Thursday, June 7, 2007

#037, Philosophy and practices of monkhood in India

Wearing ochre robes as an external token of monkhood seems to have started from the Buddhist influences. Though Valmiki Ramayana mentions Ravana wearing ochre robes and approaching Sita as a "Sanyasi" (3-46-2) and Sita was also found to be wearing ochre robes, we have to keep in mind that Valmiki Ramayana and many other Sanskrit codes and scriptures took shape in 3rd Century C.E. i.e. after the advent of Buddhism.

Though Hindu scriptures and codes speak of a first stage celibite student (brahmachari) directly moving to monkhood, skipping the 2nd stage of householder and 3rd stage of forest-dwelling, there are very few instances of monks gradual fourth stage or direct fourth stage. The munis (ascetics) and rishis (sages) of the Hindu mythology are mostly householders with sons and daughters. The ascetics and sages were living in forests as householders either teaching or undertaking penance (practices intended to taming the body of its desires, likes and dislikes and concentrating the mind on God). The penance was bsaically of two types 1. simple 2. very intense. In both cases, there was no question of allowing the mind to go astray. But in case of simple penance, it appears that things like consuming liquor (sura) and flesh of horse or beef were taking place. Meat consumption was not a taboo. The intense penance involved rigors such as standing on one leg, eating only leaves, eating only air etc. For example, Parvati while undertaking penance seeking to marry the God Siva was living only leaves; hence she was called "Aparn`a". The sage Vaalmiki's name itself was derived from the huge ant-hill which grew around and over him (valmikam).


Swami Vivekananda preached Advaita Philosophy (monism). Vivekananda's preceptor Shri Ramakrishna preached the path of devotion to Mother Goddess (called Kaali at Dakshineswar, Kolkata). The traditional Kali worship all over India consisted of tantrika vaamachaara (leftist path of worship involving five M's: 1. meat 2. madyam (liquor) 3. maguva (woman) 4. matsyam (fish) 5. mantra (chanting of special ritualistic verses). Kaal`i herself is regarded by many as a Ugra-devata (angry Goddess) with red-stretched tongue, she dancing on the dead body of demon Mahisha. The leftist path of worship sometimes involved the seeker worshipping Kaal`i throughout the night sitting or standing on a corpse in graveyard using the five M's mentioned above on a New Moon Day. The famous Kalighat temple at Kolkata has a fierce looking idol.

Ramakrishna as per his biography was apparently not against the leftist path. According to Ramakrishna's Complete works, he recommended sacrifice of animals on the 8th day (asht`ami) of moon's phase. He was also said to be touching a peace of the sacrificial meat or liquor, to his forehead in token of respect and returning it to devotees. He did not seem to have preached the monist philogosophy which is very complex and Vivekananda (it appears), had acquired it by study of some books. Since Ramakrishna himself was a householder (wife: Sarada Devi), ordinarily it is inconceivable to believe that he gave monkhood to Vivekananda and his co-disciples. Of course, Ramakrishna might have permitted them to wear ochre robes. For the same reason, Vivekananda was found to be calling himself in different names such as Satchidananda etc. till he could find the name acceptable to him (Vivekananda) which was advised by the ruler of Khetri.

Though there was a talk of meditation and samaadhi (loss of consciousness owing to deep immersion in meditation) in the presence of Ramakrishna, there was a hype of its being an achievement. Actually, deep-absorbing-meditation is only a tool for concentrating the mind. It is not an end in itself. Thus the incident of Ramakrishna passing on (transferring) sacred energy to Vivekananda just by touch will be of limited value.

The Buddhist monkhood (tonsured head with ochre robes) seemed to have influenced the Aadi Sankaracharya of the 8th Century C.E. At that time, Hinduism was in a pellmell owing to onslaught by monk(y)-Buddhism and monk(y)-Jainism dominating India and the path of rituals and sacrifices having taken a backseat. Aadi S`ankaracaarya, therefore, was by and large the first preceptor of Monk-Hinduism of shaven head and ochre robes. He established the four principal Maths of Sankara-advaita tradition at Puri (East India), Sringeri (South India), Dwaraka (West India) and Badari (North India). By that time the Kanchi temple of Kamakshi was existing in Tamil Nadu, South India. The Sankaracharya tradition at Kanchi Math also might have been established by Aadi Sankaracharya. In terms of theory, monism and worship of Mother Goddess cannot go hand-in-hand. Though it is said that Aadi Sankaracharya established the Sarada Devi temple at Sringeri, it is very difficult to concede that a monist should undertake substantial idol-worship. The idol worship might have existed even prior to him. Every head of the five monasteries using titles such as "Sankaracharya" and "Jagadguru" (Preceptor of the world) might have evolved gradually.

