Is there a universal human development model? Taitriya Upanishad’s Bhrguvalli provides an intriguing path. It traces sage Bhrgu’s evolution, guided by Varuna, through different stages of consciousness culminating in enlightenment. Brghu is one the preeminent sages in Indian religions and is known as the author of Bhrgusamhita – a work on astrology. He features prominently in several puranas, or stories involving the Indian pantheon and prominent personalities in ancient India. Varuna is one of the devas or celestial beings, in the Indian pantheon and often considered to be deity of the seas.
In Bhrguvalli, Varuna guides Bhrgu through five stages: Annamaya or the world of food, Pranamaya (the world of life), Manomaya (the world of mind), Vigyanamaya (the world of higher knowledge) and finally Anandamaya (the world of bliss). In more general terms we can think of these as (physical) existence, survival, self-consciousness or identity, higher awareness or intelligence and finally, bliss.
Through Annamaya, Varuna introduces physical nature where every object depends on another. To exist physically is to be part of this cycle, one that is common to both the living and non-living. Brghu learns that being part of this cycle is the first step in our evolution.
Life is the next concept that Brghu encounters. Varuna uses the term “Prana”, often interpreted as the energy of life, to identify this stage, a definition that fits well here. Brghu learns that being endowed with that energy is the next stage of evolution.
Varuna then leads Brghu to the next stage – Manomaya or the world of the mind. Awareness of the mind and thoughts signal the onset of individualism. The mind allows us to form and realize our own identity, and acquire knowledge. It lets us know we have a measure of control over the knowledge we acquire. Individualism is also very important in establishing our identity in society. Bhrgu ponders on this stage and soon realizes his world is that of the mind.
Having realized the power of the mind, Bhrgu is introduced to metaphysics and higher knowledge. Vigyana is often interpreted as science where abstract knowledge and relationships between various entities in nature are explored. At the end of this stage, Bhrgu is now aware of the universe as a single entity and revels in the bliss that comes with the realization. He has entered the state of Anandamaya.
Hidden in this short passage is a development model devoid of specific regional or cultural traits, and one with a focus on the individual. Not only does it provide a non-violent path with stages that are universally relatable, it also explains human behavior in a unique way. It addresses different facets of development culminating in, what Eastern religions refer to as, Self-Realization.
An examination of the model shows a progression from physical to social to spiritual. The first stage of human development – survival – has a few well defined needs, is almost entirely physical and independent of individualism. Identity is somewhat more complex. There are two components to it – self and social identity. Self-identity is how we perceive ourselves and how we want ourselves to be perceived. Social identity is how society perceives us. Both identities have several dimensions based on our character and multiple social roles. The eventual identity is often a negotiation between the individual and society, and marks the transition of development from physical to social.
The next stage – intelligence – involves examination of ones’ experiences, observation and introspection. It also requires self-experimentation which could be demanding, both physically and mentally. Occasionally one may join a group of people involved in the same endeavor or even find a mentor, but usually the individual determines his/her path at this stage. The constant self-scrutiny and possibility of multiple failures require us to subsume our survival instincts and identity. This marks the transition from social to spiritual development, eventually culminating in an overall understanding of nature and our role in it.
Models such as this were of great interest to ancient Indians and other societies which were interested in evolution of the soul. In India, a strong ascetic class that focused on understanding and elevating one’s soul developed and formalized several such models. Over time as society grew larger and more complex, the models required interpretations – some conservative and others more liberal, some specific to a lifestyle, others more universal – which gave rise to several philosophical and social sects.
Most people were content on attaining one of the initial stages, but for the few that became discontented, these models provided a path forward. Indian philosophies that embraced the concept of a soul – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and others – adopted these models as it provided a development path within their system. Over time, it became buried under individual rules and social structures. While they may not be visible today, a little research shows these underlying thoughts exist not just in Eastern philosophies, but in all cultures.