The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings
30 August 2021
His Holiness continued today’s teachings with a presentation of the later Vedic Period which lasted from the 11th to the 6th century BCE.
The Spread of Philosophical Literature
Around the tenth or eleventh century BCE, all the non-Aryan people who had previously lived in the Punjab had been conquered. Those who followed orders were enslaved, and those who did not surrender, were sent into exile far to the south. The Aryans also moved to the south of the Five River Basin, arriving at the lower regions of the Ganges.
His Holiness illustrated his presentation by using charts that showed the regions and the Khyber Pass that the Aryans crossed and the region around the Indus Valley near the Five River Basin in Punjab where they settled. Gradually, they moved to the Ganges area. After they had acquired these great fertile plains of the Ganges River Valley, which was far larger than the Indus and likewise well-suited to agriculture, they gained a new outlook. Their livelihood improved and their culture developed greatly.
During the Early Vedic Period, people had lived in tribes and the kings had been chosen by the majority of the people. After the Aryans had settled in the Ganges River Valley, gradually a tradition of hereditary monarchy arose, where the kingship was passed from father to son. At that time, the military also become a hereditary tradition. This was the circumstance that produced the Kṣhatriya, or governing caste. The other members of the populace began to pass their occupation from father to son and became the Vaiśhya caste.
These, in addition to the Brahman caste, were all members of the Aryan peoples. They all had the right to recite the hymns and perform sacrifices. After a period of time, they would lead a new dharmic, i.e., religious life, and be called dvija, the “twice-born”, a second, or double birth.
The remaining indigenous population, designated as barbarians by the Aryans, formed the fourth caste, the Shudras. These people, who had surrendered to the Aryans, became slaves or servants. They had no opportunity to enjoy the same rights as the other three castes and were not allowed to practice the Vedic religion, so they were called ekaiti, the “once-born”.
This system of four castes developed over time, gradually, during the latter part of the Vedic Period. The hierarchy of caste depended upon respective trades not race, and each trade was passed down from father to son.
The four castes that His Holiness mentioned above—the Brahmans, the Rajanya or Kṣhatriya [in Sanskrit there are two terms, the first for the rulers and the second for military leaders] who ruled through political or military force, the common class or Vaiśya who performed agriculture and trade, and the Sūdra who were slaves or servants—became an immutable tradition. Of their respective roles, sacrifice was considered the most important, and Brahmans performed the rituals, so the traditions of the religion and culture at that time were for the profit of the Brahman caste, and the foundations of this system were laid, hence this part of the Later Vedic Period is known as the Brahmanical Period.
Probably, during these five or six hundred years when Brahmanical civilization developed, there was a rapid spread of knowledge about the mind and spirituality, during which time innumerable philosophical schools and many literary traditions developed. In order to make the Later Vedic Period easier to discuss and easier to remember, His Holiness divided the five or six hundred years of the Later Vedic Period into three parts:
Part I: The Four Vedas
Part II: The Brahmanical Period
Part III: The Age of Philosophy
His Holiness explained that this classification was not chronological but according to genre. The chronology of the different texts was not clear.
Part I: How the Four Vedas Were Compiled
If we take a broader view of the Vedas, His Holiness continued, all the Vedic literature could be called Vedas, and that literature can be classified into three sections:
- The Mantras: Samhitas—collection or “closely collected”
- The Brahmanas—texts produced by the Brahmans
- The Upanishads— “respect” or “sitting nearby”
Concerning the Upanishads, His Holiness argued for the latter interpretation. These were texts taught in secret, so the students would have to sit near the teacher, he explained.
The hymns or root texts of the four Vedas are also in four parts, the Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda.
However, when the Vedas first appeared, there was only the Rigveda, and it was preserved by oral transmission. It was finally compiled and took the form of our present Rigveda during the Later Vedic Period, and the other three Vedas also date from that time.
Around this time, the Brāhmāṇas, the Āryaṇyaka, the Upaniṣhads, and the two great epics— the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata— appeared. All of them were completed in the Later Vedic period.
It took several centuries to compile the Vedas and other Brahmanical texts. During that time, many people edited and compiled them, so these texts were compiled either in sequence or at the same time. The chronology is not known, but the Rigveda appeared first.
There are four Vedas. They are primarily a collection of hymns in praise of the gods:
- The Rigveda, the earliest of the Vedas.
- The Sāmaveda
- The Yajurveda, with its two parts, the light and dark
- The Atharvaveda, the youngest of the Vedas.