The compromise with the idol-worshippers might have taken place during the tenure of Vidyaranya, a 14th Century Sankaracharya. He might have entered into a sort of compromise with the worshippers of Mother Goddess, on the condition of their stopping the 5M mode of leftist mode of worship. The middle path thus arrived at has come to be known as "samayacaara" (samam = equality). He might have been the author of eulogies and devotional hymns like Saundarya Lahari, Lakshmi Narasimha Karavalamba Stotram. He might have accepted the Sri Chakra worship (An elaborate geometrical diagrom of triangles bounded by a circle) as a part of the compromise. Drawing of geometrical figures using starch/white talc/gypsum/Calcium Oxide/Calcium Hydroxide is a part of the leftist 5M mode of worship.

The purport of the above two paragraphs as per me is: 1. Aadi Sankaracharya (the first one who lived in 8C C.E.) was a philosopher and supporter of Gnaana Yooga (Path of Knowledge) the stress being on renunciation and realisation through removal of ignorance (avidya). There is no importance for devotion (bhakti) if his philosophy is viewed seriously.

2. The Vidyaranya Sankaracharya of 14th Century C.E. helped in founding of the Vijayanagara empire in South India. His path was mainly devotional, coordinating and conciliatory, permitting idol worship, Middle path of rituals of worship.

About 35 generations of monks might have lived at each of the five monasteries learning and passing on of contents of all the major scriptures and philosophies using "getting by heart" method. Both the path of devotion and knowledge (Bhakti Yoga and Gnana Yoga) were concurrently employed.

Between 1890 and 1893 Vivekananda toured India. He visited places like Mysore, Chennai, Madurai in South India. He even visited cool hill stations like Ooty, Almora, Kashmir, Darjeeling to cool himself. It is not clear why he did not think of visiting Puri, Sringeri, Dwaraka and Badari which are the principal Centres of Advaita Philosophy. For revival of Hinduism and spreading the messageof Monism, had he discussed with the monks of the Maths, they might have helped him both financially and philosophically. He as well as they and Hinduism as a whole might have benefited from the conversations. Instead, he preferred to approached to approach the rulers and kings like Khetri, Alwar, Junagadh (Divan), Mysore, Ramnad etc. for funds.

If Vivekananda was apprehensive that the Heads of Puri-Sringeri-Dwarka-Badri-Kanchi Monasteries not helping him because he was of a non-priest caste, such refusal would have remained on record. It would have proved how bigoted they were restricting philosophical knowledge and monkhood only persons born in priest caste. The sad thing is Vivekananda did not try at all. The consequence of this not consulting the Monist philosophic centre heads, was his books on Raja Yoga, etc. have many gaps.

After monism what? Both the traditional monasteries and the Vivekananda were not clear. The traditional monasteries seem to entertain the meaning of "salvation" as freedom from births and deaths. They too have started undertaking social and public services such as running schools, hospitals, orphanages a la Vivekananda and Ramakrishna institutions. There may be some qualitative and quantitative differences.

But the problems of poor and down-trodden continue to be very serious and threatening their very existence. Charity by monasteries both the traditional or the Ramakrishna/Vivekananda institutions can only be purely temporary and a little amelioratory. It is not a substitute for the radical reconstruction of socio-economic-governace structure of India. While collecting funds and spending them on various programmes, the monasteries act as intermediaries between the devotees and the society. The donors themselves want to receive some benefit from their charity, preferably tangible. They want their long pending problems to be solved with the God's grace. The householders, therefore, expect the monk to help by ensuring and speeding up the God's grace. A monk who says that people should not have desires or that problems are due to Karma (fate) loses his clientel.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It should be rather clear to any one seriously studying Ramakrishna, Vivekananda etc., that there was an a well-planned program to build the Ramakrishna Mission; the people behind this plan might or might not have had noble intentions. But even when giving the benefit of doubt, it was clear that the RK Mission was to be an entirely new set-up. It was not to follow the usual methods and rules of the Sankara Asramams, but package Hinduism anew which would appeal and attract the foreigners.

Whatever we see as "advaitha" here is to appeal to the Christians who believe in one God.