Shri Balasaheb Thackeray passed away today (Saturday afternoon India time) in Mumbai. Much of what I know about current events, I learn from the handful of people I follow on twitter. So I got to know of Balasaheb’s death through twitter. I noticed quite a few “RIP” messages. That prompted me to write a few tweets myself.
The first tweet on the matter was
Here is a picture of my twitter time line where I state why RIP is not appropriate for those who follow the dharmic traditions (Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, etc).
Nama and Rupa
Pondering the fact of death, I am reminded that impermanence is a central feature of the world we live in. The phenomenal world — of things and events — is called maya in the dharmic traditions. The world is maya. Many people simply translate it as “illusion” but that is incorrect. The world is real. Maya does not mean that the world is unreal or that it is an illusion. It means something like this: the world as we perceive it is not what the world actually is. That reality is given a word — Brahman. Most of us cannot comprehend the Brahman because we are limited beings.
That is, our perception is imperfect or incomplete, and the model of the world we build in our brains is not what the world is. Neti, neti. Not that, not that. Alan Watts explained maya nicely.
. . . the maya doctrine points out, firstly, the impossibility of grasping the actual world in the mind’s net of words and concepts, and, secondly, the fluid character of those very forms which thought attempts to define. The world of facts and events is altogether nama, abstract names, and rupa, fluid form. It escapes both the comprehension of the philosopher and the grasp of the pleasure-seeker like water from a clutching fist. There is even something deceptive in the idea of Brahman as the eternal reality underlying the flux, and of the atman as the divine ground of human consciousness, for in so far as these are concepts they are incapable of grasping the real as any other.
The idea that words are incapable of fully defining reality is a central defining feature of dharmic traditions. We have to use them but we should not confuse them for what they represent. The map, as they say, is not the territory. Words are symbols and they have their utility but if imperfectly understood, they can be a hindrance to the ultimate goal — that of liberation, variously known as moksha or nirvana.
Alan Watts again, on moksha:
Moksha is also understood as liberation from maya—one of the most important words in Indian philosophy, both Hindu and Buddhist. For the manifold world of facts and events is said to be maya, ordinarily understood as an illusion which veils the one underlying reality of Brahman. This gives the impression that moksha is a state of consciousness in which the whole varied world of nature vanishes from sight, merged in a boundless ocean of vaguely luminous space. Such an impression should be dismissed at once, for it implies a duality, an incompatibility, between Brahman and maya which is against the whole principle of Upanishadic philosophy. For Brahman is not One as opposed to Many, not simple as opposed to complex. Brahman is without duality (advaita), which is to say without any opposite since Brahman is not in any class or, for that matter, outside any class.
Now classification is precisely maya. The word is derived from the Sanskrit root matr-, “to measure, form, build, or lay out a plan,” the root from which we obtain such Greco-Latin words as meter, matrix, material, and matter. The fundamental process of measurement is division, . . . Thus the Sanskrit root dva- from which we get the word “divide” is also the root of the Latin duo (two) and the English “dual.”
To say, then, that the world of facts and events is maya is to say that facts and events are terms of measurement rather than realities of nature.
Just by the way, Alan Watts (1915-1973) is a favorite teacher of mine. He explains many basic concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism in terms that I find accessible. Philosophically I place myself in the advaita (non-duality) school, which I think is what unites Hinduism and Buddhism, the two great traditions of India. As Watts puts it, Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export.
Avoid Resting in Peace
Anyhow, getting back to the matter of Balasaheb’s death and the usual “RIP” nonsense. I say it is nonsense because “rest in peace” or its Latin original “requiescat in pace,” implies a belief in the concept that at death, the body is separated from the soul, and so the body is buried while the soul rests elsewhere until the final day of judgement when some “god” unites the body with the soul and then assigns some to “heaven” and others to “hell.”
I find the whole notion of heaven and hell, and its necessary correlate of a judgmental “god” who hands out eternal rewards and punishments, utterly insane and repulsive. It’s all very fine for people who profess the Abrahamic faiths to wish their co-religionists RIP but others would do well to respect people of different faiths and not wish them RIP.
Material versus Cosmological Beliefs
In response to my tweet about RIP, Satish Jha (@satish_jha) tweeted
@atanudey True.but what’s so Hindu about anything we do, say, read, write, wear, consume. Am shocked at conversion of India into vChristians
I suppose “vChristians” means “virtual Christians.” Satish perhaps meant it rhetorically but it raises an interesting question: does what I read, write, wear and consume make me a Hindu? I read and write in English, I wear Western style clothing, I live in a Western country, etc. Even then I am a Hindu at the core of my being.
What defines me as a Hindu is my core belief system. How I comprehend the world is what determines whether I am a Hindu or not. The important distinction here is between “material beliefs” and “cosmological beliefs.”
Material beliefs relate to the everyday matter of how to make a living, while cosmological beliefs relate to how should one live. The former is informed by the physical and social sciences (which in my case happens to be economics) and the latter by philosophy. My cosmological beliefs define me as a Hindu. I understand, appreciate and subscribe to the ideas of maya, dharma, karma, moksha and so on.
Even though I have adopted material beliefs that appear to be Western, that does not mean that I have to abandon my cosmological beliefs. They are not in conflict and they are not mutually exclusive. What I wear or the language I speak are superficial features that can mislead those who can only see the surface (and not what lies beneath) into thinking that I am a “virtual” something or the other that I am actually not.
(I write “material beliefs that appear to be Western” — the stress is on the word “appears” — because there’s nothing Western about economic and individual freedom. India has a long tradition of that and only recently has it been eclipsed by socialism. This too shall pass.)
While I have put the above in personal terms, it has relevance for India as a whole. India needs economic development and that would require Indians to change their material beliefs. Indians must understand that material poverty is an unavoidable consequence of wrong ideas of “how to make a living.” But changing their material beliefs will not require them to change their views on “how to live.” Poverty is not a core defining feature of being a Hindu, although Gandhi (and his followers) may insist that they are congruent.
Getting back to Shri Balasaheb. “Namaste and Om Shanti,” Shri Balasaheb.