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An Historical Sketch

Part 3

Unlike the Sâṅkhya, the Vedânta is seen in its most influential and perhaps most advantageous aspect when stated in its most abstract form. We need not enquire into its place of origin for it is clearly the final intellectual product of the schools which produced the Upanishads and the literature which preceded them, and though it may be difficult to say at what point we are justified in applying the name Vedânta to growing Brahmanic thought, the growth is continuous.

The name means simply End of the Veda. In its ideas the Vedânta shows great breadth and freedom, yet it respects the prejudices and proprieties of Brahmanism. It teaches that God is all things, but interdicts this knowledge to the lower castes: it treats rites as a merely preliminary discipline, but it does not deny their value for certain states of life.

The Vedânta is the boldest and the most characteristic form of Indian thought. For Asia, and perhaps for the world at large, Buddhism is more important but on Indian soil it has been vanquished by the Vedânta, especially that form of it known as the Advaita. In all ages the main idea of this philosophy has been the same and may be summed up in the formula that the soul is God and that God is everything.

If this formula is not completely accurate[1]—and a sentence which both translates and epitomizes alien metaphysics can hardly aspire to complete accuracy—the error lies in the fact to which I have called attention elsewhere that our words, God and soul, do not cover quite the same ground as the Indian words which they are used to translate.

Many scholars, both Indian and European, will demur to the high place here assigned to the Advaita philosophy. I am far from claiming that the doctrine of Śaṅkara is either primitive or unchallenged. Other forms of the Vedânta existed before him and became very strong after him. But so far as a synthesis of opinions which are divergent in details can be just, he gives a just synthesis and elaboration of the Upanishads.

It is true that his teaching as to the higher and lower Brahman and as to Mâyâ has affinities to Mahayanist Buddhism, and that later sects were repelled by the severe and impersonal character of his philosophy, but the doctrine of which he is the most thorough and eminent exponent, namely that God or spirit is the only reality and one with the human soul, asserts itself in almost all Hindu sects, even though their other doctrines may seem to contradict it.

This line of thought is so persistent and has so many ramifications, that it is hard to say what is and what is not Vedânta. If we take literature as our best guide we may distinguish four points of importance marked by the Upanishads, the Brahma-Sûtras, Śaṅkara and Râmânuja.

I have said something elsewhere of the Upanishads. These works do not profess to form a systematic whole (though later Hinduism regards them as such) and when European scholars speak of them collectively, they generally mean the older members of the collection. These may justly be regarded as the ancestors of the Vedânta, inasmuch as the tone of thought prevalent in them is incipient Vedântism.

It rejects dualism and regards the universe as a unity not as plurality, as something which has issued from Brahman or is pervaded by Brahman and in any case depends on Brahman for its significance and existence. Brahman is God in the pantheistic sense, totally disconnected with mythology and in most passages impersonal. The knowledge of Brahman is salvation: he who has it, goes to Brahman or becomes Brahman.

More rarely we find statements of absolute identity such as

"Being Brahman, he goes to Brahman."[2]

But though the Upanishads say that the soul goes to or is Brahman, that the world comes from or is Brahman, that the soul is the whole universe and that a knowledge of these truths is the one thing of importance, these ideas are not combined into a system. They are simply the thoughts of the wise, not always agreeing in detail, and presented as independent utterances, each with its own value.

One of the most important of these wise men is Yâjñavalkya,[3] the hero of the Bṛihad Âranyaka Upanishad and a great name, to whom are ascribed doctrines of which he probably never heard. The Upanishad represents him as developing and completing the views of Śâṇḍilya and Uddâlaka Âruṇi. The former taught[4] that the Âtman or Self within the heart, smaller than a grain of mustard seed, is also greater than all worlds. The brief exposition of his doctrine which we possess starts from and emphasizes the human self. This self is Brahman.

The doctrine of Uddâlaka[5] takes the other side of the equation: he starts with Brahman and then asserts that Brahman is the soul. But though he teaches that in the beginning there was one only without a second, yet he seems to regard the subsequent products of this Being as external to it and permeated by it. But to Yâjñavalkya is ascribed an important modification of these doctrines, namely, that the Âtman is unknowable and transcendental.[6]

It is unknowable because since it is essentially the knowing subject it can be known only by itself: it can never become the object of knowledge and language is inadequate to describe it. All that can be said of it is neti, neti, that is no, no: it is not anything which we try to predicate of it.

