Is there a meaning to life . . . or is it all just a bad joke?
I was at my lowest ebb, at the point of suicide, when I opened a little white book in a second-hand bookstore in India and read these electrifying words that were to change my life and give me new hope:
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts, it is based on our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain always follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like his shadow that never leaves him.”
These are the opening lines of the Dhammapada, a Buddhist classic; a very short book of precious wisdom reportedly containing the words of the founder of Buddhism himself, Gautama Buddha. The mind, according to the Dhammapadda, is indeed everything. It is preeminent. Mind did not arise out of matter, as the prevailing idea in modern science appears to be, but matter arouse out of mind.
Mind came first.
The great physicist Sir James Jeans was once asked in an interview: “Do you believe that life on this planet is the result of some sort of accident, or do you believe that it is a part of some great scheme?”
“I incline to the idealistic theory that consciousness is fundamental, and that the material universe is derivative from consciousness, not consciousness from the material universe. In general, the universe seems to me to be nearer to a Great Thought than to a great machine. It may well be that each individual consciousness ought to be compared to a brain-cell in a Universal Mind.” (See here)
Bertrand Russell was to refine this view.
There was no separate “mind stuff” and “physical stuff” in the universe; they are one and the same. This view, technically known as neutral monism, is quite popular nowadays and is held to be the truth by many scientists, including VS Ramachandran, professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, and adjunct professor of biology at the Salk Institute. “Perhaps mind and matter,” he notes, “are like two sides of a Möbius strip that appear different but are in fact the same.” (The Emerging Mind, Reith Lectures 2003, p.37).
Uncanny inklings of all this can be found in Buddhism and Vedanta. The great Indian mystics, Shankara, Madhva and Ramanuja, taking their inspiration from the Upanishads, already knew what the scientists of the future would discover for themselves many years later: that the Universe is a live and conscious Super Being.
I would now like to say a few words about Brahman and the philosophy of Vedanta and will begin by quoting a short poem by Emerson called “Brahma”. This will serve as an introduction.
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), was an American writer much influenced by Indian philosophy. His poem “Brahma” is a poetic attempt to encapsulate Vedanta, the non-dualistic teachings of the Hindu sages which are based on the Upanishads. This is the idea that there is only ONE transcendental Being, Brahman, and that all other beings exist merely as fragments in Brahman’s mind.
Enlightenment for the individual human being consists in realizing that the individual soul, the Atman, is part of Brahman: just as the water drop in the ocean is part of the ocean and is one with it.
To realize that in a sense one IS Brahman is to achieve the ultimate insight: Tat tvam asi, or “That thou art.”
In the higher realms of consciousness the individual human identity disperses like mist or vapor and the self is seen to be illusory and part of the world illusion, maya. Existence itself simply becomes an elaborate game or sport in which Brahman enters into each individual being and experiences their lives through them. This is known in Sanskrit as lila, or sport.
In practice this means that all of us actors on the human stage are Brahman playing different roles. The lover and the loved one are not two different beings; they are in essence the same being playing different parts in an elaborate play. They have forgotten, having been encumbered with different masks or personas, that they are the same being—the same Being behind their individual masks or personalities.
They have forgotten, alas, that they are sockpuppets of Brahman!
Emerson hints at this in his poem but does not make the distinction altogether clear. However, the Svetasvatara Upanishad spells it out clearly for all to see. Addressing Brahman, it says:
Thou art woman, thou art man,
Thou art the youth, thou art the maiden,
Thou art the old man tottering with his staff;
Thou facest everywhere.
(The Upanishads, translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood.)
The Western skeptic, relying solely on common sense and empirical science, rejects all the above as metaphyscal mumbojumbo. One such scoffer is the Victorian writer Andrew Lang (1844-1912) who pokes fun at Emerson’s poem in a cruel parody. Here it is:
PARODY OF EMERSON’S “BRAHMA”
If the wild bowler thinks he bowls,
Or if the batsman thinks he’s bowled,
They know not, poor misguided souls,
They too shall perish unconsoled.
I am the batsman and the bat,
I am the bowler and the ball,
The umpire, the pavilion cat,
The roller, pitch, and stumps, and all.
(Well done, Andrew! You’ve had your little laugh. Now go stand in the dunce’s corner!)
Incidentally, I could be wrong about this, but I think it’s possible that Emerson got ‘Brahman’ mixed up with ‘Brahma’. They are not the same. And it is Brahman, not Brahma, that Emerson has to be talking about.
Brahma is simply one of the trinity of supreme gods in the Hindu pantheon, the other two being Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, Shiva the Destroyer.
THE HINDU TRINITY:
BRAHMA, VISHNU AND SHIVA
“Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are not three different beings or three different entities…in fact, they are not beings or entities at all…they are the three different aspects of the one all-ensouling Life of the Universe.”
Brahman is altogether different: the transcendental Absolute which cannot be referred to as “He” or even as “It”.
Brahman (ब्रह्मन् brahman) is “the unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world, which cannot be exactly defined but is
It is necessary to understand that Brahman is not to be thought of as an Entity who has the attributes or qualities of existence, consciousness and bliss. Brahman has no attributes or qualities, but is regarded as Existence itself, Consciousness itself, Bliss itself. The highest of the high, Brahman is said to be beyond all human conception and cannot be caught in the net of words.
