The cradle of Vedic culture flourished alongside the Sindhu River in present-day India, inhabited by followers of the Sanātana-dharma, or “eternal religion” (Satprakashananda, 1977). Called “Hindu” by explorers from the North, theirs was a culture of philosophical fecundity that gave rise to diverse traditions including the Carvākā, Jaina, Bauddha, Vaiśeṣika, Nyāya, Sānkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṁsa and Vedānta, to name just the most prominent. Whether by complete adherence or negation, the teachings of the Vedas provided a shared belief system that contained all of these religio-philosophical schools (darśanas). We will explore this overarching view originating from Vedic culture as the “Eastern containing myth”—a belief system that holds the nature of creation as cyclical, arising, and resolving in a beginningless and endless succession.
In contrast with the Western containing myth, which accepts one life subject to God’s judgment for eternal salvation in heaven or damnation in hell, the Eastern perspective draws the individual soul (jiva) into continuous cycles of life, death, and rebirth (i.e. reincarnation) contingent on the merits of one’s actions (karma). According to this view, one cycle of creation is comprised of four ages (yugas) degenerating from the purest to the most decadent. Within this frame, our present time is located in the fourth most troublesome age, called Kali-Yuga, described to be as precarious as a cow balanced on one leg. Furthermore, the Earth realm—made up of equal parts suffering and pleasure—is believed to be the middle ground between seven hell-worlds below and seven heaven-worlds above. All of manifest creation, including these other worlds, is bound by time and therefore subject to the suffering that arises from the flux and change of life. Given this vision of reality, it is not surprising that the Eastern containing myth is anchored on teachings and practices aimed to facilitate wellbeing, and in its highest aspiration, strives towards complete liberation from manifest, temporal life.
Before we dive deeper into these core beliefs, it is helpful to address both the value of and the procedure by which we will enter into the Eastern containing myth. Firstly, understanding the idea of “containing myth” brings the pillars of our worldview into the light of consciousness. Whether we prescribe to the Eastern or Western containing myth, or perhaps lack a myth capable of containing us altogether, it is valuable to become aware of where we stand for the sake of psychological congruence and integrity. Otherwise, we are at risk of acting out of alignment with our deepest beliefs; or more painful still, live without a coherent value system to give us meaning, purpose, and thus, solace in difficult times. Additionally, it is necessary to recognize the differences between cultural belief systems to prevent inappropriate conflation of terms or misappropriation of concepts from one system to another. In our current climate of ever-quickening globalization and homogenization—which the Hindu myth recognizes to be characteristic of Kali-Yuga—precision of language is critical to maintain traditional knowledge as it was intended.
To distill the overarching Eastern perspective from its myriad of expressions, we will look to the broad themes and context from which a variety of philosophical schools emerged, instead of probing into the idiosyncrasies between them. As if stepping back to behold the totality of a complex painting, observing the containing myth of the East requires spacious vision and the capacity to hold a multifaceted tapestry of belief. Often unconscious to those within, the myth becomes the water in which its participants swim, honoring simultaneously the distinction and communion between them. For example, within the Eastern myth, although there are many differences in belief around reincarnation, the conversation remains around what and how transmigration of the soul occurs, rather than whether it exists at all. Thus, all of the concepts that will be relied on to support the Eastern containing myth will be of this nature—commonly accepted despite differences in elaboration.
The Pillars of the Myth
The most foundational aspect of the Eastern containing myth is the function and role of philosophy as both a way of life and a key to liberation. It is held by all of the classical schools of Indian thought that philosophy is not divorced from daily living, but actually provides a map to right livelihood. As Chatterjee and Datta (1968) describe,
The most striking and fundamental point of agreement…is that all the systems regard philosophy as a practical necessity and cultivate it in order to understand how life can be best led. The aim of philosophical wisdom is not merely the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity, but mainly an enlightened life led with far-sight, foresight and insight. (p. 12)
Thus, the Eastern containing myth is anchored in the shared acceptance of philosophy as integral to life’s unfolding, and therefore, knowledge as the key to liberation. Exploring these interconnected values gives insight into the foundation and contours of the Eastern view.
