It is not possible to change one’s own nature through instructions. Water although it is heated, becomes cold once again. —Traditional Saying







PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | July 2013  




     Philosophy as Sadhana


     Dr Ravindra K S Choudhary


     Sadhana lies at the heart of every way of life and is truer in the field of religion. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad teaches that the Atman "should be realized - should be heard of, reflected on, and meditated upon". The aim of Advaitic sadhana is the realization of the Atman as one with Brahman. Sadhana is essential in Advaita Vedanta. Brahman is absolute, indeterminate, and beyond all modes of conceptualization. Accordingly, Brahman cannot be realized unless the spiritual aspirant transcends all categorical frameworks by attuning one's mind to the Reality behind the facade of variety.



     Such a spiritual discipline seems at first glance to be antithetical to a logical or rational scheme of thought, which has predominantly characterized traditional philosophical enterprise. It has rightly been observed that "the culture which most of us have inherited is too extroverted and too aggressively intellectual to permit us to understand within a short time what it all means to be a sadhaka, a practical aspirant for a truth of which in our homes and colleges we were given an inkling". Consequently, critics and sceptics are inclined to consider spiritual discipline as illogical. Some even declare that the course of sadhana eventually turns out to be the destroyer of philosophy due to its non­rational character.


     In response to my work on a survey of the parallels between Wittgensteinian philosophy and Advaita Vedanta,3 Daya Krishna, an eminent contemporary Indian philosopher, in a letter dated 21 August 2007 wrote to me: "Advaitic Philosophy is essentially related to Advaitic sadhana or the realization of Brahman, which, as far as I am aware, neither Wittgenstein nor any other school of Western philosophy demands, as such a demand will destroy the philosophical enterprise fundamentally and foundationally."


     It is against this background that I will discuss Advaitic sadhana vis­à­vis philosophical enterprise. In view of the critical point raised by Daya Krishna, I will adopt an affirmative approach towards sadhana,upholding it as a virtue rather than as a destroyer of philosophical enterprise. For, in reality, it is the harmony of the intellectual and the spiritual that leads one towards Self­realization.




     Going Beyond Epistemology




     Why does it appear that Advaita or any sadhana destroys philosophical enterprise? This problem generally arises due to the conception of philosophy taken by many Western traditions. Philosophy in the West has been predominantly intellectual. It is therefore argued that philosophy, being a logical and critical enterprise, must remain confined to the rational explanation of things. Since sadhanais regarded as belonging to the religio­spiritual sphere, mainstream Western philosophical traditions find it uncomfortable. W T Stace says: "Philosophy is founded upon reason. It is the effort to comprehend, to understand, to grasp the reality of things intellectually. Therefore it cannot admit anything higher than reason. To exalt intuition, ecstasy, or rapture, above thought - this is death to philosophy."


     Such an idea of philosophy, confined only to reason, is psychologically one­sided and can yield only a partial view of Reality. As William James declares: "Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different."


     Some of our profound experiences remain beyond normal comprehension just because our reason is habitually restricted to logical thinking; it cannot penetrate into the realm of spirituality, where Self­realization actually occurs. Thus the philosophical creed that relies exclusively on reason misses some vital aspects of being and also of knowing. To quote Sri Aurobindo: "Spiritual intuition is always a more luminous guide than the discriminating reason, and spiritual intuition addresses itself to us not only through reason, but through the rest of our being as well, through the heart and life also."


     Sadhana is very likely to be mistakenly viewed as the destroyer of philosophical enterprise, particularly "if we believe in a thorough going a­pos­teriorism". The Truth or Reality is supposed here as something lying entirely outside us, and we are set to acquire it through the processes of thinking. The final outcome is a world view so fragmented in itself that it sooner or later fails even to satisfy human reason. The "world outside" view may serve our practical purposes at the level of vyavahara, daily dealings, but our reason itself, by way of inherent contradictions, suggests a higher level of intuitive experience. Thus "Advaita aims at directing one's thought beyond thought to an intuitive realisation wherein knowing and being cease to have any difference." As the emphasis here is not on what I know but on what I become, the Advaitin goes beyond the usual limits of epistemology; he wants the whole approach changed.


