A friend today pointed out to me a seeming anomaly between two descriptions of the Mahattattva. The first description appears as the second covering of the universe in Vedic cosmology, where the first covering is the Ahaṃkāra or ego. The second description appears in Sāñkhya where the Ahaṃkāra is said to be a byproduct of the Mahattattva. The anomaly is: Is the Mahattattva the cause of Ahaṃkāra or its effect? Apparently, both descriptions are used—the first in Vedic cosmology and the second in Sāñkhya philosophy.
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The Meaning of Mahattattva
To understand these Mahattattva, we have to understand what Mahattattva means. The term mahat means “great” and tattva means “essence”. So, Mahattattva means “the essence of greatness”. In common language, we call these the ideals of life and they embody moral values. The problem is that in Sāñkhya, Pradhāna -> Prakṛti -> Mahattattva -> Ahaṃkāra -> Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. This sequence changes in Vedic cosmology, where Pradhāna -> Ahaṃkāra -> Mahattattva -> Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth.
Three differences result from these two descriptions. First, Prakṛti is missing in the cosmology description. Second, the ordering of Mahattattva and Ahaṃkāra is inverted. Third, Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth are expansions of Mahattattva, in the cosmology description.
To understand these differences, we can take note of an ordinary sequence of words such as “dark blue table”, where dark modifies blue, and blue modifies table. This principle applies to all kinds of manifestations in Vedic philosophy where the lower element always gets its meaning in relation to the higher element. Therefore, when Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether manifest from Ahaṃkāra or the ego, the implication is that they are the qualifiers of the ego. However, when these elements manifest from Mahattattva, then the implication is that these are qualifiers of the Mahattattva. Therefore, when Sāñkhya speaks of the five elements expanding from the ego, it indicates the ego’s expansion into a body. But when cosmology speaks of the five elements expanding from the Mahattattva, then it indicates moral values expanding into values unique to the five types of sensations. Again, the source from which something expands determines the meaning of that thing.
It is also important to note the order inversion between Mahattattva and Ahaṃkāra. When Ahaṃkāra manifests from Mahattattva, the implication is that the ego is subordinated to moral principles. This ego, therefore, represents a socially constructed identity and includes not just the body, but also its relationships to property, family, country, race, profession, and so on. Since the ego is subordinated to moral principles, therefore, this socially constructed ego is bound by “moral duties”. Conversely, when Mahattattva manifests from Ahaṃkāra, this means that moral principles are subordinated to the ego. These moral principles now constitute “moral rights” or entitlements.
Therefore, the two Mahattattva are moral values, but one is moral rights and the other is moral duties. Their expansion of Mahattattva into the five elements is the elaboration of moral rights into the entitlements about the sensations of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell. For example, the entitlement of sound includes the “Right to Information” and the “Right to Free Speech”. Conversely, the expansion of Ahaṃkāra into the five elements is the elaboration of moral duties into the sensations of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell.
Bundling and Separation of Prakṛti
We can now turn to the issue of why Prakṛti is missing in the cosmology description. Prakṛti as a whole in Sāñkhya represents the realm of desire. When the soul is covered by a certain Prakṛti, then it develops a natural attraction toward certain things and a natural revulsion toward other things. The Prakṛti also manifests from Pradhāna, which means “I am the master”. The implication is that material desire manifests from the idea of mastery (conversely spiritual desire manifests from the idea of love). Essentially, the idea that “I am the master” transforms into the idea that “I am the enjoyer”.
Therefore, in cosmology, Prakṛti is actually not missing; it has rather been substituted by an elaborate seven-fold division, namely, Ahaṃkāra, Mahattattva, Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. The primary element of this Prakṛti is Ahaṃkāra which embodies the fundamental idea that “I am the enjoyer”. As a result of this entitlement, the Mahattattva represents the entitlement of “moral rights”. And the expansion of these “moral rights” into the other five elements denote the expansion of entitlement into many varieties.
The difference between Sāñkhya and cosmology is that Prakṛti is summarized in the former case, and elaborated in the latter. As the expansion of Pradhāna (“I am the master”), the divisions of Prakṛti mean: “I am the enjoyer”, “I have rights”, “Of hearing, touching, seeing, tasting, and smelling”. Of course, this sense of mastery is false. So, Prakṛti is also called Māyā or “illusion”.
Rights Compensated by Duties
Once we understand this illusory covering of the universe, the “inner” part of the universe becomes straightforward. It begins in the second Mahattattva, which curtail all the previously presumed moral rights by duties. These moral duties are part of the Linga Sarīra or “gendered body” in Sāñkhya, whereas the Prakṛti is itself the Sūkśma Sarīra. We can say that the Sūkśma Sarīra is the unconscious realm and the Linga Sarīra is the conscious realm of dreaming. There is also the Sthūla Sarīra or the waking realm. For more details, you can refer to the book Material and Spiritual Natures, which presents a translation and scientific commentary on the Sāñkhya Sūtras by Sage Kapila.
