The Epistemology of Yoga
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 7: Comparative Philosophy on the Ultimate Reality

There is an inveterate obsession in our minds which prevents us almost entirely from conceiving the goal of life as a practical reality. It remains mostly as a kind of concept and an idea, an ideal which is not easily reconcilable with the hard realities of the workaday world. It may be God Himself, but nevertheless He is only an idea and an ideal, a concept, an imagination, a possibility, a may-be or may-not-be. This suspicious outlook is not absent even in the most advanced persons, due to the strength of the senses, the power of the mind and the habit of the intellect in understanding things in a given fashion. We are discussing a subject called comparative philosophy; and, in this context, we would be benefited by bestowing a little thought on the conclusions arrived at by certain other thinkers also, apart from the Vedantic philosophers like Sankara with whom we are well acquainted and about whose thinking we have spoken enough.

There was a great man in Greece, called Plato. According to Paul Dyson, the world has produced only three philosophers: Plato, Kant and Sankara. There is some truth in what he says. There cannot be a greater philosopher than these three persons. I was thinking about this statement—why does Dyson say this. Finally, I felt there is some truth in it, whatever it is.

The idea of the Ultimate Reality is the principal doctrine of Plato. I started by saying that we are living in a world of ideas when we live a spiritual life—when we behave religiously, conduct worship and mass, do prayers, do japa and even meditation. But there is a very uncomfortable consequence that follows the idea: that, after all, the Ultimate Reality is an idea.

Ideas are abstractions, notions, which are supposed to correspond to realities, and as long as ideas correspond to realities, they are valid. I have an idea that there is a building in front of me. This idea is a valid idea because it corresponds to the real existence of a building outside. Therefore, the validity of my idea depends upon the reality of the object which is in front of it. My idea itself has no reality. It is a borrowed reality. It hangs on the existence of something else outside—the building. But, if the idea of the Ultimate Reality, or God, is to hang on the existence of another thing, God is not a real being.

This is a very subtle difficulty that may trouble the minds of even sincere seekers. Don’t you think that the world is real? It is not merely real, it is very, very real, hard to the core, flint-like —and no one can gainsay that it is. Perhaps, the world alone is. God is an idea that has been introduced into our minds by our ancestors, by our books, by our scriptures, by our professors, teachers and parents, and somehow we have been forced by the logic of these teachings to accept that there should be such a thing as an other-worldly existence. We have somehow reconciled ourselves with it: God must be there.

But, we are accepting the existence of God against our own will. We are hungry and thirsty, and this hunger and thirst of the body is more real than the idea of God. No one can say it is not so, whatever be our devotion to God. We are terribly angry, upset and very much attached to things, all of which cannot be explained in the light of the supreme existence of God. It is so even in the case of advanced seekers, sadhakas and sincere aspirants. This subject is a principal theme of Plato’s doctrine on the Ultimate Reality.

Socrates was a speaker, and he had many colleagues with whom he conducted conversations. Doubts arose in the minds of those colleagues. Ideas precede realities; this one sentence is the entire philosophy of Plato. The reality of the objective universe is subsequent to the idea of the universe. Here we have an echo of the great philosophy of Vedanta that Hiranyagarbha is prior to the cosmos of physical appearance.

The Panchadashi, the Upanishads and other systems of Vedantic thinking tell us that in Hiranyagarbha the world does not exist in a concrete form, as it appears. It is only an idea cosmically manifested by Ishvara, who is subtler than even the idea. Ishvara is only a possibility of the very idea that there should be such a thing called the universe. Hence, Ishvara would be subtler than even the idea which is Hiranyagarbha. Virat is supposed to be the animating consciousness behind this so-called physicality of creation.

Even in the Vedanta philosophy, all great men think alike; there is the same doctrine of the idea preceding concrete existence. But, we can never believe this. My idea that there is a desk in front of me cannot be said to be harder in its concreteness than the desk itself. I have an idea that there is a little table in front of me. Is the table more real, or is my idea that the table is there more real? Anyone with common sense will say that the idea is subsequent to the existence of the object called the table, and the idea does not precede the object. Because there is a table, we think that there is a table. We have an idea that there is an object, so the idea that there is an object is a consequence of the existence of the object. Therefore, God must be a subsequent, and not a precedent.

These questions arose before Socrates. How can we say that an idea is prior to the universe? How can there be an idea unless the universe exists? How can we have a thought about a thing unless the thing exists? How do we say that things are subsequent and ideas are precedent? If God is Supreme Consciousness, how could consciousness be prior to existence? Consciousness is always of something existing. If something is not there, then there cannot be consciousness. What is meant by saying merely consciousness, awareness, understanding, thinking, feeling? They cannot have any significance unless they are connected to a thing which is already there in existence.

