I Am Food!: A Preface to Hinduism

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 11, 2002 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

Sanskrit is the seminal language of India, and it is to Hinduism what Latin is (or was) to the Roman Catholic Church. Sanskrit: scriptus sanctus: the holy writing. Hindu priests have been permanently disgraced for erring during a recitation: their offense against the language is sacrilege. And to err is no hard thing. Like Latin and Greek, Sanskrit is highly inflected: that is, its nouns and verbs have many different endings and forms. And Sanskrit is an Indo-European language, so its structure and vocabulary resemble more familiar tongues.

But there is perhaps one main difference. While Latin is well-suited to matters of warfare, engineering, and law; and Greek is ideal for discussions of philosophy or empirical science; the Sanskrit's main concern seems to be religious and metaphysical speculation. Sanskrit has, for example, at least 5 different words for meditative breath, and some of its words defy direct translation: karma, dharma, Brahman, maya. In the past century it has been suggested that language, far from being a way of describing a world we all share in common, actually -- and actively -- determines that world. The language we use shapes what we experience, so an ancient Indian will have experienced Brahman just as I am now experiencing this computer screen. Thus the world of the Hindu sages is rather incommensurable with our own, and the primary Hindu scriptures -- Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad-Gita -- often sound thoroughly nonsensical and certainly otherworldly. To accept or contest their propositions would be folly, especially as their purpose is often to prove that everything is merely a manifestation of one entity: Brahman.

Brahman has often mistakenly been called the Hindu god of creation. But it is not a god in the Judeo-Christian or Greco-Roman sense of the word, neither an incomprehensible being separate from the universe nor a humanoid inhabitant of it. Rather, Brahman is the whole universe. As R. C. Zaehner, translator of Hindu Scriptures, points out, "in Hinduism there is no creation ex nihilo." Brahman always has been and always will be: only its appearances change. Nevertheless Hinduism does have variations on a creation story, or rather a procreation story. This from the Brihadahranyaka Upanishad:

"In the beginning this universe was the Self alone -- in the likeness of a man. Looking around he saw nothing other than himself....He was afraid. So, even now a man who is all alone is afraid....He found no pleasure at all. So, even now a man who is all alone finds no pleasure. He longed for a second. Now he was the size of a man and a woman in close embrace. He split this Self in two: and from this arose husband and wife....He copulated with her, and thence were human beings born."

The woman subsequently changes into other animals, as does the man; and in each case they copulate, thus generating "the whole of creation." To Hinduism's credit, this creation story accords with modern thinking better than does the ex nihilo creation story of Genesis, although feminists will complain that in both stories man precedes woman. The Hindu story is also somewhat similar to the theory of love in Plato's Symposium, in which Aristophanes explains that humans once consisted of both male and female parts but were then divided by the envious gods: love is thus the force uniting the two halves. In any case, the Hindus were more comfortable with sex as the motive force behind life. Indeed, the Hindu universe often resembles a huge orgy, and Hinduism's descriptions of human sex are far more graphic than anything to be found in the Song of Solomon. Consider this spineless commandment: "True chastity consists in cohabiting voluptuously by night" -- not by day. And the Brihadahranyaka Upanishad suggests, for example, that "woman is a fire...the phallus is her fuel; the hairs are her smoke; the vulva is her flame; when a man penetrates her, that is her coal; the ecstasy is her sparks."

Let us proceed, taking a deep breath and dabbing our foreheads, to another creation story, in which the universe begins as an egg that splits into two parts, in turn producing prominent features of the natural landscape (no primal chicken makes an appearance.) In another story Death generates water, "and the froth of the water was churned together and became the earth." From the reaper's heated exertions is born fire, and then he splits himself into fire, sun, and wind. Death then copulates "with Speech by means of mind" and his semen (or "Soma-juice") apparently becomes the "year." To top it off, Death then "brought forth this whole universe" and "whatever he brought forth he began to eat." Sex and food: what an enviably down-to-earth religion this is! And the realization that you are what you eat is not an advance in dietetics so much as an advance toward enlightenment, as this "song" from the Upanishads purports to show:

"I am food! I am food! I am food! "I who am food eat the eater of food! "I have overcome the whole world!"

