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Essays in Life and Eternity



Chapter 32: The Integral Philosophy of the Vedanta

The Samkhya doctrine of the dualism of Purusha and Prakriti leaves an unbridged gulf between consciousness and matter, the seer and the seen. The question that remains unsolved is the way in which consciousness and matter, which are dissimilar in character, come in contact with each other to produce experience. Also, it is a point to consider how knowledge, according to the Samkhya and Vaiseshika, is a product of the contact of the soul and mind, in which case the soul separated from mind in liberation will remain in an unconscious state. The analogy of crystal and colour adumbrated by the Samkhya to explain the contact of Purusha and Prakriti is inadequate, since, in that case, all experience would be in the end unrealistic and the duality between the two principles would still remain untouched by the point made out by the illustration. Consciousness cannot contact matter unless there is something akin to consciousness in the relation of such a contact, without which experience would be impossible. The link between consciousness and matter cannot be something connected with matter itself, since matter is devoid of consciousness. If the link between consciousness and matter has somehow to be a state of consciousness, that link would require another link of a similar nature to relate it to matter. There would be no end to these regresses of argument, proving thereby a falsified attempt involved in trying to relate the conscious self to unconscious matter. The fact that consciousness knows the existence of matter in experience should unavoidably stumble upon there being something in matter itself akin to consciousness without which objective knowledge would not be feasible. The position that matter should have a character of consciousness inherent in it would automatically land one in the conclusion that matter is also a state of consciousness, though incipient and not actually manifest openly. The Vedanta philosophy concludes that matter also is a phase of consciousness and objects of knowledge embody in themselves a hidden potential of consciousness which is also the Self of the perceiving subject, enabling experience in the subject. The subject-consciousness (Vishayi-chaitanya) is in a larger dimension of its own being as universality and all-pervadingness beholds itself in the object-consciousness (Vishaya-chaitanya), thereby reducing all possible experience to a degree of universal consciousness. Experience is neither purely subjective nor entirely objective; experience is caused by the universal element inherent in both the subject and the object, linking the two terms of the relation together and yet transcending both the subject and the object because of its universality. Here the Vedanta scores a point over both empiricism and rationalism, and, taking stock of the position maintained by the two schools, it rises above them in a transcendent integration of both the subjective and objective sides. In spite of this apparent similarity of the Vedanta doctrine with the conclusions of Kant and Hegel, there is a vast difference in that while the Kantian position precludes knowledge of reality even by way of its transcendental idealism on account of all thought being limited to phenomena, the Vedanta affirms the absolute reality of Brahman as the very source of even the apprehension of phenomena by the knowing subject; and while Hegel makes his Absolute a dynamic process of a continuous internal relation of synthesis behind thesis and antithesis, unconsciously marring the very Eternity of the Absolute by involving it in the dialectical process of an evolution and movement of Idea, Nature and Spirit, the Vedanta affirms the indivisibility of consciousness which is the Absolute, since the introduction of any dialectic or evolutionary process within the Absolute would render it divisible and, consequently, a perishable finite.

The Self is pure consciousness whose existence cannot be denied or even doubted since it is never seen that anyone doubts one's own existence, and even the denial of the Self would have at its background the consciousness of having denied it. This consciousness is the indubitable Self of everyone, which asserts itself always as the 'I' in every form of experience. Even the ideas of birth and death, the coming and going of things, even the creation and dissolution of the universe, are processes involved in consciousness itself. Time cannot destroy consciousness, while time destroys all things, because the process of destruction has meaning only when it is a content of consciousness. Thus, consciousness can have neither birth nor death; it is beyond the concepts of space and time. Being above time it is eternal, and being above space it is infinite. This is the true Self whose essence is consciousness, hidden within every individual and in everything. Consciousness is absolute existence and absolute freedom (Sat-Chit-Ananda).

The three states of waking, dream and sleep, through which we pass in our daily experience, differ from one another, and yet a single consciousness connects them, enabling the individual to experience an identity even in the otherwise differentiatedness of these states. Since consciousness links the three states into a singleness of experience, it is immanent in them and yet transcends them, not capable of identity with any of them. Since it is none of the three states it is regarded as the fourth state (Turiya). We may add here that while the three states relate to a three-dimensional form of empirical experience, consciousness, which is called the Atman, is the four-dimensional reality, or, it is dimensionless existence. The deepest consciousness in man, the Atman, is, therefore, the same as the universal Brahman since consciousness is the nature of Brahman which is present in the individual as the Atman.