This is the gross realistic doctrine of empirical philosophers, which was highlighted by British thinkers like Locke, Berkeley and Hume, but already anticipated, in a different fashion, by people like Plato and Aristotle. This is a very terrible problem before us, notwithstanding the fact that we are devotees of God and honest, religious thinkers.

The concreteness of the world and the reality of the things that we see with our eyes and contact with our senses cannot be abrogated merely by the notion that ideas are precedent. Ideas cannot be precedent as long as we are accustomed to thinking in the way we are thinking today. “Here is a man coming.” I am saying this. The man is there and, therefore, I have an idea that he is coming. If the man were not there, the idea could not be there. It is not that I think the man first and then the man comes. The man is there, and the idea comes afterwards. So, realism has this great forte behind it. There cannot be an idea unless an object already exists. God must be afterwards; the world is first. Here is materialism, which has a very strong ground. Consciousness cannot be there unless an object is there; so, what we call consciousness is only an exudation, a manifestation, a kind of effect from an already-existing material stuff. This is crude materialism, realism—impossible to face easily. We cannot answer these people. We will not be able to say anything about this matter. “Ah, yes. There is something in it.”

This problem is an indication of the state in which we are placed—how far we are advanced spiritually. Where is our spirituality? Where is our God-love and God-consciousness? Incidentally, this is not a joking matter or a humour. It is a very, very serious thing for us. Whatever be the study of our scriptures, we cannot get out of the idea that we are living in a very, very hard, flint-like, iron-like, steel-like world; and we can never accept that the idea of the world is in any way more real than the world.

But, Plato affirmed that ideas are more real than the world. The universals are precedent to the particulars. Horse-ness is prior to horse. It is very strange, indeed, to say this. Horse-ness is prior to horse. Table-ness is prior to table. Building-ness is before building. How can there be building-ness before the building came into being? How can there be horse-ness unless there is a horse? These questions were hurled at Socrates. We cannot easily answer these questions. We know very well that there cannot be horse-ness unless the horse is already there.

Man’s mind is very poor. It is not wholly philosophical, and we cannot understand how there can be an idea of a thing unless the thing is already there. How can God’s consciousness be there if God is only consciousness minus the consciousness of something? We have been indoctrinated into this belief not merely in this life but throughout the lives that we have lived in earlier incarnations. The difficulty arises on account of the impressions created in our minds by hanging on objects of sense.

We have passed through many births. The little spiritual aspiration that we have is a late development in the process of our evolution. Let each one of us think: Since when are we thinking of God, and religion, and spirituality? Since how many years? Compared to these few years of our ardent adventure in the spiritual field, what is that long, long time which we have passed in other types of thinking? The heavy weight of the errors in our thoughts in our previous lives hangs on us so vehemently and powerfully that our little aspiration is submerged. Therefore, again and again we have suspicions in our minds; doubts are galore. Very great difficulties are there. Am I fit? Am I right? Is there some substance in it? Am I living in a foolish world, in a fool’s paradise? Nothing is coming. I have been meditating for years, and nothing is visible. Or, I may be hoodwinked even if there is some point in it. Or, all is a waste. These doubts can come, even to sincere seekers.

The idea of the world is not dependent upon the world; the world is dependent upon the idea. Berkeley said this in a crude form, but Plato affirmed it in a more philosophical fashion. We can never stomach this idea that consciousness is precedent to matter, though we have attempted to convince ourselves that consciousness is our essential reality by an analysis conducted of the three states of waking, dream and deep sleep. We have already understood this, to some extent. We have gone into the depths of our condition in deep sleep where we appear to exist only as Pure Consciousness, minus association with the body and mind. If we could exist as Pure Consciousness, minus the body and mind, in the state of deep sleep, that must have been what our stuff is. This so-called body of ours, this hard substance of contactual experience and the mind which thinks of it, are subsequent evolutes. If they were the ultimate realities that we are, they would have also persisted in deep sleep. But, we had no such experience there; we were bare, featureless, unobjectified Being-Consciousness only. This was what we learned in our earlier analysis of the condition of sleep.

What were we in deep sleep if not man, not woman, not human being, not body, not mind, not anything, not any object? What were we, then? A mere bare, impersonal, indefinite, undivided awareness is what we were. This consciousness that we were is the same as consciousness of being, inseparable from being—being inseparable from consciousness, concciousness inseparable from being.

