If you ask a Librarian to show you the section with the Upanishads and Sūtras, the nice lady is likely to point you to the shelves marked ‘Religion’.
But these compilations are documents of Inquiry characterized by trial and error, not claim and faith. They were the obsessions of the Learned. Your normal healthy farm-boy will find it all quite batty.
The First Inquirers were the men and women of Religion [French: Re-Ligare; to bind back]. And the search for some Grounding Truth is Man’s first investigative journey. We aren’t so smart to have newly awoken to it for the first time.
Shūnyam does not lead you up the mountain or into a cave. It unloads you at Life, unrehearsed. And there is nothing in the Human Condition however exalted, muddled, banal or depraved that is not intimate with it.
Nor is Shūnyam against the comforts, consolations and beatitudes of the rituals of the sacred. [In fact it was first offered not as high philosophy or the limit of inquiry but as a Refuge.] And you don’t know what Piety or Reverence mean, except as camouflaged petitionary acts, until you are in sight of Shūnyam.
But put an early religious spin on Shūnyam and you will miss. And in this business, you miss by a milli-meter, you miss by a mile.
The presiding presumption of the organizers of religious, a very different breed than the original seekers, is that something is fundamentally wrong, that there is some kind of cosmic game afoot.
God has planted you on earth to test your virtues, redeem your sins, ceaselessly praise Him [not Her, of course] since His fragile pride needs constant fortification. And so on. This is more the Abrahamic version.
The Dharmic version sees you as hopelessly wallowing in ignorance, in need of awakening, lost in the World, until someday, lo! you get it. A later version has you condemned to endless rebirths of suffering, of Karmic debt settling, until the ledger is clean.
There are numerous other versions which I look forward to laying out in later posts. The modern biologists twist for example:
Why does the gene reproduce? Because it has to compulsively replicate itself in some form or other. Why does it compulsively have to replicate itself in some form or other? Well, that’s an easy one. That’s because Nature’s primary goal happens to be Self-Preservation [well, now you know].
There is not a stitch of deceit, not a trace of lie. All is laid out, plain as daylight. There is no cosmic game afoot.
‘Nothing holy’, replied Bodhidharman [around 500 CE], when Emperor Wu asked him; ‘What is holy truth?’
There is nothing holy, religious, sacred, spiritual, esoteric or mystical about Shūnyam. To limit it so would be to abase its Truth. [There is nothing earthy, profane or banal about it either. But that is less often the slip.]
Indian records are sketchy as is the norm. We know Bodhidharman cited from the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, [Lanka, as in Sri Lanka today] a later tradition to the Prajñā Pāramitha.
Chinese chroniclers [Tánlín, Dàoxuān, circa 550 CE] identify him as: ‘The third son of a nobleman of firm Brahman stock from South India’.
Given what we know of dynasties and trade-routes, he was most likely from Kāñcipuram, the then capital of the Pallavas. No shrines, no stupas, no sign-boards, the last time I checked. No one remembers anymore.
The Kāñcipuram seat of the Śaṅkarācārya, my maternal family Guru. I haven’t been back in a long time.