A Brief Overview of Hindu Cosmology

Time is possibly the most fascinating construct devised by humans. You may say that all organic entities have a ‘biological clock’ and act accordingly. And you might ask, what’s so special about time. It’s true that animals and plants seem to operate to built-in clocks. But humans are unique in the way that we have consciously embraced the notion of time and in the way we let our perception of time dictate how we lead our lives. A while back, I had written about ‘The Secret Powers of Time and Regret.’ You might want to check this out either before or after reading further.

What is time?

Time, at its core, is an artificial and abstract concept. In practice, it’s about keeping track of change and the patterns by which change manifests itself. Time is about keeping track of changes in ourselves and in the world around us. And this has become deeply embedded into our psyches, and into our religions and philosophies. The early human, for instance, must have noticed the regularity with which dawn broke and the sun set, and subliminally internalized the notion of time while deriving benefits of recognizing such patterns. One thing must have led to another, and eventually resulted in Egyptian and Greek sun dials, Indian hour glasses, Swiss clocks , Julian calendars and other inventions which helped in accurate measurement of and tracking time.

If there was no change or observable patterns either in ourselves or in the world around us, we would have simply ignored the passage of time. In other words, our mortal existences are so absurdly short that we have come to believe that there is a necessity to keep track of and measure time. There is no other entity (that we know of) in the universe which consciously does this and allows the concept of time to dictate its behavior.

Thought experiment

Imagine if each of us were to live for a few million years before dying. During the course of our lives, we would observe hills being formed, rivers changing courses and weather patterns changing so gradually that it’s possible that we might not value the notion of time or the practice of measuring it at all. I wonder how the absence of the notion of time would influence the way we live our lives.  Let’s take this to one logical extreme: Suppose we were all to be immortal, wouldn’t  we simply discard time since it would cease to have any value? So, could the converse be true? If we ceased to value time, would that be our ticket to immortality? Interestingly enough, that’s what eastern wisdom tells us – to stay in the now and discard all perceptions of time such as the past and the future. I told you that this was fascinating stuff.

Measuring time

There’s a lot to write on this. I’ll stick to what enthralls me about the way we and our religions have looked at time.

Abra’amaic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – take a linear view of time. They agree that the world started with the creation of the universe by God, who also created the first man and woman roughly five thousand years back. They have neatly compartmentalized time into the beginning – when God created man and woman, now – while we are alive, and the everafter, the future that comes after death when we shall receive Judgment and live in eternal bliss or torment depending on the way we led our lives. The simplicity of this compartmentalization is attractive. It provides a sense of purpose, which is to conduct our affairs now in a manner that we shall be one of God’s chosen ones in the future. It provides a basis in the past – which is that God created man five thousand years back.

Time is accorded a great deal of importance in these religious schools, which borrowed the Greek notion of time being finite and running out . This life that we have now is our only chance of getting it right. Once we die, our time ends, and so do our chances of correcting the errors of our ways. Seize the day and the life you have been given, they say. This simplicity is so powerfully compelling and so easy to grasp that it has taken roots in the way we’ve divided our history timeline – in terms of what happened before the birth of Jesus Christ (Before Christ – B.C.) and that which is happening in the year of our Lord (Anno Domini – A.D.).

Eastern schools are, in contrast, vexingly vague about time.  They insist that time is illusory and hence without value, and all that matters is this mysterious thing called “now.” They candidly confess that they don’t know when and where it all began, and who started this whole thing called the universe. They tell us that we’re trapped in a web of illusion called maya, and that time is merely one of the  illusory constructs which perpetuates maya. They ask – if nothing exists and everything is an illusion, then how can the concept of time be relevant? They tell us that if we can manage to find and stay in the moment, then time itself will cease to exist, and the past, present and future will merge into one and we will be able to see them simultaneously. Indeed, the Sakyamuni was believed to possess the powers of rising above time and view all his past lives, the stories of which came to be known as the Hitopadesha.

This is all confusing and perplexing, and intoxicating and exhilarating at the same time. We listen in fascination each time, and then go away, shaking our heads, back into our worlds in which time only moves forward linearly. We don’t know what to make of such theories, or what to do about them. The eastern concept of timelessness applies temporary balm on our wounded souls and scarred pysches, and provides us with some indescribable comfort. It soothes us to hear that time does not run out and that we will have more chances to get things right, and that God and this universe may not be as harsh and unforgiving as they are made out to be.

A look at Hindu cosmology, calendars and time scales

Carl Sagan describes the Big Bang and the creation of the universe in his television series “Cosmos,” which first aired when I was in school. In this, he talks about how it all began according to science, and how the universe formed within the first new nano seconds of the Big Bang. In the world of science, creation is synonymous with the formation of matter and the creation of space and time.

