Studies In Comparative Philosophy
by Swami Krishnananda

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Plotinus

Plotinus, the celebrated mystic, comes nearest in his views to the Vedanta philosophy, and is practically in full agreement with the Eastern sages, both in his theory and his methodology. His system is called Neoplatonism, as it consummates the philosophy of Plato in a highly developed mysticism. To Plotinus, God or the Absolute is the All. The diversities of the world are grounded in the Absolute, though the Absolute is above all contradictions and differences. It is the first causeless Cause, and the world emanates from It as an overflow of its Perfection. We cannot define God, for definition is limitation to certain attributes. All logical, ethical and aesthetic principles, truth, goodness and beauty, are incapable of representing Him in His true greatness. Nothing can be said of the essential Reality of God, and what we can give at the most is a negative description of His Being. He is beyond being and non-being, beyond all concepts, notions and perceptions. He is above thinking, feeling and willing, above subject and object, above all conceivable principles and categories. He cannot even be called a Self-conscious Being, for this implies duality. He is the Thinker and the Thought, and also what is Thought. He is everything. He alone is.

This is nothing short of the Advaita Vedanta of Shankara. Only the view that the world is an overflow of the Perfection of God is peculiar to Plotinus. For, to the Vedanta, there is no such overflow; there is, to it, only the Absolute, and the world is its appearance; not an emanation from or an overflow of its being. This is the position, in spite of the acceptance of a relativistic creation of the Universe from the Absolute, as adumbrated in the Upanishads. For Plotinus the world is neither the creation of God nor an evolute from Him, but just an emanation. Plotinus, no doubt, takes care to see that this emanation does not in any way affect the Perfection of God. Plotinus is not advocating the parinamavada or the transformation theory of some of the Indian schools. God does not become the world by modification or transformation of Himself. He is ever what He is and the emanation is something like that of light from the sun. God never gets lost or exhausted in the world. Plotinus is thus free from the charge of propounding a pantheism. God is both transcendent and immanent. The world originates, subsists and finally merges in God. The Thought of God and the Object of this Thought are one and the same, and the world is God's Thought. God's Thought is merely the activity of His own being; it is the immediate, instantaneous, all-comprehending Essence of pure Consciousness, direct and intuitive, knowing everything at one stroke, and transcending the dualistic categories of relative reason, which functions through a succession of ideas.

Plotinus introduces into his system the Ideas of Plato, which are the archetypes of all things in the universe, and which are thoughts in the Mind of God. Only Plotinus would rise above Plato in not making God's Thought dependent on the ideas. For God is absolutely independent. Rather Plotinus makes the Platonic Ideas what the ideative processes are in the Ishvara of the Vedanta. The whole world is for Plotinus what the Vedanta means by ishvara-srishti, or cosmic manifestation, as distinguished from jiva-srishti or individual imagination.

God's Universal Thought, which we may compare to the Creative Will of Ishvara, manifests the World-Soul in the second stage of emanation. This World-Soul has some of the characteristics of Hiranyagarbha, and while it is rooted in the pure Divine Thought, and possesses its characteristics, it has a tendency towards bringing order in the sense-world. When it acts in the sense-world, it becomes the Soul of the physical world. The World-Soul has an eternal aspect as rooted in pure Thought, and a relative aspect as animating the phenomena of Nature and subject to temporal division. The World-Soul produces matter and acts on it as its animating principle.

The theory is strikingly similar to the Vedanta, excepting, of course, the several technical concepts which are peculiar only to Greek thought. But matter for Plotinus is the principle of evil. In the Vedanta, however, matter is an appearance of God Himself, and it becomes evil only when it excites and feeds the passions of the individual. Else it is a phase of the body of Ishvara, worthy of adoration. Evil is not a cosmic principle for the Vedanta; evil exists only for the individuals, and it is to be attributed to their ignorance of the true nature of things.