But he who knows that the individual soul is the Âtman, becomes Âtman; being it, he knows it and knows all the world: he perceives that in all the world there is no plurality. Here the later doctrine of Mâyâ is adumbrated, though not formulated. Any system which holds that in reality there is no plurality or, like some forms of Mahayanist Buddhism, that nothing really exists implies the operation of this Mâyâ or illusion which makes us see the world as it appears to us.

It may be thought of as mere ignorance, as a failure to see the universe as it really is: but no doubt the later view of Mâyâ as a creative energy which fashions the world of phenomena is closely connected with the half-mythological conceptions found in the Pâncarâtra and Śaiva philosophy which regard this creative illusion as a female force—a goddess in fact—inseparably associated with the deity.

The philosophy of the Upanishads, like all religious thought in India, is avowedly a quest of happiness and this happiness is found in some form of union with Brahman. He is perfect bliss, and whatever is distinct from him is full of suffering.[7] But this sense of the suffering inherent in existence is less marked in the older Upanishads and in the Vedânta than in Buddhism and the Sâṅkhya. Those systems make it their basis and first principle: in the Vedânta the temperament is the same but the emphasis and direction of the thought are different.

The Sâṅkhya looks at the world and says that salvation lies in escape into something which has nothing in common with it. But the Vedântist looks towards Brahman, and his pessimism is merely the feeling that everything which is not wholly and really Brahman is unsatisfactory. In the later developments of the system, pessimism almost disappears, for the existence of suffering is not the first Truth but an illusion: the soul, did it but know it, is Brahman and Brahman is bliss.

So far as the Vedânta has any definite practical teaching, it does not wholly despise action. Action is indeed inferior to knowledge and when knowledge is once obtained works are useless accessories, but the four stages of a Brahman's career, including household life, are approved in the Vedânta Sûtras, though there is a disposition to say that he who has the necessary religious aptitudes can adopt the ascetic life at any time. The occupations of this ascetic life are meditation and absorption or samâdhi, the state in which the meditating soul becomes so completely blended with God on whom it meditates, that it has no consciousness of its separate existence.[8]

As indicated above the so-called books of Śruti or Vedic literature are not consecutive treatises, but rather responsa prudentium, utterances respecting ritual and theology ascribed to poets, sacrificers and philosophers who were accepted as authorities. When these works came to be regarded as an orderly revelation, even orthodoxy could not shut its eyes to their divergences, and a comprehensive exegesis became necessary to give a conspectus of the whole body of truth. This investigation of the meaning of the Veda as a connected whole is called Mîmâṃsâ, and is divided into two branches, the earlier (pûrva) and the later (uttara).

The first is represented by the Pûrva-mîmâṃsâ-sûtras of Jaimini[9] which are called earlier (pûrva) not in the chronological sense but because they deal with rites which come before knowledge, as a preparatory stage. It is interesting to find that Jaimini was accused of atheism and defended by Kumârila Bhaṭṭa. The defence is probably just, for Jaimini does not so much deny God as ignore him. But what is truly extraordinary, though characteristic of much Indian literature about ritual, is that a work dealing with the general theory of religious worship should treat the deity as an irrelevant topic.

The Pûrva-mîmâṃsâ discusses ceremonies prescribed by an eternal self-existing Veda. The reward of sacrifice is not given by God. When the result of an act does not appear at once, Jaimini teaches that there is all the same produced a supersensuous principle called apûrva, which bears fruit at a later time, and thus a sacrifice leads the offerer to heaven. This theory is really tantamount to placing magic on a philosophic basis.

Bâdarâyaṇa's sûtras, which represent the other branch of the Mîmâṃsâ, show a type of thought more advanced and profound than Jaimini's. They consist of 555 aphorisms—less than a fifth of Jaimini's voluminous work—and represent the outcome of considerable discussion posterior to the Upanishads, for they cite the opinions of seven other teachers and also refer to Bâdarâyaṇa himself by name. Hence they may be a compendium of his teaching made by his pupils. Their date is unknown but Śaṅkara evidently regards them as ancient and there were several commentators before him.[10]

Like most sûtras these aphorisms are often obscure and are hardly intended to be more than a mnemotechnic summary of the doctrine, to be supplemented by oral instruction or a commentary. Hence it is difficult to define the teaching of Bâdarâyaṇa as distinguished from that of the Upanishads on the one hand, and that of his commentators on the other, or to say exactly what stage he marks in the development of thought, except that it is the stage of attempted synthesis.[11]

He teaches that Brahman is the origin of the world and that with him should all knowledge, religion and effort be concerned. By meditation on him, the soul is released and somehow associated with him. But it is not clear that we have any warrant for finding in the sûtras (as does Śaṅkara) the distinction between the higher and lower Brahman, or the doctrine of the unreality of the world (Mâyâ) or the absolute identity of the individual soul with Brahman.