In “Cosmos,” Sagan makes an interesting observation about how Hinduism has looked at time. He says, ” <snip> a wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology is that it is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years. As far as I know. It is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale.

Precisely for its uncanny resemblance to modern scientific cosmological time scales, I figured it would be interesting to share my understanding of the Hindu view of the age of the universe. These details are partly from my notes from reading Srimad Bhaagavatam and heavily borrowed from more erudite persons (my sisters), all of which can, I am sure, be found on Wikipedia.

Note: I’m not writing this to prove the superiority of the Hindu view vis-a-vis other religious views. I have no interest in such matters. Each religion brings forth its own compelling insight. That is the raison d’etre of each religion. To bring forth new insights and comfort. In the matter of cosmology and universal time scales, the Hindus have put forth a grand idea, and whether true or not, it does make the pulse quicken. My belief is that it would benefit all to take notice of this.

How old is the universe per Hindu cosmology?

The Hindu cosmic cycle is divided into Yugas, Chatur or Maha Yugas and Kalpas.

A ‘basic’ cycle is called a ‘Yuga‘ or an ‘age’. There are four such Yugas, each for a different tenure. These Yugas are Krita or Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. Their durations are (in human years):

Krita Yuga: 1,728,000 years. Treta Yuga: 1,296,000 years. Dwapara Yuga: 864,000 years. Kali Yuga: 432,000 years.

Note: At the end of each Yuga, the earth is overwhelmed by elements and humans are wiped out. Each Yuga is followed by an interlude of still and nothingness and life begins anew in the next Yuga. 

Each quartet, a set of 4 Yugas, is called a Maha Yuga or a Chatur Yuga.

 1 Maha Yuga = One quartet of 4 Yugas = sum of (Krita + Treta + Dwapara + Kali + all interludes between them) = 4,320,000 years = 4.32 million years.

1 Kalpa = 1,000 Maha Yugas = One half of a day of Brahma, the creator = 4.32 billion years.

Side notes

1. Each Kalpa is successively ruled by 14 Manus. Each reigning period of a Manu, the giver of Dharma, is 71.42 Maha Yugas. So, Manus come and go during the tenure of a Brahma.

2. Brahma is the creator of the universe, filled with its stars, planets and moons and Manus who reign periodically over it. Brahma is considered to be a manifestation of the (Para) Brahman, the or spirit underlying the universe which binds all things and is the fundamental energy that makes the cosmic dance possible. Even Brahma, the creator, cedes his place and “dies,” at the end of his tenure of a 100 years. And a new Brahma is manifested by the Para Brahman, and the cycle goes on. Such is the nature of the universe, according to the Hindus, one in which permanence is assured to none.

So, what do we get?

When we put the time lines together, we get –

A “full day” ie “day” + “night” of a Brahma works out to ( 2 x half-day of Brahma or 2 x Kalpa) = 2 x 4.32 billion = 8.64 billion years.

This number is interesting because cosmologists now believe that the Big Bang happened roughly 13 billion years back (revised significantly since Sagan did Cosmos twenty five years back). This number of 13 billion years is of the same magnitude (proportionally) to what the Hindus postulated many moons ago. This aspect of Rig Veda is nothing short of spellbinding. How could have they come up with such a grand scale – in billions of years – for the cosmological age of the universe? What kind of minds and awareness did they possess to get into the same ballpark timeline wise, when it has taken us billions of dollars worth of equipment and painstaking scientific research to get into the same ball park? Was it a lucky guess or is there more to this than meets the eye? Incredible.

What’s even more incredible is that the Hindus didn’t restrict themselves to the current universe. The Rig Veda tells us that the life of the cosmos stretches endlessly before the Big Bang and will stretch endlessly well after the current version of the universe ends. The life of a Brahma, we’re told, is 100 years of 360 days each, where each day = 8.64 billion years. Simple math (100 x 360 x 8.64 billion) gives us the life time of Brahma, which is the life of the cosmos. This number is a staggering 311 trillion years. And after 311 trillion years, the ‘old’ Brahma ‘dies’, and a ‘new’ Brahma is ‘born’. And the cycle of 311 trillion years repeats itself with a new Brahma, endlessly into time. Mind boggling!

The significance of the Sankalpa mantra

If you’re Hindu or if you’ve observed Hindu rituals, you may have heard a set of mantras called the Sankalpa mantra which precedes Hindu rituals. The Sankalpa mantra is meant to keep track of where we are, and the time it is now in this version of the cosmos that we exist, at the time of performing the said ritual.

