Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The Mahabharata
The Bhagavad-Gita



Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching is one of the more mysterious documents in the history of religion. Nothing is known of its author, called Lao Tzu or Old Master, except a few legends given by the historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien. Its date is the subject of dispute amongst scholars. Even its nature and purpose are ambiguous. What it most resembles is our own Book of Psalms as used in Christian monastic orders, a collection of poems and short prose passages to be used for meditation or for chanting in choir by a community of contemplatives. As far as we know there were no monks in China until the introduction of Buddhism hundreds of years after the latest possible date for the Tao Te Ching. Nevertheless this is the best way to understand the book — as a collection of subjects for meditation, catalysts for contemplation. It certainly is not a philosophical treatise or a religious one, either, in our sense of the words religion, philosophy, or treatise.

Arthur Waley, whose translation is still by far the best, rendered the title as The Way and Its Power. Others have called Tao “The Way of Nature” — Te means something like virtus in Latin. (“Lao Tzu” is pronounced “Low Ds”; “Tao Te Ching,” “Dow Deh Jing,” “ow” as in “bow-wow.”)

In the Confucian writings Tao usually means either a road or a way of life. It means that in the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The way that can be followed (or the road that can be traced or charted) is not the true way. The word that can be spoken is not the true word.” Very quickly the text drives home the numinous significance of both Tao and Te. Tao is described by paradox and contradiction — the Absolute in a worldview where absolutes are impossible, the ultimate reality which is neither being nor not being, the hidden meaning behind all meaning, the pure act which acts without action and yet the reason and order of the simplest physical occurrence.

It is quite possible — in fact Joseph Needham in his great Science and Civilization in China does so — to interpret the Tao Te Ching as a treatise of elementary primitive scientific empiricism; certainly it is that. Over and over it says, “learn the way of nature”; “do not try to overcome the forces of nature but use them.” On the other hand, Fr. Leo Weiger, S.J., called the Tao Te Ching a restatement of the philosophy of the Upanishads in Chinese terms. Buddhists, especially Zen Buddhists in Japan and America, have understood and translated the book as a pure statement of Zen doctrine. Even more remarkable, contemporary Chinese, and not all of them Marxists, have interpreted it as an attack on private property and feudal oppression, and as propaganda for communist anarchism. Others have interpreted it as a cryptic work of erotic mysticism and yoga exercises. It is all of these things and more, and not just because of the ambiguity of the ideograms in a highly compressed classical Chinese text; it really is many things to many men — like the Tao itself.

Perhaps the best way to get at the foundations of the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching is by means of a historical, anthropological approach which in itself may be mythical. There is little doubt that the organized Taoist religion, which came long after the Tao Te Ching but which still was based on it, swept up into an occultist system much of the folk religion of the Chinese culture area, much as Japanese Shinto (which means the Tao of the Gods) did in Japan. If the later complicated Taoist religion developed from the local cults, ceremonies and superstitions of the precivilized folk religion, how could it also develop from the Tao Te Ching or from the early Taoist philosophers whose works are collected under the names of Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu and who are about as unsuperstitious and antiritualistic as any thinkers in history? The connection is to be found I feel in the shamans and shamanesses of a pan-Asiatic culture which stretches from the Baltic far into America, and to the forest philosophers and hermits who appear at the beginnings of history and literature in both India and China and whose prehistoric existence is testified by the yogi in the lotus position on a Mohenjo-Daro seal. The Tao Te Ching describes the experiential or existential core of the transcendental experience shared by the visionaries of primitive cultures. The informants of Paul Radin’s classic Primitive Man as Philosopher say much the same things. It is this which gives it its air of immemorial wisdom, although many passages are demonstrably later than Confucius, and may be later than the “later” Taoists, Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu.

