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Lecture 9: The Vedânta-Philosophy

Lecture 9
The Vedânta-Philosophy

The Vedânta as a Philosophical System.

THOUGH it is chiefly the relation between the human soul and God which interests us in the teaching of the Upanishads and of the Vedânta-sûtras, yet there are some other topics in that ancient philosophy which deserve our attention and which may help to throw light on the subject with which we are more specially concerned. I know it is no easy task to make Indian philosophy intelligible or attractive to English students. It is with Indian philosophy as with Indian music.

We are so accustomed to our own, that at first Indian music sounds to our ears like mere, noise, without rhythm, without melody, without harmony. And yet Indian music is thoroughly scientific, and if we are but patient listeners, it begins to exercise its own fascination upon us. It will be the same with Indian philosophy, if only we make an effort to learn to speak its language and to think its thoughts.

Identity of Soul and Brahman.

Let us remember then that the Vedânta-philosophy rests on the fundamental conviction of the Vedântist, that the soul and the Absolute Being or Brahman, are one in their essence. We saw in the old Upanishads how this conviction rose slowly, like the dawn, on the intellectual horizon of India, but how in the end it absorbed every thought, whether philosophical or religious, in its dazzling splendour. When it had once been recognised that the soul and Brahman were in their deepest essence one, the old mythological language of the Upanishads, representing the soul as travelling on the road of the Fathers, or on the road of the gods towards the throne of Brahman was given up. We read in the Vedânta-philosophy (in the 29th paragraph of the third chapter of the third book), that this approach to the throne of Brahman has its proper meaning so long only as Brahman is still considered as personal and endowed with various qualities (saguna), but that, when the knowledge of the true, the absolute and unqualified Brahman, the Absolute Being, has once risen in the mind, these mythological concepts have to vanish. How would it be possible, Sanṅkara says (p. 593), that he who is free from all attachments, unchangeable and unmoved, should approach another person, should move or go to another place. The highest oneness, if once truly conceived, excludes anything like an approach to a different object, or to a distant place1.

The Sanskrit language has the great advantage that it can express the difference between the qualified and the unqualified Brahman, by a mere change of gender, Brahman (nom. Brahmâ) being used as a masculine, when it is meant for the qualified, and as a neuter (nom. Brahma), when it is meant for the unqualified Brahman, the Absolute Being. This is a great help, and there is nothing corresponding to it in English.

We must remember also that the fundamental principle of the Vedânta-philosophy, was not ‘Thou art He,’ but Thou art That, and that it was not Thou wilt be, but Thou art. This ‘Thou art’ expresses something that is, that has been, and always will be, not something that has still to be achieved, or is to follow, for instance, after death (p. 599).

Thus Sanṅkara says, ‘If it is said that the soul will go to Brahman, that means that it will in future attain, or rather, that it will be in future what, though unconsciously, it always has been, viz. Brahman. For when we speak of some one going to some one else, it cannot be one and the same who is distinguished as the subject and as the object. Also, if we speak of worship, that can only be, if the worshipper is different from the worshipped. By true knowledge the individual soul does not become Brahman, but is Brahman, as soon as it knows what it really is, and always has been. Being and knowing are here simultaneous.

Here lies the characteristic difference between what is generally called mystic philosophy and the Vedântic theosophy of India. Other mystic philosophers are fond of representing the human soul as burning with love for God, as filled with a desire for union with or absorption in God. We find little of that in the Upanishads, and when such ideas occur, they are argued away by the Vedânta-philosophers. They always cling to the conviction that the Divine has never been really absent from the human soul, that it always is there, though covered by darkness or Nescience, and that as soon as that darkness or that Nescience is removed, the soul is once more and in its own right what it always has been; it is, it does not become Brahman.

Dialogue from the Khândogya-Upanishad.

There is a famous dialogue in the Khândogya-Upanishad between a young student Svetaketu and his father Uddâlaka Aruni, in which the father tries to convince the son that with all his theological learning he knows nothing, and then tries to lead him on to the highest knowledge, the Tat tvam asi, or Thou art that (VI. 1):

There lived once Svetaketu Âruneya. And his father said to him: ‘Svetaketu, go to school, for there is none belonging to our race, darling, who, not having studied, is, as it were, a Brâhmana by birth only.’

Having begun his apprenticeship (with a teacher) when he was twelve years of age, Svetaketu returned to his father, when he was twenty-four, having then studied all the Vedas,—conceited, considering himself well read, and very stern.

His father said to him: ‘Svetaketu, as you are so conceited, considering yourself so well-read, and so stern, my dear, have you ever asked for that instruction by which we hear what is not audible, by which we perceive what is not perceptible, by which we know what is unknowable?’

‘What is that instruction, Sir?’ he asked.

