by Swami Krishnananda
The methods employed in philosophical reasonings and enquiries include the basic presuppositions of scientific approach in general; but over and above these methods, philosophical processes endeavour to discover ways of considering and knowing the facts implied in the phenomena of experience. Before entering into a detailed discussion of the proper methods of philosophy, we will do well to remember the principles laid down by the philosopher Descartes. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes gives an outline of the procedure he followed in philosophical enquiry: “The first of these was to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly recognise to be so; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudice in judgments, and to accept in them nothing more than was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it. The second was to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible. The third was to carry on my reflections in due order, commencing with objects that were the most simple and easy to understand, in order to rise little by little, or by degrees, to knowledge of the more complex, assuming an order, even if a fictitious one, among those which do not follow a natural sequence relatively to one another. The last was in all cases to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I should be certain of having omitted nothing.”
The true philosophic method should not be lopsided, should not be biased to any particular or special dogma, but comprehend within itself the processes of reflection and speculation and at the same time be able to reconcile the deductive and the inductive methods of reasoning. The philosophy of the Absolute rises above particulars to greater and greater universals, basing itself on facts of observation and experience by the method of induction and gradual generalisation of truths, without missing even a single link in the chain of logic and argumentation, reflection and contemplation, until it reaches the highest generalisation of the Absolute Truth; and then by the deductive method comes down to interpret and explain the facts of experience in the light of the nature of this Truth. This is a great example of the most satisfactory method of philosophical enquiry.
Philosophy being the way of the knowledge of Truth, its method must be in agreement with the nature of Truth. In philosophy and religion the end always determines the nature of the means. What we know is not entirely different in nature from the essential constitution of the means by which we know it. The immediate objects of our experience here are the entities of the physical universe, and the means of our knowledge of them are our senses which, too, partake of physical characteristics. Hence the method that philosophy employs in its approach to Truth is much dependent upon what conception we have of philosophy and of the nature of the goal of philosophy. Our goal may be matter, mind or Spirit, and accordingly we may become either materialists, idealists or mystics. Our instrument of knowledge may be the senses, understanding, reason or intuition. And our theories of knowledge may lead us to be empiricists, rationalists, transcendentalists, absolute idealists or spiritual intuitionists. All these theories resort mainly to two processes; contemplation of what is considered to be indubitable and real, and a searching analysis and critical study of empirical experience, including all the methods and conclusions of science. The former helps us to a greater knowledge of the goal of philosophy, and the latter to a disavowal of false values and vindication of the methods and fundamental principles of philosophy. The theories of knowledge and reality generally subject the existing ones to a critical investigation as to their nature and contents and found strong systems of thought after protracted contemplation on the possible nature of reality.
Philosophy is said to have begun with wonder. The marvel of creation evokes the admiration of man, and its mysteriousness excites his wonder; and this wonder naturally leads to a serious enquiry into the nature of things, for man is not content to rest in a state of awe based on ignorance and is curious to know the truth behind the enthralling wonder of the world. He investigates, speculates, argues and discusses, and comes to a settled opinion of the nature of things in this wonderful world. This becomes his philosophy. Modern man, however, seems to have stepped into the region of philosophy through doubt and sceptical thinking. Man commenced doubting the validity of authority and dogma no less than that of accepted traditional beliefs. Descartes started with doubting everything, even the validity of thought itself. Later, Kant, too, followed the critical method of enquiry in philosophy. Bradley was of the opinion that the chief need of philosophy is “a sceptical study of first principles.” However, he adds: “By scepticism is not meant doubt about or disbelief in some tenet or tenets. I understand by it an attempt to become aware and to doubt all preconceptions.”
