The Religion of India
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1906
When we come to India, the contrast with Egypt and Chaldea is strongly marked. Of the ancient Sumerian culture and religion of Chaldea, nothing was known to us a few years ago, but a few heaps of ruins, in the hot wilderness of the Euphrates. And in Egypt it is not so long since the hieroglyphic inscriptions were only less mysterious than the riddle of the sphinx. Even now, we know comparatively little of the Mystery Teaching in ancient Egypt, though the evidence of its presence there is overwhelming; and what we do know of defined philosophical and spiritual value, comes to us rather through the Neoplatonists than direct from the monuments. To that same wonderful school, the child of Egypt and Greece, we also owe, it should be noted, some of the most penetrating light on the teachings of ancient Chaldea.
For nearly two thousand years in Egypt, and even longer in Chaldea, we have had no articulate voice speaking to us of their ancient religions, no new documents added, and no interpreters of the documents; only monuments carven on the rocks, tablets of clay, age-old papyri buried in the sand. In India, the difference is immense. The ancient teaching is alive today, visible and within the reach of all men. The archaic scriptures are still studied, reverently and comprehendingly, by the lineal descendants of those who first wrote them down millenniums ago. Their language is still on the tongues of learned men of India, a living speech, taught to their disciples, chanted in their temples, spoken in their discourses, written in modern works on the sacred traditions. If the spiritual life of ancient Egypt be a hidden fire, glowing in some secret cave-temple of the desert, the religious life of India is a beacon seen of all men, lighting the path of the disciples who seek the way to the temple.
The western world came to a knowledge of ancient India, her sacred tongue and her archaic scriptures in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. At that day, the chronology drawn by archbishop Ussher from obscure sentences and genealogies in the Hebrew scriptures was still held to be the authentic time-record of the world. It set the beginning of creation some six thousand years ago, and fixed the universal deluge twenty-four centuries before our era. If that chronology were true, all existent races and civilizations must be compressed within some four thousand years, elapsed since the destruction of mankind in the flood and the renewal of the races from a single family. And by those who explored the traditions of India, the chronology of archbishop Ussher was held to be absolutely true, in authority equal to holy writ. Finding in India traditions and records of a vastly greater past, they felt themselves bound to lop and prune the centuries and millenniums, until they fitted the Procrustean bed of the archbishop’s world-scheme, and, in the early records of the Asiatic Society, one may see the Hebrew patriarchs set as the standard down one side of the page, with the Indian monarchs of the Solar line forced into conformity on the other. The whole is compressed into the twenty-four centuries between the supposed universal Flood and the beginning of our era. This would be merely a curiosity of research, were it not that the dates thus estimated for ancient India have never been revised to this day; each generation of Orientalists accepting almost without question or examination the dates handed down to them by the first pioneers, whose thoughts and imaginations were cramped with the limits set by archbishop Ussher. The result is that, even today, the data assigned to many events in ancient India are impossibly recent; and the whole system of chronology of that archaic land is in complete and perplexing confusion.
Had Providence willed that the ancient books of India should be withheld until after Egypt and Chaldea had in part given up their secrets, a very different result would have been reached. With such data as “5,000 B.C.” for Egyptian Menes and “before 4,600 B.C.” for a certain Sumerian ruler accepted without question, there would have been less tendency to shrink India’s millenniums into centuries, her centuries into decades; and with the epoch-making discoveries of Darwin recognized in principle, there would have been less cause to treat as fables the archaic systems of Evolution which fill certain scriptures of India.
Yet, while regretting this mutilation of India’s chronology, we can see how vital it was for her archaic records to be given to the world just when they were. Of all ancient lands, India alone supplied an available key to the wisdom-religion, the mystery-doctrine; and, for the spiritual development of the world, the giving of the key could not be delayed. We can see already, and we shall see more clearly later, how vast and far-reaching has been the influence of Indian thought, on the philosophy and culture of the last century, throughout the whole western world. For such a result it was well worthwhile to throw India’s chronology into temporary confusion.
We must in part restore that chronology, before we an get any clear view of the religious life of ancient India; and, for the purpose of that restoration, we can take no better date than that of the supreme teacher, Siddhartha the Compassionate, known as Gautama Buddha. When the doctrines and records of that great teacher were carried to other countries, like Ceylon and China, they were interlinked with the state chronology and their dates were thus effectively preserved. In this way we know that the Buddha’s work and mission belong to a period some twenty-five hundred years ago; and this date is fixed and corroborated in so many ways, that it is not liable to be altered.
