ORIGINS OF SECRET MANTRA (DAY 7): IDEAS ON SAMSARA, KARMA, ADVANCED PHILOSOPHY AND INDIAN CASTE: the Upanishads on liberation, two epic Indian poems, Buddha’s clan as ‘friend of the Sun’, rise of the Brahmins and status of women (by 17th Karmapa)

“Brahman has but two forms—gross and subtle, mortal and immortal, limited and unlimited, defined and undefined.” (dve vāva brahmaṇo rūpe—mūrtaṃ caivāmūrtaṃ ca, martyaṃ cāmṛtaṃ ca, sthitaṃ ca yacca, sacca, tyacca||)

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3.1

“Then, higher than this heaven, above the world, higher than everything, in the highest world, higher than which nothing exists—the light that shines there is the same light that is in a human being.” (atha yadataḥ paro divo jyotirdīpyate viśvataḥ pṛṣṭheṣu sarvataḥ pṛṣṭheṣvanuttameṣūttameṣu lokeṣvidaṃ vāva tadyadidamasminnantaḥ puruṣe jyotiḥ ||)

—Chandogya Upanishad 3.13.7.

“All the people who are born in this world are given, through their past actions, the work that is appropriate for them. This is the work set for me. Thus, I have wandered through the realm, expending my human life on learning.”

—Gendun Chophel, The Golden Surface, the Story of a Cosmopolitan’s Pilgrimage


Here is the write-up of Day Seven of the 17th Karmapa’s teaching on the Origins of Mantra (video here).

In the first part of the teaching, the Karmapa gave more instructions on the central philosophical ideas of the Upanishads, in particular the view of karma, samsara and the wish to be liberated from samsara due to revulsion of it. He then went on to describe the ultimate aim of practice in the Upanishads was to go beyond suffering and samsara, and to remain in the ultimate nature of meditative equipoise, within Atman/Brahma.

In the second half of the teaching, the Karmapa gave an overview of the other  texts of ancient India, the two great epic poems of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana and Tibetan editions of the text, one found in the Dunhuang Caves, another by a student of Je Tsongkhapa and another by 20th Century Tibetan master, Gedun Chophel.

The teaching ended with an explanation of the Indian Solar and Lunar clans discussed in these texts and others, and how the Buddha Shakyamuni himself descended from the Sun clan lineage, as well as the Shakya familial lineage. This was how he came to be called ‘friend of the Sun’.

May we all realise the ultimate nature and liberation from samsara!

Written compiled and edited by Adele Tomlin, 6th September 2021.

Philosophy of the Upanishads

The Ultimate Aim of Practice –  Liberation from Samsara

“Today we are talking about the Upanishads (Tib. gnyer gnas), in Buddhism we say these are non-Buddhist texts, or extremist texts. These Upanishads I spoke about one part of the philosophy in the Upanishads. Today, I will speak about the rest of those sections today.

“Yesterday, I spoke  about 1) above, the view of the nature of the world (jigten nelug gi tawa) see image above, and then also the ultimate cause of karma, cause and effect. 

Now, I will discuss the second point, what the ultimate point of practice is (tharthug gi drubja tawa).

The Upanishads state that to achieve the ultimate accomplishment of the practice, which is to be happy and well, we need to see two different aims. The first is:

1) to remain here in samsara and to continue to remain in the way things appear in samsara; or

2) to dissolve into the essence, the Dharmata, to enter ultimate nature.

The first is called samsara, the second is called liberation. So, there are two goals, samsara or liberation. In the Upanishads, when they distinguish between samsara and liberation it is mainly a distinction between awareness and unawareness (ignorance). Awareness is liberation and unawareness is samsara. The difference is whether we are seeing or knowing the nature of Dharmata, the basic essence. For that reason, we say awareness is the period when you have realised the way things actually are. Unawareness is the phase when we are deluded and ignorant and this is called samsara.

As I said before, the word ‘samsara’ spread widely during the time the Brahmanas texts appeared. When the Upanishads appeared, the term and view of samsara had become very stable and later, everyone had great belief in it. So it became a solid view of philosophy. Also, the view of karma also became prevalent. In particular, the presentation of karma also appeared at that same time. When talking about karma, or actions, and the presentation of them in the texts, it is very important and beneficial for the presentation of samsara. Thus karma is a very important aspect and basis for understanding samsara. That is because karma is the basis of samsara, so naturally there is a big connection between karma and samsara. 

At this point in time, samsara is a bit different than what we say in Buddhist texts. The presentation of Buddhism is more expansive and a complete presentation of samsara. The Upanishads had a simpler understanding of it and it is not as complicated or difficult.

The importance of karma in understanding samsara

The Upanishads assert that due to desire and attachment beings are born in samsara. The power of consciousness sets consciousness in motion, moves our motivations, and then we accumulate the actions of body and speech. Thus, it is consciousness that determines our actions. Then, because of accumulating those actions, we have the ripening of karma. Whether it is good or bad depends on those accumulated actions.