The technique of doubt in philosophical pursuits has however, the danger of the possibility of falling into a hopeless maze of rank scepticism, with no ground left even for the sceptic to stand on, or into agnosticism, which is a smug way of coolly forgetting the basic significations of the sceptical outlook and speciously arguing that nothing definite can be known in reality. Scepticism as a principle to be followed at the commencement of the application methods in philosophy is really praiseworthy, for, all philosophy, as above said, begins in wonder and doubt. A secret and irresistible urge to know that which presents itself as something extending beyond the scope of human knowledge and a simultaneous dissatisfaction with the surface view of things is the foundation of all enterprise in philosophy. Though philosophy may begin in doubt, it should not end in doubt; for, then, the very purpose of philosophy would be defeated. If the sceptic is left to confine himself to his position of universal doubt and disbelief, he becomes guilty of dogmatism. When he tries to free himself from dogmatism, he cuts the ground from under his own feet. This is the fate of the sceptical approach, which overreaches itself and stultifies its own purpose. Only an acute and sincere thinker like Descartes could detect this error in entertaining universal doubt and come to the wise conclusion that the existence of the doubter himself cannot be doubted. His philosophy began with doubt but ended in absolute certainty regarding the nature of reality. Scepticism as a method of philosophy has value only when it is aware of its limitations and scope, and not when it tries to assume a metaphysical status.
Agnosticism is easily the consequence of the thoroughgoing sceptical outlook, and it reaches the conclusion that the reality of things cannot be known, for almost the same reasons as those advanced by the sceptic. Knowledge of reality is impossible, inasmuch as we have no means of knowing it. It may appear that the agnostic position is in some way better than the findings of the sceptic, as the sceptic disposes of all questions by disbelief outright, due to his conviction of there being no possibility of arriving at any certainty regarding anything, while the agnostic only denies the chance of our having any knowledge of it. But the theory as a whole is, obviously, untenable. “Its essential defect is that it is based on the unconscious assumption that man is somehow an alien in the very world which gave him birth and in whose bosom he lives and moves and has his being, that he is doomed to look at the universe through the medium of forms and categories of thought, which are, so to speak, mental spectacles of foreign manufacture” (D. M. Edwards: The Philosophy of Religion p. 185). “To say that reality is such that our knowledge cannot reach it, is a claim to know reality; to urge that our knowledge is of a kind which must fail to transcend appearance, itself implies that transcendence. For, if we had no idea of a beyond, we should assuredly not know how to talk about failure or success. And the test, by which we distinguish them, must obviously be some acquaintance with the nature of the goal” (F. H. Bradley: Appearance and Reality, p. 1). Agnosticism as a method fails, because to assert that we know only appearance and cannot know any reality beyond it, we must already possess some knowledge of reality, which alone could possibly enable us to have any knowledge of the distinction between appearance and reality.
Empiricism as a method of philosophy is mainly confined to sense-experience. It urges that all knowledge obtained by the senses is of what is already existent outside themselves and that reason has its function in carefully judging the nature of the perceptive material provided to it by the senses. The laws of reason, according to empiricism, are copies of and controlled by knowledge which is a posteriori. No a priori knowledge in the sense of what rationalism contends to be present in reason is ever possible. Rational concepts are by-products of the experiential material. The source of knowledge is sense-experience and not mind or reason. The method of acquiring knowledge is inductive. Ideas are reducible to sensations. Knowledge cannot be gained by merely finding that the opposite, which is inconceivable, as rationalism holds, and truth cannot be established by the fact that to deny it implies, somehow, its reaffirmation. A priori knowledge independent of sense-experience is inconceivable. There are, therefore, no universal and necessary self-evident truths that are adumbrated by rationalism. So goes the bold empiricism.
