Kleshas and Tanhas

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Multiplicity vs. Polytheism

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One of the common things we tend to do today is interchange multiplicity with polytheism. Especially when dealing with Hinduism, we tend to think of the 330 billion deities as a form of polytheism. However, upon taking a course on Hinduism, I learned a new term that explains for a vast array of deities ranging from male to female, elephant-headed to six headed, and destroyer to preserver: multiplicity. Dictionary.com does a fairly decent job at defining the term; the state of being multiple. How does this vary from polytheism? How does this apply to Christianity?


 A wide approach to address Hinduism’s use of the term multiplicity is to look at the Six Aspects of Our World. In short they are: We live in 1) A multiple world that includes galaxies, tiers, and cylces, 2) a moral world in which karma is inexorable, 3) a middling world that will never replace paradise as the spirit’s destination, 4) a world in which maya exists, 5) a gymnasium for developing spiritual capacities i.e. “a vale for soul-making”, and finally 6) a world in which lila, the play of the divine in its cosmic dance, exists. (Huston Smith, Illustrated World’s Religions.) The immediate reason for displaying these six aspects is to point out that the fundamental message of Hinduism’s perception of our world, while it was founded in the East well before Abram and Sarai were renamed as Abraham and Sarah, holds many of Christianity’s similar perceptions. But simply put by Professor Jeaneane Fowler of the University of Wales College: “The relationship between the many manifest deities and the unmanifest Brahman is rather like that between the sun and its rays. We cannot experience the sun itself but we can experience its rays and the qualities, which those rays have.” Brahman would be the equivalent of the Trinity complete, all Three in One would compose Brahman. However, broken down into three parts, equivalent to the Trinity’s Three Persons, Brahma is the deity associated as Creator, Vishnu as Preserver, and Shiva as Destroyer. I would personally argue that within these three deities, the remaining 330 billion (minus three) deities originate. How is that possible? And why isn’t this referred to as polytheism?


The term avatar explains how the number of deities is capable of jumping to a whopping 330 billion. Vishnu alone has ten avatars in which the Eighth Avatar is Krishna (from which Krishnaism branches off from,) and the Ninth Avatar is commonly believed to be the Buddha. With each deity springs up a female consort, wife, or counterpart that ultimately pertains to an aspect or characteristic of the primal deity. Why do these deities exist? Certain aspects are portrayed through a womanly figure rather than a male deity. This can’t be argued because how should a male deity embody maternal characterstics that figures like Durga, who I consider to be a midway point between Kali and Parvati in certain aspects. While those three names are indeed inclusive of three separate persons, they all fall under Devi, the ultimate goddess mother, loosely identified with being the female counterpart of Brahma.

But immediately, I feel like my train of thought has been lost while trying to correlate the similarities between gods and goddesses. Hindu art especially helps to depict the aspects among deities. To use Kali, Durga, and Parvati again, Kali is always depicted as the embodiment of “tough maternal love” in which she chops off the heads of ignorance from her devotees. Durga is a more balanced figure that is powerful and stern at times, but is not associated with violence, but does not have a soft side like Parvati. Parvati retains qualities that which a newborn child would be treated with instead of bloody acts like Kali. While Durga falls somewhere in between, these three goddesses depict just a few aspects that which Brahman retains.
I find this similar to Christianity embracing their God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Brahma, the Creator deity consequently is omnipotent. Vishnu, omniscient, and Shiva as omnipresent because where does death not reach? This isn’t to ignore the differences between 330 billion versus 3. However, both 330 billion and 3 boil into one. The means by which each religion explains how this is possible relates through multiplicity, rather than polytheism because many gods would deny the fact that each deity or person (of the Trinity) is not absorbed by Brahman or the Trinity, that each god is a separate outlier. Catholicism is quick to define the Trinity as the Christian Mystery: “In the Symbol of the faith the Church confesses the mystery of the Holy Trinity and of the plan of God’s “good pleasure” for all creation: the Father accomplishes the “mystery of his will” by giving his beloved Son and his Holy Spirit for the salvation of the world and for the glory of his name.” (CCC 1066, Ephesians 1:9.) This echoes Hinduism’s simple structure of Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer. What both religions share is what fills the spaces in between.

I hope to get a Part 2 for this…Please comment on anything that isn’t clear or if it seems like I’m smashing two religions crudely together.