There are two kinds of esotericism in Oriental religion: the proliferation of spells, chants, rituals, mystical diagrams, cosmologies and cosmogonies, trials of the soul, number mysticism, astrology, and alchemy, all of which go to form the corpus of a kind of pan-Gnosticism. Its remarkable similarities are shared by early Christian heretics, Jewish Kabbalists, Tantric worshipers of Shiva, Japanese Shingon Buddhists, and Tibetan lamas. The other occultism (held strangely enough by the most highly developed minds amongst some people) is the exact opposite, a stark religious empiricism shorn of all dogma or cult, an attitude toward life based upon realization of the unqualified religious experience as such. What does the contemplator contemplate? What does the life of illumination illuminate? To these questions there can be no answer — the experience is beyond qualification. So say the Zen documents, a form of late Buddhism originating in China, but so say the Hinayana texts, which are assumed to be as near as we can get to the utterances of the historic Buddha Sakyamuni, but so say also the Upanishads — “not this, not this, not that, not that,” but so also say some of the highly literate and sophisticated technical philosophers (in our sense of the word) of Sung Dynasty Neo-Confucianism. So says the Tao Te Ching.

In terms of Western epistemology, a subject Classical Chinese thought does not even grant existence, the beginning and end of knowledge are the same thing — the intuitive apprehension of reality as a totality, before and behind the data of sense or the constructions of experience and reason. The Tao Te Ching insists over and over that this is both a personal, psychological and a social, moral, even political first principle. At the core of life is a tiny, steady flame of contemplation. If this goes out the person perishes, although the body and its brain may stumble on, and civilization goes rapidly to ruin. The source of life, the source of the order of nature, the source of knowledge, and the source of social order are all identical — the immediate comprehension of the reality beyond being and not being; existence and essence; being and becoming. Contact with this reality is the only kind of power there is. Against that effortless power all self-willed acts and violent attempts to rule self, man, or natural process are delusion and end only in disaster.

The lesson is simple, and once learned, easy to paraphrase. The Tao is like water. Striving is like smoke. The forces of Nature are infinitely more powerful than the strength of men. Toil to the top of the highest peak and you will be swept away in the first storm. Seek the lowest possible point and eventually the whole mountain will descend to you. There are two ways of knowing, under standing and over bearing. The first is called wisdom. The second is called winning arguments. Being, as power, comes from the still void behind being and not being. The enduring and effective power of the individual, whether hermit or king or householder, comes from the still void at the heart of the contemplative. The wise statesman conquers by the quiet use of his opponents’ violence, like the judo and jujitsu experts.

The Tao Te Ching is a most remarkable document, but the most remarkable thing about it is that it has not long since converted all men to its self-evident philosophy. It was called mysterious at the beginning of this essay. It is really simple and obvious; what is mysterious is the complex ignorance and complicated morality of mankind that reject its wisdom.

[Diverse Tao Te Ching translations]




The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the last of the great classics that those who read only English must take on faith, at least as poetry. The translations are all unsatisfactory, and most of them are appalling. Yet few works of the imagination have ever had a more profound and lasting effect on their own culture.

Embedded in The Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-Gita, not only one of the world’s major religious documents but, like the Bible and the Koran, an epitome of the virtues and vices of the civilization that produced it and even more of the one that followed it. If the world’s classics are in any way keys to the understanding of man in history, The Mahabharata is an essential key to an entire subcontinent which now contains over five hundred million people.

So we must perforce struggle and suffer through the inept translations and try to imagine the original. Few indeed will be able to endure the entire book, but most translations are drastic abridgments anyway. The faults are not all in the English. Hindu literature by our standards is decadent from its prime foundations. Overspecialization, proliferation, gigantism — like Hindu sculpture, Indian poetry and prose have a jungle profusion that sparer cultures can never assimilate. Indian art and literature must be pared and boiled down before they can be transmitted — even to the Far East. So Buddhist art came to China simplified and ordered by transmission through the Bactrian Greeks and the peoples of the desert oases.

But The Mahabharata cannot be pared down to a simple substructure. Profusion is inherent in every sentence. Read as a whole, in the unidiomatic English of the translators — a job that will take even the most rapid reader a very long time — it gives an impression of disorder in the overall organization, in the main line of the narrative, and in detail — in the rhetorical proliferation of each sentence. In addition, the psychological and symbolic monotony of the hundreds of episodes and anecdotes (a characteristic The Mahabharata shares with The Ramayana and The Ocean of Story) has the cumulative effect of a narrow but unending dream, a kind of relentless impoverishment of the unconscious, that finally produces a comatose and uncritical acceptance.

