The following presentations do not pretend to offer an introduction to the entire field of the metaphysics of Vedanta in all its complex phases.
Their purpose rather is to draw attention to a few fundamental points that are today frequently overlooked or misunderstood, not only in the West but in India also. If these points are not grasped (and it may be said that few modern writers on Vedanta have grasped them), all further study or exposition of Vedanta is largely in vain.
The Advaita of Shri Shankara is both a religion and a philosophy. But it is not a religion in the narrow sense of mere ceremonies, or prayers repeated without feeling. Religion is an experience of the soul of the presence of the infinite bliss and existence absolute in its own being. The philosophy of Advaita employs that experience, called samadhi, to explain the nature of the universe in which we are located. Philosophy is vidya or reasoned knowledge or realization of the Self, which covers all the highest values in life.
Philosophy attempts to have a knowledge of the universe as a whole. It starts from some limited part of spiritual experience, such as that afforded by theology or mathematics or logic. The starting-point of philosophy is intellectual enquiry into the ultimate reality. This view is expressed by Professor Whitehead also. Shri Shankara is a most religious man and yet a profound philosopher. Religion supplies the clues to the ultimate reality.
Kant’s approach to the problem of philosophy was through epistemology. His main question was: “How can we arrive at a synthetic a priori judgement?”. Shri Shankara’s problem is how to realize the truth through the finite mind, to have unbroken peace and active benevolence, ending the illusory cycle of births and deaths. The philosophic interest in man must be directed towards the good, which is liberation from the illusion of multiplicity. To Shankara, philosophy is not a fruitless intellectual gymnastic, a pastime for the full stomach. He holds philosophy to be sacred; it is a pilgrimage to the ultimate reality, in the Self of man, beyond the intellect. He tries to find the relation of the individual to the whole.
The system of Advaita is harmoniously complete in itself, in which the deepest questions of the relative and the absolute are answered by an amazing array of the most subtle arguments which will baffle even a Hegel or a Spinoza.
The Sankhya system starts with an annunciation of Paramatman, the highest spiritual good. Shri Shankara pushes the enquiry further into the realm of beatitude.
It is the achievement of a free, sacred life of inner enlightenment, which ends the illusory sansara and reveals the truth above all relativity. This is, in short, the practical end of Advaita.
A reflective mind enquiring into truth finds that he is not free, immortal or sacred. Then how can immortality be won, sacredness obtained and freedom realized? Such a man finds in the Advaita of Shri Shankara a highest aid consistent with reason and logic.
Shri Shankara draws a distinction between pleasure (sukha) and good in reality (hita). The good lies beyond the hedonistic ideal. Hedonism of the gross type and the good of enlightenment do not both go together. The man who subordinates the path of truth to the demands of sense- pleasure, pride, name and glory in the world, moves to the realms of darkness, desperation and illusion.
The serious efforts to realize the Self as Sat-Chit-Ananda constitute the spiritual health (svastha.). “Ignorance, together with the pain and misery born of that ignorance, constitute the illness of the soul”, says the great Acharya.
Advaita is an unveiling philosophy. “The truth is hidden under the golden disc”, says the Upanishad. The hiding principle is the infinite, when understood.
Shri Shankara does not condemn religious rites. “They lead to a temporary Joy”, says the Acharya. The higher phase of religion is contemplation, renunciation and the discovery of the infinite in the finite.
Advaita is a universal religion and also a universal philosophy. Let man qualify himself to attain the height of philosophy through religion.