Posted in death, life, Religion

The West and the East: Life and Death

Western religious systems generally want to change and improve the world–the Eastern often want to ignore it, as the world, life and death are considered unreal. The only reality is the eternal unchanging soul. Here is a typical passage from an important text.

‘It matters little to these countless beings which are continually being born only to be destroyed, whether the noble and kind-hearted grieve or delight over their fate. The widespread illusion called samsara [world or worldliness] is an arena for incessant births and incessant deaths. Neither exhilaration nor bemoaning is called for from any quarter.’
Yoga Vasishtha, 14.34-35, trans. by Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha.

Can one ever agree with this and ignore the world?

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A writer with eight published books and several articles, book reviews etc. I primarily write on history and religion, but would love to switch to fiction.

10 thoughts on “The West and the East: Life and Death

  1. This is really interesting …. but I would like to know more about your first sentence – “Western religious systems generally want to change and improve the world–the Eastern often want to ignore it, as the world, life and death are considered unreal.” Is that really true? And what religious systems would you class as western – is that just the various forms of Christianity and Judaism? And then that is interesting in itself because all these religions stemmed from the middle east, which is perhaps the “cradle” of Islam today (although many would disagree with me on that!)
    I know extremely little about Buddhism and other eastern religions and I am sure you know a lot more about them than me, but my impression would be that Buddhists do want to change and improve the world – am I wrong on that?

    None of this is in any way confrontational, by the way, I am just extremely interested by way you’ve said and would like to know more!!

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  2. West and East was really not the correct way to put it—I would classify all monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahai, as wanting to change the world–in Eastern I was primarily referring to Hinduism. Buddhism has different schools and sects; early Buddhism did seek to escape from the world, Mahayana Buddhism had the grand principle of the Bodhisattva who gives up his/her life for every suffering being; then there is Vajrayana Buddhism, which is again different. I haven’t focused on Shinto, Confucianism, Dao, African, Native American, and so much more
    I guess I just wanted to share the question, is it really possible to ignore what is happening, and be indifferent to the world? Is that the only way to find peace? I have read and tried but never succeeded. And yet despite all those who try to bring about change, the world goes on in the same way–wars, conflicts, disasters.

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  3. Dear Roshen,
    I think that because the western religions believe that there is only one life they constantly work on trying to do as many good deeds as possible so that on judgement day they may ascend to heaven..

    While we (Hindus) believe in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth until one attains “Moksha”. But at the same time we are taught to realise the importance of our karma in shaping up not only this life but also the next ones to come. And hence, i do not agree with you that we do not wish to change or better the world. I think we live in a state of a weird acceptance where we tend to be passive observers rather than active change makers.

    Also, if we are to go by Shri Krishna’s teachings he repeatedly states in the “Bhagwad Gita” that being inactive is not the path to peace, rather one needs to perform all his/her duties and actions but with a conscious sense of detachment.

    I hope this helps!
    Love,
    Apoorva

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    1. Of course, I am aware of the Gita and most other texts–but just focus on that quote from the Yoga Vasishta–the Gita also says that the wise do not grieve for those who live or those who die–for life and death shall pass away, but the soul is eternal.
      Always glad to discuss these issues! Do read my book on Hinduism.

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  4. Thanks for the clarifications; when I first read your post I spent some time thinking about what, exactly, I meant when I used shorthand terms like “Western” and “Eastern” religions. And you’ve had interesting replies, too.

    I’m particularly interested in the historic (and often very violent) divisions within Christianity, which seem to have originated from some profoundly different thinking about the question, “How can we achieve salvation?” (And that refers back to the concept of the Fall, and original sin.)

    By renouncing the world and its temptations to live a cloistered existence? By accepting the world as the work of one Creator, purifying oneself through self-examination, and/or by doing good works contributing to defeating the evil that humanity brought to the world?

    Monotheism itself has sometimes caused divisions within Christianity. I’m thinking in particular of the dualistic beliefs of what we nowadays (for convenience) refer to as Catharism, or the Albigensian heresy, although that’s not what they would have called themselves. These beliefs pointed to a material world (bad, or just plain indifferent) which was the work of one Creator, and a pure world of the Spirit. So what was sought was not salvation, but release or liberation from the flesh, sometimes through several incarnations.

    We know little about the Cathars; they were perceived as such a threat to the established Christian church, particularly in what is now the south of France, that in 1208 Pope Innocent III ordered a crusade against them, promising the lands of the southern nobility who protected the Cathars to the nobility of northern France. The results were predictable.

    The Cathar beliefs may have originated from the influence of Gnosticism on very early Christianity. I understand that Gnosticism originated in Egypt and Syria, but spread east to Persia as well as west.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, they give rise to more questions–how within one religion there can be so many different ways of thinking–and that is true probably of all religions. I have been thinking about these things for much of my life–have read about the Cathars and Gnosticism, the latter actually may have its origins in Zoroastrianism. In my first novel I have addressed some philosophical questions, but mainly pertaining to ways of thought in India, as I am most familiar with that–planning a second which will proceed further and make comparisons with ideas in other parts of the world–will test some ideas with you. You seem to have read widely and thought deeply about all this.

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      1. Thanks. My interest in religions stems from my reading of history and my attempts to understand (however dimly) the belief systems of others. One thing I did hear or read somewhere was that around 100 – 300 A.D. (Christian Calendar) trade and travel around the Mediterranean and the East meant that people of many different faiths were in regular contact with each other and therefore influenced each other’s thinking.

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