The Atmabodha, or Self-Knowledge, is a short treatise
on Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy of Nondualistic Vedanta. It consists of only
sixty-eight verses in melodious Sanskrit and is believed to have been composed by
Sankaracharya, the great philosopher of Non-dualism.
According to the generally accepted modern view, Sankaracharya, or
Sankara, was born during the eighth century after Christ, in the village of Kaladi on the
west coast of south India. He belonged to the simple, scholarly, and industrious Nambudri
sect of brahmins of Malabar. After completing the study of the Vedas, he renounced the
world at an early age in quest of Truth and was initiated into the monastic life by the
great ascetic Govindapada. Presently he devoted himself to the practice of spiritual
austerities, meditation, and yoga. Before long Sankara's spiritual genius and intellectual
acumen were acknowledged by the leading philosophers of India. He engaged himself in
reforming the Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Religion of the Hindus, and with that end in
view wrote commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma-sutras, and the principal
Upanishads. He became the personification of the wisdom of the Vedas. He traveled the
length and breadth of India, preaching the divinity of the soul and the oneness of
existence. Before his death at the age of thirty-two at Kedarnath, in the Himalayas,
Sankara had established monasteries at Sringeri (Mysore) in the south, Puri in the east,
Dwaraka (Kathiawad) in the west, and Joshi Math (the Himalayas) in the north, and had
placed four of his gifted disciples, each well versed in one of the four Vedas, in charge
of them. He reorganized the ancient Vedic order of sannyasis and assigned to it the
spiritual leadership of Hindu society.
Sankara lived during the decadent period of Buddhism. Hinduism was
beginning to reassert itself but true leadership was lacking. The country was honeycombed
with conflicting sects; a spiritual confusion reigned everywhere and people were
perplexed. Sankara's work, at this critical time, was the salvation of the Vedic culture.
He met opponents from other schools in open debates, refuted their views, and
re-established the supremacy of Non-dualistic Vedanta. In the midst of his ceaseless
activities he found time to write small philosophical treatises and compose hymns in
praise of the Hindu deities in order to quicken the longing of aspirants after the
spiritual life. In him one finds the unusual combination of philosopher and poet, savant
and saint, mystic and religious reformer, debater of rare forensic power and passionate
lover of God.
There exist three great misconceptions regarding Sankara's philosophy,
both in India and in the West. The first of these is that he discourages the performance
of duties and advocates the discipline of non-action for the realization of Truth.
Sankara's position regarding action and the performance of duties may be briefly stated.
The nature of Atman, or the Soul, is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. It is the very
embodiment of Peace, Desirelessness, Perfection, Truth, Beauty, Infinity, and Eternity. On
account of maya, or ignorance, man has forgotten his true nature and finds himself
entangled in the relative world of good and evil, pain and pleasure, life and death, and
the other pairs of opposites. From the cradle to the grave, the unillumined soul engages
in ceaseless action, striving to shun evil and realize the good. But his activities are
influenced by love and hate, attachment and aversion, and he hopes to experience, through
action, infinite and eternal happiness in the outside world. He roams aimlessly in
samsara, the world of change and becoming, rising or falling according to the results of
his action. Only gradually does he discover the impossibility of attaining abiding
happiness through work associated with I-consciousness and the desire for results.
Infinite blessedness is not possible through any finite action governed by the law of
cause and effect. Then he learns from his teacher and the scriptures that karma (work) in
order to produce a spiritual effect, must be performed as yoga; that is to say, the doer
must regard himself as an instrument in the hand of God, surrender to God the results of
action, and remain unruffled by love or hate. Work performed in this spirit purifies the
heart and makes it inclined to the cultivation of meditation and Self-Knowledge.
Gradually, outer action drops away, reduced to a minimum sufficient only for the
maintenance of the body. The actor remains satisfied with what comes of its own accord,
without feeling attachment to the agreeable or aversion for the disagreeable, devoting
himself heart and soul to the contemplation of Atman, which is the sole Reality. By means
of Knowledge, or Jnana he at last realizes the true nature of the Soul, attains peace, and
is liberated from the endless suffering of the world. The liberated man engages in service
to humanity, but his activities are quite different from those of an unillumined person.
He is free from I-consciousness and the longing for results. He never loses the knowledge
of Atman. In his actions he recognizes the influence of the gunas, which constitute man's
physical nature. At their bidding the organs perform actions; but the Soul is always
immersed in peace. Thus, though appearing to be active, he is really actionless. He sees
non-action in action. If the Soul is identified with action even to the slightest degree,
It has not realized Its true nature.
