists and liberals as nothing but disguised economic exploitation; but remember that for them, the religious basis of all of this is just an illusion, a pretext for social and economic subjugation.) And there is reciprocity here — the brahmin both serves and is served by the barber or washerman. And these relationships are personal and stretch back through families for generations.

Localities have their dominant caste, often unrelated to the overall caste hierarchy. Usually these are Rajputs or Thakurs (rulers or landowners). And, like every other social structure in India and like the arrangement of sculptural decoration on temples too, the structure of local communities is modeled on that of king and court.

Land is traditionally not a commodity but a hereditary right; and people retain their village ties for generations. City dwellers, even if their families have lived in the city for many generations and even if they themselves have never visited their ancestral home, see themselves as migrants.

Indian culture — sophisticated, mannered, highly complex — has not excluded but has carefully retained and nourished its archaic, tribal, primitive roots. Caste society harnesses these non-repressed, libidinous tribal traits in its own cultivation of religious ecstasy, especially at fairs and festivals. And it is largely because of its open acceptance of its tribal roots that Hindu culture has survived for so many millennia, and continues to flourish.

Caste is a device for coming to terms with others within a holistic system: holistic yet pluralistic in that it conserves its antipodal groups. This means that there is relatively little conflict, but also conservatism, lack of development and innovation. Because of its inclusivism, Indian society has stagnated — it never rejects anything; and rejection, it would seem, is a necessary condition of progress.

The caste system may be seen as divisive, but there are a number of factors that serve to unite its members. The notion of a sacred geography brings localities which may be distant from each other into a closeness through religious valorization — marking out distant places as pilgrim centers brings the far near.

Festivals also restore and reinforce a sense of social unity, which may be endangered or threatened by the specialization of caste division. Because of these festivals, Indian life was regarded, until recently, as a great game, play, a lila.

* * *

The word “brahman” (which is the term for the absolute, for being, the ground of all, the one without a second) = sacred utterance. So the brahmin (the priest) is the one empowered with the ability to make sacred utterances. Now sacred utterances are creative, and so the word “brahmin” came to mean “creator,” one with a certain power. And so the name “Brahma” was given to the creator god.

Brahman = connective energy condensed into enigmas. Brahman force is the equation between human behavior and natural phenomena, the connection between rite and cosmos. Brahman is nothing but a thinking in enigmas, which posit correlations or identifications between things in the world, and things divine and things within rituals. It is the source and foundation of all that is, the nexus of all cosmic connections.

Brahman = impersonal, supra-personal ground of all Being: limitless, omnipresent, eternal, without parts and devoid of form; its essence is bliss and it is the source of all happiness, say the ancient texts.

Brahman is to the world (or the self) as clay is to a clay pot; or as gold is to a gold earring; or as space is to the space enclosed within a jar; or as the sea is to an ocean wave; or so says an ancient text.

In India there has never been any opposition between church and state. Brahminism has rigidified but preserved cultural unity. The brahmin legitimizes and valorizes the king, often by fabricating and endorsing genealogies whose source is a god or legendary hero. And the kings supported the brahmins. This means that the basis of social control and social power was always fragmented, at least bifurcated and usually trifurcated, for it included the business/artisan castes too; and this meant that there was no unequivocal control.

The word “raja” (king) comes from “ranjayati” or “he who pleases.” Because of the religious functions of the brahmins, the Indian king could never have the magico-religious functions of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian or Chinese monarchs. In India the king is the guardian, not the repository, of a divine social order; he is the father of the people, husband of the realm. In fact, because of the fluidity of the caste system, many ruling dynasties were not Kshatriya, that is, didn’t even belong to the ruling castes.

Overall, Indian culture comprehends all of life as a unity: unity = human cooperation = sacrifice, which restores unity.

In India’s essentially oral culture a deity can be compelled by a worshipper to do his bidding if the correct rituals are correctly performed and the appropriate invocations correctly chanted. The Word has magical power. The Word is a machine. “Rasa,” or emotive juice or resonance, is brought about by words: hence the power of chant and poetry. It is the form of the phrase (rather than its meaning) that is powerful, and can transform consciousness.