The defect of empiricism lies in the fact that the senses are untrustworthy as means of right knowledge. Sense-percepts have being or reality only in relation to the constitutions of the respective senses, and never independently. Minus the characteristics of the senses, our empirical percepts are nothing, which is equal to saying that we know, in an objective way, only what is already contained in the very nature of the senses subjectively. This is certainly not a reliable or valid knowledge of reality. The background of the sense-percepts ever remain unknown to us, and the attitude which we develop towards the things in themselves that lie beyond the reach of the senses is naturally one of doubt. It only means that we have to become sheer sceptics with regard to the nature of reality. In the West, Locke’s empiricism naturally paved the way for Hume’s scepticism. The sceptic’s attitude has a very harmful reaction on the progress of philosophy, for, if we are to carry scepticism to its logical limits, there can never be any such thing as universal and necessary truths, and all that we know would be, at least on the suppositions of Hume, mere fragmentary and disconnected shreds of events, which would convey no meaning at all, due to lack of causal relation and necessary connection among themselves. Doubt and disbelief of every settled opinion is not only non practicable but is detrimental to the very position of the doubter himself, for, a systematic doubter who seriously pursues his method without deceiving himself has to doubt his own judgments, in order that he may avoid the charge of peremptoriness in his search for truth. This, however, he cannot do. What he really does is to doubt all other positions except his own! A dogmatic adherence to one’s own convictions where other views are possible is not the characteristic of a true philosophic method. To know that we do not know implies the acceptance of some criterion of certainty, some knowledge which we already possess without any trace of doubt. Truth, goodness and beauty lose their meaning and value when unconditional doubt sweeps into our hearts. Life becomes an empty affair, with no intelligible aim before it. Empiricism is the precursor of scepticism, and as a method of enquiry into the nature of Truth, it is incomplete and fallible.
The mathematical method of rationalism takes reason to be the sole means of acquiring philosophical knowledge. According to it, the objective universe is known, arranged and controlled by the a priori laws of reason. The universe is an expression of the innate rational nature of the knowing subject. The criterion of truth is not sensory but intellectual, rational and deductive. The mathematical methods of deduction are most suited to a proper philosophy. Knowledge is gained when the opposite of what is inconceivable is discovered. Truth can be established by the fact that to deny it implies its reaffirmation in one way or another. True knowledge is a priori and is independent of sense-experience. This knowledge is self-evident, and so it implies universal and necessary truths. But even rationalism taken exclusively cannot escape the charge of being non-critical in regard to its own position. How can the rationalist be sure that what he knows through his rational powers is uncontradicted knowledge? What one thinks to be a self-evident truth need not necessarily be so. There is nothing, whatsoever, to prove that the principles that the rationalist logically deduces from his a priori premises really correspond to the actual characteristics of the world of experience. The geometrical method of reasoning may be very pleasing to the philosopher, but it need not carry with it the stamp of universal validity. The self-evident nature of the truths discovered independently by rationalism has been called in question. Many of the so-called self-evident truths turn out to be private to their owners and do not enjoy universal acceptance. Even in regard to the principles of logic and the laws of thought, there is no universal agreement. The rationalist is certain about the ability of reason to give him uncontradictable knowledge. He forgets, however, that reason cannot be taken as an infallible instrument of knowledge and that its only function is the critical examination, verification and judgment of the knowledge that we obtain through the senses. Direct or immediate knowledge is given to us relatively in sense-perception, and absolutely in intuitional revelation, but not in reason. Reason has a purely negative value and is not a positive means of knowledge. The senses and intuition provide us with knowledge which reason cannot contradict, though it can criticise and judge them. There are certain facts, of course, which we cannot know through the senses; but this does not mean that reason can know them. It is only in spiritual intuition that they are realised. Unless the innate ideas of the rationalist are equated with the infallible revelations of intuition, they cannot carry much weight in the light of an experience which presents itself before us as having the value of reality. If what is called a self-evident truth is confined to reason alone, its validity is capable of being doubted. Only when it is taken to mean a spiritual realisation of Reality does its truth rise above the realms of doubt and criticism.
The critical or transcendental method of philosophy employed by Kant takes stock of the arguments of empiricism and rationalism and builds a new system of tremendous importance in the history of philosophic thought. Kant follows the method of the analysis of the conditions and limits of knowledge. He points out that, though the material of our knowledge is supplied by the senses, the universality and the necessity about it comes from the very nature and constitution of the understanding, which is the knower of all things in the world. But the world which we thus know through synthetic a priori knowledge is not the real world, for, it is built by the materials supplied by the senses, which gain the characters of universality and necessity when they are brought into shape by the categories provided by the understanding. The world of reality cannot be known by the powers that man possesses at present. If we had been endowed with a consciousness-in-general or an intellectual intuition uninfluenced by the judgments and categories of the understanding, it would have been possible for us to know the reality as such; but as this kind of consciousness is not possessed by us, we cannot know reality. What we know are just empirical facts or phenomena constructed by percepts and concepts common to all men. The postulates of reality that reason advances are only necessities felt by it and not realities in themselves.
