Sunday, May 02, 2010

The devas of Samkhya - natural or supernatural ?

I came across an online text titled the "The Samkhya aphorisms of Kapila". It is an old English translation done in 1885 by one James Ballantyne. It seems pretty interesting, and should be referred if anybody wants to further explore Samkhya philosophy after my introduction in the last blog post.

The very first line of this translated text says : "Well, the complete end of man (liberation) is the complete cessation of pain arising from any of the 3 causes : adhyātmika (self-imposed), adhibhautika (arising from natural elements) and adhidaivika (arising from 'supernatural' elements)."

This line came as a huge surprise to me, as I understood Samkhya to be a very 'naturalist' philosophy. In fact, the classical version of Samkhya forcefully refutes the presence of a God (Ishwara) either external or internal to the universe. So what are the supernatural elements being talked about ? Adhidaivika is a compound word : adhi (from) + devas. So the supposed supernatural beings referred to here are devas. In this post, I will try to provide some background on them. But first, let's understand what supernatural means.

What is supernatural ?

Anything external to nature can be called supernatural. But this is an inadequate definition, because we have to first specify what nature is. From a simplistic perspective, nature can be defined as composed of matter. But then, modern physics talks about fields of potential, mass-energy equivalence etc. So more broadly, nature can be defined as any set of laws that can be observed repeatedly and experimentally validated by measurement. The key words here are observation and measurement.

In my last post, I have explained the division of Kapila on the measurable and unmeasurable parts of the universe. The measurable (maya in Sanskrit) refers to Prakriti in all her 5 layers. The unmeasurable refers to Purusha. In fact, Indian science text books simply use the word prakriti to refer to nature.

If there is anything in Samkhya philosophy that can be considered "supernatural" (beyond scientific measurement), that is Purusha. Do the devas belong to Purusha then ? No. Purusha is beyond all types of action and causation. The devas obviously belong to Prakriti. So why are they called supernatural ?

Reality check : Devas of Hinduism today

The word "deva" is translated in English today as "god" (or "demigod" in order to denote the polytheistic aspect of Hinduism). In fact, "deva" in many Indian languages today simply means "God". People refer to the God of a temple as a deva, and they offer him / her prayers - seeking progeny, promotion in employment, wealth etc. Many customs in Hinduism today can be considered as superstitious, and invoke various devas to act supernaturally on behalf of the devotees - raising back the dead, reversing time (I am not kidding). According to current language, the word "deva" can indeed be supposed to mean supernatural beings made of "woo". But in this post, I would like to discuss the ancient meaning of this word, as apparent in philosophical texts.

Another word from text quoted above "bhuta" is translated (correctly) by Mr. Ballantyne as a natural element. In fact, the word for physics in Indian science text books today is "bhautika". However, in common parlace, the word "bhuta" has come to mean a ghost or an evil spirit ! Languages evolve rapidly, and it would be stupid to use modern meanings to translate ancient texts.

Devas in Samkhya : Evolutes of Prakriti

Samkhya identifies pancha tanmatras or 5 essential properties of Prakriti that evolve in the very beginning of time : sound, touch, form, taste and smell. As described in the earlier blog, every element of nature has a different proportion of 3 qualities (transparence or sattva guna, increasing or rajas guna and intertia or tamas guna). The above tanmatras get manifest in various objects of nature based on the relative composition of the 3 qualities.

The pancha bhutas (5 base elements of nature) arise from the tamas aspect of the tanmatras :
  1. akash (sky) possessing only sound
  2. vayu (air) possessing sound+touch
  3. agni (fire) possessing sound+touch+form
  4. apah (water) possessing sound+touch+form+taste
  5. prithvi (earth) possessing sound+touch+form+taste+smell
Everything in the physical nature can be represented as one of these. So the word "earth" here doesn't mean to the third planet revolving around the sun, but all the material universe. Similarly, "water" here doesn't mean H2O but all aspects of matter without the property of smell etc. Several modern textbooks continue to misinterpret these words, when reading not only Indian philosophers, but also Greek philosophers who used very similar terms.

The sattva and rajas gunas produce subtler elements of nature, which are as follows.

The pancha jnana indriyas (5 forms of sensing : literally "knowledge sensors") arise from the sattvic aspect, depending on which of the tanmatras they sense. They are hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling.

The pancha karma indriyas (5 forms of acting : literally "action sensors") arise from the rajas aspect, depending on how many tanmatras they act upon. They are speaking, grasping, moving, procreating and excreting.

