The Philosophy of Life
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 2: The Value of Philosophy

The Need for a Theory of Life

Philosophy is generally defined as love of wisdom or the knowledge of things in general by their ultimate causes, so far as reason can attain to such knowledge. It is a comprehensive and critical study and analysis of experience as a whole. Whether it is consciously, deliberately and rationally adopted on conviction or consciously or unconsciously followed in life through faith or persuasion, every man constructs for himself a fundamental philosophy as the basis of life, a theory of the relation of the world and the individual, and this shapes his whole attitude to life. Aristotle called metaphysics the fundamental science, for, a correct comprehension of it is enough to give man a complete knowledge of every constituent or content of human experience. All persons live in accordance with the philosophy of life that they have framed for themselves, consciously or unconsciously. Even the uneducated and the uncultured have a rough and ready philosophy of their own. Life without a philosophy is unimaginable. It is only when we confine the concept of philosophy to the laboured edifices of academic men that we are inclined to think that only a few in the world have any philosophy, or study or understand it. Even those who hold that there is no need of any philosophy have a secret philosophy of their own. They have a theory of reality, though it may consist only in denying it altogether. They have a theory of the world, though it may be only one of crass material perception, or of a superstitious belief in the supremacy of the personalities and forces of myth and fable. We have an ethics, an epistemology and even a logic of our own, though it may be purely personal or limited to a certain group of persons of kindred ideas and temperaments. Under these conditions, it is certainly advisable for us to frame a systematic and intelligent philosophy for our life, after critically examining and understanding the nature of the world and our experiences in it, at least so far as it is possible for the powers that we are endowed with. And if we consistently carry our sincere efforts, with critical intelligence, to their logical limits, we will find that philosophies are not pet theories or private affairs of different individuals, but from a science and an art of human life taken into completeness. We would then arrive at a philosophy, not of this or that school, but of humanity in general. We would reach a most catholic and flexible theory of the universe and its contents, acceptable to all men of reason, a universal philosophy based on experiences that are common to all persons. Difficulties and problems, however, arise only because of our definitions of experience or of the limits we set to it. We may limit philosophy to sense-experience, to understanding, to reason or to intuition. Finally it is only intuition that enjoys the greatest universality of scope and dives deepest into the mysteries of existence. A perfect philosophy ought therefore to be one springing from an intuition of Reality.

John Dewey describes the constitution of philosophy as expressing a certain attitude, purpose, and temper of conjoint intellect and will, rather than a discipline whose boundaries can be neatly marked off. The Indian sage would, however, add intuition as forming the foundation of the functions of the intellect and will, which usually work with the material supplied by the senses.

Philosophy is a complete world-view, a Weltanschauung, a general attitude of intellect, will and feeling, to life. It gives an explanation of the universe at large, by appeal to what is discoverable as the deepest of known facts. It is not a mere description of the details or bits of physical observation. We call an explanation philosophical when it is broad enough to be harmoniously related to the other views of life and fulfils the needs of all the faculties of man to the highest degree of satisfaction, using ultimate principles, and not mere empirical facts, in establishing its validity.

“Philosophy, indeed, in one sense of the term, is only a compendious name for the spirit in education,” says William James. It is only in this sense of the process of the education and unfoldment of the spiritual spark in man that philosophy is worth its name. To teach a doctrine in a dogmatic and forced way is one thing, and to do it in a rational and appealing way in its greatest fullness is another. The latter is the task and the way of philosophy. Its value in imparting true culture to man, to make him wise and useful both to himself and to others is inestimable. Philosophy wakes us from our ‘dogmatic slumber’ and makes us critica1 in our outlook, opening before our eyes huge vistas of the majesty and reality of the unknown, giving us strength to stand firm on our own legs and to assert our rightful citizenship of the universe. Our whims, fancies and prejudices are broken, and philosophy makes us free and catholic in our attitudes. The philosopher is raised above the usual clinging to immediate practical needs and is enabled to roam fearlessly in the empyrean of the joy springing from within. This is the privilege of the true philosopher who gains access to Reality, and it is not available to those who are sunk in earthliness, bound by material urges and content with what they see with their physical eyes.

