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The Sanctity of Materialism

 by Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet

‘For me all is Brahman and I find the Divine everywhere. Everyone has the right to throw away this-worldliness and choose other-worldliness only, and if he finds peace by that choice he is greatly blessed. I, personally, have not found it necessary to do this in order to have peace. In my yoga also I found myself moved to include both worlds in my purview - the spiritual and the material - and to try to establish the Divine Consciousness and the Divine Power in men’s hearts and earthly life, not for a personal salvation only but for a life divine here...’.

Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga


It is certainly a sign of the times that again an article has appeared which seeks to drive a wedge between ancient Indian culture and the contemporary. This time it is Debashis Chakrabarti’s Hindutva: The religious incongruity (The Hindu, 6.2.2001)

However, there is a positive side to the frequency of these analyses in the printed media. It is that it provides us an opportunity to bring into the public domain certain obscure facets of the philosophy handed down throughout the ages, in the vast accumulation of thought and practice we call Hinduism today. In so doing, areas of the culture that appear puzzling, or even downright perverse (‘carnal’, to use Debashis Chakrabarti’s description), are brought into a clearer perspective.

There is no need to dwell on the question of the so-called Aryan Invasion, which Debashis Chakrabarti posits as an historical fact. This theory has been thoroughly discredited to the extent that it is surprising to encounter a researcher today who dares to continue citing this fictitious happening as real. But to delve into the more pertinent questions he raises, one quote from his article in this regard will suffice. He writes, ‘In fact, the Rigvedic culture represents the ancient naturalism of primitive, nomadic and pastoral Aryan/Indo-European tribes who had settled in the Sindhu-Ganga basin in the second or third millennium B.C.’

Apart from continuing to propagate the now dislodged theory as fact, Chakrabarti has raised deeper questions by his contention that the Rigveda is a document produced from a ‘primitive’, ‘tribal’ and ‘nomadic’ culture. It is necessary to expose the fallacy in his proposition; and this can readily be done when the sophistication of the Hymns is elaborated and the depth and breath of the consciousness in which these visions arose is explored. When this analysis is concluded, it will be for the public to decide if the Rigveda is the result of primitive nature worshipers, ‘pre-religious and animistic-naturalistic magic’. Or else, as is my contention, this sacred text is the product of a consciousness of unity unknown in the world today.

Dividing the Indivisible

Before all else, it needs to be stated that Chakrabarti’s perception of a ‘materialism’ suffusing the Rigveda is appropriate, given the fact that today we are limited in our appreciation of these aspects of reality (materialism/spiritualism). We tend to divide what for the Rishi was indivisible. The Rigveda is of most ancient origin. At that time there was a decisive homogeneity in the culture, wherein these distinctions not only did not exist, the very act of dividing aspects of that One Reality into these compartments was anathema.

However, the ‘materialism’ that Chakrabarti attributes to the Rigveda fails to encompass the sacred. It was, for the Rishi, a material sanctity, if you will, or a sanctified materialism. The acme of the quest was not posited beyond material creation. The Seer had no need to: the Absolute was part and parcel of the creation that was perceived as an extension of the Absolute’s own Being.

Today we are very far from possessing this type of perception as a lived experience and not just an intellectual exercise. Therefore, India cannot lead the world to an appreciation of this holiness of the material that is needed to save the planet from continued desecration and relentless destruction. Indeed, the situation is such that some of the activities most damaging to Mother Earth take place in India, in spite of the lofty position she held in ancient times in the culture. We may safely state that this is directly related to the development of the ‘spirituality’ Chakrabarti attributes to the Upanishadic period and denies to the Vedic. I shall elaborate this point in the course of this discussion.

Chakrabarti’s contention is that the adherents of Hindutva are waging a lost battle in seeking to revitalise the Vedic foundations in contemporary Hinduism and to firm up links that time and circumstance seem to have severed. The ‘religion’ we have come to call Hinduism, Chakrabarti claims, is unrelated to the Veda as that ancient school has reached us through the four Vedas. He even goes further and states that there is no ‘spiritualism’ therein, this term being employed according to his contemporary yardstick, it must be stated.