This is the great conclusion of Vedanta philosophy. Being-Consciousness, Sat-Chit, was our essential nature—not body, not mind, not the world, not anything the senses can see or perceive. Then, wherefrom this body came? What is this body? What is this world? What are these brick buildings, and stony mountains, and flowing rivers, and the burning sun? What is all this? From where have they come? They are, also, ideas.

When Berkeley said that all the trees and mountains and heaven and earth are only ideas, later on Samuel Johnson, it seems, kicked a brick and said, “I hereby refute Berkeley.” Kicking a brick does not refute Berkeley. It is a very prosaic way of confronting him. There was a mistake in the thinking of Samuel Johnson. We cannot kick a building and say that we have refuted Berkeley, because Berkeley includes Johnson himself, not merely the brick, in his doctrine of ideas.

Electric repulsions can produce a sensation of hardness, as those of us who have had an electric shock may know. If we touch a live wire with high voltage flowing through it, we will have a sensation of terrible weight and solidity. Though nothing is there, we will feel as if a mountain is hanging on our hand. Anyone who had a shock knows what it is. How can this idea of the heavy weight of a mountain hanging on our hand be a sensation when there was nothing whatsoever except the fact that we touched a live wire?

Why go so far? Come to our own modern scientists. These solid objects, maybe of steel or granite, are constituted of electric energy—pure energy, electric energy; we may say, electricity itself. What is electricity? It cannot be seen. It has no weight; it has no dimension, no length, breadth or height. A thing which has no length, breadth or height is the raw material of heavy substances which have length, breadth and height. This indescribable continuum of force and motion has become atoms and molecules, and hard things like mountains and the solar system.

Go further still. The doctrine of relativity lands us in a mere idea of the cosmos. The space-time stuff which they speak of as the ultimate substance is not a hard reality. Neither space nor time can be called a hard reality like a table. Researchers in the science of physics seem to conclude that the hardest realities, like hills and rocks, are constituted of configurations of the space-time continuum. We cannot understand what this space-time continuum is except as a mathematical heap of point events in the brain of the scientist —but, not a human scientist. Here Berkeley rectified himself when he said that the world is an idea—not of Mr. Berkeley, but of a larger being in whom all the individual ideas are also included. We again come to Hiranyagarbha in Vedanta philosophy, though such words are not used by Berkeley or Plato.

Plato uses the words “the idea of the good”, a strange definition of his. We may say “idea of God”, if we like. It is not idea of God, but idea which is God. Actually, God is only an idea—not our idea, but idea as such, which is the cause of all other ideas. The Yoga Vasishtha goes into great detail in the explanation of this point that the whole universe is mind—not my mind or your mind, but mind as such—pure, impersonal existence of which our minds, thoughts, feelings and volitions are ripples. Read the great book of Samuel Alexander, Space, Time and Deity, which is a great exposition of the structure of the universe, made on the basis of the modern theory of relativity.

The physical universe, which is so hard and real, is only space-time. Space-time is not a substance; it is not something tangible. We cannot touch it. We cannot see it. We cannot sense it. We cannot taste it. We cannot smell it. And a thing which cannot be sensed is not a reality at all. But, that is the reality. It configures, pinpoints, pressurises itself into a movement, a force. Space-time becomes motion, manifesting itself into primary qualities of length, breadth and height. Remember that length, breadth and height do not mean the length, breadth and height of substances; they have nevercome into being.

These are difficult things that only a mathematician will understand or a purely impersonal thinker will be able to appreciate. How can there be the conception of length, breadth and height unless objects are there? But space-time is itself without dimensions; it has no dimensions. It is a four-dimensional thing, not a three-dimensional substance; and, we do not know what a four-dimensional thing is. It is only an idea, a meaningless thing for us. It becomes primary qualities like length, breadth and height, etc. Geometrical patterns are called primary qualities, which manifest themselves as secondary qualities of colour, sound, taste, smell, etc. The world has not come into being yet. We have only tanmatrasshabda, sparsa, rupa, rasa and gandha, says the Vedanta philosophy. Shabda, sparsa, rupa, rasa and gandha—sound, touch, etc. —are not substances, but are principles behind the objects which produce these sensations. The world is not earth, water, fire, air and ether, hard substances, but is shabda, sparsa, rupa, rasa and gandha, comparable to the secondary qualities of Aristotle and Plato, and the modern scientists.

Oh, what a wonder! We seem to be living in a dreamland, like Alice in Wonderland. We are not living in the world as it appears. The primary qualities condensing themselves into secondary qualities of sensations solidify themselves, as it were, into hard realities like the heaviness that we feel when we get an electric shock. Thus, by these conclusions it appears that the solidity and the substantiality of this physical world is comparable to the solidity and the substantiality of the mountain that we felt weighing heavy in our hand when we had a high voltage shock. Does the world exist? No one knows.