This lifetime is the result of actions in previous lifetimes. The karma we accumulate this lifetime is the cause of the result in future lifetimes. There is no gap between past and future lives. We are continually cycling in samsara. That is why it is called samsara, which means to circle round again and again. That is how the term samsara came to be used. That is the first point, that samsara arises due to the power of karma.

The presentation of karma arose at that time and its influence on why we cycle in samsara. How can we understand circling round in samsara if we don’t have a presentation of karma? It would be difficult to explain. However, as there is the presentation of karma we can explain that due to its influence samsara arises.

Samsara is suffering by nature

The second point is to say that, samsara is suffering by nature and we must become liberated from  it. During the time we are in samsara, suffering is never-ending. We say ‘the ocean of suffering of samsara’, it is infinite. We must be liberated from and eliminate it. They thought we should not stay in this ocean of suffering, and so they developed a view of revulsion and disgust for the world. The reason is because samsara is suffering by nature and we need to escape and be liberated from it. That is how the view of revulsion for the world originated.

There are not just a couple, but many different Upanishads. Among them, there is one called the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad ( बृहदारण्यक उपनिषद्).  This one describes the non-Buddhist view of Atman, or Self, as immortal and everything else is by nature arising and perishing. By nature suffering, whereas the Self does not and is immortal. When these Upanishads texts appeared, the view of revulsion for the world spread widely.”

Gargi Vachaknavi, female philosopher and sage of the Upanishads, in a debate with the King Yajnavalkya.

[Author’s Note: Interestingly this Upanishad features a female philosopher in it called Gargi Vachaknavi (born about 9th to 7th century BCE) . In Vedic literature, she is honored as a great natural philosopher,  renowned expounder of the Vedas, and known as Brahmavadini, a person with knowledge of Brahma Vidya. In the Sixth and the Eighth Brahmana of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, her name is prominent as she participates in the brahmayajna, a philosophic debate organized by King Janaka of Videha and she challenges the sage Yajnavalkya with perplexing questions on the issue of atman (soul). She is also said to have written many hymns in the Rigveda. She remained a celibate all her life and was held in veneration by the conventional Hindus. See more on women’s status during the Vedic period below.]

“There was another Upanishad called the  Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad (मैत्रायणीय उपनिषद्) . At that time, it says that this world and our body are completely suffering by nature. It is a similar explanation to our Buddhist idea that the external world and sentient beings are nothing but suffering. In any case, there is an inextricable link between the view of samsara and the view of revulsion. The view of samsara is what leads to revulsion because samsara is suffering by nature. If we need to liberate ourselves from it, we need to know it is not true and something we need to abandon and feel disgusted with it. 

If someone wished to cross beyond the ocean of suffering, there is one method to do that, which is to rest in the meditative equipoise of the ultimate nature, in the ultimate happiness. Other than that, there is no other method to choose.

The ultimate aim of the Upanishads is to achieve liberation. That is clearly described. They knew they had to achieve it, but how to achieve it? They had many debates and discussions about the methods to do that. When the question of liberation first appeared, people thought, there is not much point to achieve it. It was kind of a lazy view, they understood that liberation was like being released from bonds or shackles and being happy and enjoying whatever you wanted. There didn’t see much point to that. However, when looking at liberation from a different perspective, there was a more profound understanding of it in which liberation means now we are enveloped in the darkness of delusion. Our entire head is swaddled by afflictions and cannot understand anything at all. Liberation means eliminating that darkness of ignorance and afflictions that covers our heads. Freeing ourselves from the cage of confused appearances to rest in equipoise in Atman, the true nature. To be able to remain with one taste in the ultimate nature.

In the Upanishads, the ultimate aim of liberation is not going to another place you have never been before, instead it is discovering the nature within oneself. Finding the method to rest within one’s own nature. To achieve that liberation, we don’t need to create some special and amazing practice, instead what we have to do is realise our nature, the Atma. We need to recognise our nature, the way our Self, the Brahma is, and how it is inseparable from our own nature. That is enough to achieve liberation in itself. 

One thing we need to know is awareness (vidya) in Tibetan as rigpa, which is a synonym for intelligence. Here, it means awareness that transcends conceptions or words.  It is inconceivable and is called Atma Vidya, the awareness of the Self or Brahma Vidya, awareness of Brahma. The awareness that recognises things as they are. That is the sort of awareness intended. Not what we often think about learning or knowing ordinary, worldly things. 

Now another thing is they performed a lot of offerings and sacrifices. They also had good worldly behaviour and not killing and stealing. These mere virtues are unable to free us from samsara though, they said. 

Nor can they achieve liberation. So what they say is that we absolutely must rest in meditation within the ultimate nature.  By doing that, we can achieve liberation. Whereas merely practicing virtue of body, speech and mind will not bring liberation.”

Virtuous Conduct and Path in the Upanishads

” In the Upanishads it says, ‘I bow to Brahma and Brahma Vidya’ and so on. They are not speaking about bowing in an ordinary, worldly way.  Instead it means we must overcome the appearances of subject and object and perceptor and perceived.  That is how they described it. However, if we wish to reach this level of the view to overcome that dualistic perception, we have to train both our body and mind.