In one of his most eloquent sermons, the Buddha describes the Brahman priesthood, in ideal, and in actuality; and we have thus preserved a graphic record of the position, character, life, and standing of the Brahman caste, twenty-five centuries ago. That caste had grown great and spread all over northern India; its authority was immense, and indeed availed later to overshadow the teaching of the Buddha himself. Its spiritual tradition was high, yet it was subject to many and grave abuses, which the Buddha vividly enumerates. The Brahman caste had then reached not only full development and maturity, but in many respects was over-ripe, and had fallen far from its former ideals of unworldiness and purity.
In another great series of religious documents, clustering around the life of another great spiritual hero of India, we have also a full and graphic picture of the Brahman caste. Krishna, prince of Dvaraka, is the center of that era; and its records are stored, with much that is of earlier date, and perhaps, something also of a later day, in the vast poem called the Mahabharata. It is now conceded that Krishna is a genuine historical personage, and very much of the Mahabharata authentically belongs to Krishna’s epoch. Much of this bears on the standing of the Brahmans at that time. That standing we find to be incomplete, provisional, and far from authoritative in the degree attained long before the Buddha’s day. Brahmanical law is by no means supreme; Brahmanical rules are transgressed, in such vital matters as the marriage relations; and the sacrosanct character of the caste is not yet established. The period of Krishna must, therefore, be many centuries behind that of Buddha; and the great religious revival which has Krishna as its central figure, must be regarded as another great landmark in the spiritual life of India, very much earlier than the epoch of the Buddha, twenty-five centuries ago.
So conservative is Indian life, that even today Krishna has vast numbers of votaries, who have exalted him into the god of a popular religion, full of emotional elements, yet inspired with very genuine devotion. Indian tradition assigns to the great war of the Mahabharata a date almost exactly five thousand years ago, and this date is confirmed by a certain conjunction of all the planets, recorded in the story of the Great War itself. In the days when the Deluge was placed at 2349 B.C., such a date as 3100 B.C., for the Great War of the Mahabharata was incredible; and the Procrustean process of pruning was accordingly put in force. But for the Orientalists of today, who readily admit 3800 B.C. as the date of Sargon’s conquest of the far more ancient Sumerian cities, and 5000 B.C. as the period when Menes of Egypt amalgamated the Two Lands into a single empire, the more modest claims of ancient India should win some credence. The epoch of Sargon is fixed unquestioningly from a single cuneiform inscription. That of the Great War of India has, to support it, a living tradition, still dating events from that war, and a vast mass of historical, ethical, astronomical and sociological facts scattered throughout a thousand books, and still living among many of the races of India.
We have yet another dearly marked period, that of the great Upanishads. Here also a complete view of the standing of the Brahman may be gained, as a basis of comparison with the two epochs already outlined: that of the Great War and Krishna of Dvaraka, and that of the Buddha. So important is this matter, and so little understood, that it may be well to quote certain of the texts that bear on it. Here, for example, is a passage from the Chhandogya Upanishad:
“Shvetahetu, grandson of Aruni, went to the assembly of the Pattchalas. To him king Pravahana, son of Jibala, said:
“‘Youth, hast thou received the traditional teaching?’
“‘I have, worshipful one!’ said he.
“‘Knowest thou how beings ascend, going forth hence?’
“‘No, worshipful one!’ said he.
“‘Knowest thou how they return again?’
“‘No, worshipful one!’ said he.
“‘Knowest thou the dividing of the two paths, path of the gods and path of the fathers?’
“‘No, worshipful one!’ said he.
“‘Knowest thou how the other world is not filled?’
“‘No, worshipful one!’ said he.
“‘Knowest thou how, at the fifth offering, the “waters” rise up, and speak with human voice?’
“‘No worshipful one!’ said he.
“‘Then how sayest thou that thou hast received the teaching? For if one knows not these things how an he be called instructed?’
“He went away disconcerted to his fathers place, and said to him: ‘After teaching me, thou, my father, didst call me instructed; yet this Rajanya fellow has asked me five questions, and I was not able to solve one of them!’