Written by Jack Viere

December 18, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Posted in Hinduism, Huston Smith

Thoreau Living Hinduism’s Doctrine Through A Buddhist Lifestyle Part 2

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“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”-Henry David Thoreau

To fully undertake the Eight Fold Path in order to end dukkha, or lives of quiet desperation, one must cut off their ignorance. And so when something profound like transcendentalism appears to mainstream America in the late 19th century, only that which can coincide with our comfort is learned and accepted from that philosophy. 
Reasons why we tend to be surrounded by comfort are found within technology. Technology should never be condemned, and within Buddhism’s Three Components, prajna encompasses the benefits that inventions bring. Described as an accurate understanding of reality, prajna accepts technology because it is a part of reality; its transformation. But prajna isn’t found within a Westerner’s vocabulary. We have no discernment; our logic isn’t prajna. Nevertheless, we still find ways to justify gluttony and desire. Hedonism is now called “play;” we go to work and we come home on the weekends to play. Engaging in ephemeral pleasure and abusing technology delude what our true desires are and become factors that make pictures of Kali seem so shocking and primal. To have our ignorance that resides in our beautiful and omnipotent heads chopped off by a fierce female deity is abhorred by not only the arrogant, presumptuous, and self-righteous, but also the weak, lazy, and incompetent. I think that going straight after our egos, our tanhas, with a sword wielded by a higher being is something that completely contradicts our self-gratifying Western society.
I think looking at Thoreau’s radical movement really puts Hinduism’s ideology into perspective; it is not simple, it is not half-hearted, and it certainly isn’t a Sunday-only devotion. When you start looking into the Four Yogas, you realize how inclusive Hinduism is, especially when it engulfs Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. What is to be gained through the practice of yoga, particularly raja yoga that embodies psychophysical tests on a yogi, is similar to what Thoreau wishes to achieve at Walden Pond. However, even though Thoreau’s profound experience came across as a radical response to the 19th century, it is not radical enough. This isn’t to say that Hinduism trumps transcendentalism, but it does hint at how something profound in Western society is dwarfed by mainstream Eastern culture.
There are burdens that the First Amendment of United States Constitution instills. A common Hindu philosophy is discerning right from wrong, what is holy and divine, and ultimately what is atman or soul; “Neti…neti…” which translates into “Not this…not that…” And this is the complete opposite of freedoms that are given, particularly those within the First Amendment. Freedoms say “this is acceptable…this is acceptable.” And this isn’t necessarily suppose to be bad or limited, but look at how much precedes and follows the First Amendment, seven articles and nine amendments. And again, this isn’t to say that Hinduism’s “neti” discernment process is a one-size fits all moral law, but with prajna, one is able to make decisions and say no, rather than be tempted to test the legal restraints. I immediately think of the protesting at the Lance Corporal’s funeral in Kansas, it was within the restraints of the law, but what was ultimately gained from using the law in that way?
               I think that the idea of laws saying “this is acceptable, this isn’t” is another reflection of how gluttonous and self-assertive we are in the West, especially when our freedoms were initially instituted to protect our self-interests, our tanhas. Protecting our excessive wants and desires make it even harder to ever consider chopping our egos off for the sake of devoting time to someone else, much less a god, or God, or even our true selves. Our atmans, souls, aren’t reaping the benefits of our hedonistic indulgences. “Ephemeral” doesn’t mean anything when technology and innovations make it cheap for replacements. Our animas, to trump our weak English word for soul with an etymologically superior word coming from Latin, aren’t fueled by our tanhas, but are weakened drastically.
               As an aside, the Media plays into our tanhas. The availability of what news we want to hear, when want it, and how we are going to receive it are all now determined by the individual. This is just another example of how we are able to shape our worlds into what we want, and this is consequently the definition of gluttony. We may or may not need news, but since it is there, we might as well obtain it for what it is worth. However, instead of consuming it raw, uncooked, and pure, we begin to perceive reality in a skewed telescope. We no longer perceive the tangible reality of this world, which in Buddhist, Hindu, and transcendentalist contexts is not the ultimate reality. 