Thus, the Upanishads teach that we must not disregard the conduct of a worldly person practicing virtue either. Since these are important virtues, we should not disregard them. For example. there are virtues cited such as tapas, Ascetic practices and dāna, which means generosity,  arjava, being straightforward and sincere, ahimsa – non-violence, and satyavacana speaking truthfully and so on. The five yogas of conduct are also said to be very important for achieving liberation.

Later, the Upanishads added the practice of Nyasa, which is a type of meditation where one is blessing parts of one’s body. This is an important method for gaining liberation. If you have this method it will help eliminate attachment, and if one is not attached to anything then, the obscuring afflictions will naturally be pacified.

There is also Dhyana, which means meditative concentration and also Yoga.  These benefit each other and we need to practice all of them. In particular, Dhyana and Yoga were combined together and they were called Dhyana Yoga. Yoga here means the Hatha Yoga and Dhyana means meditation. When combining the two, one is bringing together the power of body, speech and mind in order to distance oneself from distractions and to be able to settle in meditation within. 

This idea of virtuous practice is probably around the middle of the period of the Upanishads. There began this great interest in Dhyana. Basically, you have to practice all of them and to do that one would have to go to unpopulated forests, river banks or caves. When practicing , one would have to sit up straight and control the breath and meditate on the syllable Om, the symbol of Brahma. Then all the appearances would become indistinct and dissolve and if you can rest within that, one would get closer and closer to Brahma or the Self. As you go through these stages of the practice, then gradually the afflictions and stains would become subtler and subtler and the Vidya awareness would be revealed and open. All the actions and karma accumulated in previous lives would gradually be purified and also all the results that would ripen in future lives would be extinguished. In the end, ignorance would be totally eradicated and one would attain liberation, they said.

That is about practice during the time of the Upanishads. There are quite a few Upanishads. Among the ancient ones there are a dozen or so. They are texts that examine the philosophy of the Vedas. Since they are all philosophical texts, they are all record the assertions of the various wise people of that time. Since they have conflicting and contradictory ideas within them.  By the end of the period, that is why there were many different schools spreading due to these differing views in the Upanishads.

Later, during the Age of Philosophy, the reason for so many schools was in order to resolve the contradictions and disagreements within the Upanishads. I think that is acceptable to say that.”

Comparing the Brahamanas and the Upanishads

” If we compare the Brahmanas and the Upanishads and the periods and places where they appeared, they mainly arose in the areas of Punjab in the North-west of India, when the Aryans arrived in Punjab. I mentioned this the other day. The place of the Rig Veda was probably Punjab. The place of the Atharvaveda probably originated around Varanasi. So the Upanishads are from the south and north of India. Then the two great epics of Mahābhārata from Central India and the Rāmayana probably also from there.

Now within these texts, the biggest distinction is the way they think of the Gods, the different ideas about them. Simply speaking, in the Vedas, the Gods are viewed as being something external, outside oneself and they had physical forms and made offering to them. In terms of the internal or actual God, they never really examined what it was. When the Brahmanas appeared, the actual God was something else and that is what we make the offerings too. During the time of the Upanishads, the actual Gods were not the external Gods, so they disregarded the external Gods and only focused on the internal God, the Brahma, and the nature of how things are. 

However, if you say they are completely different, that would not be right. So the Brahmanas is about explaining the Vedas, and the Upanishads investigate the philosophy taught in the Brahmanas with logic. Between these three different types of literature, if we think about when they appeared chronologically it is difficult. Sometimes at the end of an Upanishads there is a quotation from a Brahmanas and vice versa.  What appeared in an earlier age doesn’t necessarily mean it was earlier than something that appeared later. The times when the Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads appeared, were not always sequential in time. They were all around the same time, so it is impossible to say which was earlier and later.  Generally, we do say that the Brahmanas is earlier and the Upanishads are later but we cannot actually say they were always sequential. We talk about them as periods because mainly there was one that had the type of literature with the primary importance at that time. So each period describes the main and most important literature at that time. Otherwise it is difficult to explain them based on timing.”


Image of Lord Sri Krishna

“Now, I will speak about the two great Indian Epic poems. During the late Vedic period, there were not only Brahmanas and Upanishads, there were also the two great poetic epics, this is described in Dandi’s Mirror on Poetry. There are many different texts with different chapters and called the great epics in our texts on poetry.”

[Author’s Note: Here the 17th Karmapa is referring to Tibetan scholar Shongten Dorjee Gyaltsen, who translated the whole poetic works of Acharya Dandi, foremost among the Indian poets of the 7th century, into Tibetan, Mirror of Poetry (Nyen-ngag Melong-ma). Pang Lotsawa Lodoe Tenpa, a contemporary of Shongten, edited and added his own commentaries to the works of Shongten, and began formally teaching them. Thenceforth, the Mirror of Poetry, which was purely of Indic origin, gradually became not only the tradition of Tibetan poetry, but also the root text for the future poets.]