Secondly, it is contended, especially in the West, that because of
Sankara's staunch loyalty to the Non-dualistic ideal of Brahman, or the Absolute, he is an
enemy of the gods and goddesses of popular religion. Undoubtedly he held Ultimate Reality
to be beyond name and form and of the nature of Pure Consciousness. He also stated that
the direct method for realization of Brahman is not worship, but the path of knowledge,
which consists in hearing the instruction of a teacher, reflecting on its meaning, and
lastly, meditating with single-minded devotion on Truth. Philosophical discrimination
(viveka) and renunciation of the unreal (vairagya) constitute for Sankara the basic
disciplines for realization of Brahman. Yet he was aware that few aspirants are strong
enough to climb this steep path. The majority require a tangible symbol of Truth,
anthropomorphic or otherwise, and also a human relationship with a Personal God. For them
prayer and supplication form an indispensable part of worship. Out of compassion for these
seekers Sankara composed many hymns in praise of such popular deities of Hinduism as Siva,
Vishnu, and the Divine Mother. As one reads these hymns, one is impressed by the
magnanimity of Sankara, who, having attained the highest vision of the Absolute, brought
himself down to the level of ordinary worshippers smitten with the idea of many
transgressions, assumed their attitude of insignificance and helplessness, and prayed to
the Lord for grace to attain liberation from the many miseries of earthly life. These
hymns are recited daily by countless devotees all over India at times of prayer and
worship. A few of them are given in the Appendix of the present volume, along with several
others of a Non-dualistic nature. They will demonstrate the grand sweep of Sankara's mind.
Through all the hymns, dualistic or monistic, is expressed the longing of the devotee for
freedom from ignorance, which alone is responsible for suffering in all its forms. Even in
his theistic hymns Sankara never permits one to forget that Brahman alone is the
foundation of all relative ideas and that the effulgence of Pure Consciousness radiates
through the vesture of name and form. The devotee catches a glimpse of the Absolute
through the form of the Personal God, who is the highest manifestation of the Infinite
that a finite mind can comprehend on the relative plane. Sankara reiterates this principle
in his philosophy. The beginner learns the art of concentration through worship of the
Personal God (Saguna Brahman) and acquires purity of heart through performance of
unselfish duties. Endowed then with concentration and purity, he sets himself to the task
of acquiring the Knowledge of Brahman and realizes, in the end, the Impersonal Absolute.
Sankara initiated the worship of Sakti, or the Divine Mother, in his monasteries.
Thirdly, it is said by some of Sankara's Western critics that he moved
away from the teachings of the seers of the Upanishads. The Upanishads, these critics
contend, hold forth an optimistic and affirmative view of life, whereas Sankara, through
his doctrine of maya, describes the world as a snare and a delusion. His philosophy is
regarded by them as pessimistic and negative. That this charge is without foundation will
be realized by readers of the Introduction and the text of this book. It is to Sankara's
everlasting glory that he points out, through unimpeachable reasoning, the spiritual
nature of the world and the individual soul. Sankara takes every opportunity to insist
that the true essence of man and the universe is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. It is
only when the individual sees a difference between Brahman and himself and the universe
that he becomes a victim of fear, suffering, and misery. The characterization of deluding
names and forms as maya, and the injunction to renounce the unreal as a means to
realization of Truth, are not new ideas of Sankara's but are both explicit and implicit in
I have deemed it necessary to write a rather lengthy Introduction to
the present book in order to give an outline of Non-dualistic Vedanta philosophy. Many
things discussed therein may be unfamiliar to the average Western reader and therefore
difficult to comprehend; but with a little labour and concentration the contents will
become intelligible. It will be helpful to understand the method by which the startling
conclusions of Vedanta have been reached. Some of these, such as the ideas of the divinity
of the Soul and the reality of the Absolute, have become part of common human knowledge.
Yet Western scholars often think that Brahman is either a dogma of the Hindu theologians
or the private experience of the Vedantic mystics, and that it can never be proved by the
rational and experimental methods of philosophy. Vedantists, on the other hand, contend
that Brahman is neither a dogma of religion nor a private mystical experience, but a
metaphysical truth based upon universal reason and experience. Vedanta is a systematic
philosophy and aims at the demonstration of Ultimate Reality with as much reason as can
possibly be brought to the understanding of the problems of transcendental Truth. A
careful study of Vedanta will reveal that it not only makes room for many conflicting
opinions of intellectual philosophers, but also dares to indicate their ultimate
Vedanta is the foundation of the spiritual culture of India. It has
kept Hindu society alive for the past seven thousand years. It is the philosophy of all
the important religious sects and groups. In its various phases Vedanta represents the
progressive thought of man, beginning with Dualism, passing through Qualified Non-dualism,
and ending in absolute Non-dualism, the doctrine of the total identity of the subject and
object, beyond which human reason, thought, and experience cannot go.
