Nirvana versus ataraxia



The Sanskrit word nirvana became part of the English language simply because it could not or would not be translated. The reason was that no one knew precisely what the term meant, and, moreover, the word nirvana was strange and mysterious (like the epithet Christ (Greek: christos, simply meaning: the ‘anointed’)) and so served well as (‘golden herring’) goal of one’s life’s endeavour. The Sakyamuni, later called the Buddha, never defined nirvana. In fact he never defined, i.e. took a fixed position on anything since he claimed no such quality as ‘fixed’ (i.e. abiding, essential or having inherent (self-) existence) existed. Indeed, no one knows if the Buddha ever used the term. Indeed, no one knows who the Buddha was, save that he was not an Indian but a Scythian (i.e. a Saka).


What Nirvana actually means is a mystery. Firstly it’s a negative statement (i.e. nir + vana), i.e. no + blow). Secondly it is merely a suggestive metaphor (like the word sunrise) that doesn’t actually say anything specific about the biological functions which the word is intended to describe.  In general the term nirvana is taken to mean: calm or becalmed, still, unperturbed (to wit, free or released from turbulence, stress and so on). Returning to calm/stillness however is a generic function, meaning, everyone does it practically all the time.      more


Likewise the Greek metaphor/word ataraxia, meaning: unperturbed, calm, peaceful, at ease, stress free; in other words, nirvana (compare the Sufi term fanā, meaning: “to die before one dies”, and the Sanskrit term samadhi). The word seems to have been introduced round about 300 BC by the sceptical philosopher Pyrrho upon his return from Alexander’s bloody predation of northwest India. Legend and some modern academic wags have it that whilst in India (i.e. Gandhara) Pyrrho met one or more of the Sakyamuni’s sramanas who taught him the basics of scepticism, namely epoché (ἐποχή epokhē) = “suspension” of judgement (meaning non-contention = detachment), to wit, acatalepsia, as most efficient means of responding to unprovable views, unprovable because anicca, i.e. being impermanent, and anatta, i.e. having no abiding inherent self. Both Pyrrho and the Buddha held out calm, i.e. nirvana/ataraxia as the only goal worth achieving.


In short, early Buddhism and early Pyrrhonism, followed later by Epicureanism, are almost identical in their goals and the mightily flawed (i.e. because wholly irrelevant) reasons they give for staying on the fence, hence hors de combat.


Obviously, the calmness = nirvana/ataraxia solution and the means to it, namely non-contention resulting in disturbance as proposed by both the Sakyamuni and Pyrrho, is at best a temporary rehab (or cop-out) but otherwise a (biological) mugs game. Indeed, fence sitting is actually a non-option for a dynamic bio-system as most reasonably observant people can figure out.