Belief in God

Don:  Hi Vishnu, I read your articles regarding God and atheism in Vedanta with interest.  I read in one of your posts that Isvara, (the apparent, manifest brahman) is a matter of speculation.  Now I’m assuming by this you mean Isvara as some kind of personalized deity?  I may be wrong here, but I always thought that the Vedantic interpretation of Isvara meant the bundle of laws that govern the apparent manifestation (of the universe), not a being as such.  Isn’t it the case that Vedanta IS essentially atheistic anyway in the ‘anthropomorphic man in the sky’ sense?

I think the assertion of Isvara as the manifest order is self-evident. We can be fairly confident that the laws which govern the apparent universe serve to benefit the Whole and keep things ticking over in an orderly fashion, just as karma yoga suggests, not least because we can see for ourselves that the universe has been around for 13.8 billion years or so, so it clearly operates in a self-regulating manner which ultimately serves to support the Whole.

Furthermore, the related concept of karma seems reasonable since if we accept the non-dual nature of existence, then whatever you (the apparent you) do to someone or something else, you are essentially doing to yourself, and so at some point the results of that will be experienced.

Swami Dayananda talks about the implicit order we can observe in everything, which is supported by science. So we can observe a psychological order, a physical order etc.  And this collective bundle of order is essentially what we mean by Isvara

Any thoughts you have on this are appreciated!

Vishnu: My thought on the matter is this:  I respect your viewpoint even if I don’t agree because I think people are free to believe whatever they want regarding the workings of Isvara, God or the any other aspect of the apparent reality (especially considering that’s what they do anyway).  So if you believe that Isvara is a self-evident truth, good.  I have no reason to try to convince you otherwise.  I write my articles with the idea that people can take or leave whatever they wish.  I’m no ultimate authority on matters of belief because belief is purely a personal decision. 

I hope that helps. 

Otherwise, all of the answers to your questions are contained in the satsangs “Who Knows?” “A Progressive Vedanta” and “Drop the Boat.”  If you agree with what I say, that’s fine. If not, that’s also fine.  Your peace of mind is the point, not conformity to a certain viewpoint, mine or anyone else’s. 

Now I have a question:  Is what I’m saying about Isvara causing you some kind of doubt?  Is it affecting your self-inquiry?  If so, what is that doubt? Please let me know.

Don: I did like your “Drop the Boat” post. It reminded me of an article from a Zen guy, can’t remember who now, but he came to the same conclusion as you, that the last thing he had to let go of was Zen itself! As it was such a beautiful teaching he didn’t want to let go of it, but ultimately, as you found, he realized he had to “drop the boat” so that he could get on and enjoy his life. And of course the teaching wasn’t going anywhere so he could still love it—He just wasn’t attached to it. 

Vishnu: That perfectly summarizes what I said! 

Don: I think what’s been fueling my original inquiry (rehashed here) is a latent attachment to the concept of god. Upon analyzing this, I think it stems from the concern that the world will be less wonderful or awe-inspiring without.  In others words, I’m worried that dropping (belief in) god would lessen my enjoyment of life.

V:  In a way I think it can, especially if someone has a generally positive notion of God.  In that case, as you said, it may take a bit of awe out of their life.  Luckily for those kinds of people, Vedanta never really asks anyone to give up their belief in God.  They’re only asked to analyze their belief that they’re fundamentally different from God, whether their idea of God is the stereotypical Man In The Sky or the Collective Bundle Of Order (Isvara) that’s beloved by intellectual leaning Vedantins.   

In the relative world, if the Man In The Sky exists, he depends on existence itself to exist.  If a Collective Bundle Of Order exists, it depends on existence itself to exist.  If an individual person exists, they depend on existence itself to exist.  As existence itself (brahman), all three are fundamentally the same.  Recognizing that you are brahman and everything you experience is brahman is the point of Vedanta, not getting rid of belief in God.  For those who don’t see any reason to give up their belief in God, consider this verse by Shankara: 

“Even when I am no longer duality’s slave, O Lord, the truth is that I am yours and you are not mine.  The waves may belong to the ocean but the ocean never belongs to the waves.”

