Sunday, July 3, 2022

Disorder and its role in Hinduism

(Chaos is an integral part of Vedas, Upanishads and the vast canon of classical writing in Sanskrit. So next time you feel-like revolting on chaos in India’s temples, or find “Holi” too disorderly, read this perceptive analysis by brilliant scholar Rajiv Malhotra in his book “Being Different”  First of two-part excerpts of this remarkable book):

By Rajiv Malhotra

In the Vedas and Upanishads, and in the vast canon of classical writings in Sanskrit, we see many context-sensitive and flexible ways of dealing with chaos and difference. The search here is always for balance and equilibrium with the rights of chaos acknowledged. In the creation stories in Genesis and in the Greek classics, there is a constant zero-sum battle between the two poles in which order must triumph. Western mythologies, both Hebraic and Greek, are replete with themes that depict the negative realms as chaotic and the heavens as orderly with the two locked in perpetual struggle rather than seeking complementarities and balance. This structure underlines so much of Western culture and psychology that it can be difficult for westerners to see it unless it is reflected from an external point of view.


In Vedic literature, numerous myths recount the creator Prajapati’s efforts to beget a universe that would hold the two forces of order and chaos in equilibrium. His first attempt results in a creation which is insufficiently differentiated (`jami’), as it possesses too much order. This precludes integral unity because there are no sufficiently distinct components to cohere in the first place. They are undifferentiated and simply merge into each other, a state the Pancavimsa Brahmana (24:11:2) refers to as a`nightmare’. The second attempt at creation yields a universe which is too fragmented or chaotic (prthak, nantva). When entities in the universe are too individualistic, scattered, separated or different from each other (prthak), they cannot connect. What is desired is a creation which possesses a measure of distinction and individuality but avoids the quality of `jami’—i.e. it would be interconnected yet circumventing the equally undesirable state of prthak.

Prajapati recognizes that all life should be situated between these opposing excesses of too much identity difference and too much homogeneity. Ultimately, he succeedsn in producing just such a universe. He does so through the power of resemblance, known as `bandhuta’ or bandhu. The Vedas abound in attempts at finding connections among the numerous plains of reality. This serves as a cardinal principle of all Vedic thought and moral discourse.

Hinduism weaves multiple narratives around the central motif of cooperative rivalry between order (personified by devas) and chaos (personified as asuras). A key myth shared by all the dharma traditions—the “churning of the milky ocean,” or “samudra-manthan”—shows the eternal struggle between these two poles. The milky ocean is the ocean of consciousness and creativity, which is to be churned in order to obtain amrita, or the nectar of eternal life. Two opposing sides are needed for churning. Curiously, both sides have a common father: Kashyapa( literally vision). The asuras’ mother is Diti (divided, limited)  and so the asuras are the offspring of limited vision. The devas spring from Aditi (limitless) and they thus embody higher vision. The asuras usually have more brute strength, but both the power and strength of the asuras as well as the higher vision of the devas are needed for the churning. The to-ing and fro-ing between these archetypes is never-ending and also symbolizes the spiritual struggles within the individual.

The devas grab the tail, and the asuras, the head, of the cosmic serpent, using it as a rope which they wind around a mountain that serves as the churning stick. The engage in a tug of war, pulling back and forth to churn the primordial ocean. The dualism is between knowledge and ignorance though the latter should not be mistaken for sin or damnation. Asuric tendencies are not considered permanent essences but inner qualities that emerge at a given point in time. Their mutual tension does not get resolved with one side defeating the other, and their stalemate produces all sorts of wondrous and beneficial objects before open conflict breaks out over questions of priority in partaking of the nectar of immortality. Significantly, nectar is produced only after a pot of poison emerges from the ocean—demonstrating yet again the interdependence between good and bad. The myth points the way to the transcendence of both order and chaos, which are brought into delicate equilibrium and ultimately subordinated to spiritual realization. The story of the samudra-manthan is not intended to be taken literally. Indeed, the ultimate uncertainty of knowing how the universe came about is given eloquent expression in the famous “Hymn of Creation” in the Rig Veda (X. 129):

Who verily knows and who can here declare it,

Whence it was born and whence comes this creation?

The Gods are later than the world’s production,

Who knows whence it first came into being?

He, the first origin of this creation,

Whether he formed it all or did not form it,

Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven,

He verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

Some of the principal Vedic divinities, especially Agni, Soma and Varuna, are asuras who have crossed over to the side of the devas at the behest of Indra but who still retain their ambivalence and sinister aspects. At the end of the annual cycle—around the time of the new-year festivals—the asuras are believed to return temporarily to their demonic status. Society, at this time, dissolves into chaos (as depicted playfully during the festival of Holi) before the ordered cosmos is renewed again.

In the cooperative rivalry between devas and asuras, the asuras often seem to be winning; there are frequent indications that the deepest knowledge and most exceptional powers are safeguarded by extremely ambivalent figures belonging to the camp of the asuras. Such recurrent crossovers, collusions, and reversals serve to overturn and undermine the Western attitude towards chaos, which is dualistic and exclusivist: order vs chaos, insider or outsider, and so on.

The dharmic mind sees the cosmos as an integrated whole, one which is self-organized rather than administered by an externally imposed law. If India appears to outsiders as a “functioning chaos,” it is because there is a high degree of acceptance of differences and a conscious effort at integration while maintaining autonomy. In the Rig Veda, there is a remarkable insight into universal order and harmony called “ritam,” which is the ordering principle of nature. Ritam gives everything—from vast galaxies to the nucleus of an atom—its nature and course. It manifests on three levels: on the cosmic plane, as governing the course of nature; on the socio-ethical level, as justice; and within the inner realm of the practitioner. Ritam maintains balance between the micro and macro levels of existence. There is no dichotomy between ethical and cosmic order. It bridges the spheres which the West has separated, namely the sacred and the secular, spirit and nature, and so on.

The order-chaos tension results in a delicate equilibrium which makes the prevailing order not absolute but tentative, relative, porous and supple. Disorder serves as a source of creativity by preventing order from becoming fossilized. The Lord is not only the creator of the universe (as Brahma) and the manifestation of its order (Vishnu) but also the one who ultimately dissolves it (as Shiva). The dissolution makes room for the next cycle of creation. At the spiritual level, Shiva, the Lord of the Yoga, aptly assumes the appearance of chaos to facilitate the dissolution of bondage to the falsehoods in our minds—making way for new creation. This process, is continual, unceasing, all-pervading and functions on both the subatomic and cosmic levels.

The notion of dynamic equilibrium between poles of opposites is found throughout the Vedic texts. The Rig Veda describes the ancient rishis as looking within their own hearts to discover the hidden connection or relationship between existence (sat) and nonexistence (asat). Existence not only rests upon non-existence, these two poles are bound together intimately and dynamically.

Lord Krishna also shows two different personalities. One is his aishvarya (organized) side, which allows for confidence, self-reliance and achievement. The other is his madhurya-bhava (sweet emotion), which is about love as opposed to orderly discipline. Hence, order is offset by love that supersedes intellect.

(To be continued)

(Part II: Biblical and Greek Mythology)

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