The post Vedic period
1.1. The post Vedic period is generally reckoned as the one that fell between the end of Rig Veda and the commencement of Buddhism. And more particularly, it covered the period of the Aitareya and Taittairiya texts, Brahmana Schools and the early Upanishads. In regard to its teachers, it is the period encompassed by Mahidasa Aitareya and Yajnavalkya Vajasaneya. It is an obscure but a highly important period of thought- evolution that preceded the rise of Jainism, Buddhism and other later systems of Indian thought.
1.2. The period closed with Yajnavalkya whose philosophical teachings epitomized the logical trend of the entire post Vedic thought tending towards the psycho-ethical. Yajnavalkya’s psychological speculations about the waking, the dreaming and the sleeping states of consciousness ; and his theories of rebirth, death and birth laid the foundations of many of the Jaina, the Buddhist and the Hindu doctrines.
The discussions of this period form the basis for development of many psychological theories of the senses, the mind and the soul; and speculations of their functions and inter relations that are characteristic of the Buddhist traditions.
Shift in emphasis
2.1. The locale of the post Vedic period shifted from the Vedic land of seven- waters (saptha-sindhavah) in the Punjab-Sindh region to Madhyadesha , which at those times meant the country lying to the east of Vinashana ( the region where the Saraswathi disappeared) stretching eastward up to Kalakavana or Black Forest , a tract somewhere near Prayaga.
2.2. The shifting of the knowledge-base from west to east must have taken place gradually. There is a long interval separating the last sage of the Rig-Veda from the first thinkers or the philosophers of the Post Vedic period.
During that long period not only did the manner and the objective of life change but the aspirations of life too changed. It moved from a desire for a long and a cheerful life on earth to a will to secure release from the chain of births. The escape from Dukkha and delusions of the world took precedence over enjoying earthly fruits.
The gods too were steadily and slowly changing from their Vedic characteristics and functions of granting longevity, cattle, children, wives, victory, health and happiness and prosperity on earth to sage- like counsellors bestowing the knowledge that liberates. In the post Vedic texts the gods were approached with reverence for gaining an understanding of the nature of Man and his Universe.
2.3. The chief interest of the Vedic sages was centred upon the physical world as a whole. The thinkers of Aranyakas and Upanishads were, on the other hand, more concerned with the organic world and man, and his inner urges, culture of faith and intellect. While the Vedic hymns look outward in reverence and awe at the phenomena in nature, the post Vedic texts tend to look inward attempting to interpret the powers of nature as varied expressions of human consciousness. In the post Vedic stage, logic and dialectics formed two wings of the discussions that were carried on; and, yet the intellectual aspect was as much important as the contemplative. The shift in emphasis was gradual and natural.
2.4. Although the early hymns of Rig Veda are full of inquisitive questions as to the what, the whence, the how and the whither of things, they are not philosophical in approach. Those exclamations and wonderment were turned in to philosophical expositions in the Post Vedic era by Aghamarshana and other thinkers that followed him.
2.5. The highest aspiration of the thinkers of the post Vedic times was to approach and be one with what one looked up to as the Supreme. That soaring aspiration found its expression in hymns, verses, speculative thoughts, and the deeply absorbing discussions of the Aranyaka texts and the Upanishads.
The question that mainly came up in the Post Vedic texts was ‘Who am I? ‘, which brought in its trail the other questions such as:’ ’Who is He?’; and ‘How shall I be one with Him?’ The thinkers of those times tried answering those questions in varieties of ways until it led them to the realization that the questions seemingly separate were in fact two aspects of the same problem. On that, they exclaimed in amazement and joy: ‘If I know Him, I know myself; If I know myself, I know Him’. That finally led to the pithy aphorism ‘So hum’ – I am He.
3.1. All such conceptions charged either by intellect or by intuition was in currency during the post-Vedic times. The earliest of its philosophers was Mahidasa Aitareya. He is revered as the forerunner who showed the way to thinkers that succeeded him. Mahidasa is therefore recognized as the Father of Indian Philosophy, though many regard Aghamarshana as the first one to clearly state and put forward a definite explanation of his belief that Samvatsara (year) , time-principle which governs life and death was the essence of all things.
3.2. According to Sri Sayana-charya, Mahidasa was the son of a sage (identified by Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji as Sage Visala) who had many wives, among whom was Mahidasa’s mother Itara. She came from a lower caste. Itara named her son after her chosen deity Goddess Mahi , the Mother Earth.
Mahidasa the neglected one was gifted with a natural aptitude for study and learning. By dint of his sheer genius Mahidasa, years later, rose to eminence. Mahidasa called himself Aitareya the son of Itara; and, named the texts compiled by him – Aitareya Brahmana and Aranyaka – in fond memory and in honor of his mother Itara.