A brief context first to the Sankalpa mantra

It is said that we are presently in the Sveta-Varaha kalpa in the reigning period of Vaivaswatha – the 7th Manu. In this Manvantara we are in the 28th Maha Yuga. As per Hindu cosmology, Brahma is supposed to have completed 50 Brahma years and is now in his 51st year. For this reason, he is called “Parardha-dvaya-jivin” ie he now lives in the second half of his life. The word ‘parardha’ means half. So Brahma is called this as he has completed one half of his life. This might help you make better sense when you hear or read about the Sankalpa. On a lighter note, we live in a time when our Brahma has reached middle age, and one can only hope that he doesn’t go through a mid-life crisis 🙂

As for the Sankalpa mantra, it goes roughly as follows-

…. dvi-teeya parardhe: In the second half of Brahma’s life

Sveta-varaha kalpe: in the kalpa of Sveta-Varaha

Vaivaswatha manvantare – in the reigning period of the Vaivaswatha Manu

Ashta Vimsati tame:  In the 28th Maha Yuga of the current Manvantara

Kaliyuge: in this Kali Yuga

Prathame Padhe: In the first quarter of this Kali Yuga. Note: Kali Yuga is said to have started in 3102 BC according to Aryabhatta.

Jamboodveepe: This denotes the place where the ritual is being performed. Note: India was once believed to have been an island called Jambudveepa.

Bhaarata Varshe, Bharata Kande: in this land called Bhaarata.

Sakhabde Mero, Dakshine Parsve: to the South of the Meru mountain. Note: Mount Meru is repeatedly referenced in Hindu purana, and is believed to have existed when India was once an island. 

Asmin Varthamane Vyavaharike: in the current period now reigning

Prabhavadi Shasti Samvatsaranam Madya: which is in the middle of a cycle of 60 years starting from the year Prabhava. Note: Hindu calendar was divided into sixty calendar years, each with a name to itself, the first of which is called Prabhava.

< insert name of year > Nama Samvatsare:  the name of the present year in the 60 year Hindu calendar. Note: The present year is called Nandana.

<fill in> ayane: Dakshin-ayane (when the sun travels south) or Uttar-ayane (when the sun travels north). Note: Uttarayana is the period between the winter and the summer solstices (roughly Dec 22 to June 21) and Dakshinayana is the other half of the year.

<fill in> ritou: Ritou denotes the six seasons or Ritus, who are Vasantha, Greeshma, Varsha, Sharadh, Hemantha and Shishira

<fill in> Maase: One of the 12 Tamil months when performed in Tamil tradition.

<fill in> Pakshe: Either Shukla Paksham (day after Amavasya to and including Pournami) or Krishna Paksham (day after Pournami to and including Amavasya)

<fill in> Subha Thithou: Name of the day of the month, which is one of the 15 days between Pournami and Amavasya. These are Prathama, Dvithiya, Trithiya, Chaturthi, Panchami, Shasti, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami, Dasami, Ekadasi, Dwadashi, Trayodasi, Chaturdasi, Pournami and Amavasya.

<fill in>Vaasara Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the day of the week, one of Bhanu, Soma, Bhowma, Soumya, Guru, Brugu and Sthira

<fill in> Nakshatra Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the Nakshatra or star prevalent on the day.

Upon reciting all of the above, the name of the ritual is said. According to HH Sri Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti, the Sankalpam is a record of the ritual one performs with exact details going down to the day and location of the ritual. Presumably, this was an effective technique of keeping records and track of time in a tradition that relied more on word of mouth than writing things down.

There is another unusual feature of the Hindu calendar. Each year is labeled by the number of years elapsed since the epoch. As of 2012, 5114 years have elapsed in the Hindu calendar. The present epoch (Kali Yuga) is believed to have started on February 18, 3102 BC (though there are debates around this).

What boggles my mind is the ‘how did these guys keep track of everything?’ question. If the earth and the universe are being destroyed and rebuilt every so often, how do the Hindus confidently state that we are in the 51st year of Brahma? How did the information about the previous epochs get transferred across the epochs? The Hindu calendar is so precisely documented that they have every Manu in every epoch documented going all the way back to the beginning of the life of Brahma himself. How is this even possible? Should we dismiss this as carefully planned deception and bunkum? If it is deception, why would anyone go to such trouble to plan such elaborate deception when easier routes are available?

