Complete works of Swami Abhedananda

by Swami Prajnanananda | 1967 | 318,120 words

Swami Abhedananda was one of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa and a spiritual brother of Swami Vivekananda. He deals with the subject of spiritual unfoldment purely from the yogic standpoint. These discourses represent a study of the Social, Religious, Cultural, Educational and Political aspects of India. Swami Abhedananda says t...

Chapter 1 - The Prevailing Philosophy of Today

Centuries before the Christian era, nay, long before the advent of the prophet and founder of Judaism, when the forefathers of the Anglo-Saxon races were living in caves and forests, tattooing their bodies, eating raw animal flesh, wearing animal skins,—in the remote antiquity, the dawn of true civilization broke upon the horizon of India, or Bharatavarsha, as it is called in Sanskrit.

The ancient vedic sages had already perfected their lofty system of moral philosophy, and their followers were well-established in the practice of the ethical and spiritual teachings of the Vedas even before Moses[1] had reformed the lawless and nomadic tribes of Israel by giving them the ten commandments in the name of Jahveh [Yahweh]. And while thinkers among the Semitic tribes were still trying to explain the origin of the human race and of the universe through the mythological stories of creation collected from the Chaldeans, Phoenicians, Babylonians, and Persians, the Aryan philosophers of India had already discovered the evolution of the universe out of one eternal Energy, and of man from the lower animals.

Many people have an idea that India is inhabited by idolatrous heathens, who have neither philosophy, ethics, science, nor religion, and that whatever they possess they have acquired from the Christian missionaries; but, since the Parliament of Religions at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, the educated men and women of this country have cast aside all such erroneous notions. They have learned, on the contrary, that India has always been the fountain-head of every system of philosophy, and the home of all the religious thought of the world. The majority of Oriental scholars, like Professor Max Müller and Professor Paul Deussen, as also advanced students in America, have now come to realize that from ancient times India has produced a nation of philosophers, and that all the phases of philosophic thought, whether ancient or modem, can still be found there today. Victor Cousin, the eminent French philosopher, whose knowledge of the history of European philosophy was unrivalled, writes: “When we read the poetical and philosophical monuments of the East,—above all, those of India which are beginning to spread in Europe,—we discover there many a truth, and truths so profound, and which make such a contrast with the meanness of the results at which the European genius has sometimes stopped, that we are constrained to bend the knee before the philosophy of the East, and to see in this cradle of the human race the native of the highest philosophy.”[2] And elsewhere he declares that “India contains the whole history of philosophy in a nutshell”.

You will find no other country in the world where, from prehistoric times down to the present day, philosophy and religion have played so important a part in forming the character of the nation as they have done in India. India is the only country where, at least two thousand years before the Christian era, public assemblies, philosophic conventions, and religious congresses were held under the auspices of the reigning monarchs; and in these active part was taken, not only by priests, philosophers, and scientists, but by kings, military commanders, soldiers, merchants, peasants, and educated women of the higher classes. As early as the vedic period, which dates from 500 to 2000 B.C., the ancient seers of Truth asked the most vital questions, and discussed problems that have troubled the minds of the great philosophers of all ages. In those questions we can discern the development of their intellectual powers, and their insight into the true nature of things. They inquired: “When death swallows the whole world, which deity shall swallow death? What part of man exists after death? What becomes of the vital forces when a man dies? What is the nature of the soul? Where is the foundation and support of this universe? What is the essence of being? What is there that governs all things and yet is separate from everything?” In trying to answer these and other problems of similar nature, the ancient thinkers discovered the laws of thought and traced the causes of phenomena, applying the rules of logic and reason at every step.

This was the beginning of philosophy in India. The minds of those truth-seekers were absolutely free from all limitations of doctrines, dogmas, and creeds. They never asked what their belief was, or whether they had faith in a personal God; but the burning questions for them were, how to acquire true knowledge of the universe, of its origin and cause, how to know the real nature of their souls, and how to solve the problems of life and death. At that time philosophic and religious thought began to ferment as actively and universally in the atmosphere of India as we find today in Western countries. Some of the answers given to these questions by the unbiased thinkers of those days are truly astounding; it seems as though the ancient seers of Truth had anticipated the conclusions of Plato, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer, Haeckel, even centuries before their existence.