Doing actions repeatedly, mindfully (that is, with full attention) but thoughtlessly, shapes and transforms the devotee’s being. The paradigmatic yantra meditation (that is, meditation with the aid of a sacred diagram) is to use one’s own body as a yantra with the navel as the bindu (the zero or center point which is nothing but pure potential, which gives rise to all) out of which a 4-petal lotus (the phenomenal world) emerges: each petal is an element (fire, air, water and earth, with the bindu as ether or space); in the course of the meditation, the petals fold back into the center, back into the realm of the pre-manifest, of non-differentiation, which is pure cosmic bliss.

India’s culture also believes that this world is an impermanent flux, an idea that disappeared from Greek and hence Western thought. India also believes in the nobility of beginnings: great things begin greatly.

Indian thought is monistic: ultimately, matter, life and mind are indistinguishable one from another; and knowledge implies an identity between knower and known. Because of the macro- micro-cosmic unity, knowing any one level of reality is to know them all: knowledge is immediate and apodictic, not empirical and contingent.

The three gunas, qualities or strands or constituents of reality, arise from the three feelings of pleasure, pain and indifference that come from the various objects of the world. Sattvas, rajas and tamas are the correlates of those three feelings. They are often translated as intelligence (pleasure), activity (pain) and inert matter (indifference). Prakriti (earth or nature) is the element (or reality) in which these constituents are found. Primordially in a state of equilibrium, Prakriti gets agitated by contact with sentient beings and the strands lose their original state of being in equilibrium with one another. It is this imbalance that is responsible for the unfolding or manifesting of reality (maya). The three gunas have a virtually infinite number of correlates: they correspond to different types of worship: 1) sattvik worship (usually Vaishnava) is without animal sacrifice, a purely devotional attitude in which the worshipper does not demand anything for himself. This is the way of truth, the way of the renouncer; 2) rajasik is worship with pomp (the devotion of kings) and insistence on power, ego, a stress on the self and aims to derive direct benefit; this is the way of power, the way of the ruler; 3) tamasik is the worship of the householder who wants the gods to help him in his everyday life; this is the way of the householder.

From out of the unity of Brahman (or Shiva/Shakti, male/female), the manifest and diverse cosmos by its own conscious will unfolds (as maya); for its own pleasure (ananda) and the pleasure of created beings, say the texts. This is the binary perspective. But also Shakti (female power) manifests triadically as desire, action and knowledge (or tripura, the three cities).

In Indian thought, woman is the tangible form of cosmic, divine power — Sakti — which unfolds the world of appearances, gives birth to the world. Unlike in the West, in India, woman is the active creative, dynamic, material principle: the creator god(dess). The male is the seed, the idea, the plan, consciousness, spirit: passive, detached, the principle of stasis, the center of the circle, the stationery hub of the wheel. In India, the male is not the power or the executor; but rather, it is the female that is the active principle, the creative power, the circle’s circumference. In India, it is the male qualities of detachment and reflection that are most highly valued. So peacefulness, passiveness, cerebrality, self-denial, asceticism = male = brahmin; while violence and virility are associated with the female and with the warrior, and are devalued. The Rajput warriors, all warriors, are largely associated with the female. And their patron is invariably a goddess.

In India, words and their sounds not numbers are the ultimate constituents of reality, and this has innumerable implications: for example, Indian prose and oratory is flowery, just for the sound of it. In the West we see reality as composed of numbers, that is, quantity. This is paradoxical, for the Indians were brilliant mathematicians but scorned it: they discovered zero as a number and developed the decimal system. Yet in India it is not quantity but sound that reveals Reality — syllable and word (the Absolute unfolded for the ear) endowed with meaning and resonance way beyond their everyday function in language. Hence mantras (often meaningless syllables) are chanted or recited aloud.

The Indian thinks in a circle or a spiral of continuously developing potentialities, not in a straight line of progressive stages. So Indian terms overlap and cover each other like jungle growth. Indian words grow from inside and expand in layers like petals on a flower.

Ancient Indian “books” or palm leaf manuscripts give only small spaces to write on, so only fragments are written there: sutras (threads (cognate with the English suture) or slokas); these are memorized and commented upon again and again, so meaning unfolds spirally not linearly: first you read the sutra, then read the commentaries then go on to the next sutra and so on.

