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The System of Vedanta

August 11, 2020 Authored by: Will Durant

The word Vedanta meant originally the end of the Vedas-that is, the Upanishads. Today India applies it to that system of philosophy which sought to give logical structure and support to the essential doctrine of the Upanishads-the organ-point that sounds throughout Indian thought-that God (Brahman) and the soul (Atman) are one. The oldest known form of this most widely accepted of all Hindu philosophies is the Brahma-sutra of Badarayana (ca. 200 B.C.)-555 aphorisms, of which the first announces the purpose of all: “Now, then, a desire to know Brahman.” Almost a thousand years later Gaudapada wrote a commentary on these sutras, and taught the esoteric doctrine of the system to Govinda, who taught it to Shankara, who composed the most famous of Vedanta commentaries, and made himself the greatest of Indian philosophers.

In his short life of thirty-two years Shankara achieved that union of sage and saint, of wisdom and kindliness, which characterizes the loftiest type of man produced in India. Born among the studious Nambudri Brahmans of Malabar, he rejected the luxuries of the world, and while still a youth became a sannyasi, worshiping unpretentiously the gods of the Hindu pantheon, and yet mystically absorbed in a vision of an all-embracing Brahman. It seemed to him that the profoundest religion and the profoundest philosophy were those of the Upanishads. He could pardon the polytheism of the people, but not the atheism of Sankhya or the agnosticism of Buddha. Arriving in the north as a delegate of the south, he won such popularity at the University of Benares that it crowned him with its highest honors, and sent him forth, with a retinue of disciples, to champion Brahmanism in all the debating halls of India. At Benares, probably, he wrote his famous commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, in which he attacked with theological ardor and scholastic subtlety all the heretics of India, and restored Brahmanism to that position of intellectual leadership from which Buddha and Kapila had deposed it.

There is much metaphysical wind in these discourses, and arid deserts of textual exposition; but they may be forgiven in a man who at the age of thirty could be at once the Aquinas and the Kant of India. Like Aquinas, Shankara accepts the full authority of his country’s Scriptures as a divine revelation, and then sallies forth to find proofs in experience and reason for all Scriptural teachings. Unlike Aquinas, however, he does not believe that reason can suffice for such a task; on the contrary he wonders have we not exaggerated the power and role, the clarity and reliability, of reason. Jaimini was right: reason is a lawyer, and will prove anything we wish; for every argument it can find an equal and opposite argument, and its upshot is a skepticism that weakens all force of character and undermines all values of life. It is not logic that we need, says Shankara, it is insight, the faculty (akin to art) of grasping at once the essential out of the irrelevant, the eternal out of the temporal, the whole out of the part: this is the first prerequisite to philosophy. The second is a willingness to observe, inquire and think for understanding’s sake, not for the sake of invention, wealth or power; it is a withdrawal of the spirit from all the excitement, bias and fruits of action. Thirdly, the philosopher must acquire self-restraint, patience, and tranquility; he must learn to live above physical temptation or material concerns. Finally, there must bum, deep in his soul, the desire for moksha, for liberation from ignorance, for an end to all consciousness of a separate self, for a blissful absorption in the Brahman of complete understanding and infinite unity.”” In a word, the student needs not the logic of reason so much as a cleansing and deepening discipline of the soul. This, perhaps, has been the secret of all profound education.

Shankara establishes the source of his philosophy at a remote and subtle point never quite clearly visioned again until, a thousand years later, Immanuel Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason. How, he asks, is knowledge possible? Apparently, all our knowledge comes from the senses, and reveals not the external reality itself, but our sensory adaptation-perhaps transformation-of that reality. By sense, then, we can never quite know the “real”; we can know it only in that garb of space, time and cause which may be a web created by our organs of sense and understanding, designed or evolved to catch and hold that fluent and elusive reality whose existence we can surmise, but whose character we can never objectively describe; our way of perceiving will forever be inextricably mingled with the thing perceived.

Will Durant

This is not the airy subjectivism of the solipsist who thinks that he can destroy the world by going to sleep. The world exists, but it is Maya-not delusion, but phenomenon, an appearance created partly by our thought. Our incapacity to perceive things except through the film of space and time, or to think of them except in terms of cause and change, is an innate limitation, an Avidya, or ignorance, which is bound up with our very mode of perception, and to which, therefore, all flesh is heir. Maya and Avidya are the subjective and objective sides of the great illusion by which the intellect supposes that it knows the real; it is through Maya and Avidya, through our birthright of ignorance, that we see a multiplicity of objects and a flux of change; in truth there is only one Being, and change is “a mere name” for the superficial fluctuations of forms. Behind the Maya or Veil of change and things, to be reached not by sensation or intellect but only by the insight and intuition of the trained spirit, is the one universal reality, Brahman.

This natural obscuration of sense and intellect by the organs and forms of sensation and understanding bars us likewise from perceiving the one unchanging Soul that stands beneath all individual souls and minds. Our separate selves, visible to perception and thought, are as unreal as the phantasmagoria of space and time; individual differences and distinct personalities are bound up with body and matter, they belong to the kaleidoscopic world of change; and these merely phenomenal selves will pass away with the material conditions of which they are a part. But the underlying life which we feel in ourselves when we forget space and time, cause and change, is the very essence and reality of us, that Arman which we share with all selves and things, and which, undivided and omnipresent, is identical with Brahman, God.