“These two great epics are the two most influential works in Indian history. To speak about them in literary terms, they were like the most important jewels of world’s literature and research. They are important and indispensable texts. They are the Mahābhārata and the Ramayana. Many people think of Mahābhārata and the Ramayana and know a little but about them, because in India and Nepal they are very well-known, so am not going to say much about their content.”

The Mahābhārata – the third longest epic poem

“The entire Mahābhārata[i] is 74 000 stanzas long, and  there are 100 million and 8 thousand words. This epic is the third longest in world literature. If that is the third longest, then what is the first and second longest you might wonder? 

Number one in length is our Tibetan epics of Ling Gesar, none are longer than that. It is the longest epic poem in the world. I don’t need to say too much about that.”

The longest epic poem in the world is Gesar Ling epic from Tibet. Image of Gesar Ling and his warriors.

“The second longest is the Epic of Manas from Kazakhstan. The third is the Mahābhārata in terms of length. How long is it? If one person were to recite from beginning to end without breaks it would take two weeks to do it. It’s a really long text.

At the time when the epic were recorded it is probably around 3rd Century BC to 5th Century AD. Probably over 800 years to write it down. since it took 800 years, we can understand that it was not only one author, that it must have had multiple authors.”

Ancient Indian sage, Vyasa

“Now when the Mahābhārata first appeared it was preserved in an oral tradition and recorded in writing later. What is said in India, is the author was a sage called Vyasa, who recited it orally (see image above) and it was written down by Ganesha, the god with the elephant head.  The Indian god was the scribe of the text and dictated to him by Vyasa. It is so long that when he was writing it down he was writing it with some magical power. The pen had no other power to continue writing it. So Ganesha has tusks and pulled it out and used it as a pen to write it down. That is why among all the Gods of India, Ganesha has no right tusk. He just pulled it out and used it as a pen!

One important thing about the Mahābhārata, is that the Bhagavad Gita (which is like the Christian Bible) (श्रीमद्भगवद्गीता, lit. ’The Song by God’, bhagavadgītā)  is part of the Mahābhārata.

The Bhagavad Gita became one of the fundamental texts of Hinduism. Jetsun Taranatha translated some passages of it into Tibetan. I don’t know if these have been preserved or not. In the 20th Century, Gedun Chophel translated some of it into Tibetan as the Pel Legden Nagpo’i LuSong of the Great Black Bhagavan  (dpal legs ldan nag po’i glu/.) [ii] However, the entire Bhagavad Gita has not been translated, as due to its length it would take a long time to translate it into Tibetan.”

Gendun Chophel in India
First page of Gedun Chophel’s Pel Legden Nagpo’i Lu- Song of the Great Black Bhagavan  (dpal legs ldan nag po’i glu/.)

“There are a few works related to it. One of the most well-known among them, during the time of the 9th Panchen there was someone called Dzasak Lhamon Yeshe Tsultrim. who was a great scholar and poet. He wrote somethingcalled the Story of Pandu’s Five Sons[iii]. This is very well-known text and the story was extracted from the Mahābhārata. It is probably the most well-known literary work in Tibetan related to Mahābhārata.”

Yudhiṣṭhira going to the divine realms.

Another thing that is said in the Mahābhārata is that after the five sons had won the war, the eldest son, Yudhiṣṭhira [iv] ruled the Kingdom, but as they had fought between relatives, he felt depressed and revulsion because of it and gave up his Kingdom and went to the Himalayas. Then, he went to the divine realms they said. Where are the divine realms, we call them the snow mountains, probably Mount Kailash in Tibet. This is where the Gods lived, some scholars say. 

Likewise, some scholars say that the first King of Tibet, Nyatri Tsenpo (gnya’ khri btsan po, lit. '”Neck-Enthroned King”‘)[v], was this character. We cannot say it definitively was him though.”

Tibetan King, Nyatri Tsenpo, said to be Yudhiṣṭhira from the epic poem, Mahābhārata
The Rāmāyana [vi]

The Rāmāyana epic is 24 000 stanzas long, a quarter of the length of the Mahābhārata. Its author is said to be Maharishis Vālmīki (वाल्मीकि][vii].


The time of composition was around 300 BC to 200 AD. There is also a famous Chinese text called Tales of Travels to the West (in Tibetan we say Te’u Phagpa, The Noble Monkey). In that, the monkey Sunu Kung, in Tibetan means the ‘monkey who has realised emptiness’. His origin is from Hanuman. 

If we compare the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana with each other, we can say (see image):

  • the Mahābhārata tells the story of a violent war that occurred in the 13th Century BC, 
  • the area this happened is mainly around areas of Delhi.
  • It mainly speaks about the Moon clan.     

In terms of the Rāmāyana it:

  • is about events around 11th Century BC
  • speaks about the Sun clan from the land of Ayoda”
Tibetan versions of the Rāmāyana
Manuscripts in the Dunhuang Library Cave, 1908

“In particular, they discovered a very old Tibetan translation of the Rāmāyana in the Dunhuang caves and it was translated around the 9th Century.”

