ORIGINS OF SECRET MANTRA (DAY 6): FROM MANY GODS TO ONE- BRAHMA, PRIMAL SOURCE OF ALL PHENOMENA. Development of Indian Philosophy, the Brahmanas texts, the Upanishads and profound views of the ‘one source’ nature of reality and appearances (by 17th Karmapa)

Brahman is the end of the journey. Brahman is the supreme goal.
– Katha Upanishad 1.3.11

The wise one perceives one’s own higher Self in all, and all in one’s own higher Self. Therefore, he does not hate or injure anyone. Such a person loves everybody as one loves God.

– Ishavashya Upanishad 1:6


Here is the write-up of the sixth day of the online teachings by HH 17th Karmapa on the Origins of Secret Mantra (see video here). In this teaching, the Karmapa explained the development of Indian religious thought from one of belief in Gods as nature, to one as more human, flawed Gods, to one of moving away from meaningless rituals and exploring questions about the nature of Self, phenomena and ultimate reality.

The Karmapa first considered the reasons for and contents of the Brahmanas texts and why people started to move away from a very ritualistic focus to asking deeper, philosophical questions about the mind and reality, as demonstrated in the ancient Indian texts called the Upanishads.

Karmapa concluded the teaching by exploring three central philosophical ideas in the Upanishads, that were not only profound, vast and similar in some ways to the Buddha Nature/Shentong philosophy of Buddhist thought, but also provided a suitable and good environment and people for Buddha himself to teach his own profound and difficult to understand philosophy.

May we all realise the ultimate source of all phenomena and thoughts!

Written, compiled and edited by Adele Tomlin, 5th September 2021.

The three periods of Indian literature

” I would like to speak about the three sections of the late Vedic period: 

1) the four Vedas 

2) the Brahmanical period, and 

3) the Age of Philosophy, which I spoke about the day before (see image below). 

As I stated before, this is not in chronological order, but in terms of the contents, meaning or composition of the types of Brahmanical literature.

Yesterday, I spoke about the four Vedas and the philosophies in them. First, was the Rig Veda, which was not written down. It was orally transmitted, then gradually written down. After that, then the other three Vedas were written down. This enabled  the Brahmanical civilization to flourish and spread throughout India. They took the view of the Vedas, as if it were the mother of all views, especially the Rigveda.

In the Brahmanical period, the main texts that appeared can be divided into the Brāhmana, the Araṇyaka,- the texts of the Forest Dwellers, then the Upanishads, and the Kavya or great epics.

The Brāhmanas – commentaries on the Vedas and more focus on rituals

“Now I will introduce the Brāhmanas texts. To do this, we need to speak about the content and background of the texts. During this period, there was great interest and desire to perform the offering rituals. In fact, some people had interest in nothing else and only performed rituals. As a result,  the number of ritual priests increased greatly, as did their powers, which naturally grew greater. During that period, those doing rituals wanted to show off their qualities to others and so  they made the rituals more elaborate and complex. The offering rituals then had greater symbolic meaning and they tried hard to make them more meaningful.

Thus, there was a difference in the situation of the Rig Veda and the Brāhmanas. In the period of the Rigveda, faith or belief in the gods was emphasised,whereas in the period of the Brāhmanas the primary emphasis was on the external appearance of the rituals, the elaborate display. For that reason, they were interested only in the rituals and only considered them to be important and the rituals were made to seem more elaborate. By the end, it was as if they had forgotten the inner meaning of the Gods and were only thinking about the rituals. 

They even started to think that all of the motion in the world was due to sacrificial rituals, so that the performance of sacrificial offerings became the very meaning of life. The most important people saw the rituals as the most important aspect of life. As they were so complex, they took notes that were compiled on how to perform these rituals and these were called the Brāhmanas. In Buddhist terminology, the four Vedas are like the words of the Buddha and the Brāhmanas are like the commentaries that explain the meaning. Another way to think about them is the four Vedas are the parent that explain the basis, and the texts that help one perform them are the Brahmanas.”