During the pre-Buddhistic period or before the sixth century b.c., India gave rise to a great variety of philosophical systems, some of which were atheistic, agnostic, nihilistic, materialistic, while others were pluralistic, dualistic, or monotheistic, qualified non-dualistic, idealistic, spiritualistic, monistic systems of thought, such as are common in Europe and America at the present time. In fact, the natural tendency of the Hindu mind from the very beginning was to search after the unchangeable Reality of the universe, to trace the source of all phenomena, to understand the purpose of earthly existence, and above all, to know what relation the individual soul bears to the universal Being. Animated by an intense longing and guided by unswerving love for truth, the ancient thinkers discovered many of the natural laws, and rationally explained them, without fearing contradiction or persecution; for freedom of thought has always prevailed among all classes of people in India.

These sages understood the process of cosmic evolution from a homogeneous mass into the variety of phenomena, and rejected the theory of special creation out of nothing. In one of the Upanishads we read that a sage, after explaining the mystery of creation to his son, said: “My dear child, some

people think that this world has come out of nothing, but how can something come out of nothing?” Thus we see that, unlike the Hebrews, the Hindu thinkers did not believe in special creation, but from ancient times maintained the theory of gradual evolution. It has often been remarked that the doctrine of evolution is the marvel of modem times, and that it was unknown in the past ages, but the students of Oriental literature are well aware that it was well-known to the Hindus of the vedic ages. Professor Huxley admits this when he says: “To say nothing of Indian sages, to whom evolution was a familiar notion ages before Paul of Tarsus was born”[3] And Sir Monier Monier Williams, in his Brahminism and Hinduism, declares: “Indeed, if I may be allowed the anachronism, the Hindus were Spinozites more than two thousand years before the existence of Spinoza; and Darwinians many centuries before Darwin; evolutionists many centuries before the doctrine of evolution had been accepted by the scientists of our time, and before any word like ‘evolution’ existed in any language of the world”. This statement is absolutely correct. If we study the philosophical systems of the great thinkers and seers of Truth of ancient India, we shall find the most wonderful discoveries that have ever been recorded in the whole history of philosophy.

In their attempts to solve the mysteries of the phenomenal world, Hindu seers of Truth developed six principal systems of philosophy, each having numerous branches of its own. One school traces the origin of the universe to the combination of atoms and molecules. It is known as the Vaishesika philosophy of Kanada. The system of Kanada divides the phenomenal universe into six padarthas, or categories, which embrace the whole realm of knowledge. They are these: (1) dravya, or substance; (2) guna, or quality; (3) karma, or action; (4) samanya, or that which constitutes a genus; (5) Vishesha, or that which constitutes the individuality or separateness of an object; and (6) samavaya, coherence or inseparability. According to some, abhava or non-existence is the seventh substance.

Each of these again is subdivided into various classes. There are, for instance, nine substances: (1) earth; (2) water; (3) light; (4) air; (5) ether; (6) time (kala); (7) space (desha); (8) self (Atman); and (9) mind (manas). These substances, again, cannot exist without qualities, of which there are seventeen: colour, taste, smell, touch, number (that by which we perceive one or many), extension or quantity, individuality, conjunction, priority, posteriority, thought, pleasure, pain, desire, aversion, and will. The substances are affected by five kinds of action: (1) upward motion, (2) downward motion, (3) contraction, (4) expansion, (5) movement from one spot to another. All the objects of knowledge must be either substance, quality, or motion.

According to Kanada, the first four substances are non-eternal as aggregates, but are made up of minute invisible atoms (anus) which are eternal. They exist as inorganic and organic matter, or as instruments of sense-perceptions. Kanada describes atmos (anus) as indivisible particles of matter which possess no visible dimensions. On this point he agrees more with modem European scientists than with Greek philosophers, who gave visible dimensions to atoms. The first aggregate of these atoms is of two (anus). It is called dvyanu, or molecule which is still invisible. The aggregate of three molecules or double atoms forms a trasarenu, which has visible dimension. These aggregates of composite atoms are destructible, while single atoms are indestructible by nature. How remarkable it is to see that the conception of atoms and molecules arose in India centuries before the time of Empedocles and Democritus! And the latest atomic theory of European science has not in any way surpassed that of ancient India.