The Rigveda is the oldest of the Vedas and the foundation or root text of Vedic literature. The Sāmaveda is like a new edition of the Rigveda, which has compiled all the existing texts of the Rigveda into one text.; it has very little unique content. The Yajurveda is divided into two parts, the light and the dark. The dark texts are Vedic texts and textual commentaries or Brāhmānas on their philosophy combined. As the distinction between the root text and commentary is not clear, they are called the “dark (Skt. kriṣṇa)” Yajurveda. The light Yajurveda is also composed of root texts and commentaries combined but this time they are clearly distinguished, so it is called the “light” or “clear” (Skt. sukla) Yajurveda.
Contemporary researchers do not clearly know the reasons the Sāmaveda, and Yajurveda were needed in addition to the Rigveda, but one explanation many scholars accept, is that they were used by the priests when performing the sacrifices explained in the Rigveda. They suggest that the Yajurveda is a text describing the role and tasks for the first type of priest whose job was to perform the ritual, and the Sāmaveda includes hymns written for the second type of priest whose job was to chant the praises, sing, play the drum and so forth.
The Vedic tradition became one that focused on sacrifices and rituals only and so the rituals became very complex and ordinary people were no longer able to perform them. The rituals were so complicated that the details had to be written down.
His Holiness went on to introduce some of the important Vedic rituals. Most of the rituals come from the Brahmanical period or the later Vedic period, he explained. Among them there are several that remain to this day:
- Rituals for the waxing and waning phases of the moon
- Rituals to give food to ancestors (similar to Tibetan burnt offerings)
- Fire pujas to Agni
- The four-month sacrifice (from the 7th to 10th month): a period of fasting, keeping silence etc.
- Offering amrita to Agni (basically an offering of alcohol to Agni)
- Ritual to crown a king
- The horse sacrifice
- Offerings to Agni
All of these are very important rituals, but, because of time constraints, the Karmapa only gave brief explanations of the coronation ritual, the horse sacrifice, and the fire pujas.
The coronation ritual (rājasūya)
In a Brahmanical text called the Aitareyāraṇyaka, the coronation ritual, when a king is enthroned, is described in this fashion:
First the throne must be covered with a complete tiger skin including the head and claws, with the fur visible from outside. The tiger’s head must face east or to the front. The symbolism is that the tiger is the king of animals, so if a king uses a tiger skin, his reign would be stable and powerful, they believed. When the king was crowned, he would come to the throne from behind and, facing east, would kneel on his right knee, hold the throne with his two hands, and recite a mantra. At this time, brahmans would pour sacred water over the king’s head and say, “This is the king of the world.” Then, at the end, the king would sit on the throne, be offered the amrita of the gods (alcohol) to drink, and the ceremony would conclude.
His Holiness explained that this ritual for empowering the king is important because it is the origin of rituals used during Tibetan Buddhist empowerments.
The horse sacrifice (aśvamedha)
In ancient times, it is said that horse sacrifices were primarily performed in order to have children, but in the Brahmanical period, the purpose of the horse sacrifice was totally different. The horse sacrifice was performed by a great king; no one else was allowed to perform it. The people of that time believed that if the number of horses was one hundred, the king could achieve the state of Indra and become the king of all the gods and gain dominion over the entire world.
The way the ritual was conducted was like this. First horses of a particular colour were chosen. The horses were bathed and then released and allowed to go wherever they pleased. Wherever the horses roamed in that year, the king would follow with an army. If it went to the land of another kingdom, the king of that land had the choice of either fighting or surrendering.
Once all the kingdoms where the horse wandered were subjugated, the kings of those countries had to be brought back to the king’s own palace. On the other hand, if the king were defeated in battle during that time, he would become an object of scorn. If he was victorious, he would return to his own country and kill all the horses. This is the well-known horse sacrifice. In brief, at that time, being able to perform a horse sacrifice showed that the king was strong and powerful. This was a sign of the “universal emperor” or chakravarti [Skt.]
The fire puja to Agni (agniyādhāna)
This was the most important ritual for the Aryans in their daily lives. All the heads of households had the responsibility for preparing mandalas, lighting sacred fires, and so forth. Not doing so showed disrespect for the gods.
The life of a brahman was divided into four major phases: celibacy, household life, forest life, and living on alms. Celibacy was the period in which the brahmans received their education and studied the Brahmanical texts, after which they had to return to their homes and immediately get married. At this point, a brahman bridegroom was required to perform this ritual, and light a sacred fire.
