Polycentrism: The many-one problem and the roots of yoga – Manasatarangini T.


As the great scholar of Indic tradition, Sri Lokesh Chandra explained, it is important that India retain and celebrate its polycentrism rather than monotheism, as the former is the defining feature of our civilisation. – Manasatarangini T.

One of the central problems Hindus face on the intellectual battlefield is articulating their position vis-a-vis the stances of their Abrahamic foes. An important aspect of this problem is the difficulty faced by many modern Hindus in understanding the contrast between their system and the exclusivity, belligerence and universalism of Mohammedanism and the cult of Jesus.

Thus, we see numerous Hindus taking a rather apologetic stance with respect to their polytheistic system. They might even try to deny it by claiming that in reality they are monotheistic, just as the followers of Mohammed and Jesus.

We also see this tendency in daily life. Many Hindus use terminology like “God”, in a sense similar to that used by the Abrahamists, instead of using their own rich language full of nuance with terms such as Atman, Brahman, Ishwara, or the specific names of deities from their pantheon.

In our opinion, the lack of clarity on these issues directly contributes to their flaccid response to the aggression of the Abrahamic foes. Consequently, the use of terminology in an Abrahamic sense can be seen as a memetic Trojan horse, left behind by the Mohammedans and Christians, after their physical conquests were nullified to an extent by the Hindu fightback culminating in independence.

Hence, we speculate that the adoption of Abrahamic terminology in this regard could actually “soften” the Hindus who do so, and facilitate their fall to the rampant evangelism of the two Abrahamic cults in India.

As the great scholar of Indic tradition, Sri Lokesh Chandra explained in an interview (see video below), it is important that India retain and celebrate its polycentrism rather than monotheism, as the former is the defining feature of our civilisation. Indeed, the great sage Uddalaka Aruni states:

ekam eva advitīyam | tad aikṣata bahu syām prajāyeya | – Chandogya Upanishad, Section 6.2

It was only one without a second. It willed: “I shall multiply and reproduce as many.”

Thus, in the Hindu system the one is seen as becoming many. Here the arrow of causation accepts and emphasises the emergence of multiplicity as being the natural order. This is contrary to the Abrahamic system of monotheism where the unitary deity is defined by exclusion of all others.

Thus, the multiplicity, which was the natural state in the pre-Abrahamic Heathen systems of West Asia, was force-fitted to a single standard. The multiplicity inherent in the Hindu system is consonant with the nature of existence itself: at the origin of the universe, in the earliest period, the unitary force manifested as the four forces of nature. Likewise, unitary matter manifested as particles with a multiplicity of masses, charges, “colours”, spins and other properties.

Analogously, emergence of multiplicity characterises life, where all its diversity, with manifold organisms including ourselves, has emerged from a single ancestral organism through the process of reproduction (“bahu syām prajāyeya”).

Hence, the Rishi Grtsamada Saunahotra states:

yo apsv ā śucinā daivyena ṛtāvājasra urviyā vibhāti |
vayā id anyā bhuvanāny asya pra jāyante vīrudhaś ca prajābhiḥ || – Rigveda 2.35.8

All other beings are, as it were, branches of him, the plants, with their progeny, are born (of him), who, imbued with the natural law (ṛta), eternal, and widely-spreading, shines amid the waters with pure and divine (radiance).

Similarly, the Veda states:

ajāyamāno bahudhā vijāyate | – Taittiriya Aranyaka 3.13.1

The unborn is multiplely born (i.e. the unmanifest manifests multiplely).

Thus, for the Hindu, the multiplicity of forms and the unmanifest are not a contradiction. Rather the direction of causation again emphasises the emergence of a multiplicity of forms from what is unmanifest or not undergoing birth. This is again in contradiction to Abrahamic thought, which rails and rants against form, leading to iconoclastic urges that seek to destroy all heathen depictions of divinities in diverse forms.

Here again, the Hindu system is consonant with nature: from the incredibly dense singularity (i.e. the unmanifest) the universe with all its forms originated. From unmanifest instructions in genes and proteins present in a single-celled zygote a whole organism with a multiplicity of cell types can emerge via repeated reproduction. Thus, via its unitary emphasis and proscription of the manifestation of multiplicity, Abrahamic thought is like a still-born embryo where the zygote never proceeded beyond the single-celled stage.

The Heathens have had a long and sophisticated history of analysing the basic philosophical question in this regard. The core of this question tackled both by Hindu and early Greek philosophies was what can be termed “the many-one problem”. One way of stating it is that there are many identical, similar or congruent entities that just appear to be multiple manifestations of one single prototype.