Furthermore, the Vaishesika system maintains that these atoms are not created by God, but are co-eternal with Him. The power, however, which combines two atoms and makes aggregates of atoms, comes from God, who is personal, who possesses knowledge, desire, and will, and who is the one Lord and Governor of all phenomena. According to this system ether, time, space, Atman or Self, and mind or manas, are eternal substances of nature. Mind or manas is described as infinitely small, like an atom (anus); but it is distinct from Atman or Self, which is vast (vibhu). Although mind and Atman or Self are eternal, still they are innumerable. The Self or Atman is distinct from the senses, and possesses nine qualities, such as knowledge, will, desire, happiness, etc. The aim of the Vaishe-sika, philosophy (which derives its name from vishesha, the fifth substance) is the attainment of perfection and absolute freedom of the soul through the right knowledge of the causes of the phenomenal universe.

Next to the Vaishesika is the Nyaya philosophy of Gautama. Although it is generally called a system of logic, still it is both logic and philosophy. Its object is the same as other Hindu systems, namely, the true knowledge of nature, soul and God, and the attainment of ultimate freedom. This system, although based upon the atomic theory of Kanada, begins with the enumeration of sixteen padart has, or subjects for discussion: (1) pramana, proof or means of knowledge; (2) prameya, or objects of knowledge; (3) samshaya, or doubt; (4) prayojana, motive or purpose; (5) dristanta, example or instance; (6) siddhanta, or determined truth; (7) avayava, syllogism or premisses; (8) tarka, reasoning or confutation; (9) nirnaya, or conclusion; (10) vada, or argumentation; (11) jalpa, or sophistry; (12) vitanda, objection; (13) hetvabhasa, or fallacies; (14) chhala, quibble or perversion; (15) jati, or false analogies; and, (16) nigrahasthana, or unfitness for arguing. The correct knowledge of each of these is the aim of this school. According to Gautama, the means of knowledge are four: (1) sensuous perception or pratyaksha; (2) inference or anumana; (3) upamana; (4) shabda, or verbal testimony.

The objects of knowledge are twelve in number: Self or Atman, bod), organs of senses, objective perception, intellect (buddhi), mind (manas), will, fault, state after death, retribution, pain, and final emancipation. These objects, as well as the means of knowledge, which are described singly and elaborately, form the fundamental principles of the philosophy of Nyaya, While the rest of the padarthas belong to the system of logic which it expounds. Therefore it is both logic and philosophy. Gautama is called the Aristotle of India. He was the founder of Hindu logic, which has gradually developed into a perfect logical system, and to which have been added voluminous works by the best Hindu logicians of later date. The principal aim of Gautama’s system was to establish right methods of reasoning, and to develop correct inference by the construction of true syllogisms. The Hindu syllogism consists of five parts: (1) proposition, (2) reason, (3) instance, (4) application of the reason, and (5) conclusion. By omitting two parts of this, we can make it a perfect syllogism of Aristotle. The connection in the major premiss of Aristotle’s syllogism is called in Hindu logic vyapti, or invariable concomitance. Speaking of Hindu logic, Mr. Davies says: “The right methods of reasoning have been discussed with as much subtlety as by any of the Western logicians”. Many European scholars, after finding a close resemblance between the logic of Aristotle and that of Gautama, have arrived at the conclusion that perhaps the Greeks borrowed the first elements of their logic and philosophy from the Hindus. Mr. Dutt says: “Comparing dates, we are disposed to say of this as of many other sciences, The Hindus invented logic, the Greeks perfected it”.[4] We must not forget the historical fact that there was a cluse inteicourse between the Greeks and the Hindus from the time of Pythagoras, who, it is said, went to India to gather the wisdom of the Hindus. Alexander himself was so deeply impressed, when he heard about the Hindu philosophers, that he desired to make their acquaintance. It is also said that he brought many Hindu philosophers back to Greece with him. These two schools of philosophy, the Vaisheshika and the Nyaya, supplement each other, and have at present many followers in some parts of India, especially in Bengal and among the Jains.