Written by Jack Viere

November 19, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Thoreau Living Hinduism’s Doctrine Through A Buddhist Lifestyle

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               “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The recognition of this statement as reality is Truth. It is also the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. What Henry David Thoreau paraphrases into a simple sentence happens to encompass a much larger philosophy of dukkha, or suffering. Hinduism similarly points out that the human condition is samsara, which is life’s wheel of birth and death. The three beliefs, transcendentalism, Buddhism, and Hinduism prescribe medication, or rather certain rituals and practices to heal oneself of reality’s inflicting pain. The concept of life not being experienced fully is pointed out in Thoreau’s philosophy. Quiet desperation is prominent, hence “the mass of men lead” this short-sighted and ephemeral life style. Hinduism’s term samsara describes the limited life Thoreau mentions as innate; human beings are born with this dukkha, or the suffering of living in the veiled world.
Shiva Nataraja
               Hinduism’s definition of the human condition is the most complex of these three definitions. Samsara incorporates an identification of the unconscious because one is not able to recall previous lives. This belief that one has lead many lives through samsara is profound and seems irrelevant and foreign compared to Thoreau’s idea of quiet desperation. The dizziness that samsara can create, best depicted in the Hindu artwork of Shiva Nataraja sculptures does not encompass what the quiet desperation happens to embody. But if one was to look at these two concepts from a more general viewpoint, they both require the same medication. Quiet desperation calls for the recognition of nature as ultimately being God. The process through which one recognizes the ultimate reality of God is samsara’s opposite, moksha, or liberation from life’s repetative cycle. Moksha can be achieved through the Four Yogas which inevitably lead a yogi, the equivalent of a transcendentalist following Thoreau’s ideals, through several stages before reaching the final goal of moksha. These two medications are the same because “desperation” is in fact samsara; it is the fear of life’s unending cycle and consequently, the fear exclusively in desperation is a continuation of samsara.
               Thoreau’s prescription to cure a man’s life of his quiet desperation put in the simplest of terms is experiencing nature. It is crucial to understand that the quiet desperation derives from Thoreau’s previous life in New England life before becoming a transcendentalist. It’s also worth noting that the desperation is quiet because it is shameful. It is a weakness in Thoreau’s New England world to visibly wear the weight of life’s burden.  What Thoreau is escaping from in the “real” world, the world that is noisy, despairing, and hedonistic, is what yogis try to escape through the prescription of the Four Yogas. Raja yoga best exemplifies a transcendentalist’s escape from the world. Because a transcendentalist is not a reform worker or religious fanatic, he is not a karmic or bhakti yogi. The preliminary requirements for raja yoga are “one’s personal life needs to be in order by practicing the five abstentions that restrain one from injury, lying, stealing, sensuality, and greed.” (Huston Smith, 34.) This mirrors Thoreau’s previous life before escaping to Walden Pond; studying at Harvard University. There is a certain amount of preparation that both the yogi and transcendentalist undergo in order to fully experience moksha and nature.
               While these two types of believers follow strict rules, they in essence achieve what they are striving for in their work. “The object of…raja yoga is to unplug one’s sense receptors…or put them on hold so the clatter of the world’s boiler factory won’t disturb the yogi’s concentration.” (Smith, 37.) The escape a transcendentalist makes from society is this unplugging of one’s sense receptors. Both Thoreau and raja yoga point that too often are one’s surroundings and they are distracting and perverse. This establishes a need to perform rituals, such as raja yoga, to reach an ultimate truth above quiet desperation. This truth, found in nature and moksha, ultimately bring one to what is ultimately real. Realizing that there is in fact more to life than just quiet desperation is moksha, and to achieve it, one most consume and perform the necessary prescriptions that their medication calls for in healing.
               Buddhism prescribes explicitly what medication to take and in what dosage. Buddhism takes the Hindu term samsara a step further in explaining what it embodies. Known as the first of the Four Noble Truths, dukkha, meaning suffering, is what Thoreau coins as quiet desperation. The second of the Four Noble Truths is the cause of dukkha known as tanha, or thirst or craving. (Smith, 70-71.)This thirsting is fueled by kleshas, which are afflictive emotions and mental defilements. (Robert Clark.) Kleshas are divided into the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. Thoreau viewed these as the causes for a man to consequently live a life of quiet desperation. Quiet desperation, or kleshas, creates negative karma. In the Buddhist context, negative karma builds the amount of dukkha one undertakes.
The Four Noble Truths, however, don’t only echo the reality of dukkha; they also prescribe a cessation to its harm. Known as the Eight Fold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth is a course of training to end quiet desperation. The Three Components establish context for the marga, or path: sila meaning ethics, dhyana depicting concentration, and prajna, an accurate understanding of reality which translates into English as wisdom. (Clark.) Viewed as a pyramid, the Three Components are founded on sila. Ethics are ruled by the Five Precepts that hinder killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and the consumption of intoxicants. (Smith, 74.) By observing these laws, one is able to step to the next level of the pyramid known as dhyana. Concentration in this context refers to meditation, and through the practice of it, one can attain prajna, an accurate understanding of reality. Prajna is known as wisdom because wisdom allows for one to fully embody the Three Marks of Existence: dukkha, anicca, and anatman.
The Three Marks of Existence are the ultimate goal which Thoreau desires to reach, that is wisdom. Dukkha, or realizing that one does suffer, is the first step that leads one back to the beginning of the Four Noble Truths. Anicca means impermanence which encompasses the idea of an accurate understanding of reality. Anatman literally means “no-self.” Deriving from Hinduism’s term atman,