This ritual must begin on the first day of either the waxing or waning phase of the moon. Completing the entire ritual takes two days. First the four sacrificial priests are appointed and then a round and a square hearth must be prepared. There was a custom of sometimes also making a crescent-shaped hearth facing south between those two.
First a priest had to start the sacred fire by rubbing two sticks together, in the same way as people made fire tens of thousands of years ago. Then the hearths would have to be blessed or purified in five steps. Then the fire was put in the hearth, and at sunset, the householder would recite the names of the gods as he went inside with his wife. A brahman would teach the two of them the technique of starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together so that the following morning the two of them would be able to start the fire in the square hearth. They had to kneel before the square hearth and prostrate to the gods. The fire would burn all night and then the next morning a brahman would come to put it out. These are the stages of the agniyādhāna ritual. His Holiness commented that he believed this to be a once-in-a-lifetime ritual.
His Holiness went on to speak about the fourth Veda, the Atharvaveda, which relates to the mantras used in Buddhism.
The previous three Vedas primarily teach sacrificial rituals, hymns, and so forth, and the Sāmaveda and the Yajurveda are basically the Rigveda with other texts added to them. The Atharvaveda is different. To explain it in terms of philosophy, it is at a higher level than the Rigveda.
The Atharvaveda has twelve books and about 6000 stanzas. Its primary topic is mantras or rituals to protect from spirits, illness, poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, bandits, and so forth. Likewise it also teaches mantras for long life, prosperity, good health, easy travel, and victory over others.
It is not clear when the Atharvaveda appeared, but it seems clear for various reasons that it was around the same time as the Yajurveda and that there was not much of a direct connection between the preparation of the Atharvaveda and the other three Vedas. For some period of time, this text was not recognized as a part of the Vedas; only after the start of the common era was its importance recognized, so this text was not written down until a few hundred years later.
The Atharvaveda is also called the Atharva-Aṅgiras. Both Atharva and Aṅgiras are names of sacrificial priests from ancient times. The traditions of Atharva are primarily peaceful and enriching mantra rituals, and the Aṅgiras tradition is sorcery and wrathful mantra rituals. The practices of these two traditions are combined into a single text, so in terms of its origination, it is different than the earlier Vedas.
The word mantra appears many times not only in the Atharvaveda; it also appears in the Rigveda. In the last or tenth book of the Rigveda, there is the Puruṣa-sūkta or “Song of the Cosmic Being” in which the word chandas appears, which has the same meaning as the term ‘mantra’, so it is permissible to say that there were mantras at the time of the Rigveda.
As His Holiness described above, the topics of the three earlier Vedas are primarily related to sacrificial rituals, and the contents of the Atharvaveda are primarily related to mantras. For this reason, when the Atharvaveda first appeared, people not only did not accept that it was a Veda, they also did not consider it as a root or fundamental text. They viewed it merely as no more than a text connected with mantra actions.
But later the brahmans began to think that if they only knew how to perform sacrifices without being able to show some power of increasing life force and merit, destroying enemies and obstructions, and so forth, people would lose belief in their having a direct connection to the gods. Consequently, the brahmans developed a greater interest in this Atharvaveda which contains many mantras connected with power. They saw it as a means of increasing their powers of connection to the gods and developing special powers through the rituals. In particular, if they did not know the mantric rituals for making kings’ reigns long-lasting and for defeating enemies that are found in the Atharvaveda, they would not have the position of the royal priest or purohita and would lose that status.
A later text called the Atharva-pariṣiṣhta, an addendum to the Atharvaveda, says that in order to qualify to serve the king a purohita must be thoroughly trained in the Atharvaveda, and have mastered it and know the activities described in it. The kings had a great belief in the activities of pacifying, increasing, magnetizing and destroying.
Thus, people considered the mantras that had the power to help immediately rather than the complicated rituals taught in the Vedas, so the status and influence of the Atharvaveda increased and eventually it became a Vedic text.
The meaning of “mantra”
The meaning is not exactly the same as in the Vajrayana texts. Ancient people believed that all threats and dangers arose from spirits or malicious gods and demons or else from others performing sorcery. They viewed mantras as superior, secret instructions that could be used, through the power of the mantras, to accomplish their own aims or weaken or eliminate somebody else. For that reason, the use of mantras became widespread during the Vedic period.
The specific functions of sacrifice and mantra
To speak about it in terms of the literature, sacrifices come from the first three Vedas from the Rigveda to the Yajurveda, whereas the mantra rituals are primarily in the Atharvaveda, though there are also some in the Yajurveda.