Our own body is also of the same nature. This substantiality of the world, which has been reduced to practically nothing but a sensation and an idea of a cosmic existence, also includes the very notion of our body so that, by these conclusions, we also go, and the scientist also goes. Sir Arthur Eddington said that no scientist can live in this world without going mad. Fortunately, he did not want to go mad—because with these conclusions, no one can exist here for three minutes. Buddha said that a really perceiving individual cannot exist in this world for three days. He will melt into nothing. But that perception has not arisen in us; that is the reason why we are very happy here. Therefore, ignorance is the cause of our very comfortable existence.

This comparative study of Eastern conclusions with Western discoveries seems to make us feel that all great men think alike—whether Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, or Acharya Sankara or Vidyaranya Swami. Ideas, therefore, are not ideas of things which are previous to the ideas, just as space and time are not subsequent to the substances we call the objective world. They are precedent to the objective world.

It is a fine conclusion of Sir James Jeans, for instance, that God must be a mathematician. It is not a man thinking mathematical points, but mathematics itself. How can there be only the thought of mathematics, without a person thinking mathematics? He says it is a mathematical consciousness, highly abstract, purely impersonal, and the universe is nothing but conceptions of mathematics. Today we are in this world of modern physics; and, what is Hiranyagarbha, what is Ishvara, but these conceptions in the Sanskrit language? What are shabda, sparsa, rupa, rasa and gandha? They are only conceptual precedents of the hard substances called earth, water, fire, air and ether—including our physical bodies. We can imagine why we have difficulties in meditation, why we cannot do japa, we cannot do prayer, we get angry over little things and we fly at the throat of another. It is because we are yet to be spiritual. Religion has not yet entered us fully. We are playing jokes with God, at least for now.

These deeper truths cannot easily enter our minds, because we are very busy bodies—with bricks and mortar, vegetables, tea and coffee. These are greater realities than these supernal ideas that are the contents of our religious and spiritual consciousness. I raised these ideas before you to bring about a comparison between the great thinkers of the East like Acharya Sankara, the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita, and Western thinkers like Plato, Aristotle and Kant. They seem to think alike, only in different languages and giving different definitions.

We are now face to face with a great reality, the God of the cosmos. We have passed through an analysis. If you remember what I told you earlier, in the preceding lessons, we have conducted a study of the essential nature of the human being by a study of the three states of consciousness—waking, dream and deep sleep. We studied epistemological processes, the perception of the world, how we come in contact with things, and how we know that the world exists at all. This, too, we have concluded. Many of you maynot remember it; but, think over it.

Now we are facing the third principle, the Ultimate Reality of the cosmos. Call it the Absolute, call it Sat-Chit-Ananda, God, Ishvara, Hiranyagarbha, Virat—whatever it is. Here, true religion begins. Real religion is an awareness of the presence of the Supreme Being. It is well said that religion begins where intellect ends, where reason fails. When religion commences to control our life, we cease to be a mere intellectual scientist or philosopher. We are no more a thinker, but a person who lives Reality. Religion is living Reality, and not merely thinking Reality or analysing it academically. All this has been gone over already in our earlier lessons. We have thought enough philosophically and academically, and we shall not touch this subject again.

We shall enter into true religion, which is God-consciousness itself in some proportion, in some measure, in a modicum. To face God and to encounter Him in our actual life is to live religion. Thus, religion is not ringing a bell, waving a light or chanting a mantra; it is encountering God face to face. Religion is superior to philosophy, if we understand religion in the true sense of the term. Religion is not Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism. It is the art of envisaging God-being—man melting like ice vanishing before the blaze of the sun. When the sun of God-consciousness rises, this hard substance called body-consciousness evaporates into an ethereal nothing. Gradually, we begin to approximate God-being.

The life of religion is the way of gradual approximation to God-consciousness. Here, true love begins to preponderate in our lives. We do not merely think God as philosophers and academicians and professors; we love God. And, we cannot love a thing which is not really there. We cannot love a thing which is only an idea, a concept in our mind. All love is an urge of the soul to contact that which it feels is a hard reality in front of itself. Every love is God-love, finally. The final stuff of the universe may be said to be love.