The author, in seeking to establish his argument, ventures into waters where he is sure to drown; for he is treating themes such as spirituality and its opposite, materialism, from the standpoint of an historian or sociologist moulded in the corridors of our modern universities. This is untenable insofar as the language and the methodology of the spiritual realiser are entirely different. Furthermore, most intellectuals today are products of institutions that foster entirely Euro-centric viewpoints, with all that goes with such a formidable conditioning, making all the finer points of the culture virtually impossible to comprehend.

To illustrate the point, the historian cannot be blamed if he analyses the Veda from the level of his worldly orientation and preparation. True penetration into its mysteries occurs through the direct experience that the systems of Yoga and other methods of self-perfection of the human consciousness provide. If, for example, we wish to establish the ‘materialism’ of the Vedic Rishis, this cannot be deduced from an academician’s scrutiny of the sacred texts. A long and laborious process of self-discipline is required, longer than the years spent in pursuit of an academic degree; as well, there must be an entirely different direction and purpose in the quest.

We may state further that the apparent schism Chakrabarti believes he is uncovering in his analysis is illusory. There is no such chasm between the most ancient Veda and the Hinduism of today. There is, on the contrary, a thoroughly organic development linking the two. This process starts from a point of Unity, and from that original ‘seed’ an evolution of consciousness makes its way through the ages, revealing a connected process which, while conditioned by time and circumstance, remains ever faithful to that original seed.

Inadequacies of a contemporary yardstick

There appears to be a severance at a certain point in this evolution. From a superficial observation one may deduce that a linear or hemispheric divide has occurred and that the two, from that point in time, stand on opposite edges of an inviolable chasm, holding opposing positions: materialism versus spirituality. This superficial observation results from adopting the contemporary yardstick modern institutions of learning provide, unrelated to the ancient way. Yet with this the researcher proposes to make deductions and definitive conclusions concerning those former times.

Debashis Chakrabarti would have us believe that the Vedic Age stood for materialism given the fact that physical elements were worshiped as divinity. He further contends that true ‘spirituality’ only began to manifest after Buddhism and Jainism in the age of the Upanishads.

In point of fact, to one who has followed this ancient path of Yoga as alluded to in the Rigveda, there is no such division or deviation of the nature proposed. The Vedic Seer might, in fact, view the Vedantic way, which is the dominant school in India today, as simply an escape midway through the process, a failure to complete the journey as demanded of the practitioner in ancient times.

There are many throughout the world today who find spirituality, in the way we have come to understand the term, only in these latter-day schools; or else in the orthodox religions that arose just after this brand of spirituality finally became dominant in the subcontinent. But truth lies elsewhere. It lies in a real and not imaginary consciousness of unity, virtually unknown in the world today in either camp, the spiritual or the material.

In the scientific domain, for instance, the much sought-after Theory of Everything (TOE) is forever to remain beyond the ‘event horizon’ of the human consciousness, unless the scientist comes to appreciate that TOE is not within the grasp of a separative consciousness. No ‘formula’ will open those magic doors to this ultimate knowledge unless a unified perceptive capacity exists where a divide such as spirit and matter ceases to exist.

The truth is that the ancient path demands a poise of unity, an ‘act of seeing’ entirely suffused with the lived experience of oneness. Then there is no label of materialist or spiritualist because this division took place many centuries after the Vedic Age.

The Vedic divinities indeed were worshiped as the sacred Fire and the other elements of nature because the sage had no difficulty, as the Hymns reveal, in experiencing the divine essence in all of creation. The entire material kingdom was not only the habitat of the Supreme; it was itself an extension of the Absolute into this material universe. On the ‘other side’ of that event horizon the transcendent Absolute, by its own self-engendered Will, brought into being a compression of Itself into a ‘seed’. That ‘seed’ was the first point of space and its expansion after this severe contraction is the universe as we know it today. And further, it is a continual process of creation not only at the root of material manifestation but at the origin of all that is born in this manifestation, including the human being and all creatures of this Earth.