The conclusions of the Non-dualistic philosophy are epitomized in four
statements, the importance of which is felt as keenly today as when they were first
revealed to the ancient Indo-Aryan seers living on the banks of the Indus and the Ganges.
They are, namely, the divinity of the Soul, the unity of existence, the Oneness of the
Godhead, and the harmony of religions.
Every soul is divine, though, during the state of ignorance, it remains
oblivious of its spiritual nature. While sojourning in the relative world it assumes
various bodies and identifies itself with them. It is then regarded as a finite creature.
But in the heart of every individual the divine light shines with undiminished lustre.
Hence all men are entitled to our respect. The divinity of the Soul is the unshakable
spiritual basis of democracy, self-determination, freedom, and other aspirations of modern
minds. Even a noble human ideal, when guided only by expediency, can be an instrument of
oppression and exploitation.
The unity of existence is the foundation of all ethical codes. Properly
understood, it widens the bounds of charity beyond humanity to include the animal world as
well. Self-love is the mainspring of man's action and the raison d'etre of his love
for others. We learn from Non-dualistic Vedanta that the true Self of man is the Self of
all beings. Therefore self-love finds its expression and fulfillment in love for all. The
Golden Rule of Christianity can be rationally understood and appreciated only when it is
realized that by hurting others one really hurts oneself and, conversely, that by making
others happy one brings happiness to oneself. Without consciousness of the unity of
existence, ethics becomes a mere device for makeshift adjustments among conflicting
interests; and when these interests are at any time seriously threatened, the ethical
codes break down. Without a spiritual sanction, justice is in the interest of the strong.
The Oneness of the Godhead is well emphasized in the statement of the
Vedas: "Truth is One, but the sages call It by various names." These names,
honoured and worshipped by the various religions, are but symbols which enable finite
minds to grasp the Infinite. The deities they designate are so many facets of the
ineffable Reality, which is One. What is needed is steadfast loyalty to one's own ideal,
and positive respect, not mere toleration, for the ideals of others.
Religion is not the goal but only a path by means of which the aspirant
attains ultimate perfection. Different religions are necessary to suit different minds at
varying levels of evolution. All religions are working for the good of mankind. Each
religion takes up, as it were, one part of the great Universal Truth and spends its whole
force in embodying and typifying it. The much sought-for Universal Religion has always
been in existence. It runs through all the various religions in the form of
God-consciousness, which is the foundation of them all. Truth is the thread that holds
together the pearls of the different faiths. Therefore religion should emphasize harmony
and not dissension, unity and not discord, love and not hate, friendship and not enmity.
The Introduction that I have written is based on the Vedantasara
(The Essence of Vedanta), by Sadananda, who probably lived during the middle of the
fifteenth century. Important materials have also been taken from the Drig-drisya Viveka
(The Discrimination between the Seer and the Seen) and Sankara's immortal Vivekachudamani
(The Crest-jewel of Discrimination). I have used the English translation of the latter
by Swami Madhavananda. All these books are considered by orthodox Hindus to be
authoritative treatises on Non-dualistic Vedanta.
The notes and explanations given with the text are based on the
traditional interpretation of Vedanta. Vedantic writers have always used analogies and
illustrations to explain their points; for the subject matter is of a supersensuous nature
and cannot always be adequately explained by reason. These illustrations, culled from the
daily experiences of life, help to bring home the Truth.
I am indebted to Mr. Joseph Campbell for revising and editing the
manuscript, and to Mr. John Moffitt, Jr. for assistance in translating the hymns given in
the Appendix. I am also grateful to Swami Satprakashananda for many valuable suggestions.
The very name of the book - Atmabodha, or Self-Knowledge -
suggests its perennial interest and universal value. Self-Knowledge is vital. All other
forms of knowledge are of secondary importance; for a man's action, feeling, reasoning,
and thinking are dependent upon his idea of the Self. His view of life will be either
materialistic or spiritual according to his conception of himself. If he regards himself
as a physical creature, and his soul (provided he believes in such a thing) as subservient
to material ends, then he is a materialist; he follows the ideal of material happiness,
devoting himself to the attainment of power and the enjoyment of material pleasures.
Whenever a large number of people follow such an ideal, society becomes materialistic and
there ensue bloodshed, war, and destruction. If, on the other hand, a man regards himself
as a spiritual entity and believes that his material body should be utilized to serve a
spiritual end, then he is spiritual. He follows the path of unselfishness, consecration,
and love, and thus becomes a force to promote peace and happiness for all. Therefore it
behooves everyone to cultivate Self-Knowledge at all times. Self-Knowledge serves the
practical purpose of destroying pain and suffering (which are always caused by ignorance
of the Self) and also the positive end of helping everyone enjoy supreme peace and
blessedness here and always.