In the philosophy of Kant reason reaches its limits and also becomes conscious of these limits. The strata of the senses, understanding and reason are thoroughly investigated and critically examined and their weaknesses exposed. So far all is good. But Kant would seem to many to discourage all effort towards the acquisition of a knowledge of reality, making the very search for knowledge a hopeless affair. To him, knowledge is a synthetic relational product of the logical self. He feels that the ideals of metaphysics which the reason cherishes are just regulative principles which seem to have no reality beyond being mere hypotheses. He makes philosophy in the sense of metaphysics an impossibility, holding that all knowledge is phenomenal. One of the defects of his system lies in his thinking that intuition is confined to sense-perception. He seems to feel that man cannot have non-mediate experience except through sensory contact. Though he is profound enough to conceive of an intellectual intuition transcending the senses and understanding, he does not raise it beyond a mere logical concept which does not share the nature of reality. Though theoretically possible, his intellectual intuition seems to have no practical value. The fact, however, appears to be that Kant was not aware that he himself had in him intimations of this intellectual intuition, while he declared the world to consist of appearances and posited the things-in-themselves as unknown but existing realities. He comes to the borderland of reality and then retraces his steps, as if frightened by its stupendousness. Swami Sivananda would join hands with Kant in holding that the world is phenomenal; but to him, the intuition of Reality is not a mere intellectual possibility but the very basis of life itself. Swami Sivananda recognises that the Supreme Self, which is the foundation of all existence, is to be known in a unique and non-rational way and that this Self-knowledge cannot be expressed through the categories of the understanding, which work in agreement with the material provided by the senses. The knowledge which one has of the Self cannot be ground in the mill of the senses and reason, for, it is non-relative and constitutes an integral comprehension. It is beyond all conceivable proofs of knowledge, for it is the basis of all proof. To Kant, God is an object of faith, but to Swami Sivananda He is an object of experience. It is only when we narrow down the experience to the logical and empirical realms that we are inclined to dub it as a postulate. The philosophy of Swami Sivananda does not begin with postulates; it is an exposition of spiritual experience.
Kant’s critical method was taken much further and completed by Hegel in a staggering system of idealism built by means of what he termed the dialectical method. This method of Hegel consists in the constructive dialectical process of opposition and reconciliation. Thesis, antithesis and synthesis are its moments. The existence of the finite and its assertion of itself as such is the thesis. This thesis naturally evokes the existence and assertion of the finite that is its opposite. This is its antithesis. The relation between the thesis and the antithesis implies a reconciliation of these two in a higher synthesis brought about by the evolving force of the Whole, which transcends the isolated factors of the existence and the assertion of the thesis and the antithesis. This reconciliation results in the cooperation of the thesis and the antithesis and in a blend of the existence and the assertion of the unity of the synthesis. Then this synthesis itself becomes a thesis to which there is an antithesis. The two again get unified and transcended in a still higher synthesis. This process of dialectical unification in higher and higher syntheses continues in various grades, progressively, until the Absolute is reached, where all contradiction is finally and fully reconciled. For Hegel, the forms and matter of Kant constitute an organism in which they blend to make up the universal Whole. Forms are one with matter; thought is one with reality; knowledge is being. The internal and external are identical processes. The categories of Kant are the framework, not merely of thought, but of reality itself.
According to Hegel, logic and metaphysics are one and the same. The study of reason is the study of reality, and metaphysics is the science of reality. The real is the rational, and the rational is the real. Hegel dismisses Kant’s idea that the categories of knowledge are outside reality and cannot be applied to the realm of reality. In criticism of Kant he says that “thoughts do not stand between us and things, shutting us off from things; they rather shut us together with them.” He contends that the categories of knowledge are present in the universal nature of reality itself and are not confined merely to the knowing subject. The categories become the processes of the development of thought through the dialectical movement of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, or affirmation, negation and reconciliation. Knowledge becomes identical with reality. Thought and being get blended together in the Absolute.