There is something inspiring about the way we humans have looked at time, especially those in the Vedic tradition. The next time you observe or perform a ritual, hopefully I have made it a more interesting exercise for us. Hopefully, it will make you wonder about the grand scale of this amazing universe and its life time, our own insignificance in the scheme of things that are destined till the end of time and the transcendent beauty of the nature of enquiry itself.

Let me wind up for now, with another quote from Carl Sagan on Hindu cosmology:

“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.”

Happy journeys!

PS: For a topic as complex as this, I’d be surprised if there were no errors in the way I’ve understood things. I stand by, ready to correct errors and mis-statements. Do write and let me know if you see anything amiss. Thanks.

On Creativity

Earlier this week, I happened to read an outstanding interview of Doug Casey, an investment guru of some sorts, in which he is scathingly critical of the school system that we have today. This prompted me to go back and re-watch the ” target=”_blank”>famous video of Sir Ken Robinson talking about “how education is killing creativity.” This made me wonder as to the nature of creativity, and how it happens. So, I found ” target=”_blank”>another video by Steven Johnson, in which he talks about how creativity happens. All of this in turn led to thoughts such as, “If creativity is such an amazing thing, why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that creativity and pain are inseparable? Why do artists lead tortured existences and can creativity arise only out of pain?”

Here’s a synopsis of what I learnt, and my accompanying thoughts.

On why our schools are killing creativity (by Sir Ken Robinson)

What is creativity? There are many ways to describe it. I rather like the one which describes creativity as divergence in thought – an ability to consider infinite possibilities in the place of one or few. We are all born with it. Tragically, it dies within most of us by the time we cross the age of ten. Studies have demonstrated this. Conformity is the enemy of creativity, which likes to run unfettered and unshackled. The way we are schooled is much like the factory model, regimented and structured, and meant to enforce standards and conformity. This was borne out of the elitist notion during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe that most humans needed “schooling,” and out of the necessity created by the Industrial Revolution for a trained workforce. For a couple of centuries, the concept of “education through schooling” gained momentum on the back of the premise that “if you worked hard and went to college, you would find a job and become prosperous.” This worked for a minority of students who performed well on “standardized tests” and went on to obtain fine jobs and fat paychecks. For a large majority, it meant being relegated to the ranks of the “average” or “poor,” unfairly so because the schooling system did not value creativity that each of them possessed to begin with. The system continues till date, and hasn’t changed significantly over the last 100 years.

How does creativity happen? Where do good ideas come from? (by Steven Johnson)

Steven Johnson argues that creative breakthroughs don’t come through accidental moments of epiphany. Rather, they are the slow buildup of several related hunches (some which are ours, and some from others) which collide in our sub-conscious to produce what appear to be spontaneous bursts of inspiration. Great ideas require time to incubate before they hatch. He also makes the point that we live in an increasingly connected world of Facebook and mobile phones, which, although distracting, help connect us with others who may provide the missing hunches so we can assemble the whole picture for ourselves.

Why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that great art comes only out of pain?

All of us love to create. We like to do things that we can get better at. Yet, we suppress these instincts for most of, if not all our lives. And, when leisure visits in our retirement years, we are at a loss as to how to fill our time. Why do we suppress our creative instincts and not let them flower? There are a couple of obvious reasons and one that is not so obvious.

First is the fear of punishment. In spite of all that is said, most workplaces do not reward creativity. So, we try to excel in our vocations through conformance rather than disruption. In most professions, except in a handful, predictability and stability are more valued than the inherently unstable process of creativity. Thus, we become slaves to standards and processes, and creativity dies a slow, painful death over time.

The second reason for loss in creativity is not so obvious. This is the ‘expert complex’ that we develop over time. Interestingly, research shows that the higher the intelligence, the lesser the creativity. Those with scores of 120 and higher on IQ tests have tended to perform poorly on creative fronts. These are ‘smart’ people, ‘who get it’ instantaneously and impatiently turn their minds away from considering other possibilities. As we get better at doing things, we become experts. Once we become experts, we spend our time defending the mountains we’ve built, rather than exploring new terrain. And thus, we turn ourselves away from creative pursuits.

The third reason is the fear of failure. As much as we enjoy creative pursuits, we carry with us a deep-seated fear of “not being good enough” at it. Since rewards from creativity are given only to those who scale its summits, we prefer to play it safe and pursue the mundane where even mediocrity is tolerated and compensated.

Even great, successful artists carry a fear of failure. Barbra Streisand, the singer who’s sold millions of records, once confessed to stage fright and shies away from live performances. In fact, success seems to bring with it an even greater fear of failure. The fear that somehow the artist does not possess what it takes to top the previous astounding accomplishment. This weirdly inexplicable fear drives a successful artist into drinking gin at ten in the morning, and drags him through a tortured existence to an early grave. Why is it so?