Then comes the Sankhya system of Kapila. Kapila lived about 700 b.c. He is called the father of the evolution theory in India. His system is more like the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. He rejected the atomic theory by tracing the origin of atoms to one eternal cosmic energy, which he called Prakriti (Latin, Procreatrix, the creative energy). He maintained that the whole phenomenal universe has evolved out of one cosmic energy which is eternal. Kapila defined atoms as force centres, which correspond to the Ions and Electrons of modem science. It was Kapila who for the first time explained creation as the result of attraction and repulsion, which literally means love and hatred of atoms, as Empedocles puts it.

The Sankhya philosophy of Kapila, in short, is devoted entirely to the systematic, logical, and scientific explanation of the process of cosmic evolution from that primordial Prakriti, or eternal Energy. There is no ancient philosophy in the world which was not indebted to the Sankhya system of Kapila. The idea of evolution which the ancient Greeks and neo-Platonists had, can be traced back to the influence of this Sankhya school of thought. Professor E. W. Hopkins says: “Plato is full of Sankhyan thought, worked out by him, but taken from Pythagoras. Before the sixth century b.c. all the religious-philosophical ideas of Pythagoras are current in India (L. Schroeder, Pythagoras). If there were but one or two of these cases, they might be set aside as accidental coincidences, but such coincidences are too numerous to be the result of chance”. And again he writes: “Neo-Platonism and Christian Gnosticism owe much to India. The Gnostic ideas in regard to a plurality of heavens and spiritual worlds go back directly to Hindu sources. Soul and light are one in the Sankhya system, before they became so in Greece, and when they appear united in Greece it is by means of the thought which is borrowed from India. The famous three qualities of the Sankhya reappear as the Gnostic ‘three classes’.”[5]

In his Hindu Philosophy, John Davies speaks of Kapila’s system as the first recorded system of philosophy in the world, and calls it “the earliest attempt on record to give an answer, from reason alone, to the mysterious questions which arise in every thoughtful mind about the origin of the world, the nature and relations of man and his future destiny.” Furthermore, Mr. Davies says, in reference to the German philosophy of Schopenhauer and Hartmann, that it is “a reproduction of the philosophic system of Kapila in its materialistic part, presented in a more elaborate form, but on the same fundamental lines. In this respect, the human intellect has gone over the same ground that it occupied more than two thousand years ago; but on a more important question it has taken a step in retreat. Kapila recognized fully the existence of a soul in man, forming indeed his proper nature—the absolute of Fichte,—distinct from matter and immortal; but our latest philosophy, both here and in Germany, can see in man only a highly developed organization”.[6]

It is most startling to find that the ultimate conclusions of this Sankhya system harmonize and coincide with those of modem science. It says: (1) Something cannot come out of nothing; (2) The effect lies in the cause, that is, the effect is the cause reproduced; (3) Destruction means the reversion of an effect to its causal state; (4) The laws of nature are uniform and regular throughout; (5) The building up of the cosmos is the result of the evolution of the cosmic energy. These are some of the conclusions which Kapila arrived at through observation and experiment, and by following strictly the rules of inductive logic.

Kapila denied the existence of a Creator; but still his philosophy is not considered atheistic, because he admitted the existence of the individual soul, Purusha, as an eternal and immortal entity. The different schools of Buddhistic philosophy are based upon the Sankhya system of Kapila. The agnosticism of the Jain philosophy, which has now a large number of followers in India, is also based upon the truths of this system; while the main principles of the Sankhya teachings have played a most important part in the popular forms of the symbol-worship of modem India.

Next in order comes the Yoga philosophy of Patanjali. Patanjali accepts the theory of evolution as explained by Kapila, and maintains that the whole phenomenal universe is the result of the evolution of Prakriti, the eternal Energy. Like Kapila, Patanjali believes in the existence of countless Purushas, or individual souls, each of which is by nature eternal, infinite, and immortal. But this system differs from Sankhya by admitting the existence of a cosmic Purusha (personal God), who is formless, infinite, omniscient, and untouched by affliction, activity, deserts, and desires. Patanjali takes up the psychology of Sankhya, and explains most elaborately the various functions of the chitta, or mind-substance. Both Kapila and Patanjali maintain that mind-substance is material,—that it is the product of the insentient Prakriti. On this point they anticipated the conclusions of the materialistic philosophers of modem Europe; but they admitted that mind-substance, or chitta, is distinct from Purusha, or true Self, which is the source of consciousness and intelligence.