We can see the pragmatic role philosophy as a natural outpouring from the pervasive Eastern belief in life’s moral order. Expressed through the concept of karma, which manifests both as the order and force of actions, the Eastern containing myth operates within an understanding that all desire-driven acts bear fruit and that karmic laws govern all of creation (Chatterjee & Datta, 1968, p. 16). The distinctions between types of karma illustrate the sophistication of this system, capable of holding the paradox of coexisting fate (as determined by past actions) and free will. While prārabdha karma refers to karma generated in past incarnations that have produced the fruits of life’s current condition, āgāmi karma acknowledges the karma created through willful action within this lifetime. Sañcita karma encompasses the limitless, inexhaustible deposit of karma connected to the beginningless dimension of the individual soul (jiva). Whether experienced in this life (dṛṣṭa karma) or retained for a future incarnation (adṛṣṭa karma), virtuous actions (dharma) produce positive merits (puṇya) and ease (sukha), while harmful actions (adharma) engender negative effects (papa) and suffering (duhka). When all acts carry implications for eternity, religio-philosophical teachings bear the weighty responsibility of prescribing right action in the world—and further still, the value of philosophy extends into the possibility for eternal liberation beyond the phenomenal world.
Understanding the meaning of liberation (mokṣa) in the Eastern perspective requires locating liberation as the possible and necessary goal of philosophy, as well as the highest end of life (Chaterjee & Datta, 1968, p. 22). Arising from the shared recognition of suffering within the time-bound world and the potential means for the cessation of suffering, the Indian darśanas collectively offer a roadmap culminating in liberation. Mokṣa in this context does not pertain to temporary relief of suffering, but to the complete freedom from saṃsāra chakra, the cycle of death and rebirth, altogether. The four purusārthas express the commonly accepted goals of humanity held by all of the Indian philosophies, illustrating this trajectory out of suffering towards liberation. The first two purusārthas include artha and kāma, meaning roughly security and pleasure. All of the darśanas accept these as universal human goals irrespective of religious or philosophical orientation. Dharma then, the third purusārtha, directly addresses philosophical teachings about proper conduct in this life for the sake of the wellbeing of the self and others. While living a virtuous life of dharma is prerequisite for liberation, it is still insufficient to completely end the suffering inextricable from the flux of life. While a person remains interested in the temporal joys and pleasures of this lifetime, the longing for ultimate liberation remains dormant. However, when a seeker realizes that only the eternal can offer complete fulfillment, the ultimate desire for freedom from cyclical creation awakens, giving rise to the yearning for mokṣa, the final purusārtha. Thus, while each school of thought forges a unique approach to liberation, including gradations of practices (sādhanas) depending on the development of the aspirant, liberation itself remains the common horizon of the Eastern myth.
To further unfold the relationship between Eastern philosophy and liberation, it is important to emphasize that, within this containing myth, knowledge of reality is liberation in its own right. As Chatterjee and Datta (1968) expound, “…ignorance of reality is the cause of our bondage and sufferings, and liberation from these cannot be achieved without knowledge of reality, i.e. the real nature of the world, and the self” (p. 18). This stance exponentially heightens the imperative to uncover valid knowledge, hinging the Eastern containing myth on devotion to truth over dogma. Out of this genuine desire to discover the truth emerged an open culture of mutual criticism and debate amongst living schools of thought. Remarkably, while honoring ultimate truth, this discourse simultaneously appreciated the diversity of individual character. Chatterjee and Datta (1968) explain that the Indian philosophers “believed that all persons were not fit for all things and that in religious, philosophical and social matters we should take into consideration these differences and recognize consequent distinctions of natural aptitudes” (p. 11). Thus, it is accepted that different ways of understanding and relating to reality might be more or less appropriate for different temperaments; for example, that some seekers are not destined towards mokṣa in this lifetime and would be better served living a life of dharma. At the same time, however, the leading thinkers of the darśanas were keenly invested in contradicting the arguments of their opponents and furthering their own views with conviction. This is evidenced in the method of philosophical discussion that developed in which a philosopher would first restate the prior view, refute the view, and only then give a statement along with the proof of his own view (Chatterjee & Datta, 1968, p. 4). According to Chatterjee and Datta (1968), “each philosophy regarded it as its duty to consider and satisfy all possible objections that might be raised against its views… Owing to this, there developed a passion for clear and precise enunciation of ideas and for guarding statements against objections” (p. 10).