We are told that the state of the released soul is non-separation (avibhâga) from Brahman, but this is variously explained by the commentators according to their views. Though the sûtras are the acknowledged text-book of Vedântism, their utterances are in practice less important than subsequent explanations of them. As often happens in India, the comment has overgrown and superseded the text.

The most important of these commentators is Śankarâcarya.[12] Had he been a European philosopher anxious that his ideas should bear his name, or a reformer like the Buddha with little respect for antiquity, he would doubtless have taken his place in history as one of the most original teachers of Asia.

But since his whole object was to revive the traditions of the past and suppress his originality by attempting to prove that his ideas are those of Bâdarâyaṇa and the Upanishads, the magnitude of his contribution to Indian thought is often under-rated. We need not suppose that he was the inventor of all the ideas in his works of which we find no previous expression. He doubtless (like the Buddha) summarized and stereotyped an existing mode of thought but his summary bears the unmistakeable mark of his own personality.

Śaṅkara's teaching is known as Advaita or absolute monism. Nothing exists except the one existence called Brahman or Paramâtman, the Highest Self. Brahman is pure being and thought (the two being regarded as identical), without qualities. Brahman is not intelligent but is intelligence itself.

The human soul (jîva) is identical with the Highest Self, not merely as a part of it, but as being itself the whole universal indivisible Brahman. This must not be misunderstood as a blasphemous assertion that man is equal to God. The soul is identical with Brahman only in so far as it forgets its separate human existence, and all that we call self and individuality. A man who has any pride in himself is ipso facto differentiated from Brahman as much as is possible.

Yet in the world in which we move we see not only differentiation and multiplicity but also a plurality of individual souls apparently distinct from one another and from Brahman. This appearance is due to the principle of Mâyâ which is associated with Brahman and is the cause of the phenomenal world. If Mâyâ is translated by illusion it must be remembered that its meaning is not so much that the world and individual existences are illusory in the strict sense of the word, as phenomenal.

The only true reality is self-conscious thought without an object. When the mind attains to that, it ceases to be human and individual: it is Brahman. But whenever it thinks of particular objects neither the thoughts nor the objects of the thoughts are real in the same sense. They are appearances, phenomena. This universe of phenomena includes not only all our emotions and all our perceptions of the external world, but also what might be supposed to be the deepest truths of religion, such as the personality of the Creator and the wanderings of the soul in the maze of transmigration.

In the same sense that we suffer pain and pleasure, it is true that there is a personal God (Îśvara) who emits and reabsorbs the world at regular intervals, and that the soul is a limited existence passing from body to body. In this sense the soul, as in the Sâṅkhya philosophy, is surrounded by the upâdhis, certain limiting conditions or disguises, which form a permanent psychical equipment with which it remains invested in all its innumerable bodies. But though these doctrines may be true for those who are in the world, for those souls who are agents, enjoyers and sufferers, they cease to be true for the soul which takes the path of knowledge and sees its own identity with Brahman.

It is by this means only that emancipation is attained, for good works bring a reward in kind, and hence inevitably lead to new embodiments, new creations of Mâyâ. And even in knowledge we must distinguish between the knowledge of the lower Brahman or personal Deity (Îśvara) and of the higher indescribable Brahman.[13] For the orthodox Hindu this distinction is of great importance, for it enables him to reconcile passages in the scriptures which otherwise are contradictory.

Worship and meditation which make Îśvara their object do not lead directly to emancipation. They lead to the heavenly world of Îśvara, in which the soul, though glorified, is still a separate individual existence. But for him who meditates on the Highest Brahman and knows that his true self is that Brahman, Mâyâ and its works cease to exist. When he dies nothing differentiates him from that Brahman who alone is bliss and no new individual existence arises.

The crux of this doctrine is in the theory of Mâyâ. If Mâyâ appertains to Brahman, if it exists by his will, then why is it an evil, why is release to be desired? Ought not the individual souls to serve Brahman's purpose, and would not it be better served by living gladly in the phenomenal world than by passing beyond it? But such an idea has rarely satisfied Indian thinkers.

If, on the other hand, Mâyâ is an evil or at least an imperfection, if it is like rust on a blade or dimness in a mirror, if, so to speak, the edges of Brahman are weak and break into fragments which are prevented by their own feebleness from realizing the unity of the whole, then the mind wonders uneasily if, in spite of all assurances to the contrary, this does not imply that Brahman is subject to some external law, to some even more mysterious Beyond. But Śaṅkara and the Brahma-sûtras will not tolerate such doubts.