“His father said: ‘As thou hast told them to me, and as I do not know one of them,—had I known them, how should I not have told them to thee?’ So the descendant of Gotama went to the place of the king; and when he came, the king did come to him. Early in the morning he went up to the king, who had entered the assembly, and the king said to him:
“‘Choose, worshipful descendant of Gotama, a wish of human wealth.’
“‘Let human wealth be thine, O king!’ he replied. ‘But the word which thou saidest in the presence of my boy, do thou declare that to me!’
“The king kept silent, ordering him to dwell there a long time.
“Then the king said to him:
“‘Be it as thou hast asked me, O descendant of Gotama! As before thee this teaching goes not to the Brahmans, but among all peoples was the hereditary teaching of the Kshattriyas. . . .’”
No more significant passage is to be found in the sacred books of India, when we have the clue to its meaning. The very form of the questions speaks of the Mystery Teaching, and the questions themselves contain their answers. The two paths, the path of the gods and the path of the fathers, are the way of Liberation and the way of Reincarnation. By the former go the perfect, to divinity; by the other, the souls of men return to this world after receiving their reward in paradise in the “lunar world.” And that world is not filled, because the souls of men, going there, return again to this world to be born. Their former works are called “the waters;” and at the fifth offering, the offering of birth, the “works” of the new-born child “speak with human voice.”
So that these questions themselves, even without their answers, indicate the whole of the Mystery Teaching, the splendid twin doctrine of rebirth and of liberation from rebirth; of Sansara and Nirvana. And of this teaching the Brahman Shvetaketu and his father were wholly ignorant; as the version of the same story in the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad says, “do not thou or thy forefathers blame us, for before thee this teaching never dwelt in any Brahman!” Yet we are also told that both Shvetaketu and his father knew by heart the three ritual Vedas, the Rig, the Yajur and the Sama Vedas, and were instructed in all the wisdom of the Brahmans.
The truth is, that in the days of these greatest and oldest Upanishads the Brahmans had not yet learned the Mystery Teaching; and the occasion of their first initiation into that teaching is here recorded in the two greatest Upanishads. We have thus a third view of the Brahman caste, when the Brahmans were still the humble disciples of the Rajanyas or Rajputa; and it is evident that this archaic period must lie many centuries behind the period of the Great War, when the Brahmans had gone far towards establishing themselves in a dominant spiritual position throughout the greater part of northern India. It is further significant that we find the Upanishads reflecting a period when the tribes who possessed them extended westward as far as Gandhara, the present Kandahar, in the mountains of Afghanistan, which is now well beyond the western frontier of India.
The two Brahmans who came to the Rajanya or Rajput king, Pravahana, son of Jibala, were both learned in the Three Vedas, and were yet wholly ignorant of the Mystery Teaching, the twin doctrines of Rebirth and Liberation. The story becomes vastly more significant when we realize that the Three Vedas do not contain this doctrine; that one may search the Rig, the Yajur and the Sama Vedas through, and nowhere find in them any understanding of the teaching of reincarnation and liberation, which, nevertheless, is the heart of the secret doctrine of India.
We have, in the religion of India, the confluence of two streams: one of these is the Rig Veda with its two subordinate Vedas; the other is the Mystery Teaching contained in the Upanishads. The former was the property of the Brahman priesthood; the latter, the secret doctrine, belonged not to the Brahmans, but to the Rajanyas or Rajputs, and, as king Pravahana said, never before dwelt in any Brahman, until he himself revealed it to the humble father of Shvetaketu. The division between the two great elements of the ancient religion of India becomes even more significant, when we learn that it coincides with a difference of race; that the Brahmans, who possessed the hymns of the Rig Veda, were a white race, evidently coming from a more northern region; while the Rajanyas or Rajputs were a red race, close kindred of the royal race of ancient Egypt. This race difference is clearly marked even at the present day, the white Brahman belonging to a wholly different type from the red Rajput; each race having been kept pure through millenniums by the rigorous laws against race mingling, which are the basis of all the old Indian law.
The white Brahman race had, in the hymns of the Vedas, a very precious possession, and one which rightly claimed a high antiquity. The hymns, in their original form, made up the Rig Veda, or Veda of hymns. Separate lines taken from different hymns, and woven together for their virtue as incantations, formed the chants, to which the name of Yajur Veda, or Veda of chants, is given; and a certain class of these chants, those used at the mystic Soma ceremony, formed the Sama Veda, the third Veda of Songs. The Rig Veda hymns are, therefore, the original form of this whole Vedic material.