But what is God? Just as there are two selves-the ego and Atman and two worlds-the phenomenal and the noumenal-so there are two deities: An Ishvara or Creator worshiped by the people through the patterns of space, cause, time and change; and a Brahman or Pure Being worshiped by that philosophical piety which seeks and finds, behind all separate things and selves, one universal reality, unchanging amid all changes, indivisible amid all divisions, eternal despite all vicissitudes of form, all birth and death. Polytheism, even theism, belongs to the world of Maya and Avidya; they are forms of worship that correspond to the forms of perception and thought; they are as necessary to our moral life as space, time and cause are necessary to our intellectual life, but they have no absolute validity or objective truth.

To Shankara the existence of God is no problem, for he defines God as existence, and identifies all real being with God. But of the existence of a personal God, creator or redeemer, there may, he thinks, be some question; such a deity, says this pre-plagiarist of Kant, cannot be proved by reason, he can only be postulated as a practical necessity, offering peace to our limited intellects, and encouragement to our fragile morality. The philosopher, though he may worship in every temple and bow to every god, will pass beyond these forgivable forms of popular faith; feeling the illusoriness of plurality, and the monistic unity of all things, * he will adore, as the Supreme Being, being itself-indescribable, limitless, space less, timeless, causeless, changeless Being, the source and substance of all reality. We may apply the adjectives “conscious,” “intelligent,” even “happy” to Brahman, since Brahman includes all selves, and these may have such qualities but all other adjectives would be applicable to Brahman equally, since It includes all qualities of all things. Essentially Brahman is neuter, raised above personality and gender, beyond good and evil, above all moral distinctions, all differences and attributes, all desires and ends. Brahman is the cause and effect, the timeless and secret essence, of the world.

Story of Civilization – Will Durant

The goal of philosophy is to find that secret, and to lose the seeker in the secret found. To be one with God means, for Shankara, to rise above or to sink beneath-the separateness and brevity of the self, with all its narrow purposes and interests; to become unconscious of all parts, divisions, things; to be placidly at one, in a desire less Nirvana, with that great ocean of Being in which there are no warring purposes, no competing selves, no parts, no change, no space, and no time. To find this blissful peace (Ananda) a man must renounce not merely the world but himself; he must care nothing for possessions or goods, even for good or evil; he must look upon suffering and death as Maya, surface incidents of body and matter, time and change; and he must not think of his own personal quality and fate; a single moment of self-interest or pride can destroy all his liberation.”” Good works cannot give a man salvation, for good works have no validity or meaning except in the Maya world of space and time; only the knowledge of the saintly seer can bring that salvation which is the recognition of the identity of self and the universe, Atman and Brahman, soul and God, and the absorption of the part in the whole.”” Only when this absorption is complete does the wheel of reincarnation stop; for then it is seen that the separate self and personality, to which reincarnation comes, is an illusion. It is Ishvara, the Maya god, that gives rebirth to the self in punishment and reward; but “when the identity” of Annan and Brahman “has become known, then,” says Shankara, “the soul’s existence as wanderer, and Brahman’s existence as creator” (i.e., as Ishvara) “have vanished away.””‘” Ishvara and Karma, like things and selves, belong to the exoteric doctrine of Vedanta as adapted to the needs of the common man; in the esoteric or secret doctrine soul and Brahman are one, never wandering, never dying, never changed.

It was thoughtful of Shankara to confine his esoteric doctrine to philosophers; for as Voltaire believed that only a society of philosophers could survive without laws, so only a society of supermen could live beyond good and evil. Critics have complained that if good and evil are Maya, part of the unreal world, then all moral distinctions fall away, and devils are as good as saints. But these moral distinctions, Shankara cleverly replies, are real ‘Within the world of space and time, and are binding for those who live in the world. They are not binding upon the soul that has united itself with Brahman; such a soul can do no wrong, since wrong implies desire and action, and the liberated soul, by definition, does not move in the sphere of desire and (self-considering) action. Whoever consciously injures another lives on the plane of Maya, and is subject to its distinctions, its morals and its laws. Only the philosopher is free, only wisdom is liberty.

It was a subtle and profound philosophy to be written by a lad in his twenties. Shankara not only elaborated it in writing and defended it successfully in debate, but he expressed snatches of it in some of the most sensitive religious poetry of India. When all challenges had been met he retired to a hermitage in the Himalayas, and, according to Hindu tradition, died at the age of thirty-two.'” Ten religious orders were founded in his name, and many disciples accepted and developed his philosophy. One of them-some say Shankara himself-wrote for the people a popular exposition of the Vedanta – the Mohamudgara, or “Hammer of Folly” – in which the essentials of the system were summed up with clarity and force:

“Fool! give up thy thirst for wealth, banish all desires from thy heart. Let thy mind be satisfied with what is gained by thy Karma. Do not be proud of wealth, of friends, or of youth; time takes all away in a moment. Leaving quickly all this, which is full of illusion, enter into the place of Brahman. Life is tremulous, like a water-drop on a lotus-leaf Time is playing, life is waning-yet the breath of hope never ceases. The body is wrinkled, the hair grey, the mouth has become toothless, the stick in the handshakes, yet man leaves not the anchor of hope… Preserve equanimity always. In thee, in me and in others there dwells Vishnu alone; it is useless to be angry with me, or impatient. See every self in Self, and give up all thought of difference.”

Centre For Indic studies
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