     Our inbuilt spiritual aspiration involves an intuitively felt unity of the Real, which transcends any reduction to rational categories of thought. The intellectual construction in this connection need not necessarily be regarded as fake but as something significant leading towards transcendence. Reason operates in distinctions and dichotomies, showing every now and then its own limitations. There is thus a limit beyond which rational thought must undergo a profound transformation; otherwise it tends to turn into self­refutation. When thought goes deeper and deeper, without any discipline of a higher order, it is in fact aiming at suicide, for "thought is relational and discursive and if it ceases to be this, it commits suicide." Thought need not commit suicide, if it gets integrated into "a higher intuition" (ibid.). And this is what actually happens to philosophical enterprise when it is integrated with spiritual discipline. Reason assimilated with higher intuition becomes a razor­sharp instrument.


     This is the reason why Indian wisdom leans more towards realization than reasoning, not by abnegating the role of the intellectual understanding of things but by making it subservient to direct intuition. In the Chhandogya Upanishad we witness the whole gamut of sacrifices gradually transformed into subtler concepts. We also find many meditations designed to lead the spiritual aspirant from the gross to the subtle and to ever subtler realms. This principle is the distinctive characteristic of Eastern wisdom. Thought and things, form and matter, are interrelated, and it is believed that "as is a person's faith so does he become". Swami Vivekananda also concluded that in "the Upanishads meditation on Brahman was thus harmonized and identified with life and as a result the whole of life became transformed into one single meditation."


     If the matter is understood thus, the bearings of sadhana on philosophical thinking are just the opposite of destruction. Sadhana does not really destroy philosophical enterprise but transforms the latter into a higher intuitive experience, thereby saving it from committing suicide. "This intuitive experience", from the Advaitic standpoint, "is the real test or criterion that tattva-jñana or real philosophical knowledge has been attained." In this way, the Advaitic sadhana can be regarded as the culmination of all philosophizing.




     Philosophy and Spirituality Harmonized




     There is no point in thinking things just for the sake of an intellectual adventure. Neither in the East nor in the West has philosophical thinking been a thoroughly rational venture. Great philosophies have not originated and developed simply as a rational response to Reality. A philosopher penetratingly perceives a fault line in the factuality, which gives rise to an intellectual upheaval within him. A philosopher's dissatisfaction with actualities prompts him or her to think upon things deeply. That is why Swamiji not only admired the wisdom and compassion of Buddha, but also regarded him as the sanest philosopher the world has ever witnessed. It is no accident that Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path begins with the "right outlook" and culminates in the "right concentration".


     Although Advaita philosophy is basically rooted in our spiritual urge, one should not regard the philosophical thinking ingrained in it as trivial. Different schools of Indian philosophy accord importance to reason and spirituality in varying degrees. For instance, compared to the Nyaya school, the Yoga school has much to say on meditation and sadhana. Does this mean that the Yoga school has no philosophical position at all? It is, in fact, quite natural that these elements vary considerably from one philosophy to another.


     Regarding the contention that the Advaitin does not follow the proper way of presenting philosophy due to his or her preoccupation with sadhana, it can be argued that many of the great philosophers of the West - like Socrates, Plato, Plotinus, St Augustine, St Aquinas, Spinoza, and Kant, to mention a few - did also present in their systems forms of spiritual disciplines much akin to sadhana. The translation of the word "sadhana" in the Western tradition is "contemplation", which has an obvious religio­spiritual connotation. Contemplation has also been viewed there in the Advaitic spirit: "Knowledge consisting in the partial or complete identification of the knower with the object of knowledge with the consequent loss of his own individuality." Contemplation is thus considered in the Western tradition as "the highest stage of knowledge" (ibid.), well above cognition and meditation.


     We can now understand why Bertrand Russell, in spite of all his advocacy of a logical and scientific line of thought, begins his History of Western Philosophy by saying:


The conceptions of life and the world which we call "philosophical" are a product of two factors: one, inherited religious and ethical conceptions; the other, the sort of investigation which may be called "scientific", using this word in its broadest sense. Individual philosophers have differed widely in regard to the proportions in which these two factors entered into their systems, but it is the presence of both, in some degree, that characterizes philosophy.


