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The hidden orders of life:

An introduction to the ancient Indian world-view

  ------ © Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary

All things whether material or non-material, are subject to a natural way, the course of all things in nature, and are interdependent. This natural course of things was referred to as 'Rta' by the ancient Vedic seer in his search for Truth.

 

Truth and Order - Satya and Rta

The Rg Veda has two words associated with Truth that are often used synonymously- satya and rta . Satya (Truth) is the same as Sat (Being), the absolute Truth of Being ( Sat ). Satya is the absolute Truth before the Unmanifest manifest as the many. Rta is the order behind the manifest world, the harmony among all aspects of manifestation each of which obeys its own level. Thus rta is also translated as order, harmony and law in various contexts. Unlike man-made laws rta is natural. Rta is in the nature of things. It is the truth behind the order and harmony in the universe. Man being an aspect and expression of this order has within him a reflection thereof.

In the Vedic world-view ethics is not necessarily a result of social evolution or social necessity. The ethical ideals and virtues emanate with all their purposefulness from the divine nature of the self itself. What is the highest virtue? Of course, the Truth itself. There is no virtue, nobler than truth ( Satya ). While there are six synonyms for truth in the Vedic literature, Rta is the most common synonym for Satya or Truth. Rta is Truth in the manifest world, in the world of activity. In other words Rtam is Truth in action. Rta is the projection of the absolute Truth into the plane of space and time. Thus 'Rta' is the natural order in the entire cosmos, an order that is observed by the material world, by the animal kingdom, and even by the forces that bind the heavenly vault with earthly scenes. 'Rta' reigns uniformly and inexorably behind the seasonal variations, behind the changing currents of the wind and waters, behind the orderly movement of the planets in their orbits, and the activity of the Sun, behind all of Nature.

'Rta' is semantically related to to the Avestan 'arta ', the Greek 'srti' , the Latin 'artus' and the German 'reeht' in the sense of the ritual that is right -'right rite'. Thus 'rta' is what is right. In a way, it also the law; it is also the ideal. Rta cannot be fully understood through mere description. It is better appreciated through intuition. What is innate is better intuited than understood. Rta has to discovered through one's own spiritual experience, through one's own intuition. Thus Rta cannot be formulated or invented or defined in categorical terms. Yet the human mind tries to comprehend the sublime in its own ways. Through the ages our understanding of the Cosmic law evolved and developed into a more concrete concept. Out of this understanding evolved other important concepts such as Dharma and Karma .

 

Order and the Way to Order - Rta and Dharma

There is another word in the Rg veda that is closely associated with Rta - Dharma . The latter sections of the Rg veda use the two words synonymously while the earliest sections ( mandalas ) use them as closely allied, but distinct words. By the Upanishadic times Dharma became synonymous with Rta. According to the Taittiriya upanishad , Dharma is verily Truth synonymous with Rta .

Etymologically the word ' dharma' is derived from its root 'dhr' meaning 'to hold' or 'to support' or 'to bear'. If Rta is cosmic order Dharma is its sustainer. Dharma is natural corollary; it is what is naturally right. Originally Dharma defies dogma. As what is naturally right it aligns the human body, mind, and soul in harmony with nature. At first Dharma , much like Tao is just the 'Way', the 'natural course of things'. While Rta was the one unchangeable Truth through all the metamorphoses and permutations of nature and of life in general, Dharma is the 'right way' or the 'right path' that sustains the order and harmony in life. Dharma signifies the way life ought to be, thus shifting from natural to ethical and moral order. A right path exists, to be taken by the righteous ones. Thus we see the logical progression of an early 'course of things' into an all-encompassing moral order, a path and way of righteousness that upholds the harmony of the universe.

Gradually Rta transcended its passive role as natural order, assuming a more active form, that of an active imposition of order. While the Rg vedic usage of the words Rta and Dharma is more in the sense of cosmic laws that govern gods, men and all of nature, the Upanishadic times saw Dharma acquiring a new meaning as 'duty'. Thereafter Dharma is not only descriptive but also prescriptive. In its prescriptive aspect Dharma also denotes justice and righteousness, law and duty. The contextual nature of Dharma is apparent in the different scopes of applicability of the different, often overlapping, levels or layers of Dharma .

While Dharma in its original sense describes the 'way things are', connoting the inherent order and harmony in the nature of all entities that constitute the cosmos, in its later prescriptive sense, Dharma sets the standard for the 'way things ought to be'. It portrays the ideas and ideals that should be aspired for. Implicit in this is the proposition that goodness, harmony, order, etc., are potentially the essential quality or character of the phenomenal world, and that badness, discord, chaos, etc., are likely aberrations. Dharma is both the goal and the way. It is simultaneously both the end and the means.


