The Development of Religious Consciousness
by Swami Krishnananda

The History of Religious Consciousness: Kant, Hegel, Descartes and Shankaracharya

Religious awareness arises due to the recognition of a ‘beyond oneself’. There is something which makes everyone feel that no one is complete in one’s own self. The incompleteness of one’s personality and the mode of existence suggest that there should be something where the expected completeness would be realised.

The incomplete always considers the would-be completeness as an ‘ought’ or a ‘must’, rather than an ‘is’ or a present condition. The Beyond, which is inseparable from the acceptance of one’s limitations and finitude, always recedes further and further when we try to pursue it, like the horizon which seems to be far and beyond; and if we move in the direction of the horizon to reach it, we will find it has gone further onward, and we can never find it.

In religious and philosophical circles, the nature of this Beyond has been designated in different ways. Some philosophers have concluded that the Beyond will always be beyond, and it can never become an actual fact of present experience. The modus operandi of human perception is incompetent to reach that which is beyond its own possibilities. There is always an unknown content permeating the whole world—a distressing and disturbing presence because it cannot be denied that it exists, nor can one be sure that it can be really attained.

When we say, “Something is beyond me,” we have already accepted that we are incapable of contacting it. Philosophers and psychologists of religion have tried their best to explain this peculiar situation which is inexplicable and yet unavoidable. Something is there; otherwise, we would not feel dissatisfied. Where is that ‘something’? There are various arguments, called arguments for the existence of God, or we may say the existence of That which is the completeness of our finite existence. This great Beyond exists. It must exist; otherwise, it cannot beckon us, summon us, and keep us in tenterhooks. How do we conclude that there is a Beyond which is complete in itself? Very difficult is the answer to this question. This particular manner of thinking is called, especially in Western circles, the ontological argument. Ontology is the science of being. It is not the being of this thing or that thing, but Being-as-such—Pure Being.

People have not found a suitable word to describe the nature of this Being. In their eagerness to be very precise and not commit any mistake in defining it, they have sometimes attempted to condense this word ‘Being’ into ‘Be-ness’. ‘Be-ness’ is a strange word which has been coined by philosophers. It must be existing. It must be existing as a complete answer to the incomplete quest of the human individual. Completeness is a reality, because it exists.

The concept of this completeness involves the relationship between thought and reality. This is a moot point in the field of philosophy. Can thought contact reality? It has already been mentioned that present conditions of the psychological apparatus cannot contact the Beyond, because the apparatus of cognition and perception is limited to certain areas of operation, and it cannot transcend those areas. But another question arises. If it is impossible to even conceive what is beyond the possibility of human perception, how does this idea arise at all? This is a very serious question that was raised by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. His whole book is a commentary on this theme. In the history of philosophy, people have been for him and against him.

He concludes that the idea of a Perfect Being, as he calls it, is an idea of reason. It is not to be identified with the area which is covered by human understanding or sensory perception. His book is divided into three parts: aesthetic, analytic, and logic, or the idea of reason. Kant’s contention is that the idea of reason is also conditioned by the limitations of the understanding, which is subject to certain categories.

Great is the mind of Kant; but something is missing in his investigations. Even the idea that there should be a Perfect Being should be explained in its content. His argument is that idea cannot be an existence. Idea only defines the external features of a possible existence, and a description of a thing is not the thing-in-itself. Nobody can contact anything directly because everything is cast in the mould of the perceptual and cognitional categories.

But here we have a rescuing factor coming from persons like Rene Descartes, a French philosopher. The idea of finitude is a summon to the idea of the Infinite. The consciousness of finitude is an indication of the possibility of exceeding the limits of finitude. The consciousness of there being a fence shows that there is something beyond the fence. Therefore, the idea of reason should not be regarded as merely a conjecture of the category-bound understanding. It is a different thing altogether.

Whether or not thought can contact reality is a question which Kant could not answer. He was more of an epistemologist than a metaphysician. His conclusion was that thought cannot contact reality. But Hegel went beyond it, and had no problems of this kind. Hegel said that the thing as it is in itself, which Kant considered as impossible of contact, is itself the source of the manifestation of the categories. You yourself are the thing-in-itself—what you may call Atman, in Indian philosophical circles.

