Vedanta Philosophy – Part 2

In my last post on the subject I introduced Advaita Vedanta (Hindu) ontology and the three categories of reality: necessary existence (sat), impossible existence (asat), and world-appearance (mithya).

So where does God fit into this ontology? The Western concept of God is not something that can be projected onto the Vedanta system. For now, forget everything you’ve been told about the theistic God. Done? Good, let’s proceed along logical lines and see where we end up. The “prime mover” (Brahman) contains both the material and efficient cause of the universe. But as any critic of the cosmological argument knows, there’s a problem with that idea. Brahman is necessary, i.e., a self-existent pure being. How can such a being cause the universe without itself being subject to movement and change? If the prime mover participated in the chain of causation then it is rational to ask what caused it.

Vedanta’s answer to this classic dilemma is to put a bridge between the unchanging, undifferentiated and infinite pure being and that of the finite contingent world-appearance that emanates from it. So pure being — the infinite ground of all being as Tillich would say — is “unqualified” Brahman (nirguna Brahman) and the bridge between it and the contingent world is “qualified” Brahman (sirguna Brahman). Unqualified Brahman is pure being itself and you can’t say anything about it at all other than it is. Nirguna Brahman has no discernable properties. This is what I referred to in the last post as a logical deduction rather than a personal God. Without being you’ve got nothing; but there’s something or we wouldn’t be here to talk about it so therefore you must have being.

Qualified Brahman does have properties, including femininity, and Hindus call her by many names: Maya, Ishvara, Krishna, God, Kali, and others. When God is anthropomorphized or given properties this is the being to which those properties and traits are assigned. This is the god of the great unwashed masses. The people have a thousand names for her and a thousand ideas about who she is but the true sages know that she does not really exist. She is nonetheless both the material and efficient cause of the universe. This graph illustrates the relationship:

Pure Being (Nirguna Brahman) Universe

Notice that God is a bridge between self-existent pure being and the contingent world. The arrow points toward pure being because Maya gets her power from Pure Being the way Earth gets its power from the Sun. With such power (shakti) Maya creates and sustains the universe. In the Bhagavad Gita in her guise as Krishna, she says “the entire expansive material energy is the womb (yoni) … manifested by me” (14.3). This seems to solve the metaphysical problem of being and becoming.

Maya translates literally as “not this.” That’s because both she and the world-appearance that she creates is an illusion. According to Vedanta everything you see around you isn’t really real. (The plot from the movie “The Matrix” was inspired by this concept and there’s an interesting parallel here to the Christian Gnostics which I’ll explore some other time.) This is hard for Westerners to understand. We know that we have a limited lifespan and we know that everything is contingent and nothing lasts. But why call it an illusion?

To understand why you have to realize that for Vedanta if something is contingent then it ought not to be of ultimate concern. That’s like clinging to a sinking ship. Even more important, since this world depends upon Pure Being to sustain it then there is only the One. In the end, Vedanta is both a pantheism and a monism. Pure Being is all there is, all else is an illusion that depends upon the One to sustain it. Liberation can only be achieved by the deep realization that there is only the One. Further, you are not this world but rather Pure Being Itself. Yogis greet each other with namaste which means “I bow to the divine in you.” That is, behind the illusion there is only one reality and we are that divine reality. That’s pretty heavy stuff so I’ll leave it at that for now and come back to it in a future post.

One last comment for now: Vedanta metaphysics has been influenced heavily by the ancient Greeks. Aristotle in particular gave Shankara (the 8th century founder of the Vedanta school) the vocabulary to speak of Brahman, Maya, Shakti, and the world-appearance in the way I outline it above. But for the ancient Indo-Europeans of the Vedic period the story was different. The ancients knew very well of course that it took both a mother and a father to have a baby. Nothing could be created without the male and female power. Why shouldn’t the whole world be any different? The Mother Goddess (as Maya) contains the power to create (shakti) within her but must couple with the male (Brahman) to fructify and give birth to the cosmos. This is the stuff of Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God and I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that the Aristotelian metaphysics was overlaid on a much older creation story. This happened in Judaism as well. The god of Abraham had his consort Ashterah, and King Solomon worshipped them both (1 Kings 11:5). It wasn’t until much later when the Goddess was finally purged from Judaism that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo was conjured to explain how a male deity could create the universe.

Teaser for a future post! Ever wonder why at his Sermon on the Mount Jesus would instruct people to pray asking God not to lead us into temptation? Why would God want to lead us astray?