The implication of gendered-body-specific duties is that men and women have different kinds of moral duties, although they (supposedly—by their sense of entitlement) have the same rights. For instance, men and women have the same right to speech and respect, but different duties. This means that as men and women perform different duties, their respective duties must be respected equally. A man’s duty to provide and protect is not deserving of more respect than a woman’s duty to nurture and take care of the household. They are equally respectable, and yet, they are gender-specific duties. At least, this is the worldly conception of rights and duties based on the two Mahattattva.
In modern times, this difference between right and duty is not understood very well. For example, the right to speech and respect is equated to the right to perform the same kind of social duty. But according to the above description, the rights are related to the unconscious body while the duties are related to the gendered body. So, everyone can have the same rights, even if they have different duties.
The Principles of Moral Duty
The presence of this second Mahattattva as moral duties is important because the moral rights are all about me and mine. For example, the US Declaration of Independence talks about the “unalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, but compensates for this selfish conception of life by saying that “all men are created equal”. In short, everyone is free to pursue their happiness, however, in some ways, one person’s happiness should not encroach on the happiness of others. They don’t elaborate on how people will not encroach on each other’s happiness, but these principles are formulated in Vedic philosophy as truthfulness, cleanliness, charity, and sacrifice.
Superficially, the principle of sacrifice (also called austerity) contradicts the self-centered “rights”. But if we look a little closer, the principle of sacrifice is meant only to give a person greater power. Similarly, superficially, the principle of charity contradicts the self-centered “rights”. But upon a closer look, the charities are said to lead to greater prosperity. Hence, yogis performed great austerities and kings performed sacrifices and charities only to obtain greater power, influence, and enjoyment. Their charities, kindness, austerities, and sacrifices are not contradictory to the self-centered “rights”. Rather, those who are austere, charitable, sacrificing are given the position of greater enjoyment.
Rights and Duties Not Contradictory
In a summarized form, we can say that Mahattattva is “morality”. In an elaborate form, we can say that Mahattattva is divided into rights and duties. And in an even more elaborate form, we can discuss how moral duties are compatible with the idea of selfish enjoyment.
Owing to this compatibility, we can say that the moral duty called Mahattattva emerges from the Prakṛti. In short, the so-called morality of this world is nothing but the extension of the idea of selfishness. The bigger or dominant ideal is personal enjoyment, and morality is the subordinate ideal. This morality is dovetailed to assist greater enjoyment—namely, personal power, prestige, control, and mastery.
This is akin to how a country’s constitution lays out many laws and regulations in order to ultimately assist “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. So, the laws are designed to assist enjoyment. Of course, when people are unaware of the nature of the universe, they forget even these moral duties, and the result is that they fall into unhappiness and despair. But those who are aware of nature’s arrangement, remain moralistic—not to transcend the world, but to enjoy better even as they remain within the delusional idea of mastery.
The Philosophy of Karma-Yoga
To elevate us from this selfish conception of rights and duties, Lord Kṛṣṇa teaches the philosophy of karma-yoga in Bhagavad-Gita when He says: karmanye va adhikāra aste. The word “astu” means “that’s it”. So, karma-yoga means “your rights are your duties, that’s it”.
This is a path of transcendence from the mundane materialistic principles of Mahattattva or moral rights and duties. In short, don’t perform your duties because they will lead to greater enjoyment. Rather, perform your duties since your duties are the only right. Thereby, the root principle of Pradhāna and the first Ahaṃkāra and Mahattattva is negated as the ideas of mastery, self-centeredness, and moral rights over other individuals, as these are the main causes of material bondage, without creating chaos in the world whereby everyone neglects their duties. Therefore, karma-yoga is also a transcendental process, even as a person doesn’t renounce the world.
Mahattattva in Sāñkhya and Cosmology
When Sāñkhya describes the manifestation of Ahaṃkāra from Mahattattva, it is referring to the second Ahaṃkāra from which manifest the second set of Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. This second Ahaṃkāra pertains to the “right to perform my duty”. There is still righteousness or entitlement, but it pertains to the duties. However, if the first Ahaṃkāra is present, then it becomes the “right to perform my duty so that I can get my enjoyment”. Lord Kṛṣṇa calls this Ahaṃkāra as karta aham iti manyate—i.e., that a person considers himself the doer. Why? Because our entitlement for enjoyment comes only because we think we are doing the work. If you think that you haven’t done the work, then you will not feel entitled to get the results. So, the entitlement of results is tied to thinking oneself the doer.
However, if the first Ahaṃkāra is absent, then the second Ahaṃkāra becomes the “right to perform my duty, that’s it”. This latter form of Ahaṃkāra is sometimes called “true ego” while the former type of Ahaṃkāra is called the “false ego”. In short, if we give up the false idea of mastery, then our entitlement to perform our duties is still called Ahaṃkāra, although it is no longer considered a false idea.
