The Vedanta of Tomorrow – Dr H. Maheshwari

It is indeed an honour to be invited to address a distinguished assembly here at the Institute of World Culture, especially in the memory of the distinguished scholar, the late Professor Nikam, who devoted himself to the cause of Philosophy in this country of eternal Wisdom. To remember him is to flash back towards my insignificant associations with his dynamic role in the Indian Philosophical Congress and its sessions in various universities. That has its own refreshing effect, and I thank the organisers of this Endowment Address for giving me an opportunity to come here in commemoration, and to offer certain ideas as my oblation to the Fire of Knowledge we might invoke on such occasions.

The theme offered to be taken up is “The Vedanta of Tomorrow”. This phrase, however, may appear to be rather un-Vedantic to the traditional intellect, perhaps somewhat stylish, somewhat intriguing. For, the established notion about the Vedānta is that it is the most ancient system of philosophy, having its roots in the Veda and the Upaniṣads, its developments through the Brahmasūtras and the Gītā, and perhaps its finished forms in the definitive commentaries of the great Acharyas. As such, reference to the Vedānta is a thing of the past, and “Tomorrow’s Vedanta” has a confusing note.

But the Vedantic tradition itself invites attention to the truth that even though the Veda and the Upaniṣads and the Gītā etc. are ancient texts, their Wisdom is not time-bound; the Vedānta is the culmination of Knowledge, veda-anta, the Eternal Truth is eternally true, and the past-present-future-temporality has no meaning there; the Vedānta is ever valid; its timeless Wisdom was and is and will be absolutely true. The essential and the intrinsic Vedānta is not subject to this or that formulation; the Truth is what it always is, ever the same, even though variously stated, ekaṁ sad viprā bahudhā vadanti.

In view of the essential Truth of the Vedānta, then, one might feel justified in using the phrase the “Vedanta of Tomorrow”. But one must ask oneself: “What is the sense of ‘Tomorrow’ if the Vedānta is eternal Wisdom, transcending time, irrespective of yesterday and today and tomorrow?” Turning to the essential Truth of the Vedānta, even the terms Veda, Upaniṣad, Gītā carry their etymological significances and are to be treated as no mere captions of texts of old; the Śruti is to be understood as impersonal spiritual audience, apauruṣeya, the Gītā is to be regarded as eternal Brahma-vidyā and immutable Yoga, yogamavyayam. There would then be no history, no chronology, no time-reference about the true Vedānta. The term “tomorrow” with the Vedānta may not be confusing, but it would simply be redundant, hence meaningless.

Not only this, the irrelevance of the “Vedanta of Tomorrow” increases hundredfold if the metaphysical bias leans towards an absolutistic extreme in which the Vedānta turns into pure ontology bereft of all epistemic significance. In that extreme case Absolute Brahman is the alpha and omega of the Vedānta, human terms of knowledge and attainment by knowledge become ultimately meaningless. The absolute Reality is utterly absolute, even the expression “alpha and omega” used for It is inapplicable since it suggests some kind of relativity. Brahman or Parabrahman would be its singular term, even the term Brahma-vidyā would stand cancelled in its absoluteness, unless its significance is raised or reduced by conceptual genius to eternal Self-awareness, Cidbhāva inherent in the absolute Reality of Brahman implied in the Upanishadic terms Satyam Jñānam Anantam, terms that are implicit in the ultimate and absolute Reality in Its eternal Status. In such an absolute eternity all gnostic terms, all epistemic implications, all human relevance, all temporal movements stand automatically falsified. The “Vedanta of Tomorrow” would become a meaningless phrase.

But in this absolutistic ontology, even the term Vedānta stands threatened, not to speak of the “Vedanta of Tomorrow”; for, Veda as Knowledge and its acme, the anta, literally and essentially signify a gnostic movement, they cannot be held in an utterly fixed ontological status. Thus there is a challenge to the students of the Vedānta: Either relinquish the term Vedānta altogether since it is impossible because of the pure status of the Brahman, or admit gnostic and epistemic terms, signifying movement of consciousness, with the eternal Truth of Brahman. To meet this challenge one needs to make a review of the Vedānta in its familiar terms, since it has been and continues to be a philosophic as well as a spiritual discipline with us, and neither its historicity nor its value can be cancelled by anyone, whatever the extremities of this or that statement.