[For more on this find of the Tibetan Rāmāyana see here. It says that this version was different in parts to the Indian version. See image below of part of the text.]

“In the 15th Century, there was a student of Je Tsongkhapa called Zhangzhung Chowang Drapa (1404 – 1469) who wrote a long poem that related to the Rāmāyana, The Commentary on the Rāmāyana (rA ma Na’i rtogs brjod). This is a verse epic based on the Rāmāyana.”

The Melodic Sound of Women: A Commentary on the Poetic Sayings of the Raja Ramayana by Zhang Zhung Chowang Dragpa, རྒྱལ་པོ་རཱ་མ་ཎའི་གཏམ་རྒྱུད་ལས་བརྩམས་པའི་སྙན་ངག་གི་བསྟན་བཅོས་དྲི་ཟའི་བུ་མོའི་སྒྲ་དབྱངས། ཞང་ཞུང་བ་ཆོས་དབང་གྲགས་པས་བརྩམས།]

“Later, in the 20th Century, Gedun Chophel made a synopsis of the Rāmāyana but it was completed by his student Rakra Chogtrul. There was probably not a complete translation into Tibetan. “

[Author’s note: I was able to locate one text by Gedun Chophel’s student called གསར་བསྒྱུར་རཱ་མ་ཡ་ཎའི་རྟོགས་བརྗོད། མཁས་དབང་དགེ་ཆོས་ཡབ་སྲས་ཀྱིས་བསྒྱུར།.]

Rakra Chogtrul Rinpoche, with Gedun Chophel. Rakra was a student of Gedun Chophel who is said to have done a translation of the Indian epic poem, Ramayana. Photo taken in 1947.

There is a Chinese translation of it from the Tibetan, it is about seven or eight books but I have not received a copy of it. “

The Sun and Moon Clans

“These dynasties of the Sun and Moon clans are descendants of royal lineages. In India, there are texts called Puranas, which were written later and they could be called histories, or oral tradition recordings about the Sun and Moon clans.

In the Mahābhārata, there are two sons,  who had a dispute about who should take over the Kingdom and war broke out. Then there was the line of Kings of Kosala who was of the sun clan. The other day I mentioned the Myth of Manus, who was like his son.

In any case, there was a son Ikshvaku, the Rāmāyana tells the story of his war. When the Bhraatsa and Panchalas fought their war, they came to be the 93rd member of the dynasty of the lineage of the Kings. In the Moon clan there had been 94 members.

Shakyamuni Buddha, ‘friend of the Sun’ – descendant of the Sun clan

“The reason I am talking about the Sun and Moon clans is because in the Buddhist texts, Buddha Shakyamuni is said to be in the royal lineage of the Sun clan. Thus, one name for the Buddha is ‘friend of the sun’. In Chinese, there is a text by Nagarjuna (there is some debate about whether was written by him or not), which is a great commentary on the hundred thousand lines Prajnaparamita Sutra, which calls him Sūryavaṁśa , a synonym for ‘friend of the sun.’  In the Rig Veda, the name of the Sun God is Surya, so the members of the Sūryavaṁśa are descendants of the Sun God. Buddha was born in that line and that is why he is called that in the Buddhist scriptures.

There is a little bit about this in the old Buddhist texts. In Pali, there are the old texts, Sutta Nipāta, which means the Short Sutra and also the Sutra on Going Forth. In these two Sutras they discussed how the Buddha had descended from the lineage of the Sun. After Buddha had ‘gone forth’ and travelled from his homeland of Kapilavastu and on the way from Shravsti he met the King Bimbasara on the way. The Buddha said to him ‘my ancestry is the Sun, and my clan is the Shakya. Oh King I do not have desires and have gone forth from my home.’ So he is telling him his ancestry as the Sun lineage and his familial clan name is the Shakya. This Sun clan lineage comes from the King Ikṣvāku. In Tibetan this means ‘the sugar cane field’. Buddha was born in that royal line.

Most of the Kings of that Sugar Cane lineage were mainly farmers. Their names are all related to the fields and crops they planted around their Kingdoms. Also, the Shakyas were also farmers. The Shakya clan was probably not the Kshatriya class and probably the farmer class. It was a minor Kingdom. The Aryan people didn’t worship goddesses much. Before the Aryans, the indigenous people did worship goddesses and did worship the Sun. Therefore, the Yusaka Yushi, Japanese scholar hypothesises that the Buddha was from the Sun clan and he was born in a society where they worshipped goddesses and in addition to that, later when the Mahayana Secret Mantra had spread, Buddha Shakyamuni was known as Vairocana, which is a synonym for the Sun.

The reason he was called Vairocana, or the Sun, was for that reason. In Secret Mantra, Buddha is called the form or essence of Vairocana. There are historical reasons for this. I have spoken about the clans of the Sun and the royal lineage. “

14th Century Tibetan statue of Buddha Vairocana.
Caste – Varna, skin colour and Aryans and non-Aryan distinction
Buddha meets a Brahmin, stone carving at the Indian Museum, Kolkata.

