Join Dr. Philipp Maas and a global cohort of students for this unique opportunity to explore Indian philosophy through the lens of Karma, Rebirth, and Liberation.
In their specific attempts to profoundly answer these big questions of human existence, philosophical and religious authorities, scholars, and popular authors around the globe have taken recourse to teachings of karma and rebirth. Some modern proponents even place this teaching within the realm of the natural sciences, interpreting karma as a variation of the law of cause and effect.
After a brief historical overview of teachings of rebirth in the world’s religions and throughout history, this course addresses different hypotheses concerning the origin of teachings of karma rebirth in ancient India. It will introduce a range of fascinating traditional karma teachings, starting with the earliest sources relatable to conceptions of karma, rebirth and liberation from repeated death that are traceable in the rich corpus of Vedic literature.
Next, the course will examine the multiple conceptions of karma and rebirth in the traditions of Jainism, Buddhism, and the systematic philosophies of Hinduism, with particular reference to the Yogasūtras and their ancient commentaries. This historical and religious overview provides the stage for introducing the arguments in karma-related philosophical debates and polemics in ancient India. The course explores different views on how karma works on the basis of specific premises and how spiritual liberation is attainable.
Finally, the course returns to how traditional karma teachings are related to their modern Indian philosophical counterparts. Thus, its four modules take you on an intellectual journey covering 3,500 years of history by combining philosophical and religious reflections with discussions and careful analyses of ancient South Asian texts. The course thus provides you with the indispensable background knowledge for reflecting on teachings of karma, rebirth and spiritual liberation in a well-informed manner.
Teachings of rebirth are traceable in numerous religious traditions. They figured in classical western antiquity, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and in the so-called primitive religions. This fact led some scholars to conclude that conceptions of rebirth are fundamental to belief systems in general. In how far do historical sources support this claim? What was the role of teachings of rebirth in Judaism, Christianity and Islam? How are they related to ancient Indian teachings of karma and rebirth? What are the particular characteristics of traditional Indian conceptions of karma and rebirth? Where did the latter originate? To which area of knowledge do teachings of karma and rebirth belong, and what were (and still are) their social, philosophical and religious implications? The first module provides the conceptional frame for the following module that provides a historical overview of ancient Indian teachings on karma and rebirth by addressing these and related questions.
Vedic literature consists of four collections of texts called the Ṛg-, Sāma-, Yajur- and Atharvaveda. Each compendium contains texts that were composed over the long period between ca. 1400 BCE (in the case of the Ṛgveda) and the first centuries CE. Although Vedic literature is essential for the self-understanding of traditional and modern Hinduism, where teachings of karma and rebirth provide a central point of religious and philosophical orientation, references to these teachings in Vedic literature are rare in the earlier literary strata. Even in the relatively late Vedic verse Upaniṣads, karma teachings do not play the prominent role that one might expect. However, several middle and late Vedic teachings are relatable to conceptions of karma and rebirth either as predecessors or reactions to the development of karma teachings in milieus that were to some degree independent of Vedic thought and world views. The second module initially provides a brief overview of Vedic literature and religion, based on which it introduces some essential karma-relatable conceptions that occur in Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣads. Among these, the knowledge of the five fires (pañcāgnividyā), which occurs in different versions from different times dealing with the destiny of humans after death, is of particular relevance and interest. The course will reflect on the pañcāgnividyā from a historical perspective and discuss its relation to the teachings of karma and rebirth as they are traceable in later sources.
Clearly traceable teachings of karma and rebirth occur for the first time in the literature of Jainism and Buddhism, two sister religions that share their time (ca. 500–400 BCE) and region of origin (i.e. the eastern Gangetic Plain in northern India). Although both religions originated in related milieus, they entertained from the earliest time onwards different views concerning the questions of how karmic retribution works and what constitutes actions of karmic relevance. The third module initially introduces the specific and fundamental teachings of early Jaina and Buddhist karma teachings. After that, it turns to the conceptions of karma in the classical schools of Indian philosophy (darśanas) as they become traceable in works from the first half of the first millennium CE. It pays special attention to the school of Yoga as taught in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, i.e. the Yogasūtra together with its auto commentary, the so-called Yogabhāṣya. This fundamental Yoga text contains one of the most comprehensive philosophically justified accounts of the functioning of karma and rebirth in South Asian philosophical literature and a detailed exposition of how the process of karma and rebirth can be overcome in ultimate spiritual liberation. Patañjali’s theories of karma, rebirth and spiritual liberation are intimately related to the ontological status of the self or subject of experience (puruṣa) and the nature of the world. These premises of yoga philosophy are at the centre of fascinating philosophical debates between rival schools of Indian philosophy, which will be carefully addressed in the final part of the third module.
Each specific karma teaching portrayed in the previous module provides a particular starting point and theoretical justification for the ideal of ultimate spiritual liberation, which is intimately related to the idea of the permanent cancellation of suffering in the cycle of rebirths (saṃsāra). Despite numerous differences concerning how spiritual liberation may be conceived, South Asian traditions, in general, agree that the accumulation of good karma is not a sufficient condition for the attainment of this ultimate goal. They offer, however, divergent views concerning the question of which means are available. The fourth and final module focuses on these divergent conceptions of spiritual liberation and appropriate methods. In this context, the fourth module addresses specific views on the relationship between religious activities and rituals, the role of divine intervention or support, and the attainment of special knowledge or insight into the true nature of the world. After having thus provided a comprehensive account of teachings of karma, rebirth and spiritual liberation in the pre-modern traditions of South Asia, the module finally discusses the complex relationship between modern teachings of karma and rebirth in western and globalized societies, traditional karma conceptions, and modern Indian revisions and reinterpretations of traditional predecessors.
Philipp Maas is currently a research associate at the Institute for Indology and Central Asian Studies, University of Leipzig in Germany, where he works on a digital critical edition of the Nyāyabhāṣya, a Sanskrit work on spiritual liberation through proper reasoning. Previously he had served as an assistant professor and postdoc researcher at the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and the University of Bonn Germany.
He received his M.A. (1997) and Dr. phil. (2004) degrees from the University of Bonn, where he had completed studies in Indology, Comparative Religious Studies, Tibetology and Philosophy. His first book (originally his PhD thesis) is the first critical edition of the first chapter (Samādhipāda) of the Pātañjala Yogaśāstra, i.e. the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali together with the commentary called Yoga Bhāṣya. He has published extensively on classical Yoga and Sāṅkhya philosophy and meditation, Āyurveda, the relationship of Pātañjalayoga to Buddhism as well as on the textual tradition of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. He is a member of the “Historical Sourcebooks on Classical Indian Thought” project, convened by Prof. Sheldon Pollock, to which he contributes with a monograph on the development of Yoga-related ideas in pre-modern South Asian intellectual history.
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