RED TOP, LAKE GEORGE, N. Y.
September 11, 1944
(Vedanta: Its Theory and Practice)
THE ORIGIN of HINDU PHILOSOPHICALTHOUGHT
A study of the early philosophical and religious writings of the Hindus
indicates that the Indo-Aryans, who lived in ancient times in the valleys of the Indus and
the Ganges, were keen and thoughtful observers of both the outer and the inner world. One
of the things that greatly impressed them was the changeability of everything in Nature.
Oceans, mountains, rivers; trees, plants, herbs; birds, animals, insects; the sun, the
moon, the stars-in short, all animate and inanimate objects - are subject to the law of
change. And this is equally true of the states of the mind. Happiness is followed by
suffering, joy by sorrow, serenity by restlessness, courage by fear, exaltation by
depression. Of every experience, both subjective and objective, it may be truly said,
"Even this shall pass away." And so a question naturally was raised: Is change
itself the ultimate reality, or is there an unchanging essence, the ground of all change?
Like change, suffering, too, was observed to be a universal phenomenon.
No one escapes its cruel jaws. Rich and poor, high and low, old and young, learned and
ignorant, righteous and unrighteous: all embodied beings suffer. Asked by a king about the
meaning of life, a sage once replied, "A man is born, he suffers, and he dies."
Sorrow, indeed, is the price of our birth on earth. It afflicts a man's
body or his mind. It may be caused by other human beings, by the denizens of the animal
world, or by such uncontrollable cosmic phenomena as rain and drought, heat and cold,
earthquake and storm.
Twenty-five hundred years ago a great Indian seer Buddha, the
Enlightened One - declared that if all the tears that had flowed from human eyes since the
beginning of creation were gathered together, they would exceed the waters of the ocean.
The four Noble Truths which he discovered and announced as the basis of his religion are
all related to suffering: its existence, the cause of its existence, its cessation, and
the way leading to its cessation. Any glimpses of happiness that may seem to brighten our
days on earth are both fugitive and deceptive. Every enjoyment is marred by a haunting
fear. The rich are afraid of thieves' the beautiful' of deformity, the healthy of disease,
the learned of rivals, the aristocrats of dishonour, the virtuous of slander. Yet man
somehow forgets this truth in the rhapsody of his fear-haunted and momentary happiness.
To illustrate the illusive nature of human happiness Buddha narrated
the vivid story of a man who, while roaming in the forest, was discovered and hotly
pursued by a tiger. He suddenly came to the brink of a deep precipice. The ugly beast was
about to pounce. With only a split second for decision, the man perceived a vine hanging
down the cliff and, catching hold of it, gave a jump. But the creeper was not long enough
to land him on the ground. Looking down, he beheld, just below him, a second tiger, almost
within reach, viewing him with glowering eyes. The first, meanwhile, was still roaring at
him from above. And then, as though his circumstances were not precarious enough, two
mice, one black and one white, began to gnaw at the vine that he was clutching for his
very life. It was then that he spied a strawberry growing on the side of the cliff, ripe
and luscious, and just within his reach. He stretched forth his hand, plucked the fruit,
put it in his mouth, and exclaimed with delight, "Ah! How perfectly delicious! "
If all our joy on earth is momentary and illusory, what is the basis of
the illusion? Can there be illusion without a background or substratum? And how may one
put an end to the suffering and attain peace? Or is there any peace?
The ubiquitous presence of death stirred the thoughts of the ancient
Hindus. Does death mean the complete annihilation of a man, or is there something within
him that survives the destruction of his body? And if death puts an end to the whole man,
then why is he born at all? What purpose does one serve on earth if the flame of life is
snuffed out at a tender age? What is the meaning of death and how is it related to life?
Is there any way to overcome it?
The early Indo-Aryans had an insatiable appetite for knowledge. Nothing
short of omniscience would satisfy them. One reads in the Vedas of a disciple who asked
his teacher, "What is it, revered sir, by the knowing of which everything in the
universe can be known?" Like the Greek philosophers, the Hindus first hoped to win
knowledge by the analysis of external Nature. Extraordinarily detailed and poetical
descriptions of the objects of nature appear in the ancient Vedic literature. But after a
time the futility of such an effort to gain omniscience became apparent. One cannot
adequately know an infinitesimal part of the earth through the study even of a whole
lifetime. And there spread before our vision the sun, the moon, and the stars without
Presently, however, a clue was found to the solution of the mystery of
knowledge. The Hindu philosophers observed that by knowing the nature of clay one knows
the nature of everything made of clay, by knowing the nature of iron or gold one knows the
nature of everything made of iron or gold. Is there not likewise, they asked, something
that is the basic material of the universe, by the knowing of which everything in the
universe will be known?