This has been said so often by the great philosophers of Vedanta—by Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva among the great medievalists and by their modern disciples Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan—that it is now taken as a self-evident truth, based on personal experience of the divine presence, that Brahman is the Absolute Ineffable. The general idea is this: the less said about Brahman the better, for the more said, the more certain it is to be misleading, inaccurate, and not worth saying. He who speaks, lies.
The great Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, speaking of the equally mysterious Tao (the Way), puts it beautifully in a pithy and memorable phrase: ‘Those who know do not say. Those who say do not know.”
It follows paradoxically from the above that everything I’ve said here about Brahman has to be “misleading, inaccurate, and not worth saying”, since I have been foolish enough to put into words what is beyond language. But the same applies to anyone who talks about these matters when the best policy is silence. To quote the inimitable Lao-Tzu again: “The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness.” (Tao Te Ching)
Note: A distinction is often made between Brahman and Para-Brahman. (See here)
A puzzling question arises: given Brahman’s self-sufficiency, its perfection and need of nothing apart from itself, why does Brahman choose to manifest at all? Why fragment itself into multitudinous beings and assume the limitations of matter when mind alone—its own Overmind—is surely more than sufficient? Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) does his best to answer this riddle.
“If, then, being free to move or remain eternally still, to throw itself into forms or retain the potentiality of form itself, it indulges the power of movement and formation, it can be only for one reason, for delight.” (Sanskrit: ananda).
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 91
Brahman, in other words, delights in realizing the infinite possibilities inherent in its own nature. Ananda, it must be remembered—meaning bliss/ joy/delight—is not an attribute or quality of Brahman but is Brahman itself, along with Being and Consciousness. These three, Being-Consciousness-Bliss, form a triune unity subsumed under the Sanskrit term SAT-CIT-ANANDA which is a synonym for Brahman.
SAT = Being, existence.
CIT (sit, chit) = Consciousness, mind.
ANANDA = Bliss, delight.
That the One should become Many, because it derives delight and satisfaction from doing so, is not the answer in my humble opinion. This completely neglects to take into account the existence of evil and pain.
According to the Vedantic philosophy, Brahman is—indeed, has to be—both predator and prey, oppressor and victim, torturer and tortured. Take note of this extraordinary situation in the Emerson poem above: Brahman is here described as the “red slayer” as well as the “slain”. Brahman apparently takes delight in being the torturer who inflicts pain, but how can the victim experiencing the torture (who is also Brahman) take delight in being tortured? It makes no sense at all. We have reached an impasse and must begin again from scratch.
Let’s look at it another way.
If existence is maya or illusion—if life is basically a “dream” from which we will one day awaken—then we are no more than fictional characters in a super novel (or play or movie) that is all taking place in the mind of Brahman. We all know that the pain in a horror movie isn’t real. Hannibal Lecter never really killed and tortured anyone. It’s all make-belief. This is no consolation however to Hannibal Lecter’s victims if, in their own plane of virtual existence, they are actually experiencing the most horrendous agonies—agonies of pain which to us, on an altogether different plane of reality, are purely fictional.
There are other more frightening ways of explaining these labyrinthine complexities. These all lead us into a maze of madness. Can God be evil and capricious? Can evil be part of his nature? Are God and Devil in partnership? Questions few dare to ask. Merely asking these questions in past times would have merited death.
A memorable line in Shakespeare’s King Lear hints at the scary possibility that God isn’t particularly “good”. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.” Not everyone, it seems, is happy with the philosophy of Vedanta which fails to explain the problem of Evil. Here is the great Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, influenced no doubt by Zorastrianism, throwing down the gauntlet to God in Fitzgerald’s brilliant translation of the Rubaiyat:
“Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make
And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give—and take!“
I have put that final word into italics. The 12th-century Persian poet is making no bones about it. He is blaming God for screwing up, for making a right royal mess of things.
Are there parallels with Vedanta here? Not in the above quote, but there are parallels elsewhere. The concept of maya, the dreamlike illusoriness of life, is a common feature. Life is real enough for those living it. That’s for sure. Pain is real. And yet there is the prevalent underlying idea that, behind all the reality, Life is a dream. A mirage in the mist of Brahman’s mind. A phantasmagoria. Here is the Rubaiyat again:
“‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays.
And one by one back in the Closet lays.”
I have italicized the final phrase. We humans are seen here as no more than chess pieces on Brahman’s chessboard. When the game of life is over, we are put back in the cupboard. We sit there in the dark, waiting to be brought out for the next game. Who is Brahman playing chess with? No one but himself, given that in Vedanta only Brahman exists in any real sense and all other beings are phantasmagoric projections of the divine reality. Can Brahman play chess with himself? How can that be? Well, whatever the outcome, Brahman must experience the delight (ananda) of winning every game. Unfortunately, he must also have the disappointment of losing constantly—unless, of course, he doesn’t mind losing and derives pleasure from doing so.
As we can see, this is a hopeless paradox. We are wasting our time chopping words and chasing shadows. We are indulging in idle chatter. Everything we say about Brahman is futile and nonsensical. The only recourse we have, as Lao Tzu pointed out long ago, is to take refuge in silence. ‘Those who know do not say. Those who say do not know.”
One thing is certain. The knowledge of Brahman cannot be gained through book study or sense experience or the scientific method. Such knowledge can only be arrived at through intensive meditation, worldly renunciation, shattering austerities, and sexual continence: in short, after a long process of self-purification such as all the great sages from time immemorial have had to undergo. As Vergil once said: Sic itur ad astra — “thus one gets to the stars.”
Jesus summed it up best : “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”