The Rig Veda hymns are divided into ten “circles,” assigned to different famous “seers” of hymns. Thus the third circle is attributed to Vishvamitra, the seventh to his rival Vasishta. In all, there are something over a thousand hymns: and those of the tenth circle seem to belong to a later period than the rest. The hymns are addressed to various deities, especially Indra and Agni, and some of them are poems of great beauty, while the greater part are avowedly magical incantations. When we look at them more closely, we cannot fail to be struck with the very marked resemblance between these Vedic hymns and certain hymns of the ancient inhabitants of Chaldea, notably those to the deified Fire, who corresponds closely to the Vedic Agni, the Fire-god. The mystical conception of Fire on the altar, as the manifested deity, among the people of Uru-duggu, is exactly that of Agni, the Fire-god among the Vedic Brahmans.
Once we note this resemblance, we find many more signs of kinship. Such is the seven-headed serpent, in a Sumerian hymn already quoted. Such are the resemblances between the Chaldean and the Brahmanical stories of the Deluge, with the personification of the deity as a “great fish,” in both accounts; the doctrine of the “central mountain” upholding the heavens, in both teachings; and the occurrence of the figures 432,000 years in the mystical computations of both the Sumerians and the ancient Brahmans. All these indications at least very strongly suggest that one element of the ancient Chaldean teaching and one element of the ancient Brahman teaching were drawn from a common source. Both peoples looked backward to a home among the northern mountains, and from this common home the two peoples may well have descended, one going toward the Indus, the other toward the Tigris and Euphrates.
When we consider the teaching concerning the dead, the likeness becomes even more significant. Both the ancient Sumerians and the ancient Brahmans were “ancestor worshipers,” every year making certain sacrifices to the spirits of the dead, the “fathers,” who were deemed to dwell in the gloomy underworld, and were dependent for sustenance on the yearly offerings of food made by their pious descendants. The “fathers” were thought of as spiritually present among their descendants, and as forming with them a single undivided family, in part in the visible world, in part in the dark invisible; and all indications go to show that, at a period which may have been ten thousand years ago, this teaching of the “fathers” was dominant in Central Asia, and spread thence southwestward to the Euphrates valley, southeastward to the Indus and later the Ganges; and also northward and eastward to the vast Chinese empire, and the lands spiritually dependent on China.
The teaching of the “fathers,” the departed spirits present behind the family, overshadowing the family, and drawing sustenance from the pious offerings of the family, was the chief element in the religion of the ancient Brahmans, as touching humanity; and even to this day it remains all-important in Brahmanical life and Brahmanical law. The first duty of the son is to make the yearly offering; and, where a son has not been born, or has not survived, it becomes of vital moment to obtain one by adoption, lest by any means the yearly rites might fail, and “the fathers fall into the pit of hell, cut off from the rites of the cakes and water.” Hence the immense importance of the right of adoption in Brahmanical law. The heir is supposed to inherit primarily in order that he may have the means to celebrate the yearly sacrifices to the spirits of the “fathers.” Thus, on the human side, the Brahmanical religion was concerned chiefly with the rites for the “fathers,” and the care for their spiritual well-being, as dependent on the offerings made for them year after year. Exactly the same belief prevailed among one division of the ancient Sumerians of Chaldea, and the resemblance in detail is highly significant. It is evident that this belief is quite out of harmony with the doctrine of reincarnation, and of the paradise between death and rebirth, which is an integral part of the Mystery Teaching; and it is also evident that the teaching of the “fathers” is the genuine traditional doctrine of the Brahmans, preserved by them even today, as the corner-stone of Brahmanical civil and religious law.
On the divine side, the Brahman teaching embraced the worship of Indra and Agni, and other “bright ones,” Indra being the dome of the sky, and Agni the divine principle of Fire. The lord of the abyss, Varuna, who seems to have been also the lord of the dark dome of night; the Maruts, or the spirits of the storm, the Asuras, first spirits of life, and then fallen spirits of evil contrasted with the bright spirits of good, all remind us strongly of the ancient Sumerian worship, the religious traditions into which, it would seem, was poured a different stream of teaching brought from the south, from Egypt, by the votaries of the great Osiris.