Is it the individual or the genius which creates?

Ancient notions of creativity described the individual as too insignificant, even incapable of creation by himself. Creativity was the divine spirit that ‘passed’ through him when it chose to visit him. They maintained a “distance” between the individual and his creation by attributing credit to the ‘genius’ who came to visit the artist and transported her to the realms of the divine.

In the Hindu tradition, to create is to dance with the Lord. An indelible image of Lord Shiva is that of Lord Nataraja, “the Lord of the Dance,” of the great temple of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. The Ananda Thaandava of Lord Shiva represents his five activities – shrishti (creation), sthiti (preservation), samhara (destruction), tirobhava (illusion), and anugraha (emancipation), through which he maintains the harmony of the universe. To witness the dance of the divine spirit is to see the world truly as it is – an endless moment of cosmic creativity in which birth, life and death come and go to every entity in this universe.

The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the creative process similarly.  The Greeks had a word for the spirits whose possess our bodies during inspirational moments of creativity. They called these spirits ‘daemons.’ The Romans called this divine helper a ‘genius.’

It was only during the period of Renaissance that the notion of the individual himself being considered a genius and not separate from it, came about, and has stuck on since. One can speculate that this dissociation of the individual from the creative spirit may have led to extreme egotism and narcissism among artists and resulted in their tortured existences over the last five centuries.

When we regard ourselves as not responsible for creation, and merely as instruments of the divine spirit – there can be no room for pain.

We were born to create.

Great art may come out of great pain. But, the greatest of art comes from the greatest of bliss. To create is to let go of the few, and to embrace the infinite. It is to surrender to and dissolve oneself into the genius when it comes to possess, and draw it forth into expressions of exquisite beauty. To create is to dance with the divine spirit, with Nataraja himself.

This is the work we were born to do. Happy journeys.

What are the Vedas?

Many years back, I read a book titled simply “The Vedas.” It’s an English translation of a series of discourses given by Paramacharya Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati of Kanchi Mutt. I’ve read this book several times over in the last five years. Each time I’ve read it, I’ve discovered a new and intriguing notion missed in earlier readings. Highly recommend this book to those inclined to such topics.

Below is a summary of my notes (taken in 2007) of the first two chapters of this book, which answer the question “What are the Vedas?

*** Begin Notes ***

What captures the doctrine of Hinduism?

Various religions have their doctrines in a single work or treatise. The Christians have the Bible, the Muslims the Koran, and the Buddhists have the Dhammapada.

What captures the doctrine of Hinduism? Some say that it is the Ramayana. Others say it is the Bhagavad Gita. Yet others will point to Vedanta. To know what Hinduism is, we have to know what the sacred texts of Hinduism are. Hinduism as a religion does not imply mere ritual. It also includes Dharma or the path to joy and bliss. To understand Hinduism’s principles of Dharma, one has to refer to a series of texts and books, which are together called the Dharma Pramaana ,  that which provides true knowledge of Dharma.

These are 14 texts, and they are:

– The four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Saama, Atharva
– The Vedaangas or the auxilliaries to the Vedas. These are Siksha (pronunciation), Vyaakarna (grammar), Chandas (meter), Niruktha (etymology), Jyotisha (astronomy), Kalpa (procedures), Meemaamsa (interpretations), Nyaaya (Logic), Puraana (mythology) and Dharma Saastras (codes of conduct).

In addition, we may add the 4 Upaangas or the appendices, which are Ayurveda (science of life), Arthasaastra (science of wealth), Dhanur Veda (science of weapons and war) and Gaandharva (study of fine arts like drama, music and dance).

In all, the 4 Vedas + 10 Vedaangas + 4 Upaangas may be considered to contain the doctrines of Hinduism as they apply to the conduct of life and to the pursuit of joy and happiness.

Who authored the Vedas?

The Vedas describe themselves as Anaadi – without a beginning in time. They also refer to themselves as Apoureshya – without an author. They describe themselves as the “breath of the Parabrahman”, and are said to have been discovered by rishis during their deep meditative states. For this reason, the rishis mentioned in the Vedas are referred to as Mantra Drishtas or the seers of the Vedas, rather than Mantra Kartas (doers/authors of the Vedas).

There are four Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Saama and Atharva. Each has a different way of recitation referred to as“Saakha”. Each Saakha has three portions: Samhita – the foundation, Braahmana – the manuals and Aaranyaka – the spiritual interpretations of rituals. Typically, the Samhita portion is what is referred to in each Veda. In all, there are 20, 500 mantras in the Samhita portions of the four Vedas.