Science and Philosophy

It is often said that philosophy is not as useful as science, that science has made much progress and that philosophy is lagging behind, that science has its great utility, while philosophy has none. This complaint comes mostly from partial observers of the strides of science in making inventions of instruments that save us labour and time and thus make for comfort in our daily life. But, this, of which man boasts so much, is applied science, and not science, as such. When we find man at a loss to know how to use the leisure provided to him by applied science, and how to find time to do what is really solacing to him in his life, where and of what use, we ask, is the great advance that science has made in knowledge, with all its herculean efforts. What about the morality of man today, and what civilisation and culture is he endowed with? Where comes the pride of mere applied science when selfishness, greed and jealousy are its masters, when it threatens to make an end of man himself, and when it tightens the knot that binds man to the prison-house of misery raised by himself on the basis of belief in things that only tantalise him and then perish? Man has applied science, but not philosophy, for his life. And even where science is applied, it is done in the manner of giving a sword in the hands of a child or of a person shorn of sanity. Philosophy has really made more progress than science, trying to save man from the folly of ignorance and misconduct, raising him from the state of the animal man and blessing him with the light o love, service and sacrifice and making him aware of the need for the dedication of the self to a purpose lifted above all human needs. The riches of science, bereft of the wisdom of philosophy, become pernicious possessions, to be dreaded rather than loved and adored. What advantage can one reap from scientific inventions without moral, economic, political and administrative wisdom, without the blessedness of a peaceful and happy life that embraces the universe as its loving friend, nay, its very self? Let not man pride himself over the advance of science; it has only invented tools without giving man the knowledge to use them in the right way; these tools become dreadful monsters when there is none to direct them with sagacity.

Science can describe the how of fragments of sense-observation; but it is impotent to interpret and explain the meaning and value of what is thus observed—the why of visible phenomena. Philosophy is not dry intellectual gymnastics; it is the wisdom of life reached after careful reflection and investigation, without which life is but a dismal failure. It was Socrates who said that those who lack right knowledge deserve to be stigmatised as slaves. And Plato was emphatic when he pronounced the truth that, unless philosophers become kings or the existing kings acquire the genuine wisdom of philosophy, unless political power and philosophy are combined in the same person, there will be no deliverance for cities, nor yet for the human race. Plato here declares an eternal truth, a truth which holds good for all times and climes; administrators should first and foremost be philosophers, not merely lovers but possessors of wisdom.

The renowned scientist, Sir Arthur Eddington, says that our true personality and consciousness are not parts of observed phenomena but belong to the background of phenomena. According to him, our deeper feelings are not of ourselves alone, but are glimpses of a reality transcending the narrow limits of one particular consciousness. The stuff of the world, to him, is finally a limitless mind or consciousness. We know a particular world because it is that alone with which the consciousness interacts. He gives matter, in the end, the character of ‘knowability,’ and regards it as grafted on a spiritual substratum. Reality is fundamentally spiritual, is general consciousness. And he further makes the discovery that, where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but regained from Nature that which the mind has put into Nature. Here, Eddington obviously rises from physics and enters the realm of philosophy and mysticism. This is what all men of deep reflective thinking are in the end obliged to do. Whitehead would receive nothing into the physical scheme that is not discoverable as an element in subjective experience. He feels that the poets are entirely mistaken and that they should address their lyrics to themselves and congratulate themselves on the excellency of the human mind. Sir James Jeans uses Plato’s simile and says that science is studying merely a reflection on the walls of the cave of a play that is being shown outside in sunlight. The substantiality as well as the objectivity of things is due to their subsistence in the mind of an eternal Spirit. To Bertrand Russell, mind and matter alike are logical constructions, and the distinction between the psychical and the physical is not fundamental. The difference between mind and matter is not in their substance but in their arrangement. Max Planck does not think that consciousness can be explained in terms of matter and its laws. He regards consciousness as fundamental and matter as a derivative of consciousness. Einstein reverently contemplates the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity and is content to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in Nature. R. A. Millikan says that a purely materialistic philosophy is the height of unintelligence. And finally we have Eddington, again, accepting that the absence of the faculty of an intuitive perception of the divine presence is a kind of mental deficiency. It is enough if we observe here that the great geniuses of science have felt the need for a higher study and experience than that provided to man by physical science.