Just as we find the two contrasted teachings in early Chaldea, so we find them in ancient India. The white Brahmans had their worship of the spirits of the “fathers,” and of the Sky-lord, the Fire-lord, and the hosts of bright and dark spirits, the Devas and Asuras. The red Rajputs or Rajanyas—both names are very ancient—had their Mystery Teaching of the two ways, path of the gods and path of the fathers; of the great twin doctrines of Reincarnation and Liberation. And it is of high signifiance on the one hand, that we find the Rajputs closely akin in ethnical type to the royal race of ancient Egypt; and on the other, that we find their Mystery Teaching closely resembling that associated with the name of the great Osiris of Egypt; a teaching also of reincarnation “according to righteousness, according to works,” and the ultimate liberation from rebirth, by the divine way which Osiris taught.
This divine way, or “path of the gods” was the main theme of the Mystery Teaching; and to that supreme goal of Liberation the wisdom and will of the disciples were directed. It is the great theme with which all the divine teachers of India were concerned, and again and again we see it presented, by teacher after teacher, in age after age.
The teaching of the “path of the gods” is always associated, in ancient India, with certain temptations or trials, certain rites of initiation. Only after these are passed, is the divine path revealed to the disciple. Thus in the great story of Nachiketas, the son sacrificed by his father, who descended into the house of Death and rose again on the third day, we have the trial of Nachiketas by Death the initiator, who tempts the disciple with three wishes. Only after Nachiketas has overcome these temptations is the Mystery revealed to him. Death speaks thus to the aspirant:
“Even by the gods of old it was doubted about this; not easily knowable, and subtle is this law. Choose, Nachiketas, another wish; hold me not to it, but spare me this!
“Choose sons and grandsons of a hundred years, and much cattle, and elephants and gold and horses. Choose the great abode of the earth, and for thyself live as many autumns as thou wilt.
“If thou thinkest this an equal wish, choose wealth and length of days. Be thou mighty in the world, O Nachiketas; I make thee an enjoyer of thy desires.
“Whatsoever desires are difficult in the mortal world, ask all desires according to thy will.
“Them beauties, with their chariots and lutes – not such as these are to be won by men—be waited on by them, my gifts. Ask me not of death, Nachiketas.”
To this Nachiketas replies:
“Tomorrow then fleeting things wear out the vigor of a mortal’s powers. Even the whole of life is short; thine are chariots and dance and song.
“Not by wealth can a man be satisfied. Shall we choose wealth if we have seen thee? Shall we desire life while thou art master? But the wish I choose is truly that.
“Coming near to the unfading immortals, a fading mortal here below, and understanding, thinking on the sweets of beauty and pleasure, who would rejoice in length of days?
“This that they doubt about, O Death, what is in the great Beyond, tell me of that. This wish that draws near to the mystery, Nachiketas chooses no other wish than that. . . .”
The Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad gives us a second version of the story of Shvetaketu’s father and king Pravahana, which we have already quoted from the Chhandogya Upanishad. This other version contains certain sentences, which at once suggest the Mystery Teaching. After the boy had failed to answer the questions, the king invited him to remain and learn:
“But he, refusing to remain, ran away and came to his father, and said to him:
“‘Did not my father declare that I was instructed?’
“‘How now, wise youth?’ said his father.
“‘This Rajanya fellow has asked me five questions, and I do not know even one of them!’
“‘What are they?’ said he; and he told them to him.
“‘As thou knowest us, dear, that whatever I know, I have told it all to thee,—come! Let us go back there, and serve as disciples!’
“‘Let my father go himself!’ said he. So his father went.
“So the descendant of Gotama came where was the dwelling of king Pravahana son of Jibala. The king offered him a seal, and had water offered to him. And he did honor to him. And the king said:
“‘To the worshipful descendant of Gotama we give a wish!’
“‘The wish is promised to me! The word which thou saidst in the presence of the boy, tell that to me!’
“But the king said:
“‘That is among wishes of the gods, O descendant of the Gotama! choose thou a wish of mortals!’
“But he replied: ‘It is well known,—Treasure of elephants and gold, of cattle and horses, slave-girls and vestures and robes! But Iet not the Master be niggardly of the great, the endless, the boundless!’