We are familiar with the developmental stages of the Vedānta, notwithstanding its essential eternity, and it is common knowledge that the Vedantic Truths commenced from the revelatory intimations in the Veda which served as buds for blossoming realisations in the Upaniṣads, arranged beautifully by reason in the Brahmasūtras and refreshed by the Divine Breath in the Bhagavad Gītā for the Yoga of divine life. Our scriptural study bears out that the original Vedānta is no mere philosophy; it is revelatory, experiential, intuitive. Even in its communication it is the passage of wisdom from seeing visions to spiritual hearing, Śruti, the verbal forms being symbols, suggestive parables, exhortations, compact pregnant aphorisms laden with subtle spiritual speculations. There is hardly any argumentative logic, any propositional formulation for this or that thesis to be defended; the dialogues amongst masters and disciples carry no atmosphere of the present day seminarial discussions, much less of pedantic debates. Between the Vedic visions and the Upanishadic realisations there is hardly any demarcation; they represent one continuity of the original Vedānta.

Turning to the next stage of the Vedantic development one observes the same continuity of its Truths, moving from seeing and intuitive consciousness to Reason and its keen and convincing logic, expressed in aphoristic brevity of language, sharp formulations with coherence of thought and argument, alert and alive to alternative standpoints, critical of their weakness and insufficiency, reaffirming the original theses with greater assurance and conclusive certainty. The whole movement is that of sound intellectuality in service of the Vedantic Truths handed over by the seers of the Śruti, frequent reference to which is of great significance in that the logic of Reason finds its justification in turning to truths revealed in spiritual experience and in upholding those truths against all possible objections raised by mere mental consciousness.

One might ask: Is it a development in the Vedānta that the intuitive and spiritual Truths of the Upaniṣads undergo a rational treatment in the Brahmasūtras? Is it not rather a decline of Thought? The very fact that the Brahmasūtras quote the authority of the Śruti for final judgment and validity of a doctrine shows the superiority of spiritual experience and revelatory Word over reason. And still it deserves to be considered a development of the Vedānta if spiritual Truths realisable at the intuitive level of consciousness move down to illumine the rational faculty of the mind and enrich its capacity to open itself upwards to spiritual heights in satisfying receptivity of the Wisdom which would otherwise remain always beyond mental comprehension, acintya. Moving from height to greater height is a development of gnosis one notices in certain places in the Upaniṣads. Moving down from spiritual heights to rational and mental levels of consciousness may also be looked upon as another line of development in which the higher truths descend onto the lower regions of our being and raise up the mind’s understanding to spiritual thought. We might call it the illumination of the mind with spiritual light. In terms of gnosis this movement may not be upwards, but certainly it is an uplifting of the lower faculties to the light of the higher Knowledge.

The Vedantic tradition regards the Gītā as one of the sources of its Wisdom and Thought after the other two, viz., the Upaniṣads and the Brahmasūtras. There too one finds a developmental movement of the Vedānta. The entire Wisdom of Spiritual Thought and Divine Principles is revealed in it by the Divine Master for effective solution of the human problems of life in its social, emotional and ethical phases. The Gītā is Brahma-vidyā and Yogā-śastra while being also a dialogue between Arjuna the disciple and Sri Krishna the Divine Teacher. The remarkably unique feature of this scripture is that it does not commence with any spiritual inquiry, any search of a spiritual seeker into the nature of the ultimate Reality, the supreme Truth for mokṣa. It commences with a psychological and ethical crisis of an Aryan fighter whose hitherto standards of social conduct are in self-conflict and hence utterly failing. His moral being is in revolt against its own norms, he sees no good in the very act he is supposed to perform as his ideal duty. The consequences are that his normal being almost gives way, his mind is not helping, his senses are in trouble, his nerves have lost their strength, his physical body is now a weak frame. It is in this state that he seeks for a sustaining solution, a rehabilitating tone of advice, a guiding principle for the highest good. This is his urgent need for the best ideal to orient and conduct his active life, the Śreya that is definitive and sure.

What follows in the Gītā is the divine teaching of Sri Krishna who is the Lord of the Universe and the Master of Yoga. His teaching proceeds in the most psychological and educative manner, solving each one of the problems of Arjuna. It is in that teaching that Sankhya and Yoga and Vedānta emerge as not only philosophical doctrines but as spiritual disciplines, not mere metaphysical systems but realisable truths for a divine life, transcending the limitations of the psychological, social and ethical standards of man without at all cancelling their proper relevance and value. The movement of thought and discipline in the Gītā rises to the greatest heights of the Vedānta in which the human consciousness, struggling with problems at its normal levels, is helped to rise to greater and greater truths of life and existence, and in which the lower truth is not cancelled by the higher but rather transformed and reviewed and made worthy for a grand spiritual synthesis.