Similarly, the second set of Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth, etc. are manifest from the Mahattattva pertaining to moral duties, which means that the world is meant only for duty performance. However, due to the deeper Mahattattva about moral rights, all these material elements are said to be contaminated by selfishness. This has a very important implication for spiritual life, namely, that a pure devotee of the Lord can have a material body, and that body is not considered contaminated because the deeper level Mahattattva about moral rights has been destroyed. Hence, a liberated soul can exist in the material world, performing his duties, without being materially contaminated.
Dissolution of the Subtle Body
Now, we can ask: How can a grosser reality exist when the subtle reality doesn’t? Isn’t the grosser reality manifested from the subtle reality? So, if the subtle reality is destroyed, mustn’t then the gross reality also be destroyed? Shouldn’t the gross cease for a liberated soul?
The answer is that for a liberated soul, the subtle body is spiritual. They also have a Prakṛti, but it is divine in that their desires have transformed into the love of God rather than selfish entitlement based on many so-called “rights”. This process is sometimes described as a “dry coconut” as opposed to a “wet coconut”. In a wet coconut, the core is attached to the shell. However, in a dry coconut, the shell is detached from the core. So, the subtle body of a transcendentalist is like a dry coconut that is inside the shell of gross and gendered bodies, but it is also detached from these two bodies. Hence, a transcendentalist can exist in a male or female body and have the pure thoughts, judgments, and sensations of the respective gender, but they have completely different desires. Based on their desires, their “rights” are to perform devotion to the Lord. For instance, they think they have the “right” to be the Lord’s servants, parents, friends, or lovers.
Based on this pure Ahaṃkāra, there is a different kind of Mahattattva in which their rights or entitlements are different. They can say different things to the Lord, they have different ideas about status, respect, and esteem. Thereby, the entire ontology of tiers of material reality is also present in the spiritual realm, but they are based on devotion to the Lord, rather than selfish enjoyment.
Lessons from the Study of Mahattattva
Thus, there are many important lessons we can draw from the study of Vedic cosmology and Sāñkhya.
First, the deeper levels of reality that cover the soul and the universe cannot be understood by looking outwardly in the world; they have to be understood by looking deeper into the unconscious. This deeper reality has an external manifestation too, just like our sense of entitlement manifests in social rights and duties. But unless we understand the deeper reality, we will disconnect this sociology from our psychology. Thereby, we cannot understand the root causes of our entanglement in the world.
Second, by understanding the deeper recesses of our psychology, we can also infer the nature of spiritual psychology. Thereby, the study of all material reality transforms into the study of spiritual reality. For instance, the 24 elements of Sāñkhya are also present in the spiritual world, not just in the material world. The difference is that the material elements are based on selfishness and the spiritual elements are based on the love of the Lord. Thereby, we can summarily reject impersonalism in which the qualities of the world are not just material qualities, but also present in the spiritual world.
Third, we can see why the same elements such as Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether appear even at deeper levels of existence, not just as the gross body. For instance, it is possible to speak of a “sweet person” and a “hard person”. Superficially, the property of sweetness is a taste and the property of hardness is a touch. But these are not just in the gross body. Even at the level of the mind, these same properties are found. And even in the unconscious body, such things are present. Accordingly, the same elements—e.g., Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether—are used in different contexts in different ways. For instance, the coverings of the universe are also described in terms of these five elements.
Fourth, based on our subtle and gendered body and its sense of rights and duties, each soul is born into a different type of society where their notion of rights and duties match their environment. For instance, Western societies emphasize rights far more than duties, and duties are meant only as a means to fulfill our rights. Eastern societies emphasize duties far more than rights, and rights are supposed to be automatically fulfilled by the performance of duties. Thus, it is automatically understood that if children take care of their parents, then their children will take care of them in their old age. Likewise, if children serve their parents, then their families will stay together because there are multiple points of attachment to compensate for any conflict. In the West, people think in terms of rights and enjoyment and neglect these duties. This is not just because the society is like that; it is also because their Prakṛti is like that. It is because of that Prakṛti that nature arranges the birth in a certain type of society and culture to fulfill their Prakṛti. Thereby, even if the flaws of a social system are seen, people find it hard to reject them.
Fifth, all these realizations open up the ideological basis to present what is called Social Psychology and Cultural Anthropology at present, in a new way. In these academic disciplines, the cultures of different societies are studied based on their moral system of rights and duties. Social Psychologists for instance study the different moralities of left-wing and right-wing followers in society. They study the different kinds of cultures across different nations and analyze their dissimilarities. They might also study ancient cultures and philosophies and how their languages reflect a different social-moral system. All these academic disciplines are amenable to alternative ideas based on the deeper understanding of human psychology. I have wanted to write at least one book on this field, but more pressing things prevent that. But until I can do that, this post hopefully lays out the sketch of the type of thinking involved.
Finally, we can see how topics, as varied as psychology, sociology, and cosmology, are connected through a common way of thinking about material and spiritual lives. By knowing one subject, we can know every subject and present it in a way that is not only comprehensive but also illuminating. By such descriptions, we not only improve that area of study but show the path to spiritual progress. If our desires are not materialistic, then we can use these domains of inquiry to advance spiritual knowledge.