That you cannot contact the thing as it is, is another way of saying that you cannot contact your own self. It is true that you cannot contact your own self, because there is no means of contact. The contact of oneself, by oneself, is not an epistemological phenomenon. It is something different altogether. To contact yourself, you do not require a means of knowledge, such as perception, inference, scripture, and other things. That thing which is objectively conceived as the thing itself as non-contactable happens to be the pure subject itself, which Kant calls the transcendental unity of apperception—not perception, but apperception.

The thing which cannot be contacted is transcended. When you call a thing transcendent, you mean that it is impossible of contact; but it happens to be your own self. All things in the world are near, but you are the most distant thing to your own self. You can catch anybody or anything, but you cannot catch yourself. The means of catching yourself is absent. You can use scientific technological instruments to contact the Moon, the stars, the Milky Way, nebulae, and so on, but where is the means of contacting your own self? Can you climb on your own shoulders? This subject has been the in-depth consideration of Indian philosophical thinkers, especially the Vedanta.

Kant and Hegel are the modern representations of something like Plato and Aristotle in ancient times. Both are engaged in a race of who will reach the destination first. Both are equally great; yet these two mammoths of philosophical profundity basically differ from one another, because what Kant considered as the categories of the understanding in a subjective fashion became the objective structure of the universe itself for Hegel. The categories mentioned by Kant in his analytic are not psychological apparatus. It is a metaphysical system. It is the nature of the Absolute itself. The manner in which Kant describes the categories of understanding is actually to be taken as the manner in which the Absolute operates within itself.

This is a great advance in thinking. There is some similarity between the in-depth considerations of Plato and the findings of Kant and Hegel. Plato is a complete philosopher. We can find everything in him, like the Upanishads. We may call him the Upanishad of the West. Everything, every subject, has been considered threadbare in one way or the other. This is why the great modern philosopher Alfred North Whitehead felt that the whole history of philosophy consists in footnotes to Plato. He has said everything, and nobody can say anything more than that. This can also be said in regard to Acharya Sankara’s philosophy in the Vedanta circle—that everything any Indian philosopher has said is a footnote to Acharya Sankara, if only we would try to understand what he has written.

The vast literature attributed to Acharya Sankara is incapable of easy grasping. The unknown content of the universe, the ‘beyond you’, is yourself. You yourself are the Beyond; you are beyond yourself. A similar reference can be found in the Bhagavadgita. Uddhared ātmanātmānaṁ: The self has to be raised by the Self. Here is the Bhagavadgita in half a sentence. The transcendental unity of apperception, which is the higher Self, should raise the empirical self, which is involved in the phenomenal categories.

Rene Descartes, a French philosopher, tells us the consciousness of finitude establishes the existence of the Infinite. We cannot be aware that we are limited unless we are simultaneously aware that there is something unlimited. The limited and the unlimited are not apart from each other by spatial or geometrical distance. The distance is only logical. They collide with each other, coincide with each other; they are two wings of the same bird, as it were. Therefore, the Infinite must exist.

If the Infinite does exist, what is its nature? Again we come to Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” Cogito ergo sum. Or we may say, “I am, therefore I think.” Our thinking, or our being conscious of our finitude, is simultaneously associated with the possibility of transcending the finitude, which also is an object of consciousness. So, the consciousness of the Infinite must be existing. As consciousness cannot be a quality of the Infinite, describing it as an external phenomenon is not a whitewashing on the wall, but it is the substance of the wall itself. Thus, the nature of the Infinite is pure consciousness.

Consciousness and being cannot be separated from each other. When we say, “I am here,” we are actually saying, “I am conscious of my being here.” Our consciousness is not different from our being. Our being is our consciousness of our being. Sat is chit; chit is sat. Because it is the great freedom that we attain, it is also called bliss—ananda. Therefore, sat-chit-ananda is the Ultimate Reality.

Here we have an excursion through the fields of Kant, Hegel, Plato, Acharya Sankara, and Descartes—a great congregation of masters who have delved into the depths of reality. We now conclude that the idea of reason, which Kant dubs as phenomenal, as is the case with understanding, is the ambassador of the thing-in-itself.