     Russell points out further that in Plato, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz there is an intimate blending of religion and reasoning (45).


     Also noteworthy is the fact that Russell qualified his "history of philosophy" with the adjective "Western", suggesting that there are philosophies other than Western. But other historians have mostly omitted non­Western philosophies. Will Durant rightly says: "The worst sin of all - though the critics do not seem to have noticed it - was the omission of Chinese and Hindu philosophy."


     Every philosophical position has a certain intellectual content as well as some practical functions. The former makes it more or less academic, whereas the latter concerns life's urges and ideals. These two factors may be found in varying degrees in particular philosophies, but neither of them can be totally absent. Accordingly, Advaita Vedanta too has an intellectual content that adds an academic or pedagogical side to it, commonly known as "Advaita siddhanta". That is why India has a rich and hoary tradition of Advaita teachings. What an Advaitin transmits is not one's intuitive experience in the original, for this sui generis experience cannot be transmitted as such. However, Advaitins do have a philosophical position, siddhanta, with regard to ordinary and spiritual experiences. They defend and transmit it by making significant use of logic and language. Their insights into Reality are, in a sense, sustainable by reason. William James says: "In spite of all their repudiation of articulate self­description, mystical states in general assert a pretty distinct theoretic drift. It is possible to give the outcome of the majority of them in terms that point in definite philosophical directions. One of these directions is optimism, and the other is monism."


     Thus mystical experience can be subject to human understanding in a telling manner. When an Advaitin says that mystical experiences cannot be explained through language, one does not simply take leave of reason. One is not afraid to go beyond logic and reason because one knows intuitively that the Reality transcends rational thinking. The approach one adopts in realizing the ultimate Reality is not non­rational but trans­rational. An Advaitin's way of life and thought show that all reasoned positions are meant for people still engrossed in the workaday world. Life's ideal is the realization of one's Self, which is identical with the ultimate Reality. This Advaitic realization is achievable only after all circumscribed views are transcended. Advaita as a philosophical position satisfies both the rational and religious striving of humankind. In the Advaitic way of life and thought theory and sadhana are not antithetical but complementary.


     Sadhana devoid of rational thinking amounts to what Wittgenstein calls "private language". It does not seem to serve our philosophical purpose at all, however useful it might be in Self­realization. The higher intuitive experience occurring in sadhana is, as was stated above, of a sui generis character, cannot be expressed through language; it is ineffable and cannot be captured in any conceptual framework. Yet in the philosophical position adopted by Advaitins we have, somehow, an inkling of the Truth thus realized. The Advaitins have not actually transmitted their intuitive experience of the ultimate Truth for the simple reason that such an experience, by its very nature, cannot be transmitted - "what they transmitted were their views, their systems of thought."


     Siddhanta too, in its turn, calls for a tinge of sadhanain order to be authentic. Philosophy without actualization results in nothing but sham and hypocrisy. Mere rational knowledge is of little value if it does not lead one to the realization of Reality. The process of thinking can never be free from contemplation. Whenever we are set to think something deep and thorough, we need first of all to be steadfastly concentrated. Thus a philosopher can very well be a contemplative. Besides, ethical preparation is equally important for Self­realization. Our thoughts are often motivated by egoistic desires. The Katha Upanishad teaches: "One who has not desisted from bad conduct, whose senses are not under control, whose mind is not concentrated, whose mind is not free from anxiety, cannot attain this Atman through knowledge." Sadhana is an advanced course in pursuit of spiritual wisdom marked by discipline and austerity.



     Philosophy makes similar demands on us as its true practitioners. In the West there have also appeared certain profound thinkers who can justly be called "philosopher­sadhakas". Socrates was clearly one of them, and so were Plato, St Augustine, Spinoza, Kant, and others. In his Republic, Plato has summed up certain marks of the philosophic disposition: An earnest desire to know the real, a strong dislike for falsehood, contempt for bodily pleasures, indifference to money, high­mindedness, an immediate apprehension and a harmonious disposition. If the true philosophic disposition is marked by such features, then it is obviously very close and conducive to Advaita sadhana.



     (To be concluded)

















International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015

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