Wisdom Library Logo

An Historical Sketch

Part 4

The epics and Purâṇas contain philosophical discussions of considerable length which make little attempt at consistency. Yet the line of thought in them all is the same. The chief tenets of the theistic Sâṅkhya-Yoga are assumed: matter, soul and God are separate existences: the soul wishes to move towards God and away from matter.

Yet when Indian writers glorify the deity they rarely abstain from identifying him with the universe. In the Bhagavad-gîtâ and other philosophical cantos of the Mahâbhârata the contradiction is usually left without an attempt at solution. Thus it is stated categorically[1] that the world consists of the perishable and imperishable, i.e., matter and soul, but that the supreme spirit is distinct from both. Yet in the same poem we pass from this antithesis to the monism which declares that the deity is all things and "the self seated in the heart of man." We have then attained the Vedantist point of view.

Nearly all the modern sects, whether Śivaite or Vishnuite, admit the same contradiction into their teaching, for they reject both the atheism of the Sâṅkhya and the immaterialism of the Advaita (since it is impossible for a practical religion to deny the existence of either God or the world), while the irresistible tendency of Indian thought makes them describe their deity in pantheistic language. All strive to find some metaphysical or theological formula which will reconcile these discrepant ideas, and nearly all Vishnuites profess some special variety of the Vedânta called by such names as Viśishṭâdvaita, Dvaitâdvaita, Śuddhâdvaita and so on.

They differ chiefly in their definition of the relation existing between the soul and God. Only the Mâdhvas entirely discard monism and profess duality (Dvaita) and even Madhva thought it necessary to write a commentary on the Brahma-sûtras to prove that they support his doctrine and the Śivaites too have a commentator, Nîlakanṭ̣ḥa, who interprets them in harmony with the Śaiva Siddhânta. There is also a modern commentary by Somanaradittyar which expounds this much twisted text agreeably to the doctrines of the Lingâyat sect.

In most fundamental principles the Śivaite and Śâktist schools agree with the Viśishṭâdvaita but their nomenclature is different and their scope is theological rather than philosophical. In all of them are felt the two tendencies, one wishing to distinguish God, soul and matter and to adjust their relations for the purposes of practical religion, the other holding more or less that God is all or at least that all things come from God and return to him. But there is one difference between the schools of sectarian philosophy and the Advaita of Śaṅkara which goes to the root of the matter.

Śaṅkara holds that the world and individual existences are due to illusion, ignorance and misconception: they vanish in the light of true knowledge. Other schools, while agreeing that in some sense God is all, yet hold that the universe is not an illusion or false presentment of him but a process of manifestation or of evolution starting from him.[2]

It is not precisely evolution in the European sense, but rather a rhythmic movement, of duration and extent inexpressible in figures, in which the Supreme Spirit alternately emits and reabsorbs the universe. As a rule the higher religious life aims at some form of union or close association with the deity, beyond the sphere of this process.

In the evolutionary process the Vaishṇavas interpolate between the Supreme Spirit and the phenomenal world the phases of conditioned spirit known as Saṅkarshaṇa, etc.; in the same way the Śivaite schools increase the twenty-four tattvas of the Sânkhya to thirty-six.[3] The first of these tattvas or principles is Śiva, corresponding to the highest Brahman.

The next phase is Sadâśiva in which differentiation commences owing to the movement of Śakti, the active or female principle. Śiva in this phase is thought of as having a body composed of mantras. Śakti, also known as Bindu or Śuddhamâyâ, is sometimes regarded as a separate tattva but more generally as inseparably united with Śiva.

The third tattva is Îśvara, or Śiva in the form of a lord or personal deity, and the fourth is Śuddhavidyâ or true knowledge, explained as the principle of correlation between the experiencer and that which is experienced. It is only after these that we come to Mâyâ, meaning not so much illusion as the substratum in which Karma inheres or the protoplasm from which all things grow. Between Mâyâ and Purusha come five more tattvas, called envelopes. Their effect is to enclose and limit, thus turning the divine spirit into a human soul.

Śâktist accounts of the evolutionary process give greater prominence to the part played by Śakti and are usually metaphysiological, if the word may be pardoned, inasmuch as they regard the cosmic process as the growth of an embryo, an idea which is as old as the Vedas.[4] It is impossible to describe even in outline these manifold cosmologies but they generally speak of Śakti, who in one sense is identical with Śiva and merely his active form but in another sense is identified with Prakṛiti, coming into contact with the form of Śiva called Prakâśa or light and then solidifying into a drop (Bindu) or germ which divides.

At some point in this process arise Nâda or sound, and Śabda-brahman, the sound-Brahman, which manifests itself in various energies and assumes in the human body the form of the mysterious coiled force called Kuṇḍalinî.[5] Some of the older Vishnuite writings use similar language of Śakti, under the name of Lakshmî, but in the Viśishṭâdvaita of Râmânuja and subsequent teachers there is little disposition to dwell on any feminine energy in discussing the process of evolution.

Of all the Darśanas the most extraordinary is that called Raseśvara or the mercurial system.[6] According to it quicksilver, if eaten or otherwise applied, not only preserves the body from decay but delivers from transmigration the soul which inhabits this glorified body. Quicksilver is even asserted to be identical with the supreme self. This curious Darśana is represented as revealed by Śiva to Śakti and it is only an extreme example of the tantric doctrine that spiritual results can be obtained by physical means. The practice of taking mercury to secure health and long life must have been prevalent in medieval India for it is mentioned by both Marco Polo and Bernier.[7]

first previous index next last

- Footnotes:


Bhag.-gîtâ, XV. 16, 17.


The two doctrines are called Vivartavâda and Pariṇâmavâda.


These are only the more subtle tattvas. There are also 60 gross ones. See for the whole subject Schomerus Der Çaiva-Siddhânta, p. 129.


It also finds expression in myths about the division of the deity into male and female halves, the cosmic egg, etc., which are found in all strata of Indian literature.


An account of tantric cosmology can be found in Avalon, Mahân. Tantra, pp xix-xxxi. See also Avalon, Prapancasâra Tantra, pp. 5 ff.; Srinivâsa Iyengar, Indian Philosophy, pp. 143 and 295 ff.; Bhandarkar, Vaishṇ. and Śaivism, pp. 145 ff.


Sarva-darśana-saṇgraha, chap. IX. For this doctrine in China see Wieger Histoire des Croyances religieuses en Chine, p. 411.


See Yule's Marco Polo, II. pp. 365, 369.

first previous index next last

Article published on