Science at the service of the Sacred

The rites of ancient times were not the rituals of nomadic tribesmen (inferred in this is a primitive consciousness lacking all sophistication and scientific knowledge). Debashis Chakrabarti should study the mathematics and geometry employed in the construction of the altars where these rites were performed to learn just what heights the ancient civilisation had attained in the sciences, surpassing those of Egyptian and Greek cultures of a later date.

Further, there were specific reasons for focussing on a sacred worship of this order, so thoroughly rooted in material creation. For only in this material dimension can certain aspects of the Absolute be known, lived. For example, what metaphysics refers to as the Infinite and the Eternal are the spiritual counterparts of material space and time respectively. These are realised by the Seer in his own consciousness in this material dimension when the Yoga of the ancient school is followed.

To illustrate, we may experience the Infinite in other subtle dimensions of consciousness which we attain in ‘trance’ or samadhi and other such states removed from the physical, but the Eternal can only be lived and experienced in this most material dimension. That is, time is required for this experience. The Eternal must be realised through the movements of Itself which is experienced as time in our universal manifestation. Once we remove our consciousness from this plane and enter a more subtle one, ‘time’ disappears; and with it so does the possibility of identification with the Eternal in creation. We need only carry this thought over to our dream experience each night. A ‘long’ dream can be experienced in a question minutes or even seconds; for we have lost that sacred thread of the Eternal’s measurable movements of Itself. We appear to be in a ‘timeless’ dimension and thus free from time’s inescapable hold over all things material.

With this background for our discussion, let us reflect on the moment in the evolution of consciousness on the subcontinent when apparently a more ‘spiritual’ direction took hold of seekers and realisers. This occurred in the period just after the appearance of Buddhism and before the rise of orthodox religions such as Christianity and Islam. It is what has come to be known as the Vedantic period, based largely on the authority of the Upanishads. Debashis Chakrabarti has this to say about the two periods: ‘It was because of these materialistic [sic] tendencies and total absence of any spiritualism in the four Vedas that the Upanashadic era, when idealism and spiritualism started sprouting, branded the Vedas as a whole as belonging to Aparavidya, that is, a kind of knowledge with which one cannot know Brahma[n], the ultimate spiritual being.’

We must bear in mind that by the time this position was taken, that consciousness of unity enjoyed by the ancient Rishis no longer permeated the civilisation. We need to understand therefore what this Vedantic ‘Brahma[n]’ really signified. We need to be clear about our terminology.

The challenge of Mahakal

In view of the points I have made earlier regarding the Infinite and the Eternal, we could state, and perhaps Chakrabarti would have to agree, that seekers then for the first time veered entirely in the direction of the Infinite during the era he labels ‘spiritual’. This meant otherworldliness. Removing one’s consciousness from the body, from this material dimension, simplified the task. There were no encumbrances such as the senses to deal with, or the pulls and tugs of dense matter entrapping consciousness in a human frame. For to contend with the ‘steps of the Eternal’ in time is a challenge few are able to accept. The true vir, or hero, is required. And this is what the spirituality of otherworldliness lacks. The quote from Sri Aurobindo at the beginning of the article clarifies his position and reveals that his own Yoga approximated the more ancient school of a marriage of the two, spirit and matter.

We have the authority of the Gita to illustrate the inability of the fragile human being to sustain the experience of God as the Time-Spirit, Mahakal, though noble and dedicated as Arjun was in his representation of the human species. The Gita in its eleventh chapter reveals that the deviation had already occurred on the subcontinent, and a less vigorous and demanding path was laid before the seeker: the path of the Infinite as separate from the Eternal, the path of otherworldliness.

This marked a great turning point in a development that began in the earliest Vedic Age. Time, which in the earliest culture occupied a central position as revealed in the fact that the most material elements and forms were worshiped as forms of the Eternal, became the devourer, the destroyer, and an obstacle on the path to God-realisation. The loftier poise, which Chakrabarti claims was the ‘truly spiritual’, became equated exclusively with the subtle and evermore subtle dimensions of consciousness-being, until the seeker merged into those rarified strata where time is no more.