The father replied: ‘My dear, as by one clod of clay all that is made of clay is known, the difference being only a name, arising from speech, but the truth being that all is clay;

‘And as, my dear, by one nugget of gold all that is made of gold is known, the difference being only a name, arising from speech, but the truth being that all is gold;

‘And as, my dear, by one pair of nail-scissors all that is made of iron (kârshnâyasam) is known, the difference being only a name, arising from speech, but the truth being that all is iron,—thus, my dear, is that instruction.’

The son said: ‘Surely those venerable men (my teachers) did not know that. For if they had known it, why should they not have told it me? Do you, Sir, therefore, tell me that.’

You see what the father is driving at. What he means is that when you see a number of pots and pans and bottles and vessels of all kinds and of different names, they may seem different, and have different names, but in the end they are all but clay, varying in form and name. In the same manner, he wishes to say, that the whole world, all that we see and name, however different it seems in form and in name, is in the end all Brahman. Form and name, called nâmarûpa in the philosophical language of India, that is name and form,—name coming before form, or, as we should say, the idea coming before the eidos, the species,—come and go, they are changing, if not perishing, and there remains only what gives real reality to names and forms, the eternal Brahman.

The father then continues:

‘In the beginning, my dear, there was that only which is (τὸ ὄν), one only, without a second. Others say, in the beginning there was that only which is not (τὸ μὴ ὄν), one only, without a second; and from that which is not, that which is was born.

‘But how could it be thus, my dear?’ the father continued. ‘How could that which is, be born of that which is not? No, my dear, only that which is, was in the beginning, one only, without a second.

‘It thought, may I be many, may I grow forth. It sent forth fire.

‘That fire thought, may I be many, may I grow forth. It sent forth water.

‘Water thought, may I be many, may I grow forth. It sent forth earth (food)2

‘Therefore whenever it rains anywhere, most food is then produced. From water alone is eatable food produced.’

‘As the bees (VI. 9) my son, make honey by collecting the juices of different trees, and reduce the juice into one form,

‘And as these juices have no discrimination, so that they might say, I am the juice of this tree or of that tree, in the same manner, my son, all these creatures, when they have become merged in the True (either in deep sleep or in death), know not that they are merged in the True.

‘Whatever these creatures are here, whether a lion, or a wolf, or a boar, or a worm, or a midge, or a gnat, or a musquito, that they become again and again.

‘Now that which is that subtile essence, in it all that exists has its self. It is the True. It is the Self, and thou, O Svetaketu, art it.’

‘Please, Sir, inform me still more,’ said the son.

‘Be it so, my child,’ the father replied (VI. 10).

‘These rivers, my son, run, the eastern (like the Gaṅgâ) toward the east, the western (like the Sindhu) toward the west. They go from sea to sea (i.e. the clouds lift up the water from the sea to the sky, and send it back as rain to the sea). They become indeed sea. And as those rivers, when they are in the sea, do not know, I am this or that river,

‘In the same manner, my son, all these creatures, when they have come back from the True, know not that they have come back from the True. Whatever these creatures are here, whether a lion, or a wolf, or a boar, or a worm, or a midge, or a gnat, or a musquito, that they become again and again.

‘That which is that subtile essence, in it all that exists has its self. It is the True. It is the Self, and thou, O Svetaketu, art it.’

‘Please, Sir, inform me still more,’ said the son.

‘Be it so, my child,’ the father replied (VI. 11).

‘If some one were to strike at the root of this large tree here, it would bleed, but live. If he were to strike at its stem, it would bleed, but live. If he were to strike at its top, it would bleed, but live. Pervaded by the living Self that tree stands firm, drinking in its nourishment and rejoicing;

‘But if the life (the living Self) leaves one of its branches, that branch withers; if it leaves a second, that branch withers; if it leaves a third, that branch withers. If it leaves the whole tree, the whole tree withers. In exactly the same manner, my son, know this.’ Thus he spoke:

‘This (body) indeed withers and dies when the living Self has left it; the living Self never dies.

‘That which is that subtile essence, in it all that exists has its self. It is the True. It is the Self, and thou, O Svetaketu, art it.’

‘Please, Sir, inform me still more,’ said the son.

‘Be it so, my child,’ the father replied (VI. 13).

‘Place this salt in water, and then wait on me in the morning.’

The son did as he was commanded.

The father said to him: ‘Bring me the salt, which you placed in the water last night.’

The son having looked for it, found it not, for, of course, it was melted.

The father said: ‘Taste it from the surface of the water. How is it?’

The son replied: ‘It is salt.’

‘Taste it from the middle. How is it?’

The son replied: ‘It is salt.’

‘Taste it from the bottom. How is it?’

The son replied: ‘It is salt.’

