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~ Jessica Frazier.
Some of the world’s earliest writings suggest an unexpected goal for ambitious minds. Nearly 3,000 years ago, the ancient Indian authors of certain Upanishads (‘special teachings’) exhorted readers to find a fabled knowledge. When one knows that which is ‘woven upon the Whole – he becomes the Whole’. He ‘thinks of what has not been thought of before, and perceives what has not been perceived before’. Thus, comprehending the widest reaches, he is able to ‘conquer the whole universe’.
To modern ears, these promises sound like esoteric mysticism, and it is true that the Sanskrit writings that have reached us from India in the 1st millennium BCE were full of rituals to harness the universe, hymns to ‘the whole’, and praises of the divine as ‘all of this’. The cosmos was an object of wonder that fascinated Indian thinkers.
But one group of thinkers took a uniquely rational approach, focusing on knowledge of the whole and how it affects us psychologically. Far from being supernatural, this knowledge came from rigorous extrapolation to universal features of the cosmos using rational generalisation based on patterns in the visible world. In short, philosophy – metaphysical truths based on inference – was the key to humanity’s highest possibility and its greatest happiness.
Why this high opinion of metaphysics – surely one of civilisation’s most impractical pursuits?
Early Indians had pleaded with the gods for rain and cattle, sons and warriors, health and wealth; we still have their words in the Vedas, some of the world’s oldest texts. Theirs were precisely the prayers we would expect of any early community struggling to survive. But by around 600 BCE, the ability to perform rituals was no longer enough to win favour at the royal courts of the Gangetic Plain. Atheists, gnostics and sceptics were increasingly vocal in the kingdoms further east. Experts in the old Vedic ritual boasted skills in linguistics, geometry, anatomy, astronomy and poetry, and they had been observing the forces of nature for centuries – but to what end? How could they earn their keep in the new climate?
The answer lay in the public’s growing worry about existential problems. Mortal life seemed little more than a flame struck over the open ocean at night; our minds shine but a brief, faint spotlight on the immensity of the world before sputtering into darkness again.
As their frustration grew, India’s ancient inhabitants became obsessed with a new goal: changing our minds so as to alter the very nature of life and improve it from the bottom up. Mental disciplines became all the rage: outsider ascetics developed an arduous new concentration meant to purify the mind into a single, undistracted stream of consciousness… and yoga was born. A young prince named Siddhartha Gautama gave up his inheritance and taught a way to deconstruct the ego and its desires, becoming the Buddha.
Even the world of ideas is mostly a mystery: most of life’s potential experiences, stories and ideas pass us by. Ancient Indians were just getting a glimpse of this as they discovered new ways of thinking along the trade routes west to Persia and Greece, or northeast over the Himalayas into China. Perhaps this hunger to know what we will never see with our own eyes is what drives the modern fascination with period dramas and science fiction. Our vast imaginations pull in the opposite direction from our small, frail bodies.
[Writer Jessica Frazier is a lecturer in theology and a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. She is the founding and managing editor of Oxford’s Journal of Hindu Studies. Her books include the edited collection Categorisation in Indian Philosophy: Thinking Inside the Box (2014) and Hindu Worldviews: Theories of Self, Ritual and Reality (2017). Views expressed in the article are personal].
Courtesy: Psyche dot com.
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