Hegel gives us a concept of Reality. But he is not concerned with the possibility of realising it in one’s being. A careful study will show that the dialectic of Hegel does not give us knowledge of Reality, but only tabulates and examines the categories involved in one’s attempt to grasp rationally the nature of Reality. Swami Sivananda’s absolutism is very different from Hegel’s, though there are many resemblances between the two. We shall have occasion to discuss these systems in greater detail in the course of our study. For the present it is enough to know that Swami Sivananda stands for intuition and realisation or Anubhuti, and not merely for a rational concept of it. The method of Hegel will not find it easy to establish how thought and reality, logic and metaphysics, are ultimately one. It is only with difficulty that one can prove the presence of the categories of knowledge in the framework of reality. The dialectic as conceived by Hegel will fail in this attempt. Hegel, too, had a touch of a super-rational inspiration in him, without which he could not have posited the unity of the Absolute, which is beyond sense-perception, though he was very much averse to anything that could not be subjected to the laws of reason. The real is grasped only in being.
The Socratic method of philosophical disquisition consists in arguing out the entire anatomy of the subject in question, in the manner of a dialogue. The prima facie view is refuted by exposing the inconsistencies and contradictions involved in accepting it as true. The teacher professes entire ignorance all the while, finally eliciting the truth from the mouth of the questioner himself, by the ingenious method of subtle examination, through questioning, dividing and analysis. This technique of argument is based on a complete knowledge of the fundamental component elements of the subject of the argument and their relation to the constitution and condition of the intellect and reason of the opposite party concerned in the discussion, and also on grounding the argument in the most basic facts acceptable to that party. The Socratic method can be summed up in the following processes: (1) The assumption of an ignorance of truth by the teacher, which has been called the Socratic irony: This attitude of intellectual humility and basing oneself on the most fundamental of propositions in an argument is, as with Descartes, essential to unravel the depths of truth. (2) The method of dialogue or conversation as an effective technique in the discovery of truth: This is based on a grasp of the presence of the knowledge of the true and the good in every person at the bottom of his being, in spite of hasty conclusions that one may make regarding things due to immature observations and pet prejudices. This common ground of truth among men can be brought out to the surface by careful analysis, argument and investigation, by question and answer. This is often called the art of philosophic midwifery. (3) The establishment of correct concepts or definitions before trying to know their application in life’s particular instances. (4) The art of proceeding from the observed particular facts to more general truths, i.e., adopting the inductive method of reasoning. The method of Socrates is also deductive in the sense that it draws out the consequences and implications of certain concepts and judges their validity.
The analytical method of Socrates was followed by the synthetic dialectic of Plato, which concerned itself with discovering the causal relation between thought and being. Plato’s dialectic method mostly consisted in the grouping of scattered particulars into a single concept or idea and the dissection of this concept or idea into classes, i.e., the generalisation and arrangement of the idea. The arriving at a fact depends on the establishment of a correct concept or notion or principle. It is not possible to know, for example, what the true is or who a good man is, unless we first settle in our knowledge the nature of truth and goodness.
According to the pragmatic method, everything is real when it tends to fruitful activity and results. The character of fulfilling the primal interests of man should be the guiding principle in philosophy. Human interest is the touchstone of philosophical endeavour, of all activity—physical, mental, moral or spiritual. Values are to be judged by results, and the test of truth is workability. We need not discuss here the methods of the logical positivists, the naive realists, and the like, as these are not very relevant to endeavours directed towards arriving at absolute truth. The psychological method of Descartes, consisting of enquiring into the origin of ideas, Bergson’s intuitional method in biological evolution and Spinoza’s geometrical method, are other techniques of great consequence.
The way of the Rig-Veda and the earlier Upanishads is purely intuitional. Seers entered into the heart of Reality in intense concentration of mind, in meditation, ecstasy, rapture and attunement, and proclaimed to the world in their simple language and powerful style that Nature is, in truth, one. The Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya and Mimamsa philosophies bolstered up a thoroughly realistic method of the analysis of experience. The Yoga system pursued the psychological techniques of inner discipline, while the Vedanta followed the purely spiritual approach to life, backing it up with a rigorous logical scrutiny and examination of experience. But, all these Indian systems have one thing in common: to them all, philosophy is an intensely practical affair, the art of wise living, the way of the attainment of salvation and freedom of the self.