anatman rejects the egocentrism that a life of quiet desperation carries; self-centeredness, known as tanha, restricts one to fully partake in dhyana and prajna. (Smith, 71.) Hindu and Buddhist artwork depict the bloody rejection of egos, which inevitably derives from our ignorance. In certain portrayals of the Hindu goddess Kali, her necklace of severed skulls is the egos of her devotees. To fully undertake the Eight Fold Path to end dukkha, or lives of quiet desperation, one must cut off their ignorance.

This is where minute differences begin to appear between Thoreau’s ideal Walden Pond and Buddha’s strict teachings that derived from Hinduism’s seemingly sanguine doctrine. To an extent, it can be viewed that in the East, this shedding of hedonistic pleasures in a gory fashion are not warmly welcome in the West. If any change is to take place, even the “most dramatic” like Thoreau’s escape to Walden Pond, it is not painful. I think that there is too much gluttony and accessibility to comfort and the apparently profound idea of chopping this tanha, this “ego-oozing” desire as Smith puts it, from ourselves is too difficult and overly demanding. This can also be weighted with the West’s growing xenophobia, but I think there is more than just a fear for what is distant to us; there is a fear of dramatic change, even in this case when it is for the obvious better. It can be based on my opinion, but there is much to be gained from these outlying philosophies that reject the fulfillment of our egos. I think that much of what is coined with transcendentalism today is sustainable living, and thus it remains on the fringes of society. But in the East, both Hinduism and Buddhism thrive on the surface of Asian culture. I think that the “dramatic and bloody” baptism into a life of anatman is inevitably lacking within Western, fringe philosophy. Because we feel comfortable half-associating ourselves with certain ideals, we are able to pick and choose qualities of certain philosophies. And so when something profound like transcendentalism appears to mainstream America in the late 19th century, only that which can coincide with our comfort is learned and accepted from that philosophy.  

