An initial glance at Hindu scripture unveils a paradoxical and discontinuous image of God. The worshipper is told: “With respect to the bodily sphere (atman), one should venerate: ‘Brahman is the mind’, and, with respect to the divine sphere: ‘Brahman is space’.” The two declarative sentences introduce a perspectival dualism that produces a bifurcation of the sacred into “mind” and “space.” Whereas the former speaks to the interior subjective, the latter suggests an exterior objectivity. The Upanisads and Ramayana epic offer further insight into the nature of this ambivalence.
The Upanisadic texts primarily disclose the God-within-the-self branch of this polarity. Philosophically, they reinterpret, reinvent and, at times, even reject Vedic sacrifical ritual (yajna) in favor of a singular and unitary non-linguistic knowledge (jnana) trapped within the human body. This existential and eternal force on which the world rests, termed Brahman, lies “in that space within the heart” as the “controller of all, the lord of all, the ruler of all!”
Ramayanan conceptions of the holy depict a God-beyond-the-self. More often than not, sacred figures serve as necessary aids to human actions and pre-ordained events. For example, once in exile and crossing the river, Sita speaks softly to the goddess in the waters, imploring her to “protect Rama during their coming ordeal.” In the Ramayana, divine incarnation marks certain human selves, specifically Rama and his eternal consort, Sita, “with signs of divinity” reminiscent of the Upanisads. Ontologically, the “Cosmic Person, the source of all and the support of the entire creation,” takes human form to challenge Ravana and exterminate his entire race. Yet, in contrast with the Upanisadic account, such corporeal manifestation represents the unique product of divine petition.
Instinctively, then, these competing visions of ultimate reality, as both an interior human potentiality underlying the divine and an external manifestation of the divine occasionally infused in the human, appear mutually exclusive. How can God simultaneously reside deep within and far beyond the self? Must not such a formulation imply the existence of two distinct deities, if not more?
The scriptures themselves gesture towards a response. As the ultimate real, the divine stands “at the summit of the hierarchical scheme, or at the bottom as the ultimate foundation of all things.” The former maps onto the Ramayanan articulation, while the latter corresponds to the Upanisadic conception. God directs and pervades existence. Further, the holy texts suggest that “there are, indeed, two visible appearances (rupa) of Brahman – the one has a fixed shape, and the other is without a fixed shape.” Again, the divine incarnates itself in the fixed form of Rama and, concurrently, fluidly inhabits the “lifebreath.” Importantly, these dualities do not stand alone, but inter-connect and inter-penetrate. For example, Brahma, Shiva and Indra appear as Rama reawakens to his latent divine nature. In this way, when Vidagdha Sakalya inquires how many gods there are, Yajnavalkya can, with good conscience, answer: “three and three hundred, and three and three thousand,” as well as “one.”
In the contemporary Hindu traditions of India, personhood is bound up with the notion of dharma. Analogous to Western conceptions of moral justice and social ethics, dharmic obligation performs significant cosmic work, upholding the order of the universe. As such, it plays the role of a timeless, all-encompassing law. The appropriate content of dharma remains elusive and context-dependent, however. After all, as the Apastamba Dharma Sutra explains, “dharma and adharma do not wander about saying ‘Here we are!’” Rather, dharmic practice proves “flexible and adaptable to different circumstances and a variety of situations.” The tension, thus, between stability and volatility, universality and particularity, defines the Hindu vision of personhood.
In the Hindu traditions, desire, and by extension personhood, defy categorical definition, resting instead within the tension between reality and the ideal, which itself is always in flux. Life proves too complex, too multivalent, for absolutes. Perhaps the Ramayana epic illustrates this best. Indulging his desire for Sita, Ravana enlists the help of his magician friend, Maricha, who takes the shape of a golden deer “unlike any seen before.” Despite Lakshmana’s intuitive suspicion and repeated warning, Sita succumbs to her desire, imploring Rama to “catch it for me, my Lord.” In turn, Ravana successfully abducts the unprotected Sita, dragging her to his golden chariot. As the gods watch from above, they grimly pronounce: “Our purpose is accomplished…Ravana’s destruction is now guaranteed. Nothing can save him from the wrath of Rama.” In the end, then, Ravana’s desire proves self-destructive, whereas Sita’s desire allows the providential plan to unfold. Passions kill and passions save. The human condition rests on a dharmic obligation that is sensitive to the tangled interplay of revealed truths, remembered advice and embodied instinct.
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