The father said: ‘Throw it away and then wait on me.’

He did so; but salt exists for ever.

Then the father said: ‘Here also, in this body, forsooth, you do not perceive the True (Sat), my son; but there indeed it is.

‘That which is the subtile essence, in it all that exists has its self. It is the True. It is the Self, and thou, O Svetaketu, art it.’

‘Please, Sir, inform me still more,’ said the son.

‘Be it so, my child,’ the father replied (VI. 15).

‘If a man is ill, his relatives assemble round him and ask: “Dost thou know me? Dost thou know me?” Now as long as his speech is not merged in his mind, his mind in breath, his breath in heat (fire), heat in the Highest Godhead (devatâ), he knows them.

‘But when his speech is merged in his mind, his mind in breath, breath in heat (fire), heat in the Highest Godhead, then he knows them not.

‘That which is the subtile essence, in it all that exists has its self. It is the True. It is the Self, and thou, O Svetaketu, art it.’

Union not Absorption.

In this dialogue as given in the Upanishad we have before us a more popular and not yet systematised view of the Vedânta. There are several passages indeed which seem to speak of the union and absorption of the soul rather than of its recovery of its true nature. Such passages, however, are always explained away by the stricter Vedânta-philosophers, and they have no great difficulty in doing this. For there remains always the explanation that the qualified personal Brahman in the masculine gender is meant, and not yet the highest Brahman which is free from all qualities. That modified personal Brahman exists for all practical purposes, till its unreality has been discovered through the discovery of the Highest Brahman; and as, in one, sense, the modified masculine Brahman is the highest Brahman, if only we know it, and shares all its true reality with the Highest Brahman, as soon as we know it, many things may in a less strict sense be predicated of Him, the modified Brahman, which in truth apply to It only, the Highest Brahman. This amphiboly runs through the whole of the Vedânta-sûtras, and a considerable portion of the Sûtras is taken up with the task of showing that when the qualified Brahman seems to be meant, it is really the unqualified Brahman that ought to be understood. Again, there are ever so many passages in the Upanishads which seem to refer to the individual soul, but which, if properly explained, must be considered as referring to the Highest Âtman, that gives support and reality to the individual soul. This at least is the view taken by Sanṅkara, whereas, as I hinted before, from an historical point of view, it would seem as if there had been different stages in the development of the belief in the Highest Brahman and in the highest Âtman, and that some passages in the Upanishads belong to earlier phases of Indian thought, when Brahman was still conceived simply as the highest deity, and true blessedness was supposed to consist in the gradual approach of the soul to the throne of God.

Knowledge, not Love of God.

Anything like a passionate yearning of the soul after God, which forms the key-note of almost all religions, is therefore entirely absent from the Vedânta-sûtras. The fact of the unity of soul and God is taken for granted from the beginning, or at all events as sufficiently proved by the revealed utterances of the Upanishads.

The Tat tvam asi, ‘Thou art that,’ is accepted by the Vedântists in a dry and matter-of-fact spirit. It forms the foundation of a most elaborate system of philosophy, of which I shall now try to give you an idea, though it can be very general only.

Avidyâ or Nescience.

The fundamental principle of the Vedânta-philosophy that in reality there exists and there can exist nothing but Brahman, that Brahman is everything, the material as well as the efficient cause of the universe, is of course in contradiction with our ordinary experience. In India, as anywhere else, man imagines at first that he, in his individual, bodily, and spiritual character, is something that exists, and that all the objects of the outer world also exist, as objects. Idealistic philosophy has swept away this world-old prejudice more thoroughly in India than anywhere else. The Vedânta-philosopher, however, is not only confronted with this difficulty which affects every philosophy, but he has to meet another difficulty peculiar to himself. The whole of the Veda is in his eyes infallible, yet that Veda enjoins the worship of many gods, and even in enjoining the worship (upâsanâ) of Brahman, the highest deity, in his active, masculine, and personal character, it recognises an objective deity, different from the subject that is to offer worship and sacrifice to him.

Hence the Vedânta-philosopher has to tolerate many things. He tolerates the worship of an objective Brahman, as a preparation for the knowledge of the subjective and objective, or the absolute Brahman, which is the highest object of his philosophy. He admits one Brahman endowed with quality, but high above the usual gods of the Veda. This Brahman is reached by the pious on the path of the gods; he can be worshipped, and it is he who rewards the pious for their good works. Still, even he is in that character the result of nescience (Avidyâ), of the same nescience which prevents the soul of man, the Âtman, from distinguishing itself from its incumbrances (the so-called Upâdhis), such as the body, the organs of sense and their works.