The problem of causality has raised questions that stress the need for philosophy. Science believes that every event has a cause and resorts to a kind of linear argument, thinking that to be a cause means just to be antecedent in time. Our movement from effects to causes leads us nowhere, and we find ourselves landed in a hopeless pursuit. The question of an ultimate cause cannot be answered by science. The end or purpose of action is, to it, enveloped in darkness. If the order and method of events in the universe is determined, not by the way in which we are accustomed to observe cause-and-effect-relation, but by the laws of a living organism directed by a unitary force, science cannot but find itself in a fool’s paradise. When there is mutual interaction among the constituents of the universe, the commonsense view of causality falls to the ground. We require a reflective higher study, which is provided by philosophy, in order to come to a satisfactory conclusion regarding the true scheme of things. An enquiry into the nature of facts observed by science leads us to epistemology and metaphysics. Our very denial of all possibility of knowing the nature of Reality implies our rightful claim to know it. It is impossible for us to desist from working for the noble cause to which philosophy awakens us.

Swami Sivananda and Philosophy

According to Swami Sivananda, philosophy is not merely a logical study of the conclusions of science or a synthesis of the different sciences. Its methods are different from those of science, though, for purposes of higher reflection and contemplation, it would accept the researches of science and its accumulated material. Swami Sivananda, however, is not inclined to give too much importance to science, though, for purposes of instructing the modern man in the great truths of philosophy, he has no objection to taking illustrations from the limitations of science and from the necessity that modern science feels for accepting the existence of a reality beyond sense-perception. To Swami Sivananda, the value of philosophy rests mainly in its utility in reflective analysis and meditation on the Supreme Being. Philosophy in the sense of a mere play of reason he regards as useless in one’s search for spiritual knowledge. As a necessary condition of spiritual meditations on the path of Jnana-Yoga, the value of philosophy is incalculable. It also provides the necessary prop for and gives the rationale behind the paths of Raja-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga and Karma-Yoga. As a staunch follower of the philosopher Sankara, he builds his philosophy on a life of experience first, and reason afterwards. Swami Sivananda excludes from his philosophy no theory of life, no canon of religion, no truth of science, no view held by people, if these will only aid the spiritual aspirant in his effort at Self-realisation. He accepts the conclusions of all, and regards even inadequate theories as preparations for a wider view, as steps leading to a greater fulfilment. There are stages in the evolution of man, and all cannot have the same philosophy of life. Thoughts differ, temperaments vary and practices disagree with one another, on account of the various conceptions of the meaning and purpose of life that different people in different stages of evolution have in their minds. One of the great principles of Swami Sivananda is not to unsettle the minds of others or disturb the beliefs of the ignorant. His method is a very peaceful, harmonising and agreeable one; his philosophy is, in this sense, universal in its scope. His is not any particular system or school of philosophy, but all systems and all schools synthesised, transmuted, absorbed and transcended. He would not disagree with anyone completely, but take everyone at the stage he is in and come down or rise up to his level in order to absorb him into himself and present himself as a useful and compassionate benefactor of all. To him, men are just phases of the appearance of the Absolute, and their views, behaviours and practices are but the natural and necessary stages in the evolution of the universe towards the great consummation of the self in the Absolute. Hence, his philosophy is all love, friendliness and joy, not merely a bit of circumscribed logic or a cosy dogma of personal preferences. Philosophy to him is the technique of right living, of directing the course of life towards a higher state of existence, whether this is achieved consciously with the effort of understanding, or by faith, habit and tradition. Life is common to all, and so Swami Sivananda’s philosophy, as the art of life, is applicable to all. From the highest rational being to the lowest man moved only by instinct—all will find the food necessary for their souls in the highly comforting and solacing philosophy of Swami Sivananda. His philosophy is as valuable as life itself, for, it is the principle of rational guidance in everyone’s life, and is based on an experience to which the ordinary man has no access but which every man seeks to obtain, whether he knows it or not, in everyone of his thoughts and actions.