F: So I want to go back to our discussion on Existence/Consciousness for a minute in reference to our previous exchange Who Knows? There are a couple of points I’d like to probe.
When you see Ishwara as a matter of speculation what do you mean? I find Ishwara to simply be a matter of understanding not speculative belief. Speaking to a fellow Vedantin, “we” know that there is only Brahman. And it has a power called Maya (which is nothing but Brahman) to manifest as the world we experience. When Brahman is apparently functioning in this capacity as creator we use the word Ishwara. Where is the speculation?
V: Here’s three answers from different perspectives.
A) This is my primary answer, one that expresses both my personal opinion and what I contend is the view of Vedanta in general. This answer actually applies to all of your questions: While I find the details of Vedanta as a teaching methodology interesting, its theories and explanations are only conditionally true from the empirical standpoint or perhaps not true at all (take the theory of the evolution of the elements for example). Whether they are true or not is inconsequential because Vedanta only uses them as temporary devices to point to the only truth there is: brahman (you). This means that once Vedanta’s theories and explanations have revealed who you are, they completely lose their value, similar to a boat having no purpose once you have reached the other side of the river. You could carry the boat with you if that was your prerogative, discussing its features and design, but considering your goal was to cross the river, wouldn’t it make more sense to leave the boat behind and simply enjoy the other side of the river rather than quibbling about the vessel that got you there?
In the same way, once Vedanta has shown you that you are brahman—and I am assuming that it has—its various teaching devices no longer have a purpose. You could continue analyzing them if you wanted to but if your reason for seeking self-knowledge was peace of mind, then once knowledge is gained, why not leave the teaching behind and simply enjoy the implications of who you really are?
So I think the most important question to ask is, “Will continued analysis of the teaching bring me greater peace of mind?” If the answer is yes then I say go for it. But when I asked myself that same question, after three or four years of incessantly re-hashing the ins and outs of the teaching with my guru brother and fellow jnani, Paul, the answer was no. So I stopped. Then I shifted my focus to simply re-affirming and appreciating my true nature, which did in fact bring me greater peace of mind.
B) If you think Isvara is a matter of understanding while I find it to be a matter of speculation, then no problem. You should think/believe whatever makes the most sense to you. Because of that I don’t have much interest in defending my position.
Seeing as we are both well-versed in Vedanta, doesn’t the very fact that we see this issue differently prove that Isvara is a matter of speculation? If Isvara were simply a matter of understanding, like understanding the earth is really round even though it looks flat, wouldn’t we both simply agree? (Considering all of the Flat-Earthers out there, maybe that’s not a good example but hopefully you can see past the shortcomings of the metaphor).
C) Here’s my technical, picky answer. The first two answers are heartfelt but I want to give this one too so it doesn’t seem like I’m blowing you off. I did after all tell you to send your questions.
“When you see Ishwara is a matter of speculation what do you mean?”
Isvara is posited as the omniscient, all-powerful creator of the universe. But how do you know this is true? Have you ever personally experienced an omniscient, all-powerful being? I know I haven’t. Granted, not experiencing something doesn’t mean it isn’t there or that it isn’t true, just like the example I gave above about not experiencing the Earth as round even though it is. However, in the case of the earth, it is possible to experience it as round by viewing it from space, or by looking at a photo taken from space. Is there a similar means of empirical proof for Isvara? At this point someone may be tempted to give the argument of intelligent design. But observing a reasonable amount of order in the universe is certainly no rock solid proof of an omniscient, all-powerful creator (philosopher have poked holes in this argument for a long time). So where do we get our information about Isvara? From scripture. Swami Dayananda talks about this in his Tattva Bodha commentary on pg. 277-288 (not that I’m trying to say his view of Isvara is the same as mine). While discussing how we can know anything about the details of Isvara he says, “We have no means of knowledge (about Isvara) except the sruti to tell us.”
This means that if we want information about how Isvara works or what it is, you have to believe what the scripture says. And belief is speculation. This is what I mean by Isvara being speculation. If Isvara were a matter of understanding it would be provable as an indisputable empirical fact.
“Speaking to a fellow Vedantin, “we” know that there is only Brahman.”
Correct. No disagreement there.
“And it has a power called Maya (which is nothing but Brahman) to manifest as the world we experience.”
We’ve established that we both know that there is only brahman. If there is only brahman then there is no maya. Brahman plus an entity called maya would be duality. Even if, as you say, maya is nothing but brahman, there is still no maya. Why? Because if maya is none other than brahman, then there is still only brahman. There is still no reality above and beyond brahman called maya. That’s simply the logic of non-duality.
As I pointed out above, Vedanta uses various temporary teaching devices to point to the non-dual reality of brahman only to have those devices negated when that reality becomes known. The maya/Isvara theory is one such teaching device. It is only necessary when someone believes that there is such a thing as objects and they need an explanation of where they come from and how they are “created” from brahman. But when it is seen that what you mistakenly thought were objects are really nothing but brahman, there is no longer a need for a theory of a creative power (maya) because there is no creation. And if there is no creation, there is no creator (Isvara). Hence there is no longer a need for the theory of Isvara as creator either.
