Three Brahmic Tales

The Brahmic view is seeing the world through a unique lens with the central idea of universal consciousness that is within each and yet transcends. In Sanskrit, this transcending reality is called (brahma, ब्रह्म).

If you haven’t come across “Brahmic” before (excepting for scripts derived from ancient India’s Brāhmī script), it is because writers often use the term “Brahmanical” for it, which is not only confusing but also incorrect. You can easily confirm that all Sanskrit terms associated with transcending knowledge have the stem “brahma” and never “brahman”. Some examples of this are:

brahmabala, Brahma’s power; brahmabhāva, absorption in Brahma-; brahmabhūti, twilight; brahmabhūta, become absorbed in Brahma-; brahmacakra, the circle of the universe; brahmacārin, student of the Veda; brahmacarya, studentship of the Veda; brahmadhara, possessing sacred knowledge; brahmajñāna, secret knowledge; brahmapura, the heart; brahmasūtra, a text dealing with the knowledge of Brahma-; brahmavāda, a discourse on Brahma-; brahmayūpa, sacrificial post at ritual associated with sacred knowledge

Clearly “Brahmanical” or “Brahmanical Hinduism” are wrong and misleading. These terms can be traced to European racism, but they have been embraced by ignorant and deracinated Indians.

Nature of knowledge

The Upaniṣads assert that knowledge is paradoxical: parokṣa-priyā iva hi devāḥ, “the gods love what is paradoxical” (Aitareya Upaniṣad 1.3.11; Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.2.2). This is explained elsewhere (such as Muṇḍaka Up. 1.1.4) on the basis of knowledge being of two kinds: first, of things (dravya, substance, that can also be an abstraction as in Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī 1.2.45) and their relationships (aparā, lower); and second, of cognitions and consciousness (parā, higher).

Paradox arises when these two categories are conflated. An example of the latter is Bhartṛhari’s paradox that if something is unnameable or unsignifiable (Sanskrit: avācya) it becomes nameable or signifiable precisely by calling it unnameable or unsignifiable. Bhartṛhari in Vākyapadīya 3.3.25 mentions sarvam mithyā bravīmi, “everything I am saying is false” to highlight the tension between the lower and the higher meanings.

Paradox in the Creation Hymn

The Ṛgveda in hymn 10.129 (Creation Hymn or the Nāsadīya Sūkta) represents reality in terms of logical divisions that were later formalized as the four corners of catuṣkoṭi: “A” (affirmation), “not A” (negation), “A and not A” (both), and “not A and not not A” (neither). The first two verses are:

Not nonexistence was it nor existence was it then; there was no air nor the heavens beyond. What covered it? Where? By who sheltered? Was water there, an abyss unfathomable? 1

Neither death was there nor immortality then, not of night or day was there distinction. That alone breathed without air by its own power; apart from that there was none else. 2

In this description of creation, the first verse speaks of there being neither existence nor non-existence, which appears illogical given that if there is no existence then it must be non-existence. It further asks what the covering was over this state, hinting that something additional is left out.

The second verse clarifies the ambiguity by explaining that this was before time came into the picture (so no death, nor immortality), indicating further that what remained was the cover within which existence and non-existence were wrapped, as indicated in the first verse.

The Witness

To make sense of this all it is helpful to go to the famous dialogue between Yājñavalkya and Gārgī in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BU 3.8):

Verse 3.6.1:

If all this is pervaded (Skt. ota-prota) by water, by what is water pervaded?’ ‘By air, O Gārgī.’

‘By what is air pervaded?’

‘By the sky, O Gārgī.’

The Sanskrit word ota-prota means interweaving, and it implies that the elements are always presents in what might be seen as entanglement with the other elements. Also note that ota-prota is a symmetric concept, so that if A pervades B, then B also pervades A. The literal meaning of ota-prota is from ota (from udīcī, northward) and prota (from prācī, eastward), that is lengthwise and crosswise weaving.

Verse 3.8.4:

He said, ‘That, O Gārgī, which is above heaven and below the earth, which is this heaven and earth as well as between them, and which they say was, is and will be, is pervaded by the unmanifested ākāśa.’

In this cosmology, the physical universe with objects is composed of the elements pṛthivī, āpas, tejas, and vāyu that are pervaded by ākāśa (ether). And finally, all this is contained within “consciousness”.

Verse 3.8.11:

This immutable, O Gārgī, is never seen but is the witness; It is never heard, but is the hearer; It is never thought, but is the thinker; It is never known, but is the knower. There is no other witness but this, no other hearer but this, no other thinker but this, no other knower but this. By this immutable, O Gārgī, is the (unmanifested) ākāśa pervaded.

There are two interesting aspects of this assertion:

  1. Witness (draṣṭṛ) — and hearer, thinker, knower — is the name given to the conscious agent behind the cognition that takes place in the mind.
  2. This consciousness does not only reside in physical space, but transcends it.

Thus non-existence and existence are within the cover of this consciousness, who is the Witness. Noting that Brahma- is the term used to define the Universe together with consciousness, the following mahāvākyas from the Upaniṣads sum up the heart of the Vedic conception:

tat tvam asi, That thou art. Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.8.7.

aham brahmāsmi, I am Brahma-. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.10.

prajñānam brahma, Consciousness is Brahma-. Aitareya Upaniṣad 3.3.

ayam ātmā brahma, This self (ātman) is Brahma-. Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad 1.2.