Rig Veda

The Rig Veda comprises of ‘Rik’s or mantras or hymns of praise. These came to be known later as “slokas”. The Riks are grouped into Sooktas. In all, the Rig Veda contains 10, 170 riks and 1028 Sooktas, broadly divided into two groups of 10 mandalas and 8 ashtakas. Each Sookta begins (Upakarma) and ends (Upasamhara) with an invocation to Agni. The import of Agni in the Vedas is not to be understated. Indeed, the Aranyakas remind us that Agni is the same as “Atma Chaitanyam” or the glow of a soul’s awakening. The Rig Vedas contain mantras in praise of Devatas as well as on ways of social living and on specific rituals such as marriage ceremonies.

Yajur Veda

The word “Yaj” means worship, and is the root of Yajna (fire worship). The Yajur Veda contains procedures that add to the mantras in Rig Veda on performing yajnas and sacrifices. There are considered to be two branches of Yajur Veda – Sukla Yajur Veda (propounded by Yajnavalkya) also known as Vaajasaneyi Samhita, and Krishna Yajur Veda by Veda Vyasa also known as Vaisampayana Samhita. Yajur Veda contains detailed procedures for rituals such as Soma yaga, Rajasooya and Asvamedha. Yajur Veda has special significance for Advaitins. For each Siddhaanta (philosophical doctrine) such as Advaita, there is a Sootra (aphorism and theorems), Bhaashya (treatise and commentary) and Vaartika (explanation). There is considered to be only one vaartika-kaara for Advaita, namely Suresvaracharya, the direct disciple of Sri Adi Sankara. Suresvaracharya wrote Vaartika on only two of the Upanishads – Taitreeya and Brihadaaranyaka – to explain Advaita. Both these Upanishads are from the Yajur Veda.

Saama Veda

“Saama” means “shanti” or bliss. The Saama Veda is the musical rendition of the Rig Veda, and contains the same mantras. Saama Gaana is considered to be the basis for the seven swaras in Carnatic and other Indian music traditions. The Saama Veda is designed to bring peace to the mind through the rendition of mantras in melodious form. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says “Among the Vedas, I am Saama.

Atharva Veda

Atharva” means purohit. The Atharva Veda is designed to ward off evil and adversity. It contains “Prithivi Sooktam” about the wonder of creation, and contains the Prasna, Mundaka and Mandukya Upanishads. It is said that for a “Mumumshu”, a seeker of Truth, the Mandukya Upanishad alone is sufficient. Such is the greatness of the Atharva Veda.

Highlights of Vedic structures

One of the noteworthy aspects of the Vedas is that they do not claim to be the only way, or insist that there is only one God. In fact, the Vedas are uniquely atheistic in that they do not refer to a personal God. They repeat, through various mantras in each of the Vedas, that there are many ways to realize the same Truth. Other than the Samhitas, the Vedas also contain Braahmanas and Aaranyakas. The Braahmanas are the manuals that describe the procedures for performing rites. The Vedas describe rituals as means to discipline and purify the mind and body and make them ready to meditate upon the true nature of the Self. The Aaranyakas explain the subtler, inner meaning or the spiritual import of the hymns in the Samhita.


If the Samhitas are the trees, the Braahmanas the flowers and the Aaranyakas the unripened fruits, the Upanishads are considered the ripe fruits of the Vedas. The Upanishads, while they contain references to rituals and ways of living, deal primarily with philosophical enquiry.

Action versus Knowledge

The Vedas are broadly divided into “Karma Kaanda” (dealing with action and rituals) and “Jnaana Kaanda” (dealing with knowledge of the Self). The Karma Kaanda was compiled by Maharishi Jaimini and contains over 1000 sections. The Jnaana Kaanda, compiled by Veda Vyasa, is much shorter with only 192 sections. It is said that the study of the Karma Kaanda leads to the purification of the mind and body, and a desire for withdrawal from worldly actions. It is at this highest state of readiness, one is ready to be a Sannyasin and initiated into the Maha Vaakhyas of the Vedas.

There are said to be four Maha Vaakhyas in the Vedas. They are

1. Rig Veda, from the Aitreya Upanishad: “Prajnanam Brahma”  – Exalted actual experience alone is Brahman

2. Sukla Yajur Veda, from the Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad and in Krishna Yajur Veda, from the Taitreeya Upanishad; “Aham Brahmaasmi” – I am Brahman

3. Saama Veda, from the Chandogya Upanishad: “Tat Tvam Asi” – That thou art

4. Atharva Veda, from the Mandukya Upanishad: “Aayam Atma Brahma” – The Atman is Brahman

The Vedas emphasize readiness to receive the truth about the nature of the Self, which is explained in the Upanishads. The Upanishads are to be taught only to those who are considered “ready” to absorb the Truth as contained in them.