Plotinus also refers to the Vedanta conception of jiva-srishti, when he says that the souls contained in the World-Soul, as its ideas, act on matter and give it a sensuous character. Plotinus, however, is not very clear in his assigning to these souls the function of creating matter and of acting on matter. When he says that they are beyond space and produce matter we have to take them as ideas in the World-Soul, which manifest the physical universe and which are all held together in the unified intelligence of the World-Soul. When they are said to give matter a sensuous image, they may be considered to have undergone division as individuals which act on the objects of the world in sense-perception. For, creating matter and making it a sense-object cannot be the function of the soul in one and the same condition of its consciousness; the one is trans-empirical, and the other empirical. The former may create division through space, time and objectivity, but does not necessarily render them sensuous. Plotinus regards the appearances of the World-Soul, matter and its division into sense-objects as simultaneous processes, distinguishable only in imagination or thought. Here, again, he concurs with the cosmology of the Vedanta.

The system of Plotinus rises to lofty heights and takes creation beyond time, with no beginning and not originating in any fiat of the Divine Will. Plotinus has in him, however, aspects of the Samkhya when he says that the world is eternal in spite of its outward changes. He has also elements of the bhedabheda doctrine of difference-in-non-difference, and he is not always a consistent non-dualist. These have, however, to be regarded as mere concessions to occasional descents in the philosopher's thought, or as indications of an attempt to present to the world different aspects of the one Reality.

The essential nature of the soul, Plotinus holds, is freedom and eternal existence. It is a part of the World-Soul, and, as in the Vedanta the bondage of the soul is simultaneous with the creation of the diversity of the world by Ishvara and is actually occasioned by the Jiva itself by its passions, so in Plotinus the individual soul gets bound by its sensuality, consequent upon the manifestation of matter by the World-Soul. The blessedness of the soul is in its turning towards God, in its contemplation of the Real, by freeing itself from sensuality. The Goal of life is the realisation of God or the Absolute-Intelligence. This is possible through a tremendous discipline of the soul, by abandoning attachments to the body and bodily connections, and by contemplating on the Eternal. The soul, in the beatific vision obtained in ecstasy, attains communion with the Real. Ecstasy is beyond contemplation and is akin to the samadhi of the Yoga and the Vedanta. Plotinus is one of the very few mystics with whom the Vedanta would have the greatest sympathy; in both we find the transfiguring element of unconditioned devotion to the Absolute. Plotinus was a great sage and is said to have been blessed with the beatific vision of the Absolute several times in his life. It is the opinion of some scholars that the strikingly Oriental element in Plotinus is due to his having gained the wisdom of India while he was accompanying the Emperor Gordian in his campaign in the East.

The flashes of insight in Plotinus are superb: "There everything is transparent, nothing dark, nothing resistant; every being is lucid to every other, in breadth and depth; light runs through light. And each of them contains all within itself, and at the same time sees all in every other, so that everywhere there is all, all is all, and each all, and infinite the glory. Each of them is great; the small is great: the sun, there, is all the stars, and every star again is all the stars and sun. While some one manner of being is dominant in each, all are mirrored in every other." "In this Intelligible World, every thing is transparent. No shadow limits vision. All the essences see each other and interpenetrate each other in the most intimate depth of their nature. Light everywhere meets light. Every being contains within itself the entire Intelligible World, and also beholds it entire in every particular being... There abides pure movement; for He who produces movement, not being foreign to it, does not disturb it in its production. Rest is perfect, because it is not mingled with any principle of disturbance. The Beautiful is completely beautiful there, because it does not dwell in that which is not beautiful." "To have seen that vision is reason no longer. It is more than reason, before reason, and after reason, as also is the vision which is seen. And perhaps we should not here speak of sight; for that which is seen if we must needs speak of seer and seen as two and not one is not discerned by the seer, nor perceived by him as a second thing. Therefore this vision is hard to tell of; for how can a man describe as other than himself that which, when he discerned it, seemed not other, but one with himself indeed?" (Enneads, V. 8; VI. 9, 10).

Who can afford to miss noticing the similarity, nay, identity of these passages with the magnificent proclamations of Sage Yajnavalkya as recorded in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Ch. III, IV)?