On an everyday level, even though it is a matter of speculation and belief, there is no harm in thinking of the apparent creation as the work of an apparent Isvara. It can be a positive construct through which to view the world. But it always needs to be remembered that brahman is the only “thing” that is real while the creation and the creator are dualistic concepts that are always unreal. Hence there is about as much value in debating the details of Isvara/maya as in debating the details of a mirage or a dream. And on a related point, no one needs to force themselves to believe in Isvara if the concept either doesn’t make sense to them or more importantly, if it doesn’t help them to be happier in their day to day lives. The world is an illusion so nothing definite can be determined about it, which means people are free to choose to believe in what they find most reasonable and helpful.
F: Coming back to the claim “to exist is to be known” for a minute. I understand you are saying it isn’t to be taken literally, however, after giving it more thought I am finding it hard not to. The thinking being that since all objects appear within consciousness, aren’t they inherently known? Or said in reverse, if Consciousness manifests as an object how could it not be known to that same Consciousness? Another point is to leverage the fact/teaching that Brahman is self-evident and objects are evident. If an object is evident it must by definition be known. Wouldn’t this imply that all objects are known (i.e., illumined by consciousness)?
V: If there is such a thing as objects then it must be consciousness that knows them. But again, this is debating something based in duality, specifically the duality of knower vs. known, existent vs. non-existent or consciousness vs. unconscious objects. Being dualistic, all of these ideas are based in ignorance and are unreal so what can actually be said about them? How can you discuss the existence of objects if they don’t really exist? How can you talk about something being known where there is nothing other than yourself to be known? How can you find the relationship between consciousness and unconscious objects when there is only consciousness and therefore nothing for it to have a relationship with?
If you were someone I thought was still trying to understand that reality is non-dual then I would cater to the lower, temporary viewpoints of the teaching that allow for theories of knowledge and existence and debate them. But I don’t think you are so what’s the point? The non-dual viewpoint is the only one that is true and it negates all others. Why not leave them behind?
I am not trying to be dismissive. I’m just trying to draw attention to the fact that at some point you have to transcend the teaching methods of Vedanta and simply appreciate what they have taught you, that you are brahman. Understanding and appreciating your non-dual nature at some point necessitates leaving behind dualistic concepts. Drop the boat!
F: Finally… new topic! I’ve been researching the topic of Vedanta as a pramana. My question is do you think Vedanta as a pramana is falsifiable in any way? Meaning is there anything one could experience which would negate the core absolute truth of Brahman/Atma? I don’t think so but I’d love to know your view. This came up since I was in a conversation recently with a scientifically minded friend who found this position highly objectionable. I indicated that since what Vedanta expounds is uncontradicted by other knowledge and unique then it can be accepted. He agreed that it certainly “could” be true but was pushing to know what proof could be given vs. relying on a lack of contradictory evidence. I then pointed out that one can only test the veracity of Vedanta by exploring it for themselves and going through a process of self inquiry. Until you do that you won’t know. For me having done quite a bit of meditation work before coming to Vedanta was key. It allowed teachings like drg drishya viveka to be assimilated very quickly. But for those who haven’t gone into the teachings carefully, and have a scientific bent the whole thing seems like crazy conjecture akin to saying “we are all in the matrix”:)! Any thoughts on this one?
V: No, I don’t think there is any way to disprove the truth of brahman. If there were I certainly wouldn’t be into Vedanta.
But as a thought experiment I think it might be possible to disprove that brahman is consciousness, assuming it could be shown that what we think of as consciousness is really just one part of the brain watching the functions of another part of the brain. Of course, this seems unlikely. But time and again, science has proven things that seemed impossible. As much as Vedanta is called a science, we have to remember that yogis from thousands of years ago were not even remotely aware of what we now call the scientific method. As I mentioned above they believed that earth evolved from water, water from fire, fire from air, air from space. But despite their shortcomings regarding the natural sciences, they were in fact experts in investigating their own subjective experience. From that vantage point it seems like a reasonable conclusion that consciousness is the base level of reality. Meditation very much seems to prove that. But being limited by our subjective viewpoint and our incomplete knowledge of the brain, can we say that for certain? If I’m being honest, I’d have to admit the possibility—no matter how slight—that I could be wrong.
What? How could you say that brahman might not be consciousness and still claim that the truth of brahman can’t be disproved? Aside from the fact that consciousness is just a word based on dualistic concepts–and brahman transcends all words–even if brahman weren’t consciousness, it wouldn’t fundamentally change the fact that I am non-dual, ever-present and unchangeable because I don’t see any conceivable way to disprove my own existence. The very fact that I can question my existence proves I exist. If you destroy “me” meaning my body/mind then everything else besides my body/mind still exists. If you destroy everything else, then existence itself still exists because to say that there could be such a thing as nothingness would be to admit that nothingness exists. Existence and brahman being the same, there would be no way to negate brahman. So to me, the conclusion of myself being a changless, non-dual reality not subject to negation would still hold completely true.
And I agree with your view that the claims of Vedanta must be investigated for yourself. To simply sit on the sidelines and intellectualize about it won’t do any good. There’s usually no point in trying to convince people to take up Vedanta. They have to want it themselves. That’s why the teaching is only given to people who are receptive to it. And personally, I don’t think Vedanta is science so I don’t try to legitimize it on a scientific basis. I think teachers like Swami Vivekananda started calling Vedanta science and comparing it to science in order to make it seem more legitimate to Western or Western-influenced audiences. But since Vedanta investigates subjectivity and is not based in materialism, it’s its own unique thing.
All my best – Vishnudeva
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