If there are any errors in above, please let me know and I will make the corrections. Thank you.

A Bliss Mantra

From my notes from 2009. Here below is a “bliss mantra” from the Taitriya Upanishad in the Vedas, along with my interpretation.

<In Sanskrit>

Om saha naa vavatu saha nau bhunaktu
saha viryam kara vaavahai
tejaswinaa vadhItamastu maa vid vishavahai
Om shanti shanti shanti-hi

There are two interpretations. The first is as addressed to a friend or a partner

Let us enjoy life together, Let us experience life together
Let us engage ourselves together and share our energies to meet adversities
Pray we do not do or say anything that can divide us
Let there be bliss in our lives

The second is as addressed to the Universal Spirit (Parabrahman) which resides within all of us –

Let us be united, let our energies be united in overcoming adversities
Let our wisdom shine, Let us not be led astray by intellectual conquests
Let us be together in eternity, Let there be no division between us
Let there be bliss

Let there be bliss in your weekend.

This beautiful thing called empathy

Last Sunday, I watched a a fascinating conversation between His Holiness Dalai Lama and a group of scientists, titled “Neuroscience and the emerging mind,”. The dialogue revolved around the questions of “what triggers empathy?” and “can we be trained to be empathetic?”. I spent an hour watching the scientists and the monk in rapt attention. Here’s a gist.

Empathy is the ability to view the world from another’s perspective. Of all emotions, it’s empathy that makes us human. Some would even say it’s empathy that makes us divine. So how exactly does empathy work from a neurological perspective? Prof. V. Ramachandran at University of California, San Diego explains it nicely. Not a surprise since he’s been researching this topic for over two decades. Here’s my understanding of what he’s found.

The brain, at its core, is a mushy mass of gooey tissue filled with a massive number of neurons. The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain, and contains 10-13 billion neurons. What are neurons? They’re cells that excitable. When they’re excited, they transmit information through electric signals. When you lean forward to pick up a cup, there’s a neuron in your brain that fires and coordinates the motor movement of the arm stretching, fingers clasping the handle and the hand picking it up.

What made things more intriguing was the discovery of what Prof. Ramachandran calls “mirror neurons”, found in the cortex. Mirror neurons fire when *someone else* performs an action that you’re familiar with. In other words, a mirror neuron fires in my brain when *you* lean forward to pick up a cup. And soon after its firing, my hand signals back to the brain saying “It’s not you picking up the cup. It’s the other person”. All of this happens reflexively in the background. Amazing stuff.

Mirror neurons are the agents of empathy in the brain. When you see another person being pricked with a pin, you flinch reflexively because of them. Your finger quickly sends a message back saying “safe” and that’s how you realize that it’s not you being pricked. In experiments performed on folks with prosthetic arms, subjects actually experienced pain when watching another person being pricked. That’s because their arms lacked cells to transmit “safe” back to the brain! Suddenly, the question of – can we be “trained” to be empathetic? – doesn’t appear out of bounds!

All this talk did leave me a tad uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re trespassing noisily into a sanctum where one must tread with respect. The strength of science lies in its irreverence, which keeps it moving forward and from settling in a comfort zone. That just might be its Achilles heel as well. Science seeks to discover so it can manipulate and control. Any quest based on the notion of “how can I control what’s going on”, I believe, will fail ultimately. Action-without-agenda has far higher staying power, resilience and chances of achieving its goals than action-with-agenda. This is what eastern wisdom tells us. And that’s what His Holiness Dalai Lama subtly conveyed to the professors in the room.

Empathy is a beautiful thing. It holds the key to happiness. Forcing it upon another violates the idea of empathy itself.

ps: This was a great way to spend an hour on a Sunday morning. Check out the video when you get a chance. cheers.

On the Nature of Light

Light is at the core of physics. Light, its attributes and energy, define the very parameters of this amazing universe that we find ourselves in. The nature of light, also (less commonly) known by its scientific name – electromagnetic radiation (EMR) – is the most fascinating conundrum we have encountered in nature. Light is the two-faced Janus, connecting our past, present and future, and, for mysterious reasons, can behave as either a ‘wave’ or a ‘particle’. This is no ordinary matter. How light can behave at times like a “particle” – something that has “mass” and confined to “finite amount of space”, and on other occasions, as a “wave” – something that is formless and existing everywhere simultaneously – is one of the most captivating mysteries that science is yet to solve.