Must have been quite a curry. In J. D. Salinger's Orientalized story "Teddy", a young savant explains that his first experience of enlightenment was watching his sister drink milk and he realized that "it was sort of like God pouring God into God." The analogy is apt, as much of the Hindu religious canon consists of such reductions. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that wise is he "Who sees Me everywhere / Who sees the All in Me." According to the Upanishads, "what introduces differentiation is name and form": i.e., language divides the world into separate objects, when in fact it is all Brahman -- or matter-energy, for all you physicists in the audience. The Hindus had already postulated a uniform but imperceptible stuff generating the phenomenal world -- the stuff often compared to clay, copper, or iron, out of which all manner of things are made.

But Hinduism stops short of suggesting that this process can be explicated with words or equations. In one dialogue, a certain Gahrgee questions one Yahjnavalkya regarding the nature of the universe, but as Gahrgee's questions become more and more fundamental, Yahjnavalkya calls a halt. "'Gahrgee,' he said, 'do not question overmuch lest your head should fall off.'" (Hindu heads are forever falling off: ancient Indians seem to have suffered from weak necks.)

No discussion of Hinduism is complete without mentioning caste, the Indian system of social subordination that so infuriates Western egalitarians. The Rig-Veda says that in the beginning was "primal Man", whose anatomical parts correspond to the four castes. "The [priestly caste] was his mouth, / The arms were made the Prince, / His thighs were the common people, / And from his feet the serf was born." It's not clear whether the priests or the princes wield more power; perhaps they wield the same power but within separate jurisdictions. In this world the prince reigns supreme, but "in the end he must return to Brahman" and a clericide is the lowest of the low. In the Gita, Arjuna laments that by fighting his own family he will create "confusion of caste", but he ultimately fights because he is a member of the warrior caste.

The Krishna of the Gita resembles in many ways the figure of Christ. Like the Messiah, Krishna is said to return to Earth "whenever the law of righteousness / Withers away" and he offers immortality in return for faith in him. The translator even seems to have the language of John 3:16 in mind: "Whoso at the hour of death / Abandoning his mortal frame / Bears Me in mind and passes on / Accedes to my Divinity." Centuries before Christ, Krishna spread his message of neighborly love. "Have no hatred for any being at all," he tells Arjuna, and he even puts forth a notion akin to Christian grace: "thou art dear to Me."

The imagery of the Gita is disturbingly hallucinatory. Not persuaded that Krishna is who he says he is (an incarnation of the god Vishnu), Arjuna asks to see his true form. The divine revelation fills an entire chapter, and includes Arjuna marveling at Krishna's "myriad mouths, eyes, arms, thighs, feet / Bellies, and sharp, gruesome tusks / The worlds all shudder in affright -- how much / More I!" The whole of existence seems to explode before Arjuna's eyes: "I cannot bear it, I find no peace, O Vishnu!"

Like most religions, Hinduism is pessimistic about human life on this earth, and its ultimate goal is moksha, or liberation from existence. But it is a pessimism born of a frank assessment of what we are, to wit "filled right up with faeces and urine, bile, phlegm, marrow, fat, grease" and diseases; and, what is worse, we (or most of us) came into the world through a urinary tract. Please let us not glorify the rosy cheek or the pink lung: even a "healthy" body is vile if clinically viewed, and in any case it is destined to become "toothless, white, and slimy." And "once born, [it] is not born again" -- a volte-face from Hinduism's usual faith in reincarnation. Humans are considered to be only one of many "contingent beings", playthings of an unknown nature and fate.

So what consolation does Hinduism offer? The Gita proposes that the Self is immortal, and thus physiological decay should not trouble us. Other Hindu texts invite you to understand that "you" are only one fleeting manifestation of the "Imperishable", so you too will not perish. To understand this is no easy thing, but I can say that even modern Indians understand it better than anyone. "When once one's seen the unity, / What room is there for sorrow?"

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Review of Hindu Scriptures, trans. R. C. Zaehner, Everyman's Library, 1992.

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