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Spiritual Import of Religious Festivals

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Chapter 5: Sankara – The Genius (Continued)

Now, this philosophy of uncritical acceptance of everything that is visible or everything that is sensible, to put it more generally, became the incentive behind the systems of thought called the Nyaya and the Vaiseshika, whose conclusion is that things are physical and psychological. There is no other reality conceivable. This conclusion is arrived at by a system of logic, argumentation, or a systematic, syllogistic process of argument. Inasmuch as the followers of this system entirely depended on the syllogism of human thinking, logical argumentation, deducing things from given premises, the system is called the Nyaya. 'Nyaya' means logic. It is, therefore, a logical system of pluralistic realism. It is logical because it is syllogistic. It is pluralistic because they accept the multiplicity of physical entities. It is realism because the world, according to them, is external to the human mind and it is not a part of the process of human thinking. What about God? Is there a place for a Creator in this scheme of things? Yes, this school of thought does accord a place. But He is like a potter making a pot, a carpenter making a table, an engineer or a mechanic constructing a machine. What does this imply? The potter can make the pot, or not make it; and he can break the pot, if he likes. The pot has nothing to do with the potter; it is completely outside him. By a similar analogy, God was regarded as an extra-cosmic being, outside the cosmos. The potter is outside the pot and cannot be inside the pot. Likewise God cannot be in the world, and He is outside the world, because if He is in the world, how can He create it? So the logical realism of the Nyaya and the Vaiseshika, which are brother systems, concluded that God is beyond the world and outside the world. And a multiplicity of material was posited as the stuff out of which this extra-cosmic creator began to mould this cosmos, as a potter would shape a pot by manipulating the clay-material that is available to him outside.

But many questions posed themselves before the minds of people. This philosophy was found not satisfactory. How could we reach this God who is extra-cosmic – what is the way? Is there a ladder from earth to heaven where God lives? His hands cannot reach us and our thoughts cannot reach Him. There seems to be some defect in these systems. This was the decision made by the Sankhya, which was a later development of philosophical thought. According to this School, it is not true that there are many physical entities or realities as the Nyaya and the Vaiseshika thought. All these manifold objects could be boiled down to certain fundamental essences or principles which are the building bricks of the cosmos. While the Vaiseshika and the Nyaya thought that there is earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, soul and so on, all independent of the other, though in their finer essences as atoms, etc., yet the multiplicity was accepted. But the Sankhya thought out this matter more deeply, and felt that it is not true that there are five elements. They are only five degrees of the intensity of one element. One element or principle, one being or stuff has modified itself into various densities. This was what Sankhya taught. There are not five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. Even the mind is not an independent entity. It is also a modification, in a particular form, of the very same stuff which is the substance out of which the cosmos is made. And if at all we have to accept more than one reality due to the exigency of experience and thought, we can at best accept only two entities: consciousness which sees and that which is seen, the experiencer and the experienced, the seer and the seen – or, to put it more precisely, consciousness and matter. These are the only two things that exist anywhere, and not more. We do not have five elements, many souls, etc., absolutely independent in their inner structure.

So, there was a logical development of thought from the Nyaya and the Vaiseshika, when the Sankhya philosophy developed its conclusions in regard to what is called Purusha and Prakriti. It is this Purusha and Prakriti that we generally call God and the world, in popular language. Why should we accept two entities? Who told you that there is a Purusha and there is a Prakriti? How do you know that there is consciousness and there is matter? Can you prove this? Can you substantiate this thesis? Yes, was the answer of the Sankhya. No human being can escape noticing an object outside in the world. You may try your best and stretch your imagination to its farthest limits, but you cannot escape the recognition of an object outside. It is there. It may be this or it may be that. But something is there outside. That is what you call matter. Matter is that which is other than consciousness; it is that which consciousness recognises, sees or comes in contact with. That which has not the characteristic of consciousness is matter. The distinguishing feature of that which is different from consciousness is that it is non-intelligent and, therefore, it cannot think. This is a wonderful philosophy. You can read it in detail in your leisure time. And as a matter of fact, Vedanta is nothing but an amplification of the Sankhya. The seed of the Vedanta was sown by the Sankhya itself. We have to give enough credit to the thinkers of the Sankhya for having paved the way for the onward march of later thinkers like Sankara.

Well, there is something very interesting to note in this philosophy of the Sankhya again. Is this satisfactory? The Sankhya thought that for certain obvious reasons the Nyaya and the Vaiseshika were not satisfactory, especially in its theory of God. The liberation, the nature of the soul and such other conclusions of the Nyaya and the Vaiseshika were almost preposterous. No thinking mind would accept them. So, the Sankhya came forward and proclaimed that liberation is a fact. There is such a thing as liberation or salvation. But, salvation is nothing but Purusha resting in himself, consciousness resting in itself, thought merging into its source. It is self-illumination of consciousness, independent of its contact with matter. This is Kaivalya, Ekatva, Absolute Independence. Thus there is no provision for God in the Sankhya system. This is not necessary at all, because we can get on in the world even without a God. Why not? The world and the world experiences are nothing but the contact of Spirit with matter. And liberation is nothing but separation of the Spirit from matter. We have explained the whole of experience here and hereafter with these two principles alone – Purusha and Prakriti, consciousness and matter.