This nescience can be removed by science or knowledge only, and this knowledge or vidyâ is imparted by the Vedânta, which shows that all our ordinary knowledge is simply the result of ignorance or nescience, is uncertain, deceitful, and perishable, or as we should say, is phenomenal, relative, and conditioned. The true knowledge, called samyagdarsana or complete insight, cannot be gained by sensuous perception (pratyaksha) nor by inference (anumâna), nor can obedience to the law of the Veda produce more than a temporary enlightenment or happiness. According to the orthodox Vedântist, Sruti alone, or what is called revelation, can impart that knowledge and remove that nescience which is innate in human nature.

Of the Higher Brahman nothing can be predicated but that it is, and that through our nescience, it appears to be this or that.

When a great Indian sage was asked to describe Brahman, he was simply silent—that was his answer. But when it is said that Brahman is, that means at the same time that Brahman is not; that is to say, that Brahman is nothing of what is supposed to exist in our sensuous perceptions.

Brahman as sat, as kit, and as ânanda.

There are two other qualities, however, which may safely be assigned to Brahman, namely, that it is intelligent, and that it is blissful; or rather, that it is intelligence and bliss. Intelligent seems the nearest approach to the Sk. kit and kaitanya. Spiritual would not answer, because it would not express more than that it is not material. But kit means that it is, that it perceives and knows, though as it can perceive itself only, we may say that it is lighted up by its own light or knowledge, or as it is sometimes expressed, that it is pure knowledge and pure light. Perhaps we shall best understand what is meant by kit, when we consider what is negatived by it, namely, dulness, deafness, darkness, and all that is material. In several passages a third quality is hinted at, namely, blissfulness, but this again seems only another name for perfection, and chiefly intended to exclude the idea of any possible suffering in Brahman.

It is in the nature of this Brahman to be always subjective, and hence it is said that it cannot be known in the same way as all other objects are known, but only as a knower knows that he knows and that he is.

Philosophy and Religion.

Still, whatever is and whatever is known,—two things which in the Vedânta, as in all other idealistic systems of philosophy, are identical,—all is in the end Brahman. Though we do not know it, it is Brahman that is known to us, when conceived as the author or creator of the world, an office, according to Hindu ideas, quite unworthy of the Godhead in its true character. It is the same Brahman that is known to us in our own self-consciousness. Whatever we may seem to be, or imagine ourselves to be for a time, we are in truth the eternal Brahman, the eternal Self. With this conviction in the background, the Vedântist retains his belief in what he calls the Lord God, the creator and ruler of the world, but only as phenomenal, or as adapted to the human understanding.

The Supreme Lord or Îsvara.

Men are to believe in a personal God, with the same assurance with which they believe in their own personal self; and can there be a higher assurance? They are to believe in him as the creator and ruler of the world (samsâra), and as determining the effects or rewards of good and evil works (karman). He, may be worshipped even, but we must always remember that what is worshipped is only a person, or, as the Brahmans call it, a pratîka, an aspect of the true eternal Essence, as conceived by us in our inevitably human and limited knowledge. Thus the strictest observance of religion is insisted on while we are what we are. We are told that there is truth in the ordinary belief in God as the creator or cause of the world, but a relative truth only, relative to the human understanding, just as there is truth in the perception of our senses, and in the belief in our personality, but a relative truth only. This relative truth must be carefully distinguished from falsehood. His belief in the Veda would suffice to prevent the Vedântist from a denial of the gods or from what we should call Atheism, or rather, as I explained, Adevism.

In deference to the Veda the Vedântist has even to admit, if not exactly a creation, at least a repeated emanation of the world from Brahman and reabsorption of it into Brahman, from kalpa to kalpa, or from age to age.

Upâdhis, Sûkahmasarîra, and Sthûlasarîra.

If We ask, what led to a belief in individual souls, the answer we get is the Upâdhis, the surroundings or incumbrances, that is, the body with the breath or life in it, the organs of sense, and the mind. These together form the subtle body (the sûkshmasarîra) and this sûkshmasarîra is supposed to survive, while death can destroy the coarse body only (the sthûasarîra). The individual soul is held by this subtle body, and its fates are determined by acts which are continuing in their consequences, and which persist in their effects for ever, or at least until true knowledge has arisen, and put an end even to the subtle body and to all phantasms of nescience.

Creation or Emanation.