This climate of debate cultivated a self-reflexive body of knowledge particularly attuned to the way that this knowledge is obtained and justified. Again, because valid knowledge paves the road for right action and liberation, it is critical that a school of thought is able to prove the validity of their claims. This can only be achieved through disclosure of and agreement about the authoritative means of knowledge, the pramāṇas, that a school of thought relies upon. Since, there are discrepancies between the schools regarding acceptable pramāṇas, finding common ground is prerequisite for philosophical discussion. Advaita Vedānta, for example, accepts all six Vedic pramāṇas including perception (pratyakṣa), inference (anumāna), verbal testimony (śabda), comparison (upamāna), postulation (arthāpatti) and non-apprehension (anupalabdhi) (Rambachan, 1991). Bauddha or Buddhism, as another example, accepts only the first three, and even so, recognizes the Buddha as the only valid śabda pramāṇa rather than the Vedas as upheld by Vedānta. Therefore, a debate between an Advaita Vedāntin and a Buddhist would take place on the grounds of perception and inference alone. With the authoritative means of knowledge established, the conversation can delve into the depths of the nature of the Self (Ātman), reality (Brahman), and the relationships between them.
It is interesting to note however, that the discrepancies in acceptable pramāṇas are seen by some to be differences in classification rather than recognition. As Satprakashananda (1974), speaking from an Advaitin perspective, asserts: “These six sources of knowledge are in one form or another recognized by other Vedic schools even when some are treated separately. Those which may appear to be excluded by a particular school are usually classified within one or another of those that are admitted by it” (p. 39). Resting these arguable differences aside, Chatterjee and Datta (1968) highlight the acceptance of scriptural knowledge, śabda pramāṇa, as the most significant delineation between philosophical schools, with some asserting that philosophy should be based on ordinary experience and others accepting the testimony of seers regarding matters that cannot be experienced in ordinary life.
The Authority and Teachings of the Vedas
The Vedas are the sacred texts of Vedic culture, the soil out of which the Indian darśanas emerged. Although they are not accepted universally by the darśanas, the Vedas remain an integral part of the overall formative structure of the Eastern containing myth. The division between schools that accept the Vedas as revealed knowledge (śruti) and those that outright reject them, is demarcated between the six prominent orthodox (āstika) and three heterodox (nāstika) schools of thought. The āstika schools, including Vaiśeṣika, Nyāya, Sānkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṁsa and Vedānta, accept the Vedas as śabda pramāṇa. However, only Mīmāṁsa and Vedānta believe that the Vedas are the sole means to the knowledge they contain. Vaiśeṣika, Nyāya, Sānkhya and Yoga accept the wisdom espoused by the Vedas but believe there are other ways to obtain the same knowledge. The nāstika, including the Carvākā, Jaina and Bauddha schools, reject the authority of the Vedas altogether. Yet, it can be held that by virtue of rejection, even the heterodox schools are still contained by the Vedas. In the words of Chatterjee and Datta (1968), “The Vedas are the earliest available records of Indian literature, and subsequent Indian thought, especially philosophical speculation, is greatly influenced by the Vedas either positively or negatively” (p. 6). With this perspective in mind, we will explore the teachings and structure of the Vedas to further elucidate the Eastern containing myth.
