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A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: The General Teachings of the Epic and Purana Texts

The Anu-Gita

Next to the Bhagavadgita, in importance, comes the Anu-Gita which occurs towards the end of the Mahabharata epic. This Gita is supposed to be a tentative answer which Krishna gave to Arjuna, on the latter's request to hear the contents of the Bhagavadgita once more. Krishna's reply meant that it was impossible to summon again that power of the Absolute, by which the wisdom of the Bhagavadgita was spoken. He, however, agreed to give Arjuna a substitute which goes by the name of Anu-Gita. The contents of the Anu-Gita are not so inspiring as those of the Bhagavadgita and they touch upon the usual themes of Sankhya and Vedanta, which we shall have occasion to discuss elsewhere.

The Anu-Gita exhorts us to overcome the world by self-mastery. King Janaka says that he does not enjoy things for his pleasure, not even the smell that attaches to his nose, and hence he has conquered the earth-principle. He does not enjoy the taste that attaches to his tongue, and hence he has conquered the water-principle. He does not enjoy the form that attaches to his eyes, and so he has conquered the fire-principle. He does not enjoy the touch that attaches to his skin, and thus he has conquered the air-principle. He does not enjoy the sounds that attach to his ears, and so he has conquered the ether-principle. He does not enjoy the objects of thought which attach to his mind, and so he has conquered the mind. Janaka says that he engages himself in action, not for his pleasure, but for the sake of the presiding deities (adhidaivata) and their elemental counterparts (adhibhuta). The correlation of the subjective (adhyatma), objective (adhibhuta) and the Divine (adhidaiva) principles in the Universe has been explained under the subject of creation in our discussion of the philosophy of the Upanishads.

The Fire of the Soul (adhyatma-agni) gets ignited by the control of the senses, by weaning the mind away from objects, and by a life lived in seclusion. The spiritual fire burns as a conflagration by self-restraint. He becomes fit for immortality, who can remain in this condition even for a minute at the time of his death. The five senses and the internal organ with its faculties of thinking and understanding are like the tongues of fire, to which the objects of sense, thought and understanding are the faggots. The Soul, as the seer, hearer, thinker, understander, etc., is like the several Ritviks or performers of a sacrifice. One should consider all objects as offerings in this sacrifice of sensation, cognition and perception. By the performance of this internal sacrifice, externality is negatived and there arises in one the power of cosmic creation. The knower, knowledge and known are the three oblations offered into the universal Fire of the Atman. The ten senses are the performers of the sacrifice. Their ten actions are the oblations in the sacrifice. Their ten deities are the fires of the sacrifice. Here, the mind is the ladle (sruk) and cognitive knowledge is the material. This sacrifice (yajna) is perpetually going on in the individual and the Universe. Hence, there is no condition of inaction anywhere.

When the mind is prompted to speak out its thoughts, the samana fire within gets lighted up, making the prana unite with the apana. Then, by means of udana, it rises upwards towards the head. And due to the work of vyana it passes through the throat, the palate, etc., and produces audible speech. When the action of the prana subsides, it again descends into the samana.

Like the senses, the prana also may be regarded as a performer of the universal sacrifice. The prana and the rest rise from Hiranyagarbha, the Universal prana, and return to Him again in the end. By the action of the Cosmic prana, air (Vayu) becomes apana through prana, vyana through apana, udana through vyana and samana through udana. The prana and apana move amid samana and vyana. When prana and apana are withheld, samana and vyana are simultaneously withdrawn. Udana is amid prana and apana and is the support of all the pranas. It is the Vaisvanara Agni, the Universal Fire situated in the individual as samana at the root of the navel, that rises as the powers of the senses as well as the cognitive and perceptive powers. prana and apana are like two oblations (ajya-bhaga) in the sacrifice and in their middle is the sacrificial fire in the form of udana. This is jnana-yajna and yoga-yajna.

One who moves with the consciousness of Brahman is a Brahmachari. He has no particular attachment to any action. Brahman is his sacrificial twig (samit); Brahman is his sacrificial fire (agni); Brahman is his sacrificial grass (samstara); Brahman is his sacrificial water (apas); Brahman is his preceptor (Guru). Such a one is a Brahmachari. One who looks on all beings with equality of essence, with no desire or ambition, attains to this divine state.

