Resurgent Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 1: The Goal of Life

What Is Truth?

We say we live in a world, because we perceive and experience certain phenomena which impinge on our senses and make us feel that we are in an objective environment. This supposed environment in which we appear to be placed is felt by us to be a complex situation that influences not only our individual personalities but also other individuals whose existence we observe intuitionally, as it were. We are aware, by analysis, experiment and observation, that broadly speaking, we have three avenues of knowledge, two of which are in direct relation to our normal world-experience, and one is unknown to most of us. These channels of perception are sense, reason and intuition.

Sense-perception reveals to us that we are in a world from which we are cut off as knowing subjects. The world, again, is separated from us as a non-intelligent principle placed in the context of an object which is differentiated from the knowing subject in that the latter is endowed with a principle which we call intelligence, while the former is apparently bereft of it. And how do we perceive the world through our senses?

Any cautious intellect will be able to understand that the special feature that we observe as characterising anything in the world is change. Change appears to be the order of things. Everything moves, flows is in a state of becoming. We have never seen, nor have we any chance of seeing, anything in this world, that is not subject to some kind of transformation or the other. Even our bodies, our senses, nay, even our own minds exhibit this subjection to the inexorable law of change. In short, we are in a process, not being.

And how do we know that there is change? The obvious answer would be that we see it. But here we have to raise a question, as rational beings who will not be easily satisfied by a dogmatic statement that there is change just because we see it. A truly great person is he who has the patience and the ability to first investigate himself, his power of knowledge and his fitness for judging the nature of things. Are we correct in assessing the value of the phenomena that we observe through our senses? What is the standard of correctness? When we say that everything in the world changes, do we also include ourselves in all that changes? Now, just imagine: can we know that something changes or is in a state of transformation, if we ourselves are a part of this observed flux? Can there be knowledge of change if the knower himself changes with the change? The fact that it is possible for us to recognise such a thing as movement or process shows that we somehow find ourselves standing as witnesses of what we observe. For the observer himself cannot be observed, and change itself cannot be its own knower. We say that a river flows, because the bed of the river itself does not flow, and we do not flow with the waters but stand as witnesses on the bank. This is an observation easy of understanding, that we cannot know the distinction between one part of a process and another unless we, as observing intelligences, are able to bring together the two distinguished parts by a link of understanding or consciousness which cannot belong to any one of the parts, and which, yet, has to be equally present to both the parts. The knower is different from the known.

Extending this observation to the entire world of perception, we come to the conclusion that, if at all it should be possible for us to know any such thing as a world—its contents and diversities—we have to accept, by implication, that our consciousness should be at least as wide as what we know, and this consciousness cannot be subject to separation or isolation as the perceptible objects are. Here we come to the crux of philosophy, the pivot of true scientific thinking. Are we in a world of truth?

And what is truth? A great philosopher-saint of ancient India, Swami Vidyaranya, has observed in his great work, the Panchadasi: Satyatvam Badharahityam-Truth is that which stands the test of the principle of non-contradiction. What is never seen to change at any time, what is not subject to transcendence by any kind of experience, what is not dependent on anything else, what is its own proof and requires not other proof to establish its existence, is truth. Truth is that which is absolutely necessary to account for our experiences in life, and which, when negatived or abrogated, contradicts all experience, and cuts the ground from under our feet. Truth is the ultimate Reality of the universe, internal as well as external—gross, subtle and causal. 

Modern Science: Its Implication

As students of modern science, and as enlightened persons interested in studying the advances of present-day researches in the realm of physics, you would be acquainted with the fact that science today has surpassed the old view that the world is made up of crass material stuff, or that it is really diversified in the manner we ordinarily see with our senses. Once upon a time we were told that the constituents of the physical world could be reduced to less than a hundred ultimate principles—call them chemical substances. Later came the discovery that these substances are not really ultimate but could be reduced to minuter elements called atoms which were supposed to differ from one another in certain specific characters they possessed. But research did not end here. Today we are said to be placed in a mysterious universe of forces, of electrical charges, of dynamic powers which are discovered to be the essence of even the atoms. Even the pluralistic notions involved at the present moment in the concept of the stuff of which the atoms are made are slowly getting narrowed down to the recognition of an immanent energy which is supposed to be the matrix of all things, the essence of the world, of our own bodies. We are in a world of energy, in which there cannot be any further differentiation, and which is not merely the cause of the substances of the world but is itself the real substances. We are told that this energy is called light when it has an impact on the retina of our eyes, is called sound when it impinges on the eardrum, is itself taste, touch and smell in accordance with the senses by which we come to feel its presence. It looks, of course, a wonder that we assert our own segregated bodily existences, with their passions and prejudices, while intellectually we are made to conclude that even our bodies are in essence parts of the cosmos of forces. And if we have to believe in what we understand to be the truth, we have no right even to think as individual personalities. We are the cosmos!

