19 June 2015
My first attempt at trying to figure out the tenets of my faith could probably be described in a phrase borrowed from Shakespeare,“vaulting ambition which o’er leaps itself and falls”. Among the shelves which lined my fathers ‘study-room’ at home was some esoteric stuff he had inherited from his maternal uncle’s library. One school vacation i actually made plans to read through the volumes of Upanishads which was part of the collection! Needless to say the plan went for a toss and was quickly abandoned after reading just a few pages for the contents went so over my head!! Perhaps, i reasoned with myself, Dad was right and one needed to look at this stuff in later years of life (incidentally i have still to plod through those volumes!) Meanwhile it was so much easier to lap up our mythology, history, folklore and fables from those well loved Amar Chitra Katha comics, an integral and inseparable part of our growing years.
Many decades and many readings later i am still trying to make some sense of the reams and reams of commentaries and books written on the subject and of which i have perhaps read only a minuscule. One thing i have come to believe in is that it is not just about being a religion or way of life but a huge ever-growing, ever-flowing tradition. To my mind the picture it conjures up is of a large living organism, a river like our very own sacred Ganga. The origin could be traced back to a huge glacier…our oldest scriptures, the four Vedas (i refer to their knowledge as glaciated for just as a brave heart would attempt scaling difficult terrains to reach a glacier so the Vedic Sanskrit in which they are composed is a daunting task to be undertaken only by the most dedicated scholars) They form the bedrock of the spiritual knowledge encompassing all aspects of our life but are seldom read or understood today, even by the most devout. The streams of thought which flow out from that glacier and the beliefs we ruminate upon most nowadays are the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita (collectively referred to sometimes as Vedanta~an umbrella-term for Indian Philosophy in general)
Coming back to our river of Indo-Aryan Vedic tradition, as it flowed down the centuries it chose the path of an all encompassing flow continually joined by other streams of non-Vedic faiths, heroic ancestors, local saints, planetary influences, tribal gods and anything else considered as a manifestation of the divine. In doing so it absorbed and incorporated not only all the good and true things but much that is evil and erroneous. As a reaction you had rebellious streams which diverted out and formed rivers of their own (Buddhism being a case in point). From time to time reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy stepped in to clean up the waters. And the flow of tradition has continued…dynamic, constantly evolving but with a fixed orientation. Dr Radhakrishnan terms it as “polytheism organised in a monistic way” for the ultimate reality, the ‘Paar Brahman’ can only be one.
Understanding this historical perspective is the key to finding the “method in the madness” of this tradition.