Method of Self-Control

When, after the long discourse of Bhishma on the principles of dharma was delivered to Yudhishthira, the king was still depressed in mood and grieved over the sins he committed in killing his kith and kin, Krishna admonished him thus:

"All that pertains to desire is subject to death. The seat of Brahman is immaculate, above all desires. This is the object of the highest knowledge. You have done no actions; you have conquered no enemies. How can you be said to have overcome your enemies, when the great enemy within you, viz., the mind, has not been detected by you? In regard to this the following story is narrated: A great battle was going on between Indra and Vritra. Vritra occupied the whole of the earth. Seeing that the earth, the very object of the sense of smell, has been occupied, Indra got enraged, for a foul smell was made to fill the earth by the enemy who had entered it. Indra cast his fierce weapon, Vajra, on the enemy hiding within the earth; but Vritra immediately entered the principle of water. The object of taste had been occupied, and Indra again hurled his Vajra into the water, whereupon Vritra left water and entered the principle of fire, occupying thereby the object of sight, the essence behind all forms. When attacked again by Indra, Vritra rose up from fire and entered at once the principle of air, controlling thereby all objects of touch. Pierced by Vajra even in air, Vritra entered the principle of ether. But even there he was pursued by the Vajra. Finding it impossible to live anywhere in the world on account of fear from Indra's Vajra, Vritra entered Indra himself, and overpowered him from all sides. When his very person was thus overwhelmed, Indra got confused in mind, and knew not his duty. He had then to be awakened by the Sage Vasishtha, with the Rathantara Saman. Indra regained his consciousness by the influence of Vasishtha, and destroyed the enemy inside, with an invisible non-material Vajra, the power of the mind."

The Lord continued: "Disease, here, is of two kinds: physical and mental. They influence each other, and without such mutual dependence they are not seen to arise. When the disease manifests itself in the body, it is called physical, and when it appears in the mind, it is called mental. Phlegm, bile and wind are the humours of the body; the harmony of these properties is called physical health; and their disturbance is called disease. Phlegm is contradicted by bile, and bile is affected by phlegm. The equilibrium of the qualities of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas is the indication of health. When their equilibrium is disturbed, there is ill-health. It is seen that grief can be overpowered by joy, and joy in turn by grief. One who is in a state of sorrow broods upon the joy that is past or is in expectation. And another who is in a state of happiness retrospects over the grief that he has overcome. You are neither happy nor sorry by your own making, for Providence is more powerful and controls all things. You should not grieve over your past misfortunes, for this is a defect of the mind. That war in which you were engaged in battle with Bhishma and Drona has now broken out again, wherein you will have to fight with your mind alone. In this battle no arrows, no physical valour, no soldiers, no relatives can be of any help, for, here, you have to fight single-handed, in order to go beyond the muddle of this confusion. When you win victory in this battle, you attain to a state by knowing which you would have done all that is required to be done in the world. Establish yourself in this exalted understanding and try to know the essential truth of all these beings.

"One does not attain perfection by merely abandoning external possessions; not even by the rejection of one's body. It is by the discipline and control of the mind that real perfection is attained. The virtues that are practised and the happiness that is experienced by one who has renounced external things but clings to the internal ones are really a vice, and the happiness a real sorrow. The causes of immortality and death are both to be found within a person;-selfishness is death and unselfishness leads to the immortal. All actions in which a person finds himself engaged are ultimately impelled by these two motives within. He who, having obtained the whole earth as his possession, feels no attachment to it in any way - of what use is the earth to him? On the other hand, he who lives in a forest, eating roots and tubers, leaves and fruits, but cherishes a desire for things of the world, is really in the mouth of death.

"There is, in this world, no enterprise or undertaking not motivated by some desire. And all desires originate from the mind which a wise man controls with discrimination. The following Kama Gita is quoted in this instance:

"Kama says: 'I am not capable of being overcome by anyone who does not resort to proper means. I rise again in him who strives to strike me with the force of his strength and thereby tries to kill me. I rise again in him who tries to destroy me by means of sacrifices, gifts, etc. I rise up in him who tries to overcome me by the study of the Vedas and the learning of the Vedanta. He does not understand me who tries to destroy me by sheer determination, for I exist behind his thoughts and feelings. I rise up in him who, by austerity and self-mortification, tries to put an end to me. When one tries, again, to bring me to an end by directing his mind to moksha, I, looking at his desire for moksha, dance and laugh in joy. Among all beings, here, I am the one indestructible power.' Therefore, O Yudhishthira, focus your desire on righteousness, so that it may move in that direction, and rest there."

