East Meets West
Many philosophers throughout the ages have, in their own way, stated that the belief in one god or many is the first sign of insanity. This position was also held in India. Dharmakirti, for example, in the 7th century wrote in Pramanavarttikam: “Believing that the Veda are standard (holy or divine), believing in a Creator for the world, Bathing in holy waters for gaining punya, having pride (vanity) about one’s job function, Performing penance to absolve sins, Are the five symptoms of having lost one’s sanity.”
As mankind began to explore the planet on which it lived and the ancient myths about falling off the ends of the map became debunked with the sailing of tall ships to exotic locations, the centuries’ old Indian culture became intertwined with Western traditions. This is also reflected in India’s mythologies even before we have recorded history of such colonization. What one culture revered in India, another disclaimed. Rather than build on the old, India began a new story. No small wonder that many of its mythologies and spiritualities and religions involve reincarnation.
American sociologist Yvette Rosser describes the contrasts of India often taught in public history books with in education systems: “The presentation of South Asians is a standard pedagogic approach which runs quickly from the “Cradle of Civilization”—contrasting the Indus Valley with Egypt and Mesopotamia—on past the Aryans, who were somehow our ancestors— to the poverty stricken, superstitious, polytheistic, caste ridden Hindu way of life … and then somehow magically culminates with a eulogy of Mahatma Gandhi. A typical textbook trope presents the standard Ancient India Meets the Age of Expansion Approach with a color photo of the Taj Mahal. There may be a side bar on ahimsa or a chart of connecting circles graphically explaining samsara and reincarnation, or illustrations of the four stages of life or the Four Noble Truths. Amid the dearth of real information there may be found an entire page dedicated to a deity such as Indra or Varuna, who admittedly are rather obscure vis-à-vis the beliefs of most modern Hindus.”
Like its mythology, India is not a country to describe with a few words. For every belief within Indian mythology, there is another story disclaiming it. The two main religions which have developed from these stories are Hinduism and Buddhism. Their followers have made these the third and fourth largest religions in the world. There is no one Indian culture, though, and to attempt to pretend there is would be foolish. There are the basic patterns, however, which have remained constant within the living of mankind, the same concepts we need today.
One of the Sloka or couplets from the Atharva Veda, a Veda being ancient Sanskrit writings dating back four thousand years to 3000 BCE or even earlier, describes what is perhaps the only basic theme throughout all Indian mythology: “We are the birds of the same nest, We may wear different skins, We may speak different languages, We may believe in different religions, We may belong to different cultures, Yet we share the same home – OUR EARTH. Born on the same planet; Covered by the same skies; Gazing at the same stars; Breathing the same air. We must learn to happily progress together Or miserably perish together, For man can live individually, But can survive only collectively.”
Yesterday we celebrated life and mourned the deaths of those taken during the tragic events of September 11, 2001. We discussed the impact of those events on us all and the need to move from feeling like victims to gaining control of our own living. We discussed the impact we can and should make, the positive change for the betterment of all living things. I hope as we move forward even deeper into Indian mythology you remember that these are not just really old imaginings but the very thread that binds us all. Yesterday we grieved. Today is the time for living. Today I celebrate you and the truth found in what the Veda proclaims: “For man can live individually, but can only survive collectively.”