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The Dazzled Vision of the Hindus

March 2, 2021 Authored by: Daniel J.Boorstin

THE Hindus have left an eloquent history of their efforts to answer the riddle of Creation. The Vedas, sacred hymns in archaic Sanskrit from about 1500 to 900 B.C., do not depict a benevolent Creator, but record a man’s awe before the Creation as singers of the Vedas chant the radiance of this world. Their objects of worship were devas (cognate with Latin deus, god) derived from the old Sanskrit div, meaning brightness. Gods were the shining ones. The luminosity of their world impressed the Hindus from the beginning. Not the fitting-together-ness, not the hierarchy of beings or the order of nature, but the blinding splendor, the Light of the World. How the world once came into being or how it might end seemed irrelevant before the brightness of the visible world.

The Vedic hymns leave us a geology of names and myths and legends, untroubled by the mysteries of origin and destiny. Over all shines a radiant fire illuminating the Hindu vision. The fire-god was everywhere—how many was he ? Sacrificial fire was a messenger carrying the consumed obla- tion upward to the gods. Benares, the pilgrim’s destination, was the City of Light. The god Agni (meaning fire, related to Latin ignis) was said to be “the priest of the gods and the god of the priests.” In the heavens he was the sun, in the atmosphere he was lightning, and on earth fire.

O Agni, illuminator of darkness, day by day we approach you with holy thought bringing homage to you.

Presiding at ritual functions, the brightly shining custodian

of the cosmic order. . . .

The god who makes fire and light makes all seeing possible. What sancti- fies the worshiper is no act of conversion, no change of spirit, but the simple act of seeing, the Hindi word darsan. A Hindu goes to a temple not to “worship,” but rather “for darsan, ” to see the image of the deity. Each of the cities sacred to each of the thousands of gods offers its own special darsan : Benares (Varanasi) for the darsan of Lord Visvanath, the high Himalayas for the darsan of Vishnu, or a nearby hilltop for the darsan of a local god. In the life of the sacred city of Benares the quest for seeing embodies much that is distinctive to the religions of Hindus. The Hindu is dazzled by a vision of the holy, not merely holy people but places like the Himalayan peaks where the gods live, or the Ganges which flows from Heaven to Earth, or countless inconspicuous sites where gods or goddesses or unsung heroes showed their divine mettle. The Hindu pilgrims trek hundreds of miles just for another darsan.

So too the people of India attach a special value to the sight, the darsan, of a saintly person or a great leader. When Mahatma Gandhi crossed India by train, thousands collected along the tracks, gathering at his stopping places for an instant’s glimpse of the Mahatma through a train window. They were “taking his darsan.” According to the Hindus, the deity or a holy spirit or place or image “gives darsan” and the people “take darsan,” for which there seems no counterpart in any Western religion.

Darsan is a two-way flow of vision. While the devotee sees the god, so too the god sees the devotee, and the two make contact through their eyes. In building a new temple, even before images of the gods are made, the gods are beseeched to turn a kindly eye on all who come to see them. And when the images of the gods are made, their eyes are the last part completed. Then when the image is consecrated its eyes are finally opened with a golden needle or the touch of a paintbrush. Sometimes large enamel eyes are inserted in the eye sockets. The bulbous or saucer eyes that make Indian paintings of gods seem bizarre to us are clues to the dominance of vision in the Hindu’s relation to his gods. Many gods, like Siva and Ganesa, have a third eye in the center of their forehead. Brahma, the Thousand-Eyes, regularly has four heads, to look in all directions at once, and sometimes he has leopard-spot eyes all over his body.

For the Hindu, seeing became a form of touching. The Brahmanas, the sacred priestly texts attached to the Vedas, say “The eye is the truth. If two persons come disputing with each other … we should believe him who said ‘I have seen it,’ not him who has said ‘I have heard it.'” This intimacy of visual contact explains too why Hindus forbade certain meetings of the eyes in public, not only between lovers but even between husband and wife.

While “seeing” brought sanctity and satisfaction to the Hindu, Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam found their way through the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth.” Western religious traditions were wary of the seen, of the image, and the Protestant Reformation built a theology on this suspicion of all images.

Western religions begin with a notion that One—One God, One Book, One Son, One Church, One Nation under God—is better than many. The Hindu, dazzled by the wondrous variety of the creation, could not see it that way. For so multiplex a world, the more gods the better! How could any one god account for so varied a creation? And why not another alternative between monotheism and polytheism? The Oxford Orientalist Max Müller (1823-1900) who introduced the West to the Rig-Veda had to invent a word for the Hindu attitude. Kathenotheism, the worship of one god at a time, described the Hindu way of being awed by the wonders of the Creation. An Olympian democracy allowed the devotee to focus his darsan on one particular god at each moment. But that god was not supreme over all others.

In this tolerant, ever-growing community of gods and goddesses, each divinity was willing to take a turn receiving the darsan of the faithful. None of the nasty envy of the Greek gods whose festering pride and jealousy motivated the Homeric epics! And how unlike the sovereign Creator-God of the Hebrews and Christians and Muslims. “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.” But Vishnu, Siva, and Devi is each momentarily seen as creator, sustainer, and supreme power, each surrounded by a galaxy of lesser gods. The Western worshiper is baffled in his quest for a hierarchy among them. The dazzled vision sees no hierarchy but the mystery ex- pressed in every growing thing. As the Upanishads, commentaries on the Vedas, sang (c.400 B.C.):

“Fetch me a fruit of the banyan tree.” 