Well, let us agree that we are in a universe of energy, as the latest developments in modern physics would indicate. But what is the nature of this energy? What is it made of, and what do we mean by energy? Is it a quantitative substance, an object with dimension, and has it any quality, without which we can know nothing at all? You know, we usually say that something is seen because we observe a quality in it, a character which enables us to differentiate it from another. Has the cosmic energy of the scientist any such perceivable quality? If it has either a quantity or a quality it should be a material substance, and has to be known by something other than itself, viz., an illuminating intelligence.

Here it will not be out of place if I make a reference to a habit that is prevalent among man which makes out that even intelligence is an off-shoot of matter. Now, such a contention really defeats itself, because it involves a self-contradiction. Is matter identical with or different from intelligence? If it is one with intelligence, then what prevents us from assuming that there is only intelligence and no such thing as matter devoid of it, especially as it is very clear that we cannot even assert the existence of matter without an intelligent mind? On the other hand, if matter is different from intelligence, what is it that distinguishes matter from intelligence? Is this differentiating principle matter itself, or is it intelligence? For, there cannot be a third thing. If the difference is matter, then we have to find out the difference between this first difference and intelligence, which argument would lead to an infinite regress. If the difference is intelligence, we will find ourselves in no better predicament, for, again, there would be an infinite regress. Moreover, it is incorrect to think that intelligence, whose essential illuminating character is quite different from the nature of matter, can be its effect. The cause should be at least as rich as the effect. If there is intelligence in the effect, it should be present in the cause, also. Matter would itself be then conceived as a reservoir of intelligence.

More careful physicists like Arthur Eddington and James Jeans have perforce jumped from the land of physics to that of metaphysics. Eddington comes to assert a general or universal consciousness, a universal mind-stuff of the universe; and to Jeans the world is more like a huge mathematical mind manifesting itself, than anything else. The great genius of modern science, Albert Einstein, the discoverer of the theory of relativity, takes us, by the implication of his discovery, to a realm where our ordinary space and time are not, and our objects lose their significance and meaning in a vision integrating our experiences in an incredible manner. He was forced in his later years to accept, by feeling, the presence of a pervading intelligence which staggers human thinking and makes human speech dumb. We are in such a world, a world of mysterious truths which we cannot comprehend. Here we revert from science to philosophy.

The Changeless Consciousness

The methods of philosophy are usually certain developments of the logical methods of thinking and rationalistic processes of thought. Our faculties of understanding, thinking, feeling and willing are, however, found to be subject to certain fixed categories, such as quantity, quality, relation and mode, or, to put it concisely, space, time and cause. On a careful examination it is seen that, even as the findings of science are not ultimately reliable due to their being influenced by the changing characteristics of the senses of perception and the instruments of observation, the philosophical method, as it is usually understood by many, is not free from certain types of subjection to outward laws. It may be that these restrictive laws are so intimately related to the constitution of the mind that it is ordinarily impassable to distinguish between the operation of these laws and the ways of thinking. But, nevertheless, it is a restriction to the fuller freedom that is necessary to make any categorical judgment of truth. For we can never see, or hear, or even think anything outside the limitations imposed on us by the presence of such fundamental categories of phenomenal experience as space, time and causation. The moment we think, we think in terms of space, quantity, extension and succession. This is an old prejudice of the mind, which it is not able to overcome. This inseparable relation that is mysteriously established between our essential modes of thought and the laws restricting them goes by the names of relativity, phenomenality, and the like. And under these circumstances, truth unchangeable cannot be known. Truth can brook not limitation of any kind, for it is established not on any other proof of knowledge or mode of perception, but in itself.