Partly these effects are inherent in Indian culture, in the aesthetics implicitly accepted by the society. Partly they are due to the evolution of the epic itself.

The critics of the last century might be right — Homer might be the product of “the folk” rather than of a single poet — but it is easy to demonstrate that The Iliad is as tightly organized as a play of Sophocles. The “Cnidian Aphrodite,” one of the most erotic of all works of art, is a single statue of a single nude girl in a comparatively modest pose. The great Sun Temple at Konarak is a large building completely covered with small statues of men and women in every erotic posture. The Western mind boggles, attention fails, and monotony destroys stimulus and response. Perhaps, following Coleridge, we have misjudged the mental structure of the creative act. Perhaps the unconscious is fundamentally unimaginative and unoriginating.

The legendary author of The Mahabharata is called Vyasa — “the arranger” — simply the personification of an obvious fact. About one eighth of the more than one hundred thousand couplets — in other words, about as many lines as The Iliad and The Odyssey together — are devoted to the core narrative, a superficially complicated but fundamentally simple story of a feud between two barbaric families of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, both descended from the king of a town between the rivers Ganges and Jumna, in the vicinity of modern Delhi.

The original epic may well have begun to take shape about 500 BC — the time of Buddha, when this entire region, from the plateau that divides the Indus and Ganges basins on around the foothills of the Himalaya, was in a state of intense political and intellectual ferment.

Like The Iliad, and most other epic poetry, The Mahabharata describes a far earlier period, and unlike Homer, the original compilers seriously altered and updated the original primitive material. Thus, the conflict of the two families of cousins was probably the story of the war over the newly burnt‑off land of two small, tribal groups: one, the Kauravas, early barbaric villagers; the other, the Pandavas, a pastoral and forest people like the present Bhils, Todas, Santal, and Oraon. They were not cousins — they were probably not even of the same race. Much has been made of the polyandrous relationship of the heroine, Draupadi, the wife of all the Pandava brothers, as a memory of Stone Age matriarchy. Overlying this original stratum are many others.

Next earliest was a Bronze Age civilization of battling warrior herdsmen and town dwellers who drove chariots like the heroes of the first Irish epic. In the Iron Age the ferment in North India in the sixth century BC was due to a revolt of the warrior class against the religion of the priests — the Brahmins — who had come to dominate the society and whose excessive ritualism was uneconomic.

Buddhism, Jainism, and other movements of the time were comparable to the West’s Reformation and were led by members of the warrior class, the Kshatriyas, of which Buddha was a member. Buddhist ideas — not only of religion, but of social relations — survive everywhere, interwoven throughout the text of The Mahabharata. Centuries later, with the decline of Buddhism, the Brahmins were able to accomplish a Counter Reformation and establish modern Hinduism, a religious syncretism with little continuity with the ancient Vedic past.

This Hindu‑izing movement is responsible for the present overall character of The Mahabharata, and for the exaggeration and proliferation that make it so difficult for Westerners to accept.

Still later rescensions of The Mahabharata turned the entire epic into a celebration of the incarnate god Vishnu: Krishna (the combination of warrior, trickster, and medicine man of a forest tribe), today the most popular of all Indian deities.

Inserted in the epic is the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna’s religious teaching of the Pandava hero Arjuna on the brink of the monstrous battle that gives the rule of North India to the Pandavas. The Gita, however, is a separate “classic,” existing in its own right. Millions of troops of highly civilized nations including Greeks and Chinese take part in what originally was a fight between a few hundred barbaric tribesmen and a band of savages. Everything that could be poured into the narrative down the ages has been; no other book has so many subsidiary stories, anecdotes, and subplots. In addition, there are long passages on everything from medicine to domestic economy. Somewhere along the line someone got the idea that the epic could be expanded with technical advice on warfare and politics — so The Mahabharata was also reworked as an extensive treatise of advice to princes, with examples.