3.3. Nothing specific is known about Mahidasa’s life. The only definite information about him comes from Chandogya Upanishad and Jaiminiya Upanishad, both of which mention that Mahidasa lived a long life of 116 years. It is said; the first 24 years of his life were spent as a student; the next 44 years as householder; the remaining 48 years as hermit or forest dweller free from illness and weaknesses.
3.4. Mahidasa compared the life of a person to a Yajna. According to him, the first 24 years of life are the morning libation connected with the Vasus. The next 44 years of life are the midday libations connected with the Rudras. And, the next 48 years are the third libation connected with the Adityas.
4.1. Aitareya is an important name in the Vedic literature . The Rig-Veda supposedly had an Aitareya recession. Mahidasa was perhaps the founder of a Shakha or a School of the Aitareyins whose philosophies were incorporated into the Aitareya Brahmana. To Aitareya Brahmana belongs the Aitareya Aranyaka , which includes Aitareya Upanishad. Even as early as in the sixth century BCE, the Buddha regarded the Aitareya along with Taittareya as being the oldest among the post – Vedic texts.
4.2. The Aitareya Brahmana and the Aitareya Aranyaka , omitting the Upanishad portions, together represent a homogeneous body of doctrines which may be regarded as the system of a particular school of thought , say that of Mahidasa Aitareya or of the Aitareya School. The case of the Upanishad is, however, different, as it contains the views of many individuals and schools other than of Aitareya clan.
4.3. Aitareya Aranyaka (appended to Aitareya Brahmana of the Rig Veda) consists five books each of which is treated as a separate Aranyaka. The Books One to Three are attributed to Mahidasa Aitareya; the Book Four to Asvalayana; and , the Book Five to Saunaka , the teacher of Asvalayana.
The status of householder
5.1. One of the moot questions that perhaps were in serious debate during those times was: whether one can coordinate or harmonize earnest spiritual quest with discharge of responsibilities as of a social being, a householder.
Mahidasa replied that with a very emphatic ‘yes’. There is no reason, he said, why a righteous person should forego the legitimate pleasures of the senses, in so far as these are in harmony with the purpose of the whole of nature. That is to say, in so far as these serve the real end for which these are meant , and no other.
5.2. He asserted that Marriage is a sacred human institution which must be respected by all human beings. Mahidasa believed, life is altogether imperfect and bitter without marriage and children (AA188.8.131.52-13). According to him, a happy life is one which is lived for a hundred years in health, strength and brightness (indriye, viryye, and tejasi).
5. 3. The householder is the pivot of social system; all stages and segments of life, either in family or in society, revolve around him. Just as all beings depend on air to exist, the other three stages in life (childhood, hermit and recluse) depend on the householder. He feeds, protects and clothes all. The householder generates life, nurtures, protects, educates and strengthens life for the well-being of the present and of the future society. The order, safety and governance in the society all come from the householder. The values and virtues in life such as love, generosity, commitment, tolerance, prudence, right judgment, purity etc., all emanate from the family. The peace of the departed ancestors too depends on the householder. The gods and the Dharma too are maintained by the householder. Thus, the past, present and future all depend on the householder. All stages of life originate from, prosper in, and merge into the householder.
The art of Life
6.1. As regards the life in general, Mahidasa Aitareya advised: Live the life of nature. The art of self-building or the art of conduct should be based upon the art of the Divine, that is to say, to be in complete accord with the laws of nature. Nothing is bad in its right place; and everything is useless when it is out of its place. Even a precious diamond is a mere speck of dust when it falls into ones eye . Everything gains in value and significance so long as it discharges its proper functions and in proportion to its contribution to the general wellbeing of the whole system of which it is an integral , organic part .The eye for instance is good so long as it discharges its functions of seeing for which it is intended and remains an integral part of the organism. ” The eye cannot hear; the ear cannot see; the stomach cannot think ;and, the mind cannot digest and so on (AA 184.108.40.206.3).” Anything out of its place and out of context is useless.
6.2. Mahidasa said; the greatest virtue of man is truth (satya) , the flower and fruit of speech. The tongue that utters what is not truth dries up and perishes like an uprooted tree (AA. 220.127.116.11-13).
The term truth had a far wider connotation with him than with us. Truth meant a perfect harmony in conduct between ones thought, speech and deed (manasa, vacha, kaya). It is the integrity in life. And, in philosophy, it is the harmony that should exist between knowledge and reality.
