Saturday, April 05, 2014

Was the Buddha a beggar?

In my class in IIT this term, the first 10-15 minutes are being used to briefly explain some of the principles of practice in yoga as I have learnt and as I practice. These discussions sometimes continue after class and with other people too. Here is one such discussion.

The main theme of one such discussion was the final phrase (भोगापवर्गार्थं दृश्यम्) from a yoga sutra

प्रकाशक्रियास्थितिशीलं भूतेन्द्रियात्मकं भोगापवर्गार्थं दृश्यम्
prakāśa-kriyā-sthiti-śīlaṁ bhūtendriya-ātmakaṁ bhoga-apavarga-arthaṁ dṛśyam ||2.18||

The three underlying functions of the observable world are 'Light', 'Stability' and 'Action'. The two emergent functions from these for human beings (and possibly other living beings) are 'bhoga' (enjoyment) and 'apavarga' (movement towards freedom).

We only looked at the final phrase and for this we started with the 'form vs function' way of understanding. Normally, a laymans (with respect to yoga practice) understanding of an asana comes from the images that they have seen of that asana - an image of a well trained person doing the same. So, they assume that such a posture is the correct way of doing asana. This is the understanding of form. Any serious yoga teacher would know 90% of practitioners cannot get that form. But, that is not a big issue as the aim of doing the posture can be achieved by suitably modifying the posture based on the needs of the practitioner. This comes from the knowledge of function.

Now, to understand this further, lets ask the question, 'who is a batsman in a game of cricket?'.

When I posed this question to people, one of most common answer is, 'One who faces the cricket ball in a game of cricket'. But, at least one other person answered, 'One who scores runs'. Clearly, the first one can be said to be a description of form and the other is said to be a description arrived at from function. Furthermore, captains would prefer batsmen who fit the latter definition.

Likewise, who is a beggar? 

Buddha's begging bowl

The most common answer is one who expects material gifts from others in return for no other tangible service. This is not a bad description as this is how most city bred people encounter beggars. But, if we were to explore this a bit more, then immediately it would be clear that the Buddha can also be called a beggar by that definition. So would be Mahavira or Adi Sankara.

Clearly, most Indians (at least those who have not been completely bought out by pseudo rationalism) would not categorise the Buddha as a beggar though the form based definition given above does so. This leads us to the question of who a beggar is based on the function that this individual is performing in the society.

To me, a beggar is someone who does not contribute to the society and who is purely intimately concerned with his / her own benefit. This is not a negative judgement because a beggar cannot do otherwise. Given the dire state of poverty / ill-health / structural violence that a beggar has to face, it is inevitable that he/she put in all of hir effort in taking care of oneself.

The moment I say this, astute city based listeners smile for most heart of hearts know that is how city bred people live. City life is structured such that every individual has to relentlessly fend for themselves - maximise personal gains and minimise contribution back to the society. The tax they pay is usually used as their contribution back to the world. To some extent this is true. But, most try to avoid this at all cost. Even if one pays all of ones taxes correctly, the share of common resources city people consume (especially the economically well off) is much more than the average distribution would offer. In my opinion, cities tend to make most people direct their lives towards a life whose function tends towards being a beggar. This is just an interesting side note to the main topic of discussion here (while it in itself is a significant topic to be covered on another occasion).

Now, coming back to the yoga sutra discussed at the top, it states that the function of world around us is enjoyment or movement towards freedom. When we eat food, we can either eat to satiate cravings and psychological black holes within or eat to nourish the system so that the beauty within can manifest itself or some ratio of the two. The former is bhoga / roga (disease) and the latter is apavarga.

The same applies to relationships - relationships with other human beings, relationships with research, relationships with career, relationship with the earth. The list is endless. Normally we all use it for our own entertainment (bhoga) in various ways (self-aggrandisement / wealth / power etc). The fully awakened ones though use it purely for freedom. The yoga sadhaks (practitioners), understand that the movement from the former state to the latter is effected by steady practice over long periods of time. In the mean time both will be found in various ratios and through sincere determined effort, one moves the balance more in favour of apavarga than bhoga.

This movement in changing the ratio of bhoga and apavarga to be more in favour of apavarga can be assisted greatly by correct asana practice. The desire to enjoy or accomplish freedom is a rajasic quality (tendency that has action potential). Normally the quality is not fine tuned (or the rajas is impure). But, by correct practice of asana, one can purify this rajasic quality and resolve it into prana (the source from which all three gunas emerge). This in my opinion is nicely captured by this sutra

prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām ||2.47||

Right effort eases when the tendency that makes the effort (or the tendency on which the effort acts) resolves itself into the endless source (prana) from which the tendency arose.

At that point, one is freed from the cycle of going behind enjoyment, tasting some success (and getting motivate further) / tasting some failure (and long for more). This is nicely captured by the next sutra

ततो द्वङ्द्वानभिघातः
tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ ||2-48||

Then, the duality that the individual experiences which motivated him/her towards bhoga would have ceased to trouble that individual any more.

In my opinion, whole of creation is gradually moving in the direction of apavarga. In other words evolution increasingly produces organisms that desire more and more degrees of freedom. Therefore, individuals who attempt apavarga themselves will synch themselves with this larger flow of things and hence will find that creation with assist them in their journey. This, imo, is a better explanation than survival of the fittest for evolution. in other words, the long term direction in which evolution proceeds is not 'survival of the fittest' but 'survival of the most conscious'. IMO, the following kural (number 3) also states 'survival of the most conscious'.

மலர்மிசை ஏகினான் மாணடி சேர்ந்தார்
நிலமிசை நீடுவாழ் வார்

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