Six Systems of Indian Philosophy

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Vedanta or the Philosophy of Monism    

Vedanta or VE for short. The philosophical systems of Mimamsa and VE are closely related to each other and are in some ways inter-dependant and complementary. The teachings of VE may be said to have their roots in the fertile soil of Mimamsa. Mimamsa emphasis the teachings of Veda in the light of rituals, while VE emphasis the teachings of the Veda in the light of knowledge. Traditionally Mimamsa called Purva-mimasa meaning the initial teachings of the Veda and VE is called Uttara-mimamsa meaning the later of higher teachings of the Veda.

VE means ‘the end of the Vedas’. In ancient times an Indian student’s education was not complete until he or she received instruction in the Upanishads. A mere study of the Veda is not sufficient to reach his goal. Rather, a student needs to realize its teachings experientially.

The methodology used to describe the subject matter of the Upanishads (UPA for short) is unique. Most of the UPA is written in symbolic language. One should not depend entirely on grammatical and linguistic language to comprehend the real meaning of the UPA, for it is not possible to unravel their terse metaphorical teachings without the guidance of an accomplished master. The meaning of UPA is “a scripture that can only be studied and properly understood while sitting close to the teacher”.

The subject matter of the UPA is not clearly organized in the texts but Veda Vyasa systematized the Upanisadic concepts in the Brahma Sutras. Vyasa was the first scholar to attempt to clarify and reconcile the apparent contradictions in the teachings of the UPA. These Sutras are divided into four chapters: Samanvaya which deals with the coherence of the Upanisadic teachings, Avirodha which deals with noncontradiction in relation to established theories and logical rules, Sadhana which describes the means of realization and Phala which deals with the goals of VE philosophy.

The Sutras are very terse and because elaborate explanations are not provided their meaning is difficult to understand. Therefore, various commentaries have been written with as many interpretations. This way over the centuries various schools have developed the more famous among them being Sankaram Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha and Nimbarka.

Views Common to All Schools of Vedanta
All the schools of VE try to resolve the following questions. What is the ultimate Reality? From where so did all the physical and mental phenomena originate? What is the nature of the state in which all phenomena dissolve? What is that reality through which everything is known? What is that which makes an unknown known? What is the means for attaining immortality? What is the nature of the Self? What happens after death? What is the importance of body, mind and senses? All the UPA share a common understanding on these questions.

The UPA maintain the existence of an all-pervading Reality called Brahman or Atman. They also analyze the Self as distinguished from the body, breath, mind and intellect, which covers the Self like veils or sheaths. Pain and pleasure are considered to be born out of ignorance and not ultimately real. The Self is considered to be eternal and to have the essential nature of bliss and knowledge. This help is to be realized with the help of a sharp and penetrating intellect. This Self-Realization is the highest goal of life. To achieve this goal, the UPA do not encourage external rituals but instead emphasize the internalization of awareness. The UPA uniformly deny the ultimate existence of the multiplicity of objects, holding that all diverse names and forms are unreal and that only the underlying unchanging eternal Reality can truly be said to exist.

Notwithstanding the various commentaries on the UPA, the one by Sankara is outstanding. None of the schools of VE agree with Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Yoga and Buddhism regarding the theory of the manifestation of the universe. All the VE schools hold that without the guidance of the conscious principle, unconscious matter could not produce this world, which adhered to certain rules and laws. Such order and regulation they argue cannot be the attributes of an unconscious principle. The schools of VE unanimously agree on the existence of God. They view Reality as Supreme Consciousness which is simultaneously involved in the phenomenal world and transcendent.

To avoid confusion Vedantins used the word Brahman to denote the transcendent aspect and the word Isvara to denote that aspect of the ultimate reality that oversees the phenomenal world. They believe that God’s existence can be realized through direct experience alone or by testimony.

Monism – the School of Sankara
According to tradition, the school of pure, unqualified monism is the most ancient in the Upanisadic thought. The founder of this school is said to be Vyasa. The teacher student lineage of this school progresses from Vyasa to Sukadeva to Gaudapada to Govindapada to Sankara. This progression is confusing in the light of historical. Friends it is something that I shall avoid getting into because it is knowledge that we seeking not historical dates na.

Sankara was ordained a monk by the sage Govindapada whose teacher was Gaudapada. The former instructed Sankara in the teachings of the Brahma Sutras as explained by Vyasa. The latter wrote a few books, the most famous one being Mandukya-karika. Sankara was the first philosopher to establish a formal school of Advaita (monistic) VE. He based his theory on the three great landmarks of Indian philosophy the UPA, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad-Gita. Together these three are called the Prasthanatrayi. S wrote profound commentaries on these scriptures.

