eastern philosophy


I remember reading a copy of the Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book Of  The Living And The Dead) when I was at University of Cape Town.  I thought it would be an exciting read but actually found this Buddhist scripture quite boring – especially the detailed philosophical passages and Sanskrit terminology.  The thing that struck me, however – and still does – about The Tibetan Book Of The Living And The Dead, is the idea that the state of your mind at the moment of death determines the soul’s next birth.  This doctrine was supported by the concept of a subtle body which remains with the soul after the demise of the gross physical body.

Why would a nice Catholic boy be so convinced by eastern philosophy? Firstly, I vaguely accepted the concept of reincarnation ie. the soul accepts new bodies so long as it has not attained spiritual perfection and harbours material desires. Secondly, I also held the view, which all religions do, that our consciousness and the way we conduct ourselves in this life has an impact on our state of existence in the afterlife.  I could not, however, integrate the concept of an either/or Judeo-Christian theological understanding into my own existentially underdeveloped world-view.

Reincarnation made sense to me because it gave me power over my own destiny, by dint of proper use of free will.  Why would a loving God consign his beloved children to hell eternally for sinning on earth during a fractionally limited period of time? According to the Vedic understanding of reincarnation, we have been “sinning” eternally. In the same breath, devotional service to Krishna is an eternal opportunity – available at any moment. As the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.” Why should salvation, therefore, be limited to one lifetime?  And why should salvation be limited to one saviour or one religion?  If you accept Jesus in your life, you go to heaven; if  you don’t, you go to hell.  I just couldn’t accept such dogma.

The Vedas teach us to take responsibility for our livesf (ie. God helps those who help themselves).  This is an integral part of sanatana-dharma (eternal religion) or Hindu dharma. In order to overcome the Wheel of Samsara (repeated birth and death), we should develop spiritual consciousness – the same pure consciousness of the Spiritual World.  It makes sense that we can only live in the Spiritual World when we have the same quality of the Spiritual World.  Therefore the Vedas teach – ante narayana smriti, or ‘remember Narayana at the time of death.’  This philosophy is corroborated in the Bhagavad-gita: yam yam vapi smaran bhavam/ tyajaty ante kalevaram/ tam tam evaiti kaunteya/ sada tad-bhava-bhavitah – ‘Whatever  state of being one remembers when he quits his body, O son of Kunti, that state he will attain without fail‘.

If you are thinking of Krishna (Narayana or God) at the time of death, you will attain His abode: janma karma ca me divyam/ evam yo vetti tattvatah/ tyaktva deham punar janma/ naiti mam eti so ‘rjuna – ‘One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.’  The impersonal and voidist Buddhist teachings of the Bardo Thodol consider it perfection, or nirvana, to become nothing – to be freed of gross and subtle and spiritual forms.  The Gita, however, teaches us that it is possible to attain to an eternally blissful spiritual form in the Kingdom of God simply by remembering Krishna at the time of death. The Bhagavata Purana documents the success of the great devotee-king Maharaja Parikisit at the time of death.  Maharaja Parikisit was the world-ruler.  Cursed to die in seven days, he gave up his kingdom in order to fix his mind on the Lord at the time of death – which he managed to do.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes in Srimad Bhagavatam Canto 1.18.4 purport: ‘Thus a submissive disciple is able to live transcendentally and continue to the end of life.  By scientific adaptation, one is able to remember the Lord even at the end of life, when the power of remembrance is slackened due to derangement of bodily membranes.  For a common man, it is very difficult to remember things as they are at the time of death, but by the grace of the Lord and His bona fide devotees, the spiritual masters, one can get this opportunity without difficulty.  And it was done in the case of Maharaja Parikisit.’

svyam-rupa, tad-ekatma-rupa, avesa-nama/prathamei-rupe rahena bhagavan

‘The Supreme Personality of Godhead exists in three principal forms – svyam-rupa, tad-ekatma rupa and avesa-rupa‘ [Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya-lila 20.165]

The Sanskrit word avatara means ‘one who descends from the Kingdom of God’ into the material creation [see: CC Madhya-Lila 20.263-64].  The word avatara usually applies to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.  Svyam-rupa bhagavan, the original form of the Lord,  is avatari or ‘the source of all incarnations’.  This form is not dependent on any others [Laghu-bhagavatamrta (LB) 1.12].

Caitanya-caritamrita explains: ‘svyam rupa’ ‘svyam-prakash’-dui rupe sphurti/ ‘svyam-rupe’-eka ‘krsna vraje gopa murti’. Translation: ‘Krsna reveals Himself in two forms, as svyam-rupa (His own form) and svyam-prakash (His own manifestation).  Svyam-rupa is Krishna Himself in Vrindavana, in the figure of a cowherd boy’ [CC M 20.166].’

The direct expansions of  the Lord’s svyam-rupa are called svyam-prakash (prakash means ‘the same’). These are direct expansions of the Lord and appear exactly the same eg. when the Lord expanded Himself into numerous forms during the rasa-dance.  In the case of Lord Balarama, the first direct expansion of Krishna, the only difference from the original form is bodily colour.

The tad-ekatma-rupa is abheda ie. non-different to the svyam-rupa. The tad-ekatma-rupa, however, appears to differ from the svyam-rupa by form, activities and qualities.  Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakur gives the example of the moon.  The moon, occluded by shadow, is the same full moon.  It only appears to be different.  Those forms of Krishna, therefore, which appear different from His original form  are still manifestations of that original form.

The tad-ekatma form of the Lord is not the same as the svyam-prakash forms of the Lord.  The svyam-prakash forms are, in essence, the same as the svayama-rupa. The tad-ekatma-rupa consists of both svamsa incarnations ( expansions of expansions of the svyama form) and vilasa forms (forms that differ in appearance from the svyama-rupa) [CC M.20.174P, Srila Prabhupada cites Bhaktivinoda Thakur].  Srila Prabhupada explains in CC Madhya-lila 20.185 Purport: ‘When a form of Krishna is nondifferent from the original form but is less important and exhibits less potency it is called svamsa‘.  Svamsa forms include the purusa-avataras and avataras like Matsya, Kurma, Varaha and Nrsimhadeva.  Vilasa incarnations are categorised as prabhava (ie. the catur-vyuha) and vaibhava (the 24 forms of Vishnu emanating from the catur-vyuha, including the second catur-vyuha).

Avesa-rupa refers to ’empowered forms of the Lord’ ie. the Lord manifesting his energies or qualities through powerful jivas or living entities.  Examples of these are Narada, Prithu and Brahma.  The avesa-avataras are living entities.  The use of the word avatara, therefore, is secondary.

The Lords forms are unlimited.  Even Ananta Sesa – Lord Vishnu appearing with a hood of many serpent-like heads – cannot fully describe the manifestation of the Lord’s unlimited forms. This is confirmed in Srimad Bhagavatam: avatara hy asankhyeya/hareh sattva-nidher dvijah/yathavidasinah kulyah/sarasah syuh sahasrasah – ‘O brahmanas, the incarnations of the Lord are innumerable, like rivulets flowing from inexhaustible sources of water’ [SB 1.3.26].