The method of philosophy in general is not to study things piecemeal, as physical science does, but to make a comprehensive study of the totality of experience provided to us through all avenues of knowledge. Science has its special provinces of observation and experiment; but philosophy, having as its goal the solution of the riddle of existence in its completeness, cannot be content with partial observation through the senses. In its vast studies philosophy takes into consideration the objects of experience derived not only through the senses, understanding and reason, but through mystical communion and realisation, with which science, evidently, has no concern in the least. Philosophy is a critical reflection on what is implied in experience, in order to enable man to come in direct contact with it. All men have, no doubt, experience, but not all are endowed with that higher faculty of reflecting upon what is buried deep in experience. This higher reflection is the function of the philosopher, and it is this that distinguishes him from the mass of mankind. The common man takes the world to be physical in its constitution, isolated from his own subjective self, and believes in the independence of the laws of Nature over which he seems to have no control. But it is a superior understanding that discovers the super-sensible fact of the organic relation, which the outward universe has with man’s essential intelligence. Man is not a puppet pulled by strings held by an arbitrary Nature. Life is not a mere marionette-play, in which man made to dance by strings pulled by a capricious director. The universe is friendly, and man is not only an organic part of it but has in him the potentiality of knowing, ruling and coming into at-one-ment with it. Philosophy, therefore, corrects the commonsense notions of the unreflective mind and thus becomes a great panacea for the ills of life caused by ignorance and impotency on the part of man.
The validity of genuine philosophical truths lies in their universality and necessity, and are not in need of any further verification of their tenability. They are illuminated by the torch of intuition, and hence any external verification of their validity is not only not necessary but meaningless. They are always characterised by immediacy, universality and necessity and, consequently, by infallibility and perfect veracity. They hold good for all minds in all conditions, for they spring from the depths of knowledge. There are certain features of reality pervading even ordinary experience, recognisable through subtle contemplation and reflection. It is the purpose of philosophy to study these pervasive features of reality making themselves felt in experience, so that by means of these visible features man may be in a position to rise directly to an intuition of what they feebly indicate. It is a mistake made by many thinkers to reject all super-rational experience as irrational and to debar it from the field of philosophical studies. Facts that reason cannot know are not therefore infra-rational. When it becomes impossible for reason to comprehend certain truths, it is not rational to reject them as anti-rational. We cannot subject super-sensible facts to the categories of our knowledge, but they can be logically deduced from such facts, without our being irrational. What the commonplace student of philosophy actually means when he says that super-sensory realities are irrational is that they are totally dissimilar to all phenomena that are known to him through the senses. Dissimilarity to rational concepts is not always irrationality. What is beyond reason is known in a knowledge which is private from the point of view of the one who has it, but universal in itself. The impossibility of communicating such knowledge through the usual visible means of the world has led many to the false notion that it does not exist at all. Concepts evolved from sense-experience are powerless in judging the nature of the ultimate Cause of all causes—the indubitable Self. No one can deny his own self or his being conscious of his self; nor can one deny that this consciousness is beyond the senses and reason.
Swami Sivananda’s method combines revelation, meditation and reason in one. To him, all methods of sense-function and the mental approach to Truth have to be set aside as faulty for the reason that their deliverances are untrustworthy, being logically indefensible and psychologically warped by the defects of the instruments. Infallible knowledge is to be had only in the intuition of Reality, and all knowledge derived through the senses, understanding and reason falls short of it in an enormous degree. No other method of approach to Truth than communion with being as such can give us ultimately reliable knowledge. Unless the knower and the known are identified in knowledge, knowledge is not true, but gives us only a semblance of what we really seek to obtain. Swami Sivananda is a faithful follower of Sankara in his basic presuppositions, though he is equally friendly with Ramanuja, Madhva and the other dualistic and pluralistic philosophers. To Swami Sivananda, philosophy is the way of the attainment of Brahman, and his method includes all that is best in every school of philosophy. Empiricism, rationalism, transcendentalism and absolutism come to a loving embrace in his most catholic system. The experience of the nature of the individual in relation to the universe, of which it is a content, becomes the basis of philosophical enquiry, which culminates in spiritual meditation and realisation. Sruti, Yukti and Anubhava—authority, reason and intuition—are the stages of the ascent of the soul aspiring for eternal life. Sravana, Manana and Nididhyasana—hearing (or study), reflection and meditation—sum up the practical method of the spiritual aspirant. Hearing and reflection comprise the entire gamut of speculative philosophy, and Nididhyasana is the final fruition in meditation, leading to Sakshatkara or realisation. Aspiration for the Eternal is the greatest incentive to philosophical enquiry, whose aim is not only to know, but to be.
