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Multiple Big Bangs and Hindu Cosmology

Recently Briane Greene was on National Public Radio regarding his new book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos which talks about brain churning concepts like parallel universes. He also theorizes that the universe did not have a single begining, instead there were multiple big bangs which created multiple universes. At this point the host said it reminded him of Hindu cosmology.

I am not sure if Hindu cosmology talks about multiple universes and their creation and destruction, or just about the creation and destruction of one universe. Much before Brian Greene, Carl Sagan had noted in Cosmos

“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still.
…A millennium before Europeans were wiling to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions”

In his new book Indian Culture And Indias Future Michel Danino writes about the achievements of Āryabhaṭa (476 CE) like computing π, values of sines, diameter of earth, and computation of orbits of planets. Āryabhaṭa was also fascinated with the concept of yugas, in which the universe (in singular) is destroyed and re-created. He wrote “Time is without begining or end”

 

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God’s Wife and Competitors

Baal (via Wikipedia)

(Baal, right arm raised. Bronze figurine, 14th-12th centuries, found in Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit img via Wikipedia)

We know the three Abrahamic religions as monotheistic: there is an all powerful unique male god with no equivalent. The popular perception is that Israelites have been monotheistic from the beginning and the traditional view holds that Abraham made a pact with God to worship only him and his followers continued that practice. Thus Joseph took this belief to Egypt, Moses bought it out of Egypt and Joshua went to Caanan and wiped out the polytheists. The monotheists also believe that the polytheistic world is a lie and the eventual destination for them is hell.

A new BBC documentary by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou steps out of the theological realm, looks at Bible as literature and comes up with the conclusion that the monotheists themselves were polytheists; they worshipped divine beings, quite similar to the ones in the Indian and Greek pantheon of gods. God himself had a competitor and the documentary also makes the revolutionary claim that the God of the monotheists had a female companion.

Once you stop reading the Bible with the preset monotheistic mindset, it reveals many secrets, even though the humans who wrote them attempted to conceal this information. Thus Baal, the Caananite god, was a competitor to the God of the Israelites. Baal was a warrior god, often seen in representations raising his hand to use the thunderbolt weapon. He was the Indra of the Middle East and was important for the people of Caanan who depended on the rains. But in the Bible, Baal and his prophets are ridiculed and in the documentary and Francesca argues the reason is that people were straying from the idea of monotheism and it was necessary to put down other gods.

There is archaeological evidence for the worship for Baal as well as another deity El, who was the Chief Caananite God. El was the head of the pantheon and one who maintained order in the world, like Varuna in the Pre-Upanishidic era. In this pantheon, there were gods for Dawn and Dusk much like other cultures around the world.

While the Biblical God is called Yahweh, he is called El in some places. Jacob calls El, the god of Israel. He is also the god of the Exodus. El tells Moses that he had revealed himself to Abraham as well, similar to what Krishna tells Arjuna in 4.1. A rabbi on the program explains that all these variants are the name of the same God and it indicates what attribute God wanted to reveal to the devotee. The rabbi then agrees that you could read polytheism into it, but that is not the traditional understanding.

For Francesca, in ancient Israel, polytheism was the norm, not the exception and there are clues all over the place. God is mentioned sitting on a throne with diving beings on his right and left. According to Psalm, “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods”. According to Genesis, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image” and in Exodus, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?.” Thus in Israelite theology, Yahweh managed a council of divine beings, quite similar to the Caananite theology.

For the Caananites, El had a wife named Asherah, who was considered the goddess of fertility. She had an erotic representation with huge breasts and a pubic region marked with a tree of life motif. Many figurines excavated in Jerusalem and dated to the peak of the Israelite period show that Asherah was still worshipped. Francesca shows that if you skip the translations and read the Bible in Hebrew, Moses refers to God arriving with goddess Asherah. In fact evidence shows that she was even worshipped in the Temple of Jerusalem. An inscription discovered in a shard (dated to 8th century BCE) in Sinai mentions God along with Asherah. Thus God having a female partner maybe a minority position among believers, but not among scholars.

This polytheism is not surprising since the scholarly view is that Israelites were not migrants from outside, but natives of Canaan. Following a social collapse in Caanan, Israel rose and was made of Canaan commoners, the few escaped slaves from Egypt, and dispersed people. They created a new identity, adopted the stories of Moses, Abraham and Joshua and came up with the idea of a monotheistic God from a desert people called Shashu. Thus these people with new identity could have co-existed alongside the polytheistic Caananites and shared some of their practices.

So what happened to Baal, El, Ashera and the divine council of gods? Why were they removed, ridiculed or concealed? The purge of polytheism followed the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem which happened during the time of Buddha in India. The Israelites were defeated, their temple destroyed and their all powerful God could do nothing about it. This would have been sufficient for most groups to lose their culture, but the Israelites persisted. During exile, while trying to make sense of their defeat, they wrote the Bible. Those authors transferred the power of Caananite gods to Yahweh, blamed the defeat partly on polytheism, and created new myths and histories. According to the NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets:

Israelites were reminded that they had broke the covenant with God and hence were incurring his wrath. Still this was not taken seriously till the time the Babylonians exiled the Caananites. It was during this exile that one of the scribes of that era, known as “P”, took all the previous revisions and created the present version of the Bible. The documentary suggests that the Abraham story was created then, by this scribe, to enforce the concept of the covenant. The scribe lived in Babylon and Abraham was placed in the nearby Ur; Abraham’s goal was to reach the promised land, so was the dream of the exiles.

It was also during the exile that the observances like sabbath were emphasized. Israelites learned to pray in groups and to worship without a temple, king or priests. This was the formation of modern Judaism.

This re-write during exile was responsible for dis-empowering women, demonizing other gods and eradicating polytheism which was common till the 6th century B.C.E.