The Yoga system devotes itself to the higher psychology of the human mind. It divides chitta into five classes of vrittis, or modifications: Right knowledge, indiscrimination, verbal delusion, sleep, memory.[7] Right knowledge proceeds from direct sensuous perception, inference, and competent evidence. These and various other mental functions are minutely described by Patanjali. After explaining all the modifications of the chitta, Patanjali shows the method by which absolute control over mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), chitta, and egotism (ahankara) can be attained. For, the highest aim of his philosophy is to separate the Purusha from Prakriti, with which it is at present closely related; and to make it reach kaivalya, or final emancipation from the bondage of nature and its qualities.

Patanjali also explains the science of concentration and meditation, the science of breath, clairaudience, telepathy, and various other psychic powers, and shows the way by which one can attain to God-consciousness in this life. There is no system of psychological philosophy in the world so complete as the psychology of Patanjali. The modern psychology of Europe, strictly speaking, is not true psychology, because it does not admit the existence of psyche, the soul; as Schopenhauer says: “The study of psychology is vain, for there is no Psyche”. It may be called physiological psychology, or somatology, as my friend, Professor Hiram Corson, of Cornell University, calls it. True psychology you will find today in the Yoga system of Patanjali. This philosophy has still many followers in different parts of India.

There is yet another school of philosophy, called the Purva-Mimamsa of Jaimini. The word ‘mimamsa’ means investigation, and purva means former or prior. This system examines the various injunctions of the ritualistic portion of the Vedas (karma-kanda), and points out that the highest duty of man is to follow those injunctions as strictly as possible, for they are the direct revelation of the supreme Being. According to Jaimini, the words of the Vedas are eternal, and the relation of these words to their meaning is also eternal; so the Vedas had no human origin. This system of philosophy explains the authoritative sources of knowledge, the relation between word and thought, and how this world is the manifestation of the word. We see a cow because there is in the Vedas such a word as ‘cow’ (in Sanskrit gau). If the word ‘cow’ did not exist, the material object as cow would be non-existent. We may laugh at such conclusions at present, but when we go deep into the subject and try to understand the relation which lies between thought and word, we shall realize the truth of such statements. The sun exists because there is the word ‘sun’ in the Vedas; that is, the sun is nothing but a part of the manifestation of that Logos or eternal thought form which exists in the cosmic mind.

The Purva-Mimamsa may also be called the philosophy of work. It describes the true nature of duty and of daily works, sacrificial, ritualistic, and devotional. Through it we can understand which is right work and in what way it should be performed to produce certain results. For instance, if we wish to go to heaven we shall have to perform certain acts and those acts will create a certain unknown or imperceptible result, which will be rewarded or manifested in the form of our going to heaven. Now, how do these things happen? What is the law? And if we perform that very act in some other way, what defects would be produced in the result? All these minute points are discussed. You may throw them away as speculation, but those who believe in the efficacy of prayers, in the law of action and reaction, of cause and sequence, cannot reject them as mere speculation, because there is some truth in them. We cannot deny it. Every thought that we think or every movement of the body that we make, must produce some result somewhere in some form. What are those results? How will they affect our being? We are too busy to think of these subtle problems now, but there are thinkers who can explain a great deal on these higher and finer lines of nature. Referring to the logic of this system, Professor Colebrook says: “Each case is examined and determined upon general principles, and from the cases decided the principles may be collected. A well-ordered arrangement of them would constitute the philosophy of law; and this is, in truth, what has been attempted in the Mimamsa”. This being an orthodox philosophy, it appeals to the students of the Vedas, and especially to the Brahmin priests.

Lastly comes the Uttara-Mimamsa or the system of Vedanta. This is the most popular philosophy of India today. Since the decline of Buddhistic philosophy in India, Vedanta has become most prominent and most powerful, having a large following among all classes of people, from the priests down to the pariahs. Among the six schools, the Vedanta philosophy has reached the highest pinnacle of philosophic thought which the human mind can possibly attain. A careful study of the different systems shows that they contain all the highest truths which were known to the ancient Greek philosophers of the Pythagorean and Eleatic schools. Professor E. W. Hopkins says: “Both Thales and Parmenides were indeed anticipated by Hindu sages, and the Eleatic school seems to be but a reflection of the Upanishads. The doctrines of Anaxamander and Heraclitus were perhaps not known first in Greece”.[8] Frederic Schlegel writes: “The divine origin of man, as taught by the Vedanta, is continually inculcated, to stimulate his efforts to return, to animate him in the struggle, and incite him to consider a reunion and reincorporation with Divinity as the one primary object of every action and reaction. Even the loftiest philosophy of the Europeans, the idealism of reason as it is set forth by the Greek philosophers, appears in comparison with the abundant light and vigour of Oriental idealism like a feeble Promethean spark in the full flood of heavenly glory of the noon-day sun, faltering and feeble and ever ready to be extinguished”.[9]

