The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2021
28 August 2021
The previous day’s teachings had touched on the literature of the Vedic period, during which the Karmapa had spoken about the gods in heaven as well as the gods in the air, he now continued with today’s teachings, speaking about the gods of the Earth.
III. Gods of the Earth
The first of the gods of the Earth is Agni, the god of fire, the second is Soma, the god of alcohol/intoxicants as well as the moon, and the third is Pṛithvī, the goddess of the Earth.
1. Agni, the god of fire
The god of fire, Agni, is a god worshiped by humans from ancient times, and he is particularly important in India. In the Vedic literature, Agni is recognized as an extremely ancient deity. He takes three forms, that of the Sun God of the heavens, Indra in the space between, and Agni on earth – all three being in essence Agni. These three gods control the heavens, the air, and the earth, and all three levels are of equal importance. If one of them had to be considered most important, the most powerful would-be Agni. In the Vedas, we therefore find the largest number of hymns of praises to Agni.
The origin of the worship of Agni is in the fires used in fire pujas and in daily life. At that time, people believed that offerings could be actually made to deities through the medium of fire, for the gods to enjoy the offerings and also to hear and learn about people’s desires and so forth. Thus, by means of fire, a connection was created between people and the gods, because of which fire was considered a messenger of the gods and indispensable when performing a sacrifice.
The Indians deemed Agni the youngest of the gods who arose newly when a fire was lid by rubbing two sticks of wood against each other. He is thus considered to be especially powerful and majestic. This relates to the Sanskrit term for god, which is deva, and can mean light or to illuminate. Because it is through light that the power of the gods becomes evident, people considered that fire, because of its light, had the same divine power as the sun in the sky. Just as the sun has the ability to illuminate everything, people thought of fire as also having a divine nature; and as fire was particularly indispensable in daily life, there was a definite reason why people worshipped fire.
With regard to the benefits of worshipping fire, it is believed to have many powers, such as dispelling darkness and burning impurities, as well as the power to subdue demons, for which he is called the Demon-Slayer Raksohan. During the Vedic period, people believed it important to make fire offerings in their households, due to which he is considered the main deity when making a fire puja at home and is also known as Gṛhapati, the Lord of the Household.
Because in sacrifices the offerings are made to deities through the medium of Agni, he is likewise called Havyavahana, the bearer of the sacrifice or Duta, the messenger. This god also has many functions, such as ruling humans, regulating the laws of heaven and earth, as well as the power of omniscience. Agni is moreover connected to some rituals of Secret Mantra, during which one recites his name, meditates, and makes offerings to him.
2. Soma, the god of alcohol/intoxicants
In this context it is important to know that the Brahmins enjoyed intoxicants and they thought that because they liked intoxicants, the gods must likewise have a liking for them, so it would be good to offer alcohol and other intoxicants. The gods Soma, Agni, and Indra were considered to have a deep connection between each other. The intoxicating power of Soma [an intoxicant] came about due to the power of Agni, as it needed to be boiled first, which then increased Indra’s strength so that he could perform vast deeds, becoming especially courageous and very strong. Thus, according to Indian belief, Indra got his power due to Agni. Soma was a drink that the Aryan people had been drinking for generations, and there was no one among the gods and ancestors who disliked it.
Not only was soma drunk by the gods, but it was also a gift from the gods to humans. And when humans drank this intoxicant given by the gods, it was said they could have long and healthy lives. Due to this, the god Soma was connected to people’s hopes for the future, which is also expressed in the hymns to Soma. At the end of the Rigveda, Soma is also considered to be the god of the Moon.
3. Pṛithvī, the goddess of the Earth
Pṛithvī is an emanation of the Earth who had the power of the gods in heaven, so she was revered greatly by humans. Considering the Earth to be a goddess had been present from long before, but later Pṛithvī’s status declined greatly. People considered that Pṛithvī was the mother of all things and produced and gave birth to everything. Furthermore, it was believed that all the gods were born when the heavens and earth joined. However, as the Earth is what people step upon and is always below their feet, people did not regard the Earth as highly as the sky, fire, water, and so forth and devotion for her was lost. Therefore, there are fewer hymns to Pṛithvī in the Vedas than to other gods.
With this, His Holiness completed the discussion of the gods of the Earth and continued with a presentation of other deities that are not included among the gods in heaven, in the air or on Earth.