Dharma has many overlapping levels or layers to it. In practical terms, Dharma operates on all levels from the microcosm of the individual to the macrocosm of all existence. For the individual, this manifests as conformity to personal, family and social responsibilities or duties. Such requirements constitute an individual's Dharma , and are the part played by the individual in contributing to the broader stability, law, order, and fundamental equilibrium in the cosmos, in the family and in the society. Thus the individual prescriptive Dharma is defined by its context with reference to the descriptive Dharmas pertaining to ever expanding levels of family, society, nation, mankind, all life and all existence. The dos and don'ts of ethical conduct would differ for different individuals, under different circumstances, at different points of time, thus making Dharma relativistic at an individual level. Yet there is a higher level to Dharma that is relatively unchanging. At this highest cosmic level Dharma is synonymous with Rta. In other words Rta , is Dharma at the highest level. It represents the cosmic laws and forces by which all things are maintained (upheld). Thus all entities, both animate and inanimate, operate according to the principles of R ta .

The Law of Karma

There is no flaw

In this law of Karma,

No reservation...

.It is an exact and accurate regulation

Of actions and their results.

Man eats what he cooks.

That is, he reaps what he sows.

 

( Atharva Veda 12. 3. 48)

Along with Dharma, the concept of Karma is a distinctive part of the Indian world-view be it Hindu, Buddhist or Jain. Unlike Rta and Dharma , Karma is a relatively latter principle of the Indian world-view emerging noticeably in the late Vedic period. While Karma shares with Rta the natural and moral aspects of the Cosmic law, it has an additional and unique code of causality to it that Rta does not explicitly suggest. Whether or not the doctrine of Karma owes its roots to Rta , it certainly shares common ground. However it is the principle of causality that makes the doctrine of Karma so unique. 'Man reaps what he sows'. If one reaps what one sows, then one ought to be careful about what one sows.

 

Literally karma means 'action' or 'deed', in fact anything that you do. If Rta is "Truth in action", Karma is the "Law of action". In the traditional texts karma is often written as a compound word- karma-vipaka . Karma-vipaka means "action and result" similar to "cause and effect". Everything you do is caused (at least in part) by what you have done in the past and in turn will cause your future actions. Thus every act, moral and otherwise, is the result of some previous act which caused it. In the Upanishads , karma thus operates as a causal explanation for everything that happens, particularly to human beings. "As one does, so one becomes; by virtuous acts one becomes virtuous, by errant acts one becomes errant" ( Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5). In other words, all actions you take are the results of actions you have taken in the past; all actions you take are also the causes of future actions.

Indebtedness and Interdependence in Nature - Rta and Rna

The concept of 'rta' as cosmic order in the mantra portions of the Rgveda was replaced by the idea of 'rna' or indebtedness at the human level in the brahmana texts. The subsequent s mrti s incorporated both 'rta' and 'rna' in the notion of 'dharma' and thus a sense of obligation to conform to the natural, social and moral order. Likewise both 'rta' and 'rna' share common ground with the law of cause and effect which is identified with the law of karma at one level. The law of cause and effect has other layers of meaning to it apart from the law of karma.

 

The Sanskrit word ' Rtam' and the English word 'Rhythm' apparently connote a similar idea at some level. Rtam is the rhythmic order of the 'uni-verse'. It is the orderly way in which the world regulates itself. The basic idea behind the words "rhythm" and "harmony" is that of a correlation of parts that can produce an organic whole. 'Rna' or 'indebtedness' among all of nature emerged in later times as the notion of 'rnanubandha' or karmic indebtedness ( rna + anubandha ). According to the notion of 'Rna' , all beings owe their existence to each other as all life is interconnected. These ideas are commonly shared by both orthodox and heterodox systems of Indian philosophy in spite of some differences. In fact the law of cause and effect lies at the core of the Buddha's teachings on karma , co-dependant origination, impermanence, no-self and emptiness. It lies at the core of some Hindu philosophies as well though the Hindu systems differ in their approach to the self.

 

The Sanskrit word ' Rtam' and the English word 'Rhythm' apparently connote a similar idea at some level. Rtam is the rhythmic order of the 'uni-verse'. It is the orderly way in which the world regulates itself. The basic idea behind the words "rhythm" and "harmony" is that of a correlation of parts that can produce an organic whole. This correlation of parts of an organic whole is a natural law. As already stated this natural law or order or harmony is referred to as 'Rta' . The interconnectedness creates an inter-debtedness referred to as 'Rna' . Thus 'Rta' and 'Rna' are two sides of the same coin. The concept as a whole evolved into the law of conditionality or law of cause and effect in Buddhism.

Our present mental, moral intellectual and temperamental differences are, for the most part, due to our own actions (karmas) and tendencies (samskaras), both past and present. However everything is not due to Karma. The law of Karma, important as it is, is only one of the many conditions described in Buddhist Philosophy. If the present life is totally conditioned or wholly controlled by our past actions, then certainly Karma is tantamount to fatalism or determinism or predestination. If this were true, there would be no free will! Life would be purely mechanistic, not much different from a machine. Buddhism along with other great systems like Samkhya-Yoga, Advaita and Jainism, is a highly pragmatic system that places heavy (if not absolute) reliance on human effort or purushardha . While acknowledging the law of Karma as a major condition, most of these systems also propose other conditions of causality. The Abhidharma teaching of the five niyamas is one such view that ties together the various strands of the law of causality. According to this teaching, there are five natural orders or laws (niyama) which operate in the physical and mental realms.