This, of course, was the big illusion. Time, or the movements of the Eternal, never ceases. Once into a physical body again, the seeker resumes his connection with time; but in the interim precious energies have been withheld from this dense physical plane. The result was a civilisation that increasingly lost hold over this material dimension. Pari passu, those true vir energies also suffered by this withdrawal until finally the civilisation lost the ability to cope with invading armies and foreign cultures.

India turns to Science

We thus come to 21st century India seeking to find her way through the morass the ‘spiritualists’ have left and for which those realised souls now have no solution. India today seeks answers from a different source, from a realm apparently severed entirely from the spiritual. Science today, in India no less than throughout the rest of the world, is expected to provide the answers and solutions these spiritualists have not and cannot offer in any satisfying manner. Their exhortations to ‘peace’, ‘love’ and ‘goodwill’ carry no force or the strength and vigour needed to counteract the boldness of the scientific materialist enamoured of the manner in which he has divested the physical domain of all that is sacred and worshipful.

However, there is a solution and it is found lodged in that original Vedic seed itself: the circle has to complete itself. We have been living through a long process of harmonisation and integration, not of communities and diverse religions. That is the most external layer. It is a process that goes much deeper. Things apparently fall apart, only to find a new order and in the process to reveal deeper depths and higher heights than ever before attained. But the sanctity of those integrated dimensions has to be established here, in time, and not in any Beyond, however venerable that may appear.

Thus, it has to be stated that to the Vedic Rishi all of this has been an escape and a fall from the poise of unified being that he/she enjoyed. A necessary deviation, no doubt, but a decidedly painful one.

The role of Myth

An intermediary passage between that and this is what is known as the Puranic age. Myths of the order we encounter in these delightful and profound collections, are simply the refuge of a civilisation under siege when the language of the soul, hidden in the cave even as Guha is hidden, is the only means of continuity amidst a hostile world. These sacred stories flourished when the land was overtaken by hostile armies and foreign cultures. The Vedic Seed took refuge in these tales, hid itself in the language of the soul in a sublime act of preservation. At the same time, this was part and parcel of the evolution of consciousness with all the levels of existence explored and then integrated and made a firm foundation wider than the civilisation has ever known. Thus, to sustain, as Debashis Chakrabarti has, that the Puranas have no connection with the Vedas is to reveal ignorance of the process of transposition when obscuring ‘veils’ have to be accommodated in order to camouflage and protect the culture.

The Veda describes processes of transmutation of one essential Energy from the broader perspective of an integral, unified vision. The Puranas, on the other hand, while describing the same process - the transmutation of energy - draw their symbols from a different dimension of consciousness. They will state the same thing, but the focus is different in both, and therefore the scope as well. Succinctly we may state that in cosmological terms the Energy to be transmuted is represented by the planet Mars into its finer substance as represented by the Sun. In the Puranas this has been expressed as Shiva ‘who stands before you in the form of his son’, as described in the chapters of the Shiva Purana relating the birth of Skanda. And that form is precisely the War God, Kartikeya, the very godhead in the pantheon who represents Mars. But it is Mars Victorious, transmuted, its lesser or baser characteristics hammered out to become the power that conquers, as the higher aspect of Mars is known. The Son is then equal to the Father. This will also explain the often conflicting tales of Murugan: he is both celibate and divine paramour of the hill maidens.

Or else, there is the same process described in temple form. At Konarak, the Orissa temple in the form of the Sun’s chariot, the external sculptures adorning the temple depict the lesser characteristics of Mars, ‘carnal’, as Debashis Chakrabarti would describe, sensuous, a trap of seekers no doubt, but real. Once passage has been made through those beguiling outer layers, the seeker enters the temple of the Sun and its closed and dark chamber, like the hidden and veiled chamber of his own soul. Mars has been transmuted and its less refined energies left in the outer corridors. The remaining ‘gold’ after the transmutation is the ‘power that conquers’, the Martian energy becomes the power of the Sun. The ‘son’ has become the ‘father’.

