Below is a slightly edited paper, first written to fulfill a course requirement. It will probably be of little interest to those who are not already familiar with varieties of Hindu thought. The paper summarizes and reflects upon a selected few elements within one expression of Hindu philosophy, Advaita Vedānta. It is not comprehensive, submitted as a brief assessment. It is certainly not an endorsement of Vedānta, and I do, by way of a question, make a related and appropriate (if also understated) point at the end of the paper.
Interestingly, modern considerations of Advaita Vedanta have sometimes emphasized its social utility—its proposal as a unifying agent in a diverse India. Some of its original detractors, however, rejected Advaita for the radical, complicating implications that it carried forward into religious life: In short, the devotional sentiments toward the gods were endangered by Advaita’s claim of absolute unity. Thus, an irony: On the landscape of Indian history, Advaita has both divided and unified aspiration. Shankaracharya’s writings became central in this development.
If so, a further point is relevant: Apparently, both advocates and critics of the Advaita system have recognized that definitions and expressions of action must first account for a definition of being. In other words, because the Indian philosophical schools are often preoccupied with the same goal—to transcend suffering, it is unsurprising that critics attack Advaita at its root proposal: unchanging, absolute non-dualism, for that proposal prescribes the ways that the common goal is obtained. Thus, the nature of being remains a fundamental concern in Indian thought. Accordingly, I have chosen to summarize Advaita’s definition of the jiva-atman, but also the character Advaita assigns the material body. Some differences in Indian thought are thereby contrasted, and the said association between being and act is highlighted.
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In ancient India, the Vedas nominally provided the unifying assumptions upon which life proceeded. Their Saṃhitā and Brāhmaṇa portions, at least, preceded the philosophical debates that eventually flourished in the upanishadic period.1Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, vol. I (New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2018), 59. For his part, Dasgupta is content to describe a “remarkable” difference between Brahmanic and subsequent upanishadic thought;2Dasgupta adds that some monotheistic conceptions in the earlier Vedic portions contrast to the absolutism of the Upaniṣads. See ibid., 31-32. and yet, after this change was effected, the Vedic corpus remained a controlling notion of orthodoxy.
Importantly, orthodoxy functions as something more than a convenient definition; it also predicts the plane of debate. Even when orthodoxies are disproved, that only occurs because they first represent a substantial enough idea to form assumptions and demand attention. Counterarguments, then, need be directed and persuasive. Accordingly, of considerable importance is the question of why the initial Vedic ideal eventually became the subject of development. Religious practice took new forms in the upanishadic period. “Side by side with the ritualistic sacrifices of the generality of the Brahmins, was springing up a system where thinking and symbolic meditations were taking the place of gross matter and action involved in sacrifices.”3Ibid., 35.
Thus, we have several important ritual elements/subjects—self, body, and action—resurfacing in subsequent contemplative religion. We also see practice change in relation to the altered religious and philosophical assumptions. Indeed, Indian orthodoxy eventually obtained a wider expression than it enjoyed in the early Vedic period: The idea of tradition (smṛti) was added to śruti. Therefore, development is displayed, even while the nominal notion of Vedic orthodoxy remained the same.4Richard King cites Jitendra Nath Mohanty in Richard King, Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought (New Delhi: ANE Books/Maya Publishers under license from Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 15-16. Moreover, various philosophical proofs (pramāṇas) were increasingly postulated and later became central, if only because disagreement now arose to the interpretation of the original and persistent orthodox texts.
In consideration to these and other diversifying developments, many scholars conclude that the sacrificial religion described in the Veda’s earliest portions eventually yielded preeminence to speculative efforts.5For instance, Hs107: Introduction to Hinduism: History, Text, Philosophy, (Oxford: Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, 2013), 75.; Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, I, 35. But why? The Vedas were regarded as eternally existing—the ultimate śabda-pramāṇa, and the sacrifices were said to achieve their goals upon correct performance;6A History of Indian Philosophy, I, 22. nevertheless, philosophical and even speculative treatises still arose. Dasgupta broaches the idea that Buddhism may have served as a catalyst for additional doubt and attending speculation.7Ibid., 9. (This possibility would influence examinations of Shankaracharya.) Others have offered the possibility that the bare ritualism of the early Vedic period failed to satisfy man’s devotional aspirations.
Putting aside the provocative question of motive, it at least seems true that the initial sacrificial religion of the Vedas survived only insofar as the Āraṇyakas and Upaniṣads were added to the canon to round out the pervasive desire for experience and knowledge—a necessary development for rite to possess devotional content and devotion to possess ritual power.8Klostermaier refers to this friction. See Klaus Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism, 3rd ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 123. Quite decidedly, then, the path of knowledge had overtaken the path of works.9Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, I, 29.
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What, then, is the substance of this gradual change? Importantly, some of the older ritualistic forms (body and action) become the considered subjects of the philosophical schools. For the Advaitist, the apparent diversity of the natural world, as well as the objects of spiritual devotion, are declared māyā—illusion—regardless of their present appearances. As long as one assumes that his (supposed) individual soul interacts with variations of prakṛti—even in ritualistic and devotional names and forms, he is bound by the karmic order that effected his current condition. Both bliss and pain are symptomatic of the one and same illusion.
