Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Socio-morphic origins of causality in Indian Philosophy

As noted in previous posts with respect to the Orphic thread, in looking into the origins of causality in Indian philosophy one finds similar socio-morphic conceptions to those found in the writing of the early Western Presocratics. However, there are three significant differences I wish to comment on. The first is that causation seems to have initially been deeply intertwined with sacrifice, moreso than in anything I have found thus far in Western texts. The second is that causation is not itself within the dominion of a particular god or gods. The third is that causation is closely linked with a concept of rebirth.

In ancient Hinduism, sacrifices performed for the gods (devas) were crucial in obtaining the material benefits given to humans by the gods. The efficacy of these sacrifices was determined by their being performed in exactly the manner and order prescribed by the tradition and this proper order of a sacrifice was called rta (aka Rita).

In the Rig Veda, it is rta that controls all the changes and operations of the universe including the actions and thoughts of the gods. That is, the gods as well as humans were all subordinate to rta, so rta was conceived of as an eminent force in itself. The great Vedic deity Varuna, the guardian of the cosmic order, is the special guardian of rta punishing those who do not speak the truth or who commit improper actions, but not even Varuna created the rta. In the Vedas, it is rta that enables natural bodies to move rhythmically and in balance without undergoing the disorganizing and destructive effect otherwise implicit in motion*. It is because of rta that there is a cosmos, an ordered universe that undergoes change without becoming chaos. By adhering to rta the sun follows its daily path, rising and setting to support the world with its light. The stars fade at dawn but shine again at dusk. Rta is a dynamic principle of cosmic order, manifesting itself in change, not in rigidity.

In the Upanishads, rta is applied to the ethical realm of human society through the concept of karma. Karma entails that whatever you do determines what you become in this life and, by means of samsāra, in the next life. In relation to rta, karma means something like "the causal law of the deed" in which every act is the result of some previous act which caused it. Everything you do is caused by what you have done in the past and in turn will cause your future actions. In this sense the principle of rta implies a strict adherence to law and rule in conformity with the aim and purpose of the processes of the cosmos. Any action set in opposition to or incongruous with the universal order of rta sets in motion a natural reaction, endeavouring to set right the balance of cosmic equilibrium which has been disturbed by it. It is thus karma which subjects the doer of such action to metempsychosis (rebirth) in other conditions and environments than that in which the action has been done.

The Upanishads are most concerned with the freeing (moksha) of oneself from the suffering entailed by the causal processes of karma and samsāra, through identification of the self with the ultimate reality of Brahman. The nature of this suffering, the transformative means of its cessation, and of what this transformation consists, provide notable differences between Buddhism and the philosophical milieu out of which it emerged.

As a final note, one can see that, in ancient Indian philosophy, the impersonal causal principle of rta is applied to all aspects of activity in the cosmos, from the actions of an individual, to the movement of the stars, albeit operating over different timescales of relation. Thus, being equally impersonal from the outset, ethical and natural causal processes were ultimately no different in the Indian mind whereas, in the West, 'natural' causal processes left behind their ethical, personified origins, e.g., Ananke, as they were gradually depersonified by the later Presocratics, then by Plato and Aristotle and so forth. In doing so, the moral and physical processes of the world were gradually separated and the impersonal physical processes were eventually crowned 'reality'.

*The similarities of rta with the Chinese Tao should be apparent to those with an interest in Eastern philosopy in general.

1 comment:

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