“The king replied to him: ‘This is a holy wish, O descendant of Gotama!’
“‘I offer myself as thy disciple!’ said he; for with this word did the men of old offer themselves as disciples. So he dwelt there as a disciple. And the king said to him:
“‘Do not thou or thy forefathers blame us, O descendant of Gotama, for before thee this teaching never dwelt in any Brahman!’”
Here we have the same sacramental formula of temptation as in the Upanishad of the House of Death: “elephants and gold, cattle and horses, slave-girls and robes;” and always we have this trial before the threshold. It corresponds exactly to “the kingdoms of this world, and the glory of them” in another mystical temptation.
Then, if the trial be passed, the twin secrets are revealed: the secret of personal development through a series of rebirths, of Reincarnation; and then, when personal development is completed, the way of Liberation, the path of union with the Eternal. The teaching of rebirth is set forth again and again in the Upanishads, as for instance in the Brihad Aranyaka: “Through his past works he shall return once more to birth, entering whatever form his heart is set on. When he has received full measure of reward in paradise for the works he wrought, from that world he returns again to this.” Or in the Prashna Upanishad: “He whose radiance has become quiescent is reborn through the impulses dwelling in mind.” It is taught very fully, though in the Mystery language, to the father of Shvetaketu, whose trial and faith have been already recorded.
Even more distinctive is the teaching of Liberation. What is written thereon, is the most splendid part of the Upanishads, a strain of eloquence which it would be hard to equal in the whole recorded speech of the world: Thus in the Brihad Aranyaka we read:
“Now as to him who is free from desire, who is beyond desire, who has gained his desire, for whom the Soul is his desire. From him the life powers go not out. Growing one with the Eternal, he enters into the Eternal.
“When all desires that were hid in the heart are let go, the mortal becomes immoral, and reaches the Eternal.
“And like as the slough of a snake lies lifeless, cast forth upon an ant-hill, so lies his body, when the spirit of man rises up bodiless and immortal as the Life, as the Eternal, as the Radiance.
“The small old path that stretches far away has been found and followed by me. By it go the Seers who know the Eternal, rising up from this world to the heavenly world.
“When a man gains the vision of the godlike Soul, lord of what has been and what shall be, he fears no more.
“At whose feet rolls the circling year with all its days, him the gods worship as the one, the light of lights, the immoral life.
“In whom the five hierarchies of being and the ether are set firm, him I know to be the Soul. And knowing that deathless Eternal, I too am immortal.
“He who knows is therefore full of peace, lord of himself; he has ceased from false gods, he is full of endurance, he intends his will.
“In his soul he beholds the Soul. Nor does evil reach him; he passes all evil. He is free from evil, free from stain, free from doubt, a knower of the Eternal.”
This is the authentic Mystery Teaching of India, as set forth in the great Upanishads, the records of the ancient Rajput race.
In the religious history of India, after the two streams of teaching were blended in the ancient days of the Upanishads, there are two events, two epochs of supreme importance. The first is the Avatar or divine incarnation of Krishna, reckoned traditionally as five thousand years ago. The second is the Avatar or divine incarnation of Siddhartha the Compassionate, known as the Awakened, the Buddha, who taught two thousand five hundred years ago. If we would understand these two great events, we should keep clearly in mind that both taught the same doctrine; or, to speak more truly, that both came to restore the great pristine teaching which had been handed down among the Rajanya or Rajput wages. Both Krishna and Siddhartha were of Rajput race, and both speak explicitly of their predecessors in the teaching. Of Krishna, much is said elsewhere; it will suffice to quote a few words:
“This imperishable teaching of union I declared to the Solar lord. The Solar lord imparted it to Manu, and Manu told it to Ikshvaku. Thus the Rajanya sages knew it, handed down from Master to Disciple. . . . Many are my past births and thine also, Arjuna; I know them all, but thou knowest them not. Whenever there is a withering of the Law, and an uprising of lawlessness on all sides, then I emanate myself, for the salvation of the righteous, and the destruction of such as do evil; for the firm establishing of the Law I come to birth in age after age. He who thus perceives my birth and work as divine, as in truth it is, leaving the body, he goes not to rebirth; he goes to Me.”