The changing nature of Gods in the Brāhmanas

“As for the meaning of the Brahmanas, first of all, all the Gods in the Vedic texts were the nature Gods and viewed them as nature. That gradually changed, so during the time of the Brahmanas texts they started to see the Gods in a more abstract way. For example, that there was a Creator God and also a God of Aspirations, and all of these, so there was no actual thing one could point to and say that is a God, it was a more abstract thing, like a projection.

Another change that occurred was that the Gods who had not been so important before, were then made more human-like. In the past, the Gods were seen as much more powerful and superior to humans and having a nature that was different to humans. However, later, the Gods became more like humans, with great flaws in their character; and many new gods appeared.

In the Vedic period, the Gods wanted offerings and bakshish. Like Varuna who oversaw the rules and you are giving him an offering and so on. So they had great flaws like humans. The reason this happened was that the Gods were so high level and powerful, and people didn’t feel close to them. Ordinary people need something related to their daily lives and that gave them practical benefit. People say ‘oh yes the three Jewels are very important’ but when it comes to practical things they think it’s better to make offerings to worldly Gods and spirits. The Three Jewels are just too great and too vast and we cannot recognise what they are. However, when thinking about local spirits and Gods they think they are more important than the three jewels. So many Gods had changed and many new gods appeared. 

One example is the God named Rudra, translated into English it means the wrathful God. Rudra had been a storm god in the Rigveda. He was seen as a destructive and scary God. He became a form of Īśvara or Maheshvara and became an object of faith and devotion and probably appeared during this period. In the later period of the Brahmanas, he became an object of people’s faith, Mahādeva or “Great God”, who was identified in a Brahmanical text as the most important god, also appeared in this era.  

 Another change that happened is that there were stories and legends.   In two Brāhmana texts, there’s a legend of Vishnu exiling a demigod, Tobden, beneath the earth so that he gained control of half the earth. After that, he made effort to gain control over the entire universe. It is said that Vishnu had the greatest power of all, but there’s another legend of Indra beheading Vishnu. Some of these myths were true and some were just imagined and made up. It’s difficult to distinguish between what was true and what was made up. It became very complicated.”

The Myth of Manu, the first human and origin of humans

“However, there are many amazing and inspiring legends in the Brahmanas related to the Gods. How did these Gods arise? What were their roles and functions? There was also a need to explain the things and appearances of the world related to the Gods, so there had to be many stories about these. Some were ancient stories and some newly-composed. I don’t have time to go through them all.

Nonetheless, there are many amazing and inspiring legends. One of the most famous of these myths is the myth about Manu. He is described as the ancestor of all humans, Manu means man.. This myth is similar to the Christian story of Noah’s Ark in the Old Testament.

One day when Manu was washing his hands, a fish swam over and said, “Please take care of me. Give me food and care for me. One day I will be of great help to you.”  So Manu did that and gradually the fish became huge. Suddenly, one day, the fish said to Manu: “There will be a huge flood in the next few years. When this flood happens, you must listen to me and build a boat now ready for that.” Manu made the boat and got ready. After a few years, there the great flood came. Manu immediately got on the boat he had prepared in advance and the fish swam over, and pulled the boat across the Northern Mountains, and reached a tree and stayed there. When the flood waters had subsided, Manu got off the boat and saw that all the living creatures had died, and only he had survived. As he was the only survivor, Manu then felt responsible to recreate the human race but there was no-one  there he could have children with. So he prayed to the Gods and made a lot of effort for a woman to arrive. One day, a woman named Ila appeared out of the ocean, and she says to Manu: ‘If you sacrifice me, you will be able to have offspring, descendants and livestock. So Manu did what she said, and here we all are, descendants of Manu. Therefore, Manu is our ancestor, is very similar to Noah’s Ark in Hebrew.”

