The metaphor of Indra’s net is Vedic in its origin that symbolises the universe as a web of connections and interdependencies among all its members
Indra’s Net is a metaphor for the profound cosmology and outlook that permeates Hinduism. Indra’s Net symbolises the universe as a web of connections and interdependencies among all its members, wherein every member is both a manifestation of the whole and inseparable from the whole. This concept is the foundation for Vedic cosmology and it later went on to become the central principle of Buddhism, and from there spread into mainstream Western discourse across several disciplines.
The metaphor of Indra’s Net originates from the Atharva Veda (one of the four Vedas), which likens the world to a net woven by the great deity Shakra or Indra. The net is said to be infinite, and to spread in all directions with no beginning or end. At each node of the net is a jewel, so arranged that every jewel reflects all the other jewels. No jewel exists by itself independently of the rest. Everything is related to everything else; nothing is isolated.
Indeed, the fundamental idea of unity-in-diversity underpins all Dharmic traditions; even though there are many perspectives from which Indra’s Net may be viewed and appreciated, it is ultimately recognised as one indivisible and infinite unity. From the Hindu viewpoint, the One that manifests as many is named Brahma; even seemingly disparate elements are in fact nothing other than reflections of Brahma, and hence of one another.
This notion of an organic unity is a signature of Hinduism, and distinguishes it from all major Western religions, philosophies and cultures.
Each jewel of Indra’s Net includes the reflections of all the other jewels; the significance of this symbolism is that each entity in the universe contains within itself the entire universe. This idea, rather than positing interdependence among separately existing entities, asserts that the whole does not owe its existence to the coming together of
individual parts that have independent existence. Indeed, the existence of each individual part is contingent upon, and relative to, the existence of the whole and of all the other parts. Yet, paradoxically, each individual part also ‘contains’ the whole within itself. Put simply, the whole and the parts are inseparable.
Every jewel in Indra’s Net is a microcosm of the whole net; every component is the cause of the whole and also the effect of the whole. Nothing exists outside the net. In the Hindu worldview, the only essence that ultimately exists is Brahma; Brahma is the foundation for Indra’s Net, and no jewel exists apart from Brahma.
The jewels of Indra’s Net are not meant to symbolise static substances. Each jewel is merely a reflection of other jewels, and individual jewels always remain in flux. Each jewel exists only momentarily, to be continuously replaced by its successor, in mutual causation with other jewels. Just as the interdependent cells of the human body are perpetually changing, so also everything in Indra’s Net is perpetually in flux. The reality is always in the flux of becoming.
This concept is different from the notion of real, independently existing entities undergoing modification, or static entities that happen to be woven together.
Swami Vivekananda applied the great Upanishadic saying, ‘tut tvam asi’ (‘that thou art’) as the basis for Hindu ethics. He said, in essence, that we are all jewels in Indra’s Net (even though he did not use this metaphor to say it). Thus, Vivekananda defined a Hindu platform for determining ethical conduct, not only towards all humans but towards animals and all entities in general—because everyone and
everything is a jewel in Indra’s Net.
The Sanskrit word bandhu is frequently used to describe the
interrelationship between the jewels of Indra’s Net. ‘Bandhu’ defines a corresponding entity; for example, a
relationship between x and y can be stated as ‘x is a bandhu of y’. In traditional Indian discourse, this term is often used to explain the unity between the whole and its seemingly diverse parts. For example, ancient thinkers have described specific bandhus which express the paradoxical relationship of the microcosm to the macrocosm. While the microcosm is generally perceived as a map of the macrocosm, it is also the case that both microcosm and macrocosm continuously mirror one another.
Bandhu can also refer to the connections among various facets of our overall unified reality, linking sounds, numbers, colours and ideas together. No object—whether physical, mental, emotional, or conceptual—has any existence by itself and is merely another facet of this unified whole. In addition, bandhu describes how the transcendental worlds correspond with the perceptible world, implying that whatever we perceive through our senses is but a pointer to something beyond.
Kapila Vatsyayan, a scholar of classical Indian art, has cited many examples of bandhu in the form of common metaphors. Significant symbols may be found in the Rig Veda, the Natya-shastra (a seminal text on
aesthetics and performing arts) and the Tantrasamuchya (a text on temple architecture). The bija (seed) is often used to symbolise the beginnings. The vriksha (tree) rises from the bija and represents the vertical pole uniting the realms. The nabhi (navel) or the garbha (womb) brings together the concepts of the avyakta (un-manifested) and the
vyakta (manifested). The bindu (point or dot) is the reference point or metaphorical centre around which are drawn geometrical shapes, which in turn facilitate the comprehension of notions of time and space. The shunya (void) is a symbol of fullness and emptiness. From its arupa nature (formless) arises the rupa nature (form) and the parirupa (beyond form). There is equivalence in the relationship between shunya (emptiness) and purna (completeness or wholeness), the paradox being that the void has within it the whole.