The ultimate reality of the universe, according to Vedanta, is the one Absolute Substance which is beyond subject and object, which is the infinite source of intelligence or knowledge, of consciousness and blissfulness, which is one and not many. It is called in Sanskrit Brahman. It is the same as the Good of Plato, the “Ding-an-sich” or the transcendental Thing-in-itself of Kant, the Will of Schopenhauer, the Substantia of Spinoza, the Over-Soul of Emerson, the Unknowable of Herbert Spencer, the Divine Essence of the Heavenly Father of the Christians, and of Allah of the Mohammedans. It is also the true nature of Buddha and of Christ. It pervades the universe. It is one and universal. No one can divide it: it is invisible. This is the reality of the universe, says Vedanta.

The system of Vedanta is more critical than the Kantian system, because it shows the phenomenal nature of the Kantian ego, of his forms of intuition, and his categories of thought. It is also more sublime than the philosophy of Kant, because it recognizes and proves the identity of the objective reality of the universe with the subjective reality of the ego. Kant did not realize that the Thing-in-itself (Ding-an-sich) of the objective world and the ‘Ding-an-sich’ of the subjective world are one. In no other system of philosophy has this oneness been so clearly explained and so strongly emphasized as it is in Vedanta. Professor Max Müller says: “This constitutes the unique character of Vedanta, unique compared with every other philosophy of the world which has not been influenced by it, directly or indirectly”.[10] There have been many European philosophies which have denied the existence of the external world, but not one of them has ventured to deny the apparent reality of the ego, of the senses, of the mind, and of their inherent forms. In this respect Vedanta holds a most unique position among the philosophies of the world. After lifting the Self or the true nature of the ego, Vedanta unites it with the essence of Divinity, which is absolutely pure, perfect, immortal, unchangeable, and one. No philosopher, not even Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, or Schopenhauer, has reached that height of philosophic thought. Professor Max Müller declares: “None of our philosophers, not excepting Heraclitus, Plato, Kant, or Hegel, has ventured to erect such a spire, never frightened by storms or lightnings. Stone follows on stone, in regular succession after once the first step has been made, after once it has been clearly seen that in the beginning there can have been but One, as there will be but One in the end, whether we Call it Atman or Brahman”.[11]

Although Vedanta has united heaven and earth, God and man, Brahman and Atman, still it has destroyed nothing in the phenomenal world. It accepts all the ultimate conclusions of modern science; but at the same time it says that truth is one and not many, yet there can be many expressions and various manifestations of the one truth. Furthermore, it maintains that the aim of the higher philosophy is not merely to ascertain the established conjunctions of events which constitute the order of the universe, or to record the phenomena which it exhibits to our observation and refer them to the general laws, but also to lead the human mind from the realm of the knowable to that which is beyond the knowable. We are now living in the realm of the knowable; but that which teaches simply the laws which govern the knowable phenomena is not the highest kind of philosophy. We must know the laws of the knowable, yet at the same time we should aspire to go beyond the knowable and plunge into the realm of the Infinite. If any philosophy can help us in this attempt, then it must be higher than the ordinary system which keeps us within the limits of the knowable. Vedanta philosophy guides us above all knowable objects of perception, and directs our souls toward the eternal Absolute Being, wherein we find the solution of all problems and the answer to all questions. Its attempt is to trace the relation between the soul and God, not by any unscientific method, but by the most rigorous processes of logic and reason, starting from the ultimate generalizations of the various branches of science.