– Six Verses to Vishnu V. 3

Shankara recognizes that as pure existence (brahman), he is non-different from the MITS/CBOO.  He has non-dual vision.  And yet, because the illusion of the world remains, he acknowledges that on the illusory level the difference between the individual person and the totality of the cosmos still obtains. While Shankara fully understands that he’s reality itself, on the level of the apparent individual he still stands in awe of the wonderful and mysterious total.  To use a metaphor, a wave (the individual person) is never the ocean (MITS/CBOO) but despite that, both are the same as water (brahman). 

Now, I’m not saying what you should or should not believe regarding God.  Rather, I’m trying to demonstrate that Vedanta has different options for different people.  In other words, this is not a black-and-white one-size-fits all situation.  People are free to view the workings of the apparent reality (which includes God) in whatever way makes the most sense to them.  After all, the apparent reality is an illusion—How could we come to a definite conclusion about something that isn’t real in the first place? 

Don: However, upon further reflection I don’t think that (dropping belief in god) lessens enjoyment of life because the replacement knowledge is even more amazing. What could be more awesome, amazing and beautiful than the knowledge that everything is me?  While also being clear that I’m free of it (the apparent world), it’s the very thing that allows me to be free to enjoy it.

Vishnu:  Exactly!  Understand that you’re brahman.  Think of God in whatever way seems most reasonable to you.  And most importantly, be happy.  If your current belief in God makes you happy, keep it.  If not, drop it and find something that does.      

All my best – Vishnudeva

Ask a Question

DROP THE BOAT: When the teaching has served its purpose, you can leave it behind

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.

But…. 🙂        

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

Have a question? CONTACT ME. 

Want to support End of Knowledge? MAKE A DONATION

 

 

 

 

 

A Progressive Vedanta

THE QUESTION

I recently read your post, “A Vedanta Atheist?.”  I’ve never heard anyone express the point of view that Vedanta can work for atheists.  Does that really conform to the teachings of Vedanta?  Do you advocate atheism? 

THE ANSWER

I’m not surprised. I’d only ever heard the idea that atheism and Vedanta are compatible expressed privately in discussions with fellow Vedantins.  That’s exactly why I wanted to go on record and say it.  The idea of atheism is certainly not new but I think its prevalence today—coupled with an increasing number of spiritual people who do not believe in religion—requires a proper response from Vedanta.  I believe it’s fully in line with the tradition of Vedanta to progressively extend eligibility to groups previously excluded from studying the teachings.  There was a time when someone like myself, a caste-less foreigner from outside the religious tradition, would most likely have been denied the teaching.  There was also a time, not so long ago, when it was controversial to teach Vedanta to the general public.  It was even more controversial when it was taught in English!  I am very thankful those times have passed and grateful to the pioneering teachers that ended them.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have had access to a teaching that has dramatically changed my life for the better.  So it’s no surprise that continuing to make the teaching available and more accessible to an even broader audience is near to my heart.  I think Vedanta can—and should—be progressive while staunchly holding on to its fundamental principles, namely the pursuit of freedom through self-knowledge. 

Perhaps even the most progressive Vedantins would balk at the idea of a Vedantic atheist.  But I would have to politely disagree because I actually know a few.  It can and does work.  I would also say that Vedanta is such a vast and beautiful tradition.  If one teacher or their views don’t appeal to you, there are so many other good teachers to learn from.  I’m not trying to upset anyone or claim that my view is the only right one.  I’m just a link in the chain, albeit one that’s a little funny shaped.  If you think what I say makes sense, great.  I think my point of view is reasonable.  If you disagree with me, well, you probably won’t attain enlightenment 🙂  I’m kidding.  You’ll be just fine.  That’s my point.  Vedanta can accommodate a wide variety of people and opinions. 

All the same, I’d like to clarify what I mean by atheism.  Atheism, as I understand it, is a lack of belief in a personal, anthropomorphic God.  In other words you don’t believe in the whole “man-in-the-sky” idea of God.  Perhaps you don’t believe in anything supernatural at all.  Now, are the ideas of a personal, anthropomorphic God and supernatural occurrences present in Vedanta?  Absolutely!  Just read the Upanishads. 