Considered to arise like breath out of the mouth of Lord Iśvara, the Vedas are believed to have no beginning (anādi) and no human authorship (apauruṣeya). As Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (1991) explains, “the Vedas existed prior to creation because Brahma himself is said to have undertaken creation with the aid of the Veda mantras which merely existed as sound in space” (p. 6). In this creation mythology, Brahma is an aspect of the one Lord, Iśvara, manifest as the creator God. Along with Vishnu and Shiva, the sustaining and resolving aspects of Iśvara respectively, Brahma governs the cycle of creation. Saraswati elaborates, “When Brahma took form, all the Vedic sounds were born in his heart – inner self. They showed him the path of creation. He felt the Vedic sounds all around and to him all the Vedas became known intuitively” (1991, p. 26). Thus, to those who accept them, the Vedas are believed to exist inextricably with the eternal Lord Iśvara. In the human realm, the Vedas were brought forth through advanced spiritual practitioners called Ṛṣis. Saraswati emphasizes,
Yoga Saastra says that, if the spatial expanse in the skies and the space which exists in a microform in the mind are unified, all the suspended sounds in space will become audible to us. Those who feel in unison with all objects in creation can alone feel the sound. Thus, the Rishis brought forth the mantras for the benefit of the world and did not create them. (1991, p. 27)
Thus, the four Vedas known to humanity—Ṛg, Yajur, Sāma and Atharva Veda—are comprised of texts named after Ṛṣis to honor their transmission but not origination of this knowledge.
Furthermore, by the āstika darśanas, the Vedas are considered to be śabda pramāṇa, an authoritative source of knowledge to be accepted on faith (śraddhā). As we discussed, there is some disagreement about whether knowledge delivered through the Vedas is available through any other means, with Vaiśeṣika, Nyāya, Sānkhya and Yoga suggesting that there are logical or experiential means available. For Vedānta and Mīmāṁsa, however, the Vedas provide the only source of indirect knowledge to reality beyond this world and a direct source of knowledge to the true nature of the Self (Ātman). This knowledge is delivered in two parts through the Karma Kāṇḍa and the Jñāna Kāṇḍa respectively. Because these two portions of the Vedas provide distinctive knowledge serving divergent goals, it is important to address their unique applications and qualities.
The Karma Kāṇḍa makes up the first eighty percent or so of each of the four Vedas, containing instructions for proper conduct to promote wellbeing. Based on the laws of karma—the eternal moral order accepted by most of the darśanas—this part of the Vedas is like a manual expounding the behaviors and rituals necessary to achieve relative happiness in this life or to obtain a better next birth. The Mīmāṁsa is dedicated to promoting and living these teachings. In line with the universal golden rule embedded in the archetypal psyche, the Karma Kāṇḍa teaches a person who is contained within Vedic culture how to live a virtuous life of dharma. This part of the Vedas also describes the structure of reality beyond this world, including the hell and heaven worlds (svarga lokha), the cyclical nature of creation as well as teachings of the totality (Brahman) and aspects (Devatas) of God. According to Vedānta and Mīmāṁsa, this knowledge is beyond the epistemological limits of human perception, but other schools hold that it can be directly experienced through alternative means. Because the information revealed in the Karma Kāṇḍa cannot be proven, śraddhā or faith is required. Then, upon śraddhā, Vedic teachings can be weighed against human reason and intuition to be accepted as pramāṇa. The Karma Kāṇḍa remains purely concerned with the first three purusārthas, and does not seek mokṣa.
The second portion of each Veda, called the Jñāna Kāṇḍa or Upaniṣads, turns specifically to the true nature of reality (Brahman) and the Self (Ātman) that exists beyond the wheel of saṃsāra. Most explicitly upheld by Vedānta, the Upaniṣads are a teaching methodology intended to evoke direct knowledge of timeless reality, leading the way to ultimate liberation. Drawing attention to the subjective Self that is the ground of all experience, the teachings of the Upaniṣads lift the veil of ignorance shrouding true perception of the Self in misidentification with the mind-body complex (Whitfield, 1997). According to Vedānta, because the Self can be experienced here and now, the Jñāna Kāṇḍa is capable of using śabda to point to experiential understanding. In this sense, faith (śraddhā) in the Upaniṣads is necessary up to a point, but can be replaced when direct knowledge is obtained through inner perception as illuminated by the observing witness (sāksi-bhāṣya). As if holding up a mirror, the Upaniṣads provide direct revelation of the Self as sat-cit-ānanda (translated approximately as existence-consciousness-wholeness). Although the specific contents of the Jñāna Kāṇḍa are not commonly accepted and there is a lively debate amongst the Indian darśanas about the nature of Brahman, Ātman and their relationship, the belief is collectively held that ignorance (avidya or ajñāna) obstructs true vision of reality and that liberation is accessible when ignorance is removed.
