The Rig-Veda is the oldest of the four Vedas. Far from merely expressing man's primitive wonder in confronting his deities and natural environment, as early Western scholars assumed, it consists of the profound religious insights of Indian sages into the origin, nature, and destiny of the whole manifested cosmos. This scripture's deep spiritual intent is particularly revealed by the concept of an unmanifest, absolute Oneness or Supreme Power as the central point and common source of all cosmic manifestation, ever imposing divine order and harmony upon it.
A study of this ancient text, believed to have been composed between 3,000 and 3,500 years ago, can throw light on the essential problems of human existence. The Vision of Cosmic Order in the Vedas by Jeanine Miller (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1985), a scholarly treatise on India's religious lore that includes lengthy characterizations of the various gods of the Vedic pantheon, provides the kind of spiritual wisdom that helps us understand more fully the religious and moral perturbations of our own troubled times. It emphasizes that humanity's ability to transcend itself does not depend upon the unaided human mind, as Western secularists believe, but instead has a divine source. It stresses, too, that the human attempt to anthropomorphize deity to make it "more accessible to average human intelligence . . . is no sign of advance in or development of understanding." In rightly disputing the religious notion, also prevalent in the West, that an impersonal power is a less fit object of worship than a personal deity, the book focuses upon the human/divine relationship that is possible when mankind pays universal homage to cosmic law and order.
To account for the dynamics of manifestation during the creation and evolution of the cosmos, Miller painstakingly explores the concept of rita in the Rig-Veda. This, according to the sages, was the first emanation from the Absolute and thus the primary manifestation of the original act of creation. Rita is characterized as the eternal law or blueprint of cosmic order, and the Vedic mind conceived this transcendent law as the only fit expression of the Absolute which itself stands beyond human speculation. As the most perfect symbol of deity in manifestation, rita, the supreme law of harmony, demanded homage and compliance from gods and men. While it is revered and obeyed by the gods (who, we are told, must be true to their own nature), man, who seems uncertain of his, chooses again and again to thwart rita with inharmonious acts that disrupt the divine equilibrium. Thus, inherent in the human condition is the need to seek divine assistance to restore the order that mankind is continually disrupting. In this sense, religious ethics becomes an inseparable part of the ancient world view of India. And it is here, in the sphere of human understanding of good, evil, and ethical choice, that the book is most helpful and most challenging.
During the past three millennia how much have we learned about understanding and resolving moral issues? That we are sadly uncertain in this sphere is demonstrated by those in public life who lie and deceive in order to attain desired ends. Even when the preservation of human lives and values are at stake, such ends do not justify the use of dishonorable means and are, indeed, tarnished by them. It is extremely difficult for anyone to have to decide whether or not personal integrity should be sacrificed for the attainment of goals believed to be higher than self. In fairness, however, let us recognize that at times the ethical choices made express the conscience of individuals who must struggle with moral issues that lie at the very limits of their spiritual wisdom.
Placing ideas about human conduct in a cosmic perspective helps us to see more clearly what the moral obligations of the good man and woman should be. The inseparability of ethics from cosmic harmony is expressed by Raimundo Panikkar in The Vedic Experience:
The dichotomy between an ethical and a cosmic order is foreign to Vedic thinking, not because the ethical order is ignored but because the really existential order is anthropocosmic and thus includes both the ethical and the cosmic in one.
Miller elaborates, saying that "the ethical order pertains to humanity and humanity is part of the cosmic order, hence the use of the adjective 'anthropocosmic.' '' Yet cosmic harmony embraces far more than morality since truth, righteousness, and justice are only human value judgments that reflect our vision of universal law but not the whole of it. As Miller remarks:
That whole could be more appropriately summed up, not as 'the objective law of goodness,' but simply as the 'law of harmony.' . . . That which is consonant with the overall harmony will, in the human sphere of activity, be considered moral or good, hence the norms of social as well as personal ethics that form the basis of all civilizations.
To think in terms of a cosmic moral order is to bring in a purely human dimension at a level where the purely human is bypassed. The objective moral order of the universe exists solely in man's mind. Its counter-part in the universe is harmony, equilibrium.
The idea that morality, goodness, conscience, and ethical choice belong exclusively to the human sphere is not shared by all. Those who conceive the unmanifest One to be the Absolute Good tend to envisage the entire cosmos, both material and spiritual, as being pervaded and sustained by moral law. How such a law could apply to all nonhuman manifestation seems beyond our ken; nevertheless, the thought of Supreme Goodness in the cosmos persists as an appropriate expression of the truth, just as does the supremacy of cosmic harmony. Both exist as ideas in the human mind. Either could have objective existence apart from mankind. From the strictly human point of view, however, it is scarcely possible to distinguish between them.
Harmony is the "right'' relationship of parts; and what is right can only be good. When human conduct is most right, it is just, honorable, courageous, loyal, kind, generous, and compassionate. If the ultimate source of these qualities transcends the human, then to use them in character designation may involve more than human value judgments. And civilized people everywhere have intuitively grasped that these are noble traits representing the realization of humanity's highest potentials - which may be divine. With or without religious significance, they have always been regarded as good attributes, while deviations from them are less good and sometimes evil.
The harmonious relationship of peaceful men, which we all seek, is built upon trust and confidence in one another's integrity. To oppose evil forces with dishonorable practices may in the short term accomplish political and even humanitarian ends. Those who participate in such actions may be motivated by idealism and a sense of obligation to fight their enemies in the most efficient way they know, even at the cost of personal integrity. Yet wiser people realize that dishonorable means never establish the "right" relations and, in disrupting the divine harmony of the cosmic order, are in the long run a disservice to mankind. Nor is patriotic concern, however commendable, the highest duty. Nations and governments come and go as the human race struggles to evolve; our prime obligation is to facilitate its spiritual ascent. Let us recognize that despite all our human frailties, our evolutionary potentials are indeed divine and that earthly trials and tribulations are necessary to become more godlike in thought and action.
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Love is the firstborn, loftier than the Gods, the Fathers, and men.
You, O Love, are the eldest of all, altogether mighty.
To you we pay homage! — Atharva Veda ix.2.19