But…are those things presented as absolute truths in Vedanta?  No.  They are only true from a relative point of view.  This means they are not essential, and therefore don’t preclude someone who doesn’t believe in those things from studying Vedanta.  Does that mean someone can have success in Vedanta while being an atheist in the sense that they think the universe is merely a blind mechanical process consisting of matter alone?  I doubt it.  Why?  Because Vedanta is unyielding when it declares that the universe is ultimately nothing but brahman, pure consciousness, not matter or anything beholden to it.  And precisely because brahman is pure consciousness, Vedanta contends that the universe is a deliberate and orderly ‘creation’ not a blind, mechanical chaos.

Still, is being open-minded to these contentions incompatible with a rational mind that doesn’t believe in a personal God or the supernatural?  No, because brahman is consciousness and consciousness isn’t something we have to believe in.  Consciousness obviously exists because we are obviously conscious.  Granted, the exact nature of consciousness and how it can be the entire universe requires much investigation to understand but the jumping off point of our everyday conscious experience is rooted in fact, not belief.  Something else rooted in fact is the existence of the universe.  We all know it’s there because we experience it.  Since “I only believe in what I see” is often the criteria for belief according to an atheist I contend that Vedanta’s concept of God works fine with atheism, at least in the way I’ve defined it above.

How? Vedanta says that God (Isvara) is simply the world around you as well as the laws that govern the world.  So if someone is an atheist in regards to a supernatural personal God but they accept that the world exists and runs on natural laws, then they essentially accept Isvara.  Again, the part that Isvara is actually pure consciousness (and hence not really a God at all) requires a lot of investigation to understand but as in the case of consciousness, the starting point is rooted in fact, not belief.  And since Vedanta says that brahman is ultimately none other than yourself, no belief is required there either because no one needs to believe in themselves.  That we can even contemplate our own existence proves that we exist because a non-existent entity can’t contemplate anything.  For all of these reasons, I see atheism—at least a certain kind of atheism—as compatible with Vedanta. 

I certainly don’t mean to be dismissive but whether or not this view conforms to so-called traditional Vedanta doesn’t really matter to me.  I’ve already seen it work for people so the question of conformity serves no purpose.  I’m extremely practical, and considering that freedom is the point of Vedanta, whatever helps get someone get free is fine with me.  Besides, there is no definitive consensus among Vedantins as to what the ‘real’ or ‘traditional’ Vedanta even is.  A brief examination of the history of the teaching shows that some groups within Vedanta strongly disagree while others outright contradict each other.  The umbrella of Vedanta accommodates many viewpoints, any of which you are free to disregard if you so choose, so I don’t see why allowing atheism in Vedanta should cause a problem for anyone.      

As for the last part of your question, asking if I advocate atheism, I don’t really advocate anything in regards to belief or lack of belief in a personal, supernatural God because that is a purely personal decision.  Since I want to be able to decide for myself what I believe or don’t believe in that matter I extend that same courtesy to others.  And because I want Vedanta to be available to whoever is interested in it I try to remain open to other points of view and teaching methods, even ones I may not necessarily share or agree with.

What I do advocate is an open-minded, progressive Vedanta with the hope that everyone’s pursuit of freedom will be successful, whether the pursuit is traditional, non-traditional or something else entirely.   

All my best – Vishnudeva       

 

Who Knows?

F:  I was reading a book on Vedanta and there is a passage that has me a bit confused:

“The self is not only consciousness but is also existence. For anything to exist, it has to be known to exist by some person or the other at some time or the other. Thus, everything is existent because it is evident. Otherwise, it cannot be stated to exist. So, existence .presupposes knowability. Knowability presupposes awareness or consciousness since it is through consciousness that everything, whether it be an object in the external world, or our body or our internal mental state is known. Thus, while existence is knowability, knowability is consciousness. When we say, “Swamiji exists”, it also means that Swamiji-consciousness is. So, “is” in “Swamiji is”, denotes not only the existence with reference to Swamiji but also the consciousness with reference to Swamiji. Existence is called sat. Consciousness is called cit. What is cit has to be sat and what is sat has to be cit. So, sat will bring in cit and cit will bring in sat. Consciousness is existence and existence is consciousness.”

