Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Advaita Vedanta in the Modern Context: Chapter 14 — excerpts

Hinduism may be defined as the system of beliefs based on the Vedas. All Hindu sects ultimately depend on the Vedas. The Vedantic schools of thought, which depend on the Upanishads, are the main stream of Hinduism and continue to be the dominant force. Other schools like Shaivism and Tantricism do not depend directly on the Vedas, but rather on texts called the agama texts, but these again depend on the Vedas. Besides these, other vital texts of the religion like the epics and the Gita depend on the Vedas for their authority. It is this acceptance of the authority of the Vedas that unites the different paths of Hinduism with all their divergences in philosophy, traditions, and practices.

The long course of evolution of the religion, combined with the vibrancy of Indian thought, has given Hinduism a very rich diversity in both schools of thought and systems of practice. In its theory, Hinduism covers the entire gamut of thought, from pure dualism to Advaita, including Tantricism, materialism, atheism, and so on. Each such school of thought has numerous tracts and sidetracks; dualism alone has literally hundreds of Ishtas throughout the country, with the relationship between God and worshipper being defined in various ways.

There is also widespread atheism, as in the south, where a political movement based on atheism found widespread support. This does not create any problems in India, and no one would suggest that they are not Hindus.

This arises from a distinctive feature of Hinduism: its spiritual tolerance. A religion has various sides: its philosophical aspect, practices, social aspect, political aspect, and so on. Hinduism has its faults in the social aspect, but on the philosophical side, no other religion and, in fact, very few philosophies, can lay claim to the tolerance espoused within.

"God is one, the wise call it by various names." This is the supreme mantra of tolerance embedded in the Vedas. There is no higher or lesser god in Hinduism; the different gods are but different names of the same supreme power. This is the greatness of Hinduism: that it could say that all streams lead to the same God, and, therefore, all persons are correct by following a spiritual path in their own way. Neither Buddhism nor Islam nor Christianity could ever say this. This belief is still as much a part of modern Hindu life today; even the most ardent Hindu fanatic would still not criticize the God of other religions, no matter how much he attacks their proponents.

Politically, Hinduism has always resisted proselytizing, and this led to violent conflicts with Muslims, as well as more peaceful resistance to Christian missionaries. But Hinduism by itself never favored conversion attempts, and it is to its credit that throughout its long history there were never any Hindu attempts to actively force or convince others to start believing in its gods.

Advaita is but one among these countless streams of Hinduism. It has never been the mainstream which has always been dualism and qualified monoism. Advaita was always considered an esoteric path, difficult to understand and even more difficult to follow. The appeal of Advaita is to the brain and not to the heart. There is in it no supreme Power to whom we can turn for help. This made it a difficult path for most people to accept, and it remained mainly as a religion of the ascetics in their mountain caves.

Yet for those who desire only the highest truth, the teaching of Advaita remains as the beacon. Advaita draws in all those who desire only rationality and clarity, who will not accept anything which they cannot prove for themselves or which is contrary to other knowledge and depends on doctrines, who will not compromise anywhere in their search for the ultimate truth. The message of Advaita may seem a cold and forbidding one to those who seek comfort from their religion, but for those whose goal is to know the truth, it is the strength of Advaita which draws them forward. For them, all other religions are inadequate and their goals are halfway houses only. Other paths at the most are but tools to lead them on to the highest truth, the Absolute of the Advaita.

The different paths are not higher or lower. The goal of a true religion is that it brings us to a higher truth, a truth that is the encompassing of all the qualities that we seek for in ourselves and in others. It is not that a superior metaphysical theory makes for a superior religion.

The basic aim of a religion is to fulfil our spiritual needs, and for that one does not need philosophy or theories. The great religions in all the world have achieved their greatness because in one way or the other they have fulfilled this basic spiritual need. A true religion is that which fulfils our yearning for something higher and enables us to reach out for that higher thing, and this is the characteristic of all great religions. Each religion fulfils this need in its own way, and since different people have different spiritual needs, each religion has its role. A person has to seek the religion which best fulfils what he or she desires spiritually. So no religion can be considered superior or inferior, they each have their role to play in spirituality.

Advaitism does not lay claim to being the most superior of religions. It claims to be the most rational. But being rational need not be the goal of all religions, and this is recognized by Advaitism. ‘we have no quarrel with them’. Dualism has as important a role to play as rationalism in religion, and religions which have dualism as their creed are as much necessary for the world as those based on rationalism.

The different needs of individuals make each religion important in its own sphere. Advaita may have the greater logic, but that does not mean it will bring us to the goal of religion any faster. In fact, a simple-minded faith in dualism can often be more efficacious and faster in achieving this supreme goal, depending on the person who is drawn to it. All dualists are not simply credulous persons who do not apply logic in their thinking. Some of the greatest scientists and thinkers have been thorough-going dualists. They have found in their religion the deep faith that fulfills a person’s spiritual needs and, in the light of which, all reason and logic seems dry and bare.

The differences in different religions need to be there because they appeal to different mindsets. Each must have the freedom to accept the path that is most suitable for him or her. The difference is both in the philosophy and in the practice. Even when the metaphysical beliefs are more or less the same, there are differences in cultural values; within dualism, for example, there are Christian, Islamic, and Hindu beliefs, and each may accept the path that most appeals to his or her higher feelings. Within the same reli- gion again, there are usually many different practice systems, such as those of reason, love, and ritualism, so in the same religion, a person can find the path that is most suitable to him or her.

There is no question of superiority of religions; instead we must only consider which religion is best suited to us. Christianity is the religion of love, and its central tenets are all built around this precept; Islam again is the religion of faith, and this is its guiding principle. These are all vital fundamentals of religion from which no person can afford to cut him or herself away.

Even as each religion evolved to fulfill its own niche in spirituality, there have always been attempts to combine different streams of thought. Since the beginning, there have been various Bhakti saints who have combined Advaita with Bhakti and shown that Bhakti is not alien to the power of the Advaitic metaphysics. Teachers like Sankardeva in Assam, Tulsidas, and Chaitanya have always preached the highest logic for those who desired this strength. At the beginning of the nineteenth century CE, there arose another teacher in Bengal, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who saw the innate richness of both these streams and made them both accessible. His disciple, Swami Vivekananda, took his ideals forward and related Advaita to modern philosophy and science and thus showed its suitability for the present age.

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Index / Introduction / Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Biblio

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