If the Platonic, Kantian and Hegelian positions have to be given their due credibility, this the Vedanta would do in its wide sweep of an inclusiveness of outlook in the doctrine of the relative reality of the world (Vyavaharika-satta) as distinguished from Absolute reality (Paramarthika-satta). From the point of view of the observations of an individualised consciousness placing itself in the context of an onlooker of the drama of the universe, there is creation, preservation and destruction of the universe, there are degrees of reality, there is positive goodness and negative evil, there is birth and death, bondage and liberation. As the individual cannot comprehend the Absolute, the Vedanta would agree with Kant. But when knowledge plumbs into the universal depths of the Atman, it is at once a direct experience of reality transcending phenomena. Here the Vedanta differs from Kant. While Hegel's dialectic of the thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and the degrees in the process of evolution of consciousness to the Absolute is corroborated by the Vedanta as the story of creation, evolution and involution, it disagrees with Hegel in holding that in the ultimate state of things, in reality as it is in itself, in the supreme Absolute, there is no such process, since, the Absolute is processless Eternity.

Through unselfish action in the service of people (Karma), through devotion to God as the Creator of the universe (Bhakti), and through the wisdom of the Absolute as the sole reality (Jnana), the soul attains salvation. Scriptures declare that the will of God (Ishvara) is the source of creation, and His creation ranges from His will onwards down to His immanence in all created forms of every species. Up to this level creation is a state of cosmic experience which is God's omniscience. But, subsequently, the created individuals assume in themselves a vainglorious independence from God's universal creation and behold it as an object of sense-perception. Matter is Spirit discerned through the senses. When the isolation of the individual from cosmic inclusiveness takes place, the individualised consciousness falls headlong, as it were, into the empirical states of sleep, dream and waking, entangling itself thereby in the compulsive urges of desire and action whose impressions involve it in cycles of transmigratory life. Freedom from this turmoil of individual existence is attained when the individual (Jiva), in a state of meditation through Yoga, withdraws its sense powers from objectivised forms and centres its consciousness in the unitariness of its identity with the Absolute. This is the merging of the individual in Brahman (Brahma-Sakshatkara).

The above is basically the position maintained by Acharya Sankara in his interpretation of the Vedanta, but other thinkers like Ramanuja and Madhva hold a different view. According to Ramanuja, consciousness is not the essence of the Self but is only a quality of the Self (Dharmabhuta-Jnana). Here Ramanuja would land us in a difficulty of reducing the Self to a state of essential unconsciousness independent of its quality. The relation between the individual and Brahman is not one of complete identity but relatedness, as the body is related to the soul, but is not identical with the soul. The universe is the body (Sarira) of God, who is called Vishnu, or Narayana, who is the embodied (Saririn). The way to God is devotion (Bhakti) and not knowledge (Jnana) in the sense Sankara would define it. Therefore, the consciousness of the Jiva cannot be identified with the consciousness of Brahman. Here we may recall our observations made in connection with the Vaishnava Agama method of the visualisation of God, and the worship of God, on which Ramanuja mostly depends. He also draws sustenance from the devotional Tamil songs of the Alvar saints as well as the Epics and Puranas, while Sankara seems to be attempting to see a harmony of monistic thought throughout, mainly in the light of the Upanishads. While Sankara's thesis is called Absolute Monism (Kevala-Advaita) holding Brahman as the only reality, second to which there can be nothing, that of Ramanuja is known as Qualified Monism (Visishta-Advaita), as he holds that Brahman is qualified by the realities of the world and the individuals.

Madhva departs radically from both Sankara and Ramanuja. His doctrine is that Vishnu is the ultimate reality, the world is real, the individuals differ from one another in the various scales of bondage and freedom, the individuals are servants of God as totally different from God, and also from the world of matter. The Veda is the ultimate authority through which alone Vishnu, or Narayana, can be attained, which is salvation possible through devotion (Bhakti). In salvation, the individual does not unite itself with God in an 'intrinsic' fashion as Ramanuja holds. Madhva emphasises five kinds of difference, namely, that between God and the individual, between God and the world, between the world and the individual, between one individual and another, and between one part of the world and another. There are thinkers who hold that liberation according to Sankara is like water mixing with water or milk mixing with milk; according to Ramanuja it is like water mixing with milk, according to Madhva it is like rice particles mixing with sesame. Other theologians like Vallabha, Nimbarka and Chaitanya hold views which are variations of the doctrines of Ramanuja and Madhva in the spirit of true Vaishnava devotion. The term Vedanta is a name given to any system of thought which recognises the attainment of God as the supreme aim of life, in one way or other.