Yu the Great (大禹) (c. 2123–2025 BC) was a legendary king in ancient China who was famed for his introduction of flood control. He figures prominently in the Chinese legend of “Great Yu Who Controlled the Waters” (Chinese: 大禹治水; pinyin: Dà Yǔ Zhì Shuǐ).[i]

“Likewise, there is a similar story of a great flood in China. Basically, there are similar myths all over the world.  It was difficult to get from one place to another. They weren’t that near each other, so why did they have such similar myths. As to why this happens, is still unclear. Perhaps there was a great flood in the world that actually happened and maybe they had to cross an ocean of water and most people perished.

In any case, there is this story of Manu. In the image we can see seven Rishis in a boat when actually there was only Manu in the story. Later, the myth changed and the seven sages were added into the story as the Brahmins thought they were important and perhaps wanted them in the story.”

Philosophies that developed from the Brāhmanas

17th Century edition of a Brāhmanas text

“There are several philosophies that arose from the Brāhmanas. However, they are not really philosophies based on the wish to investigate the nature of reality. They were primarily based on sacrificial offerings and their important, symbolic meanings. To show they had important meaning, they developed these philosophies.  They are not really philosophies though.

As it says in the Rig Veda, ‘all phenomena are one in essence’ . In order to make the symbolic meaning more impressive there is a little in them about the ultimate nature but later there was a great philosophical presentation and explanation of the views. 

There are many kinds of thought and styles in the Brāhmanas, some explained at a high philosophical level, some are more ordinary. Even if not a profound meaning, there are a lot of impressive words. There are many topics, words, citations, and logic that can give us all a headache. Yet, basically,  their manner of thinking and style of logic are all basically the same.

Thus, later, the German scholar Deussen (whom I mentioned before) appraised it as: “There were many but only a few.” The philosophies they developed were many but they have only a few points to make that are significant and that stand out. Hence, his statement about that, which is a pointed summary of the Brāhmanas texts.”

Paul Deussen, German Scholar on the Vedas

The concept of ‘samsara’

“Even before the Upanishads, there was an important point people had begun to think about. In Buddhism, we call samsara, korwa or cyclic existence, and we speak about samsara and nirvana. These are some of the most important terms and at that time, the term was exactly the same.  When the term samsara first appeared in the Vedic period, it probably was not as profound as in our Buddhist texts.  It means you are repeating and going round in cycles.

During the time of the Rigveda, people did not think much about future lives and if they did, they thought they would be reborn with their ancestors in the land of the gods, living eternally, and enjoying great happiness. They did not think there was a repeating, never-ending cycle of taking many different types of rebirth. Later, when the discussion  of samsara began, the idea of an endless cycle of birth and death developed. In brief, this repeated cycle of birth and death appeared in the Upanishads. Before that time, people did not have this idea of samsara at all. After that, it had a great influence on all philosophies and religions and its meaning was investigated. What was meant by this never ending cycle of birth and death. It is something that we absolutely must take interest in and understand. 

When did this really profound view of samsara appear? Scholars cannot give a single answer. During the time of the Vedas, people were mainly interested in supplicating the Gods and not that interested in the meaning of human life and where they would go after death. So the idea of samsara had not yet appeared then. Even if there were an idea of thought about it, it would have just been like a mere ‘seed ‘ of an idea about it. 

Later at the time of the Upanishads, the idea of samsara was already fully developed and widespread. So we can’t say it appeared at the time of the Upanishads. Then when did it appear? Probably it developed initially during the time of the Brahmanas. It could not have been so fully developed if it appeared at the time of the Upanishads. 

In summary, the foundation of the idea of samsara comes from the Brahmanas and later, during the time of the Upanishads, the entire framework of samsara had developed. I will speak about this in more detail later.” 