The reworking of the poem with every cultural change, and the Indian conservatism which cannot bear to throw anything out, result at last in the erosion of personality and human interest in the characters and their relations. The vast mass of contradictory moral ideas cancel each other out and leave only a lowest common denominator of motivation, an undramatic expediency and impassivity in the face of determinism. If all actions are separate but equal, there can be no drama. Homer has the sharp dialectic conflict of Greek logic or Euclid. India has a kind of logic, but it is founded on the denial of the principle of identity. It is neither deductive or inductive but all‑enveloping — like The Mahabharata.

India had no written history until Muslim times, but The Mahabharata is a kind of written archeology, and the reader can dig down, like Schliemann through the ten towns of Troy, encapsulate like a golden onion — down from the latest, nineteenth‑century additions to Stone Age India — and find at last, in the entire stratified epic, something very like the Indian present.

* * *

For a person with Western standards there is only one way to read The Mahabharata: a complete suspension of not just disbelief — but all critical faculties. There are modern prose versions, tremendously abridged, which are easy reading. Chakravarthi V. Narashiman’s is the most recent, but it reduces the jungle of the original to a small cultivated field. Perhaps the best idea is to read such an abridgment for “the story” and then sample a complete version at leisure, for The Mahabharata is as inexhaustible and as exhausting as India itself.



The Bhagavad-Gita

“Action shall be the sister of dream and thought and deed shall have the same splendor.” So said Baudelaire. Sometime around the third century before the Christian era an unknown author inserted into the epic story of The Mahabharata a comparatively short religious document, not only small in comparison to the immense size of the epic itself — which was already becoming the gather-all for Hinduism — but shorter by far than any of the scriptures of the other world religions. This is The Bhagavad-Gita, “The Lord’s Song,” one of the three or four most influential writings in the history of man. It is not only influential, it is more profound and more systematic than most religious texts. This statement may sound strange to those who are familiar with nineteenth-century rationalist Western European critics who attempted to abstract a logically consistent philosophy from The Bhagavad-Gita, and who ended up emphasizing its contradictions and ambiguities.

The Bhagavad-Gita is not a philosophical work, but a religious one, and besides that, a song, a poem. It is not to be compared with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, or the creed or catechism of the Council of Trent, but with the opening of the Gospel According to St. John or to the Magnificat in St. Luke. Its seeming contradictions are resolved in worship. In the words of the great Catholic modernist Father George Tyrrell, Lex credendi, lex orandi, “the law of faith is the law of prayer.” What the unknown author of The Bhagavad-Gita intended was precisely the resolution and sublimation of the contradictions of the religious life in the great unity of prayer.

The Bhagavad-Gita is above all else a manual of personal devotion to a personal deity. But to establish this devotion and to give it the widest possible meaning the author subsumes all the major theological and philosophical tendencies of the Hinduism of his time. It is as though the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas had been dissolved in his prayers and hymns for the feast of Corpus Christi. It so happens that as he lay dying St. Thomas said that that was what he had done. Unless the reader begins by understanding the devotional nature of the Gita, its many meanings will always elude him and its overall meaning will be totally unapproachable.

There are two main strands of thought in the Gita which divide and sometimes interweave but which are nonetheless easy to distinguish and follow. First is an exposition of the nature of reality and of the Godhead and its self-unfolding, and second is a description, practically a manual, of the means of communion with the deity.

The poem starts out simply enough and scarcely seems to violate the context of the epic; in fact the first two chapters may largely be part of the original tale. At the major crisis of The Mahabharata the warring clans, and their allies numbering uncountable thousands, are marshaled for the crucial battle that will exterminate almost all of them. The Prince Arjuna is sickened by the vision of the coming slaughter and is about to turn away in disgust and give up the battle. His charioteer, Krishna, advises him to fight. He tells him that no one really dies, that the myriad dead of the day on the morrow will move on in the wheel of life, and that anyway, killer and killed are illusory, and that the warrior’s duty is to fight without questioning, but with indifference to gain or glory, dedicating his military virtues to God as a work of prayer.

This advice horrifies modern commentators with their sophisticated ethical sensibility, although it is certainly common enough advice of army chaplains. We forget that The Bhagavad-Gita begins in the epic context, as though the Sermon on the Mount were to appear in The Iliad evolving out of the last fatal conversation between Hector and Andromache. Even Radhakrishnan, India’s leading philosopher of the last generation and spokesman on the highest level for Gandhi’s satyagraha, spiritual nonviolence, speaks of Arjuna’s doubts before the battle as pusillanimous.

