Evolving with Saṃsāra: Insights from Ancient Indian Thinkers

On coping with the paradox of change–a natural but anxiety-causing phenomenon

The two typical Sanskrit words used for describing the world or even the universe as a whole are saṃsāra and jagat, which literally mean 'that which moves'. From the smallest unit to the largest, everything is in some sort of movement, which can be perceived as change. When change is the very nature of this world, any resistance to it becomes unnatural. But constant change also presents the problem of unpredictability, which has always been a source of anxiousness. 

The mental and physical stress caused by the uncertainty leads different kinds of people to pursue different courses of action. One kind may give up all hope and think of the future as already planned, waiting for it to merely occur. It may even compel them to hold onto certain ideas as true and unchangeable, leading to intellectual stagnation and all sorts of unreasonable actions. 

The other kind might try to find a way to peep into the future events through enquiry. They may ask varied and substantially different kinds of questions ranging from those regarding the permutations and combinations of possible events, the fundamental nature of the universe, and even questions about their own fundamental nature. 

It is this variety of questions and the lack of definitive answers that have allowed the process of enquiry to continue. Gradually the method of enquiry got much more sophisticated and led to what is known in the ancient Indian philosophy, Nyāya, as the three-step method. Vātsyāyana (~4th century CE) explains it in his commentary on the Nyāyasūtras of Gautama. The first step is uddeśa or naming the thing concerned, the second, lakṣaṇa or defining the thing, and finally parīkṣā or examining whether the definition properly applies exclusively to that thing. 

Although this looks like a very small and simple process, it is actually very complex. Several ancient Indian texts specifically dedicated to refutation used this as their common ground. For example, Ānandajñāna (~12th century CE) in his Tarkasaṅgraha refutes the definitions of the 'dravya' (substance) as conceptualised in the Vaiśeṣika philosophy. He begins by considering a very basic definition: a dravya is that which possesses an attribute. To this, he points out that the Vaiśeṣikas themselves believe that a freshly produced dravya does not possess any attribute. So, in their own conception of dravya, their definition excludes a freshly produced dravya. This fault in the definition is called avyāpti, where the definition excludes a portion of that to which it was dedicated. Ānandajñāna then considers what points would his opponent put forward to defend the definition, and similarly finds faults with them, ultimately refuting the very idea of a fundamentally real dravya. In this way, many ancient and medieval texts of Indian philosophy contain detailed criticisms. As a result, the philosophers of those refuted philosophies kept on revising their ideas and continued to bring forth more and more specific and sophisticated ones. 

Although the idea is ancient, it is relevant to these times because the world has not stopped changing. Every era presents its own set of unique problems, which can be handled properly if we first know the actual nature of the problem. An effective solution can only emerge after a detailed analysis of both what the problem is not, and also other problems which look similar to the one on hand. Separating both the similar and dissimilar from it, one could arrive at some kind of a definition of that specific problem, which would be highly detailed and consequently sophisticated. 

While it is natural to feel that because the definition is sophisticated enough, one knows the problem perfectly, but it is also necessary to keep checking the way that the problem was defined, as a little error in the definition could end up becoming a bigger one in the solution. Hence, this three-step method could substantially reduce erroneous efforts, save time and increase the chances of success in solving the concerned problem. This method could be used by those who desire to innovate in today’s age, who can first specify the problem they want to solve through their innovation and then direct their efforts toward it. One could also use this method to look into other problems which could stay for quite some time in the future and develop one's skill as a solution to them. 

For this kind of a mindset to exist today, there is a need for an education system which does not hinder curiosity and creativity. In his commentary on Kenopaniṣad (2.1), Ādi Śaṅkarācārya (~8th century CE) briefly mentions three steps through which one gains knowledge: deliberation on the meaning taught, ascertaining it through reasoning, and finally, experiencing it first-hand. As Vācaspatimiśra (~9th century CE) notes in his commentary on the 51st verse of Sāṅkhyakārikā, even if one logically examines a thing or topic, one may not trust the knowledge gained from it unless he/she indulges in conversations or discussions with his/her Guru and fellow students. Hence, gaining knowledge is the result not only of reading books and analysing them, but of moving out of the books and openly discussing the issues learnt from them with one's peers. Unfortunately, this is only an ideal which is rarely seen in the public spaces today, much less at school or even an average higher education institution in India.

A major hindrance that prevents the creation of such a social environment seems to be the inner struggle to have a definitive idea of one’s own self.  The roles we take or are given by the society pose a need to have an image of ourselves, which is the best suited for that job. But when it is time to take up a new function, we begin to struggle to conform to that image, which may further be related to ideas like religion, region, and even gender. One may be very open minded in tackling the problems posed by change, but if one has to be similarly flexible about one's identity or self-image, it could lead to an identity crisis. To help mitigate it, there is a further need for an environment in which one does not develop rigid opinions about oneself. The aforesaid environment of debates and discussions, which are not restricted to merely the subject of study, but also incorporate the enquiry into the nature of one's own self, would be the most favourable. The Buddha's idea of Anattā (not Self), which is based on determining what is not the self, and the Advaita Vedāntic idea of 'neti neti' ('is not', 'is not') attributed to Yājñavalkya, seem to be a good dialectical method to tackle the rigidity of self-image. One of the most beautiful poetic renditions of this is Ādi Śaṅkarācārya's Ātmaṣaṭkam or the six verses on the self, where he keeps negating any perceivable or knowable thing as the self. It is based on the idea that to know something, the thing should be separate from the knower. As the self is the knower itself, how can it know itself? In this list of knowables or conceivables, is included everything from the body, the mind, to the ideas, etc. 

In this way, it is implied that one should not construct a self-image and stick to it rigidly. This would lead to greater flexibility, which shall make it easier for one to learn and unlearn, as and when needed. For a person who does not view themselves from the point of view of the tags they have been given, it is easier to evolve. It then becomes clear that the mere outward effort of gaining knowledge and skill keeps one standing on a brittle foundation. There should be an equal emphasis laid on enquiring into one's own self, nature or reality. Even if it does not lead to the knowledge of it, it could certainly lead to a little humbleness, resulting from knowing that one does not even know, or cannot know one's own self in all certainty, let alone asserting the nature of other things and beings. Without humbleness, even the seemingly best evolution may as well be the worst disaster.

Here, it is worth mentioning the first mantra of the Īśopaniṣad, which says that everything is pervaded by the divine, that one should deal with things with a feeling of detachment, and that one should not be greedy, because all these things are the possession of no one. To embrace constant change, to respond to it gracefully and reasonably, is possible if we do not get way too attached to the things we possess, the people we have with us and even the knowledge and skill we possess today. Hence, a little detachment, would result in a better evolution of us, like a little space between things helps them move.

One idea that runs like a string in the beads of all such intellectual and spiritual endeavours, internal and external responses to change, is the idea that constant examination and revision of ideas is essential. A society comprising of individuals who merely assume things to be in a certain way, and hold on to ideas as unchangeable, is a ground for unending useless disputes. Such individuals would keep projecting their own ideas on things, until the thing itself is so covered beneath them, that all one sees is only those ideas. For us to evolve in a favourable manner, we would need to let our ideas evolve.