How the emanation of the world from Brahman is conceived in the Vedânta-philosophy is of small interest. It is almost purely mythological, and presents a very low stage of physical science. Brahman is not indeed represented any longer as a maker, or a creator, as an architect or a potter. What we translate by creation (srishti) means really no more than a letting out, and corresponds closely with the theory of emanation, as held by some of the most eminent Christian philosophers. There are few opinions that have not been condemned by some Council or Pope as heretical; but I know of no Council that has condemned as heretical the theory of Emanation instead of Creation or Fabrication. But if belief in emanation instead of creation has been condemned by the Church, then the Church has condemned some of its strongest supporters as heretics. It would be easy to put such men as Dionysius and Scotus Erigena, or even St. Clement, out of court, as claiming the character of orthodox theologians. But what should we say of Thomas Aquinas, the very bulwark of catholic orthodoxy? And yet he too declares in so many words (Summa p. 1. 9–19a4) that creatio is emanatio totius entis ab uno. Eckhart and the German Mystics all hold the same opinion, an opinion which, though it may run counter to Genesis, seems in no way incompatible with the spirit of the New Testament.

The Upanishads propose ever so many similes by which they wish to render the concept of creation or emanation more intelligible. One of the oldest similes applied to the production of the world from Brahman is that of the spider drawing forth, that is producing, the web of the world from itself. If we were to say, No, the world was created out of Nothing, the Vedântist would say, By all means; but he would remind us that, if God is All in All, then even the Nothing could not be anything else, anything outside the Absolute Being, for that Being cannot be conceived as encompassed or limited whether by anything or by nothing.

Another simile which is meant to do away with what there is left of efficient, besides material causality in the simile of the spider, which after all wills the throwing out and drawing back of the threads of the world, is that of the hair growing from the skull.

Nor is the theory of what we, as the most recent invention, call Evolution or development, wanting in the Upanishads. One of the most frequent similes used for this, is the change of milk into curds, the curds being nothing but the milk, only under a different form. It was soon found, however, that this simile violated the postulate, that the One Being must not only be One, but that, if perfect in itself, it must be unchangeable. Then a new theory came in, which is the theory adopted by Sanṅkara. It is distinguished by the name of Vivarta from the Parinâma or Evolution theory which is held by Râmânuga. Vivarta means turning away. It teaches that the Supreme Being remains always unchanged, and that our believing that anything else can exist beside it, arises from Avidyâ, that is, Nescience. Most likely this Avidyâ, or ignorance was at first conceived as purely subjective, for it is illustrated by the ignorance of a man who mistakes a rope for a snake. In this case the rope remains all the time what it is; it is only our own ignorance which frightens us and determines our actions. In the same way Brahman always remains the same; it is our ignorance only which makes us see a phenomenal world and a phenomenal God. Another favourite simile is our mistaking mother-of-pearl for silver. The Vehântist says: We may take it for silver, but it always remains mother-of-pearl. So we may speak of the snake and the rope, or of the silver and the mother-of-pearl, as being one. And yet we do not mean that the rope has actually undergone a change, or has turned into a snake, or that mother-of-pearl has turned into silver. After that, the Vedântists argue, that what the rope is to the snake, the Supreme Being is to the world (Nîlakantha Gore, lib. cit., p. 179). They go on to explain that when they hold that the world is Brahman, they do not mean that Brahman is actually transformed into the world, for Brahman cannot change and cannot be transformed. They mean that Brahman presents itself as the world, or appears to be the world. The world's reality is not its own, but Brahman's; yet Brahman is not the material cause of the world, as the spider is of the web, or the milk of the curds, or the sea of the foam, or the clay of the jar which is made by the potter, but only the substratum, the illusory material cause. There would be no snake without the rope, there would be no world without Brahman, and yet the rope does not become a snake, nor does Brahman become the world. With the Vedântist the phenomenal and the noumenal are essentially the same. The silver, as we perceive and call it, is the same as the mother-of-pearl; without the mother-of-pearl, there would be no silver for us. We impart to mother-of-pearl the name and the form of silver, and by the same process by which we thus create silver, the whole world was created by words and forms. A modern Vedântist, Pramadadâsa Mitra, employs another simile in order to explain to European scholars the true meaning of the Vedânta. ‘A man,’ he says, ‘is created a Peer, by being called a Peer, and being invested with a Peer's robe. But what he really is, is not a Peer—he is what he always has been, a man—he is, as we should say, a man for all that.’ Pramadadâsa Mitra concludes, ‘In the same manner as we see that a Peer can be created, the whole world was created, by simply receiving name and form.’ If he had known Plato, instead of name and form, he would have spoken of ideas, as imparting form and name to what was before formless and nameless.

