The Path into Shastra Part I: The Oral Tradition
By Deborah Allison
Note: This series, "The Path Into Shastra," explains how the root works of the Vedic tradition, including Jyotish and Ayur Veda, are organized. These principles will be a great help in starting to unlock the wisdom that is literally encoded in these texts. See Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part IV.
One of the most successful imports into Western mainstream culture has been pieces of the path to liberation as preserved by the Vedic tradition. In our typical Western way, however, we have morphed it into a hybrid that somewhat resembles the original but divorced from its source, does not deliver the goods. Just as almost every shopping center has its fast food taco joint and chain pizza restaurant - America's corporate attempt at Mexican and Italian food - also present will be a yoga studio of one variety or another. Like a fast food taco, there will be enough of a flavor to make a newcomer feel as though they are "on the program." But in reality, most yoga studios offer little in the way of a true understanding of the darshana of yoga as taught by Maharishi Patanjali. What is true in this regard for the wisdom of the yoga darshana is likewise true for Ayur Veda and Jyotish, among other teachings of India.
One of the stumbling blocks for a more authentic integration of the ancient knowledge is the mode of learning in the two cultures. In the West, the written word is not just the preferred method, it is king. If a teacher is speaking and there is a slide on the screen, there is no question about where the attention of the class will be focused. In the Indian tradition, it is all about cultivation of judgment which requires the live interaction of guru and shishya - teacher and student. Central precepts in the form originally of memorized and orally transmitted verses (later recorded as the root texts) were expounded, expanded and elucidated by the guru who could evaluate first hand the progress and understanding, in addition to being the wellspring of shakti that drives transcendental wisdom into the heart and mind of the shishya. Unfortunately, in the absence of the teacher, the student will not be able to determine if they have properly understood the shastra or text. The role of the guru is so central, there was never the intention that the texts would be studied without the teacher. In fact, the texts are written in a terse and abbreviated style in reverence to the eternal triangle that was and is the heart of the Vedic Sampradaya - guru, shishya and shastra.
Another obvious issue is the language barrier. It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to effectively translate abstract principles into a language and culture that has no previous experience with these notions. The attempts at coming up with a single English word or even a phrase to define subtle and rich Sanskrit words such as karma, dharma, yoga etc. is almost ludicrous and leads to constant misunderstanding or at best, simplification. A good analogy might be a person coming to the North Pole and using the word snow to a group of natives who have a myriad of detailed and sophisticated expressions that take into account all the variations on that white stuff that is so crucial in their lives. Here again, the need for a teacher is critical. I have often heard my teacher say that you cannot translate these texts, you can only explain them.
All of this may sound discouraging to sincere Western seekers who would like to access this eternal knowledge from the source texts and have some guidelines for understanding how they are organized. In dealing with dense philosophical and religious works, scholars have identified that there are underlying principles that reveal the structure and sequence of information in such texts. These are known by the rather academic name of principles of exegesis. In the Vedic Sampradaya, there are six such principles that shed a powerful beam of light into an otherwise maze of verses that boggle the minds of those who make an attempt to read the root works of whatever aspect of this tradition that may be of interest. These principles will be the subject of the next articles in this series.
(c) copyright 2006 Michael Laughrin
From the October/November 2006 issue of Michael Laughrin's North American Jyotish Newsletter. Click to subscribe to this free Jyotish newsletter.
This series, "The Path Into Shastra," explains how the root works of the Vedic tradition, including Jyotish and Ayur Veda, are organized. These principles will be a great help in starting to unlock the wisdom that is literally encoded in these texts.
The Path Into Shastra Part I: The Oral Tradition
These articles were published in Michael Laughrin's North American Jyotish Newsletter. These articles are also archived online on the archive page.
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