The first means that Brahma- includes all that one can see and think of, so it includes both physical and cognitive categories; the second means that the consciousness that illuminates the mind (the individual self) is the same as the “ground” on which the universe exists; the third and the fourth are direct assertion of the identity of consciousness and the universe.

By including consciousness within the conception of the universe, one is led to questions whether one is in “true reality” or in a simulation of it. These paradoxes are not only popular in Hollywood, but are also a staple of narratives in the Purāṇas and other texts.

Tale 1

The Devi Bhāgavata Purāṇa, has the story of the sage Nārada asking Viṣṇu how Māyā (Illusion) works. Viṣṇu says: “Before I explain, will you fetch me some water?” pointing to a river. Nārada does as he was told, but on his way back, he sees a beautiful woman. Smitten by her, he begs the woman to marry him. She agrees and he forgets about Viṣṇu.

Nārada builds a house for his wife on the banks of the river. She bears him many children. Loved by his wife, adored by his sons and daughters, and by his grandchildren, he feels happy and secure.

Suddenly, dark clouds appear in the sky and there is thunder, lightning, and rain. The river overflows, breaks its banks and washes away Nārada’s house, drowning everyone he loved, and destroying everything he possessed. Nārada is swept away by the river.

He cries for help, and Viṣṇu from nowhere stretches out his hand and pulls Nārada out of the water. Viṣṇu asks, “Where is my water?” And the spell that was upon Nārada breaks, and he realizes that the years that he felt he had spent with his family, which had brought him such joy, were just an instant.

Tale 2

Once Indra became exceedingly arrogant about his power and riches, and he asked Viśvakarman to build another new palace for him, and for the poets to sing poems in his praise. He had become unbearable.

And then a boy, who was Hari in disguise, appeared in the assembly. He asked Indra about the size of the universe and the duration of different ages. He also asked questions about the infinite worlds that constitute reality, and he spoke about the cosmos and the laws that uphold it.

The assembly now saw a train of ants moving in long file climbing a wall of the palace, and the boy began to laugh. Indra asked: “Why are you laughing? Who are you, ocean of wisdom hidden behind illusion, bearing the shape of a child??

The boy replied: “The swarm of ants that I observed, each one following the one ahead, have all been Indras in remote past. And now, by virtue of the deeds they did, they have gradually fallen to the state of ants.”

And after speaking thus the boy disappeared. Indra, astonished, no longer cared for his riches. Now that he had gained insight, he was prepared to renounce kingship. (Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa 4.47)

Tale 3

The devas chose Bŗhaspati as their chief priest while the asuras chose Śukra (also known as Kavi Uśanas).

The gods defeated the asuras repeatedly, but Śukra restored them to life with the power of his secret knowledge. The gods did not possess this secret knowledge and so they were unhappy. Trembling with fear of Śukra, the gods approached Kaca, the eldest son of Bŗhaspati, and pleaded with him to become a student of Śukra and learn the secret knowledge.

Kaca set out for Śukra’s ashram, introduced himself as the son of Bŗhaspati, and promised to be an excellent student devoted to brahmacarya. Śukra welcomed him.

Kaca learnt diligently and kept his strict vow for many years. He honored both Śukra and his beautiful daughter Devayānī, and he would bring flowers to her and do other errands.

One day the asuras saw Kaca in the forest, herding cows. Out of enmity for Bŗhaspati, they slew him, cut him into pieces, which they gave to the jackals. When Devayānī saw the cows return without Kaca, she went to her father crying. Śukra said: “I shall restore him to life.” He uttered a mantra, and there was Kaca back as before. Kaca explained: “I was killed by Rākṣasas.”

Sometime later the asuras again saw Kaca in the forest, picking flowers for Devayānī. The killed him, and this time ground him into powder which they gave to Śukra in his wine.

Devayani couldn’t find Kaca and she began to cry. Śukra said: “Bŗhaspati’s son Kaca has indeed been killed again. But don’t grieve for him, Devayānī; he was a mere mortal and you are attended by the wisest and the cleverest people in the world, because of the power of my tapas. It seems to be impossible for me to restore him to life after he was killed a second time.”

Devayānī said: “Why shouldn’t I lament this son of a seer, who grandfather was the great Aṅgiras, whose own treasure in tapas? I love this handsome Kaca, a true brahmacārī, who was always doing things that were worthy. I shall refuse to eat.”

Śukra said, “The asuras must hate me for they keep killing my pupils, even though I am their teacher.” And then he called on Kaca for an answer, who spoke up softly from the teacher’s belly.

“You are in my belly! Who put you up there? Speak up,” Śukra said. And Kaca told him what had happened.

Śukra said: “What can I do now? Kaca can live only if I die. Devayānī, if you wish to see Kaca, my stomach must be ripped open.”

Devayani said: “Now I have two sorrows. I shall find no solace if Kaca dies, but without you also I cannot live.”

Śukra now spoke to Kaca and gave him the secret of restoring life to the dead. “When you emerge from my belly, ripping me open, you will become my son. Then you revive me.”

This is what happened. Kaca emerged from the belly of Śukra like the full moon, and restored the body of the teacher of the asuras back to life with the mantra he had been taught.

This is how the devas learnt the secret of reviving the dead, which made them invincible. (Matsya Purāṇa, 25.8)

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Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak

सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.