The Chhandogya Upanishad describes a dialogue between Narada and
Sanatkumara. Narada approached Sanatkumara and said, "Teach me, sir."
Sanatkumara said to him, " Please tell me what you know; afterwards I shall tell you
what is beyond." Narada said: "I know the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the
Sama-Veda, the Atharva-Veda, history and mythology, grammar, the rules for the sacrifices
for the ancestors, the science of numbers, the science of portents, the science of time,
logic, ethics, etymology, the science of pronunciation, ceremonials, prosody, the science
of elementals, the science of war, astronomy, the science of snake-charming, and the fine
arts. All this I know, sir. 'But, sir, with all this I am like one who knows only the
words, the sacred books. I do not know the Self. I have heard from men like you that he
who knows the Self overcomes grief. Do, sir, help me over this grief of mine."
Sanatkumara said to him, "Whatever you have read is only a name.
The search for the Great Cause is linked with the search into the
nature of man himself. Is man only a physical being, or has he a spiritual basis? The
study of man opened before the Hindus a new vista. How does the mind think? Is the power
to think inherent in the mind itself or does another extraneous power impel it to think?
What has set in motion the life-breath? Who engages the tongue to speak, and the ears and
eyes to hear and see?
The ancient Hindus wondered whether there was a First Principle or
Ultimate Reality underlying the outside world, and also whether there was such a thing
underlying man himself. If so, were the two the same?
It was apparent that the questions that agitated the Hindus, living on
the banks of the Ganges and the Indus in that prehistoric time, could be adequately
answered only by a true knowledge of man, the universe, and Ultimate Reality. These, then,
engaged their attention and formed the subject matter of their philosophical systems. For
centuries they discussed these problems -in conferences and assemblies, in royal courts
and sylvan retreats, around the sacred fires of the householders and in the hermitages of
monks. They tried to work out answers through the most rigorous reasoning. They sought
light in the depths of meditation. Some, inquiring about the First Cause and the ultimate
explanations of things in the outside world, thought that the gods, the different
personified forms of the Universal Consciousness, held the key to knowledge and happiness.
So they worshipped with elaborate rituals the sun, the moon, the sky, and other deities,
and sought to propitiate them with appropriate oblations. But it did not take them long to
discover that as everything existing in time and space is doomed to die, the gods, too,
must die; and as all beings living in time and space are limited, the gods, too, must be
limited. It is said in one of the hymns of the Rig-Veda, concerning the creation and its
Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and
whence comes this creation?
The gods are later than this world's production. Who knows, then,
whence it first came into being?
He, the First Origin of this creation, whether He formed it all, or did
not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest Heaven, He verily knows it, or
perhaps He knows not.
So it was clear to the Hindus that the gods cannot remove man's
ignorance nor show him the way to blessedness and immortality. The problem of Ultimate
Reality cannot be solved through study of or devotion to anything in the visible outside
Other seekers directed their attention to a different world, the inner
world within man himself. By means of such spiritual disciplines as severe self-control
and concentration they discovered that the realm of the mind was infinitely more real,
interesting, and deep than the realm of gross physical matter. There, after patient
search, they at last discovered the clue to the supersensuous truths relating to the Self,
the hereafter, man's destiny, and Ultimate Reality.
The supersensuous experiences of the ancient Hindu seers have been
embodied in the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism.1 The
Hindus consider that the Vedas, containing truths regarding the soul, the universe, and
Ultimate Reality, are eternal (nitya), without beginning (anadi) and not ascribable to
human authorship (apaurasheya). They are co-existent with the Creator and they form the
very basis of creation. These truths are revealed from time to time to the hearts of men
and women purified by the practice of self-control and meditation. Such fortunate souls
are called rishis, or seers of Truth. Rishihood cannot be confined to a particular class
or faith, time or country, or sex. The seers of the Vedas include both men and women,
householders and sannyasis, and also people outside the brahmin caste. Many recensions of
the Vedas have been lost. The Vedic teachers known to us at the present time were for the
most part householders. They imparted their instructions in the crowded courts of kings as
well as in retreats beyond the bustle of the city. The Vedic teachings were handed down by
word of mouth. The Hindus hold the very words of the Vedas in the highest respect; for
through them were revealed great spiritual truths. Therefore they would not dream of
changing a single syllable of these books. Hindu boys have always been noted for their
prodigious memories. These scriptures have come down to us in an undistorted form.
Much later the great sage Krishna Dvaipayana, also known as Vyasa,
arranged the Vedas into four books called the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda, and
the Atharva-Veda. According to Hindu tradition he flourished at the time of the battle of
Kurukshetra, immortalized in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita. But it
must be kept in mind that the Vedas had been in existence for many centuries prior to
Vyasa, who was only their compiler, not their author.