IV. Other gods
The other gods His Holiness spoke about were Yama, Sarasvatī, Brihaspati, and Puruṣa.
First of all, His Holiness explained, we need to know that Yama appears in Mahakala texts, in many rituals, and represents the Lord of Death. As to how Yama is described in the Vedic literature, he was not originally a wrathful god, but later people made him into a dark-coloured and frightening deity. In the first praise of Yama in the Vedas, he is praised as appearing like the departing sun. The setting sun is symbolic of death, and when the sun goes down, people feel a little sad, thinking that just as the sun sets, their life will also end one day. The sunset made them contemplate the next life. In this way, a connection was made between Yama and the world of the next life. And if there were a next life, there must be a place one goes to and a god who rules over the world of the next life; so people believed this to be Yama. Although Yama was first related to the sunset, in the Vedas, he changed to having human characteristics and people considered him to be the King of the Dead i.e., the king of the place that people would go to after they died.
At that time, they believed that when good people died, they achieved a new body that radiated light and went to a heaven of light and happiness. They stayed there in the presence of King Yama, enjoying unending happiness. Thus, at that time, Yama was thought of as the benevolent king of a kingdom of happiness. It was only later in the texts of the Purāṇas that he became a cruel deity who punished wrongdoers after they died.
From ancient times, Yama had been a king who appeared in a time free of illness and suffering. Then as misdeeds and suffering gradually increased and people became afraid of dying, that aged king led his retinue to the world of the dead. With him there were two dogs that he would always send to the human realm. The dogs had four eyes each and large snouts, and such a strong stench that people did not like them at all. But people did not dislike Yama.
Yama was one of two twins born from the heavens. He also had a younger sister called Yami. Later in the Secret Mantra, Yama was divided into two deities, Yamantaka and Yama Dharma Raja, the King of the Hells, the one who punishes wrongdoers. Showing three depictions of Yama, His Holiness pointed out, that while all originated from India, one was an Indian image of Yama, while the others were a Japanese and a Chinese depiction respectively.
When the Vedas first appeared, there were not many female goddesses, most of them were male. The two principal female ones were Uṣhas, the Goddess of Dawn, whom His Holiness had described previously, and Sarasavati. Well-known goddesses such as Durgā, Kalī, and Lakṣhmī only appeared later.
Before elaborating on the goddess Sarasvatī, His Holiness decided to first give a description of Brihaspati, the God of Prayer.
2. Brhaspati, the god of prayer
Brhaspati is considered to be the god of aspirations or prayers. Unlike the other gods who originate from a phenomenon in the natural environment, Brhaspati had no similar basis for arising. People believed in the great power of prayer by means of which one would gain the ability to control others and to change the wishes of the gods, so all the words of their prayers became divine in nature. This is similar to how they believed that fire and soma had divine powers. The god of prayer was not initially of great importance, but later became more important.
His Holiness went on to explain that in the Upanishads, an important non-Buddhist text which was translated into Tibetan by Gendun Choephel, the god of prayer is revered highly and given the name Bṛhaspati. In the later texts that are called Purāṇas, which are another type of Hindu literature, Bṛhaspati is asserted to be the highest of the three great gods and identified as Brahma, the creator of the world.
Next, His Holiness spoke about Puruṣa.
Puruṣa is another imagined god, not a god whose identity is based on a natural phenomenon. When looking at non-Buddhist texts, His Holiness continued, we find that they talk about a self or a soul. This is what the word puruṣa refers to. Puruṣa is considered to be one of the earliest of the gods, said to have a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, and a thousand arms. Similar to the Buddhist thousand-armed Chenrezig [Avalokiteshvara]. Puruṣa was later identified as being the nature of the world, the soul, the self, or consciousness, out of which everything arises. Thus, people began to take interest in him, and he became very important. The praises of Puruṣa are identified as a predecessor to the tradition of the caste system.
After the break, His Holiness went on to elaborate on the goddess Sarasvatī.
Originally, in the Vedas, Sarasvatī is the goddess of all the rivers. And in particular, according to the Rigveda, she is described as having special powers to cleanse humans of all impurities, bring wealth and prosperity, increase courage, and bring more children. Later, in the Brāhmaṇas, she became the goddess of words or language, a deity who increased debating skills and intelligence, and finally also became recognized as the goddess Lakshmi.
