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Vedanta & Religions of the East
by Neeraj Arora
Ancient Indian literature is full of debate about existence and attributes of extra-human existence. Thanks to our pluralistic tradition seemingly mutually contradictory viewpoints had found respectable place in ancient Indian societies. Million ways to God, the nearest equivalent or non-equivalent have been embedded in the Eastern culture, folklores and traditions. Followers of Abrahamic religions are often quick to question beliefs and practices of numerous spiritual systems of the East. Some of them tend to think there is no set system or belief since they fail to comprehend depth of wisdom and unity in diversity amongst numerous streams of thought, philosophy, applied practices and subjective experiences.
It is true that visuals and illustrations often reveal partial story and can be confusing even to the followers of the Eastern spiritual systems, unless you can fathom the profound underlying truth of life that finds its best revelation in the philosophy of Vedanta, which is the deepest and the subtlest of all and can be validated by subjective experience. It is where Vedas or knowledge of life and existence culminates.
To understand Vedanta in modern terms, you may find it useful to visualise the Vedantic model of existence with the help of the following diagram (1.1):
Picture 1.1 illustrates Vedantic view of how individual, creation and creator are linked. This is monist view of existence which means universe is one being or one thing despite its many appearances and diversities. Creator and creation are aspects of the one primal creative principle with its attributes permeating through every strata of creation yet not influenced by it. This view is shared by many ancient Eastern traditions including Adwaita from Adi Shankara. Jainism and Buddhism also share the same view though differ on fine details.
Sri Bhagwat Geeta says ‘Prakritim swam avashtabhya visrijami punah punah’ (Bhagavad-Gita, 9.8) Looking back onto My own Nature, I create again and again. In Adwaitic terms, this means, creation is created again and again governed by the Creative Principle using the inherent blueprint of creation contained within the creation. Whether you see it a Creator God creating the creation it or a self-referral natural mechanism within the creation responsible for creation is a way of describing the same reality of existence and often divides scholars of various traditions.
For example, Jainism believes that the universe has always existed and does not believe in a creator God attributed to creating the universe. In fact, the distinguishing features of Jain philosophy are its belief in the independent existence of soul and matter, the denial of the Creator and the Omnipotent God, believing in an eternal and uncreated universe, a strong emphasis on non-violence and liberation of soul. However, it still entails to achieve the same higher consciousness to achieve the ultimate goal.
Buddhism is largely silent about existence of God. Buddha did not consider it the prime issue in life for humans to worry about. He emphasised on attaining nirvanaa or liberation through self-realisation and enlightenment. Buddhism does not encourage belief in God though it would not go an extra mile negating it either. However, the path to self-realisation has to same process of rising above the narrow self of an average human to integrating relative existence with the higher self in the state of Buddhahood.
You can say the universe is a big void as Buddhists call it. Or you can say it the fullness of omnipotent and omnipresent God that permeates through it. Either of the two is invisible to a naked eye. No scientific experiment can prove existence of non-matter since science has not developed to a level where such non-material experiments could be executed. Only achievable is to elevate self- consciousness to experience divine consciousness. If you follow Vedantic model of existence, all of the above mentioned steams of thought don’t contradict with each other on the basics, yet differ on language describing it. Subsequent unfolding and paths to realisation vary to some extent. Picture 1.2 and 1.3 show alternate views from religions with dualistic and monotheistic beliefs.
Relationship between self and supreme consciousness in Vedanta tradition is further illustrated in Picture 2.
Picture 2.1 illustrates common experience where the small inside circle represents individual consciousness (self). The outer circle represents totality (super-self). This is only symbolic for understanding since the outer circle is representation of what is attributed to be boundless and infinite. In this state of common experience, human (jeeva) maintains an identity, which is experienced as finite within the boundaries of the small inner circle. A small dotted circle outside the big circle in 2.1 represents state of delusion where individual sees himself as separate identity and super-self is perceived or thought to be a separate reality or possibility.
Picture2.2 illustrates process of spiritual development. At first self locates the true inner self and then seeks to experience the super-self. The consciousness expands with the help of various spiritual practices often seen as million ways of know or experience God. The dotted circles in picture 2.2 are symbolic of numerous states of expanded consciousness during spiritual development. Picture 2.2 is the intermediary state whereby self sets itself to evolve from state of common experience as in picture 2.1 to achieve enlightenment as described in picture 2.3.
Picture 2.3 illustrates state of enlightenment. This is when distinction between self and super-self almost disappears. Self finds its true status, which is nothing else but the super-self itself.