The Āraṇyakas – ‘forest-dweller texts’

Gendun Chophel and Rahul Sankrityayan in 1938

“Now I will speak about the texts called the Āraṇyakas, which are another branch of Vedic literature. In Tibetan, Gedun Chophel called them the ‘forest dwellers texts’ in Sanskrit, and it was another important branch of Vedic literature. 

It derives from the texts written by Brahmans or Kshatriyas castes who went into the forests and wrote them there. In forests, one cannot do elaborate offerings and rituals, so they had a lot of time to contemplate philosophy. This was a tradition that continued. Going into forests and thinking about philosophy. That is why these ‘forest dweller texts’ appeared. 

The Brahmanas were mainly describing how to perform rituals at home. The Āraṇyakas texts describe how to do rituals in isolated places. In brief, the Āraṇyakas are the latest or the newest collection of Brahmanic literature. However, there are very few of them, so they make up only a small percentage of Vedic literature and do not bring up anything particular in philosophical terms. So I will not discuss them much here.

The Upanishads  – moving away from meaningless external rituals

Image from 17th Karmapa’s teaching detailing the main points on the Upanishads

“First, how did the Upanishads first develop? As I said before, the people of that era had given the responsibility for rituals  to the priests and they became very powerful. So they would only speak about their own views and explanations. People had to listen to them. Thus, it lost its life force, as if rotting from within. 

Previously, during the time of the Vedas, people had faith in the Gods and gave some importance to the inner mind. But here the external ritual had become more important. For that reason, some wise people in the Kshatriya caste looked at the Brahmans doing elaborate and meaningless rituals, and were so busy doing that.  They began to wonder whether these were actually beneficial or not? They became suspicious. They continued doing rituals but had many suspicions and doubts.  These wise men began to wonder what is the meaning of life and the nature of the world. What is the essence of life? How did the world appear? Who am I? How did I appear? What will happen to me in the future? This is the beginning of a philosophical view.

Then slowly it began to develop, and even the proud and important priests began to think in this new way and thought maybe we have got this wrong and it is backwards. They brainstormed it and had different ways of thinking. Some of them went to the Kshatriyas to study philosophy. The seeds of a new visible philosophy started sprouting up from the earth.  In order to have philosophy, we first have to have doubts and suspicions. These are the seeds of philosophy. The primary cause and condition so that we ask, who am I? We say ‘me’ but we have to look for who is the real me. If that question does not arise, one won’t search for the true self. Only when doubts come then one has the intention to discover the truth. As the Brahmans were only doing rituals these doubts about the benefit of that arose, and only then philosophy started to develop. The people who performed philosophy at that time did not really know philosophy or able to grasp it. Brahmans did not even really know the meaning of the philosophy of the Vedas. So who began to understand that? It was the Kshatriya class and they spread the philosophy. 

Vyasa, the sage who, according to tradition, composed the Upanishads.

“In brief, while the foundations of the idea of samsara are from the period of the Brahmanas, it was during the time of the Upanishads that the framework of philosophy appeared, like a fresh shoot pushing through the earth and arising in the later Vedic Period.

The people who understood the actual meaning of the Vedas were Kshatriyas, not the Brahmins, and it was this royal caste who spread the Upanishads, like the King Vidya Janaka who influenced its spread. Under his influence, the philosophy spread widely. He summoned all those who were able to debate and discuss philosophy and then he was able to influence the development of philosophy. 

Later, when we speak about the Age of Philosophy, we need to speak about Samkya and Buddhism and Jainism and so on. All the people who founded these were  all Kshatriyas. The Brahmans guided people in rituals but did not understand the philosophy in the Vedas. 

When did they develop and in what period? Probably from 1000 BC until 1000 AD. So they appeared over thousands of years. Later, there were many different texts said to be Upanishads, over 200 volumes of these texts. There is nothing notable about them in developing philosophy. Some appeared much later, after the invasions of India and so on. They are not actually all Upanishad texts. If we speak about a chronology there would not be much to say.  Here we speak primarily about the early Upanishads and what are accepted as the 13 or 7 ancient Upanishads.