As you can see, the word for a sense organ in Sanskrit is "Indriya", which is what is used in Indian science textbooks today. The word "Indriya" literally means "that belonging to Indra". and the "Indra" here is the supreme king of devas as mentioned in the Vedic texts. Thus, Indra is basically the lord of senses, and "devas" refer to the various sense and action organs present in any natural object.

Such organs are present in various degrees amongst human beings, animals, plants and inanimate matter. A deva just represents a particular organ in any object present anywhere in the universe. So the correct translation of the word "adhidaivika" would be "that arising out of the process of sensing or acting". Nothing supernatural about it.

The 33 devas in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Samkhya is considered the oldest of all the philosophical systems in India, probably going back to the Indus valley civilization. The Upanishads are philosophical texts which were written several centuries later (around 500 BCE) - they liberally borrowed terminology from Samkhya to explain their ideas. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the largest and most important of these texts, and it contains a very nice discussion between Vidagdha Sakalya (student) and Yajnavalkya (teacher).

Sakalya : How many devas are there in all ?
Yajnavalkya : 3003.

Sakalya : Yes. But how many devas are there in all ?
Yajnavalkya : 303

Sakalya : Yes. But how many devas are there in all ?
Yajnavalkya : 33

Sakalya repeats his question again, and Yajnavalkya replies as 6, 3, 2, 1 and 1/2 and finally 1. Then he explains that the 3003 are a projection or manifestation of the 303, who themselves are a projection of the 33, who are known from the hymn of viswedevah (devas of the universe) in Rig Veda. The 33 devas are as follows.

8 vasus (that in which any natural object is placed) : fire, earth, air, sky, sun, heaven, moon, stars

11 rudras (that which depart from any natural object) : the ten supposed breaths of a person and the mind as the eleventh

12 adityas (that which move carrying all the universe) : the twelve months of a year, literally signifying time

1 indra : who rules over the senses

1 prajapathi : who symbolizes procreation of natural objects

As with earlier philosophical terms, the words "sun", "moon", "sky" etc. carry very different meaning than the modern interpretation. All these 33 devas are a division of space and time in the universe across the 5 layers of complexity in nature. All of them are completely natural beings, and indeed define nature (prakrithi) for what it is. The ancient religious texts of Vedas and Upanishads just considered these elements of nature to be worthy of praise (stuti).

Sakalya then asks to explain how these 33 are described as projections of just 6 devas. Yajnavalkya replies saying that the 6 are : fire, earth, air, sky, sun and heaven. It can be seen that the certain tanmatras and Indriyas of Samkhya are compressed into grander terms - "heaven" and "sun".

Then Yajnavalkya explains that these 6 can be compressed into 3 : the three worlds of inanimate matter, the world of forefathers (signifying culture borrowed from the past) and the world of devas (signifying life, sensing, intelligent action etc).

The higher devas become more esoteric, and one would need a better teacher than me to understand what they mean. Yajnavalkya says that these 3 worlds can be compressed into 2 : "food" and "breath". Obviously these two words don't mean their modern interpretation, but something subtler. The 1 and a 1/2 deva is explained as "this air here that blows". And the 1 deva is explained as "the breath".

These devas are thus the most principal elements of nature, and become subtler as they get reduced in number. As I explained in my earlier blog, these layers of complexity in existence are represented pictorially by the mountain of Meru, which serves as the architectural basis for any Hindu temple. The various devas can be found as statues on the walls of a temple tower. They are to be contrasted with the idol of Ishwara that sits inside the temple, at the very center of the tower. As I argue below, the word Ishwara (and not deva) is the closest in Hinduism that can be rightfully translated as "God".

The Trimurti : the 3 great devas of the Puranas

The Puranas are mythological and philosophical texts, that were written around 300 AD. As compared to the earlier Samkhya, Vedas or Upanishads, they are very theistic and encourage the love and worship of a personal God (Ishwara). The epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata have also been edited significantly around this time. Current Hindu religion is defined primarily by the ideas from Puranas. This religion has evolved as a reaction to the complete neutrality (in the philosophical understanding about the Absolute) and equality (in the social relationships amongst people) by Buddhism. Each of the Puranas have created a mega-deva, of infinite wisdom, love and other such good qualities. They also solidified the different social inequalities into a rigid caste system. The several religions that evolved out of the Puranas can be considered monotheistic, and quite comparable to Abrahamic faiths. They usually glorify one deva as Ishwara and delegate all the others as his attendants or angels.