The first step in Vedanta philosophy is to awaken true self and subsequently realise it as a part of the wider reality. In fact ‘self’ when free from delusion and bondage and fully awake is the super-self. The goal is not seen as ‘A to B’, but ‘a to A’, whereby ‘a’ denotes the lower state and ‘A’ being the higher state. It is from Atman to Parmatman while Jeeva (human) evolves to Ishwar (living divine) on the way while increasingly integrating relative aspects of the existence with the true self.
In fact, the infinite is contained in every point in the creation. This means the self experiences the Super-self in its subtlest or the most refined state by experiencing the fullness contained in the point. What is finer than the finest is bigger than the biggest.
The most noticeable point of Vedanta is the Monist view of creation as illustrated in picture 3.1, which means oneness of all creation. Human consciousness and divine consciousness and the Absolute are not different metaphysical entities though they are perceived separate under the illusion known as ‘Maya’.
The Nirgun Brahaman of Adi Shankara in the Eastern tradition is the closest metaphor to the Judaic-Christian God. There are differences in perception and approach but the two can be considered the same metaphysical entity because of mostly common attributes assigned to them.
However, as said earlier, there is one major difference. The human and divine are intertwined in this Eastern tradition, which says ‘Jeevah Brahamn na paro’. This means Jeeva (humans) are Brahaman (the ultimate reality) are not any different. This further implies that the difference between Atman (soul) and Parmatman (Supreme Soul) is superficial. Though it seems real in the state of ignorance but the sense of duality dissolves in the state of enlightenment. The individual attains the cosmic status in the elevated states of higher consciousness.
This can also be seen as the logical origin of millions of gods and goddesses in modern Hinduism. Anyone can achieve these high states of consciousness, which corresponds to the borderline existence between the relative existence and the Absolute. A divine hierarchy is also a logical outcome of this since your level of integration with the Absolute will decide where you sit on the divine ladder. This is seen as the basis for humans attaining godlike status and hence the logic behind the existence of countless number of gods and goddesses.
There is an alternate way of looking at it. A numbers of gods and goddesses are seen as various governing laws of universe in personified forms (as in various Sanathan Dharma traditions) or non-personified forms (Rig Vedic traditions like Arya Samaj). You could experience these gods and goddesses as reverberations of your own consciousness or by extension of reverberations of the supreme consciousness. Rituals can be seen as ways to enliven that stratum of your consciousness, which is inbuilt in you under the original design but is not awake yet. Once you enliven that stratum of consciousness corresponding to a god or goddess or to say a governing law of universe using meditation, rituals, worship or any other means you can even achieve ‘ridhis and sidhis’ (superhuman/divine powers) that can use to your advantage as well as for the greater good of the mankind. However, final goal is normally seen as liberation not enlivening special powers. Finally enlightenment comes as a natural consequence of spiritual practices that destroy ignorance and bring oneself out of illusion of duality while enjoying higher powers on the way.
If you can understand relationship between relative existence and the Absolute from Vendantic perspective, million ways to God is a real prospect. Hence wise men of the East don’t accept fundamentalists propagating just the one path while disregarding all other paths. Tolerance and mutual respect is inbuilt in traditional spiritual systems of the East. You will fail to perceive it if you scratch the surface only and fail to fathom deeper. The duellists and monotheists may not agree with Vedantic view of the creation yet prayers and worship follow the same pattern of purification that elevates humans to experience divine or to say come closer to God, the nearest equivalent or non-equivalent.
The picture 4.1 below shows how life in various forms is interconnected and transmigrates from one form to another.
Vedanta’s philosophy of oneness of creation underlines interconnectedness of various forms of life and transmigration from one into another. Life has existed, exists and will continue to exist in countless forms above as well as below human level ranging from the most primitive form to potentially significantly above the human level. Easy to negate higher forms of life since humans can’t see but I would rather keep an open mind since conceptually it could exist. Religions of the Eastern origin identify with this basic concept though may not always agree on details. Concepts of Moksha, Nirvana or Enlightenment are also linked and based on the evolution of the self from lower states of consciousness to the higher ones. Paths may vary, whether through Yoga, meditation, service, devotion, by attaining higher knowledge, any other way or any combination of the above, ultimately everyone talks about the supreme peak of human experience where divine becomes a living experience and narrow identity is superseded by the unbounded cosmic reality of existence, known in God in the West.
About the writer: Neeraj Arora is a power writer on a range of social, cultural, political and spiritual issues, Ayurveda and general wellbeing. He is based in London and works on a number of projects in pubic interest including mental health charity for Asians called ‘Manasi’. He is the author of the widely acclaimed book on mental health called ‘Depression Undercover’, which is a non-clinical self-care guide to beat depression, based on principles of Ayurveda.