In India encountering a text is not at all like what it is in the West. Texts are “read” (that is, recited and encountered) in festivals not primarily through teaching and preaching. And also, “understanding” a text does not have to mean attaining an intellectual mastery of its content.

Indian thought is circular not linear; it is like a lotus, growing expanding, opening into petals, like resonating sound, sensuous immediacy with a wrap-around effect.. It concentrates on the aesthetic (sensuous) component of reality, whereas Western thought is concerned with indirect verification, the unseen and the theoretical. In India, unity prevails at the outset; it is at the top, while differentiation is at the base of reality: vidya = knowledge (wisdom) = unity; avidya = ignorance = differentiation. This is reflected in all areas of Indian life and culture: in cave art and in drama; in the dimensional hierarchy of the joint family system where the individual’s awareness of himself is part of his awareness of all the others in the system. Here the individual is linked to and is an inseparable part of a larger system, a larger whole than himself or his organism. One implication: individuality is devalued, not enhanced or celebrated. Indian reality is a non-sequential total field of awareness of simultaneous relations.

Even the gods are subject to cosmic law — dharma and karma. The laws themselves are contemporary with their unfolding, not prior to it: so law too is immediate and spontaneous. Individuality is not eternal; change is the rule, but it does not contain novelty or uniqueness; it is utterly repeatable. So karma was originally not an ethical but a biological law.

Because I am not unique, my identity as me is ultimately unreal. Maya, the world as ordinary consciousness understands it is an apparition of living forms appearing out of formless, primal substance or “magical measuring,” as one scholar aptly characterized it. The mirage is the character of all existence, both earthly and divine. But Maya is also the process that creates and sustains life. Ultimately mysterious, it has its mythical origins in breath, self-consciousness, desire, sexuality. The entire cosmic cycle consists in Maya creating many out of unity and then dissolving itself back into One. Maya: continuous change with stillness at its center or in its heart.

For Hinduism and Buddhism and Jainism too, life is suffering. Everything is born only to die. The life urge contains the seeds of its own decay. And it is magnetically attracted back to its primal source, where the individual doesn’t exist. The Vedic sacrifice reenacts this creative process in reverse, fusing multiplicity back into cosmic unity, which creation had burst asunder.

Suffering is life, but this doesn’t mean just pain; rather, suffering arises from libido or desire, which is part of the playfulness of the divine. The Indian always desires to annul time itself, which he does in rapture, play, lila, in festive ecstasy, or with meditation or drugs. Hence Maya is not illusion or unreality; rather it is play, cosmic play — and the word “illusion” is cognate with the Latin “ludens,” to play. In India, creation is always re-creation (and recreation).

An implication of India’s fundamentally circular, non-sequential thought processes is a certain retrospectivity: the conclusion is formed first, before the argument. And the cause is inferred afterwards, after its effect. This is logical in a system, where everything is necessary, where there is no contingency. Indian thought believes in and takes for granted the total interconnectedness of all things. And so to change any one thing is to change everything.

Everything that emerges into existence will dissolve eventually into potentiality, and then reemerge into actuality again in a cycle that has no beginning and no end: there is no first creation. Decay is as natural a process as growth. Time is very flexible: in Hindi and in Sanskrit “tomorrow” and “yesterday” are the same word: “parsoon.” There is no progress; reality lies in sameness and repetition. Sanskrit has no natural punctuation; indefinitely long terms can be formed by adding extensions according to rules: the history of the universe is just one long sentence: a scroll or carpet unrolling.

Unlike in the West, in India, history has no metaphysical significance. Historical actions are seen as a series of anticlimactic masquerades.

Sacred history is a struggle, a play-like struggle, between the forces of order (dharma = gods = devas — the shining ones) and disorder (adharma = asuras = demons). But note: the demons are the elder brothers of the gods — order and disorder are not so far apart, indeed they are very closely related. The two forces, demonic and divine, are in constant contention, and they battle to receive humans’ sacrifices and attain cosmic power. The universe is the visible form of this battle between gods and demons. The typical tale is that the demons battle against the gods with the power they have received from the gods themselves (often it is the creator god Brahma who grants the boon), for the gods are unable to resist those who practice austerities and have to grant them the benefits they request.