True philosophy must construct a theory which will be the simplest in its nature, and yet at the same time will explain all the vital problems which the science of the phenomenal-knowable can never explain, and which will harmonize with the highest form of universal religion, without destroying the loftiest aspirations of the human soul. True philosophy in the widest sense must perform three great functions. First, it must coordinate the ultimate results arrived at by special branches of knowledge which we call sciences, and taking up those conclusions, it must form the widest generalizations possible. When it does this, it is called phenomenology. Herbert Spencer’s philosophy performs this function most wonderfully, but it leaves out the vital problems which perplex the minds of the greatest philosophers as unsolvable mysteries. Herbert Spencer does not explain all these problems, but without finding their true solution our lives will not be worth living. We must find an explanation, we must solve all the problems which disturb the peace of our souls; and if any system will help us, we will study it, follow its teachings, and satisfy our questioning minds. Secondly, true philosophy must investigate the realm of knowledge and trace its source. You know that you are sitting here and listening: where does this knowledge come from? The minds of even the greatest thinkers have become confused in trying to answer this question. A philosophy which does this is called epistemology. The philosophy of Kant, Hegel, Fichte, and others has performed this function. In his Elements of General Philosophy, George Croom Robertson says: “Epistemology is just philosophy, because it deals with things, deals with being; it deals with things going beyond bare experience, but it treats of them in relation to the fact of knowing. Thus an epistomologist cannot help being an ontologist, because his theory of knowledge treat about things also as being. He must also be a metaphysician, because he is concerned with the whole range of things beyond the physical; he must be a philosopher in being other and more than a man of science, or concerned with things in a way in which science is not." Science, with its various branches, directs us up to a certain point, and cannot go further; but where science ends, there is the beginning of true philosophy. The third function which true philosophy performs is that of leading our minds into the realm of the Absolute or the Unknown, and then it solves the problems of life and death. It explains the origin of the universe and of individual existence, and the purpose of evolution. On the plane of relativity the perfect solution of these vital problems can never be found. Furthermore, when this phase of true philosophy directs our minds toward the Infinite, it helps us in becoming free from all limitations of ignorance and selfishness. These limitations are the greatest bondage that we are now suffering from, and, by performing this function, true philosophy lays the foundation of the highest form of monistic religion. No philosophy in the world performs these three functions so satisfactorily as Vedanta. Hence we may say that Vedanta is the most complete of all systems.

Philosophy and religion must always be in perfect harmony. Ernest Haeckel, in his Riddle of the Universe, tries to give a foundation to monistic religion; but his monism is one-sided, because he says that the ultimate substance of the universe is unintelligent. His insentient substance may be compared with Kapila’s Prakriti, which is eternal and unintelligent. According to Vedanta, however, the final substance of the universe is Brahman, which is sat or absolute existence, chit or absolute intelligence, and ananda or absolute bliss. Vedanta teaches that that which is the substance of our souls must possess intelligence, consciousness, and blissfulness. Thus Vedanta lays the true foundation of a universal religion which is monistic or non-dualistic. The monistic religion of Vedanta does not admit the sankhyan theory of the plurality of Purushas, or individual souls, which are eternal and infinite by nature, but on the contrary, by following the strict rules of logic, it establishes that the Infinite must be one and not many. From one many have come into existence, and the individual souls are but so many images or reflections of the absolute Brahman. It teaches that the true nature of the soul is divine. From the absolute Brahman the phenomenal universe rises, and in the end returns into the Brahman. The religion of Vedanta admits the existence of Isvara, the personal God, who is the first-born Lord of the universe, who starts the evolution of Prakriti, who loves all living creatures and can be loved and worshipped in return. In Vedanta, the Prakriti of the Sankhya philosophy is called maya, which is the divine energy of the absolute Brahman. Maya does not mean illusion, as some scholars think; but it is that power which produces time, space, and causation, as also the phenomenal appearances which exist on the relative plane. Thus we see that the system of Vedanta is both philosophy and religion. Of the tree of knowledge, philosophy is the flower and religion is the fruit, so they must go together. Religion is nothing but the practical side of philosophy, and philosophy is the theoretical side of religion.