Sacrifices were performed to powerful gods, whereas mantras were done for the gods or darkness, ghosts, and spirits. They invoked those gods or demons to accomplish their own aims or to harm others. Similarly, in sacrifices, the body and speech are most important, but in mantra, internal power, the power of your mind, is most important.
Fundamentally, there are two conditions needed for the mantras in the Atharvaveda:
- The mantra must have power.
- There needs to be a thing that symbolizes it (in Buddhist terms a mudra).
“Mudra” here doesn’t necessarily mean something you do with your hands; it means a sign or symbol.
There are many different types of mantras, but the main categories are peaceful, wrathful, and enriching. Sorcery mantras can be added as a fourth.
1. Peaceful or pacifying activity has as its aim pacifying harm from others’ sorcery, spirits, obstructors, and ghosts. It is done in a gentle and respectful way. You make an offering and give advice with a benevolent mind in order to please them, and that is how you avert them. Sometimes the spirits or obstructors are made to go elsewhere. For example, you might rub the body of the person afflicted by the spirits with a scented cloth, and then throw the cloth away in a place frequented by spirits, such as at a crossroads, telling the spirits, “Please go away.” If you do this but they don’t listen, you must seek the protection of a powerful god by prayer to gods such as Agni who is renowned as the demon-slayer or Indra who repulses demons. Or you could take a special object that the spirits were afraid of, holding it in your hand as a symbol.
2. Wrathful activity is to invoke evil demons to harm someone else with the aim of destroying them.
3. Enriching activity aims to enrich or increase the status of oneself or others; to increase merit or lifespan; to bring health to one’s household, and to accomplish all of one’s wishes.
These mantra activities from the Atharvaveda are very similar to the peaceful, enriching, and wrathful activities in secret mantra [in Buddhism]. If one adds magnetizing activity to those three, they are the four activities described in secret mantra texts.
In addition, in the Atharvaveda, there are many instructions on divination, mantric activities, medicinal preparation and so forth.
In the 19th century, the American scholar and Sanskritist Maurice Bloomfield distinguished the following nine different categories of mantra in the Atharvaveda:
- Mantras to cure diseases
- Mantras for long life
- Mantras to pacify spirits, enemies, and sorcery
- Mantras pertaining to women
- Mantras pertaining to kings
- Mantras to create harmony
- Mantras to increase prosperity and gain adornments
- Mantras to eliminate misdeeds and impurity
- Mantras to accomplish the aims of the brahmans
The Japanese scholar Yukēi Matsunaga likewise classified the different types of mantras in the Atharvaveda into nine sections:
- Healing medicines
- Lengthening life
- Enriching activity
- Purifying or atoning activity
- Common or general activity
- Activities for women
- Violent activity
- Activities for kings
- Brahmanic activities.
What is important, the Karmapa pointed out, is that these names are similar to the ones that are used in the Caryā tantras [conduct/performance tantra]. It is disputed which category some tantras fall in, but both the Susiddhi tantra, which primarily teaches the rituals and activities of Kriyā tantra [action tantra] and the Tantra of the Full Enlightenment of Vairochana, which is considered to be a Caryā tantra have the same names for the different types of mantra as for the pacifying, enriching, and destroying activities. Not only are the names similar, but the content is very similar too.
Magnetizing and summoning activities are added in the Vajraśekhara tantra, which is included in the class of Yoga tantra, to make five activities in all. The names of these five activities also appear in Sanskrit in the Vedas. Thus, if we look for the source or seed of these five activities, the rituals and the mantras, it probably goes back to the Vedic texts, His Holiness commented.
And the fire pujas taught in Buddhist pujas also have their origin in the rituals of the Vedic period. For these reasons, many of the rituals performed in the practices, mandalas and rituals of the Secret Mantra have their roots in the Vedic literature, which is more than 4000 years old. At this time, however, we do not clearly know how they changed between the Vedas and the Secret Mantra. Lack of historical sources limits what we can know, but one thing we can say for certain, their mutual similarities are clearly not a mere coincidence.
Some people might think if that is so, then all our Secret Mantra Vajrayana rituals were previously Hindu rituals and we do not have anything that is different. Yet, His Holiness made it clear that he thought that there is nothing to worry about and that we should take a broader view and look at how many practices we have in Tibetan Buddhism that were not Indian and were actually present in Tibet from ancient times. The Karmapa cited certain wealth practices involving offerings to nagas and local deities. Later, when Buddhism flourished in Tibet, the practices were then made to fit with Buddhism and their contents were altered to make them fit the Buddhist view.