Written by Jack Viere

November 17, 2010 at 11:12 pm

The Importance of Understanding Hindu Terminology and Concepts

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Together, Hindu philosophy and scripture depict how “truth is one, paths are many.” One gives evidence towards the other; the philosophy derives from the scripture. Huston Smith’s Illustrated World’s Religions defines many of the Sanskrit terms that are key to understand within Swami Satchidanananda’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Within the Chapters 2 and 18 that have been analyzed, Krishna specifies Arjuna’s dharma, or duty. In addition to Krishna’s explanations, Satchidanananda’s commentary explains how the Hindu terms and beliefs from Smith’s texts fit into scripture and reality. It is crucial to understand Smith’s concepts before diving into the Bhagavad Gita; though Satchinananda’s comments are easy to understand, the broad Hindu terminology has to be learned and experienced to a degree that allows for the reader to relate to the scriptures. The Four Yogas are the philosophies that both Smith and Satchinananda write on; however, the Sanskrit words are better defined within Smith’s text while Satchinananda elaborates more on the concepts and beliefs that the same words have. This depicts the need to understand the diction before understanding how “truth is one, paths are many.” Both writers point to this significance of this philosophy through the shared medium of the Four Yogas. While learning the Hindu terms, one can follow their teaching through the steps prescribed by yoga and achieve what is true.   
            Within the quote “truth is one, paths are many,” the Hindu yogas are the paths. Hinduism’s inclusivity binds many variations of how an individual can become closer to God. “The result is…there are multiple paths to God, each calling for its distinctive mode of approach.” (Smith, 26.) While there are four paths called the Four Yogas, each believer is included in a branch of yoga. The goal of yoga is “to discern the self’s deep-lying divinity.” (Smith, 26.) Again, Smith defines the terms that are applied in the Bhagavd Gita; “The first step of every yoga involves the dismantling of good habits and the acquisition of good ones.” (Smith, 26.) The paths in “truth is one, paths are many,” are meant to be journeyed on while the truths are to be discovered.
In Chapter Two of the Bhagavad Gita, Sloka 41 rephrases the concept of “truth is one, paths are many” as: “If your mind is unsteady and wandering, many-branched and endless are the thoughts and choices. When your mind is clear and one-pointed, there is only one decision.” (2:41, Baghavad Gita.) To achieve a clear and one-pointed mind, yoga is prescribed. It encompasses the physical, mindful, and spiritual demands of Hinduism. While Smith states yoga’s ideal, Satchinananda follows the Bhagavad Gita and discerns the reality of one who is trying to live yoga. Satchinananda quotes Krishna telling Arjuna, “‘You haven’t harmonized your thought, word, and deed.’” (Satchinananda, 13.) At this point, Krishna begins teaching Arjuna the use of yoga.
The spiritual and mindful demands of yoga are best seen in the form of raja yoga. Known as the “royal way,” raja yoga encompasses the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. According to Satchinananda, in raja yoga, also known as integral yoga, “You blend theory and practice. You apply the theory in your day-to-day activities.” (Satchinananda, 19.) The day-to-day activities can be seen as karma yoga, which is the way through action and work. To integrate truth while on one of the many paths of karma yoga, one needs to apply the said “theory” from Satchinananda’s quote. But in order to understand truth of that theory, one must incorporate jnana yoga, or the path of knowledge and discrimination. Because yoga literally means “yoking, or uniting together,” one needs to yoke the truths found in jnana yoga. “For those already enlightened, the scriptures are as useful as a water reservoir during a flood.” (Chapter 2:46, Bhagavad Gita.) While one can learn as much as possible from the teachings found in scripture, Hinduism does not stop at this point. Bhakti yoga signifies love and devotion. “The aim of bhakti yoga – the yoga of love and devotion – is to direct toward God the love that lies at the base of every heart.” (Smith, 28.)  Because love and devotion can both be continual, the combination of the Four Yogas is unconditional.
However, yoga does not call for one to rejoice in their accomplishments. Satchinananda is quick to point out that “one’s duty is to perform the act, but not for the fruit.” (Satchinananda, 23.) The fruits of one’s actions can delude yoga’s attempt to bring one’s atman, or soul, closer to God. Though there are many paths on which a yogi can follow to reach ultimate truth, there are also false paths that are distracting.  In Chapter 2:49 of the Gita says: “Work done for the sake of some results is much lower than that done in mental equilibrium, Arjuna. Wretched are those motivated by the fruits of their actions.” Instead of being led down the wrong path towards distractions, Satchinananda advises “equanimity of mind is yoga.” (Satchinananda, 23.) Equanimity has two Latin roots: eques, meaning equality, and animas, meaning soul or mind. While in philosophical terms, the word equanimity can refer to equal- mindedness, Hinduism combines this meaning with the idea of an equal or calmed soul. Equanimity enables a yogi to stay on the correct path to truth. “With minds full of desires and heaven as their highest goal, they speak mostly of rites and rituals, which they believe will bring more pleasure and power.” (Chapter 2:43, Bhagavad Gita.) Only with equal minds and souls can a believer truly practice the Four Yogas.
I think that Hinduism’s inclusivity is something that world religions lack today. While both Christianity and Islam require for a believer to be completely committed to their faith, I think Hinduism allows for some picking and choosing. This can be reflected in the multiplicity of deities. Hindis are able to pick an ishta, or one’s chosen ideal of God, and this allows for believers to worship a more appropriate deity that reflects their chosen path of yoga. Hinduism’s teachings are not loose and unrestricted. With many deities come multiple mythological stories that convey the same message of yoga and stress the significance of yoga. I find that some of the major concepts of Hinduism, such as the Four Yogas, can be applied to other faiths. I think that when reading Hindu scripture, such as the Bhagavad Gita, there can be an array of interpretations, all of which are accepted. I think Satchinananda’s commentary portrays how analyzed and complex simple terms such as yoga and dharma can hold so much meaning while at the same time, the same terms in Smith’s context can be used as simple building blocks to create a much larger picture. The quote “truth is one, paths are many” depicts how the same terms can be used with the same meaning, but explain an assortment of Hinduism’s traditions and teaching.  

Written by Jack Viere

November 16, 2010 at 12:44 pm