So how do we deal with the multiplicity while recognising the unifying principle within them? In Sanskrit grammar we can reduce the various expressions of language to a relatively small set of prototypical rules—this was the means by which the great Panini formulated his monumental grammar.

Similarly, we can classify the diversity of organisms to a few prototypes based on the principle of homology. Thus, many can be explained as few. Next, one might logically ask if this can be taken to the minimal prototype (may be just one), which is the foundational reality, but at the same time also explain the multiplicity logically rather than deny, exclude or proscribe it as is typical of Abrahamic monotheism. To this end the Hindus applied themselves diligently.

The analysis of this question lies at the origin of one of the pillars of Hindu thought and religion—Samkhya Yoga. Samkhya emerges in “thought-matrix” of the Upanishads: in Section 6.13 of the Shvetashvatara Upanishad we hear that Samkhya is the basis of moksha, i.e., the soteriological conclusion of the realisation of the unifying principle. The essential premise of the Samkhya-class of explanations for the many-one problem derives from a concept termed “maya”, which goes back to the ancient Indo-Aryan past. Knowing maya is knowing the ways of the Devas! The Devas exhibit maya: thus, their one true or prototypic form appears in many diverse forms. This is true of Indra in the Rigveda. There the Riṣhi Vishvamitra says:

rūpam-rūpaṃ maghavā bobhavīti māyāh kṛnvānas tanuvaṃ pari svāṃ | – Rigveda 3.53.8.

Maghavan (Indra) transforms into form after form, effecting the display of maya around his own body.

In the Itihasas, Vishnu and Rudra put forth their maya to assume many forms. In the Puraṇa corpus this maya is the great goddess Mahakali also called Yojamaya. Thus, right from the beginning the term maya appears to have implied the means by which the Deva or Danava creates many forms which “veil” the underlying primal form.

Thus, one Hindu approach to the “many-one” problem appears to have been a logical extension of this idea to describe the universe itself. Hence, in Saṃkhya we have the one Purusha associating with Prakriti, who acting like the principle of maya creates a multiplicity that is seen as the universe. This connection between the maya of Devas and Saṃkhya theory is very palpable in an explanation of universe offered in an exposition of Samkhya in the Mahabharata:

apāṃ phenopamaṃ lokaṃ viṣṇor māyā śatair vṛtam |
citta-bhitti pratīkāśaṃ nala sāram anarthakam || – Mahabharata 12.290.57)

The universe is like the foam of water enveloped by hundreds of mayas of Vishnu, like an illusory wall and ephemeral as sap in a [hollow] reed.

The use of maya by Devas leads to yoga, which was originally seen as a system of praxis involving the direct application of Samkhya principles. Evidence for this is abundant in the Itihasas and Purāṇas. One of the most famous expressions of this, known to most Hindus, is the statement of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita:

nāhaṃ prakāśaḥ sarvasya yoga-māyā-samāvṛtaḥ |
mūḍho’yaṃ nābhijānāti loko mām-ajam-avyayaṃ || – Bhagavad Gita 25

I am not manifest to all, veiled by the maya of my yoga. This deluded world [i.e. entrapped by the display of maya] knows not me, unborn and unlimited.

A more palpable application of maya displayed via yoga is described in the Mahabharata, when at sunset on the fourteenth day of the Great War, Devakiputra turning to Arjuna says: “Arjuna, I have obscured the sun by the means of my yoga and the Kauravas think it has set. Kill Jayadratha!”

Another poignant expression of the fact that the application of yoga is essentially the same as the display of maya is suggested by the story of the ancient Bhargava sage Usanas Kavya given in Mahabharata 12.278 (“critical edition”). Kavya was enraged with the Devas because Vishnu had beheaded his mother, who was a partisan of the Asuras. Kayva used his yoga to enter into Kubera, the Yakṣa who was the treasurer of the Devas and stole his wealth.

Furious, Kubera went to Rudra and told him that Kavya used his yoga to enter his (Kubera’s) body and having robbed him of his wealth came out of it and escaped. Rudra, himself of supreme yoga power, raised his dreaded trident and sought Kavya with the intention of striking him. Kavya realised from a distance the intention of Rudra of superior yoga powers and wondered whether he should flee or try some other trick. Then using his mighty yoga, Usanas Kavya, the prefect and physician of the Daityas, became small and went and sat on the tip of Rudra’s trident.