Buddhism originated in India, so many of the aspects of Buddhist customs and views are connected to Indian civilization; if the Buddha had just said things that people could not relate to, it would not have benefited them, His Holiness said. In that sense, the Buddha was very skilled in teaching in a way that would fit into that time and place and was accessible to the way that people thought at that time.
How skeptical views developed
“Skeptical views” here refers to philosophy, the product of doubts and questioning. As time progressed, people’s thinking developed. Gradually, people began to think about how this world came into being, where they came from, what the beginning of the world was and what was going to happen in the future and so forth. Thus, they started to think on a more profound level and began to be skeptical.
Whereas the people earlier thought of natural phenomena as gods, this gradually changed from a polytheistic into a pantheistic view, believing that the divine permeates all things. Pantheism, His Holiness explained further, has to relate to philosophy, the scriptures and particularly logic. There is a lot to say about this topic with regards to the Vedic literature, His Holiness commented, but the main reason it was important to explain pantheism was because it was the beginning of Indian philosophy and the root or seed of Buddhist philosophy.
During the early period of the Rigveda, one god was worshiped simply as one god. Varuna was just Varuna, and Indra was simply Indra. When offering praises in the hymns, they were offered to individual deities. Then these hymns gradually changed, and the later ones were new ways of praising the gods. They began to write hymns in praise of all the gods combined in one. For example, words such as
“Agni, at the first time that you are lit, you are Varuna. When you burn, you are the form of all deities, and for the faithful you are Indra.”
show how the people at that time thought many gods could be combined into one.
In the first part of the third book of the Rigveda, each stanza ends with the line “mahād devanam asuratyam ekam”—”All the gods are one in having great powers”. This shows that people of that time believed that the gods were the same in essence and, later this developed into the idea that all phenomena are contained within one god.
His Holiness illustrated the point with a paraphrase of a verse from the Vedas:
Aditi is the heavens; Aditi is the ground.
Aditi is the father, mother and children.
Aditi is the light-skinned and the dark-skinned people.
Aditi is arisen and non-arisen.
Gradually they began to see that not only were all the gods the same in essence but all phenomena also; they originate from a single essence, a primordial cause or condition. Consequently, the ancient Indian philosophies began to develop.
From the Buddhist view they are categorized as ‘non-Buddhist’ or ‘extremist’, meaning that they are either Nihilist or Eternalist. As the philosophies developed there were basically of three different types:
The first is to say that there is only one original source of all phenomena. This view is like the internal basis of Indian philosophy out of which all the ancient Indian philosophies developed. Some Japanese scholars hypothesize that the Mahayana assertion that ultimately there is a single vehicle arose from this.
The second is that the appearances and changes of all phenomena do not occur outside of the original source; they exist as a single nature. All phenomena are not separate entities from the original source but are included within it. They are like waves in the ocean. This explanation exerted a strong influence over many later philosophies. Some Japanese scholars believe that the Vedanta, which emphasizes the Upaniṣhads, the Sāṃkhya, and many of the later Buddhist tenets of the Mind Only school are very similar and grew out of this philosophy.
The third is that all phenomena arise from a single original source, but that original source is unchanging or unmoving. Many phenomena and appearances occur within it. Though all phenomena change, the original source itself does not change. Some Japanese scholars suggest that the Mahayana explanation of the dharma nature of suchness, explained to be permanent and unchanging by nature, is a continuation of this thought.
Basically, there were many different ways of thinking at that time. Later, whether we talk about the Hindu or the Buddhist philosophies, they were all influenced greatly by these original views. In particular, in Buddhism, we talk about the twelve links of dependent-origination, which also find their origins in the Vedas. Ignorance, karmic formations, consciousness and name and form appear in the same terms in the Rigveda. Although it is very difficult to find the original source of those twelve links of interdependence, according to one Japanese scholar, the first hymn of the Rigveda might be their origin.
His Holiness concluded the teachings by saying that the Buddha himself had lived in the Indian society into which he was born and when he taught, he matched his way of teaching with the way that people behaved and thought at that time. Our current Buddhism arose in India and since it developed there, it uses terminology that relates to ancient Indian society and their respective philosophies and practices.
There is nothing negative about this, His Holiness assured people. Rather it demonstrates that the development of Buddhist thought has a very long history.