The light of the Sun is an indication of the existence of the Sun. The idea does not arise from phenomenal categories, because anything that is phenomenal can never conceive that which is not phenomenal. There is a contradiction in the statement that the phenomenal categories cannot conceive the non-phenomenal noumenon. There is a non-phenomenal element present even in phenomena. God is in the world, though He is above the world.

This is a slight variation that I have made in connection with the ontological argument—a more descriptive form of it, as we have it in Saint Anselm, Rene Descartes and even Hegel in some way. God exists. The Infinite exists. The summoning of the Infinite is the call of the religious consciousness. We cannot rest quiet until we contact it.

There is another argument, known as the causal argument or the cosmological argument. Everything seems to be a process of conditioning, an effect. Anything that is in a process should have behind it a non-process, or a changelessness. The world is changing, and the concept of change involves the concept of that which does not change. When the railway train moves, it implies that the rails do not move. If the rails also start moving, there will be no movement at all. So, there cannot be change, transformation, phenomenality, fluxation or momentariness unless there is the opposite of it at the background. Therefore, there must be a cause.

Every cause has a cause behind it. If we reach the summit of this chain of causation, we will find that there is no end to it. The causal concept breaks down if there is no ultimate cause which itself cannot be considered as an effect of something else. This causeless cause may be called God—the Unmoved Mover, as Aristotle calls it. The effect, which is changing, proves the existence of a cause which is not changing. A thing that is contingent in its nature establishes the fact of a non-contingent existence.

The third argument is called the teleological argument—argument by the design, the perfection, and the order in which things are operating. We see that everything in nature moves perfectly, systematically, with mathematical precision. There is no chaos anywhere. Everything adjusts itself to another thing, like the large number of parts of a machine cooperating with one another to bring about the output of this mechanical process. Though the number of parts of the machine may be many, the end result is one, and centralised. The parts could not have worked in such harmony unless someone has arranged them in such a manner, as in the case of a watch, for instance. The watch works systematically in a perfect design, implying thereby that somebody’s mind hascreated the design of the watch—or nature as a whole, which operates systematically. This designer may be called the architect of the universe, the fashioner of all existence; call Him God.

There is another argument, called the henological argument, which was advanced by St. Thomas Aquinas, a medieval philosopher. The term ‘henological argument’ was coined by him. The concept of ‘more’ leads to the concept of ‘more and more’. As the causal concept leads us finally to a causeless cause, the concept of ‘more’ should lead us to a state where it is not necessary to move the ‘more’ further on. We say we want more and more of things. Any amount of benefit that is granted to us will still leave a ‘more’ behind it. Whatever be the salary that we get, even if it is a hundred million dollars a month, we would like to have even more than that. There is no limit for this ‘more’.

We cannot consider the human mind to be idiotic—that it thinks erratically, without any meaning. It has a system of its own. Its acting is an indication of a great mystery and perfection existing beyond itself. The mental operations are indications and, therefore, they have a system of their own. The mind is holistic in its operation. It is a Gestalt. Thoughts are not a chaotic, slipshod action of the mind. The mind is a great organisation; it is a whole by itself.

In the henological argument, this psychological whole suggests the existence of a metaphysical cosmic Absolute whole. There are many other arguments brought forward by Indian Nyaya philosophers such as Bodayana Acharya, the details of which I am not entering into now. The idea behind it is that the consciousness of a Beyond is the reason for the development of the religious consciousness.

Generally, in conditions of life which we usually call primitive, a wonder behind the operations of nature became the impulse for adoration of that thing which is the cause of wonder. Why are the stars moving in this manner? Why is there rainfall? Why is there summer? Why is there winter? Why is there wind? How is it that the Sun rises in this manner? As every effect is considered to have a cause behind it, the mind cannot free itself from the necessity to think in terms of causes. Every event has a cause behind it. As the events are beautifully organised, the causes behind these beautiful organisations should be intelligent existences. These are the original concepts of the gods behind nature.