According to them, Brahman in making the world is not actuated by a motive in the ordinary sense, for that would imply human action and passion, but by a sportive impulse:[14]

"We see in every-day life,"

says Śaṅkara,

"that certain doings of princes, who have no desires left unfulfilled, have no reference to any extraneous purpose but proceed from mere sportfulness. We further see that the process of inhalation and exhalation is going on without reference to any extraneous purpose, merely following the law of its own nature. Analogously, the activity of the Lord also may be supposed to be mere sport, proceeding from his own nature without reference to any purpose."

[15] This is no worse than many other explanations of the scheme of things and the origin of evil but it is not really an explanation. It means that the Advaita is so engrossed in ecstatic contemplation of the omnipresent Brahman that it pays no attention to a mere by-product like the physical universe. How or why that universe with all its imperfections comes to exist, it does not explain.

Yet the boldness and ample sweep of Śaṅkara's thought have in them something greater than logic,[16] something recalling the grandeur of plains and seas limited only by the horizon, nay rather those abysses of space wherein on clear nights worlds and suns innumerable are scattered like sparks by what he would call God's playfulness. European thought attains to these altitudes but cannot live in them for long: it demands and fancies for itself just what Śaṅkara will not grant, the motive of Brahman, the idea that he is working for some consummation, not that he was, is and will be eternally complete, unaffected by the drama of the universe and yet identical with souls that know him.

Even in India the austere and impersonal character of Śaṅkara's system provoked dissent: He was accused of being a Buddhist in disguise and the accusation raises an interesting question[17] in the history of Indian philosophy to which I have referred in a previous chapter. The affinity existing between the Mâdhyamika form of Buddhist metaphysics and the earlier Vedânta can hardly be disputed and the only question is which borrowed from the other. Such questions are exceedingly difficult to decide, for from time to time new ideas arose in India, permeated the common intellectual atmosphere, and were worked up by all sects into the forms that suited each best.

In the present instance all that can be said is that certain ideas about the unreality of the world and about absolute and relative truth appear in several treatises both Brahmanic and Buddhist, such as the works of Śaṅkara and Nâgârjuna and the Gauḍa-pâdakârikâs, and of these the works attributed to Nâgârjuna seem to be the oldest. It must also be remembered that according to Chinese accounts Bodhidharma preached at Nanking in 520 a doctrine very similar to the advaita of Śaṅkara though expressed in Buddhist phraseology.

Of other forms of Vedântism, the best known is the system of Râmânuja generally called Viśishṭâdvaita.[18] It is an evidence of the position held by the Vedânta philosophy that religious leaders made a commentary on the Sûtras of Bâdarâyaṇa the vehicle of their most important views.

Unlike Śaṅkara, Râmânuja is sectarian and identifies his supreme deity with Vishṇu or Nârâyaṇa, but this is little more than a matter of nomenclature. His interpretation is modern in the sense that it pursues the line of thought which leads up to the modern sects. But that line of thought has ancient roots.

Râmânuja followed a commentator named Bodhâyaṇa who was anterior to Śaṅkara, and in the opinion of so competent a judge as Thibaut he gives the meaning of Bâdarâyaṇa in many points more exactly than his great rival. On the other hand his interpretation often strains the most important utterances of the Upanishads.

Râmânuja admits no distinction between Brahman and Îśvara, but the distinction is abolished at the expense of abolishing the idea of the Higher Brahman, for his Brahman is practically the Îśvara of Śaṅkara. Brahman is not without attributes but possessed of all imaginable good attributes, and though nothing exists apart from him, like the antithesis of Purusha and Prakṛiti in the Sâṅkhya, yet the world is not as in Śaṅkara's system merely Mâyâ.

Matter and souls (cit and acit) form the body of Brahman who both comprises and pervades all things, which are merely modes of his existence.[19] He is the inner ruler (antaryâmin) who is in all elements and all human souls.[20]

The texts which speak of Brahman as being one only without a second are explained as referring to the state of pralaya or absorption which occurs at the end of each Kalpa. At the conclusion of the period of pralaya he re-emits the world and individual souls by an act of volition and the souls begin the round of transmigration. Salvation or release from this round is obtained not by good works but by knowledge and meditation on the Lord assisted by his grace.

The released soul is not identified with the Lord but enjoys near him a personal existence of eternal bliss and peace. This is more like European theism than the other doctrines which we have been considering.

The difference is that God is not regarded as the creator of matter and souls. Matter and souls consist of his substance. But for all that he is a personal deity who can be loved and worshipped and whereas Śaṅkara was a religious philosopher, Râmânuja was rather a philosophic theologian and founder of a church. I have already spoken of his activity in this sphere.