Thus do we have the same transmutation in the Puranas as in the Rigveda. And while the focus of the former is the individual and the innermost recesses of the soul, the latter refers to cosmic processes and the integration of the individual with this greater design. For example, the description of Daksha as both father to and son of Aditi.

The cosmic message in this quaint lineage is the Transcendent (father) through the Individual Soul (daughter) is born as the Immanent (son). Thus father to and son of his own ‘daughter’.

Time is ‘secularised’

We can follow this progression onto the development of cosmology and other branches of the sciences that have come down to us from ancient times, covering this same period. As we know, there was no split in the sciences then. There was the Sacred and all sciences served at its altar. For example, astrology was astronomy and considered, together with cosmology, to be ‘the mother of all science’.

Indeed, contrary to what Chakrabarti claims, at the time when he populates India with nomadic tribes from Central Asia who knew only ‘animism’ and ‘nature worship’, those same ‘tribesmen’ seemed to demonstrate a most astonishing knowledge of geometry and arithmetic, to the point where they were able to construct the geometrically elaborate vedi, or altars, used in the sacrificial rites. We need not dwell on this contradiction since unbiased historical research into the development of mathematics in the world have at last acknowledged the superior position India has held in these sciences from Vedic times, which indeed stretch farther back than the Euro-centric historian would have us believe.

A clearer example cannot be found of the consequences of such a split, between the sacred and the scientific, than in the confused condition of the calendar in use. And we may note that the division which produced the confusion occurred about the same time Chakrabarti believes ‘true spirituality’ to have ‘sprouted’ in India.

Cosmology as the mother of all science suffered a deadly blow when the escape of spirituality became the norm. The inability to deal with things material and of this world resulted in a loss of the true time measure in use during the Vedic Age. The Sayana (Tropical) Zodiac as backdrop for the measure then used was replaced by the Nirayana (Sidereal) Zodiac. Nothing in the history of the subcontinent explains better the difficulty India experiences at integration and harmonising spirit and matter than this one major deviation from the ancient way.

It meant that instead of the Earth’s own measure prevailing, as it had in the Vedic Age, with paramount importance given to the seasons and the calculation of the shortest and longest days of the year, ‘science’ stepped into this domain reserved for the Seer and declared that the ‘beyond’ must be the sole measure - similar indeed to the escapist route of a spiritualism that had abandoned matter and all things of this Earth. Science was therefore simply a projection of the prevailing consciousness that overtook the subcontinent at that point in time. Thus, whatever difficulties have arisen from this shift must be laid at the doors of ‘spirituality’ and not materialism.

The result is today reflected in a fragmented time measure with hundreds of almanacs catering to the needs of hundreds of sects, communities, castes, all at odds with each other over the issue, all propounding a different ayanamsha, or zero point of the Sidereal Zodiac to the exclusion of the Tropical, as the start of the calculations.

In the Vedic Age such a situation would have been unthinkable. And not merely in India in those ancient times, but in all the great civilisations of antiquity as well. The calendar was as sacred as the Gods themselves (witness Mayan pre-Colombian America), and it served to unite society rather than to fragment.

Thus when wisemen opted for the Beyond and abandoned this material dimension and our planetary home to its divisive fate, this withdrawal also bore its effects in the realm of the sacred sciences. Astronomy arose shorn of the sacred. Cosmology became ‘secularised’ and time thus became random and relative. Skambha, that first point of space, or the ‘compression’ of the Absolute, lost its uppermost position in the hierarchy. And with this occurrence emptiness replaced fulness and all things lost their divine Purpose.

Some may view this split as a benediction. Actually it is the cause of all our woes. Until that wider poise of consciousness is reached, integrating all the layers of individual and collective consciousness-being that have manifested in the interim, this civilisation will always appear to stand on the brink of that unbridgeable Abyss.

The key to salvation of the civilisation lies precisely in eternal Time, the very vision Arjun shied away from. But that was another age, the 8th Manifestation of Sri Krishna; while this is the time of Kalki who returns to humanity the saving formula of sacred Time.


Ganesa - god of learning & wisdom