“The Buddha was in the Sun clan/caste. So, I will give an introduction to caste in ancient India. Some say Buddha was not in the Kshatriya caste but was in the Vaishya caste. Caste is very important in India. It provides a basic framework for society and jobs and work. If we do not understand caste, we cannot understand the situation in India. From another perspective, if we understand caste then we can understand why Buddha’s teachings had so much impact, influence and spread so widely.

Generally, as I said before, in terms of the geography, for over one thousands years, India had no contact with any other country or culture. They didn’t have good ships and people could not travel there by sea or get over the high mountains. Basically, they were isolated from other societies and this is quite rare in world histories. It has both pros and cons, positively the weather is good, the land is fertile and so they could spend many years living there without much danger from external enemies and peacefully. Thus, they were able to develop a great civilisation and had time to think about philosophy. If you don’t have food to eat and the bare essentials necessary to live, then you cannot think about philosophy and relax and so on. It was fertile ground for developing philosophy. In terms of negatives, they developed traditions and had many different complicated things that occurred that they used to limit and suppress the freedoms of people.

To understand the word caste, we need to understand the original word in Sanskrit, varṇa (वर्ण)[viii]. Later, the meaning changed but originally it meant ‘colour’. The reason is because the light-skinned Aryan people met the dark-skinned indigenous people of India. As the colour of their skin was different, they distinguished based on colour of skin. So they would say ‘I am Aryan and you are not’ based on skin tone. 

The Aryans used this word varṇa, the indigenous people didn’t say ‘I am dark-skinned’. Later, the victorious ones, the light-skinned people used it as a name for the dark-skinned people. Simply put, the word caste at the beginning was first used to distinguish the Aryan and non-Aryan people. However, later some 21st Century academics, said it’s not a question of the skin colour. They said it is a colour difference in terms of the world; that Aryans are from the light world, whereas the indigenous people were from the dark world. This is another explanation some scholars give.

The Aryan people came from Central Asia, they did not come as a huge group at the same time, and came over the course of several centuries, when each of the tribes of Aryans came, they were not a single ethnic groups. it’s like when we say all western groups are foreigners. However, within them there are different groups of people like Europeans and so on. Actually, they are no one ethnic groups within that. So Aryans is an overall name, but within them are many different peoples. So altogether they are called Aryans. they are not a single ethnic group. Whose group are they included in? Scholars have a lot to say about this. When we speak about caste in India and an ethnic group, these are very different. It’s important not to misunderstand that. Likewise, the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas were not divided based on their ethnicity, they were divided based on their types of work and occupations and that is how the castes developed. Those that did rituals were Brahmins, those who were the soldiers were the Kshatriya and then the Vaishya. The non-Aryans were called Shudras and they were regarded as inferior for their entire lives. 

Generally, we have spoken about the time the Aryans appeared, the constant conflicts between Aryans and non-Aryan peoples. So, finally, the Aryan people became very strong in India. So the distinction between castes began but they were not yet clearly defined. The rules became clearer at the end of that Vedic period.”

The Caste Distinctions 

These main texts and other Hindu texts classified the society in principle into four varnas:[

Brahmins: vaidya/vedic scholars, priests and teachers.

Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators.

Vaishyas: agriculturalists and merchants.

Shudras: laborers and service providers.

Image of the four main castes in India in Tibet (17th Karmapa teaching on Origins of Secret Mantra)
Brahmin caste

“Who are the Brahmins? These are the priests who did all the rituals. The priests who did them taught their sons that passed down from father to son and thus developed the Brahmin caste. Earlier, the rituals were easy but then got more elaborate during later period. So the Kings became very wealthy and only did elaborate rituals. Not just one or two but continually performing them. Only the priests knew how do it. They gradually became very important and superior than ordinary people. People regarded them as superior and gave them all the responsibility for doing it. In addition, the Brahmins would tell myths and stories, that Brahma came out of the forehead of Brahma and so on, so people really viewed them as sacred and important. They then had all the authority for religion in their hands. They talk all the responsibility and power of religion. They held the ‘phone’ connection between humans and gods. If you didn’t respect them you couldn’t use it. In Tibet, we talk about tulkus like living Buddhas, in India the Brahmins were considered to be living Gods. 

In the? it says there are two types of Gods. The actual Gods and those t whim you give offerings, the human Gods. There was also a text called the ? This says that whether they are educated or not, the Brahmins are great Gods. So you cannot criticise them for being uneducated.

To be a Brahmin had to have many differetn good qualities. You had to have a good voice to recite the texts. Like our own chant masters. Second, you have to have a good appearance and complexion, not someone who looks bent and crooked. You need someone mature enough and not too young. Then, also someone well-educated and stable. Finally, they need to have virtuous conduct. It’s not easy to be a Brahmin, they had to follow a lot of rules and work and repsonsibilities.