“Consciousness or the self is self-illuminating.  It is self-luminous in the sense that, while it reveals everything else, it itself is not revealed by anything. It is self-evident. As evidence and existence go together, what is self-evident is self-existing.”

 This concept comes up quite a bit in the literature as you know.  What is perfectly clear is that Atma/Brahman is of the nature of existence/Consciousness/limitlessness.  That is me.   So at the paramarthika level existence and consciousness are obviously the same.  The one non-dual self existent reality is Consciousness.   Fine. What I don’t get is why there are passages like this that push the point from the perspective of of the jiva having an experience.  

Further, the passage implies that a rock in the ground didn’t exist until someone saw it or at least some geologist hypothesized its existence.  Another teacher repeatedly makes this claim in his books: “to exist is to be evident”.  

V:  If I may indulge in a bit of criticism, I feel like the passage is somewhat confusing because the presentation of the point is just a liiiiiitle bit convoluted. That being said, I don’t like to assume that I know for certain what another teacher/writer is trying to say or why they are saying it. That’s my disclaimer before I make any more comments.   

But here goes…

Looking at the passage above from the perspective of how Vedanta is usually taught, I think the author is conditionally assuming a ‘lower’ level of teaching—the empirical /vyavaharika / jiva level—to try to explain how brahman is both existence and consciousness.  He’s trying to convey this idea to the reader at the level of everyday experience because that’s most likely the way it will make the most sense.  From the level of everyday experience, something is said to exist when it is known or when it is the knower itself.  And for something to be known or to be a knower, there has to be consciousness.  Using this commonly known fact from everyday life, the author is trying to establish the unity of an existent known object, the existent knower and consciousness. 

However, this is just an intermediate stepping stone because from the ‘highest’ / ‘absolute’/ paramarthika standpoint, brahman is neither a knower or a known object.  How so?  In a non-dual reality, there are no objects apart from brahman.  If there are no objects apart from brahman, there is nothing other than brahman to be known.  Even if there were, since brahman is action-less it can’t be involved in any act of knowing.  Additionally, brahman is neither evident nor self-evident because if there is nothing other than brahman, then to whom or to what would something be evident or self-evident?

As Yajnavalkya says in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad (2:4:14):  “When there is duality, then one smells something, one sees something, one hears something, one speaks something, one thinks something, one knows something.  But when to the knower of brahman everything has become the self, then what should one smell and through what, what should one see and through what, what should one hear and through what, what should one know and through what?” (To be clear he is speaking from the standpoint of knowledge.  He isn’t saying that a knower of brahman has no experience of the world).

So to say that something exists because it is known doesn’t exactly work from the level of the ‘highest’ truth.  Actually, it doesn’t work from the level of everyday experience either but I’ll explain that below.  

Besides, we’re getting hung on the word ‘exist’ and taking it too literally.  Because to initially say that brahman exists is not to attribute some positive quality of existence to brahman (which is free of all qualities).  Instead it is to deny the opposite idea held by materialists, that there is no such thing as brahman (the self), that it is some kind of non-existent void.  But eventually, both the ideas of existence and non-existence are to be given up because they are just that:  concepts that really only apply to the presence or absence of objects.  In truth, brahman transcends both.  As Shankara says in his Bhagavad Gita commentary 13:12, “…brahman cannot be expressed by such words as being, non-being etc.”  Further, in his Brihadaranyaka commentary (2:3:6) he says (this is a paraphrase), “Hence, brahman cannot be described as, “It is such and such”…when we try to describe its true nature, free from all differences and limiting adjuncts, it is an utter impossibility.  The only way to describe it is as “Not this, not this,” by eliminating all possible specifications of it that have to be known.” 

So my opinion is that the author is simply presenting one of the initial levels of the teaching, one that uses our everyday experience and our current level of understanding to lead on to a higher truth.  Since the ideas of both existence and non-existence are to eventually be given up, if his presentation is confusing to you, then disregard it.  It is not meant to be taken as the literal truth.              