Sankara accomplished two main missions through his nondualistic theory of VE. One he reformed the society of that time, which was polluted by unworthy religious preceptors and two he provided a concrete philosophy and spiritual practice for those who were prepared to explore the inner most values of life. His teachings can be divided into two parts: social, ethical and moral teachings and metaphysical and spiritual guides. The concepts of Self (Atman), the Supreme Consciousness (Brahman), cosmic illusion (Maya), the universe, God, human life and liberation are the major topics discussed in Sankara’s writings.

1. The Concept of Atman, the Self
The concept of Self in Advaita (monistic) philosophy is quite different from that in Nyaya, Samkhya and Buddhist philosophies. According to Sankara, Self is all pervading, self-illumined Consciousness. It is the highest truth beyond time, space and causation, and it cannot be experienced by the senses or the mind. Beyond the realms of time and space, there is an absolute Unconditional Reality that has no beginning and no end. That is called Atman, the Self.

The Self is within the body, it is also outside it, and at the same time is separate from it. The body is composed of matter, and it therefore deteriorates and decomposes, but the pure Self is beyond any such death and decay. The Self is the fountainhead of the life force, which animates and motivates the entire body/mind complex. It is the eternal source of wisdom and intelligence and is untouched by any external changes and mutations. The Self is always the same, unchangeable and immortal. This sameness does not belong to matter or energy both of which are constantly changing. This sameness is the transcendent absolute Reality.

Atman, the pure Self, ever witnesses all the changing phenomena within and without. One after another there arises an ever-changing flow of thoughts and emotions, but underlying  this, there exists a permanent and unchanging Reality that remains constant and is witness to all these mental phenomena. Thoughts, emotions, moods arise and give away, to be replaced by others, which also pass away. But the one who is witness to all these changes, is beyond the reach of mind, ego and intellect is the Self. It provides vitality and energy for the function of the mind, body and intellect. Scientific observation depends entirely upon sense perception and is not capable of providing a method of understanding or experiencing the Reality that is witness. The power of witnessing dwells in the innermost chamber of everyone’s heart.

When brain and mind are at rest during sleep, there remains a self-illumination that experiences the resting state of mind. In deep sleep the self is established in its pure nature, which is beyond the grasp of mind and senses, but when a person wakes up he is able to remember that he slept deeply. It is the Self, shining and permanent, that experiences its own state of dreamless sleep and remembers it during the waking state. But no scientific research would be able to study the Atman because by its very nature it is beyond the constructs of time, space and causation.

VE philosophers offer the following analogy to describe the nature of the Atman. Atman is like an ocean of bliss and consciousness and the physical appearance of an individual is like a wave in the ocean of bliss. When the wind of samskaras and desires blows, the waves appear and disappear. Those who think that the waves are different from the ocean are ignorant. The rising and falling of waves in the ocean does not effect the existence of ocean. Such is the case with birth and death, which cannot create any difference in the essential nature of the Atman. Death does not affect Atman, since it is nothing but returning to the origin from which one has come and from which one will emerge again. Life is a continuous existence from eternity to eternity in the beginless and endless journey of the Self. It is the physical body alone that is circumscribed by life and death. Indestructibility is essential nature of the Self.

2. The Concept of Brahman, the Supreme Consciousness
According to Sankara, Brahman is the ultimate truth within and without. Whatever exists is Brahman and whatever does not exist in the manifest world is also Brahman. Brahman is all pervading and self-illumined Consciousness. Sankara says that there is only one Reality and that is Brahman, nothing exists separate from Brahman. If one perceives something as different from the Real (Brahman), it is due to ignorance, but this does not mean that ignorance exists separately from Brahman. In its cosmic sense, ignorance is known as Maya, the cosmic illusion. The concept of Maya, makes Sankara’s theory unique.

Brahman and Atman are identical, just as forest and trees are identical. The latter represents individual souls (vyasti) while the former represents the conglomerate nature (samasti) of souls i.e. Brahman. The concept of names and forms does not belong to Brahman because Brahman is the all-pervading infinite absolute Reality, while names and forms denote finite things that are limited by time, space and causation. Brahman is the state of reality that destroys even the concept of death. Brahman is the very source of existence, from which springs the entire universe qualified by name and form. It is the only the imagination that gives color, touch, smell and sound to worldly sensations. The real nature of the Brahman is hidden from the ignorant, but those who see things are they really are, as reflections of Brahman, live in Brahman-consciousness. The absolute Brahman is like the self-indulgent sun, from which radiates the light of knowledge, bliss and consciousness.