But, and a great but, can you get on with this philosophy? Can you answer all questions of ethics and practical life with these two principles of Purusha and Prakriti alone? No, we cannot answer all questions and solve all problems with these two principles alone, because there is a small difficulty caused by the acceptance of the law of Karma which is recognised even by the Sankhya. Karma is nothing but the reaction that is set up to an action. It is the nemesis that follows every action that an individual or Purusha does. Merit is rewarded and demerit is punished. But who does this? Does Purusha reward himself for the merit he does, and does Purusha punish himself for the sin he commits? This would be a very absurd conclusion, obviously. Who would like to punish oneself? Even if I do a wrong, I would not like to be punished. But there is nobody else who can punish the Purusha for the wrong that he does. Prakriti cannot do it because it is unintelligent, and Purusha will not do it because he himself is the doer. So, this is no good. The need for someone to dispense justice was felt by the Yoga system of thought which came after the Sankhya.

The Yoga School was systematised – not originated, of course – and logically presented by Patanjali later on. Yoga said that an Isvara is essential. Otherwise, we cannot escape this difficulty of the Law of Karma. Reward and punishment will be meaningless on the basis of the law of Karma if a Supreme Dispenser of justice does not exist. God exists, said Patanjali. But this God is only like a judge in a court with whom we are not directly connected except when there is a case. When the case is over, we do not care for the judge. We go away homeward. Such was the God mentioned in the Sutras of Patanjali – very essential, very necessary, yet not organically connected with our life. He hangs loosely in the system of Yoga. So, for the first time in the history of philosophical thought in India, God, world and soul, all three, were posited in a manner satisfactory for all practical purposes, in the system of Yoga propounded by Maharshi Patanjali.

But what is the goal of life according to Yoga? Is it God-realisation? According to Yoga, God-realisation is not the goal, because this God is necessary only for the sake of dispensing justice to the Purushas. The goal of life is self-withdrawal. Consciousness or the essence of the Purusha resting in itself is liberation and the final goal of life. It has nothing to do with Isvara who is also, after all, one of the Purushas, though He may be a special Purusha – Purusha-visesha. What is the internal relationship among Purusha, Prakriti and Isvara? There is no proper answer. Unless there is a relationship among entities, how can we posit the entities? It is logically inadmissible and it is an untenable thesis. We should not say that there are two things, unless we are able to explain the relationship between the two things. How do we know that they exist? Our consciousness that posits the existence of two objects transcends the two objects. The very fact that we know that there is a God and a world and there are Purushas, shows that we who make this judgement have intrinsically some thing, some principle which seems to transcend the limitation of these three posited principles. Here we have an introduction to the Vedanta philosophy. God is there. Yes, it is wonderful. World is there. Yes, we see it. The Purushas are there. Yes, we do experience them. But what is the internal connection among these things? What is the relevance that obtains between these three principles? This could not be answered by either the Sankhya or the Yoga.

With this introductory remark on the inadequacies of all the earlier systems of thought, Sri Sankara came forward as a genius of philosophic thought, as a Master who could solve with one stroke all the problems of life with his mighty system of psychology, wondrous system of metaphysics, his master technique of Yogic meditation and his soul-enrapturing ideal of the realisation of Brahman as the goal of life. Such was the significance, chronological as well as logical, of the great mission and work of Acharya Sankara in Bharatavarsha, which has done mighty good not only to the citizens of this country but also to all seeking souls throughout the world.

The goal of human life depends upon the relation of the human individual to the world. Unless this relation is understood, the goal also cannot be properly specified. We are very much connected with the world outside; we know it very well. And unless we know what sort of connection it is that we are supposed to have with the world outside, we cannot properly ascertain the nature of the goal of human life. Religious teachers and prophets came to specify the goal of human life, the ultimate purpose behind all the activities of mankind. And they differed from one another in their concept of the relation of the individual to the cosmos. So we have schools of thought – Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta, known as the orthodox schools of philosophy; the Charvakas, the Jainas, the Vaibhasikas, the Sautrantikas, the Vaijnanikas and the Sunyavadins among the heterodox ones. Even in the Vedanta, we have various sections – the Advaita, the Visishtadvaita, the Dvaita, the Shuddhadvaita, the Dvaitadvaita, Achintyabhedabheda, Saiva Siddhanta, the Sakta school, and so many other schools. The schools are so many that we do not know where we stand, finally. This was the condition of the human mind in its philosophical level when Sankara's advent took place on this earth. Hundreds of cults and dogmas prevailed. Pasupatas, Saivas, Bhairavas, Kapalikas were all rampant during his time. He came to give to mankind a gospel of healthy living.