Far be it from me to say that these similes or the theories which they are meant to adumbrate can be considered as a real solution of the old problem of the creation or of the relation between the absolute and the relative; but after all we think very much in similes, and these Vedântic similes are at least original, and deserve a place by the side of many others. Besides, the Vedântist is, by no means satisfied with these similes. He has elaborated his own plan of creation. He distinguishes a number of stages in the emanation of the world, but to us these stages are of less interest than the old similes. The first stage is called âkâsa, which may be translated by ether, though it corresponds very nearly to what we mean by space. It is, we are told, all-pervading (vibhu), and often takes its place as the fifth element and therefore as something material. It is from this ether that air emanates (vâyu), from air, fire (agni, tegas), from fire, water (âpas), from water, earth (prithivî or annam, lit. food). Corresponding to these five elements as objects, there emanate likewise from Brahman the five senses, the sense of hearing corresponding to ethe, the senses of touch and hearing as corresponding to air, the senses of sight, touch, and hearing as corresponding to fire, the senses of taste, sight, touch, and hearing as corresponding to water, and lastly, the senses of smelling, tasting, seeing, touching, and hearing as corresponding to earth.

After this emanation of the elements, and of the senses which correspond to them, has taken place, Brahman is supposed to enter into them. The individual souls also, which after each return of the world into Brahman, continue to exist in Brahman, are supposed to awake from their deep slumber (mâyâmayî mahâsushupti), and to receive each according to its former works, a body, either divine, or human, or animal, or vegetable. Their subtle bodies then assume again some of the coarser elements, and the senses become developed and differentiated, while the Self or Âtman keeps aloof, or remains as a simple witness of all the causes and effects which form the new body and its surroundings. Each body grows by absorbing portions of the coarser elementary substances, everything grows, decays, and changes, but the grown-up man is nevertheless the same as the young child or the embryo, because the Self, the witness in all its aloofness, remains throughout the same. The embryo, or the germ of the embryo, was, as we saw in a former lecture, supposed to have entered into the father in the shape of heavenly food, conveyed by the rain from the sky or the moon. When it has been absorbed by man, it assumes the nature of seed, and while dwelling in the womb of a mother changes its subtle body into a material body. Whenever this material body decays again and dies, the soul with its subtle body leaves it, but though free from the material body, it retains its moral responsibility, and remains liable to the consequences of the acts which it performed while in the coarse material body. These consequences are good or evil; if good, the soul may be born in a more perfect state, nay, even as a divine being and enjoy divine immortality, may, in fact become a god like Indra and the rest; but even that divine immortality will have an end whenever the universal emanation returns to Brahman.

If we distinguish, as many philosophers have done, between existence (Dasein) and Being (Sein), then all being is Brahman, nothing can be except Brahman, while all that exists is simply an illusory, not a real modification of Brahman, and is caused by name and form (nâma-rûpa). The whole world is therefore said to be vâkârambhana, beginning with the word, the word being here taken in the sense of idea, or concept or Logos. We must never forget that the world is only what it is conceived to be, or what by name and form it has been made to be, while from the highest point of view all these names and forms vanish, when the Samyagdarsana, the true knowledge, arises, and everything becomes known as Brahman only. Weshould probably go a step further, and ask, whence the names and forms, and whence all that phantasmagoria of unreality? The Vedântist has but one answer: it is simply due to Avidyâ, to nescience; and this nescience too is not real or eternal, it is only for a time, and it vanishes by knowledge. We cannot deny the fact, though we cannot explain the cause. There are again plenty of similes which the Vedântist produces; but similes do not explain facts. For instance, we see names and forms in a dream, and yet they are not real. As soon as we awake, they vanish, and we know they were but dreams. Again, we imagine in the dark that we see a serpent and try to run away, but as soon as there is light, we are no longer frightened, we know that it is a rope only. Or again, there are certain affections of the eye, when the eye sees two Moons. We know that there can be only one, as we know that there can be only one Brahman; but till our eyes are really cured, we cannot help seeing two moons.

Again, it seems that Indian jugglers knew how to make people believe that they saw two or three jugglers, while there was only one. The juggler himself remained one, knew himself to be one only, like Brahman, but to the spectators he appeared as many.

There is another simile to which I have already alluded. If blue or red colour touches a pure crystal, however much we may be convinced that the crystal is pure and transparent, we cannot separate the blue colour from it till we remove all surrounding objects, like the upâdhis or surroundings of the soul. But all these are similes only, and with us there would always remain the question, Whence this nescience?

Brahman and Avidyâ the Cause of the Phenomenal World.

The Vedântist is satisfied with the conviction that for a time we are, as a matter of fact; nescient, and what he cares for chiefly is to find out, not how that nescience arose, but how it can be removed. After a time that nescience or Avidyâ came to be considered as a kind of independent power, called Mâyâ, illusion; she became even a woman. But in the beginning Mâyâ meant nothing but absence of true knowledge, that is, absence of the knowledge of Brahman.

From the Vedântist point of view, however, there is no real difference between cause and effect. Though he might admit that Brahman is the cause, and the phenomenal world the effect, he would at once qualify that admission by saying that cause and effect must never be considered as different in substance, that Brahman always remains the same, whether looked upon as cause or as effect, just as the substance is the same in milk and curds, though from our nescience we may call the one cause, and the other effect.