According to Advaita, a man must realize Brahman as the ultimate Self—the reality that stands behind all appearance of diversity. Knowledge—most properly regarded as Self-knowledge—”is not the direct result of any action. It always exists. The [Advaitic] Vedantic discipline merely removes ignorance, the barrier to this knowledge, and the glory of the Self shines forth.”10Swami Nikhilananda, “Introduction,” in Self-Knowledge (Atmabodha) (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1946), 34. When both the worshiper and the worshiped are understood as one, worship is also forsaken.
As such, a man’s sense of individual, soulish life is illusory. It frustrates—even denies—his liberation from saṃsāra. The material (gross) body only seems to house an independent jiva-atman, yet the gross body is constituted according to karmic laws. Thus, illusion finds its strength in karma and karma finds its eradication in one’s realization of the jiva-atman as the Ātman.
Samkhya thinkers had considered and enumerated the various elements that they observed as matter’s real constituents, but Advaitists relegate the appearance of all names and forms as the product of ignorance. More to the point, what does not exist possesses no cause. As such, a systematic theory of causation is absent in the Upaniṣads—at least insofar as the Advaitists interpret them.11Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, I, 52-53. Accordingly, Dasgupta recounts how that Shankara relies upon the Chāndogya Upaniṣad to distinguish how change may occur in forms when the essence ever remains the same. Plates, pots, and jugs made of clay are but clay in essence; only their forms differ and change.12Ibid., 53. Even so, the body plays a tangible role for the unenlightened man: He is consigned to endless transmigrations until such a time as his ignorance is traded for moksha.
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This all finds its relevance in the fact that Advaita develops in the long shadow of the Vedic tradition but does so alongside other philosophical schools that resist Advaitic propositions. Shankara’s presentation represents but one strand of Vedantic thought, and the other strands remain powerful and resilient influences upon Hindu devotional life. Even a dualism is posited: Madhvacharya eventually condemns Shankaracharya’s philosophy, preserving Vaishnavism as a dualistic, devotional form of Vedanta. What explains variance within the larger Vedanta school?
One point to be made is that Advaita very decidedly seeks conformity to the philosophy of the Upaniṣads. This is evidenced in Shankaracharya’s use of the Mahāvākyas, statements selected from the Upaniṣads that most naturally seem to reflect a non-dualistic ultimate reality. In turn, this confirms the strong emphasis that Advaita places on the śabda-pramāṇa; and yet, it is true that subsequent Vedantic schools, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita, confess the same allegiance. One must then decide whether Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya are faithful to the texts that they interpret differently.
For his part, Shankaracharya insists that knowledge alone achieves liberation,13Nicholas Sutton, Hs110: Introduction to Hindu Philosophy–Vedanta and Samkhya (Oxford: Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, 2017), 36. and that liberation is nothing less than the realization that there is no other reality but Brahman—pure consciousness. Again, all else is illusory appearance—mistaken identity, effected by ignorance and attachment. Obviously, Shankara’s absolute monism was too antagonistic for either Ramanuja’s or Madhvacharya’s devotional sympathies. Advaita holds that the worship of the gods is emblematic of an unrealized state. Thus, ontology keeps poking at the prescriptions of soteriology.
Accordingly, Vishishtadvaita levels a significant argument against Advaitists when it highlights its own notion of satyavada—that the phenomenal world is real, and that Shankara’s doctrine of an illusory world (mayavada) is erroneous. Ramanuja wants to maintain one unity in many real expressions. The claim and its implications are salient, for hereby it highlights devotional sensibilities for real-world worship and also conforms to orthodox expectations—even when many textual considerations (i.e., the Mahāvākyas) appear to favor Shankara. The point is made that Shankara’s mayavada appears in Buddhist and not Vedic texts. In other words, how may Shankara’s orthodox system stand upon an unorthodox leg? Moreover, proponents of Vishishtadvaita charge that a doctrine of illusion is not discoverable by perception (pratyakṣa). And since inference (anumāna) cannot be established without prior perception, Advaita fails on all three important pramāṇas.14Ibid., 63-64.
Madhva also highlights the pratyakṣa-pramāṇa without ever denying the testimony of the Vedas. He merely moves the debate from the field of revelation to that of epistemology.15Ibid., 63. When a person reads a text in conformity with non-duality, only his interpretation is defective. Madhva, then, redirects skepticism to the reader’s interpretation and away from that of the phenomenal world. One might, I think, reasonably ask whether interpretation is not also a mode of perception. Madhva seems to anticipate this dilemma. Indeed, he reinforces the idea of pratyakṣa by positing an additional and higher instance of it—an intuition (sakshin) that removes illusion. Indeed, sakshin is but another kind of direct perception, obtaining what the physical senses cannot. Hereby, the integrity of the pramāṇa is maintained against ignorance (avidyā) and its effects.