Postscript: You can watch the documentary in four parts on YouTube

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Indian Philosophy: Pre-Upanishidic Era

Image via Tallapragada

(Image via Tallapragada)

It is well known that the Upanishads are the fountainhead of Indian philosophy: every orthodox and heterodox system is rooted in the Upanishads. Karma, absolutism, theory of momentariness of worldly things, cause of birth and death cycles all come from the Upanishads so do concepts like Atman, Brahman, and Maya. But what about the pre-Upanishadic era? Can we find any evidence of philosophical thought in the Brahmanas or Mantras? Or are they, as popular history books write, a collection of “ritual hymns and liturgical directives?”

Most books concentrate on the sacrificial angle, less on philosophy, and proceed with the statement that the Upanishads were a reaction to this Athirathram type rituals. Even some books on philosophy declare that there is not much of it in this period. But in fact there is a gradual evolution of thought from the Mantras to the Aranyakas.

While analyzing this evolution, it is common to use Western terminologies like monotheism, polytheism, monism, and anthropomorphic polytheism. But when you read Indian philosophy, you have to discard those terms. When scholars say the philosophy was monotheistic, there is enough evidence to indicate otherwise. If you argue that the Vedic texts were polytheistic, then you are discarding the portions which talk about the Supreme Soul and Guardian of the cosmos. A simpler way is to understand Indian philosophy as the work of spiritual people who wrote about their mystic experience in prose and poetry.

***

Most ancient religions originated with people wondering about the power of nature and creating rituals to appease those powers. Eventually those powers were anthropomorphized and worshipped. Like in Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilizations, you see similar evolution in Vedic religion as well. So philosophically did the pre-Upanishidic era have only such naive cause-and-effect model of the world and nothing more complicated?

As you move beyond this cause-and-effect model, you will see that Vedic gods were not just gods of natural forces, but they also maintained moral order. Even though the sacrifice was important — the purusha sukta attributes creation to sacrifice — moral values were important as well. Thus Varuna is not just the god of sky and water, but also the one who fixed the inviolable laws of the physical universe. Vedic gods upheld moral law and were hostile to those who violated them, thus forcing people to choose righteousness.

Another change in the period is a move towards abstract concepts or symbolism. Thus we see the clay pot and the sacrificial post being worshipped as well as Agni, the offspring of water, being represented by a lotus leaf. Gods are collectively referred to as Visva devas. Visva karman was originally meant to represent Sun and Indra, but in turn becomes a god by himself: a logical abstraction becomes a god. Along with this, there is a change in the spirit of sacrifice – it becomes a way to compel the gods to provide what the person offering the sacrifice wants.

In some verses, Varuna is praised as the supreme one and in others Indra. But soon, these efforts of hoisting one god over the other is abandoned and there is an attempt at merging/unifying disconnected gods. As various divine beings — Sun, Fire, Dawn — overlap and merge and it becomes difficult to figure out which deity is being praised in certain verses. The divinity that is common among gods is given prominence: a declaration is made that Agni, Yama, and Mātariśvan are all one, which comes from the realization that there is an ultimate cause behind all diversity.

The climax of this search results in the ‘Song of Creation’. There are no anthropomorphic gods or mythological stories. The creation gets as abstract as it can with an impersonal creation and the declaration of ‘Tad Ekam’ (That One).

Next: The Upanishads (But not immediately)

References:

  1. M. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass Pub, 2000)
  2. Chandradhar Sharma,A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy (Motilal, 2000)
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Western ethics

Sila is usually translated as “virtue” or “ethics”, but we need to be careful not to confuse it with Western ideas of virtue and ethics. A traditional foundation of Western ethics is commandments and values often handed down from a god. These values include ideas about right and wrong, good and evil, and absolute rules that we have to live by. This approach to ethics leads easily to guilt, an emotion that is pervasive in the West, but which is considered unnecessary and counterproductive in Buddhism.

Buddhism understands virtue and ethics pragramatically, based not on ideas of good and bad, but rather on the observation that some actions lead to suffering and some actions lead to happiness and freedom. A Buddhist asks, “Doe this action lead to increased suffering or increased happiness, for myself and others?” This pragmatic approach is more conducive to investigation than guilt.

The Issue at Hand, Essays on Buddhist Mindfulness Practice, by Gil Fronsdal

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Yoga's Hindu Roots

The article which was e-mailed more than the WikiLeaks article or Thomas Friedman’s column on the The New York Times website yesterday was titled Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul. Over 15 million Americans practice yoga and it is a 6 billion dollar industry. What is taught mostly is Hatha Yoga, but without the “baggage of Hinduism“. The Times article describes the activism of second generation of Hindu-Americans and what it has achieved.

The HAF website has more information on the Take Yoga Back campaign

A piece in the LA Times, Bending yoga to fit their worship needs, quoting yet another yoga instructor denying any and all religious roots lead not only to a Letter to the Editor, but also to the publication of The Theft of Yoga, the beginning of what eventually became know as The Great Yoga Debate: Shukla vs Chopra on the Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith site.  As HAF’s Dr. Aseem Shukla proudly brought to light yoga’s Hindu roots, Dr. Deepak Chopra penned his disagreement.  Shukla’s reply, Dr. Chopra – Honor Thy Heritage, was met with continued resistance from Chopra

Even months after the initial launch of this campaign, the issue remains very much alive.  On September 23, David Waters, the former editor of On Faith, quotes heavily from HAF’s stance paper in his piece “Should Christians practice yoga? Shouldn’t everyone?” And on October 3, Ms. Shukla once again voiced HAF’s stance in the “yoga debate” on air in a segment on Common Threads (click here to listen to Part 1 of the recorded segment and click here to listen to Part 2).

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