Human knowledge, for Swami Sivananda, is not an exact representation of reality, nor is the world a mere projection of the human mind. The world is the objective appearance of the Absolute, thus being ideal, but is also the cause of the representation of the same in human knowledge, thus being real. The world is ideal as contained in the Absolute, real as being outside the finite minds. The variety observed in sensations should prove that there is variety in objects which cannot themselves be sensations. Philosophic techniques rise first from the establishment of the Self as the source of knowledge. Philosophy should proceed with equipments that bear relations to the Self primarily, for, bereft of knowledge of this unavoidable relation, any enterprise in this direction is bound to be a wild-goose chase. There is a fundamental correlativity of all things as values converging on the Self, which is unmistakably the unchanging centre of all experience. The question of the existence and the nature of this Self will be discussed in its proper place. How are we to be sure whether a method that we employ to achieve a certain end is valid or not? Perhaps, in ordinary life, this will be vouched for by the possibility at least of a hope of accomplishing the purpose in view. But we sift well the material on our hands and judge the strength and usefulness of it before we actually use it. A thorough knowledge of the correctness and the satisfactory character of the method has always to precede the employment of the same for chosen purpose. We should not make assertions or take active steps without first ascertaining the powers of the instruments of knowledge and action. “We must understand what knowing is, in order to explain anything at all, so that any proposed explanation of knowing would necessarily presuppose that we understood what knowing is” (Prichard: Kant’s Theory of Knowledge). The Atman, which cannot be gainsaid and which is the presupposition of experience, is the pivot of philosophical disquisitions. We have, in the mystical method of intellectual and moral purification advocated by Plotinus, a parallel to this comprehensive method in philosophy.
The central aim of the philosophy of Swami Sivananda is the living of the highest life, a life fixed in the knowledge of the principles which are the ultimate regulators of all things. An enlightened life of peace joy is the goal of his sublime philosophy. And this blessedness can be attained only in the Divine Being. Dharma, the ethical value; Artha, the material value; and Kama, the vital value, are all based on Moksha which is the supreme value of existence. The aim of life is the attainment of Moksha. Swami Sivananda’s system is a specimen of a type of philosophy that arises on account of a necessity felt by all in life, and not because of any curiosity characteristic of thinkers who have only a speculative interest and no practical aspiration. The sight of evil and suffering, pain and death, directs one’s vision to the causes of these phenomena; and this, in its turn, necessitates an enquiry into the reality behind life as a whole. It is not an academic interest in theoretical pursuits, but a practical irresistible urge to contact Reality, that leads to the glorious enterprise of true philosophy. Philosophy, in India, does not pretend to provide one with any new knowledge which was not existent before, but elaborately expounds the structure of the eternal knowledge which is handed down by the ancient sages through several generations. Swami Sivananda is a link in the long chain of seers who have imparted their spiritual wisdom to mankind through precept as well as by practice. His philosophy is one of a series of intense meditations meant to lead seekers to an ineffable spiritual experience, an experience which is not sensory or intellectual, but timeless.
