Our ancient philosophers in their search for the fundamentals of the universe came to discover the existence of an eternal and all-pervading principle at the base of the phenomenal world. The present-day Western scientists have on their part, at the end of long researches, become convinced of the existence of an abiding universal unity even in the physical world. They have concluded that akasa or ether is the essential principle of physical phenomena. The ancient philosophers of India too came to this very conclusion thousands of years ago that akasa is the basis of the world of physical phenomena and that all other physical states emerge from it through the process of natural transformation. But they did not stop short with this conclusion which to them was not the ultimate one. They entered the subtle world through yogapower and thus came to know that behind the gross physical world of appearances there exists a subtle world and that a subtle ākāśa or ether is the substratum of this phenomenal world. Even this ākāśa does not represent the ultimate stuff; they named the ultimate stuff as pradhāna. Prakriti or the cosmic Executrix after having created this pradhāna in the rhythm of her universal movement, fashions out of it millions and millions of aṇus or infinitesimals, and the subtle physical gets built up with these aṇus.
Prakriti or the dynamic force does nothing for herself; the creation and then the varied motion of this world of phenomena is solely for the pleasure of Him of whom she is the Power. The Self or Purusha is the overseer and witness in this play of Prakriti. The Self or Purusha is the overseer and witness in the play of Prakriti. The ineffable supreme Brahman of whom Purusha and Prakriti are the self-being and the dynamic action is the unique and eternal essential truth of the universe. The principal Upanishads affirm these doctrines of Brahman and of Purusha and Prakriti which form the core of the truths the Aryan Rishis discovered in their quest for the fundamentals. Out of these basic truths the philosophers erected different systems of thought-structures through debate and discussion. The protagonists of the doctrine of Brahman started the Vedanta philosophy: the partisans of the doctrine of Prakriti propounded the Sankhya philosophy. Apart from these, many others followed a different path stating that the paramāṇus or the infinitesimals represent the primordial principle of the world of physical phenomena. After these different approaches were chalked out, Sri Krishna established in the Gita a harmonising synthesis of all the various systems of thought and restated the truths of the Upanishads through the mouth of Vasudeva. The authors of the Puranas on their part accepted as the source-book the Purana composed by Vyasa and introduced to the general public the same truths in the garb of anecdotes and allegories. This could not of course arrest the polemics of the scholars; they went on stating their own individual views and sought to ratify the conclusions of various branches of philosophy by means of elaborate reasoning. The actual state of our six systems of philosophy has grown out of this later speculation. At last Shankaracharya formed a unique and abiding organisation for the propagation of Vedanta throughout the length and breadth of the land and thus established the sway of Vedanta in the minds of the general public. After that the dominance and the influence of the other five systems of philosophy almost vanished from the field of thought even though they remained established amongst a handful of scholars. Then schism developed in the universally accepted Vedanta philosophy which branched into three main offshoots and many more secondary ones. The quarrel between Monism with its emphasis on Knowledge and the devotional Dualism and qualified Monism continues even today in the bosom of the Hindu religion. The follower of the Path of Knowledge explains away as symptoms of dementia the turbulent outbursts of love and passion in the devotee: the devotee on his part disdains as dry debate the urge for spiritual knowledge exhibited by the former. Both the views are fallacious and narrow. Knowledge without devotion feeds the ego and thus obstructs the way towards liberation; devotion divorced from knowledge gives rise to superstitions and a blundering tamasic mood. The genuine spiritual path as preconized by the Upanishads ensures the synthesis and mutual support of knowledge, devotion and works.
If we would like to spread the universal Aryan dharma suited to all men, we would have to found it on genuine Aryan lore. Philosophy has ever been partial and incomplete. Any attempt to constrict the entire world through logical argument to fit into the tenets of a narrow view-point might perhaps lead to the adequate explanation of one side of the Truth but only to the detriment of all others. The doctrine of Maya or illusionism as propounded by the Monists is a case in point. Brahman is real and the world is an illusion: this is the keynote of the doctrine of Maya. The nation that accepts this formula as the cornerstone of its thought grows in the yearning for knowledge, the spirit of detachment and the love for renunciation; but the power of rajas gets annulled while sattva and tamas predominate so that while on the one hand the enlightened sannyasins, the peace-loving vairagis, and the lovers and devotees of God full of distaste for the world, increase in numbers, on the other, a miserable destiny befalls the common run of men who become tamasic, ignorant, besotted with passivity and absolutely useless. This is what has happened in India due to the spread of the doctrine of Maya. If the world happens to be an illusion, then all other enterprises excepting the thirst for knowledge must be deemed otiose and pernicious. But apart from this thirst after knowledge many other powerful and beneficial urges are at play in the life of man; no nation can survive the neglect of these. In order to avoid this possible catastrophe Shankaracharya distinguished two sides of knowledge, spiritual and pragmatic, and prescribed either knowledge or works for different individuals according to the nature of each. But the result has been quite the contrary because of his vehement denunciation of the then ceremonial Path of Works. That Path of Works became almost extinct and the Vedic ceremonies vanished, thanks to the influence of Shankara; but notions such as these: ‘the world is created by the power of Illusion’, ‘works arise out of ignorance and hinder liberation’, ‘fate is the dispenser of our joys and sorrows’ and other kindred notions conducive to the growth of tamas got so much settled in the minds of people that it became impossible for the power of rajas to manifest again. To save the Aryan race the Divine brought about resistance to the doctrine of Maya through the propagation of the teachings of the Puranas and the Tantras. Various aspects of the Aryan culture originating in the Upanishads were somewhat preserved in the Puranas, while the Tantras impelled men to action for the attainment of the dual fruits of mukti and bhakti, liberation and enjoyment, through the worship of the Shakti. Almost all those who fought to maintain the integrity of the nation, such as Pratap Singh, Shivaji, Pratapaditya, Chand Rai, etc., were either worshippers of the Shakti or disciples of Tantric yogis. To prevent the harm emanating from tamas, Sri Krishna preached against the renunciation of works in the Gita.