There is no agreement among Hindu or Western scholars regarding the
date of the Vedas. They have been assigned dates very far apart indeed. But it would not
serve any useful purpose to enter here upon a discussion regarding this highly
controversial matter. According to the majority of Hindus the age of the Vedas is not
germane to the significance of their teachings. They deal with timeless Truth and hence
may be called eternal and unrelated to human authorship. Likewise, next to nothing is
known about the personalities of the Vedic seers. It appears that they cared more about
Truth than about themselves. It is certainly true that the people of ancient India did not
cultivate the sense of history as it is understood in our times.
RELIGION AND PHILOSOPHY
In Sanskrit, philosophy is called darsana, derived from the root dris
meaning to see. The purpose of philosophy is to enable its students to see Truth
directly. Therefore, with the Hindus, philosophy is not a mere intellectual pursuit of an
abstract ideal, but the actual perception or realization of Truth. In the West, especially
since the beginning of the modern era, philosophy has been divorced from religion. The
result seems to have been disastrous for both. But Hindu thinkers have always maintained a
close alliance between the two. The one is incomplete without the other. The goal of
philosophy may be Truth, and the goal of religion, God; but in the final experience God
and Truth are one and the same Reality. Religion insists on faith; philosophy emphasizes
reason. These are two functions of our thinking mind and, if followed sincerely, often
cross each other's path. The ultimate experience of Truth may be an act of faith, but its
validity is judged through reason. Truth may transcend reason, but it is never illogical.
One may not be able to arrive at Truth exclusively through reason, but one's experience
and statement of Truth cannot be valid if they contradict reason. A direct experience that
destroys one's doubts and is followed by an inner reassurance and peace is the ultimate
proof of Truth, in the realization of which both faith and reason play vital parts.
Religion without philosophy tends to become dogmatic, superstitious, and jejune.
Philosophy without religion degenerates into inane and dry intellectualism. Reason moves
in a circle, creates doubt, and never arrives at finality; it may indicate the
possibility, nay the probability, of an Ultimate Reality, but if not animated by faith, it
makes its user an agnostic. Religion, in which emotion plays an important part, becomes
mere sentimentalism if it is not strengthened by the fibre of philosophy. It is the
practical application of philosophy to life, and philosophy supplies it with an unshakable
foundation. Religion supplies the aspirant with feeling or passion, and philosophy
prevents him from wandering into dark alleys or up dead ends. Therefore the Hindu seers
harmonized, in Vedanta, both religion and philosophy, faith and reason; and this fact
accounts for its adequacy and universality. A true philosopher has something of the spirit
of awe, adoration, and reverence cherished by a religious person; and a truly religious
person is not without the intellectual understanding and insight which are the chief
characteristics of a philosopher.
It is important to note that whenever religion has emphasized mere
forms and dogmas, and thereby clouded men's vision regarding Truth, philosophy has raised
its voice in protest and corrected the errors of religion. Thus, the Upanishads and the
teachings of Sankara may be regarded as protests of philosophy against the excesses of
religion. But the Hindu philosophers recognized the importance of religion and never
discarded it altogether.
THE PROOF OF TRUTH
Ultimate Reality is transcendental. It is not perceived by the senses
or comprehended by the mind. It is a matter of indubitable experience for the inmost
consciousness of man. It is directly and immediately experienced without the
instrumentality of the senses and the mind, and does not depend for Its proof upon any
external authority. The perception of the external world is neither direct nor immediate,
but is dependent upon the senses and the mind and is always coloured by them. On the other
hand, the experience of Reality is both immediate and direct, and becomes possible only
when the senses and the mind, through the practice of rigid spiritual discipline, have
been made absolutely calm. It is the consciousness in man that experiences the Universal
Consciousness, the two being, in reality, identical.
But there are infinite possibilities of self-deception.
To protect the aspirant from error and delusion the seers of Vedanta
lay down three Criteria a of Truth. These are scriptural authority (Sruti), reasoning
(yukti), and personal experience (anubhava). Any one of these, singly, may enable a man to
realize partial truth, but when all three point to the same conclusion, the aspirant may
be assured that he has realized the whole of Truth. The meaning of the scriptures, which
contain the recorded experiences of knowers of Truth of the past, must be explained by a
competent teacher. In order to free reasoning from the pitfalls of rationalization,
rigorous mental disciplines are prescribed so that the aspirant may be grounded in
detachment not only from the external world but also from his own pet ideas and exclusive
loyalties. The aspirant must be able to view his own thinking objectively and submit it to
a searching analysis. Ultimate values must be judged by the standard of eternity and not
of time. Lastly, the conclusions of the scriptures, reaffirmed by reasoning, must be
experienced by the aspirant himself. Ultimate Truth, the basis of the universe, is
self-evident, non-contradictory, and free from fear and friction. The seer perceives Truth
everywhere and in everything, and thus becomes completely free from fear, sorrow, and
expectation, which characterize the life of falsehood in the relative world.