By way of elucidation, it may be mentioned here that the two important prerequisites for attaining success in the control of the mind are Vairagya or dispassion and Abhyasa or practice. The student of yoga ought to try his best to be free from desire for pleasure, seen or unseen, and this dispassion can be had through constant perception of the patent defects in objects. Dispassion is an aversion to sense enjoyment, both here and hereafter. The detachment under consideration is of two kinds - the lower and the higher. A distinction is drawn between the inferior and superior types of Vairagya. The former is a distaste for the things in life, due to the experience that they cannot be acquired or preserved without trouble, while their loss causes pain, and the quest is never free from egoistic feelings; the latter is based on a clear perception of the difference between the intelligence that is the Spirit within, and the objects that appear in its light.

The determination to refrain from sense-pleasures is the first stage of Vairagya. In the second stage certain objects lose their charm for the aspirant and he attempts to overcome the attraction for others, also. In the third stage the senses are controlled, but a vague longing for enjoyment yet lingers in the mind. In the fourth stage, however, the student of yoga loses completely all interest in external objects, physical and even conceptual. This is the condition of true desirelessness, which leads to supreme independence, wherein one renounces all psychic powers, and sets little store even with such temptations as all-knowingness.

Basic Ethics

The Mahabharata is an epic of life. It depicts the truth that life is a journey and its meaning is in the practice of dharma. Virtue triumphs in the end and vice is put down by the universal justice. The things of the world are perishable and human glory is short-lived. The accumulations that one makes do not last long. Every rise has a fall. All union ends in separation. Life ends in death. As logs of wood meet one another and get separated in the vast ocean, so do beings meet one another and get separated here.

Desire does not cease by fulfilment; on the other hand, it increases when it is fulfilled, like fire over which ghee has been poured. All the wealth of the world is not enough to satisfy the cravings of even one person; knowing this, one should attain tranquillity of mind.

We had innumerable mothers and fathers, wives and children in several lives. To whom do we really belong? What is the relation that obtains among us? Every day, people are seen dying and being cremated; and yet the remaining ones imagine that their death is not near. What can be a greater wonder in this world?

A wise person does not grieve over the pains or is exhilarated over the joys of life. He is a fool, who gets sunk in them and forgets his destiny.

Dharma is supreme in this world. Dharma brings material prosperity (artha), fulfilment of wishes (kama) and final liberation (moksha). It is surprising that people do not pay attention to the need for practice of dharma, when everything can be achieved through it. The essence of dharma is that no one should do to others what one would not like others to do to oneself. Selfishness is death. Unselfishness is immortality. Both death and deathlessness are in one's own person and not in some distant place.

The individual may have to be abandoned for the good of a group, or family; the group for the good of a larger community; the community for the good of the country or nation; and, even the whole world for the realisation of the Atman.

Heedlessness (Pramada) is death. There is no other death. The sense of 'mine'-ness is death. The knowledge, 'nothing is mine', is immortality.

These are some of the stock sayings in the Mahabharata, which are emphasised in different ways throughout the Epic, indicating the general trend of its teaching that life in the world is transitory and the realisation of God is the goal of life. That virtue has always the support of God at every critical juncture in which it finds itself is the principal motif of the Mahabharata Epic.

The philosophical portions in the Mahabharata apart from the Bhagavadgita and the Anu-Gita are the Sanatsujatiya and moksha-dharma. The ancient system of political administration under the directing principle of dharma finds elaborate elucidation in the Rajadharma section of the Santi Parva in the Mahabharata. This book, with the code of Manu, may be regarded as the standard scripture on ancient Indian polity. The Vidura-Niti is a renowned book on political ethics. The rest of the contents of these sections are mostly expatiations on the Vedanta, Sankhya, Yoga and dharma in general, which we shall be discussing elsewhere in our study.

�The Appendix to the Mahabharata is called Harivamsa, which deals especially with the early and family life of Krishna, as well as his personal exploits, to some of which we shall refer in our study of this Avatara, and also certain legendary material pertaining to events prior to the advent of Krishna, since the creation of the Universe. Though the Harivamsa provides some additional details concerning Krishna's multifaceted life, all this cannot equal the force and depth with which the glorious Avatara is presented in the Bhagavata Purana, which is the great classic on the subject, next only to the Mahabharata.