In terms of content and composition, the Upanishads are like the heart of ancient Indian philosophy. If you need to understand Indian philosophy you need to know the Upanishads.  The philosophies taught in the Upanishads are taught in fragments, it’s not a single autonomous text and it is not clear what are the main and secondary aspects.  Different scholars wrote their opinions and compiled them into one. 

The meaning of the word Upanishad

“Now I will give an introduction to the meaning of the word, Upanishad उपनिषद् Upaniṣad). There are three parts to the word: upa + ni + ṣhad. The meaning is ‘sitting close’ or ‘before something’. European scholars say that the syllable ṣhad (sitting) comes from the proto-Indo Europen word for sit, and although some Indian scholars do not agree, linguistically the European scholars’ view is the best.  We can see that the word also appears in pariṣad and samsad, which means sitting close by.   It means the teacher and the student sit face to face and near to each other. the reason for that is to be able to give spiritual instructions or pith instructions without anyone else learning the profound meaning of the philosophical texts. Hence it is called ;sitting close by’

The Upaniṣhads were taught secretly in private. For example, it was said that if both teacher and student did not live in the same place, the teacher would not give them instructions. Also, you had to keep the vows purely. Even if you were a superior student, you had to be peaceful and subdued, otherwise you would not get the instructions.  Among the names for the Upanishads, the words ‘rahasya’ (secret), ‘guhya adesaḥ’ (secret pith instructions) and ‘paramam guhya’ (supreme secret) are used frequently and all related to secrecy and being hidden. They had to give it secretly because it was only for superior students and not for ordinary people.

The Philosophy of the Upanishads

“The main topic of the Upanishads is philosophy: speaking about the ultimate nature as discovered by people of that time. It is easier to divide into two topics: 

1. Universal spiritual law, the philosophy of the nature or essence of the world, and 

2. the philosophy of the final result.

The philosophy of the nature of the world/Universal Law

“This is like the essence/basis of the content of all the Upanishads. All the Upanishads have a particular philosophy: that all phenomena have a relation to Brahma. When we talk about Brahma, it is not a God or an individual, but the ultimate nature, and all that arises radiates out from and dissolves into Brahma. Since everything arises out of that nature, or the Dharmata, then there is a relationship between them. They are saying all phenomena are Brahma, or arise from that basic nature.

Everything  we see, hear, smell, touch, taste- all sensual phenomena arise from and dissolve into Brahma. How does it arise? When they were thinking about that, they thought it has to come from a single source and that is what was called Brahma. From being an important god, Brahma later went from being an individual to becoming the nature of everything.  All the whole world will arise and dissolve back into it. This is actually a very high level of thinking. Nowadays, for example, people think about the Big Bang theory as the beginning of the universe but the view in the Upanishads is deeper and more profound than that.  It accounts for the time even before matter appeared. Brahma is not material or matter but goes beyond that and is cognition or awareness. His form is like light. 

The meaning of saying everything is Brahma or arises from Brahma is that the world we see arises from the expanse of Brahma and in the end will dissolve back into Brahma.

All should understand that the essence of Brahma is cognition or awareness, and his form is light. The nature of Brahma is empty. Emptiness pervades the world, is unobstructive, and can pervade all phenomena. Thus it is beyond all conception. This is beyond out conception. First we have to think, who is the Self? Who is me? What am I? in the end, you will discover your nature s Brahma. What is Brahma?  Brahma is my inner self, smaller than a grain of rice; or he is greater than the earth, vaster than the sky. He is vaster and greater than this universe. My inner self is Brahma”. I am about to become a Hindu if I’m not careful! (laughs). 