A spirit of synthesis generally pervades the philosophy of Vedanta. The
search is always directed to the discovery of the First Principle, through which the
multiplicity of the universe can be known and explained. The Hindu seer insists that the
aspirant after knowledge should first, through self-control and meditation, realize
Ultimate Reality; only then can he know the nature of the world. As Ramakrishna said,
"To know the many, without knowledge of the One, is ignorance, whereas to know the
One is knowledge." But it must not be overlooked that some noted Indian philosophers,
such as Kapila and Patanjali, have shown remarkable acumen in their analysis of the mind
and the material world.
KARMA AND REBIRTH
The doctrine of karma and rebirth forms an important part of the
Upanishadic teachings and has exerted the greatest practical influence upon Hindu society
up to the present time. It is one of the strong pillars on which the Hindu Dharma rests.
The doctrine was formulated in response to the question as to what becomes of a man after
death. It also explained for the Hindus the inequality between man and man at the time of
birth and gave them reasons to believe in a moral foundation of the universe, in which
virtue is, in the long run, rewarded and iniquity punished. The doctrine of karma and
rebirth is certainly an original contribution of Hinduism to the philosophical thought of
the world. It must be clearly understood that this doctrine cannot be applied to the Soul,
or Atman, which is, in Its true nature, beyond birth and death, and unaffected by time,
space, and the law of causation. It has reference only to the jiva, or embodied soul. It
belongs to what is called the "inferior knowledge" (Para vidya) by which one
seeks to explain the relative world, and not to the "Superior Knowledge" (Para
vidya) which is the science of Atman.
Karma, literally meaning action, denotes both action in general and the
fruit-producing subtle impressions which remain with the doer even after an action is
outwardly accomplished. It is in the latter sense that an action plays an important part
in moulding a man's future, not only here on earth, but after death as well. The law of
karma is the application of the law of cause and effect in the moral world. No action is
exhausted without producing its effect both on the body and on the mind. At the time of
death the actions of a man remain in seed form, and the seeds develop when he assumes a
new body either on earth or on any other plane of existence. "Every man is born in
the world fashioned by himself." 7"The good and evil are
laid down on the scales in the yonder world; and whichever of the two sinks down, that
will he follow, whether it be the good or the evil... He who does good will be born as
good, he who does evil will be born as evil; he becomes holy by holy deeds, evil by evil.
Therefore in truth it is said: ' Man is altogether and throughout composed of desire
(Kama) in proportion to his desire, so is his discretion (kratu); in proportion to his
discretion, so he performs acts (karma); in proportion to his acts, so does it result to
Hinduism teaches that the good and evil tendencies of this life, and a
man's happiness and suffering, are the inevitable consequence of the actions of his
previous life, and the actions performed in this life determine those of the next. This
conviction has taught the Hindus to regard the pain of this life as self-inflicted and to
accept it with calmness and resignation. It is also an incentive to right conduct, because
if a man sins no more in this life he will be spared grievous suffering in a future
existence. Thus a man is free to accelerate or hinder his evolution. Neither his growth
nor his action is determined by an outside factor. Through the law of karma the Vedic
seers tried to explain the moral foundation of the universe according to which the
righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished, in this life or hereafter, not by the whim
of God but by their own action.