His Holiness then gave a presentation about the Maras, or Demons, among which there are three primary classes:
Asuras/Demigods, Rakṣhas and Piśhāchas/Flesh Eaters
The Vedas speak not only of gods but of demons as well. There are many kinds of demons, the Karmapa said, and then went on to describe a representative few.
The Sanskrit word for demigod is asura. It is the same word as is used in the main text of the Zoroastrian religion; a Persian religion considered one of the most ancient religions in the world. Its people live in present-day Iran and mainly worship the fire god. They use the word ahura. The reason why these words are the same is, as His Holiness had mentioned the other day, that the founders of the Persian civilization as well as those who founded the Indian civilization, were Aryans, who originally came from Central Asia. The Aryans then split up into two groups, one making its way towards the Punjab and the other group continued towards Iran, later becoming the Persians. Thus, because they originally lived together, they shared a common language, and we find many similarities between Persian and Sanskrit.
The term ahura appears in the Zoroastrian text called Avesta, which is to Zoroastrians like the Bible is to Christians. Yet, there is a great difference between the Vedic view and the Zoroastrian one; according to the Vedas, asuras are on the side of the gods of darkness, while in the Persian religion, ahuras are the gods of light. It is possible such a great difference comes from an event in history from the time after the Indo-Aryan and Iranian-Aryan peoples divided into two groups, but there is no clear historical evidence confirming that hypothesis.
Furthermore, the Zoroastrian text of the Avesta is very long with a lot of topics. It is probably more than 35,000 words long and written on around 1200 sheepskins [vellum]. It was compiled around the 4th century BCE, but later was burned at the time when the emperor Alexander the Great invaded Persia, and only one book survived. During the subsequent Ashkâniân dynasty, it was once again collected and recompiled, and completed during the time of the Sassanid Empire, which was also a Persian empire. The version that is known today is not the complete ancient text; it is no more than a third of it; yet it is still an important text in terms of the ancient civilization.
Coming back to the origin of the asuras, the demi-gods, His Holiness continued, research cannot exactly describe what they are. However, in the Rigveda, the word asura is used as an adjective, not for specific god-like individuals. Gods who had the great maya power or strength of a demon would be described with the adjective asura. This adjective is used to describe Varuna and Indra, for example, and many other gods. This word was used as a way of expressing praise to show that there was a demonic power called maya that was especially worthy of fear.
Later, asuras became a specific type of god. In the Rigveda, there occurred a change in the meaning or usage of the word and Indra and Agni were called asura slayers, the ones who kill asuras, and thus asuras are clearly identified as a type of demon.
During the period of the Sāmaveda and the Yajurveda, they became a class of demons who opposed the deva gods of heaven, and there are tales of the battles between them.
To recap, looking at the Persian religion, ahuras were identified as good gods of light who have the same status as gods; they would later in the Vedas become identified as the source of evil and darkness. However, the Persians believed that the ahura will one day defeat the ahriman devils, punish the wicked, protect the weak, and once again return to the Heavens.
There are rakṣhas in the Rigveda, and rakṣhas are a demon frequently seen in the Atharaveda too. Those who harmed the gods are the asuras, and those who harmed humans are called rakṣhās. The rakṣhās harmed humans by taking many different physical forms, such as the forms of dogs, vultures, and owls that moved about at night, or they took the form of a man to harm women, children, and so forth.
In particular, there was a special class of rakṣhās called yatudhanas or sorcerers. They cast spells or curses, ate human or horse flesh and drank cow milk, thereby harming people and livestock. Or they would take the form of food, be eaten and cause illness. In brief, people were terrified of rakṣhās, and would try to prevent such harm by reciting mantras or sacrificing to Agni (whose name also means Demon Slayer).
His Holiness then continued with the third type of demon, the Piśhācha, or Flesh Eaters.
3. Piśhācha/Flesh Eaters
Piśhāchas, in Tibetan called ‘Flesh Eaters’, are a type of ghost, also called corpse-eaters. The Piśhāchas are the adversaries of the ancestors, for they were the demons who would devour the corpses of the ancestors, and thus were a type of demon for whom no one would perform a sacrifice. Some researchers assert that they were the basis for hungry ghosts, one of the six classes of beings.