The foregoing analysis reveals the fact that our entire waking experience, being confined to the heavy operations of the categories of the understanding, or thinking, is unsuited to any genuine attempt at the discovery of truth. Our dream-experience fares no better: it is, in the structure of its activities, similar to the waking experience. Unfortunately, we know of no other conscious human experience than waking and dreaming. Thus it is that we often hear it said that truth is not given to the human mind. Profounder methods of philosophy, such as those adumbrated in the system of the Vedanta, take into consideration the deeper implications of the state of deep sleep, which has been very unwisely set aside by most of the Western philosophers in their analyses. We are bereft of all consciousness in the state of dreamless sleep, we cannot know ever our own existence then. But that we do exist in sleep cannot be gainsaid. Our existence here seems to be asserted notwithstanding the absence of the consciousness of existence! But if you think carefully you will notice that no assertion of any kind is possible without some sort of consciousness. And yet, what is it that makes us affirm ourselves in sleep? Definitely, not direct perception. We have a memory of having slept and of our having existed prior to our falling asleep. Yesterday I was, and today I am—thus does the individual assert itself. A phenomenon of this type discloses the fact of there being a connecting link between the state preceding sleep and the one succeeding it. The prior and the later states being involved in consciousness, we cannot, as we have already observed above, suppose that the link between them can be an unconscious principle. The link, too, has to be a conscious one. We never assert that we are ignorant beings in our essence; even a stupid man does not wish to be called so. The essence of intelligence is continuously affirmed, even unwittingly.

Further, that we have a memory of sleep shows that a kind of perception was going on even in sleep, for there can be no memory without a previous perception, and no perception can have a meaning unless it is attended with consciousness. If memory has a meaning, the conscious perception that ought necessarily to lie antecedent to it cannot be denied. We had consciousness, and we existed as consciousness in deep sleep; but we knew it not. Some mysterious darkness was veiling us. And this veil is nothing but the inactive latency of the possibility of objective experience in terms of the phenomenal categories described above.

The Vedanta, thus, takes us beneath the surface and makes us dive into an ocean where we discover the pearl of truth, the truth that we are essentially not only conscious existences but consciousness itself. We are not beings possessing consciousness as an attribute of ourselves, for then we would be reduced to unconscious bases of a conscious attribute. This cannot be, because the knower can never be said to be an unconscious principle. The knower ought to be consciousness, not even a mere possessor of consciousness as a quality. Our existence then, is an indescribable splendour surpassing all light and radiance known to us in this world. Saints and sages point out that words are not meant to describe the transcendent Being, for all speech, together with the mind, is in the position of an after-effect and cannot be expected to illumine its own cause and presupposition. This consciousness, which is our primal essence, cannot be conceived to be limited in any way for the very idea of the limitation of consciousness would prove that consciousness is beyond limitation. The idea of a boundary proves that there is simultaneously the idea of the existence of something outside the boundary. To set limits to consciousness would be a self-contradiction; the limitation cannot be outside the purview of consciousness. Consciousness is infinite.

The consciousness of the continuity of our personalities through the various vicissitudes and changes of life goes to prove that it itself is changeless. The fact that it is indivisible proves that it is infinite. To know this, then, is to know truth. This alone can be the great uncontradictable experience. This we really are. In knowing this we know ourselves as we truly exist. This defies all diversity, and, consequently, all desire, attachment, hatred, anger prejudice, and the like. 

The Underlying Unity

In this connection it would be profitable for you if I recall to your memory an interesting system of philosophy expounded in recent times by the famous professor, Alfred North Whitehead, on the basis of the discoveries made by Einstein in his theory of relativity. It is the opinion of Whitehead, not a mere fantastic belief but a rational conviction, the things in the world do not exist as localised bodies or static substances in a three-dimensional space, but are really certain phases of force entering into one another and forming a marvellous completeness wherein everything is a cause and an effect at the same time from different points of view. In an interrelated cosmic family we cannot say which is dependent on what, for all are mutually included, and nothing is independent. There can be no being but only becoming and process in this world of relativity. The Vedanta, however, goes above the concept of Whitehead and envisages the Eternal Being existing at the background of the world process. In fact, the conclusions of the theory of relativity shift the entire position of scientific thinking and even the commonplace method of popular philosophy, and brings about a reorientation in the conception of matter, motion and force. The discovery that perceptions depend on the position and velocity of the observers makes it impossible for one to state anything as an invariable truth about the things of the world. Curiously enough, the observers themselves would be relative to one another, and there would be none to observe even the fact of relativity! Here we rise to a tremendous intuition, above all thought, and visualise an incredible infinite which ought to be the real Observer of the whole universe of relativity. The 'ingressive evolution' of Whitehead gives a hint to a terrific unity underlying all evolutionary process. Whitehead himself does not seem to have noticed the great significance of his system—it points to something beyond what he intended to tell us. We are lifted to the eternal, the immortal.