The entire universe emanates from Brahman, exists in Brahman and at the time of dissolution returns into Brahman. Thus, nothing exists separately from Brahman. Brahman is the only existence, and all other relative realities exist because of Brahman. The concept of duality or the relationship between the manifold universe and the singular Brahman is a projection of the cosmic power of illusion. VE does not recognize the concept of bondage or liberation because the Soul (Atman) and Supreme Consciousness (Brahman) are one and the same remains always unaffected by changeability and partiality. When clouds conceal the sun, the learned knows that in reality the clouds do not disturb the sun but clouds merely obstruct the sun’s light. So also, the absolute Self remains embedded with its perfect effulgence and glory in the innermost chamber of the heart. Nothing exists except Brahman, who is ever free.

3. The Concept of Maya
If as Vedanta posits, Brahman alone exists as the absolute self-shining Consciousness, then what is this universe? If there is only single Reality called Brahman, then why do human beings perceive and behave according to the dictates of the environment. Advaita philosophers explain the existence of the universe with the help of the concept of Maya, which is found in the UPA. The Rig Veda states that Indra (a term used for absolute Reality0 assumes various forms through Maya.

The UPA state that the face of truth is veiled with the golden disc of Maya, which must be removed for one to realize the ultimate Truth. The concepts of time and space that veil the face of Truth are evolutes of Maya. Beyond Maya there is no time and space, and there is no universal cause because only Brahman - the absolute Reality remains. Because Maya veils the truth, the individual self misconstrues both the world and itself as being different from Brahman. In the cosmic sense, ignorance is called Maya, but with reference to individual misconceptions it is called Avidya.

 Description of Maya (characteristics)

1. Like Prakrti, Maya is unconscious and is opposed to the conscious principle Brahman, but it neither real nor independent.
2. Maya is an inherent power of Brahman, through which the Brahman veils itself. It is inseparable and undifferentiated from Brahman. Maya is neither identical with Brahman, nor different from Brahman, nor both.
3. Maya is beginningless.
4. Maya is both positive and negative, though it is not real. It is positive because it projects the world of plurality (produces the world qualified by names and forms), and it is negative because it conceals the real Brahman that is perfect knowledge and bliss. These two aspects of Maya are called avarana-sakti, the power of concealment and viksepa-saki, the power of projection.
5. Maya is relative. The one absolute Brahman appears in many forms and its power of becoming finite is called Maya.
6. Faulty cognition or mistaking one thing for something else is a form of Maya.
7. Maya is removable. By right knowledge or proper understanding, it can be removed.
8. Maya is indescribable because it is neither real or unreal, nor both real and unreal. It is not real because it does not have any independent existence apart from Brahman. It is not unreal because it is the actual power by which Brahman manifests itself as this apparent universe. It is also not both real and unreal because the conception of real and unreal in the context of one thing at one time is self-contradictory. From the standpoint view of the world, Maya is comprehended as real, but from the standpoint of the absolute Reality it is unreal. Thus it is neither real nor unreal, nor both real and unreal. Because of its complex nature it is indescribable.

Maya and Brahman
In summary Maya is tangibly existent, but it cannot be described either as being or as nonbeing. The existence of the universe cannot be called unreal. Maya’s power of concealment hides the absolute state of Brahman. However by its power of the projection of Maya the entire universe is created. Maya’s powers to conceal and project function simultaneously. The state in which Brahman is consciously associated with Maya to create the universe is called Isvara, God. This combined state of Maya and Brahman appears as the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe. In the same manner Atman appears as the individual self. From the cosmic point of view Maya is one but from the individual point of view it is many.

Maya can therefore be studied in two different ways” cosmically and individually. The Brahman associated with cosmic Maya is called Isvara and the individual self-associated with Maya (avidya) is called Jivatman. Both these levels of Maya hide the true nature of Brahman and the Self. The limitations imposed by Maya is unreal and is called ‘upadhi’ meaning condition but false conditions cannot make a difference to the Reality, just as a mirage of water cannot convert a sandy desert into a lake. The entire universe is expanded from Brahman with the help of Maya, just as a magical illusion is projected by the magician. In reality the Absolute is not touched at all just as a magician is not tricked by the illusions of his own magic.