The doctrine of Maya is indeed founded upon truth. The Upanishads too have declared that the Lord (īśvara) is the great Magician (Parama Māyāvī) who has brought forth this tangible world through His Maya-Power. Sri Krishna also has said in the Gita that Maya manifesting her triple guṇas or modes pervades the whole of the universe. The one and unique ineffable Brahman is the essential Truth of the Universe; all the phenomenal world is nothing but His self-manifestation, itself being mutable and impermanent. But if Brahman happens to be the sole reality, questions necessarily arise: Wherefrom and how do the division and multiplicity arise? and wherein are they established? To these questions the Upanishads reply: If Brahman is the sole Reality, division and multiplicity must have arisen from Brahman alone, they must be established in Brahman Himself and must have been occasioned by some inscrutable power of Brahman. That Power has been variously designated as the Maya of the Magician, Prakriti governed by Purusha, or the Will-Power of the Ishwara — a Power both of Knowledge and Ignorance. The logician’s mind could not be satisfied with such statements; it could not find there explanations as to how the One becomes the Many or how division appears in the Indivisible. At last it hit upon an easy solution: The One can never become Many, division can never appear in the eternal Unity, multiplicity is an untruth, division is false, they are but māyā or illusions floating as dreams in the eternal Self who is One without a second. But confusion does not cease even with this; for the questions arise: What is after all Maya? whence and how does it originate? and wherein is it established? Shankara replied: one cannot say what Maya is, for it is ineffable; Maya does not originate, Maya ever is and yet is not. Thus the confusion could not be cleared and no satisfactory solution was forthcoming. Only, as a result of this debate a second eternal and ineffable principle secured its place in the one and the unique Brahman; unity could thus not be maintained.
The explanation offered by the Upanishads is far better than that of Shankara. The Divine’s own Nature is the creatrix of the world; that Nature is Shakti, the Chit-Shakti or the blissful Consciousness-Force of Sachchidananda (or the triune Unity of Existence absolute, Consciousness absolute and Bliss absolute). The Divine is the Super-self for the individual Self, so is Parameshwara for the world. The Will of the Parameshwara is imbued with creative potency; it is through that Will that the Many come out of the One and division appears in the Indivisible. Looked at from the point of view of the supernal, Brahman is real and the world is an appearance brought forth by the divine Maya (Parāmāyā), for it issues forth from Brahman and disappears into Brahman. The phenomenal universe exists in Time and Space, it does not exist in the transcendent status of the Brahman. Brahman is the continent of the phenomenal Time and Space; He cannot be circumscribed by Space and Time. The world has come out of Brahman and exists in Brahman; the cosmos with a beginning and an end is established in the eternal inscrutable Brahman, it exists there after being created by the Power of vidyā and avidyā (the knowledge and the ignorance of Oneness) of Brahman. Just as man possesses in himself the power to conceive unreal objects through the exercise of imagination apart from the power to realise the actual truth, so in Brahman exist the powers of knowledge and ignorance (vidyā and avidyā), as also the real and the unreal appearances (ṛta and anṛta). But the appearances are the creations of Time and Space. Just as the imaginations of man get translated into reality in course of time and space, so too what we term as unreal is not altogether unreal, for it represents but the as yet unrealised aspect of the Truth. As a matter of fact, all without exception is real; the world is unreal in the transcendent status, but we who are not beyond Time and Space have no right to call the world false. In the bosom of Time and Space the world is by no means unreal, it is a reality. When the time will come and we will acquire the necessary strength to transcend Time and Space and merge in the Brahman, then and then alone we will be entitled to call the world an unreality; but if it comes from the mouth of one who has not got the right to say so it means a falsehood and a reversal of the course of dharma. Instead of declaring that Brahman is real and the world an illusion it would be better for us to state that Brahman is the Reality and the world too is Brahman. Such is the teaching of the Upanishads; the Aryan dharma is founded upon the truth: sarvaṁ khalvidaṁ brahma, ‘everything is indeed Brahman’.
(Dharma, No. 3, August, 1909)
- Translator’s note: The word Maya comes from the Sanskrit root ma, to measure, to delimit. In its original Vedic sense, it meant the power of the infinite consciousness of the absolute to form nāma-rūpa, the Name and Shape, out of the illimitable indivisible Truth of infinite Existence. But in course of time the word came to acquire a pejorative sense and Maya was regarded as an Illusive Power.[↩]
- 1 Cf. “It is by Maya that static truth of essential being becomes ordered truth of active being, — or, to put it in more metaphysical language, out of the supreme being in which all is all without barrier of separative consciousness emerges the phenomenal being in which all is in each and each is in all for the play of existence with existence, consciousness with consciousness, force with force, delight with delight.” (Sri Aurobindo: The Life Divine, p. 108). [↩]