F:  My question is:  In the bowels of Vedantic/Indian philosophy is there really a strong logically supported argument for the claim “to exist is to be evident?”  If so, what is the basis of this claim and the response of Vedanta/Indian philosophy to the obvious question about whether things exists that haven’t been seen yet?  

V:  I’ve read that certain schools of Buddhism believe that the only thing that exists is what is known to you (Indian Philosophy: A Critical Survey by Chandradhar Sharma).  In philosophy this is called subjective idealism.  Orthodox Vedantins deny this theory although a handy quote is evading me at the moment.  But basically they maintain that the world of objects doesn’t make itself.  It is put together and controlled by Isvara; thus its existence is not dependent on whether an individual person knows it’s there or not.  It’s there because Isvara put it there. 

I’ll say two things about this issue, take them or leave them.  First, whether objects exist or don’t exist when I don’t know them has absolutely no bearing on whether or not I exist (I’m using the word ‘exist’ loosely) and MY ‘existence’ is the central issue of Vedanta, not the existence or non-existence of objects.  Second, the issue is entirely unsolvable.  To know if objects exist when I don’t know them, I’d have to step outside of consciousness to see if objects were still there, which is impossible. 

This means there is absolutely no empirical or logical means of knowledge to answer the question.  Vedantins don’t usually appeal to logic in this matter but simply refer to the claims of the scripture, which is supposed to be an infallible means of knowledge on matters that can’t be known by mankind.  So if you want to believe what the scripture says, that objects are there when you don’t know them, then that’s fine.  If not, then don’t.  That’s also fine.  But without accepting the scripture, the question is unanswerable and hence, pointless.  I’m not saying that to undermine the validity of your question.  The passage above certainly leads to it.  But I want you to know that it’s okay to not have an answer because the issue doesn’t have any bearing on the ‘ultimate’ truth, meaning the truth about your true nature.           

F:  My guess is that there really is this strong claim.  And the rationale is that every object has form.  Forms by definition are intelligent designs placed upon the fabric of reality (i.e., Brahman).   Isvara as the omniscient creator of the universe of forms and is the knower of all forms.  Therefore, the whole creation is known, even the rock in the ground that I don’t know about.  So to exist is to be known. What do you think?   On the right track here?

V:  (Note:  When I initially responded to this email I wrote a different answer.  Upon re-reading it, I decided to change it to the one that follows – V)  I admire your effort but unfortunately you are trying to logically justify an idea that doesn’t have a logical, provable basis (which is what you’re looking for).  The existence of Isvara–both what it is and does–falls purely into the realm of scriptural speculation, not empirical or logical evidence.  Isvara as the omniscient creator and ruler of the universe isn’t a matter of your personal experience, nor are the particulars of its existence (or non-existence) proven by implication or inference, not even the argument of design.  It is simply a matter of believing the scripture.  If you believe in the scripture then the reasoning you’ve given potentially makes some sense. If not, then who knows?  

But really, it doesn’t matter one way or the other because as I said the whole idea of “to exist is to be known” is an initial level of teaching not to be taken literally in the end.  Also, and more importantly, the existence or non-existence of objects (or Isvara) doesn’t change the fact that you are brahman.  Knowing that is the point of Vedanta, not speculation about Isvara or objects.   

What I’m saying is don’t get hung up on the details of the empirical world.  It isn’t real nor can we come to definite conclusions about its nature or how it works.  So instead I encourage you to focus on what is real: yourself. 

All my best, Vishnudeva

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS Q & A?  Contact me.     

A  REQUEST: Please help by subscribing to my blog or by sharing this post on social media with the Share buttons below. Thanks! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vedanta Course #32: Tattva Bodha Pt. 27 (Conclusion)- You Are That

This video explains the concluding portion of Tattva Bodha, which does an analysis of the mahavakya (great statement) “Tat tvam asi (you are that)” found in the Chandogya Upanishad. This is the final video in the Tattva Bodha series. Thanks for watching! I will be taking a short break because I am in the process of doing a cross-country move from Arkansas to Oregon and once I get there me and my wife will need time to get settled in and find new jobs.  But after that I will begin a new videos series on another Vedanta text, so keep checking back for updates.

If you have not watched the previous installments of this series, you can view them HERE.