You see that if we once grant to the Vedântist that there exists one Infinite Being only, it follows that there is no room for anything else by the side of it, and that in some way or other the Infinite or Brahman must be everywhere and everything.

The Essence of Man.

There is only one thing which seems to assert its independence, and that is the subjective Self, the Self within us, not the Ego or the person, but what lies behind the Ego and behind the person. Every possible view as to what man really is, that has been put forward by other philosophers, is carefully examined and rejected by the Vedântist. It had been held that what constituted the essence of man was a body endowed with intelligence, or the intellectual organs of sense, or the mind (manas) or mere knowledge, or even absolute emptiness, or again the individual soul reaching beyond the body, active and passive in its various states, or the Self that suffers and enjoys. But not one of these views is approved of by the Vedântist. It is impossible, he says, to deny the existence of a Self in man, for he who denies it would himself be that Self which he denies. No Self can deny itself. But as there is no room in the world for anything but Brahman, the Infinite Being, it follows that the Self of man can be nothing but that very Brahman in its entirety, not only a portion or a modification of it, so that whatever applies to Brahman applies also to the Self in man. As Brahman is altogether knowledge, so is the Self; as Brahman is omnipresent or all-pervading (vibhu), so is the Self. As Brahman is omniscient and omnipotent, so is the Self. As Brahman is neither active nor passive, neither enjoying nor suffering, so is the Self, or rather, so must be the Self, if it is what it is, the only thing that it can be, namely Brahman. If for the present the Self seems to be different, seems to be suffering and enjoying, active and passive, limited in knowledge and power, this can be the result of nescience only, or of a belief in the Upâdhis or hindrances of true knowledge. It is owing to these Upâdhis that the omnipresent Self in the individual is not omnipresent, but confined to the heart; is not omniscient, is not omnipotent, but ignorant and weak; is not an indifferent witness, but active and passive, a doer and an enjoyer, and fettered or determined by its former works. Sometimes it seems as if the Upâdhis were the cause of nescience, but in reality it is nescience that causes the Upâdhis3. These Upâdhis or incumbrances are, besides the outer world, and the coarse body, the mukhya prâna, the vital spirit, the Manas, mind, the Indriyas, the senses. These three together form the vehicle of the soul after death, and supply the germ for a new life. The sûkshmasarîra, the fine body, in which they dwell, is invisible, yet material, extended, and transparent (p. 506). I believe it is this fine body, the sûkshmasarîra, which the modern Theosophists have changed into their astral body, taking the theories of the ancient Rishis for matters of fact. It is called the âsraya or abode of the soul, it consists of the finest parts of the elements that form the germ of the body (dehavîgâni bhûtasûkshmâni), or, according to some passages, it consists of water (p. 401), or something like water. This fine body never quits the soul, and so long as the world (samsâra) lasts, the soul clothed in this fine body assumes new and coarser bodies again and again. Even when it has reached the path of the gods and the throne of Brahman, the soul is still supposed to be clothed in its fine body. This fine body, however, consists not only of the faculties of sensuous perception (indriyâni), of mind (manas), and of vital breath (mukhyaprâna), but its character is likewise determined by former acts, by karman.

Karman or Apûrva.

In the Pûrvamîmâmsâ this continuity between acts and their consequences is called Apûrva, literally, that which did not exist before, but was brought about in this life or in a former life. When the work has been done and is past, but its effect has not yet taken place, there remains something which after a time is certain to produce a result, a punishment for evil deeds, a reward for good deeds. This idea of Gaimini is not, however, adopted without modification by Bâdarâyana. Another teacher attributes rewards and punishments of former acts to the influence of Îsvara, the lord, though admitting at the same time that the Lord or the Creator of the world does no more than superintend the universal working of cause and effect. This is explained by the following illustration. We see a plant springing from its seed, growing, flowering, and at last dying. But it does not die altogether. Something is left, the seed, and in order that this seed may live and thrive rain is necessary. What is thus achieved by the rain in the vegetable world, is supposed to be achieved by the Lord in the moral world, in fact in the whole creation. Without God or without the rain, the seed would not grow at all, but that it grows thus or thus is not due to the rain, but to the seed itself.

And this serves in the Vedânta-philosophy as a kind of solution for the problem of the existence of evil in the world. God is not the author of evil, He did not create the evil, but He simply allowed or enabled the good or evil deeds of former worlds to bear fruit in this world. The Creator therefore does not in His creation act at random, but is guided in His acts by the determining influence of karman or work done.

Different States of the Soul.