It is not easy to understand the gospel of Adi Sankaracharya. I do not believe that even today the majority of mankind really understands it. It is not just a glib word 'Advaita'. What is the meaning of Advaita? That itself is a difficult thing to conceive. It is not a system opposed to other systems, but a method of interpretation of values by which we can healthily coordinate the existing systems of thought and construct a system of philosophy according to which we can live happily in every stage of our life. I do not intend to go into the details of this philosophical background. But suffice it to say that the Vedanta of Sankara came as a remedy to the diversified ways of thinking which created an unnecessary conflict even in daily practices of human beings, and this he did without going contrary to the injunctions of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Scripture and reason were the two aids in the arguments of Sankara. He was a tremendous logician, the like of which it is difficult to imagine ordinarily, who based his arguments entirely on the principles of logic, but without contradicting the intuitional revelations of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Every argument was logically precise, culminating in an irrefutable conclusion. But it was based on the evidence of the scriptures like the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and the Samhitas of the Vedas. He came to combine the validity of scripture with the limitations of reason and the value of reason. Intuition is not opposed to intellect, was what Sankara proclaimed. Nor can we say that intellect is complete in itself. The conclusions of the intellect have to be corroborated by the revelations of the Srutis. Sruti, Yukti and Anubhava – scripture, argument and experience – have to go parallel along a path leading to a single goal. Scripture is the support for the argument, while argument supplies the strength for the exposition of the scripture, both of which lead to the direct experience or Anubhava. Reality is experience. Brahma Sakshatkara is the same as Anubhava of the Supreme Being.

Unfortunately, today we have no proper expositions of the Vedanta philosophy. They are all in bits and tracts, here and there; a complete philosophy of Sankara is not available in any single book. We may read any book written anywhere, but we will not find a complete presentation of his philosophy. There will be only a section of it, a part of it, a phase of it or an aspect of it presented, so that it always gives a wrong view of the philosophy. This is unfortunate; but this is understandable, because it is not easy for a single man to write or to touch upon all the aspects of this single, all-comprehensive philosophy. The Upanishads themselves are all-comprehensive and an exposition of them, which is the system of Vedanta, has naturally to be many-sided. We cannot read any particular textbook and say we have understood Vedanta, because all textbooks deal with certain aspects – the theory of perception, or the logical part of it alone, or only the Sadhana aspects of it and so on, are touched upon. We have masterly expositions of Advaita Vedanta given in such books as the Khandana Khanda Khadya of Sriharsha or the Tattva Pradipika of Chitsukha or the Advaita Siddhi of Madhusudana Saraswati, but we will not understand the spirit of Vedanta even after reading all these books, because they are only arguments leading to certain conclusions of Advaita, but not the entirety of it. Even if we read the Brahma Sutra Bhashya of Sankara, we will not know or understand the entire teaching of it. It requires study under a Guru to have a complete view of the entire perspective of Sankara's teaching.

It is really interesting that the fate of the Advaita Vedanta later on, in the passage of time, was similar to that of Buddhism. It was misrepresented. As Buddha was misrepresented, and Christ is being misrepresented, Sankara was also misrepresented. So to counteract the misrepresented attitudes, there came other Acharyas like Ramanuja, Madhva and others. One cannot wholly and satisfactorily explain the subtle relation of the soul to God. Though many schools of philosophy have come up, they are like dismembered bodies, and not a complete whole. Just because we have limbs cut off and thrown everywhere, it does not mean that we have a complete human system. Unfortunately, we have only such limbs cut off – Dvaitins, Advaitins and Visishtadvaitins, etc. But we do not have a very satisfactory and happy blend of thought. Therefore, it is necessary that such a new orientation has to be attempted without a biased approach of any school, keeping in view only the goal of mankind as a whole and not merely as a system or a school of thought. Such an attempt has to be made, and the success of it depends entirely upon the genius of the man concerned, because Sankara himself was a genius.

Sankaracharya's works must be studied not merely for the philosophical depths of his writings but also for the beauty of his language. Of course, unless one knows Sanskrit one cannot appreciate his style. "Vakyam prasanna-gambhiram" – hissentences are very smooth­flowing, very deep and beautiful. They are not complicated arguments. They are very simple, but full of depth and literary beauty which we will find only in such poets like Kalidasa. Of course, Sankaracharya mostly wrote his commentaries in prose though he has also written poems of various kinds. They are so simple, so sonorous and so beautiful. For the beauty of the language of Sanskrit, and the depth of philosophical wisdom and the help they can offer us in our practical life, his works have to be studied. There is a beautiful poem by Sankara known as Prabodha Sudhakara. It is a very beautiful work because it combines Bhakti and Vedanta. Sankaracharya was also a devotee. All great Vedantins are also devotees. It is very mysterious. Madhusudana Saraswati was an utter Vedantin but he was a devotee of Lord Krishna. We do not know how we can combine them. But they did.

Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj was a great admirer of Adi Sankaracharya, and in his teachings we will find the spirit of Sankara. If we can understand Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj properly, we can understand Sankaracharya also. Of course, it is very difficult to understand both, because they are many-sided geniuses. So let us study their works and try to live a practical life of Vedanta and Bhakti.