There is some secret meaning in the last verse of the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgita, where we are told that bhakti is supreme: bhaktya tu ananyaya sakya aham evam vidha. Naham vedair na tapasa na danena na cejyaya; sakya evam-vidho drashtum.The bhakti that Sri Krishna speaks of towards the end of the eleventh chapter is not the ordinary obeisance to an idol. It is not a mass that is performed in a church. It is a melting of our being before the Absolute. Therefore, Bhagavan Sri Krishna says, “Not charity, nor philanthropy, nor study, nor austerity is capable of bringing about this great vision that you had, Arjuna.” Na veda yajnadhyayanair na danair na ca kriyabhir na tapobhi rugraih; evam rupah sakya aham nr-loke. Bhaktya tu ananyaya sakya. “Only by devotion can I be seen, contacted.” Jnatum drastum ca tattvena pravestum. “I am capable of being known, seen and entered into.” Three words are used towards the end of the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgita: ‘knowing’, ‘seeing’ and ‘entering’. Arjuna knew and saw, but never entered into it. Therefore he was the same Arjuna even after the Bhagavadgita. He never merged into the Supreme Being.

Religion is knowing, seeing and entering into. Knowing is considered by such thinkers like Ramanuja, the great propounder of the Visishta-advaita philosophy, as inferior to devotion. I am now digressing a little from the point that I was discussing into another thing altogether, which is also interesting. Ramanuja said that knowledge, or jnana, is not equal to bhakti; and Acharya Sankara said that jnana is superior to bhakti. It may appear that they oppose each other, though really there is no opposition. They have laid emphasis on different aspects of the same question. Why does Bhagavan Sri Krishna say that nothing except bhakti can make us fit to see the vision of God? He seems to be speaking like Ramanuja, and not like Sankara. But they are saying the same thing in different ways. There is no contradiction between them. Knowing, seeing and entering into signify the processes of contacting God by degrees.

In Vedantic parlance, there are two types of knowledge: paroksa jnana and aparoksa jnana. Paroksa is indirect knowledge, and aparoksa is direct knowledge. That God exists is indirect knowledge; that I am inseparable from God-being is direct knowledge. Now we do not feel that we are inseparable from God’s being. That knowledge has not come to us. We have not entered such a height of religious consciousness as to be convinced that we are inseparable from God’s existence. But we are convinced enough to feel that God exists. At least, the people seated here are perhaps convinced that God must be. He is. Circumstances compel us to feel confident that God must be; God is. But, we have not gone to such an extent as to feel that we are inseparable from Him. That is a little higher stage. We have known in an indirect way. Jnana has come, but darshana, or the vision of God, has not come.

We are not seeing the Virat in front of us, notwithstanding the fact that we are seeing the Virat. This whole cosmos is that; but we have somehow segregated our personality from this Virat-consciousness. A cell in the body is seeing the body as if it is outside it. The way in which we are seeing the universe now is something like the a particular organism called a cell in the body separating itself in notion—not really, of course—from the body organism, and looking at the body. What would be the condition, the experience, of a cell in our own body notionally isolating itself from the organism to which it belongs and considering the body as a world outside it? You can imagine the stupidity of it.

This is exactly what we are doing. We think that the world is outside us because we fly into space and drive in a motorcar on the road, because a peculiar notion has become a reality in our minds that the world is outside us—though we are a part of the world. Therefore, the idea that the Virat is an object of perception and the world is external to us is notional, and not realistic. All our difficulties are notional, in the end. They have no reality or substance in themselves. We are bound by our minds, our thoughts, our feelings and our willing.

Hence, when Acharya Sankara says that jnana is superior and Ramanuja says that bhakti is superior, they are saying the same thing. By bhakti, Ramanuja means that love of God which supersedes intellectual activity, or mere knowing that God exists; and when Sankara says that jnana, or knowledge, is superior, he means that knowledge which is identical with being and which is the same as parabhakti, or love of God, where the soul is in communion with the being of God.

The highest devotion is the same as the highest knowledge. Jnana and parabhakti are the same. Gauna bhakti, or the secondary love of God, which is more ritualistic and formal, is inferior; but, Ramanuja’s bhakti is the surging of the soul and the melting of the personality in the experience of God. It is to become mad with God-love, as we hear in the case of Spinoza, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Tukharam, etc. Their bhakti was not simply the love of God that a churchgoer or a temple-goer has. It is a kind of ecstasy in which the personality has lost itself in God-being. That is jnana, and that is bhakti. In the ultimate reaches, there is no difference between Ramanuja and Sankara; and, Bhagavan Sri Krishna’s dictum is of a similar character.

Now, while we are discussing the final point in our studies, we are gradually losing attachment to this obsessive notion that we are tied up to this little Mr. and Mrs. body, and that we are located in a physical world called India, America, Japan, etc.; and we are slowly trying to become citizens of a larger dimension, which is wider than this earth—perhaps even larger than this solar system and this physical cosmos. When we enter into the true religious life, we become real children of God.