If the celibate ascetic is a personification of ideal order in the Hindu imagination, the devouring mother depicts the opposite. The first is complete self-mastery, the second, utter abandonment to greed. Hindu mythology is a result of a need to find a balance between these extremes; this is usually achieved by the love and/or marriage of a pair of deities: Shiva-Parvati, Vishnu-Sri, Krishna-Radha.

In Hinduism there is no ethics, no sin, only ignorance or avidya: the three moral predicates are dana = the gift or giving to others; dunya = sympathy; and dama = self-restraint. So non-violence is the ultimate virtue not for ethical reasons — that is, not because, as in the West, of the harm done to others through violence — but because of the harm one does to oneself. All doing is nishkarm karma: playing unproductively, as in a ceremony or a ritual. How could there be an ethics in play?

And because there is no sin, the notion of personal responsibility doesn’t have the importance that it has in the West; so in India the rigid distinction that the West must make between “beings” (that is, entities that can be held responsible) and “things” (that is, entities that cannot be held responsible) doesn’t hold. Everything in India is animate and alive; and nothing is truly responsible.

“Enlightenment” means non-attachment, not love but the disinterest, the indifference, the non-attachment of compassion: “none whom I love, none whom I hate.” And it involves a coincidence of opposites, which is also the attainment of god-like, supernormal powers. The coincidence of opposites = zero, the sum of the plus and the minus, the conjunction of male and female, the unity of spirit and matter; and zero is nothing but the bindu, the dot, the seed, the semen, the productive point of unlimited potentiality. Zero is the utter paradox of maximum potential contained within the minimum, a minimum which is irreducible.

For the ordinary Hindu, regardless of caste, there are four ends of life: Kama (the pleasures of childhood, lack of obligations, sexuality ), Artha (the wealth of family, possessions and reputation), Dharma (the duty of following the rituals full-time) and Moksha; and this last is to become zero, perfectly self contained and spiritually independent and at the same time, materially totally dependent: this is the ultimate, absolute return to childhood, to the womb, to god.

The holy man is literally worshipped as a god for he is a god: he is the embodiment of truth, the resolver of life’s contradictions. His very presence is his sermon. Whether he says anything or not (and if he speaks, then what he says) is immaterial. His power resides in the fact that he does nothing (or that nothing he does has any consequences) and that he lives in the zone of no-thing. And in fact it is only the relationship of guru and disciple that is not bound up in the ritual and hierarchy of caste. The disciple utterly surrenders his will to the guru. Of course the guru’s message is that the true guru is always within so this surrender is a surrender to oneself or to the absence of one’s self.

There is a mechanistic attitude about spiritual discipline. Practice is by rote; practice and results will come: doing is what’s important, not attitude, thinking, believing, having faith or being dedicated or devoted! Emphasizing such mental attitudes does nothing but to increase one’s sense of self, the very sense that spiritual practice is meant to overcome.

Of all the 330 million gods, Krishna is the most beloved. All the cosmos is play (lila); and all the gods players. To be aware of this is to experience infinite bliss. Krishna is: the prince of moonlight; the dancer whose body moves in its own fullness; the sound of whose flute is a call to a life of enchantment and beauty; trees lean toward Krishna and water eddies around his limbs.

Indians want to see the divine; here there is no Hebraic antipathy to images or Greek distrust of the senses. India prizes darsan (viewing) for in the Indian idea of perception, the perceiver comes into contact with the object, and in a sense becomes the object: hence the caste ideas of contact and pollution and purification; and the idea of darsan itself: to view the god is to become god. Reciprocal eye contact between worshipper and image is the avenue to mutuality. The senses are thought of as minor deities sent out into the world as servants of the self.

In Advaita Vedanta philosophy, the perceptual world (which the West thinks of and treats as Reality) is analogous insofar as its reality is concerned to dreams, which are caused by the vibrations of the unconscious. Perception is the superimposition of remembered qualities onto things that do not possess those qualities. This is the action of Maya, “measuring magic.”

Copyright © Martin Noval 2006