“Here is one, sir.”

“Break it.”                                                                                                             

“I have broken it, sir.”

“What do you see?” 

“Very tiny seeds, sir.” 

“Break one.”

“I have broken it, sir.” 

“Now what do you see?” 

“Nothing, sir.”

“My son,” the father said, “what you do not perceive is the essence, and in that essence the mighty banyan tree exists. Believe me, my son, in that essence is the self of all that is. That is the True, that is the Self. And you are that Self, Svertaketu!”

(Translated by A. L. Basham)

It is hardly surprising that the awestruck Hindus never came up with a

single grand Creator-God.

Trying all sorts of answers to the riddle of Creation the Rig-Veda offered myths of beginnings. The manifold universe, one story went, was produced from a primeval sacrifice. A primeval man, Prajapati, the Lord of Beings, who existed even before the founding of the universe, was sacrificed. How he came into being, why or to whom he was sacrificed is not clear. The gods themselves appear to have been his children. The “Hymn of the Primeval Man” tells us how the universe emerged:

When they divided the Man

into how many parts did they divide him?

What was his mouth, what were his arms, 

what were his thighs and his feet called?

The brahman was his mouth,

of his arms was made the warrior,

His thighs became the vaisya,

of his feet the sudra was born.

The moon arose from his mind, 

from his eye was born the sun,

from his mouth Indra and Agni,

from his breath the wind was born.

From his navel came the air,

from his head there came the sky,

from his feet the earth, the four quarters from his ear,

thus they fashioned the worlds.

With Sacrifice the gods sacrificed to Sacrifice— 

these were the first of the sacred laws.

These mighty beings reached the sky,

where are the eternal spirits, the gods.

Sacrifice thus repeats the essential mystery of creation in cycles of re- creation, and priests create the world anew. Without this regular sacrifice might not the original chaos return?

(Translated by A. L. Basham)

While the Hindus sought and found the solace of myth in their countless communities of gods and goddesses, they never allowed themselves the comfort of dogma. How many were the gods? Who ruled among them? What did they know of their own creation and the first creation if there was one? Despite all this wondrous wealth of myth and poetry, the Brahman poets in the Rig-Veda sang courageous doubt. So went their “Hymn of Creation”:

But, after all, who knows, and who can say

whence it all came, and how creation happened?

The gods themselves are later than creation,

so who knows truly whence it has arisen?

Whence all creation had its origin,

he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,

he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,

he knows—or maybe even he does not know.

(Translated by A. L. Basham)

And there is no deeper division between West and East than that marked by this reluctance of Hindu sages to answer the luminosity of the creation with simple dogmas and definitions. Western philosophers, after the Greeks, committed themselves to the “law of the excluded middle”—Socrates must be either mortal or not-mortal—but Hindus saw many more possibilities. One Hindu sect, the Jains, declared there were always not only two possibilities but seven, which gave them their Doctrines of Maybe, wrapping both the darkness and the dazzling brilliance of creation in a twilight of doubt.

For the Hindu the creation was not a bringing into being of the wonder of the world. Rather it was a dismemberment, a disintegration of the original Oneness. For him the Creation seemed not the expression of a rational, benevolent Maker in wondrous new forms but a fragmenting of the unity of nature into countless limited forms. The Hindu saw the creation of our world as “the self-limitation of the transcendent.” For the Hindu our very notion of creation was reversed. Instead of transforming nothing into every- thing, the Hindu creation broke into countless imperfect fragments what was already there. The Hindu reached back for the Oneness that was there in the beginning and he aimed to reintegrate nature. The cycles of birth and death have perpetuated that disintegrating force of creation. Samsara, the transmigration of the soul from one life to another, perpetuated the separateness of the individual. As the distinctions of caste survived, each generation paid the price of the misdeeds of earlier lives. The object for all was to “get off the wheel,” to escape the cycle, and merge finally into the original One.

The numerous sects of Hindus found their several ways to answer the riddle of creation. The Jains, as their ninth-century poet sang, found the forces of nature good enough:

No single being had the skill to make this world—

For how can an immaterial god create that which is material?

How could God have made the world without any raw material?

If you say he made this first, and then the world, you are faced with an endless regression.

If you declare that this raw material arose naturally you fall into another fallacy,

For the whole universe might thus have been its own creator, and have arisen equally naturally.

If God created the world by an act of his own will, without any raw material, Then it is just his will and nothing else—and who will believe this silly stuff? If he is ever perfect and complete, how could the will to create have arisen in him?

While the aim of the Christian faithful would be “eternal Life,” the aim of the Hindu was to be uncreated. Yoga, or “union,” was the disciplined effort to reverse creation and return to the perfect Oneness from which the world had been fragmented.

[Source: Daniel J.Boorstin, “The Dazzled Vision of the Hindus”in The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination (New York: Random House, 1992), p.4-8]


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