The relationship between gods and humans
In general terms, the ancient Indian people believed that, although the Vedic gods transcended humans in their magical powers, they were similar to humans in character. Thus, the relationship between the two was based on reciprocal benefit—they were not like buddhas and bodhisattvas who expect nothing in return. If someone failed to make an offering to the Vedic gods, the gods would not offer any protection or assistance. If the gods failed to provide help in return for offerings, the people stopped making offerings to them. This is demonstrated by the fact that of the many types of sacrifices described in the Rigveda, all of them are only rituals for supplicating and praying to the gods—there are no rituals for offering thanks.
The main avenue for creating a connection between gods and humans is the sacrifice; sacrifice is the only way connections are made between gods and humans and are like the basis and vital element of Vedic learning, their texts and philosophy, and Vedic devotion.
In the next of his teachings, His Holiness continued to discuss the stages of the sacrificial rituals at that time.
First, during the time of the Rigveda there were no special buildings or assembly halls where sacrifices or assemblies where held. Most were held in private houses. In the middle of the site of the fire offering, there was a hearth for the fire puja, and on one side of that was the vedi, the sacrificial altar that we call a mandala, on which kusha grass was laid out. This was considered a place for the gods to sit when they had been invited.
At that time, there was no custom of making representations of gods. The Aryans would offer praises in front of the altar and make prayers, after which the offerings were offered to the fire in the hearth—they believed that the gods were accepting the offerings then. His Holiness thinks that mandalas probably originated from this.
A mandala in ancient India needed to be built, was made out of clay and needed to be fired; they were nothing like we use today and hold in our hands.
The offerings that people made were usually various kinds of foodstuffs —milk, cheese, grains, seeds, meat, and beverages. In particular, the intoxicating soma beverage was the favorite of Indra, Vayu, and the ancestors. As animal sacrifices, they usually offered cattle, horses, goats, sheep, and so forth. In very ancient times, it seems, there was also human sacrifice, which was later discontinued.
If it was a regular, ordinary sacrifice, the head of the household would perform the ritual himself. If it was a particularly elaborate ritual, the head of the household would be the sponsor, make a particular offering, and invite a priest to perform the sacrifice. From this we can deduce that the Aryans already had priests who performed sacrifices before they arrived in India. At the time of the Rigveda, the priests became powerful, and there were many different types with various ranks.
In the hymns of the Rigveda it says that there must be four kinds of priest or ṛtvij, among whom the work was divided: Adhvaryu, Udgatṛ, Hotṛ, and Brahman.
The first type of priest, the Adhvaryu, prepared the ritual. His role was to measure the place where the ritual was to be conducted, prepare the altar, arrange all the substances needed for the ritual, and prepare the firewood, water, animals to be sacrificed, and then chant the yajus [sacrificial prayer] in a low voice.
The second type of priest is the Udgatṛ, or chanter of the hymns. He would sing the hymns to a melody along with music and offer praises of the god’s qualities. He would sing long or short sāman offering songs as appropriate for the ritual.
The third type of priest is the Hotṛ, the one who invites the deity. He would recite words of the verses to invite the deities to the altar, while primarily reciting the praises from his memory.
The fourth priest was the Brahman or supervisor of the ritual. (The clan of these priests would later become the Brahman caste.) He had a higher status than the other three priests, and his responsibility was to oversee whether the ritual was performed properly or not. He oversaw all the stages of the ritual and would recite prayers on behalf of the sponsor. This priest needed to have thoroughly trained in all the practices of the ritual performed by the other three.
This, His Holiness said, completed the explanation on the Earlier Vedic Period.
He then concluded the teachings by emphasizing once more that in order to understand the history of Secret Mantra, we need to understand the background and history of Indian civilization. Only when we understand that, can we understand how and why Buddhism spread and what the qualities and features of Buddhism are. How was it that the Buddha thought at that time? What were his particular deeds? Likewise, first there were the Shravakayas [the Listeners], then came the Mahayana and subsequently the Secret Mantra [tradition]. The teachings of the Buddha arose in stages, of which we need to get a clear picture.
His Holiness stressed that we should understand the reason for his teaching these topics. Yet, he reassured everyone, even if one does not understand everything fully now, one may later understand the reason behind it. Thus, there is no need to become anxious, that His Holiness was talking about other things when he was meant to be speaking Secret Mantra. Rather than getting anxious, one should just relax, he advised. The subject matter he was exploring was vast so, for that reason, he would focus on the most important aspects.