4. The Concept of the Universe
According to Sankara there is only one Reality, and that is Brahman. He does not deny the existence of the world but emphasizes the ultimate Reality for a particular purpose. The world is only an appearance; it is not the ultimate Reality. As long as one is in the world, however, he cannot take it to be entirely unreal. Even Sankara accepts that some degree of illusion and error exists. The objects of dreams last as long as one is dreaming. As long as one is engrossed in the ignorance of relative consciousness, this world is indeed quite real. But when true knowledge dawns, one becomes aware that the world is sublated, that the world does not exist independently from the cause, Brahman. Sankara states that once the self is entangled in the creation of Maya, it has to receive help from Maya to overcome Maya.

Opponents of Sankara’s theory inquire, ‘If the world is completely unreal, how is it possible to feel the existence of the world as real? How is it possible to be affected by worldly objects? If no snake exists in a rope, one cannot die from a rope bite. By the same token if the world is completely unreal and imaginary, then there cannot continue practical behavior in the world’. Sankara replied by stating that the imagination creates the presence of a snake in a rope, and that imagination is so strong that a person can die from an imaginary snakebite. Thus, wrongly perceived situations may result in physical or psychological reactions.
It is not the existence of Sankara to refute the existence of the universe. In actuality, Sankara holds two different views of reality, apparent and absolute. All external and internal phenomena belong to the apparent reality, and the Brahman alone is the absolute Reality. As long as one is entangled in the miscomprehension of physical and mental phenomena, apparent reality seems to be real. From the heights of absolute Reality, one clearly sees and realizes both sets of reality – apparent and absolute. For him, the apparent reality seems to be completely illusory. In general, Sankara presents his monistic philosophy from the standpoint of absolute Reality. That is why apparent reality is posited to be illusory and unreal throughout this system.

5. The Theory of Causation
Sankara accepts the above theory but his version differs somewhat from the version accepted by the Samkhya philosophers. Sankara’s theory known as vivartavada, states that an effect is merely an illusory appearance of the reality that is the cause. When the world is experienced as having qualities of multiplicity and changeability, these qualities are mere appearances of the Ultimate Truth, which is always and ever nondual and immutable.

The aspect of reality that remains unchanged and that cannot be annihilated is known as the Self. In actuality the entire universe is the illusory manifestation of the Self, but as long as one is in the world, he cannot totally disregard the objects of the world as being unreal. These objects have a great impact on human personality and behavior. Thus, they cannot be a simple illusion. For practical applications, Sankara provides a specific method of sadhana and a worldview to deal with this relatively real or unreal physical and mental world. This method consists mainly of meditation and contemplation and is described later.

The universe is described by VE as being composed of many gradations and stages of descending and ascending forces of Brahman associated with Maya. Even in the field of illusion, there are various gradations with some illusions seeming to be more real than others. This relativity is also Maya. In the material world some objects lasts longer than others – a stone lasts longer than paper. But that which truly exists cannot be destroyed. The entire universe of apparent existence will be destroyed when the cosmic illusion is eventually withdrawn to the ultimate Reality in the final dissolution of the cosmos. However, in this state of complete dissolution, Maya will remain as an essential potential of the ultimate Reality called Brahman. That is why VE claims that Maya is inseparable from Brahman.

6. Prana, The Life Force
Another Vedantic view holds that all animate and inanimate objects of the world are results of the vibration of prana, the life force, which is not different from Maya. Prana is the cosmic life principle; it is the breath of the ultimate Reality. Because of this life force, living beings animate and produce vibrations. Likewise, all gross elements are the materialized forms of vibrating patterns of prana. Thus the entire universe is a pattern of vibrations and movements. With this vibrating energy, the smallest atoms & the biggest planets are held together in a state of continuous vibration. Intellectual facilities are also the result of vibrations and the very force of vibration is also prana.

In VE the entire universe is considered to be a derivative of Brahman associated with Maya, which is termed Isvara. Therefore, being a living organism, there is no such thing as dead matter in the universe. The Veda says that cosmic life force; prana existed before the beginning of evolution. Before the manifestation of the universe, the eternal Supreme being was breathing without breath and was one with the cosmic energy. From that mighty source – Brahman and Maya – the entire universe came into existence.

Prana, the potential of consciousness is the eternal, infinite source of individual and cosmic life. Although this universe of appearances of noneternal Reality is eternal. One who grieves over the loss of an external object does not fully realize the truth. When one perceives the gross world without understanding the universal life force by which the entire universe is governed, he sees this world as ever changing and subject to death and decay. But the moment he comes to know the force of prana, he is liberated from the laws of the world that are responsible for his misunderstanding.