Krishna describes briefly the roads to salvation — work, ritual, learning, or rather, wisdom by learning, contemplation, and devotion. He then describes the metaphysical structure of being which culminates in what nowadays we would call the inscrutable ground of being, Brahman, the source of the creative principle of reality. He then goes on to a most extraordinary concept. Behind Brahman, the ultimate reality in all Western theories of emanationist monism, lies Ishvara, the ultimate god behind all ultimates, who is a person. In answer to Arjuna’s plea, Krishna reveals himself as the incarnation of the universal form, the embodiment of all the creative activity of all the universes. That itself is only a kind of mask, an incarnation, for he, Krishna, is the actual, direct embodiment of Ishvara, the Person who transcends the unknowable and who can be approached directly by the person Arjuna, as friend to Friend. The central meaning of “The Lord’s Song” is that being is a conversation of lovers.

Nirvana, as Krishna defines it in the Gita, is the joy in the habitude of illumination, after the dying out of appetite. It is the medium in which the enlightened live, as in air. As we of air, they are conscious of it only by an effort of attention. Faith is shraddha — bliss, the disposition to orient one’s life around the abiding consciousness of spiritual reality. Bad karma, consequence, drains away in successive lives but good karma is saved up always, throughout all the thousands of necessary incarnations, to reach enlightenment. All men travel toward the eternal Brahman. When we reach the end of the road no space will have been traveled and no time spent. You are sat, cit, ananda — reality, truth, and bliss — and always have been. Always becomes a meaningless word when becomes is transformed to be. The direct experience of God is not an act of service or devotion or even of cognition. It is an unqualifiable and unconditioned experience. Who illusions? You are the ultimate Self, but you dream. Work is contemplation. Rite is contemplation. Yoga is contemplation. Learning is contemplation. All are prayer. They are forms of dialogue between two subjects that can never be objects. Insofar as the noblest deed or the most glorified trance is not devotion, it is unreal.

The poem culminates in a hymn of praise to devotion itself — Krishna, speaking for his worshipers, himself to himself. The later sections are a long drawn-out cadence and diminuendo, of recapitulation, instruction, and ethical advice. Then we are back, “marshaled for battle on the Field of Law,” and Arjuna says, “My delusion is destroyed. Recognition has been obtained by me through Thy grace! I stand firm with my doubts dispelled. I shall act by Thy word.”

Reading the Gita in a decent translation for the first time is a tremendously thrilling experience. No one who has ever heard it chanted, hour after hour in an Indian temple, before a statue of dark-skinned Krishna, dancing his strange shuffling dance, and playing on his flute, while a cluster of worshipers sit on the floor, silent and entranced, in their white robes, once in a great while someone uttering a short cry, like a Christian amen, is ever likely, no matter how long he lives, to forget it. More commonly of course one hears the chanting of the Gita Govinda, the song of Krishna’s love adventures with Radha and the milkmaids — but, as any devout Hindu will tell you, the two songs are the same song.

The literature of the Gita is enormous. Incomparably the best translation is the one by Ann Stanford. Two very free translations are The Lord’s Song by Sir Edwin Arnold in Victorian verse, and The Bhagavad Gita by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. There are good versions in Penguin, Mentor, and the Modern Library, and modern scholarly editions by Franklin Edgerton, and S. Radhakrishnan. For readers unfamiliar with Hindu thought there are books by Eliot Deutsch, Sri Aurobindo, Radhakrishnan, B.G. Tilak, and S.N. Dasgupta. Good introductions to Hindu thought generally are the histories of Indian philosophy by Dasgupta and Radhakrishnan and Sources of the Indian Tradition, an omnibus volume edited by William Theodore de Bary for Columbia University Press. In a field so beset with unreliable guides it is essential that the novice get started off with the best authorities. Even so, the most reliable people, for instance, Dasgupta, Radhakrishnan, Aurobindo, and Tilak, often contradict one another and are best read together.

Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

Other “Classics Revisited” essays