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Paradox of Energy

A recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, Chaturvedi Badrinath was one of the leading figures in Indian philosophy. His unique and accessible approach ranged across a variety of philosophical concerns. Originally published in the Times of India, Chaturvedi Badrinath: Unity of Life and Other Essays, edited by his daughter Tulsi Badrinath, presents the complex ideas of Indian philosophy in simple language. The following is a short, unpublished article by Chaturvedi Badrinath.

That life is energy, is evident. What is equally evident is the truth that life-energy, or prana, flows in many channels: the energy of dance, of music, of thought, and of literature; and also the energy at the stock exchange. It assumes many forms: the energy in earth and in water, and the energy of the human mind and of the human heart. It takes many names: love is energy, and hatred is energy, too. What is not evident, though, although true, is the fact that there exists, at its very heart, a profound paradox. The highest form of energy arises from complete inner stillness. That is the paradox of energy. And it completes itself in the truth that inner stillness is the natural goal of all energy, even as it is its origin. When energy moves away both from its origin and its goal, it turns upon itself, as it always has, and destroys everything, the self and the other, in their individual and collective sense.

Nowhere has the nature of life-energy, and its manifold workings, been investigated in greater detail than in the Dharmic thought: and in the body of that thought, nowhere has the paradox of energy been discussed with greater thoroughness than in the  Mahabharata and in the Yoga-Vasishtha. Of these two, it is mostly in the Mahabharata that the inquiry proceeds through the complexity of concrete human relationships, in the very many diverse situations of life. Given the fact that life is energy, and that life is a complex system of relationships, it follows that it is in relationships that the workings of energy are most manifest; that is, in one’s relationship with one’s self and with the other. Indeed, it is in that light that the whole of Indian philosophy is to be studied, which it seldom is.

Let us see how very central, in the Indian enquiry into the human condition, the questions concerning life-energy, prana, are. What follows is not a summary of the philosophical literature on that subject but just an indication of the centrality of those questions.

For example, all the major Upanisads, revolve around the nature of prana. One of the six questions in the Prasna-upanisad, that was put to sage Pippalada by six other sages, all of them of great eminence, is asked by Asvalayana. He wants to know: if all forms of life are suffused with prana, or life-energy, then what is the origin of prana itself? How does it enter the human body? And how does it then divide itself into its varied expressions? How does it leave one’s body, so that, when it does, one is dead? How does life-energy hold the outside material world? and how does it hold the inner world of man’s mind? The two largest of the Upanisads, the Chhandogya and the Brihad-aranyaka, enquire into the intimate relation of the energy that flows in the elements of nature with the energy in the attributes of human personality. They enquire into the inter-relatedness of man’s various energies, physical and mental and emotional. They enquire into the inter-relatedeness of the material and the spiritual. And, through all these, they enquire into the nature of Self, the atman.

Samkhya, one of the oldest schools of Indian philosophy, certainly prior to the Mahabharata and to Buddhism and Jainism, speaks of the energy of intelligence, or sattva; energy of action, or rajas; and of the energy of dullness, or tamas, as being the three constituents of all that exists. Their varying proportions, which may keep changing with the passage of time, account for the diverse characters of individuals, and account also for the character of the relationships which they form. The Yoga expands upon it further. It shows that the energies of the body and of the mind are inseparable in a way that one determines the other. It suggests ways of disciplining them; so that they flow without being obstructed by the wrong attitudes and passions which we ourselves create. Yoga, properly understood, takes us, by disciplining our energies, towards simple human happiness, and towards beatitude.

The Mahabharata, undoubtedly the largest and the most systematic enquiry into the human condition, has the ordering of energy, individual and social, as its main concern. It takes up, but always in the contexts of concrete human relationships, the relation of the self with itself and with the other. It demonstrates how we misdirect, misuse, and abuse, our personal and collective energies, doing violence thereby to ourselves and to others. The Mahabharata then takes us, step by step, towards that greater freedom of energy that enhances human worth and does not degrade it; towards that freedom, of which every human person is a natural heir.

Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata, regards all human relationships as determined by Time: the coming together; the parting; the loving; the hating; being indifferent; being gentle and tender; being nasty and brutal; going to war and reconciling in the attitude of peace. Bhishma, a dominant figure in the Mahabharata, rejects that view. He maintains that ‘Time is no force; it is only a mental construct to explain sequence. The real force, the primary human energy, lies in the human mind and in the human heart, from which arise all human acts, karma.’ The Yoga-Vasishtha goes many steps further. Its main thesis is that, like the material world, time is wholly a creation of the mind, and has no existence independent of the mind. Mind, or manas, is the moving energy. That is to say, perception is everything. These two radically opposed conceptions of energy, one of Vyasa, and the other of Bhishma and, many centuries later, of the Yoga-Vasishtha, have vastly different ethical implications as regards the question of responsibility.

The Buddha had rejected the idea of a permanent substance, called the atman, or the Self, which was believed to survive physical decay and death. He maintained, on the contrary, that there is no such abiding substance, and what we call `self’ is only a changing conglomerate of the physical, the mental, the feeling, the conscious attributes of man; all of them in a flux. But the main concern of the Buddha was with human suffering, duhkha, which arises from wrong perceptions of oneself and of the other. So, whether one believes, or one does not, in the Self, with a capital `S’, as a permanent entity, is of no consequence whatsoever for the human drama—the attraction; the repulsion; the feelings that are generated; the conflicts; the attitudes, and what one makes of oneself and of the other. Jainism likewise is concerned with these. And they assume that for all practical purposes there is a person, a self. What that means is that no final decision is at all required as to the validity of the metaphysical positions concerning the atman.

What is of greater importance is what all philosophical systems put together say to us as regards the ordering of our physical and mental and emotional energies.

Featured image: Mekanagadde, Karnataka, India. Photo by Adarsh Kummur. CC0 via Unsplash.

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