In truth, nothing is ever lost and gained. What is seen as creation or destruction is merely the appearance of something changing form. When a form passes through an unknown and unseen period of time, that state is called Death. When this process is scientifically analyzed, it is found that life and death are only different vibrational states of prana. When one understands the secret of these cosmic vibrations of life, he mourns no death nor loss, for he comprehends the falseness of these concepts.

7. The Process of Manifestation
VE explains manifestation as being a systematic process. It maintains that the physical universe is composed of five gross elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. In each element all other elements are contained, so no element is pure. A element is differentiated from the others by the predominance of a particular element in it. VE states that the five elements are produced in a quintuplicated manner referred to as Pancikarana.

VE borrows much from the Samkhya explanation of the nature of the universe. In Samkhya, there are three inner instruments (intellect, ego, mind) but according to VE there for four inner instruments for cognition (intellect, mind, ego and citta – memory bank). The ten senses, five subtle and gross elements are the same in VE and Samkhya. VE also describes prana, the life force as having ten varieties: prana, apana, samana, udana, vyana, naga, kurma, krkala, devadutta and dananjaya. Among these, the first five are most important.

8. The Concept of God
The concept of God in VE is unique and complex. If Brahman alone is real, it is very difficult to convince the intellectual mind of the reality of the existence of the universe. To understand the concept of God a student of VE must be very clear whether he is taking the standpoint of apparent or absolute Reality. According to Sankara, if the universe is real, then the concept of God is also real because God is that state of consciousness that is united with Maya, its essential form. From a worldly point of view, God is real, but from the standpoint of absolute Reality, God is as unreal as the universe.

Devotion to God is very important to become liberated from the mire of illusion. But for those who have already risen from the mire of multiplicity and have stepped onto the marble platform of nondual knowledge, there is no need of pursuing a god who is involved in spreading Maya’s net of illusion. VE provides a means of establishing oneness between jiva (the individual self plus ignorance) and Isvara (Brahman+Maya) and ultimately reaching a state beyond turiya, the Supreme Consciousness.

9. The Self and Human Life
A human being is a combined state of Self, mind, prana and body. The body is the dwelling place of the Self. It can be compared to the innermost palace of the city of life, in which dwells the Lord of life called the Self. The Srimad Bhagavatam explains this concept beautifully, friends here is it briefly.

It states that there was once a prince of eternity who searched for a suitable kingdom with the necessary wealth, luxury and subjects for him to enjoy his sovereignty. He found such a city, was welcomed, saw a princess there and married her thereafter. Had children etc but in the process of raising his family and kingdom, the prince completely forgot his physical, mental and spiritual health.

The prince of the story is the individual self (Atman) born of the cosmic Self, the supreme Brahman. Because of ignorance the prince has separated from the emperor Brahman. In order to fulfill his dreams, desires and attractions for the princesses the Self marries the intellect in order to enjoy the objects of the senses. But the Self becomes so involved with the world that he loses his peace and forgets his essential infinite nature and his magical powers. He becomes deluded by his own illusory creation, and instead of enjoying sensory objects as master; he becomes their victim and performs his actions solely to satisfy his sense cravings. The charms and enjoyments start sapping his vitality, and he becomes weak and overwhelmed with self-generated problems.

One day an old spinster, the daughter of Death, whose name was Old Age, entered the city. She has been wandering throughout the universe to find an appropriate mate. Whenever she began to court anyone, he would faint in her embrace and unable to maintain his physical existence, would fall into the mouth of Death, her father. Old Age began to seduce the prince, who could not resist her embrace. The prince started getting sapped of his strength and thus fell prey to weakness, frustration, dejection, loneliness and disappointment. Seeing these opponents such as disease, sorrow attacked the city of life under the leadership of Death. The prince called his ministers and army to defend him. Due to fear none of them would respond to his commands. Ultimately the prince surrendered himself to Death without ever understanding his true invincible nature and power. As he surrendered he looked pitiably at his wife and was shocked to see her unconcernedly waving good-bye.

Then he realized that the intellect is unconscious and that it is not her nature to think when she is deprived of the presence of her Lord of life. Now he knew that it had always been his power of consciousness that had made her appear to be conscious, and that he had been a fool to waste his life chasing after unreal sense pleasures. Such is the case with a human being. Too late, he realizes his faults and his misunderstandings regarding his relationships with his intellect and his other facilities.

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