While knowledge—as revealed by the Vedas, alternative sources of śabda pramāṇa, or the other authoritative means—illuminates the road to liberation, the vehicle for the journey is built of practice (sādhana). Chatterjee and Datta (1968) explain that for the darśanas, “Two types of discipline were thought necessary for making such understanding permanent as well as effective in life, namely, continued meditation on the accepted truths and practical life of self-control” (p. 19). Self-control in this sense includes positive actions along with restraint from negative actions. Coupled with meditation, which gradually replaces ignorance with true perception, self-regulatory disciplines are critical for both present life wellbeing and liberation. Sādhanas focused on wellbeing include benevolent actions as well as chanting mantras and preforming rituals to obtain ones’ desires in life. Sādhanas aimed towards liberation focus on study of scriptures that reveal the true nature of reality and meditation on this truth. When Vedic mantras are used in this case, their intended effects are the removal of ignorance and the freedom from saṃsāra chakra, as opposed to outcomes within the cycles of life. Additionally, because action without attachment to actions’ fruits does not generate karma and even resolves past karma, detached action uncompelled by desire can also be viewed as a liberating sādhana (Chatterjee & Datta, 1968, p. 17). Even though sādhanas can have seemingly divergent goals, both intentions are deeply interconnected and are not considered mutually exclusive in the Eastern view. Rather, as Satprakashananda (1977) asserts, “There is no inherent contradiction in the Vedantic view between worldly duties and spiritual disciplines” (p. 56). Hence, the Eastern myth holds that with considerable practice, cultivation of sādhanas facilitates wellbeing for all of creation and ultimate liberation in due course.
Having traversed the landscape of the Eastern containing myth, what resonates most for me is this attunement to the interconnection of all beings and the sense of duty to further the physical and spiritual wellbeing of the whole. Evident in the emphasis on dharma and karmic law, as well as in the vision of creation cyclically waxing and waning, the Eastern perspective honors the relationship between the whole and its component parts. In a way that fosters respect for all of creation, the Eastern containing myth also instills a sense of belonging in individuals within life’s greater web. For post-modern Westerners disconnected from the Judeo-Christian containing myth, the Eastern perspective can provide a welcome alternative or renewing inflection to restore a fragmented value system. Offering methodologies for inner quietude in the midst of chaos and moral guidelines to promote social harmony, the values and practices of the Indian darśanas continue to demonstrate relevance for the modern world. This is clearly evidenced by the explosive popularity of Eastern teachings among scholars and lay-seekers alike. Taking care to consciously unfold the meaning of these teachings, concepts and words from within their own worldview is essential for skillful transmission across the borders of myth. Then, with cultural sensitivity and self-knowledge, Western audiences can genuinely approach the Eastern containing myth to grasp the fullness of its vision.
Chatterjee, S. & Datta, D. (1968). An Introduction to Indian philosophy. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.
Rambachan, A. (1991). Accomplishing the Accomplished: the Vedas as a Source of Valid Knowledge in Sankara. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Saraswati, Sri Chandrasekharendra. (1991). The Vedas. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
Satprakashananda, Swami. (1974). Methods of Knowledge According to Advaita Vedānta. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama.
Satprakashananda, Swami. (1977). The Universe, God, and God-realization. St. Louis: The Vedānta Society of St. Louis.
 The Carvākā materialists are the only Indian originating philosophy that largely does not prescribe to the belief system that will be put forth as the Eastern containing myth. Because the Carvākās accept only what can be perceived, they hold the material world as the true reality and enjoyment of this world as the highest end of human life (Chatterjee and Datta, 1968, p. 25-26).
 Written originally at the California Institute of Integral Studies for the graduate course Eastern Theories of Self, Mind, and Nature with Dr. Carol Whitfield, 2012