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- Footnotes:


It is perhaps hardly necessary to add that there has been endless discussion as to the sense and manner in which the soul is God.


Bṛihad Âran. IV. 4. 6; Ib. I. iv. 10. "I am Brahman."


See above Book II. chaps. V and VI.


Chând. Up. III. 14.


Chând. Up. VI.


See Deussen, Philosophy of the Upanishads.


Ato'nyad ârtam. Bṛihad Âr. III. several times.


Maitrâyaṇa. Brâh. Upanishad, VI. 20. "Having seen his own self as The Self he becomes selfless, and because he is selfless he is without limit, without cause, absorbed in thought."


There is nothing to fix the date of this work except that Kumârila in commenting on it in the eighth century treats it as old and authoritative. It was perhaps composed in the early Gupta period.


Keith in J.R.A.S. 1907, p. 492 says it is becoming more and more probable that Bâdarâyaṇa cannot be dated after the Christian era. Jacobi in J.A.O.S. 1911, p. 29 concludes that the Brahma-sûtras were composed between 200 and 450 A.D.


Such attempts must have begun early. The Maitrâyana Upanishad (II. 3) talks of Sarvopanishadvidyâ, the science of all the Upanishads.


See above, p. 207 ff.


The same distinction occurs in the works of Meister Eckhart († 1327 A.D.) who in many ways approximates to Indian thought, both Buddhist and Vedântist. He makes a distinction between the Godhead and God. The Godhead is the revealer but unrevealed: it is described as "wordless" (Yâjnavalkya's neti, neti), "the nameless nothing," "the immoveable rest." But God is the manifestation of the Godhead, the uttered word. "All that is in the Godhead is one. Therefore we can say nothing. He is above all names, above all nature. God works, so doeth not the Godhead. Therein are they distinguished, in working and in not working. The end of all things is the hidden darkness of the eternal Godhead, unknown and never to be known." (Quoted by Rufus Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion, p. 225.) It may be doubted if Śankara's distinction between the Higher and Lower Brahman is to be found in the Upanishads but it is probably the best means of harmonizing the discrepancies in those works which Indian theologians feel bound to explain away.


Vedânta sûtras, II. 1. 32-3, and Śaṅkara's commentary, S.B.E. vol. XXXIV. pp. 356-7. Râmânuja holds a similar view and it is very common in India, e.g. Vishṇu Pur. I. chap. 2.


See too a remarkable passage in his comment on Brahma-sûtras, II. 1. 23. "As soon as the consciousness of non-difference arises in us, the transmigratory state of the individual soul and the creative quality of Brahman vanish at once, the whole phenomenon of plurality which springs from wrong knowledge being sublated by perfect knowledge and what becomes then of the creation and the faults of not doing what is beneficial and the like?"


Although Śaṅkara's commentary is a piece of severe ratiocination, especially in its controversial parts, yet he holds that the knowledge of Brahman depends not on reasoning but on scripture and intuition. "The presentation before the mind of the Highest Self is effected by meditation and devotion." Brah. Sut. III. 2. 24. See too his comments on I. 1. 2 and II. 1. 11.


See Sukhtankar, Teachings of Vedânta according to Râmânuja, pp. 17-19. Walleser, Der aeltere Vedânta, and De la Vallée Poussin in J.R.A.S. 1910, p. 129.


This term is generally rendered by qualified, that is not absolute, Monism. But South Indian scholars give a slightly different explanation and maintain that it is equivalent to Viśishṭayor advaitam or the identity of the two qualified (viśishṭa) conditions of Brahman. Brahman is qualified by cit and acit, souls and matter, which stand to him in the relation of attributes. The two conditions are Kâryâvasthâ or period of cosmic manifestation in which cit and acit are manifest and Karaṇâvasthâ or period of cosmic dissolution, when they exist only in a subtle state within Brahman. These two conditions are not different (advaitam). See Srinivas Iyengar, J.R.A.S. 1912, p. 1073 and also Sri Râmânujâcárya: His Philosophy by Rajagopalacharyar.


Compare the phrase of Keats in a letter quoted by Bosanquet, Gifford Lectures for 1912, p. 66. "As various as the lives of men are, so various become their souls and thus does God make individual beings, souls, identical souls of the sparks of his own essence."


This tenet is justified by Bṛihad Aran. Up. III. 3 ff. which is a great text for Râmânuja's school. "He who dwells in the earth (water, etc.) and within the earth (or, is different from the earth) whom the earth knows not, whose body the earth is, who rules the earth within, he is thyself, the ruler within, the immortal."

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