In India, a true philosopher is not a mere speculator but a spiritual man. He does not believe in certain theories which cannot be carried into practice in every-day life; what he believes he lives, and therefore practical philosophy is still to be found in India. For example, an Indian philosopher who follows Kanada, and believes in the existence of a personal God as the essence of his soul, does not merely accept this theoretically, but he tries to realize it in his daily life. A Buddhist, again, will explain all the most abstruse problems, and at the same time you will see that he is living out his beliefs. So with a follower of the Sankhya system, or of Vedanta: they are not mere speculative philosophers, but they live spiritual lives and strive to attain God-consciousness. In India, if any one writes voluminous works and leads a worldly life, he is not considered a true philosopher; but in the West a man can become a philosopher by simply sitting in his library and writing a book, although his every-day life may be far from spiritual.

A friend of mine, being asked whether India had produced a philosopher like Ralph Waldo Emerson, replied: “America has produced one Emerson, but in India you will find an Emerson every five miles”. This is not a great exaggeration, and the reason, as I have already said, is that the Hindus not only theorize but live philosophy. Hindu minds are extremely logical. They will not accept any theory which does not harmonize with logic and reason. Therefore, you will scarcely find an irrational doctrine or dogma in the religion of Vedanta. Freedom of thought, as I have already said, has always prevailed in India since the vedic period. For this reason Christian missionaries meet with the greatest opposition when they preach to the Hindus the unscientific and illogical doctrines and dogmas of their faith. When, for instance, they try to teach them the creation of the universe in six days as given in Genesis, the Hindus smile at the missionaries and reject their statements as unscientific and irrational. Similarly they will not listen to other Christian dogmas, like infant damnation, eternal perdition of the heathen, etc.

The philosophy and religion of Vedanta embrace all the sciences and philosophies of the world, accepting their latest conclusions, and classify them according to their order of merit. Consequently, the universality of Vedanta is unique and unparalleled. In this system the people of India find the ultimate truths of all sciences, of all philosophies, as well as of all religions. It is so popular, because it solves the problems concerning the origin and final aim of earthly life, fulfils the highest aspiration of human souls, and inculcates that the true nature of the soul is immortal by its birthright. Vedanta maintains that if the soul were mortal by nature, it could never become immortal, for that which could be made immortal could be unmade. This is an argument which cannot be refuted, and it has taken such hold of the logical mind of the Hindus that, even when they are converted to other faiths, they cannot believe that the soul, which is by nature a child of God, can ever be made immortal by Christ.

Vedanta has the largest following, and is the prevailing philosophy of India today. Since the eighth century a.d., when, after the decline of Buddhism, it was revived by the earnest efforts of its commentator, Sri Sankaracharya, who is now regarded as the greatest philosopher of the world. The Vedanta philosophy has taken a firm root in the remotest corner of every Hindu community, from the highest to the lowest, and has overshadowed all other systems of philosophic thought. Professor Max Müller, in the preface to his Six Systems of Philosophy, writes: “Other philosophies do exist and have some following, but Vedanta has the largest”; and he also affirms that Vedanta is both a philosophy and a religion by saying: “For all practical purposes, the Vedantist would hold that the whole phenomenal world, both in its subjective and objective character, should be accepted as real. It is as real as anything can be to the ordinary mind; it is not mere emptiness, as the Buddhists maintain. And thus the Vedanta philosophy leaves to every man a wide sphere of real usefulness, and places him under a law as strict and binding as anything can be in this transitory life; it leaves him a deity to worship as omnipotent and majestic as the deities of any other religion. It has room for almost every religion; nay, it embraces them all.”[12]

Footnotes and references:


According to the best authorities of the present day, Moses lived about the fourteenth century b.c. Dr. Kuenen says: “The exodus is accordingly placed by one in b.c. 1321, by another in b.c. 1320, and by a third in 1314 b.c. Of course, perfect accuracy on this point is unattainable. With this reservation I accept the year 1320 b.c. as the most probable.”—Religion of Israel, Vol. 1, p. 121.


Cf. The Works, Vol. I, p. 32.


Cf. Science and Hebrew Tradition, p. 150.


Cf Civilization in Ancient India, Vol 1, p 292.


Cf. Religions of India, pp. 559, 560.


Preface to Hindu Philosophy.


Swami Vivekananda: Raja Yoga, p. 109.


Vide Religions of India.


Indian Language, Literature and Philosophy, p. 471.


Cf. The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy, p. 223.


The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy, p. 239.


Cf. Three Lectures on Vedanta Philosophy.

FAQ (frequently asked questions):

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