Swami Sivananda teaches that the bondage of man consists in his ignorance of the true nature of his Self and that his freedom is in the knowledge of the Self. By bondage he means subjection to the process of birth and death and the consequent experience of suffering and pain. Self-knowledge can be attained even in this very life, provided one puts forth sufficient effort towards this end. True happiness can be had only in the Self, and it is futile to search for it in this temporal world, which does not partake of the nature of Reality. The knowledge that man has to strive for is not a theoretical understanding but is the consciousness of the Self. It is neither information gathered regarding the Self, nor a mere acquaintance with it through discursive reason, that can liberate man from his bondage. What is required is practical realisation, which is possible only through profound meditation on the nature of Brahman. This meditation, again, is impossible without strict self-discipline and self-restraint. As Brahman is the sole reality, the means of its realisation should necessarily consist in a conscious abandonment of desires for objects that exist as the non-self and that create an apparent division between consciousness and its contents. Philosophy, to Swami Sivananda, is the living of a life of deep insight and an intense austerity consequent upon it, whose final aim is to secure the bliss of Brahman in one’s own Self, which is to be realised as the being identical with Brahman, and the rendering of help to humanity for reaching this glorious consummation of life by teaching and personal example. It is not a philosophy confined to schools, but is a study of the technique of wise living by grounding oneself in the consciousness of the Self. It is, in other words, learning to manifest the law of the Eternal in the temporal life of the world, to bring a reconciliation between the Absolute and the relative, to move on the earth as a human being, while, at the same time, being unceasingly alive to the presence of the super-mundane Absolute.
The philosophy of Swami Sivananda is not any secret way capable of being trodden only by a select few. It is an all-inclusive method which comprises all existent means of communion with Reality. It is really the Vedanta applied to all aspects of life in order to live one’s life at its highest and best. It is the system of the perfect life, the rule of wisdom and the law of liberty. It is not a speculative system reserved for intellectual pleasantry during leisure hours, but is the food of the higher understanding and the light of the innermost Self of man. The Vedanta is as simple as life is; and also it is as complex as life is!
Every citizen of the world can be taught this philosophy, provided the teacher knows well what it truly means and how it can be applied in practice to the different stages of life and to different individuals. It is ignorance and wrong understanding that make certain people think that the philosophy of the Atman or Brahman is an other-worldly theory concerning only a life which follows death. The Vedanta is not any narrow dogma divorced from the facts of everyday life. It can and ought to be applied in the daily life of everyone. Without it life would be a perpetual groping in darkness. What is man, if not a thought, a feeling, or a group of thoughts and feelings? And the Vedanta is the light that illumines the world of thought, of feeling, of willing, of understanding. It is the life of the thoughtful, the joy of the learned, the destination of the pilgrim soul on the arduous path of knowledge. It is the final explanation of the Yoga of action, of devotion, of concentration, of wisdom and of every conceivable religious, philosophic or mystic methodology.
The Vedanta of Swami Sivananda does not teach that one should detest the world or isolate oneself in some world other than this. It does not proclaim that anyone should forsake his duties in life or put on a grave face or behave in any conspicuous manner. His Vedanta declares that one should not be selfish or attached to any fleeting object, that one should live in the consciousness of the loving brotherhood and unity of the Self in the universe, that the truth of existence is one and indivisible, that division or separation, hatred, enmity, quarrel and selfishness are against the nature of the Self, that the pain of birth and death is caused by desire generated by the ignorance of the Self, that the highest state of experience is immortal life or the realisation of Brahman, that everyone is born for this supreme purpose, that this is the highest duty of man, that all other duties are only aids or auxiliaries to this paramount duty, that one should perform one’s prescribed duties with the spirit of non-attachment and dedication of oneself and one’s actions to the Supreme Being, that every aspect of one’s life should get consummated in this Consciousness. The question is not of abandoning something or holding on to something, but of a change in the Drishti or the vision of life. It is a reorientation in the way of the functioning of the volitional, the conceptual and the perceptual consciousness that is required by the philosophic life. The body will be there; its activities will be there; but these will be transformed into the lustrous gold of the liberated life of Jivanmukti, by the touch of the philosopher’s stone of the knowledge of the Self. This life of Self-knowledge is life in its splendid perfection and plenitude. This is the blessed gnosis, the state of freedom or Moksha. The way to such realisation is Vedanta-Sadhana. It commences with the analysis and study of the nature of the Atman, and comprises the inner techniques and processes of Yoga, Bhakti and Karma.