The truths of the Sankhya system, its puruṣa and prakṛti with all the details of traiguṇya and multiple evolution are there in the Gītā and yet this Sankhya is woven with the Vedantic principles in a language which invites the keenest attention of a student of philosophy. Sri Krishna speaks of the prakṛti as his prakṛti, me prakṛti, in its twofold reality, lower, aparā and higher, parā. He also speaks of puruṣa in its triplicity, the kṣara, the akṣara and the uttama. Characterising the parā prakṛti as jivabhūta, becoming herself the individual soul, and using the epithet kṣara for puruṣa to suggest that the mutable too is verily the spiritual principle, are sure indications that the Divine Teacher is revealing to his disciple that Wisdom as Vedānta which is integral, ‘samagram’, inclusive of the essential truths as well as the comprehensive truths, ‘jñānam vijñāna sahitam’. We have to bear in mind that the Divine Teacher of the Gītā is not a system builder, not an interpreter of this or that scripture, not a dialectician; he is the Purushottama Himself, the Supreme Reality, the Master of the universe, the Divine Avatara, the Yogeshwara.

The Vedānta that has developed in the Gītā is at once a supreme Knowledge and a supreme Realisation in Yoga, Brahma-vidyā and Yoga-śastra. This Vedānta, while maintaining the transcendental heights of the supreme Truth of the absolute Reality, embraces all that is relative and phenomenal, not only tolerating the ephemeral facts of life in its indifferent Eternity, but even supporting all processes, all events, all change and becoming, the entire universal movement. The Brahma-vidyā in this Vedānta of the Gītā is at once the Viśva-rūpa-darśanam. And, further, this Vedānta is not only a statement of the Eternal and the Cosmic Reality including the individual being, it is also the effective realisation of the essential truths in and through the practical life, growing in union with that Reality. The Vedānta here is at once Yoga.

The Yoga of the Gītā, like its Brahma-vidyā, is remarkably comprehensive and synthetic. It recognises the value of every Yogic discipline and yet is not confined to any set practices of this or that system. It starts with the discipline of Sankhya, discerning the imperishable self behind the mutations of the body, and developing through the equality of the spiritual consciousness, moves high and wide into comprehensive oneness with the Divine, dynamic oneness through works, enlightened oneness through understanding and knowledge and loving oneness through the heart of adoration with all its feelings, sarvabhāvena.

The Vedānta of the Gītā is so comprehensive, so universal and so synthetic that all the Acharyas who interpreted the original Vedānta in their commentaries on the Prasthānatraya found their justification and support in it, and founded their own schools of Vedānta that have been maintained by their followers for centuries. Claiming absolute faithfulness to the Śruti and the Gītā, these schools are so divergent in their metaphysical doctrines and also their emphasis on spiritual disciplines, and quite often so critical of one another that a sincere student of the Vedānta feels rather baffled. One might ask whether the Vedānta has found a development at the hands of the great interpreters and whether the supreme heights of the Upaniṣads with their profundities and the comprehensive wideness of the Gītā have not really found a diminution at their hands. The battling debates between one school and another could hardly give spiritual assurance to sincere seekers of Truth. And yet, the historical fact is that these schools have stood for centuries and still hold their important positions. This they could not have done without a sustaining appeal to the human mind.

Thus the appeal that each school has invites attention to the importance that every interpretation carries in the tradition of the Vedānta. A thorough comparative study of the great Acharyas, Shankara and Ramanuja and Madhva and Vallabha and others, is beyond our present scope. But it could be pointed out that certain spiritual experiences and chosen intellectual standpoints could form sufficient bases for various interpretations of the same Śruti, of the same Gītā, since the logic of the mind is capable of organising ideas according to its own preference, its own bias. Every interpretation can find its own justification which deserves to be valued for the mental attainment of the truth represented in it. It is of a lasting value in the tradition of philosophical culture, particularly since in India our ways of living have always been so much influenced by these Vedantic doctrines held by various schools, presenting the eternal Truths to the believing mentality in well-formulated terms.

And yet, each school has recognised the limitations of the philosophising mind, even though somehow every school has claimed its singular fidelity to the Truths of the original Vedānta, ruthlessly criticising the standpoint of other schools. Thus while one school maintains absolute non-Dualism as the metaphysical Truth of the Vedānta, the other school lays all emphasis on qualifying the non-Dual Reality and the third school makes every attempt to cancel non-Dualism in favour of the Dual Reality. And this process of establishing one’s position by demolishing another has been going on for at least a few centuries. That, however, is not the entire story. Truth-loving sight has not been altogether blurred by human idiosyncrasy. Despite battling debates on metaphysical issues, it has always been recognised that the mind and its logic are inadequate instruments for determining the nature of the supreme Reality. There have been sincere attempts, particularly by saints, to reconcile the divergent schools in their sadhana.

Could we not say that the spiritual Truths invited the interpretative mind which made its sincere effort to seize at them by this or that formulation and yet know its own limitations to be ready for its own correction and enhancement?

H. Maheshwari

A Prof. N. A. Nikam Endowment Address, Indian Institute of World Culture, Bangalore, September 19, 1981

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