The name Brahmin came from Brahma. The four different priests performed rituals, the last group of which are called Brahmins, and that is where the caste came from. Later, people said it means the God Brahma, so they must be the son of Brahma. They then became a very high status and they got more important. So they became like a living God.

Kshatriyas – Royal lineage

In Tibetan, we say Royal caste but in Sanskrit it is Kings. It also includes the ministers. This caste was due to their different responsibilities and occupations. There were not Kings at that time, more the leaders or chiefs of a tribe. It was not like a bug powerful King as they later became when the Aryans moved to Punjab. The areas and population increased greatly. So the leaders had more to do and then became higher rank and status. That was the beginning of that caste. This word Kshatriya, means ‘power’, someone who has the political power. The Kings and soldiers had the power and engaged in military activities.

Vaishya caste

This means the common people, farmers, craftspeople, tradespeople and so on. This comes from the root ‘common’ , meaning ordinary people.

Shudra caste

They are like the servants or slaves to the other three castes. They were also called ‘single-birth’ as they had no right to practice religion unlike the other three castes. They had no religious life. It was considered a bad human life and they were always servants of the other people.

Origins of Caste distinctions

“The distinctions in caste arose from division of labour originally. Later, the origins of caste are descrobed in differetn ways. It became unclear how they actually arose. The origin was covered with legends and myths. If you look at the ancient texts it is not clear.

For example, in one text called the Vayapuruna, one of the oral histories, says at first there was no class distinction but that later the Aryans divided them into Brahmins and so on. We can hypothesise that the distinctions arose later.

Likewise, in the epics, there is the myth about how the castes arose from Brahma’s forehead and shoulder and so on.It does not actually talk about the origins of caste though.

Within the ranks of the classes, there were always conflicts between the Brahmins and the Kshatriya class. Among the seven sages there are two most famous ones who had various conflicts and debates. What this shows is that one reason for their debates was because they were from different castes, one was a Brahmin and one a Kshatriya. Not everyone says that but some explain it that way.

The reason disputes arose was because the Brahmins had put themselves in the most supreme position, yet the Kshatriyas had the most power and so it was a struggle for power.”

Summary of Brahmanic Period

“To summarise, the Brahamanic Period, or the Later Vedic Period, was the time that formed the basis for Brahmanic civilisation. There were cities and royal palaces and elaborate houses and had people generally had good feelings toward their Kings. The agriculture improved and they paid taxes. There were judges and laws and government workers, like the police, which they generally respected. However, the way they dispensed justice was very backwards. To determine whether someone was guilty or not they would bring a piece of burning metal and make it red-hot. The person had to touch it with their hand and if it burnt you, then you were guilty and if you didn’t burn from it, then you were innocent and let go.

Also, in the palaces at that time, they were a hub for education, like schools. People would gather for discussions and there were the royal priests whom had the King had great faith in, and who worked to increase people’s knowledge. Sometimes, Kings would hold big conferences about rituals, consciousness, what is the nature of a God and the world and so on. This was not just in the palaces, the priests also had their own individual schools and even gave teachings in their own households.

Some Brahmins would go into the forest to live in solitude. They had students around them and they would be inspired to teach it to their students who would write it down. Then people from different eras could understand their views. Basically there was much more education in society. The labour distinctions were much more clearly defined too. So society improved greatly. Also, no matter how old they were they could receive and education,

Women also had reasonable rights at that time. They could inherit the property after the father died, and participate in rituals. At conferences and meetings, women had the right to speak. Teachers, political workers also were women, as can be seen in images. Women did not have the same freedoms as they do in contemporary western societies, but they did have a certain degree of independence. It was not an extremely conservative and oppressive society where most things were prohibited.

When the various philosophies appeared there were caste distinctions but as time went on, these distinctions got more confining and stricter and also women’s rights and freedoms got more and more limited.”

[Author’s note: This romantic view of women’s rights and status during the Vedic Period, has been challenged by writers who assert that: “The current insistence on a glorified Indian past where the upper caste woman enjoyed rights is created only through exclusion of lower caste women and demonisation of Muslims.” See here.]


Further Reading

Chakravart, Uma, ‘Beyond The Altekarian Paradigm:Towards a New Understanding of Gender Relations in Early Indian History’, Social Scientist, Vol. 16, No. 8 (Aug., 1988), pp. 44-52.

Chakravrti, Uma,’Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 28, No. 14 (Apr. 3, 1993), pp. 579-585.

Hume, Robert Ernest (1921), The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, Oxford University Press

Robert P. Goldman (1990). The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India. Princeton University Press.

Edward Fitzpatrick Crangle (1994). The Origin and Development of Early Indian Contemplative Practices. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 8, 12. 

Madabhushini Narasimhacharya (2004). Sri Ramanuja. Sahitya Akademi. p. 32.

Menen, Aubrey (1954). “Introduction”, The Ramayana, p.4. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York.

Stephen Phillips (26 June 2009). Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy. Columbia University Press. p. 309.

Kim Knott (2016). Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 12–13.