Unable to use his weapon he bent it with his arms to make it into the Pinaka bow! At this point Usanas fell into Shiva’s hand, who promptly swallowed him and returned to perform his meditative yoga. The Bhargava wandered endlessly in Rudra’s stomach and was absorbed into his body. As Shiva had shut all his outlets in practice of yoga, he was unable to find an exit. Unable to escape he repeatedly worshipped the terrible Mahadeva, who asked him to emerge from his semen.

Thus, did the Bhrigu drop out. When Rudra saw him he raised his trident to kill him. But Uma intervened and asked him to spare the Brahmaṇa’s life.

The point of note here is that the famous Bhargava magic of parakaya pravesha is effected by means of yoga, which is parallel to the ability of Devas to exhibit maya transforming their bodies into many forms. This is further clarified in the great Itihasa in course of the description of yoga:

brahmāṇam-īśam varadaṃ ca viṣṇum
bhavaṃ ca dharmaṃ ca ṣaḍānanaṃ ca
so brahmaputrāṃś-ca mahānubhāvān || 58
tamaś-ca kaṣṭaṃ sumahad-rajaś-ca
sattvaṃ ca śuddhaṃ prakṛtiṃ parāṃ ca
siddhiṃ ca devīṃ varuṇasya patnīṃ
tejaśca kṛtsnaṃ sumahac-ca dhairyaṃ || 59
narādhipaṃ vai vimalaṃ satāraṃ
viśvāṃś-ca devān uragān pitṝṃś ca
śailāṃś-ca kṛtsnānudadhīṃś-ca ghorān
nadīś-ca sarvāḥ savanan ghanāṃś-ca || 60
gandharva-saṅghān-puruṣān-striyaś-ca |
parasparaṃ prāpya mahān-mahātmā
viśeta yogī nacirādvimuktaḥ || – Mahabharata 12.289.58-61

The high-souled yogin filled with greatness, at will, can enter into and come out of, Brahma the lord of all, the boon-giving Vishṇu, Bhava, Dharma, the six-faced Kumara, the sons of Brahmā, tamas that results in trouble, rajas, sattva, the mahat and the pure, primordial prakriti, the goddess Siddhi,  the wife of Varuṇa, the all-encompassing energy, courage, the king, the sky with the stars, the universe, celestial snakes, the ancestor spirits, mountains, all terrible oceans, all rivers, thick forests, serpents, plants, yakṣa bands, the directions, gandharva bands, and both males and females.

Thus it is clear the yoga was precisely the practical means of “effecting maya”—the yogin could literally enter into all possible rupas. We also see that it was described as a means of entering prakriti, which is (the cause of) maya.

As the great scholar Ganganath Jha remarked Samkhya and Yoga appear to be two faces of the same darshana. The former stands for the siddhanta or the theoretical framework and the latter for the practical means of achieving it. The earliest notable discoveries in terms of the practical means that characterise yoga were made by the Indo-Aryans probably in the late Brahmaṇa period of the Vedic age.

One discovery was that there was something unique about the problem of consciousness and that it could be tackled in a special way by transcending the subject-object distinction. The second discovery was that this issue of consciousness could be understood only by some special physiologically alterations connected to the nervous system. We have no clear evidence whether these discoveries were known before or not—while some of the methods could go back to human antiquity, at least some of the background knowledge probably derived from the medical investigations of the Atharvaveda.

The second of these discoveries led to the primitive kuṇḍalini system and a precursor of what later came to be known as the khecari mudra. The earliest traces to these system in the late Brahmaṇa period are seen in the ideas of the Bhargava Pracinayogya in the Taittirīya Shruti and Yajnavalkya in the Vajasaneyi Shruti. It was further developed in the Bhṛigu Smṛiti.  A subsequent preliminary synthesis of the different themes under an overarching framework was attempted by Patanjali. However, his system was mainly an attempt to present yoga as an independent darshana by incorporating a slightly modified form of Saṃkhya as its internal siddhanta.

The real task of a grand synthesis, which brought together various themes into a comprehensive system of practice was seen in the Tantras. Here, in addition to the multifaceted development of the traditions of physical practice, the “kundalini” and “khecari mudra” systems were brought together with the other ancient Hindu tradition of the Mantra Shastra. Credit in this regard goes to the great Matsyendra, the fisherman-teacher, who wove the different strands into the great Tantric synthesis. This was indeed one of the greatest achievements of Hindu thought, where the many and one are seamlessly integrated, something which is much neglected by many modern theoretical students of Hindu thought. – IndiaFacts, 6 November 2014

Manasatarangini T. is a practitioner of Sanatana Dharma, student, explorer, interpreter of patterns in nature, minds and first person experience.