The term philosophy has a wide range of meaning and is used to cover a number of quite different mental activities. Western philosophy may be broadly and very roughly summed up as the attempt to approach truth through the medium of the sense-perceptions and the comparing and classifying part of the mind, known as the lower reason.
The great problem that faces all philosophers is that whereas truth, to have any meaning, must be eternal single and all-embracing, the objects of our experience are without exception, diverse, limited and subject to birth and ultimate disappearance, and are changing, however minutely, every second of their existence.
How are we to penetrate behind these ever-shifting phenomena to the eternal truth ?
This problem has never been solved by purely intellectual means. As long as the mind is engaged in contemplating sense-objects, it is in the presence of diversity and change, and the eternal truth is hidden from it. ‘Withdraw the mind from the changing objects’ said Pythagoras and Plato, ‘ and engage it in the contemplation of the eternal truths of number and geometrical form.
But these truths are at best fractional aspects of reality, for they are , many, and truth is one, while to contemplate them does not free one from all traffick with the world of changing objects. Other great philosophers have postulated the existence of an unmoved prime-mover, or of a single eternal substance underlying all phenomena, because our experiences are inexplicable without them. But the existence of such principles has never been a matter of certain knowledge among Western philosophers, and it is agreed that Kant has shown for all time that it cannot be established by pure logic. Kant himself believed in the existence of God, because he could not otherwise explain the order in the cosmos or the moral faculty in man, but he was careful to explain that it was a belief and not a logical inference.
Of course, many philosophers have been content to accept the objects of experience as the only source of knowledge open to us, and even to deny the need for faith in anything beyond. They are called empiricists, materialists, positivists, or are known by other names according to the exact shade of their opinions. In modern times their philosophy is dominant, and is associated with utilitarianism, natural science and social progress, and its ideal is the provision of the maximum happiness for the maximum number during their short sojourn on this earthly stage.
Such a philosophy implies the total abandonment of the search for eternal truth, and though its application has led to the palliation of human misery in certain directions, it has undoubtedly increased it in others, notably by giving the rein to individualism, and thus sanctioning the rapid erection of a civilisation based chiefly on the will to exploit. Nor has it succeeded in dispelling the pall of darkness and ignorance that confronts the human mind wherever it turns.
The philosophy of Yoga may be said, in a sense, to be nothing more than an extension of certain tendencies of Western philosophy, but both in its aims and its method, as well as in its results, it also presents a very striking contrast. The philosophy is officially called Advaita Vedanta. Advaita means that it treats of God as a single, or more correctly, a non-dual Substance comprehending all and underlying all that appears; Vedanta means that it is based on the last portion of the Vedas, that is, the Upanishads, Sanskrit classics in which inspired prophets poured out their experience of the nature of God, the world and the human soul, while in a state of ecstasy.
Other standard classics are the Yoga Vasishtha of Valmiki, the works of Shri Shankaracharya, and the Bhagavad-Gita as interpreted by that philosopher. It teaches how each man, subject to certain conditions, can discover for himself, the one changeless eternal Substance that lies hidden behind the fluctuating appearances of matter, not as a mental abstraction or an intellectual postulate, but as a direct intuitive experience.
The whole philosophy has no other purpose than to help the student to undergo this experience. Hence, although the Yogic classics contain interesting explanations of the mechanical aspects of the material world, and although qualified scholars of Advaita have always shown their readiness to defend their tenets aganst all objectors by logic, it is not really by these tests that the philosophy stands or falls.
The real test is the subjective one of whether the student can sufficiently purify his mind, by discipline and devotion, to awaken the latent faculty of intuition, which will enable him to experience the pure non-dual Spirit of which Advaita Vedanta treats.
It will be seen that whereas by use of the lower reason, God can only be approached as an intellectual postulate or an object of faith, something which we feel constrained to believe in, but which the presence of the sense-objects ever hides from our gaze, the goal of the student of Vedanta is a state of consciousness in which all distinctions vanish, the mind itself melts, and only the Supreme Spirit, Brahman, shines by His own light.
The ancient seers proclaimed that this state was indescribable in earthly terms, but gave for our guidance the formula: Sat, Chit, Ananda, or Existence, Consciousness and Bliss. They further declared that this pure and eternal Consciousness was the real Atman or Self of man, and that our individual physical and mental experiences were superimposed on it through ignorance, and disappeared when ignorance was conquered.
Many students of Vedanta, men of the highest character and intellectual culture, have testified to the truth of these statements from their own experience in both modern and ancient times.
Vedanta therefore, is not so much speculative as practical. Western writers who attempt to expound it, and criticise it, as if it were a purely speculative system, miss the real point of it. The first word of the Vedanta Sutras shows that the enquiry into Brahman cannot begin until all desire for merely speculative enquiry is over.
From the very outset, the existence of Brahman is taken for granted, based on the revelation of the Vedas and the testimony of the sages, and the real problem that is discussed is how the individual soul may lose its individuality (more correctly, the erroneous idea of its individuality) and become aware of its real nature as infinite Spirit.
When is a man fit to undertake the enquiry into Brahman? Whom should he approach ? Should he attempt to contemplate Brahman as pure and attributeless Consciousness, or as an external Being, associated with the Universe as the Lord of it ? What is the relationship between the attributeless Brahman and the visible world ? By what acts can a man render himself fit to contemplate Brahman with sufficient concentration to achieve the great psychological transformation ? Answers to these questions, together with traditions about the spiritual careers of the ancient Sages, form the chief part of the yogic classics.
Is the philosophy of Adwaita a philosophy of escape, as Western writers so often assert ? Only a man who studies it on paper will call it so. Vedanta teaches right living. Economics, art, political institutions, all that is comprehended by the word ‘ civilisation ’ comes within its scope. The ideal it sets before us is a life of productivity, legitimate pleasure and loving service of our fellows, based on spiritual justice, culminating in moksha, or liberation.
Liberation from what ?
From ignorance, and the consequent delusion that the changing objects of the world have individual reality.
Vedanta may be called pessimistic in the sense that it emphasises the transitory and limited nature of every worldly joy, but it does not regard the world as evil, and when liberation has been gained, the sages of Vedanta frequently remain active in the body, to promote the happiness and true welfare of the world. There is thus a great difference between Vedanta and those philosophies which advocate total separation from the world as from an evil.
Nor is there any pessimism of the kind found in Thomas Hardy or in Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the world is shown as a scene of relentless but meaningless catastrophes wrought by the pitiless gods. Every experience, every set-back, contributes to the development of the soul towards Self-realisation, is helping it forward to the state in which it can make a positive contribution to the cause of Shanti or universal Peace. In fact it is declared that it is the Lord, immanent in the human heart as the Inner Ruler, Who creates the external conditions in which the bonds of ignorance are finally broken.
Thus the philosophy of Vedanta not only prepares the way for knowledge of the transcendental Reality, but also gives us the key with which to evaluate our experiences in the material world, and the evidence of its power, when taught by a traditional teacher, to lead the mind through the maze of error to the eternal Truth, is found scattered down the whole length of India’s spiritual history.