The theory of rebirth is the necessary counterpart of the law of karma
and the immortality of the soul. The soul, being eternal, cannot be annihilated with the
death of the body. The idea of eternal reward or eternal punishment after death did not
appeal to the minds of the gentle Hindus. It is disproportionate to the law of cause and
effect to imagine that the actions of a short span of life, liable to error, should bear
fruit that will last for eternity. The idea that the erring soul should not be given
another chance to rectify its mistake seemed both unjust and unmerciful to the seers of
The Vedic mystics often speak of the four courses that men may follow
after death. These are determined, as we have seen before, by one's actions and thoughts
while on earth. First, the highly developed souls who lead an extremely righteous life,
meditate with whole-hearted devotion on Brahman, and practice the various spiritual
disciplines, but who do not succeed in attaining complete Self-Knowledge before death,
repair to Brahmaloka, or the plane of Brahma (roughly corresponding to the heaven of the
Christians), and from there, in due course, attain Liberation. Some, however, return to
earth for rebirth. This journey lies through a path known as the devayana, or "way of
the gods." Second, the ritualists and philanthropists, who cherish a desire for the
fruit of their actions, go after death to Chandraloka, or the lunar sphere. This journey
lies through a path known as the pitriyana, or "way of the fathers." After
enjoying immense happiness there as the reward for their meritorious action, they come
back to earth, since they still cherish desires for worldly happiness. Third, those who
perform actions forbidden by religion and ethics assume, after death, subhuman bodies and
dwell in what is generally known as hell. After expiating their evil actions, they are
reborn on earth as human beings. Fourth, those persons who perform extremely vile actions
spend many births as such insignificant creatures as mosquitoes and fleas. They too, in
the long run, return to human bodies on earth.9 These four courses,
obviously, do not apply to the fortunate soul who attains the Knowledge of Brahman in the
body before or at the time of death. For him no going or coming can be imagined. He is
absorbed in Brahman. The sojourn of the soul in a body superior or inferior to a man's is
temporary, being of the nature of a reward or punishment. The actions performed by
creatures through these bodies do not produce any results like those performed in a human
body. When the soul again assumes a human body, it takes up the thread of spiritual
evolution, which was suspended at the time of death. As the attainment of perfection is
not possible in one life, the soul assumes many bodies to attain it. According to the
Hindus, all souls will ultimately attain perfection. 10
The purpose of spiritual knowledge is the awakening of the soul and the
transformation of life itself. The Hindu tradition emphasizes the point that spiritual
knowledge, in order to be effective, must be transmitted from one living soul to another
living soul. Even the great Incarnations such as Christ, Krishna, Buddha, or Ramakrishna,
accepted human teachers to guide them in their spiritual practices - if for no other
reason than to demonstrate that true spiritual wisdom should come down from teacher to
disciple. The teacher is known as the guru, and the disciple as the sishya. The guru may
be compared to a lighted candle that ignites the disciple's soul. Books may give
information, but not inspiration. Religion, if it is not transmitted, but merely preached,
degenerates into intellectual sermons. The ancient spiritual wisdom of India has come down
to the present time through an unbroken succession of teachers.
Naturally, a high perfection is expected of the teacher. The ideal guru
is, of course, endowed with the direct Knowledge of Brahman; he is established in Brahman.
Well versed in the scriptures, he can dispel the disciple's doubts and confusion. He is
sinless and free from any worldly motive. Calm and self-controlled, he is like a boundless
reservoir of compassion. The apparent limitations of the disciple do not prevent the
teacher from showering his grace upon him if the disciple approaches him with true
humility and eagerness. The guru is often compared to the season of spring, which, of its
own accord and without any selfish motive, covers the winter-withered shrubs and trees
with leaves and blossoms.
The teacher is like a father to the disciple. He is accorded even more
respect than an earthly father; for he gives the disciple his spiritual birth and shows
him the way to eternal life. The disciple serves such a guru with the utmost humility and
places at his disposal body, mind, and soul. Afflicted by sense-experiences, confused by
the transiency of physical objects, and frightened by the seemingly endless chain of birth
and death in the mortal world, he beseeches the teacher to lead him from the unreal to the
Real, from darkness to Light, from death, disease, and suffering to Immortality. The
sishya approaches the benign guru and says to him, in the words of Sankara "Save me
from death, afflicted as I am by the unquenchable fire of the forest of this world, which
is shaken violently by the wind of bad deeds done by me in previous lives. Save me, who am
terrified and so seek refuge in thee; for I know of no other man with whom to take
shelter. How I shall cross the ocean of phenomenal existence, what is to be my fate, and
what means I should adopt - as to these I know nothing. Condescend to save me, and
describe at length how to put an end to repeated births and deaths, fraught with suffering
Complete disillusionment about enjoying true bliss on this earth or in
heaven through the experience of finite, material objects is necessary before one seeks
Liberation. As long as a man cherishes the slightest hope of perfection in the relative
world, he is not yet ready for the highest teaching of Vedanta, namely, the Knowledge of
the Supreme Brahman. The Upanishad declares that the pupil should relinquish all desires
for happiness on earth through wealth and progeny and for felicity in the celestial world.
It is through compassion that the guru most effectively influences the
life of the disciple. The disciple is more impressed by the teacher's compassion than by
his erudition and spiritual experiences. His distressed mind is soothed by the kind words
of the preceptor and feels reassured. "Fear not, 0 blessed one!" he is told by
the guru, to quote again the vivid words of Sankara. "There is no death for you.
There is a means of crossing the ocean of apparently interminable births and deaths in
this transitory world. The very way the sages have trod before I shall point out to
you." Continuing, the teacher says: "It is only through the touch of ignorance
that you, who are the Supreme Self, find yourself under the bondage of the non-Self,
whence alone proceeds the round of births and deaths. The fire of Knowledge, kindled by
discrimination between the Self and the non-Self, consumes ignorance with its
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Copyrightę 1996, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center
of New York.
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