Let me make the matter clear to you by another observation. You are acquainted with principle of gravitation, a law by which bodies attract one another in a particular manner. The centres of gravity should be relative, because there is attraction of everything towards everything else, under the governance of the same law. Not only material objects and masses of matter but even we as bodies are relative centres of gravity, determining one another in characteristic as well as existence. That there is an internal relationship among bodies, which is exhibited in the form of gravitation and attraction, indicated that the bodies of the universe are in some mysterious way held together by a single force-we may call it the universal centre of gravity. Unless such a centre is accepted, the system, the order and the method observed in the working of the universe cannot be explained. Mystic philosophers are used to say that this cosmic centre is everywhere, with its circumference nowhere. We may call this the God of the universe, if we so wish.

We know the world; but what about that by which we know it? How can we know the knower? The great sage, Yajnavalkya, prominent in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, makes a significant reference in his immortal instructions to his consort, Maitreyi, to the awe-inspiring existence of the Self which is the seer and the knower of all things, but which itself cannot be an object of anyone's knowledge. This Self is not an element among many others in the world, for it is the observer of the elements. The two different elements-beginning from two common objects up to the individual as set against the universe—cannot be known except by a consciousness which is all-embracing. The intimacy that subsists between the knower and the known is accounted for by the objects being phases of Vishayachaitanya, or consciousness in a state of configuration. We understand, then, that matter is nothing but spirit discerned by the senses.

A great French philosopher once sat contemplating on the problem of human experience, on the methods of arriving at truth, and on the possibilities of confronting errors at every step in this hazardous attempt. He thought: May be that I do not see clearly, nor think rightly. It may be that I am forced by some imp to think wrongly and to observe imperfectly and distortedly. It is likely that nothing that I see or know is certain or capable of being designated as an uncontradictable truth. Everything may be doubtful. I may doubt the existence of my body, of the world or even the validity of the very processes of my thought. There is only a sea of doubt, nothing else. Well, accepting this position tentatively, can I come to the conclusion that the true state of affairs is that there is only doubt, doubt about even my own self, and nothing beyond? Though it may be a fact that I have the right to doubt or disbelieve everything, I have definitely not warrant to doubt that I doubt. The fact of doubting itself cannot be doubted. The doubter is indubitable. The doubter exists as an uncontradictable fact. I am, and this cannot be doubted.

And I know that I am finite. I have an innate feeling that I have to be perfect, that I should achieve unconditional perfection. Naturally, this means that I should be unrestricted and be wanting in nothing. In short, I wish to possess the infinite, and I can conceive of it as an idea. Now, this idea of perfection, of infinitude, has arisen in me, and this idea, being an effect, must have a cause which is at least equal to it. The idea arises from me, and therefore I am the cause of it. The idea, having relevance to the infinite, presupposes my own existence as having a similar relevancy. An idea of the infinite cannot be supposed to arise from a finite cause. I should be essentially infinite. We may give this stupendous Being any name, it matters little. That there is an intimate relation between the essence of the subjective knower and the reality of the objective universe cannot be doubted. In fact the two are one and form a unitary being. Reality is non-dual.

For purpose of clarity in understanding, we may explain the constitution of the universe as in many respects similar to that of our own body. Our body is not an indivisible whole; it is made up of discrete organisms, called cells. Each cell is different from the other, with gap in between, and yet we have a definite feeling that we are one impartite personality. The consciousness that is immanent in us as a single being is responsible for this feeling. Such a feeling expanded to the cosmos would be the feeling of God. This God-consciousness stands opposed to the individual body-consciousness in that the latter has an object to be known outside it, while the former is an integral fullness, a plenum outside which nothing can be. In the assertion of the cosmic I, everything existent or conceivable is included.

A great hymn of the Rig-Veda, called the Purusha-Sukta, or the Hymn of the Cosmic Man, visualises in a grand poetic image the Supreme Being as endowed with thousands of limbs, thousands of heads, eyes, feet, and so on. All that was, is and shall be is said to be comprehended within this Almighty Purusha. The idea behind this majestic vision is that the universe is one body, and even as the different limbs of our body are integrated in our personal and individual consciousness, the different limbs of the universe-including our own bodies—are integrated as sublimated essences in the Almighty, whom we call God, Isvara, the Essence, the Substance, the Reality, etc. A correct understanding of the significance of this concept of truth will at once reveal to us our position in the universe, our relation to others, and our supreme duty in life. What can be a higher duty and a responsibility than to strain every nerve of ours in attaining this consummation of our existence in the Absolute! Where can be a goal other than this for us to achieve in the different walks of our life? Viewed in this way—and there can be no other way worth the name—the foremost duty of the human being is anything that is directly or indirectly connected with the realisation of this highest end. We live for this, we move towards this, and we have our being in this. When we know this, and this feeling enters deeply into our hearts, we live the true life, and we are blessed.