On the Nature of Light

Long before before great scientists like Aristotle, Galileo and Newton came along, humans had grasped the mystical importance of light, in a philosophical and religious sense.

Psalms 119:105  (Holy Bible, King James Version):  “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path”

“Seeing the light” came to be equated with wisdom and enlightenment, and with receiving the ultimate expression of God’s benevolence. A dark universe, devoid of light, was considered a universe devoid of itself – a universe that existed without form or purpose until – as the Holy Bible tells us – “God said, Let there be light”. The Holy Koran says, “Allah, (Praise be to his name) is the light of the heavens and the earth”. The Rig Vedantin prayed “Lead me from darkness to light, from the unreal to the real”. The ancient savants intuitively grasped the quixotic nature of light, a baton which science has only recently taken but carried resolutely over the last hundred years. Continue reading “On the Nature of Light”

How to make it in the after-life

What happens when we die?  What we believe in this regard, interestingly, likely plays a role in the way we live our lives. For the longest time. after-life has been a source of mystery, intrigue and anxiety for humans. Every religion has its hypothesis on what happens after death. The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic versions speak of a “transfer” to a waiting place, about which not much is known other than that you wait there till judgement day. You kind of have to hang around until the picture is clarified for better or worse.

Hindu/Buddhist versions involve being re-born with net sums of karmic bondage re-calculated after each  cycle. The ancient Greeks spoke of the dead being ferried across the Styx to Hades where they stay until eternity. The blessed and the virtuous went to the Elysian Fields with perpetual spring and shady green groves. The rare few were invited by Zeus to become minor gods on Olympus. And, the really bad apples were meted out bizarre punishment along the lines of rolling stones up hills, eagles gnawing at their livers or watching endless re-runs of Hrithik Roshan movies.

In most religions, death is not the end. The trail continues either into some limbo waiting for Judgement or towards the start of a new trail through re-birth.

The only ones who take the categorical position – “Death is The End. Once you die, it is all over. There is nothing more to talk about”  – are the atheists.This scenario is as likely as any other and must be considered. So, how do you stack the odds of making it in the after life? Well, depends.

1. Theories involving rebirth ie beginning of new trails – are both intriguing and baffling. Even if these were to be somehow conclusively proved to be true, it is not entirely obvious as to what we can or should be doing in this life about the next. For example, it is not clear as to why one cannot keep increasing the karmic balance endlessly, given that the cycles are endless and there is no doomsday or a punitive God awaiting. Why worry about the next life when there is enough cause for worry about this one. If you like ambiguity and flexibility, this one’s for you.

2. The versions that involve placing the chips on God A or God B and then waiting for Judgement Day are troublesome and tricky. The bets in this life, we are told, are irreversible after death, thus leaving no room to hedge. What if you bet on God A, and it turns out that God B is the one doling out rewards and retributions? Even worse, what if you end up at a un-named, un-marked waiting place and it is not revealed if God A or B is ruling the roost? The suspense till Judgement day would be enough to kill except we would be already dead. If you like order and structure, and an inveterate gambler, consider this your best option. Pick a horse and ride it all the way to the fiery finish!

3. The atheist scenario of “Death is THE END. Once the lights go out, it is dark forever”” is the easiest one to deal with, as there is nothing to deal with. Provides ultimate flexibility and the world is your playground, and you can run riot all over it. “Are you really sure this is the end? Hmm, ok, I see. Just wanted to make sure, that’s all. Do you have any beer?” is an easy and painless conversation to have.

Lovely people like Stephen Hawking like this model. The problem is that you are betting against the concept of God itself. In fact, being atheist is the riskiest strategy and defies logic. Basically, an atheist has zero probability of making it to heaven, if there ends up being a God. And, if there ends up being no God, all an atheist wins is the satisfaction of knowing that he was right! The upside is abysmally small, and the downside huge! If you insist on being atheist, you might as well carpe the diem by its tail and enjoying to the fullest while you are alive, because there’s a pretty good chance that things could get ugly once you have embraced the dark arms of Hades. This model highly recommended if logic is not your strength.

The best strategy might be one of “no affiliation” i.e. no religion, not atheist, no nothing. Sort of a ‘go with the flow, ambiguously agnostic karma yogi’ approach. Don’t place bets, take no positions and stay on the sidelines. Imagine waiting without the agony of suspense in the post-mortem lounge in the here-after. And, when Judgement Day arrives, and they start queuing people towards Heaven and Hell – the after-death queue management personnel will have no idea what to do with you. It is possible that – to avoid controversy – they may just quietly send you to Heaven!