We have still to consider some, rather fanciful theories with regard to the different states of the individual soul. It is said to exist in four states, in a state of wakefulness or awareness, of dream, of deep sleep, and, lastly, of death. In the state of wakefulness the soul dwelling in the heart pervades the whole body, knowing and acting by means of the mind (manas) and the senses (indriyas). In the state of dreaming, the soul uses the mind only, in which the senses have been absorbed, and, moving through the veins of the body, sees the impressions (vâsanâs) left by the senses during the state of wakefulness. In the third stage the soul is altogether freed from the mind also, both the mind and the senses are absorbed in the vital spirit, which alone continues active in the body, while the soul, now free from all upâdhis or fetters, returns for a time to Brahman within the heart. On awaking, however, the soul loses its temporary identity with Brahman, and becomes again what it was before, the individual soul.

In the fourth state, that of death, the senses are absorbed in the mind, the mind in the vital spirit, the vital spirit in the moral vehicle of the soul, and the soul in the fine body (sû kshmasarîra). When this absorption or union has taken place, the ancient Vedântists believe that the point of the heart becomes luminous so as to illuminate the path on which the soul with its surrounding (upâdhis) escapes from the body. The Soul or Self which obtains true knowledge of the Highest Self, regains its identity with the Highest Self, and then enjoys what even in the Upanishads and before the rise of Buddhism is called Nirvâna or eternal peace.


It is generally supposed that this idea of Nirvâna is peculiar to Buddhism, but like many Buddhist ideas, this also can be shown to have its roots in the Vedic world. If this Nirvâna is obtained step by step, beginning with the Path of the Fathers, or the Path of the Gods, then leading to a blissful life in the world of Brahman and then to the true knowledge of the identity of Âtman, the soul, with Brahman, it is called Kramamukti, i.e. gradual liberation.


But the same knowledge may be obtained in this life also, in the twinkling of an eye, without waiting for death, or for resurrection and ascension to the world of the fathers, the gods, and the god Brahman; and this state of knowledge and liberation, if obtained by a man while still in the body, is called by later philosophers Gîvanmukti, life-liberation.

It may take place in this life, without the help of death, and without what is called the Utkrânti or the Exodus of the soul.

The explanation given of this state of perfect spiritual freedom, while the soul is still in the body, is illustrated by the simile of a potter's wheel, which goes on moving for a time, even though the impetus that set it going has ceased. The soul is free, but the works of a former existence, if they have once begun to bear fruit, must go on bearing fruit till they are quite exhausted, while other works which have not yet begun to bear fruit may be entirely burnt up by knowledge.

If we ask whether this Nirvâna of the Brahman means absorption or annihilation, the Vedântist, different from the Buddhist, would not admit either. The soul is not absorbed in Brahman, because it has never left Brahman; there can be nothing different from Brahman; nor can it be annihilated, because Brahman cannot be annihilated, and the soul has always been nothing but Brahman in all its fulness; the new knowledge adds nothing to what the soul always was, nor does it take away anything except that nescience which for a time darkened the self-knowledge of the soul.

These living freed souls enjoy perfect happiness and ease, though still imprisoned in the body. They have obtained true Nirvâna, that is, freedom from passion and immunity from being born again. Thus the Brihadâranyaka-Upanishad IV. 4, 6 says: ‘He who is without desire, free from desire, whose desires have been fulfilled, whose desire is the self, his vital spirits do not emigrate; being Brahman, he becomes Brahman.’

We should ask at once, Does then the soul, after it has obtained the knowledge of its true essence, retain its personality?

Personality of the Soul.

But such a question is impossible for the true Vedântist. For terrestrial personality is to him a fetter and a hindrance, and freedom from that fetter is the highest object of his philosophy, is the highest bliss to which the Vedântist aspires. That freedom and that highest bliss are simply the result of true knowledge, of a kind of divine self-recollection. Everything else remains as it is. It is true the Vedântist speaks of the individual soul as poured into the Universal Soul like pure water poured into pure water. The two can no longer be distinguished by name and form; yet the Vedântist lays great stress on the fact that the pure water is not lost in the pure water, as little as the Âtman is lost in Brahman. As Brahman4 is pure knowledge and consciousness, so is the Âtman, when freed, pure, knowledge and consciousness, while in the body it is limited knowledge and limited consciousness, limited personality only. Anything like separateness from Brahman is impossible, for Brahman is all in all.

Whatever we may think of this philosophy, we cannot deny its metaphysical boldness and its logical consistency. If Brahman is all in all, the One without a second, nothing can be said to exist that is not Brahman. There is no room for anything outside the Infinite and the Universal, nor is there room for two Infinites, for the Infinite in nature and the Infinite in man. There is and there can be one Infinite, one Brahman only; this is the beginning and end of the Vedânta, and I doubt whether Natural Religion can reach or has ever reached a higher point than that reached by Saṅkara, as an interpreter of the Upanishads.