The Vedas tell us that the gods (deva in Sanskrit) reside within the mind. But since physical reality is also experienced as a construction of the mind, therefore, one may see the Vedic gods in the physical space and its relationships.
These conceptions led to the detailed exposition of the devas in yoga, tantra as well as in architecture and iconography. The Vedic way recognizes that reality is a synthesis of opposites. We are suspended between being and becoming, between hazy memories of the past and fears for the future.
Within each of us lie not only sublime thoughts but also avarice and greed. We are the battlefield of a struggle between the gods and demons. The opposites require an act of balance so that the individual’s relationship to Truth is articulated only partly by means of abstract ideas, and it needs art in performance and representation to complete the picture.
The two poles of the approach to reality are provided by the Upanishadic mahāvākyas: I am Brahman or I am the Universe (aham brahmāsmi) and Not this, not this (neti, neti). These lead to two artistic styles: one rich and textured, the other spare and austere. One speaks of infinite possibility and structure (Brahman), the other of nothingness (śūnyatā).
Each of these is the ground of the other; within one lays the other in endless recursive details. This is the essence of the paradox taught in the Vedas to help one learn that one is not a thing, but a process. On the one hand are the maddeningly complex rituals, on the other the simplicity of dhyāna (meditation).
Both these styles are to be incorporated within the life process. The Western philological approach to the Vedas not only misses this understanding of the Vedas, it has misguided generations of scholars and laypersons into a simplistic view of Indian culture.
It sees Hinduism and Buddhism in dichotomous terms that appear absurd to those within the tradition. The Buddha himself affirmed on the basis of his own direct experience the existence of the various elements of the Vedic world view, including the existence of many hells, heavens, and various supernatural beings like devas, asuras (demons), and rākshasas.
The Buddha claimed to have seen these realms and beings with his divine sight, and he also claimed to have observed how sentient beings cycle through these diverse forms of existence in the interminable process of transmigration.
The Buddha, therefore, took for granted the Vedic cosmic geography wherein all these natural and supernatural beings lived. It is no wonder then that the anthology Subhāsitaratnakosha of Vidyākara (c. 1100) a Buddhist abbot at the monastery of Jagaddala in present-day Bangladesh,2 has 20 verses to the Buddha, but 73 to Śiva, and 40 to Visnu.
The philologists and the anthropologists wonder what Śiva and Visnu are doing in a book by a Buddhist. Neither can they explain how the Vedic devas continue to be a part of the Mahāyāna pantheon. Their texts absurdly describe the Vedic devas of Japan and China as Buddhist since according to legend they became followers of the Buddha when he started preaching.
The Buddha in the Mahāyāna tradition is the principle of Understanding, who fits in perfectly within the Vedic conception, and we see this most emphatically in the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharma Pundarīka Sūtra).
Living in an isolated valley, Kashmiris have maintained many old customs, although their recent tragic history has been responsible for much loss of the meaning of their ceremonies.
For example, we were told of six psychological states of the existence, where the lowest three states represented (1) ideas of evil people, (2) ghosts of unfulfilled desires, and (3) our animal nature. The highest three states are (4) asuras, who take the bodies to be all that we are; (5) humans; and (6) devas, who embody the essence of the various tattvas (or their combinations) that constitutes the world of the mind.
There were ceremonies in which the yakshas were invoked. We didn’t quite understand these ceremonies although we were reminded of their connection to architecture and directions by their appearance in the ruins at Avantipur and Martanda.
This text is extracted from The Vedic Gods of Japan written by Dr. Subhash Kak (courtesy of Dr. Subhash Kak) Donald C. & Elaine T. Delaune Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Professor in the Asian Studies and Cognitive Science Programs
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA 70803, U.S.A.