1. The view of how things are
Takakusu Junjirō (高楠 順次郎, 1866 – 1945)

“In the 18th Century in Japan, the study of Sanskrit and Indology began at Tokyo University.  A Japanese scholar, Takakusu Junjirō classified this philosophy into two aspects: how things are, and how they appear. What is the nature of how things are? They searched for the source and basis of it all. When they investigated it, they went outside and there was owhere to look for them. So ,the search for the nature of all things must begin with the ātman. One has to looking inwards, not outwards. If we think about what is this pillar and jug? There is no end to looking outside at things. The essence of the Upanishads is rather ‘Who am I’? What am I like? This is the heart of the essence of the Upanishads.

The philosophy is very complicated like Buddhism. However, the fundamental point is investigating the nature of the Self . If we can really look for that nature of the self, then when we discover that, we can look at the nature of all phenomena. The foundation of that search is the understanding of the self or ātman. 

Buddhists call it ‘the view of the self’ and leave it at that. That is not alright. We need to know, how do they look at the self? What is the self they find? What do they say about that? If we just say that the non-Buddhists believe in a self and leave it at that does not work. “

2. The view of how things appear

“When we talk about this view, the things we see with out senses, eyes, smell, touch an so on. How did they arise? Why are there appearances of the world? Why do we experience suffering and happiness? How did all these various appearances happen? Thinking about these questions is called the view of how things appear. There are three explanations in the Upanishads about this:

1. The all-pervasive primal mind. 

This is the idea that all comes from Brahma, not the God but a universal or primal, cosmic mind, that pervades everything and all phenomena arise from it. So if there is an all-pervasive mind, then within the expanse of that phenomena arise. This is explanation is similar to explanations in the Avatamsaka Sutra and Mind Only in the Buddhist texts, that all phenomena are the nature of the mind. The Mind is the basic, primal, luminous nature that is called Brahma. The essence of it is the clear, luminous awareness by nature that pervades all phenomena. Before the Big Bang, even the smallest particles cnanot exist and become awareness. So there is something to understand here.

2. The all-pervasive god. 

What is meant here is that Brahma is divided into two conceptual aspects, one is the actual nature and the other is the external appearance. When talking about the actual nature and appearance, it is like water and waves, they are the same but conceptually different. So all appearances arise from the nature. In the Upanishads it says ‘All is Brahma.’ This is similar to the Buddha Nature (or Shentong) school but I won’t explain this in detail now. 

3. All phenomena are emanations of Brahma, or arise from him

 This is the idea that Brahma is the creator or controller of everything. However, each phenomenon has its own characteristic mode of existence, or situation. First, it is saying that Brahma made all phenomena, or arose from it, and then a difference appeared between Brahma and phenomenal characteristics. This is like the assertion that subjects and objects or the perceiver and perceived are separate in nature. 

Similarly, the Upanishad called the Svetasvatara asserts that because of ignorance (avidya) of Brahma from beginningless time, Brahma divided into awareness and unawareness, ignorance. Due to that  ignorance the appearances of this world arose from it. So considering this, we can say that Brahma has both awareness and unawareness and when he is moved by the ignorance all the appearances of the varied universe occur. This is similar to explanations of the teachings on Buddha Nature, or Shentong view, where it says that things are covered with  adventitious stains. The Dharmata itself, is free of stains but is covered by temporary stains. So in its nature it is stainless but its appearance has stains.  So when one says all arises from one cause or origin, that becomes difficult to say what is that cause. Many doubts and suspicions come from that. So they describe it as the difference between ignorance and knowledge.

Conclusion – Setting the high foundation for Buddha to teach

Painting of the Buddha’s first discourse, turning the Dharmacakra; Circa 700-1100 CE; Sanskrit Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra manuscript written in the Ranjana script; Nalanda, Bihar, India.

“As I have been explaining, even during ancient times in India, there was a great increase in the intelligence of the people. They were able to arrive at an extremely high level of philosophy, and ended up very similar level to the later Buddhist philosophies. 

