JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

2. Philosophy of India.

§ 4.

1. It is usual to distinguish four periods in Indian literature; the period of the Vedas, or sacred writings of the Brahmins; the period of the Epic Poems or Itihasas; the period of the more refined poetry of the Court of the Rajah Yikramaditja; and, lastly, the period of the Commentaries on the earlier writings -- a period which falls within the Christian era.

(a.) The Vedas, which some writers make as old as the fourteenth or sixteenth century before Christ, are four in number: the Rig-Veda, the Yajur- Sama- and Atharva-Veda. They are the work of different authors, and consist partly of prayers, partly of religious ordinances, and partly of theological doctrines -- the parts standing in no definite relation to one another. In these writings we find certain elements of a distinctly speculative character, chiefly in the so-called Upanishads, or extracts from the Brahmanas (Commentaries), which make the second part of every Veda. It is usual to connect with the Vedas the Book of Laws of Menu, which is assigned to a period mid-way between the time of the Vedas and the time of the Itihasas -- though some writers assign it a far later date.

(b.) The Itihasas (Heroic poems) are two in number -- the Ramajana and the Mahabkarata. The Ramajana is attributed to an ancient sage, Valmiki. There is little reference in it to speculative doctrines. The Mahabharata is of more importance in this respect, chiefly because of the episode it contains, on which the name Bhagavad-Gita has been bestowed, and which is of distinctly philosophical character. This poem is attributed to the mythical Vyasa, -- who is also credited with having collected the Vedas. The composition of the eighteen Puranas -- likewise attributed to Vyasa -- has also been said to belong to this period; but it has been shown that these are of much more recent date. They may be compared to our encyclopedias, as they embrace the whole range of science known to the Hindus. This characteristic seems of itself to indicate a comparatively modern origin.

(c.) In the third period we find the Gita-Govinda, a lyrical poem, the author of which named Dshayaveda, and the Sakuntala, the most celebrated of the Hindu dramas, the work of Kalidasa. There are grounds for believing that Kalidasa lived in the century immediately preceding the Christian era.

(d.) Last in order comes the age of the Commentaries on the earlier writings. There is little doubt that this period gave birth to a considerable philosophical literature. Certain mythical beings, belonging to a remote antiquity, are named as the authors of these writings. Judged by internal evidence, however, these writings are not of very ancient origin; it has been surmised that they do not date from a period more remote than the last century before Christ.

2. Philosophy among the Hindus has been developed in intimate connection with Religion. Even in its most modern form, this Philosophy bears traces of its origin, since it professes to be still an exposition of the Vedas. To understand it aright we must, therefore, cast a glance at the religious system of the Hindus.

3. In the earliest form of the Hindu Religion with which the Vedas make us acquainted, we find three supreme elemental divinities -- Indra, Varuni and. Agni -- the God of the Firmament, the God of Night, and. the God of Fire. This doctrine was succeeded later by that of the Trimurti. In the latter system the supreme object of all religions is the Deity -- the absolute unity which exists in all things, but is not represented by any notion we can form -- Brahma. Buried in deep repose, this being is absorbed in self-contemplation. His awakening from this slumber gives existence to concrete and individual objects, all of which come forth from him. In this process he becomes the creator, and it is as creator that he, properly speaking, is called by the name Brahma; as the Sustaining Power in nature he is called Vishnu; as Destroying Power, effecting constant changes in the forms of things, he is called Shiva. These three divinities form together the Hindu Trimurti, and to these divine worship is rendered. The metamorphoses of Vischnu, or the Incarnations of the Divinity, are the main subject of the sacred books. Every thing returns again to Brahma, the absolute unity. It is the duty of man to strive after union with Brahma. This is attainable by sacrifice and penance, and these presupposed, by the effort to rise to undisturbed contemplation of the Supreme Unity. The man who cannot reach this perfection has still to undergo a transmigration of soul, with the miseries and sufferings attending it.

4. In the later Itihasas we find these religious doctrines so far modified that heroes and penitents are honoured as gods. Even here, however, it is not deeds of heroism which win divine honours, but rather sacrifices of special worth (sacrifices of horses), or extraordinary practices of penance -- the stifling of all sense of earthly pleasure and pain. "When a king offers steeds in sacrifice, or betakes himself to the desert to practise superhuman penance, or devotes himself to superhuman contemplation, then do Indra and the gods of heaven tremble lest he should push them from their thrones, for in this way they, too, have reached their dignities." This, it will be perceived, is no more than a polytheism of the anthropomorphic kind.

5. Buddhism had its rise about the fifth or sixth century before Christ. The author of this religious system is said to have been Sakja Muni -- the first Buddha. The Buddhist doctrines are nihilistic. Sakja Muni had no God but nothingness. Nothingness, so runs the first of the four "great truths" of Buddhism, is the true being of all things, all that we take to be reality is void and without substance. Existence, or rather the clinging to individual existence, is the cause of evil, the source of suffering. It is, therefore, man's duty to shake himself free from this vain semblance of existence, or rather from his attachment to it. His end is to attain to the primary, the only true state -- non-existence, to the extinction of his personal being and personal consciousness -- "Nirvana."

6. A system of mystical asceticism is the appointed way by which man must reach this end. He must pass through a course of frightful penance, in order to extinguish individual consciousness in himself, and thus lose himself in Nirvana. Should he achieve this, he becomes one with God, and in his knowledge of the nothingness of all things, becomes lord of all. He is raised above all moral law, he cannot sin any more, he has freed himself from the trammels of nature, and becomes the benefactor and redeemer of his kind. The ideal of Buddhism the Buddhists naturally find to have been realised in the founder of their sect. "Master of self-forgetting contemplation, hero of self-annihilating asceticism, Sakja Muni, -- Buddha is the ideal and the refuge of his disciples. He lives in those who imitate his perfection. Whoever resembles the first Buddha shares in the divine honours which are his due, In the holy disciples of Buddha the deity is ever generated anew, to vanish anew into Nothing; is in fact nothing else than man delivering himself from existence." Whosoever fails to reach the perfection of Buddhist mysticism is not permitted after death to enter into Nirvana, but is condemned to wander over the earth in some spectral form. To avoid this fate the Buddhist must not shrink from penance, be it ever so appalling.

7. The Buddhists became divided into several sects. Their resistance to the authority of the Brahmins, and their opposition to the system of castes, provoked sanguinary religious wars. During these struggles large numbers of them were forced into exile, and in this way Buddhism was propagated in many countries of Eastern Asia.

8. With this general outline of the religions of India before us, we may now pass to the systems of Hindu Philosophy. These we may divide into the Philosophy of Mimansa and Vedanta, of Sankhya and Yoga, of Nyaya and Vaiseshika. We may further add the doctrines of the Dshainas, of the Tscherwakas, and of the Lokayatikas, but of these enough is not yet known to allow us to give an account of them in detail.

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