In Hinduism, the concept of unity-in-diversity can also be understood as a manifestation of Brahma, an agency that penetrates, pervades and harmonises the entire universe. Brahma enters and shapes the mould of every entity giving it form, substance and individuality. It is only human pre-conditioning that causes us to visualise the multiplicity of forms as separate entities, and hence the world appears to be full of contradictions. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says:
Brahma is responsible for the interconnectedness of things and has become the living and the non-living; the visible and the invisible; the creatures which are two-footed and those that are four-footed. He became the subtle body and then the gross body by means of a subtle instrument known as the subtle body. This very Being became the vital consciousness of all. This is known as the Madhu¬Vidya, the sense of the ‘honey’ of all beings, the knowledge of the
inter-dependence of things and the vital connection of everything, under every condition, at every time, everywhere.
Hinduism devotes much thought to exploring the relationships between the jewels of Indra’s Net, and how they are manifestations and reflections of each other. Hindu thought is distinct from Abrahamic religions, which are premised on the existence of one separate God, one absolute event in history, and one inviolable set of injunctions. Hindus, for better or for worse, tend to be natural de-centralists. This is why it is hard to understand Hinduism, and difficult to organise and mobilise Hindus under an overarching corporate institution. It is also why Hinduism has proved, thus far, difficult to destroy. This idea can be referred as ‘integral unity’. The integral unity of the whole manifests itself in the parts, and they, in turn, aspire to unite with the whole; this principle is reflected in every domain of dharmic knowledge, including philosophy, science, religion, ethics, spirituality, art, music, dance, education, literature, oral narratives, politics, marriage rituals, economics, and social structures. Each domain of dharmic knowledge is itself a jewel in Indra’s Net, and reflects all others. In other words, the same underlying principles are represented in these specialities in different ways.
For example, Hindu dance is not merely an isolated form of cultural expression but a complete and rigorous discipline through which one may learn and experience philosophy. This quality of correspondences across many domains of knowledge is striking. Music and sacred dance have a formal grammar based on Hindu cosmology. The Sanskrit Natya¬shastra, a seminal text on performing arts and aesthetics, treats natya as a total art form; its scope includes: representation, poetry, dance, music, make-up, indeed every aspect of life. The Natya-shastra presents an
integral view encompassing the Vedic rituals, Shaivite dance and music, and the epics. The nine traditional rasas it describes (love, humour, heroism, wonder, anger, sorrow, disgust, and fear) mirror a complete experience of the real world like the jewels of Indra’s Net, and together facilitate a practitioner’s pursuit of the purusharthas (human goals).
Some other examples across various domains are as follows:
l The Vedic ritual altar is a
representation of the entire cosmos.
l The architecture of Hindu temples is based on physical dimensions which correspond to various astronomical metrics.
l The yantra, an important device of sacred geometry, represents the whole universe.
l Any deity can be conceived of in multiple ways: as a personal manifestation of the divine, as a metaphor for certain cosmic qualities and powers, and as an amalgamation of qualities and energies to be invoked and established in a person through ritual, meditation and yoga. Based on individual preferences, a deity can be approached as another entity in the mode of devotion, or as an object of meditation, or as a means for self-
realization within oneself.
l In Ayurvedic diagnosis, a correspondence is posited between specific points on the tongue and all parts of the entire body; thus, an expert in this field examines the tongue as a means of analysing the patient’s overall condition. The tongue is thus a jewel in which the entire physical and psychic body are reflected. The core principle of integral unity is encoded in the symbolism of Indian art, architecture, literature, ritual, mythology, festivals, and customs, all of which are intended to facilitate access to higher knowledge that goes beyond the conventional scope of any specific domain. Integration between disciplines is built-in and no effort is needed to create unity by bringing separate parts together. Even when certain disciplines and
practices were destroyed, other disciplines encoding the same principles survived and helped preserve and
re-ignite the overall tradition.
Dharmic cosmology is governed by bandhu interconnections among the astronomical, terrestrial, physiological, and spiritual realms; and each of these realms is itself connected, in the broadest sense, with the arts, healing systems, and culture. As discussed previously, bandhu describes a correspondence between the whole universe and the individual consciousness, which can be explored and developed from many alternative starting points. Thus, dharmic traditions have a common current that impels the
individual along a natural quest to discover the reality beneath the appearances and to appreciate relationships among seemingly unrelated phenomena.
Dharmic traditions consider the common experience of reality as merely the transient reflection of a system in flux, interconnected with other realities across the past, present and future. In this flux, which affects all phenomena, repeating patterns may appear as static and independent ‘objects’, but this perception is just an illusory artefact of the limited mind. The individual person, of course, is himself a part of this flux. With the aid of meditation, he is able to witness reality as a detached observer—to see the personal ego, and indeed all fixed objects, as mere reflections of a moment in the flux.
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