It was due to that high level of thinking that the Buddhist teachings were able to flourish. The Buddha was incredibly intelligent and he was born in India [NB some say Lumbini was Nepal]. He wanted to introduce all these experiences he had attained within his own mind. If the people had not come to such a high level of thinking, then he would not  have been able to teach his view and philosophy. It would have been difficult for Buddha to even begin teaching. If they had stayed on a simple, polytheistic way of thinking and taught something like interdependence then he might have been in danger physically. They could have beaten him up with sticks. Yet, as he was born in an environment of so many intelligent and learned people and a firm ground of philosophy that had been established, people could understand his teachings. This was due to the profound and vast philosophies that had already developed in India.

When Buddha first appeared there were no Buddhist teachings then. Nowadays there are a vast number of Buddhist teachings. There were no Buddhist followers and started from zero and he had to speak. That is not easy. However, the Buddha was greater and more superior to anyone else in terms of intelligence, conduct and any respect. Even people who had such a high level of thinking recognised him as a great master. They accepted him as a great being. So we can know he really was a great being because of that. To be able to move so many different types of people. There were all these different castes, and all different education and economic levels, yet he was able to move and inspire faith in all of them. This shows he was a unique person and  what he said is the way things actually are. That is why people started to like and support him. We need to understand that.

Similarly, when we think about the non-Buddhists, some think they did not have real knowledge and so on. Yet, in fact, the Rishis, the sages, and the Sankyas and so on, were all extremely learned people.  From a Buddhist perspective, maybe they were bodhisattvas, we cannot know who there were.  Their philosophies are all extremely profound. The Samkya came before the Buddha. These earlier ancient Indian philosophers were not extremists. It would be a great mistake on our part to think that and that they have no value. We have to study and appreciate their philosophy. It prevents us from learning and other opportunities if we do not understand more about them.  Only then can we appreciate how Buddhism developed, that it arrived on a vast and very great foundation. It was based on thousands of years of advanced philosophy. It is not like something just made up today. There is no choice but to investigate the non-Buddhist texts.  I will speak more about that later. Tomorrow I will speak about the Buddha’s teachings and how they spread. Many of you might be thinking how are you going to get to Secret Mantra in that time, considering how long I spent on the Vedas. From my own perspective I could say there is no hurry to say everything. I could teach for one month or two months. The main topic is Secret Mantra in Buddhism, so first I have to speak about this before I can speak about the appearance of Secret Mantra in Buddhism.”

Further Reading


[i] “During the reign of Emperor Yao, the Chinese heartland was frequently plagued by floods that prevented further economic and social development. Yu’s father, Gun, was tasked with devising a system to control the flooding. He spent more than nine years building a series of dikes and dams along the riverbanks, but all of this was ineffective, despite (or because of) the great number and size of these dikes and the use of a special self-expanding soil. As an adult, Yu continued his father’s work and made a careful study of the river systems in an attempt to learn why his father’s great efforts had failed.

Collaborating with Hou Ji, a semi-mythical agricultural master, Yu successfully devised a system of flood controls that were crucial in establishing the prosperity of the Chinese heartland. Instead of directly damming the rivers’ flow, Yu made a system of irrigation canals which relieved floodwater into fields, as well as spending great effort dredging the riverbeds. Yu is said to have eaten and slept with the common workers and spent most of his time personally assisting the work of dredging the silty beds of the rivers for the thirteen years the projects took to complete. The dredging and irrigation were successful, and allowed ancient Chinese culture to flourish along the Yellow River, Wei River, and other waterways of the Chinese heartland. The project earned Yu renown throughout Chinese history, and is referred to in Chinese history as “Great Yu Controls the Waters” (大禹治水; Dà Yǔ Zhì Shuǐ). In particular, Mount Longmen along the Yellow River had a very narrow channel which blocked water from flowing freely east toward the ocean. Yu is said to have brought a large number of workers to open up this channel, which has been known ever since as “Yu’s Gateway” (Chinese: 禹門口).

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