In Hinduism, it appears there is a consistent pattern to reduce our understanding of Nature into simpler numbers. Definitely, nobody sat and classified things based on numbers. But it is interesting that lots of these seem to coalesce into basic numbers. In this article, we are going to take the look at FOUR. This will be restricted to Hinduism concepts as even several other Indian dimensions also have brush with numbers. We have Chaturanga (Chess) and four fold army divisions –Infantry, Cavalry, Elephant and Chariot. In the modern world, we have four door car, four tyres/wheels. FOUR seems to be continuing with us. We are fascinated with FOUR in cricket and Lincoln also commenced his famous Gettysburg address speech with FOUR score and seven years. I hope to elaborate on some of these contents, outlined below, later separately. For now, we will stay with the theme here.
Vedas, yugas, varnas, ashramas, major paths in spirituality, Purusharthas, levels of consciousness and even Mahavakyas all seem to be FOUR.
FOUR Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharvana. The foundation of Indian spirituality and Sanatana Dharma. They are also called Shruti. It appears many of these came from the Sarasvati Valley civilization, or predating it. Veda (वेदा) means Knowledge. Vid (विद) means to know. The seers understood Vedas as occurring in nature. That’s why it is not like a literary composition, having one author. The Seers, as simple as a person who sees, a realized one, is called Drshta (दृष्टा). According to Indian tradition, lots of these Drshtas identified this wisdom and it remained in the families scattered. Thanks to VedVyasa, who compiled, classified and codified the Vedas. Vyasa means one who classifies, collates, compiles. We are eternally indebted to him because he also gave the 18 puranas.
Vedas subdivided into FOUR each. Each Veda is made up of Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. There is a strong correlation to the type of text and whom it resonates with. It also correlates with the type of spiritual practice. Samhitas, literally means joined, putting together, is predominantly made of mantras, hymns, prayers, benedictions. A spiritual beginner needs some sort of hope, guidance. If you do this, it will work for you kind of assurance. That’s Samhitas. The famous Gayatri mantra is also in Samhita portion. Aranyakas, Forest Treatises, belonging to Wilderness also has insights into rituals and sacrifices. The emphasis is external. Brahmanas aide the seeker to turn the gaze inwards. They define the foundational pillars of Indian culture, including Karma, Asramas etc Famous examples include Shatapatha Brahmana, Aitareya Brahmana. Upanishads, also commonly referred as Vedanta, is found at the end of the Veda portion. Also it can imply the end of Knowledge or ultimate knowledge. Thanks to the Muktika Upanishad, we know there are 108 Upanishads catalogued, of which 10 are referred as Mukhya Upanishads. ( Isa-Kena-Katha-Prasna-Mundaka-Mandukya-Taittriya-Aitareya-Chaandogya-Brhadaaranyaka). One can see a transition from Subjective-Objective-Universal or External-Internal-Universal.
FOUR gets into even our pantheon of Puranic Gods. Since most of Vedic and vedantic ideas were more esoteric, the puranic times saw a translation of this knowledge into Trinity. Brahma sports FOUR heads. Usual explanation or visualization is one for each of the FOUR cardinal directions. When it comes to FOUR, the graceful hands of Vishnu comes to our mind. Vishnu holds Shanka (conch), Chakra (discus), Gada (mace) and Padma (lotus) in each of his FOUR hands. In Ramayana, the FOUR children of Dasaratha are Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrugna.
FOUR Yugas - Satya, Treta, Dwapara and Kali. Hindus perceive the world/universe as cyclic. The FOUR yugas follow one another in the pattern in a cycle. They find there is a progressive decline in dharma, wisdom and even human life span over the yugas in that order. Yugas are personified as a cow in Srimad Bhagavatam. Parikshit Arjuna’s grandson and ruler, finds a cow on one legs being harassed by a person. It is understood that the four legs of Dharma being Tapah-Soucham-Daya-Satyam1 “austerity, cleanliness, mercy and truthfulness”. In Kali yuga, Dharma is standing on only TRUTH. Hence Satyam is very core of human righteousness, progress, evolution. When Satyam is lost, nothing exists. Only Mutual Assured Destruction. Depending on different calculations, the mathematics behind the four yugas is also fascinating, but all revolve around FOUR.
FOUR Varnas were central to establishing order in ancient Indian society. Brahmana-Kshatriya-Vaishya-Shudra, namely intellect oriented, power oriented, wealth oriented and labor oriented. The seers felt that these four if integrated in one place can lead to bad consequences. There are lots of controversies around this due to the twists in time and many (mis)interpretations. This has also polarized the society due to the motivated (mis)interpretations deliberately fed and amplified from both within and without India2. For now it is suffice to note that Varnas are not assigned due to their birth, but due to their karmas. Raavana though a Brahmin by birth is considered as Raakshasa, Vishwamitra though a Kshatriya is considered as a Saptarishi, a Brahmana. Depending on the ratios of the three gunas – Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, one gets the varna. Varna is more about the profession, but also the outlook of the person.