Here is an outline of the whole Mystery Teaching; the twin doctrines of reincarnation and liberation; the very principles which are the heart of the great Upanishads. And here also this teaching is explicitly identified as that of the Rajanya race. Moreover Krishna again and again quotes from the great Upanishads to fortify his teaching; among other passages, he cites a part of the answer of king Pravahana to the father of Shvetaketu, and the teaching of Death to the boy Nachiketas. The identity of the Mystery Teaching in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, the scripture of Krishna, might well be proved at length and in detail; but for the present this brief summary must suffice.
The first great revelation of the Mystery Teaching in India came in the older Upanishads. The second great mention came with the divine incarnation of Krishna. The third was brought by Siddhartha the Compassionate. Much has been written, of high eloquence and worth, of the Buddha’s teaching; much has been written of less value. But all, or almost all students of his teaching in the west have failed to understand its relations to the life of India in earlier ages. They have spoken of the older religious teaching as Brahmanism, as the doctrine of the Brahmans; and they have pictured the Buddha as rising against this Brahmanical doctrine, and teaching a new and better way. But the Mystery Teaching in India came not from the Brahmans but from the Rajputs; then after it was imparted to the Brahmans, in the days of king Pravahana and the great Upanishads, it fell into confusion, and was once more restored to purity by the great Rajput prince, Krishna of Dvaraka; falls once again into confusion and misinterpretation, it was again revived by prince Siddhartha, of the royal line of Ikshvaku.
We find the Buddha marking the entrance to the path, as it was marked of old, by the trials and temptations in which Death had tried Nachiketas. Prince Siddhartha in his turn made the great renunciation, turning his back on the “treasures of elephants and gold, of cattle and horses, of slave-girls and vestures and robes,” and this renunciation was symbolized by his departure from the splendid palace of Kapilavastu, when he left behind him kingdom and wealth and home, setting forth on the search for wisdom.
The Buddha taught most explicitly the twin doctrines of Reincarnation and Liberation. Thus, in the sermon of the Akankheyya Sutta, he declares:
“If a disciple should frame a wish, as follows: ‘Let me call to mind many previous states of existence, to wit, one birth, two births, three births, four births, five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, one hundred births, one thousand births, saying, I lived in such a place, had such a name, was of such a family, of such a caste, had such possessions, experienced such happiness and such miseries, had such a length of life. Then I passed from that existence and was reborn in such a place. There also I had such a name, was of such a family, of such a caste, had such possessions, experienced such happiness and such miseries, had such a length of life. Then I passed from that existence and was reborn in this existence.—Thus let me call to mind many former states of existence. . . .”
This is nothing but an expansion of the words of Krishna: “Many are my past births, and thine also. I know them all, but thou knowest them not.” The Buddha also taught Liberation from rebirth.
“Wife and child are subject to birth and dissolution; slave, elephants, cattle, horses, gold and silver are subject to birth and dissolution. . . . There may be one, O disciples, who, himself subject to birth, perceives the misery of what is subject to birth, and longs for the incomparable security of a Nirvana free from birth; himself subject to old age, sickness, death, sorrow, dissolution, perceives the misery of what is subject to dissolution, and longs for the incomparable security of a Nirvana free from dissolution.”
This is the same immemorial teaching that Death declared to Nachiketas. This is the teaching which Krishna imparted to Arjuna. This is a further revelation of that splendid Mystery Doctrine which, for ages past, has been the heart of the Eastern wisdom, and which is the heart of that wisdom today.
The great name of Shankara must in no wise be omitted from any survey of the wisdom of India. Since the coming of the Buddha, no work has been comparable in value and fruitfulness in the field of Indian wisdom to the work of Shankara. With the hand, the mind and the heart of a Master, Shankara gathered together the priceless records of India’s age-long mystical past, choosing what was most excellent from the vast archives of the sages, and adding to each part the illumining grace of his own crystalline spirit. Thus for the great Upanishads and for the Bhagavad Gita the wonderful commentaries of Shankara are not only a torch lighting the dark places, but also a cord, binding together the archaic leaves; preserving, coordinating, illumining. To Shankara’s pure spirit and far-sighted constructive genius we owe both the completeness of the texts which record the ancient Mystery Teaching, and the Indian schools of learning in which that teaching has been handed down.
Thus we have the pristine light of the Upanishads, the fire of Krishna, the love of Siddhartha, while Shankara stands as the genius of conservation.