The prayers of the Rigveda Samhita, right from the beginning to the end, seem to be approving this phenomenon in religious history—that the senses, which are the main perceptual apparatus in the human being, see a vastness spread out before them; and because this vastness, which is multitudinous in nature, requires an explanation in terms of something that is behind this multitudinousness, in the beginning we may concede that every item of the multitude has a divinity behind it. This is why it is sometimes believed that there are many gods in heaven. We call it heaven because it is beyond natural phenomena. The cause should be beyond the effect; so, the cause is transcendent. We may consider the cause of natural phenomena as a heavenly operation—a kingdom of gods. Many things are there, so there must be many gods behind each one. This is supposed to be the beginning of religious awareness, if we are to believe the findings of historical researchers in the rising of the religious consciousness. We cannot say that this is the only way of looking at things; this is one way, the empirical way, the inductive method, which modern historians of religious philosophy employ.

The Rigveda has all the features of this kind of perception of the consequences of the divine operations behind everything. But the quest did not end here. The inquisitiveness of the human mind is so deep that it can never be satisfied. It goes on asking more and more questions, again and again, “How is it? Why is it like that?”

If there are many different divinities, an angel operating behind everything, all which is endless in its variety, then what would be the relationship between these divinities? They will be like scattered existences, with no concourse or relationship among them. A higher advance in the consciousness of these many gods felt like accepting that these divinities must be working in groups. Just as a single human being cannot achieve anything, and for that reason people join organisations, societies, institutions, etc., a single god cannot be the explanation for any phenomenon. There must be group gods—Visvedevas, as they are called in the Rigveda Samhita. Many gods must be in collaboration, as a group or a society of gods. Here also, the quest did not end.

While there can be many groups, what is the relationship of one group to another group? In a national setup, if there were many villages and commissionaries operating independently, there would be no unity in the concept of the nation. The districts and the commissionaries and villages, etc., have to be brought together into a larger concept of the national administration. So, this group psychology, or the idea of group gods, was not found satisfying, finally. We may say that it took centuries for the human mind to go on advancing itself gradually, stage by stage. It is not that every day a new thought comes. For centuries, one thought may continue; after some centuries, another thought in an advanced form begins.

We can accept that there is also a unity among the community of gods. Indra is the ruler of the gods, we say in mythological epics. Why should there be a ruler of the gods? Are the gods not complete in themselves? Are the collectors and the commissioners and state secretaries not complete in themselves? Maybe they are complete, but they require coordination from a higher authority, which is the concept of the constitution of the government. It is the central pivotal determining factor. Many gods, or even groups of gods, cannot satisfy us. The government can be only one; we cannot have two governments.

Even today, when there are many governments in the world, people are not satisfied. There are statesmen who dream of what may be called a world government. Why should we have many governments? If there were a world government, there would be no conflict of any kind. Everything would be interrelated beautifully, harmonised perfectly. Maybe there would be no wars and conflicts of any kind, and all contention would cease. This is the hope of humanity—a world government that people sometimes call Ramraja in Indian administrative and royal tradition.

The mind is not satisfied with anything. It wants to be complete in every way; and we cannot have two complete things together, like two great men, because two great men cannot join unless there is a third thing greater than these two great men. This brought the religious quest to the concept of monotheism: there is one God. One God rules the whole universe. He is the creator, the preserver, the dissolver, and the destroyer. We in India, in Hindu circles, call it Brahma-Vishnu-Siva. Every religion conceives God as having a threefold function: there is a perpetual creation going on, there is a continual sustenance and maintenance in perfect order of what is created, and there is a dissolution of the universe.

At every moment there are new productions of cellular activity in our body. New cells are formed; creation takes place every moment in our body. These cells are main­tained in a perfect order, in an anabolic fashion, constructively, and they have to transform themselves into a newer setup of greater advancement in the structure of our personality. There is a catabolic activity taking place, because otherwise we would have the same cells always, and would not grow at all. So, Brahma-Vishnu-Siva are operating not as one thing today, another thing tomorrow, and a third thing on the following day. The three gods act immediately, simultaneously, if we can conceive of such a possibility.