The interconnected Systems
7.1. While Mahidasa accepted that all systems – state, society and family – are independent in their own context. He pointed out that it is only when each system is connected with the others in a meaningful manner that all systems together can perform as a harmonious unity. He also said; the family or the society or the state, though independent in a limited sense, should be so constituted within a super-system that each is harmoniously related and interconnected with the others, just as the organs in a human body. It is only then that all system-parts can together enable the organism to function purposefully and meaningfully.
7.2. Mahidasa extended the analogy of the ‘body-principle’ to explain the relationships that should exist between the State, the Society and Family. He said; each member in the society and each member in the family should have a free scope for a proper discharge of his or her functions or for the proper use of his or her capacities.
7.3. Mahidasa further extended that principle to explain the order prevailing in the universe. Mahidasa meant that all systems are independent, just as a living body is a inter connected whole – an order as the universe itself.
Thus, Mahidasa Aitareya and his school left many inferences relating to the practical life drawn from their study of human organism or of the constitution and nature of working of the physical universe.
The living and the dead
8.1. Mahidasa explained, a living organism is a system that is divisible into a number of component systems. Each member is perfect in its place; but, it is useless while out of place (AA 18.104.22.168). Besides, each member has a distinct place, function or purpose of its own. It is so peculiar to it that no other member can take its place. Each member in a living body exercises its own functions independently; and also in harmony and co-operation with other members (AA 22.214.171.124).
8.2. And, yet all their functions are of relevance only when the unity of the whole organization is maintained by the vital principle Prana. The term Prana, air or breath connotes that the working of the systems depend ultimately on the vital breath. He seems to suggest that the functions of the body such as eating, digestion etc all need the presence of air (AA 126.96.36.199-15). Mahidasa also says all members of an organization are not absolutely essential for its mere existence so long as there is Prana.
8.3. He pointed out that a living organism must be sharply distinguished from a dead body because a body without life joined to it is but a decaying corpse (sarira), whereas a living body is a self generating mechanism of nature. It is born perpetually, replacing the dead particles (anu) all the while (AA. 188.8.131.52). Thus , according to Mahidasa, in order to participate in what is called ‘life’ the relation between members in a living organism should not only be that of mere physical contact but should also be that of physiological connection. That is to say, each member of the organization must be animated by the same principle (Prana) and stimulated into activity by the same motive.
Man and Universe
9.1. Mahidasa conceived Man as a microcosm, a miniature universe: “whatever there is belonging to the son belongs to the father; whatever there is belonging to the father belongs to the son” (Aitareya Aranyaka: 184.108.40.206). What is true in respect of man is also true of the universe. The finite thing of experience is not only a part of the whole but is in essence the whole itself. ‘I as a living nomad am the universe’. (More of that in the next part)
9.2. The main concern of Mahidasa was the search for the central essence of Man; as also the essence of the Universe. The two independent streams of thought – one driven by the desire to realize the true nature of man; and , the other, to understand the objective world – became fused. The blending of the two apparently dissimilar concerns led him to his outlook. He tried to understand and express the world in terms of the individual and his place in it.
9.3. The major problems that Mahidasa tried to grapple were the origin of life and the development of consciousness. The following explanation on the Aitareya Upanishad is said to be based on his teachings:
‘This which is known as the heart, this mind, mastering knowledge of arts, comprehension, power of retaining import of scriptures, perception, fortitude, reflection, independent power of thinking, distress of mind caused by diseases, etc., memory, volition, application, any pursuit for maintenance of life, desire for the company of women, all these are, indeed, names of Consciousness’.
‘This Brahman; this Indra; this creator; all these gods; these five great elements; all these small creatures; these others; the seeds of creation, these egg-born, the womb-born, sweat-born, sprout-born, horses, cows, men, elephants, whatever else which breathes and moves and flies, or is immovable, all these are guided by Consciousness and are supported by Consciousness. The universe has Consciousness for its guide. Consciousness is the basis or stay of all.
‘Verily, consciousness is Brahman: Prajnanam Brahma’.
10.1. Aitareya Aranyaka and Aitareya Brahmana are fairly large texts. The concepts and explanations do not also proceed in an order. There are no clear-cut divisions or grouping of his doctrines. We may not be able to discuss his works thoroughly. But we can attempt to glance at some of his views on few other subjects.
That we shall attempt in the next part
Continued in Part Two
References and sources:
1. The History of the Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy (1921); Calcutta University by Dr. Benimadhab Barua (Reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, 1970)
2. A Course in Indian Philosophy by Prof. AK Warder; Motilal Banarsidass, 1998
3. The Essence of Aitareyopanishad by Swami Sivananda
4. Aitareya Aranyaka