2002 Indic Colloquium
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Arindam Chakrabarti

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Department of Philosophy
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Hononlulu, HI 96822



(808) 956-7990

(808) 988-2920




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Background Information

Arindam Chakrabarti is a professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Hawaii, and received his doctorate in Western epistemology from Oxford. He works in a wide spectrum of Indic and Western subjects. He is the author of the book Denying Existence : The Logic, Epistemology, and Pragmatics of Negative Existentials and Fictional Discourse (Kluwer, 1997).


Making "Sense" of the Vedic/Tantric Divinities


Offering sacrificial gifts to "deva"-s and worshipping different deities lie at the heart of the Vedic and Tantric template of ideal human life. Belief in these many divinities -- or gods or goddesses as they would be unsuspectingly called by most English educated Indians -- is an integral part of Hinduhood. Yet no one knows for sure what they are believing in when they are having faith in a deity such as Agni or Surya or Vayu or Indra or Krisna or Durga or Ganesa or Kali. Faced with aggressive monotheisms the modern Hinu comes up with a whole range of evasive apologetics ranging from myths and metaphors to visualization-props for help in mediatation.

In this paper I wish to reject the Maxmullerian story of the "development" of the Vedic concept/s of divinities from polytheism to henotheism to Monotheism and Pantheism.


With the interpretive support of such insiders of the Vedic Tantric culture as Yaska, Saunaka, Samkaracarya and Abhinavagupta, I would like to argue that a Vedic divinity is a generalized/ de-personalized sensory power (indriya-vrtti), when this includes both cognitive as well as motor sense-organs. Thus the collective or universalized visual power is Surya, whose identification with the central star of our solar system is as provisional as the identification of the deity with a worshipped idol.

The question of whether a god has a concrete shape or a body was hotly debated in the Vedantic tradition long before Semitic religions started attacking idolatry. Of course, for an Upanishadic or Tantric believer worshipping a stone (not just as a symbol of God but as God) is absolutely fine since stones are as alive and conscious and divine and endowed with subjectivity as human bodies are. For those who revel in the omni-presence of life-vibrations in all of nature, animism thus is wisdom rather than ignorance.

But in his commentary on the "DEVATAA" chapter of Brahmasutra, Samkara discussed the question of the exact referent of names like "Agni" or "Indra". He decided that those originless words stand not for individuals but universal properties or Platonic forms. Hence my insistence that we should take a "deity" as the universal power of breathing, seeing, touching, tasting, speaking, smelling etc.

Like a sense-organ which illuminates (the meaning of the verb-root "div") objects or gives a meaning (or sense) to the world by making it my/our world, yet itself remains unperceived, a devataa or divinity (notice the abstraction-suffix "taa"(Sanskrit) or "ity" (English) which signifies that it is not one particular feeling skin but the very essence of the tactile receptive capacity that is the god "Vaayu" (literally Air) also is the hidden source of light in our lives that remains itself imperceptible. And of course, as in the Upanishad story, each of these collective senses or gods themselves borrow their own respective powers from universal consciousness or the Life Divine, the Paramaatman or Praana.
Since that is the light behind all other lights, the pure subjective (but impersonal) witness of all other acts of object-noticing knowledge, it is itself not a knowable. Both because it is thus unknowable and because it is not a nameable individual that it is best called by an interogative pronoun " WHO" ( "Ka" in Sanskrit ) which is the monosullabic sign of Vishnu, Brahma or Shiva or Kali.

All these universal powers of visual, tactile, tasting, smelling, hearing, attention-focusing cognitions and moving, grasping, digesting speaking, reproducing functions have their individuated centers in each human body: hence the felt inner body is the site of what is called "adhyaatma"(on-the-body) sacrifice or worship in both Vedic and Tantric practice.


I raise several traditional and modern objections against my own sense-centered interpretation of the concept of gods and then answer each of them. In this context I bring in the ethical insight behind the Vedic moral obligation to sacrifice or the duty of giving up the first share of one's own consumable possessions for the sake of a collective life-supporting sensory-motor power with the ritual anti-egotistic phrase "na-ma" which is routinely interpreted by the later scriptures as a short form of "na-mama"(not-mine). The close relationship between words of a prayer or hymn, the ritual act and its ecological milieu, and the imagined job, office and locus of the respective deity addressed by the hymn is also briefly touched upon in this section


In the fourth part of the paper I wish to move to Abhinavagupta's commentary on the Bhagavadgita--that cream of Upanishadic knowledge-- where he unambiguously equates the gods with the playful luminous sense-organs. Apart from de-personalisation of experience (which is supposed to be crucial for aesthetic experience--a lesser sibling of Brahman-realization) and its receptors, in his magnum opus "TANTRAALOKA" Abhinavagupta also conceptualizes the three roles of knower, means or process of knowing and the known, as each undergoing four ontological stages. He thus derives TWELVE states that a cognitively active consciousness can go through and identifies these with twelve forms of the goddess "Kali" that are entrenched in Tantric thought.

Western religionists would brush aside such epistemological interpretation of popular ( tribal ?) deities as Abhinavagupta's academic fantasy. But the fact remains that even now the worship of Kali mostly involves seed-mantra (syllabic) purification of different parts of the worshipper's felt body. The sort of cognitive inwardization of the concepts of different gods and goddesses that is suggested by Abhinavagupta's famous hymn " In praise of the gods in the body " is much closer to the actual practice of puja /ritual worship than any anthropological account of an unbelieving scientific observer who treats the spiritual practitioner or his own Sanskrit or Veda or Tantra teacher as merely a "native informant".

My new interpretation that literally makes "senses" out of the divinities is actually a very old interpretation. And I hope it helps us take the Vedic Tantric world-view more seriously with better understanding rather than as merely fascinatingly weird pre-scientific beliefs couched in a dead language.

After all, even our world in the twentyfirst century is as suffused with the powers of the senses as was the world of a Vedic worshipper of the beautiful Dawn goddess.