Vedanta Philosophy

Over time I’d like to say a few things about important points in Vedanta (Hindu) philosophy. This is a neglected area not just among Western philosophers of religion but also among nonbelievers who are naturally curious and interested in what other religions have to say. And hopefully it will be something a little different and maybe even fun.

[Disclaimer: I am not an academic expert! I have practiced yoga for several years now and I’ve read and studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Yogavashishta, and the Bhagavad Gita. These and other studies have been under the guidance of a teacher in the context of a disciplined approach toward the attainment of what is called nirvikalpa samadhi or the realization of the Self. Yes, I’m an atheist. But there are plenty of atheists who go to Universalist churches every Sunday.]

Ok let me start with ontology and a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: “In the unreal (asatah) there is no duration and in the real (satah) there is no cessation. Knowers of the truth have concluded this by studying the nature of both” (2.16).

The real (sat) is opposite the unreal (asat). In western terms, the real is what we would say is necessary. It cannot not be. The unreal is impossible. It cannot be (e.g., a barren woman’s son). The third order of reality is the contingent, or things which exist but not necessarily. This is called the world-appearance, or in western terms “empirical reality” and it is said to be illusory (mithya).

Vedantism arrives at a definition of the real through a cosmological deduction familiar to philosophers of religion: (1) all beings in the world are contingent and must depend upon another being for their efficient causation; (2) since a being cannot be its own efficient cause nor can there be an infinite array of efficient causes; therefore (3) there must be a prime efficient cause.

This prime efficient cause, or “unmoved mover” in Aristotle’s terminology, is what Hindus call Brahman (sat, reality). It is important to recognize that Brahman is not the God of Abraham and Christianity. Brahman is a deduction from the consideration of the contingency of the world-appearance.

Vedantism places a huge emphasis on rationalism and follows the ancient Greek distrust of the senses. What at first looks like a snake turns out to be a coiled rope. The senses deceive. Because of this and because it exists contingently the world is like an illusion that fools us. The Yoga Sutras define ignorance (avidya) as “mistaking the non-eternal for the eternal” (2.5). In other words, considering the world of empiricism to be real and permanent instead of transitory and temporary.

There is an extremely interesting parallel here to the pre-Socratic Parmenides and his “Way of Truth” poem but I’ll leave that for another time.