The Main Contents of the Puranas

The creation theory of the Puranas has been stated above, in brief, under the section on the Upanishads. While describing creation, they also give a scheme of time-calculation applicable in determining the major or longer events that take place in the Universe. Fifteen days and nights constitute one-half (Paksha) of the lunar month, thus, a month consisting of two halves - the bright and the dark - according to the phases of the Moon. Two months make a season (Ritu), and three seasons make one hemispherical motion (Ayana) of the Sun, there being two such motions - the Northern (Uttara) and the Southern (Dakshina). Two such consecutive motions of the Sun make one human year (Varsha). Three-hundred-and-sixty human years make one celestial year. Twelve thousand celestial years make one cycle of the four Ages (Chaturyuga). The four Ages are Krita, Treta, Dvapara and Kali, in the descending order of truth and righteousness, the span of life and general prosperity during their periods. The Krita-Yuga consists of 4,800 celestial years, the Treta 3,600 celestial years, the Dvapara 2,400 celestial years and the Kali 1,200 celestial years. The Kali-Yuga is said to have commenced in 3101 B.C., the year in which Krishna disappeared from the earth. Seventy-one cycles of these four Yugas make one Manvantara or a period for which a Manu rules the world. There are fourteen Manus, of whom the present one is the seventh. The period of these fourteen Manus (which, with the addition of twilight ages between periods of Manu, comes to one thousand four-age cycles) is a single day (Kalpa) of Brahma, the Creator. So much also is the length of the night of Brahma. Three-hundred-and-sixty such days make one year of Brahma. And Brahma's life is for such one hundred years. He is now said to be in his 51st year. At the end of the life of Brahma, there is dissolution of the cosmos (Prakrita-Pralaya). Brahma, then, with his creation, merges in the Supreme Being. In this condition of dissolution, the individuals (Jivas) remaining unliberated lie in a dormant state and get manifested again in the next creation.

The cosmography of the Puranas includes descriptions of the astronomical Universe, the solar system and the fourteen worlds, of which six are said to range above the Earth-plane and seven below it. The Earth-plane itself is said to consist of seven continents and seven oceans, all concentric in their arrangement, every succeeding continent and ocean being double the preceding one in extent. There is a detailed geographical description of our own earth, with its mountains, rivers and holy shrines. There is also a calculation which states that among the five elements - Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether - every succeeding element is ten times the preceding one in largeness. Apart from the superphysical existence of these wonder-striking planes, this description of the cosmos suggests its incredible vastness, all which is supposed to be a very insignificant part of the glorious manifestations of God.

The Puranas also narrate the history of the various dynasties and hierarchies that emanated from the Creator. As a continuation of the lines of Priyavrata and Uttanapada (vide, the doctrine of creation under the Upanishads, above), the world saw the coming in of many heroes, both spiritual and temporal. These offspring of the ancient ones included both the divine and demoniacal natures, which waged a perpetual war between themselves, and much of the Purana content is devoted to descriptions of these conflicts between the Devas and Asuras. Other than these earlier descendants of the progenitors of the race of all beings, particular mention must be made of the lines of the solar and lunar races of kings and sages, whose lives provide a highly interesting biographical reading of both human and superhuman natures. The history of these dynasties is brought down almost to our own times, thus connecting our present-day existence with the diviner sources from which we have come, as, in the words of the Upanishad, children of the Immortal (Amritasya Putra).

Philosophical Trends

The philosophy of the Epics and Puranas is essentially the pre-scholastic Vedanta in which the higher aspects of the Sankhya and Yoga get amplified. We have already noticed the teachings of the Mahabharata as embodied in the Bhagavadgita and Anu-Gita. The metaphysical side of the Mahabharata is a popular exposition of the wisdom of the Upanishads, in which Brahman is identified with Narayana as the Supreme Being, and the Prakriti and Purusha of the Sankhya are accepted as the material and the essence, respectively, of the Universe (Jagat) and the individual (Jiva). In the Vedanta of the Mahabharata, however, Prakriti and Purusha are dependent on God and form His body, so that their existence is inseparable from His being. The Yoga system is accepted entirely in its practical aspects as enunciated by Patanjali, rejecting, of course, its metaphysics of the dualism of Prakriti and Purusha and the transcendental aloofness of Ishvara, which is peculiar to the school. The theory of creation; the nature of God, world and soul; the ethics, psychology and the doctrine of transmigration, as well as of salvation, as expounded in the Mahabharata, are all similar to the presentation of these systems made elsewhere in this study. The Sanatsujatiya is a concise statement of these ideas while the moksha-dharma is very elaborate. The Narayaniya section of the moksha-dharma lays the foundation for the Pancharatra doctrine of Vaishnava theology. The Vishnu-Sahasranama (one thousand names of Vishnu) and Bhishmastavaraja (prayer offered by Bhishma at the time of his death), and many other references to God in this Epic, adore Narayana as the ultimate Reality and identify Him with the Absolute. The place of Siva in the Epic, however, is not inferior to that of Vishnu, and the Siva-Sahasranama (one thousand names of Siva) also appears in it. Throughout the Epic, Siva is held in as much esteem as Vishnu, though Vishnu may be regarded as the central God of the Epic religion. Sectarianism does not seem to have entered the field of philosophical and theological thinking when the Epics were written. It is only in the Puranas that we find the exaltation of a particular deity to the exclusion of and even in opposition to others.