But the Puranas have not been written in a philosophical vacuum. They borrowed intensely from earlier systems, particularly from Samkhya. The various Puranic devas of today (such as Ganesh, Shakti, Lakshi, Vishnu, Shiva etc) are inspired from the devas of Samkhya.

At the core of this hierarchy of devas are the trimurti (literally 3 forms) which are three figureheads to represent the universe in its entirety. These 3 forms are meant to denote the 3 gunas of Samkhya, and are thus known as guna avatars. They can be visualized as the reflections of the infinite Purusha on the finite Prakriti from three angles. In a crude language, they represent the Purusha, and their wives the Prakriti into which they are being reflected. But it should be remembered that they are only the reflections, and not the true Purusha. The male and the female versions of the trimurti are exactly identical : the male gods signify actors and the female goddesses signify the corresponding actions. The two are equivalent ways of understanding the same concept, which is the dynamic evolution of Prakriti.

Brahma : signifies the rajas quality of increasing. Broadly speaking, he represents the intelligent being in any person, who observes nature and communicates by spoken word. This spoken word is represented by his wife Saraswati, as the goddess of speech and knowledge. Upanishads have unanimously stated that the spoken word is not sufficient towards understanding the absolute and essential nature of reality. So Brahma is disparaged in the Puranas, though Saraswati continues to be worshipped today, especially by students.

Vishnu : signifies the paradoxical sattva quality. As explained in my previous blog, this quality is related to the reduction to a zero in counting higher numbers. Thus, Vishnu actively participates in the evolution of this universe (including the human civilization) into forms of higher complexity, as represented by the order of his various avatars : fish (matsya), turtle (koorma), boar (varaha), lion+man (narasimha), pigmy man (vamana), hermit (parashurama), king of early civilization (rama), philosopher king (krishna), philosopher (buddha) and the awaited destroyer of all evil (kalki). Broadly speaking, Vishnu represents life, and his wife Lakshmi denotes the wealth and beauty that accompany life.

Brahma is said to germinate from the navel of Vishnu (just as a new series of numbers germinates at a higher place-holder when every preceding level becomes zero). Brahma, thus germinated, is considered the creator of the universe, which is preserved by the connection to Vishnu and by his constant engagement.

Shiva : signifies the tamas quality of inertia. This quality denotes death and destruction for all finite objects of nature. Hence, Shiva is considered as the destroyer of the universe, but he also represents the essential element that remains. He is symbolized by ashes, that which remain after any object is burnt in fire. This destruction of the relative and finite existence in nature is considered essential to realize the non-dual and infinite existence. Thus, Shiva is considered the most essential of the trimurti, and worshipped devoutly. His wife Shakti (Parvati) denotes the Prakriti in all its potential, and thus becomes the most essential of the female version of Trimurti. The word Shakti literally means energy and is thus used by Indian text books even today ! Broadly speaking, Shiva (or Shakti) can be interpreted as temporally symmetric laws of nature, such as the force-fields of physics.

Thus, at the core, even the devas of the Puranas can be interpreted in a completely naturalist manner. It is very amusing how they give rise to supernatural beliefs amongst the followers of the religion.

So, are the devas natural or supernatural ? I think it depends on how you "look" at them. It is just like asking if a creaking door is natural or supernatural.


Patrick said...

Wow. I stumbled upon your blog, in a random search about red pills. I have studied a lot of philosophy and purport to know or least have a working understanding of the non-Indian religions, but have always searched for a concise explaination of Hinduism. I just found it, and not just Hinduism, but most of Indian thought.
Thank you so much for your clear introduction to a world very confusing (linguistically & conceptually) from a Western philosophic perspective.
Please email me if you have any advice on how to proceed in learning more.

Ray Lightning said...

Thanks Patrick :) I am very glad you liked my blog. If you want to know more about Indian philosophy from an academic perspective, you can read Dr. S. Radhakrishnan's books. I am personally more interested in mythology than in philosophy. I find it more colorful. Most Indian epics and stories are allegories to philosophical thought. And there are multiple interpretations. If you are interested, you might read Panchatantra, and the Jataka tales of Buddhism as a start. Then you can read epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

shajanm said...

Reached here through your comments on another site. Very interesting. I think the definition of 'natural' could be problematic. Is natural=measurable?
Is consciousness natural?