Roy, K. Power of Gender and Gender of Power: Explorations in Early India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Tsenyi, Tenzin. “Rahul Sankrityayan in the Land of Snow with Gedun Choephel.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 44, no. 2, 2019, pp. 57–73. JSTOR,


[i] The Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (श्रीमद्भगवद्गीता, lit. ’The Song by God’ bhagavadgītā),[1] often referred to as the Gita ( gītā), is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the epic Mahābhārata (chapters 23–40 of Bhishma Parva).”

[ii] dge ‘dun chos ‘phel. “dpal legs ldan nag po’i glu/.” In mkhas dbang dge ‘dun chos ‘phel gyi gsar rnyed gsung rtsom/. TBRC W28844. 1: 310 – 334. zhang kang /: zhang kang gyi ling dpe skrun khang /, 2002. 

[iii] The Pandavas (पाण्डव,  pāṇḍava) refers to the five brothers namely, Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva, who are central to the epic Mahābhārata. The Pandavas waged a civil war against their extended family consisting of their cousins Kauravas led by Duryodhana and his brothers, as well as their preceptor and gurus Bhishma and Drona respectfully. This conflict was known as Kurukshetra War. The Pandavas eventually won the war with the demise of the Kauravas, albeit at great cost as well as breaking contracts. The Pandavas (Sanskrit: पाण्डव, IAST: pāṇḍava) refers to the five brothers namely, Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva, who are central to the epic Mahābhārata. The Pandavas waged a civil war against their extended family consisting of their cousins Kauravas led by Duryodhana and his brothers, as well as their preceptor and gurus Bhishma and Drona respectfully. This conflict was known as Kurukshetra War. The Pandavas eventually won the war with the demise of the Kauravas, albeit at great cost as well as breaking contracts.

[iv] In the Hindu epic, the Mahābhārata, Yudhishtira (युधिष्ठिर, Yudhiṣṭhira) is the first among the five Pandava brothers. He was the son of the king Pandu of Kuru and his first wife, Kunti and was blessed to the couple by the god Dharma, who is often identified with the death god Yama. In the epic, Yudhishthira becomes the emperor of Indraprastha and later of Kuru Kingdom (Hastinapura).”

[v] “He was a legendary progenitor of the Yarlung dynasty. His reign is said to have begun in 127 BC and in traditional Tibetan history, he was the first ruler of the kingdom. The Dunhuang chronicles report that he is said to have descended from heaven onto the sacred mountain Yarlha Shampo. Due to certain physical peculiarities – his hands were webbed, and his eyelids closed from the bottom and not the top – he was hailed as a god by locals, and they took him as their king.

According to Tibetan mythology, the first Tibetan building, Yungbulakang Palace, was erected for the king. The year of his enthronement marks the first year of the Tibetan calendar; Losar, the Tibetan New Year, is celebrated in his honor. Traditions hold that the first kings were immortal, and would be pulled up to heaven by the cord that had first deposited them on earth. This is what is said to have happened to Nyatri Tsenpo as well.”

[vi] Rāmāyana (रामायणम्, Rāmāyaṇam) is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India and important text of Hinduism, the other being the Mahābhārata.

The epic, traditionally ascribed to the Maharishi Valmiki, narrates the life of Rama, a legendary prince of Ayodhya city in the kingdom of Kosala. The epic follows his fourteen-year exile to the forest urged by his father King Dasharatha, on the request of Rama’s stepmother Kaikeyi; his travels across forests in the Indian subcontinent with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana – the king of Lanka, that resulted in war; and Rama’s eventual return to Ayodhya to be crowned king amidst jubilation and celebration.

[vii] “Vālmīki is celebrated as the harbinger-poet in Sanskrit literature. The epic Ramayana, dated variously from the 5th century BCE to first century BCE, is attributed to him, based on the attribution in the text itself. He is revered as Ādi Kavi, the first poet, author of Ramayana, the first epic poem.

British satirist Aubrey Menen says that Valmiki was “recognized as a literary genius,” and thus was considered, “an outlaw,” presumably because of his “philosophic scepticism,” as part of an “Indian Enlightenment” period. Valmiki is also quoted as being the contemporary of Rama. Menen claims Valmiki is “the first author in all history to bring himself into his own composition.”

[viii] “The Sanskrit term varna is derived from the root vṛ, meaning “to cover, to envelop, count, classify consider, describe or choose” (compare vṛtra). The word appears in the Rigveda, where it means “colour, outward appearance, exterior, form, figure or shape”. The word means “colour, tint, dye or pigment” in the Mahabharata.”

2 thoughts on “ORIGINS OF SECRET MANTRA (DAY 7): IDEAS ON SAMSARA, KARMA, ADVANCED PHILOSOPHY AND INDIAN CASTE: the Upanishads on liberation, two epic Indian poems, Buddha’s clan as ‘friend of the Sun’, rise of the Brahmins and status of women (by 17th Karmapa)

  1. Just to say huge thanks for your hard work on these teachings very much appreciated



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