In the 3rd chapter of Bede Griffiths’ book A New Vision of Reality he is wanting to illustrate what he has claimed in the earlier chapters, that before the rise of modern science the perennial philosophy prevailed across the civilized world. In this philosophy nothing in the physical world was considered to be merely material. In doing this he concentrates on the Hindu vision as an example, as opposed to say the Buddhist or Islamic, and this because he knows more about the Hindu vision. This vast history of the gradual assimilation of the different peoples of India into the Vedic world he manages to summarize in a few pages.
Hindu tradition is based upon the Vedas, the most ancient form of poetry in the world. In the Vedic vision ‘there are three worlds, the physical, the psychological and the spiritual’, one universe manifesting at three interwoven levels. ‘Both the physical and the psychological were understood as manifestations of the one supreme Spirit, which is manifesting at all levels of the universe’. For Bede, this is ‘typical of the whole ancient world which had emerged out of the mythological world of more ancient times’.
In the ancient vision there could be no separation of matter and mind or of matter and mind from the Supreme Spirit, which in India came to be known as Brahman, that which holds everything together.
Bede identifies the Aryan invasion in both the West and the East as the beginning of a new mental culture which saw the passage from the world of imagination and myth into the world of reason and understanding. It came to its height in the 5th and 6th centuries before Christ across the civilized world, and for Bede ‘practically all religion today stems from this great experience’. You have the great Greek philosophers, the great Hebrew prophets, Confucius, Sakyamuni Buddha, and also in India the emergence of the Upanishads.
The Upanishads was the third development of Hindu tradition after the Vedas and the Brahmanas. Their great discovery was that brahman, this power of the universe which was believed to be in the sacrifice which sustained the universe and which was the focus of the Brahmanas, ‘this power is within each person’. ‘This is the awakening of the inner self for the first time’.
Previously man had been living in the outer universe and experiencing God, brahman, the reality, in that outside universe but not in himself. Now man discovered himself….this self which I discern within me, is one with brahman, one with the reality of the universe outside me.
The source of the universe around us is the source of our own being. This was the breakthrough of the Upanishads, and the supreme wisdom of the Vedas. Everything comes out from brahman, emerging as from a source, ‘all the senses, all the world, all gods and all being come forth from that Spirit’. It is the source.
In the Chandogya Upanishad, the brahman, and in a sense the whole creation, is present in everybody and everything.
The whole universe is within each of us…… The whole universe is contained within consciousness. When one goes beyond the outer world of the senses where one is just part of the external universe, one discovers the inner reality and experiences that the whole universe is within. That is the profound insight which was reached in India in this period.
In our western way of speaking, we are microcosms of the macrocosm.
In the Katha Upanishad, the universe is seen as fundamentally personal. ‘Beyond the senses there are objects, beyond the objects there is mind, beyond the mind there is intellect, beyond the intellect there is the great self, beyond the great self there is the Unmanifest, beyond the Unmanifest there is Purusha, the Person’.
The majority of Hindus are either Shaivites or Vaishnavites, dating from two of the most important Upanishads. In one Shiva is the Supreme God or reality; Shiva dates back to the Vedic period, even before the Aryan invasion. In the other Vishnu, who belongs more to the Aryan world, is the pervader of all things, and his great avatar is Krishna. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is revealed as the Lord of creation, the creator God. Krishna is revealed as both totally transcendent and totally immanent. In the eleventh book Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as the Lord in whom the whole creation exists.
Finally, Bede deals with the influence of the Tantra in Hindu thought. Tantra constituted a counter to the prevailing tendency toward asceticism in Hinduism as a whole.
Leaving behind the body, the soul, the mind and all its activities, the aim was to unite oneself with supreme brahman, the supreme atman. That is the basic movement of sannyasa, renunciation. The Tantra arose in opposition to that, to assert the values of nature and of the body, of the senses and of sex.
Bede finishes the chapter with these words,
That is the vision of the universe in the Hindu tradition, in which there are many similarities with the vision of the Western scientist and philosopher. Western science, having lost itself in materialism, is discovering its mistake and is opening itself now to the ancient wisdom, and East and West are beginning to come together.
I certainly agree that Western science is lost in materialism. I am not so sure it is listening to ancient wisdom though, Eastern or Western. I think Bede’s primary interest is how can we re-think our universe and world and our own being as human beings in an inclusive way that reflects a unity of matter, mind and spirit, as does the pernennial philosophy, all the while taking seriously the great insights of modern science. The particular insights from this chapter for me are 1) the foundational place of Spirit in relation to mind and matter in the Hindu mind; and 2) the belief that we are microcosms of the macrocosm, and 3) the belief in a personal universe.
Some possible discussion points:
1. Spirit seems to be central in Hindu tradition. Can we say the same for our Western traditions?
2. Could Spirit every be considered scientifically?
3. For Hindu tradition, the universe is personal. It was once so in the West. I wonder what might have to happen to bring back a personal universe in the West.
4. What are some of the implications for us in the West to think of ourselves as microcosms of the macrocosm, as carrying the cosmos within us in some way?