 

Five-fold Cosmic Order in Buddhism

The word ' niyama' means law, thus denoting a natural law or a cosmic order, in this context. The first of the five niyamas is the 'Rtu' niyama that refers to an order in the world of matter, to the order of the so called physical world encompassing all of material existence. There is a certain order in which the seasons cycle ( 'rtu krama' ), an order to the planetary movement in their orbits, an order to the movement of the Sun and so on. The second of the five niyamas is the 'bija' niyama' - the germinal/genetic order in all things biological. This is the law of genetics. The third is 'citta niyama' or a psychical order that manifests in all mental or psychological phenomena. The fourth is the 'karma niyama' or the karmic order that refers to the Law of Karma . The fifth order in this system is the 'dharma niyama' or the dharmic order. Dharma as a spiritual law supports or sustains spiritual order.

 

Among the fivefold niyama , Dharma-niyama is most important. In Indian philosophy, the word 'Dharma' and its scope of meaning are very important and extensive. A 'dharma' is that which bears ( dhareti ) its own nature. For instance it is the dharma of birth that is born, the dharma of decay that grows old, the dharma of dying that dies. Thus Dharma niyama is the natural law governing the relationship and interdependence of all things, the Way all things arise, exist and then cease. The first four niyama s are contained within, or derived from the fifth one, the Dharmic order or the Law of Dharma. At one level Dharma niyama is "natural phenomenal sequence". At another level it is also the "ethical order" derived from an insight into the natural order and thus includes Buddhist precepts as enumerated in the Vinaya Pitaka under the name 'Silakkhandha'. Thus the scope and meaning of Dharma are very extensive. And as may be expected there are bound to be differences amongst various schools and commentators.

An integral approach to the hidden orders of life

In spite of certain variations the equivalents of various levels of natural order can be traced in both Buddhist and Hindu schools of thought. While most variations can be easily reconciled one major difference remains - whether there is the hand of a law maker behind these laws or not. The atheistic version of Samkhya and its allied schools of thought such as Buddhism do not see the need for God behind this order while the theistic version of Samkhya-Yoga and its allied Hindu schools of thought affirm the existence of a Supreme or Absolute cause behind this order. Both views are equally beautiful and suited to different stages if not temperaments. Moreover these differences need not deter us from studying the order of life and their importance. This book seeks to integrate the best of all rather than to differentiate.

 

The law of Karmic order and Dharmic order assumed an all-important status in the Indian world-view. In later times both the orders of Dharma and Karma were fleshed out into concrete and clear concepts over the centuries and form essential aspects of the Indian world-view and culture. The orders of Dharma and Karma are not merely theoretical but intensely practical assuming a life of their own. Embodied in rules and traditions, illustrated by puranic myths, legends and folk-tales, the orders of Dharma and Karma are a living tradition in the Indian cultural life. The complex nuances of Dharma are portrayed through the inner and outer conflicts that the mythological and legendary heroes/characters go through in their lives and how they strive to uphold dharma.

 

Yet the predictable effect of institutionalizing natural truth in a concrete system of human morality and law has at times, manifest as imperfect understanding, dogma and rigid hierarchies. T he more popular traditional explanations of dharma and karma are at times over-simplistic and too generalized if not flawed. The original intuitive, cosmic and natural conception of Rta, Rna, Karma, and Dharma seems to have been compromised over time thus losing its original purport, at least in part. While popular understanding of Dharma and Karma is still useful, approaching these ideas as "natural orders of life" will restore the beauty and spiritual import of the order and harmony that Rta and Dharma originally imply. Cosmic order, social order, family order and individual psychic order are all interlinked or correlated. Inner order and harmony eventually synchronize with outer order and harmony. This book attempts to unravel the links between the various levels of order and harmony in the macrocosm and microcosm and also shed light on the hidden orders of life. Thus the title: 'Karmic Rhythms- the hidden orders of life' .

 

"The world is directed by Karma "

 Left to themselves all things must function in some way or the other. In our need to understand the natural course of things, we infer that there are certain laws of nature. Whether we refer to it as a "law" or "hidden order" or something else does not make any difference to its existence or operation. Though this book is titled 'Karmic Rhythms' , it does not exclusively deal with only the Law of Karma . It explores the Laws of Dharma as well as other important orders of life such as synchronicity, systemic family order and individual psychological order ( 'Cittaniyama' ), as implied by the subtitle ' the hidden orders of life' .

 

It is impossible to entirely reduce complex events or phenomena to singular laws. In actual fact, most phenomena arise from a combination of all or some of these invisible or hidden orders. Thus all events are not just the workings of Karma , although it is the most important law from mankind's perspective, apart from the Law of Dharma. Human beings are subject to and interact with the other niyama or natural laws, studying their truths and harnessing the power of these truths, thus giving us an impression that we are able to manipulate and control the natural world. Moreover human beings shape their own personal and social relationships, as well as their interactions with the environment through the power of volition or intent, which itself is a type of Karma . Karma shapes the fortunes and conditions of our lives. Whilst most other laws are largely in the domain of nature, Karma alone is specifically in our domain, highlighting the importance of taking responsibility for our own actions. Hence the Buddha's words: "The world is directed by Karma" .