As such, rather than mount purely textual arguments, both Vishishtadvaitists and Dvaitaists best succeed against Shankara’s presentation when reframing the debate. This allows Ramanuja to maintain Brahman’s unity in its different, qualified forms and Madhva to insist upon ontological difference between Vishnu and man, whereupon the experience of bliss connects the two.16Gavin Flood summarizes Madhva’s idea of liberation in so many words. See Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 247.
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It is here that a brief point further illustrates how these older tensions remain pertinent. The modern era has sometimes seen Advaitists propose its tenants as the foundation for social ethics—even the body politic. (Evidently, self, body, and action will find their association in one form or another.) As Dasgupta rightly observes, only positive perception can lead a man to practical movement.17Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, I, 486. Accordingly, Swami Vivekananda rooted his work toward broader Indian nationalism and against caste discrimination upon Advaita’s principle of single, changeless unity. Swami Nikhilananda expressed this same logic when he wrote that “self-love finds its expression and fulfillment in love for all.”18Nikhilananda, “Introduction,” xiii. It is in this respect that old debates find modern expressions in both political parties and temples.
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If we are to summarize and assess these various claims, it seems necessary to explore the one priority that they hold in common, the śabda-pramāṇa; and, indeed, it is upon a reading of the Upaniṣads that Advaita Vedānta seems to possess its strength as a description of Vedānta. That said, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita successfully probe the logic of Advaita by appealing to the pratyakṣa-pramāṇa. One would expect that a single, absolute monism would also possess a seamless Vedic logic in the proofs, but that does not seem to be the case. Shankaracharya must sometimes depend upon Buddhist presuppositions. “Nowhere in the [Vedic] scriptures is it stated that the world is not real, and this doctrine is simply a false inference based on a misreading of apparently Advaitic passages in the Upanishads.”19Sutton, Hs110: Introduction to Hindu Philosophy–Vedanta and Samkhya, 65.
The pluralism that showcased older Indian thought, however, now finds itself in a still larger arena. Vedantic philosophy must contend with more than its Indian siblings. As Richard King notes, this fact has often worked unto a miscomprehension and (worse still) a misrepresentation of Indian philosophy, adjudicated upon Western Enlightenment presumptions.20King, Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, 3-4. He describes a situation in which Western philosophers eventually prioritized methods of inquiry that increasingly denied scriptural revelation. If Western modern philosophy is to be faulted for its own Enlightenment presuppositions—ironically ill-disposed as it became to the Biblical revelation, also—so must the Indian schools now face the nature and source of their own most basic assumptions.
Vedanta minimally subscribes to the Vedas as śabda-pramāṇa. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the Vedas themselves will necessarily be scrutinized when the notion of pluralism drifts from the center of the Indian subcontinent and its basic presupposition. After all, something effected the contemplative content of the Upaniṣads. Why, then, must the Saṃhitās, lying behind them in the Vedic canon, remain presuppositional in a larger world? In this way, we see that Advaita’s strength and weakness lies in its textual foundation. In effect, then, Vivekananda’s proposed ethical unity cannot exist where the Vedas themselves have not first persuaded men that absolute unity is ontological, and that ethical aspirations and acts must proceed upon this proposition. Definitions of action depend upon notions of being. Never mind Western Enlightenment prejudices and Indian pramāṇas, what text will now define ontology?
Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy. Vol. I, New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2018.
Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Hs107: Introduction to Hinduism: History, Text, Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, 2013.
King, Richard. Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. [in English] New Delhi: ANE Books/Maya Publishers under license from Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
Klostermaier, Klaus. A Survey of Hinduism. 3rd ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.
Nikhilananda, Swami. “Introduction.” In Self-Knowledge (Atmabodha). New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1946.
Sutton, Nicholas. Hs110: Introduction to Hindu Philosophy–Vedanta and Samkhya. Oxford: Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, 2017.
Notes & References
|↑1||Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, vol. I (New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2018), 59.|
|↑2||Dasgupta adds that some monotheistic conceptions in the earlier Vedic portions contrast to the absolutism of the Upaniṣads. See ibid., 31-32.|
|↑4||Richard King cites Jitendra Nath Mohanty in Richard King, Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought (New Delhi: ANE Books/Maya Publishers under license from Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 15-16.|
|↑5||For instance, Hs107: Introduction to Hinduism: History, Text, Philosophy, (Oxford: Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, 2013), 75.; Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, I, 35.|
|↑6||A History of Indian Philosophy, I, 22.|
|↑8||Klostermaier refers to this friction. See Klaus Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism, 3rd ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 123.|
|↑9||Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, I, 29.|
|↑10||Swami Nikhilananda, “Introduction,” in Self-Knowledge (Atmabodha) (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1946), 34.|
|↑11||Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, I, 52-53.|
|↑13||Nicholas Sutton, Hs110: Introduction to Hindu Philosophy–Vedanta and Samkhya (Oxford: Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, 2017), 36.|
|↑16||Gavin Flood summarizes Madhva’s idea of liberation in so many words. See Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 247.|
|↑17||Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, I, 486.|
|↑18||Nikhilananda, “Introduction,” xiii.|
|↑19||Sutton, Hs110: Introduction to Hindu Philosophy–Vedanta and Samkhya, 65.|
|↑20||King, Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, 3-4.|