At every moment there is creation, preservation, and destruction. Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva are one God only, finally—three functions of the one God. Monotheism is the doctrine of one God. In India, the great teachers of monotheism are Acharya Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha, Nimbarka, Sri Krishna Chaitanya Deva, and the great protagonists of the Saiva Agamas, and even the Sakta Agamas. There is one divinity finally, they say. Still, there is no full satisfaction. God has created the world; all right, we accept it. But is God inside the world? This is a concept which goes by the name of deism, a God who is above the world, unconnected with the world, unconnected with the world, transcendent to the world, and therefore extra-cosmic. This is the Nyaya and the Vaiseshika. Even the Ishvara propounded by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras is of that nature. Ishvara is only an apparatus. He does not enter the world. He operates the world from a distance, like a carpenter making a table or chair, or a potter fashioning mud pots.

The relationship between God and the world is not clear. Many thought God is inside the world—the whole world is God only. Western philosophers dubbed this kind of thought as pantheism, which means ‘all God’. The whole world created is God only. But this is considered to be a foolish notion, and not acceptable finally. We cannot say that God has become the world as milk becomes curd or yoghurt, because yoghurt cannot become milk once again; so if God has exhausted Himself in this world, there would be no such thing as reaching God afterwards because He has exhausted Himself here in the world. So, great thinkers later on coined this word ‘panentheism’. God may be immanent, but He is not pantheistic; He is also transcendent, at the same time.

Difficult is this concept. How would God be inside, as well as not inside? Here philosophical argument fails; religion cannot go further. It says, “Thus far, and no further.” When intellect fails, true religion begins. Religious perception, or religious awareness, is an intuitive process. It is a self-identical recognition of Being-as-such, God knowing God. The theistic concept also brought these problems. When did God create the world? This question follows when we accept that God created the world, because creation is a temporal process. Space and time are necessary in order that the world may be created, so God must have created space and time first, before creating the world.

But space and time also are products of the process of creation. And so, how do we explain creation? What is the substance out of which the world is made? Call it space-time, or whatever—this substance out of which God has created the world should have a relationship to God. This relationship is inexplicable because if we say He has fashioned a thing out of a material, like the Prakriti of the Samkhya, then there would be no connection between the Creator and the created. Samkhya tells us that Purusha has no connection with Prakriti. If that is the case, people who are involved in Prakriti cannot contact Purusha.

Theism has many difficulties, such as the perception of evil in the world, chaos, and ugliness. Everything is not beautiful. Who created evil? If God created the world, He must have also created evil and sin. But this is abhorrent; we cannot say that. No sensible person will say God created evil and sin.

Then, when God created the world, He did not create sin. Who created it? No individual can be called the creator of sin, because sin is the aberration from the Universal Whole, and unless the aberration has already taken place, the individual cannot come into existence. Therefore, we cannot say it exists in the individual. It cannot exist in God, also. These problems arise due to the theistic conception of God.

Beyond that is the monistic conception, the conception of the Absolute. In the West, Hegel represents this mode of thinking; and in the East, the Upanishads and principally Acharya Sankara give a presentation of this to some extent. The whole thing ends in monism, the acceptance of an indescribable, incomprehensible, astounding Absolute. Religion leads to this final conclusion in its aspiration for perfection. Since the Absolute cannot be outside the seeker of the Absolute, the very consciousness of the Absolute is a kind of freedom attained. “Knowing Brahman is being Brahman,” says the Upanishad. To know the Absolute is to be the Absolute.

Minds which are impure, which cannot free themselves from the various types of prejudices which are inseparable from human nature, cannot conceive the Absolute. Therefore, a great many disciplinary processes have been prescribed before entering into the argument of God as the Absolute. They are called the yamas and niyamas, sadhana chatushtaya, etc. Here we are faced with a danger of touching an impossible thing, if the means of this touch or contact is not strong enough. That is why the seeking soul, which is the seeker of the Absolute, is not the mind that seeks it. The Absolute, planted in the human individual as the Atman, seeks it. That is why they say the Atman is Brahman, the Self is the Absolute.

Here religion reaches its climax in an astounding manner. If it is pursued vigilantly, with sincerity and purity of heart, it will end this turmoil of transmigratory existence, and we will attain what is called final liberation, or Moksha.