FOUR Ashramas – Brahmacharya-Grihastha-Vanaprastha-Sannyasa, namely Childhood-Married life- Detached life-Renunciate. The life of an individual is said to follow this pattern. Ashrama is not restricted to any one Varna. A Brahmachari uses his time to expand his knowledge base while a Grihastha uses his knowledge to expand his wealth, relationships etc. As observed Grihastha, usually thought of as the lowest spiritual (wrongly) is the main and only support for the entire Ashrama system. Even many sages and rishis had ashrams. A system that was having vestigial survival even upto the British colonial times. Though we do not follow in the modern times, we follow education phase and married phase and in many cases empty nesters. What is lacking is the purpose behind. Vanaprastha or detached life is something we have sacrificed resulting in various societal ailments. Sannyasa is not running away from society, but an intense attachment to detachment, so that there is no distraction in the path of realization. As noted in, Why Rama is my best friend, the essence of life is Tyaga. Tyaga is not of the objects, but that of doership and ownership. Hence a Sannyasa attitude is the need of the hour, irrespective of our Varna or Ashrama.
FOUR Roads to Spirituality – Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga – Path of Devotion, Selfless Action, Meditation and Knowledge. Just like the Meenakshi Temple, four major streets leading to the four entrance towers, which all lead to the sanctum santorum, these four major roads lead to emancipation. Today we can see that not all are having equal strengths in aspects of life. If one were to just take a school as example, some kids focus on studies, some in sports, some in dedicatedly following the set of guidelines, some are a mixed bag. In adult life, one can see some are physique oriented, some are intellectual oriented, some are into emotions, few are not defined clearly. To the biggest group, which is emotion or heart oriented, Bhakti is a prescribed path. The intellectual definitely fewer in number (our self-certification from ego university doesn't count) are head oriented. They prefer the path of Knowledge or Jnana. Many of us are active workers. It may be easy to believe in one’s efforts. So if one can fix the attitude towards working, it can easily put us on the path of Karma Yoga. To the ones who cannot be classified easily, the path of meditation, Raja Yoga, gives an edge.
Despite all the four roads seemingly being different to a novice or a non practitioner, the paths are intertwined. One's temperment (which is not static) guides us to certain path. One may need a highly qualified Guru to identify a specific path. Narendra had the grace to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and blossomed into Swami Vivekananda. But how many of us are even qualified to meet such a great Master. Are we actively seeking on improving our qualifications is the BIG Question? The genius and grace of Swami Sivananda made it easier for all of us calling it integral Yoga, which is to follow a little bit of all. A little bhajan, a little reading of scriptures, a little of this and a little of that. This ensures that without having to guess, anyone can make progress on all fronts.
FOUR comes again when in Bhakti major places of worship are listed as Char Dham – Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri, Rameshwaram. It is suggested that as a Hindu, one can gain immensely by visiting these shrines in four corners of the country. Also Adi Shankara, in an effort to revive Hinduism, established FOUR mathas – Sringeri Sarada Pitham, Dwaraka Pitha, Puri Govardhana Matha and JoshiMath/Jyothirmath and assigned one Veda to each matha for posterity.
In Sanatana Dharma, as known to us as Hinduism, FOUR Purusharthas – Dharma-Artha-Kama-Moksha are the key to unraveling a very fulfilling productive life. Dharma is more of sociological order. Artha encompasses all material objects including Wealth. In other words, whatever that can be procured for a price. Kama,though reduced to carnal pleasure, includes all psychological pressures on an individual. Moksha is the spiritual dimension. This concept though in many indian languages use the same verbiage, but its importance can be traced in languages like Tamil which have parallel evolved words to describe the same four ideas – Aram-Porul-Inbam-Veedu அறம் - பொருள் - இன்பம் - வீடு. These are not four levels or steps as commonly misinterpreted. One common way of looking at it is, Using Dharmic way, create wealth to enjoy legit things and attain freedom. This is very inviting, but not the whole purpose. The four have to be followed simultaneously. They are like the four quarters in a dollar or rupee.
FOUR states of consciousness – Jagruti, Swapna, Sushupti and Turiya. They are Waking, Dream, Dreamless Sleep and Pure consciousness. Indian tradition, irrespective of the Sampradhayas or Paramparas followed revolve around four levels of consciousness. We are all aware of the first three. Our life revolves around them, but being ignorant of the fourth lands us in utter confusion. We already saw how we chopped off Sannyasa as a concept in modern life. We see the same for Moksha. To a lesser extent, one can see the less significance of Atharvana Veda also, as it is not used for rituals. We can understand that the concepts and ideas envisioned as FOUR lose their meaning significantly if we lose one or more of them.
FOUR Mahavakyas, the central pillars of Vedanta. If any Acharya has to create a new school of thought, one must incorporate these Mahavakyas as part of their explanation. Since I find the best concise explanation I came across was from Swami Sivananda3, I am glad to quote it entirely.
The first Mahavakya is: "Prajnanam Brahma. Consciousness is Brahman". This is Lakshana Vakya. The teacher gives the definition to the student that pure consciousness is Brahman. Then the teacher says: "Tat Tvam Asi. Thou art That. You are the all-pervading pure consciousness". This is known as Upadesa Vakya. Then the student contemplates on what the teacher expounded, in the form of the idea, "Aham Brahmasmi. I am Brahman". This is Anusandhana Vakya. Finally, the student realizes that this Self which is within him is Brahman: "Ayam Atma Brahma. This Atma is Brahman". This is Anubhava Vakya.
What a better way to close talking about FOUR than by paying my humblest obeisance and FOUR koti pranams to each of the FOUR Sanakadi Rishis - Sanaka, Sanandana, SanatSujata (Sanantana) and Sanat Kumara, the four mind born sons of Brahma who have dedicated themselves to aiding and assisting evolution in creation. May their fourfold blessings be upon all of us.
Om Tat Sat
1. Tapah soucham daya satyam iti padah krite kritah Adharma amsais trayo bhagnah maya samgam madais taba (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.17.24)