Most of the Puranas abound in lengthy narratives of legends glorifying a particular god or deity, delineating his or her incarnations, descriptions of holy places of pilgrimage (Tirtha), vows or observances (Vrata), acts of charity (Dana), and the like, with some shorter or longer references to the process of creation, the genealogy of the gods, demons and kings, stories of Rishis, as well as occasional statements on the foundations of politics, and the arrangement of the continents of the world as parts of the cosmos. Thus, the Puranas form a general encyclopaedia of popular thought on religion and philosophy. But the Bhagavata and the Vishnu Puranas are a great exception to this rule and they constitute a really splendid literature on a very lofty philosophy and mysticism. The Bhagavata states that, in the beginning, God alone was, and nothing else existed - neither the subtle nor the gross things; neither cause nor effect. What appears after creation, also, is God alone; what remains after the dissolution of creation is also God. That there appears to be a world outside God, though there is no such thing really, is due to Maya or the illusory power of God. Just as the five great elements may be said to have entered and also not to have entered into the created objects, since they are not affected by the divisions and other limitations to which the created things are subject, so also God is in all things as well as not in them. The quintessence of knowledge is this: God as the Atman is what exists in all places and at all times, as the cause of effected things, as different from the very principle of causality, as the witness in the states of wakefulness, dream and deep sleep, and as unconnected with anything outside. God, as pure Consciousness, appears as the objects of the world, with the qualities of sound, touch, form, taste and smell, due to the externalising activity of the senses. As one does not observe a difference among the limbs of one's own body, the wise sage does not see difference among the things in the world.

According to the Vishnu Purana, there is nothing outside the Paramatman. The whole world is His glory. Due to ignorance people look upon God as this Universe of apparent variety. In fact, the whole world is Consciousness. Through ignorance, one looks upon it as a conglomeration of objects. God, in fact, never becomes an object. The mountains, the oceans, etc., are appearances of Consciousness. The Karmas of Jivas create a multiplicity where it is not. When there is one being present in everyone, questions like, 'Who are you?', and answers like, 'I am so and so', convey no meaning. That someone is a king, that he has a large following, that there is such a thing as kingship and there are other things outside him are all based on imagination alone. The truth is that there is the Atman. The Universe is an undivided existence of the Supreme Self. According to the Brahma Purana, all difference, whether in the world or among individuals, is unreal like the appearance of silver in the mother-of-pearl, or snake seen in the rope or the double moon seen by eyes affected by cataract. Thoughts, feelings, actions and experiences of every kind are a part of this apparent externalisation of Consciousness, which has no reality in the ultimate sense. According to the Vishnu dharma, the Jiva suffers through karma and in samsara as long as it imagines its separation from God. When karma ceases, God is beheld as the sole Reality. God Himself appears as men, animals and birds, etc., and He alone appears as the high and the low, the happy and the suffering. The mind is the creator of difference. Virtue and vice and all systems of conduct are dependent on the functions (Vritti) of the mind. As one thinks, so one becomes in the end. The Linga Purana says that God cannot be designated even as one, for that would introduce a sense of difference. As Consciousness alone is, there cannot be a world or samsara. The Suta-Samhita sings the Upanishadic ideas in various ways and identifies the Absolute with Siva, even as the Vishnu and the Bhagavata Puranas identify it with Vishnu, investing the Divine Personality with the attributes of the Absolute.

The Srimad-Bhagavata is the most philosophical among the Puranas and its poetry and general literary form are of the highest order of fineness of execution. The eleventh section of this book contains the Uddhava-Gita, embodying the instructions of Krishna to Uddhava, which gives a gist of the philosophies of devotion and worship (Bhakti), meditation (Yoga) and knowledge (Jnana), in a beautiful blend. The aim of life as being devotion and realisation of God is emphasised. The whole of this Purana is a continuous hymnology on a spirited form of ardent love of God, sung in a variety of ways through history, mythology, illustration and philosophy.