Category Archives: Eastern Philosophy

Summary of Hinduism in One Page

The above symbol for the sound Aum or Om is one of the most sacred in Hinduism. Hindus consider Aum to be the universal name of the Lord and that it surrounds all of creation. The sound emerging from the vocal cords starts from the base of the throat as “A.” With the coming together of the lips, “U” is formed and when the lips are closed, all sounds end in “M.” And then there is the silence from which it arises and to which it returns.

In some ways it is silly to try to summarize a 2500 year old religion in one page. But a reader asked, so I thought I’d try. However, for the best and most readable discussion of Hinduism, I highly recommend Chapter 1 of Huston Smith’s classic, The World’s Religions.

Part One: The main practical elements of Hinduism

A. You Can Have What You Want

We begin by wanting pleasure. This is natural, but it doesn’t satisfy our total nature. We also want worldly success, especially wealth, fame, and power. This is a worthy goal, but people whose development is not arrested will outgrow these desires too. Hinduism doesn’t say that everyone will outgrow worldly desires, but at some point in their reincarnations people will renounce ego desires. This is the first great step for those interested in being truly religious. In the end all worldly rewards prove insufficient, and in some reincarnation we turn to the Path of Renunciation of worldly things. This is the moment Hinduism has been waiting for.

B. What People Really Want

People really want infinite being, infinite awareness, and infinite joy. This satisfies their total being. There are four paths to the realization of our total being, and people should focus on the one that best suits them while still practicing all of them to some extent.

a. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Knowledge (Jnana Yoga) – This path is intended for those who have a strong reflected, intellectual bent.
b. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Love (Bhakti Yoga) – This path is the most popular of the four, and best for those with a more emotional bent.
c. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Work (Karma Yoga) – The third path is intended for persons of a more active bent.
d. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Psychophysical Exercises (Raja Yoga) – This yoga is designed for people who are of scientific, meditative bent.

Part Two: The main theoretical ideas of Hinduism

A. The Concept of God (Brahman)

Hinduism encourages devotees to think of Brahman as either personal or transpersonal, depending on which carries the most exalted meaning for the mind in question.

B. Reincarnation

The process by which an individual soul passes through a sequence of bodies is known as reincarnation. In a human body, the soul has self-consciousness, freedom, and responsibility. Each thought and deed sculpts one’s destiny. Everybody gets exactly what is deserved (the law of karma.)

C. The Atman

The soul is called the Atman, the Brahman within. Some say the individual soul is identical with Brahman (“Atman is Brahman”). Others say that there is some slight differentiation between the soul and Brahman that will always remain.

D. The World

We live in: a) a physical and temporal world of galaxies and time;  b) a moral world operating according to the law of karma; c) a world that is maya, deceptively passing off its multiplicity and materiality as real; d) a world where people can develop their capacities; e) a world that is lila, the play of the divine in its cosmic dance—untiring, unending, resistless, yet ultimately beneficent with a grace born of infinite vitality.

E. Many Paths to the Same Summit

That Hinduism has shared her land for centuries with Jains, Buddhists, Parsees, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians may explain her conviction that the various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal. To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion is like claiming that God can be found in this room but not the next, in this attire but not another. As the Rig Veda says,

“Truth is one; sages call it by various names”

Finally! Hinduism in One Page

The Essence of Hinduism

(For a more detailed discussion of Hinduism, see Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions.)

Part One: The main practical elements of Hinduism

A. You Can Have What You Want

We begin by wanting pleasure. This is natural, but it doesn’t satisfy our total nature. We also want worldly success, especially wealth, fame, and power. This is a worthy goal, but people whose development is not arrested will outgrow these desires too. Hinduism doesn’t say that everyone will outgrow worldly desires, but at some point in their reincarnations people will renounce ego desires. This is the first great step in religion. In the end all worldly rewards prove insufficient, and in some reincarnation we turn to the Path of Renunciation. This is the moment Hinduism has been waiting for.

B. What People Really Want

People really want infinite being, infinite awareness, and infinite joy. This satisfies their total being. There are four paths to the realization of our total being, and people should focus on the one that best suits them while practicing all of them.

a. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Knowledge (Jnana Yoga) – This path is intended for those who have a strong reflected bent.
b. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Love (Bhakti Yoga) – This path is the most popular of the four, and best for those with a more emotional bent.
c. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Work (Karma Yoga) – The third path is intended for persons of active bent.
d. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Psychophysical Exercises (Raja Yoga) – This yoga is designed for people who are of scientific, meditative bent.

Part Two: The main theoretical ideas of Hinduism

A. The Concept of God (Brahman)

Hinduism encourages devotees to think of Brahman as either personal or transpersonal, depending on which carries the most exalted meaning for the mind in question.

B. Reincarnation

The process by which an individual soul passes through a sequence of bodies is known as reincarnation. In a human body, the soul has self-consciousness, freedom, and responsibility. Each thought and deed sculpts one’s destiny. Everybody gets exactly what is deserved (the law of karma.)

C. The Atman

The soul is called the Atman, the God within. Some say the individual soul  eventually passes into identification with God and loses every trace of its former separateness. Others say that some slight differentiation between the soul and God always remains.

D. The World

We live in: a) a physical and temporal world of galaxies and time;  b) a moral world operating according to the law of karma; c) a world that is maya, deceptively passing off its multiplicity and materiality as real; d) a world where people can develop their capacities; e) a world that is lila, the play of the divine in its cosmic dance—untiring, unending, resistless, yet ultimately beneficent with a grace born of infinite vitality.

E. Many Paths to the Same Summit

That Hinduism has shared her land for centuries with Jains, Buddhists, Parsees, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians may help explain an idea that comes out more clearly through her than in other religions—her conviction that the various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal. To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion is like claiming that God can be found in this room but not the next, in this attire but not another.

Alan Watts: Who Am I?

(This multimedia presentation was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 23, 2014)

One of my first encounters with philosophy came when I was about 15 years old and was watching a PBS video featuring Alan Watts (1915 – 1973). I wasn’t philosophically sophisticated enough then to understand much of what he was saying, but I do remembering thinking he was cool. He had a beard, drank tea and seemed so … philosophical.

Alan Watts was a British born philosopher, and one of the first writers to popularize Eastern thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, for a Western audience. One of the first philosophy books I ever read as a teenager The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Watts. It asked one of the most fundamental questions we can ask: who am I? .

Now we may think we know the answer to this question. For example, we may believe that our individuality ends with our bodies. But Watts asked, why do we end where our bodies do? After all, our skin is porous and interacts with the environment. We can’t survive for more than a few minutes without the air, so why isn’t the air as much a part of us as our legs or arms?   And there is no breathable air without plants, so why aren’t they a part of us? In fact, our existence depends on the earth’s ecosystem and the sun. Following this line of thinking, we ultimately depend on the entire universe for our existence.

So perhaps we aren’t egos inside bags of skin, or even separate egos at all. Maybe we are like windows or apertures or vortexes through which the universe is conscious of itself for a brief moment. While we are fond of saying things like “I came into this world,” isn’t it more accurate to say, “I came out of the universe?” Don’t people come out of the universe like leaves come out of trees or waves come out of oceans? Or as Watts asks, doesn’t the universe just “people?”

And such questions are not merely academic. If we think we are separate from the world, then it is more likely to feel like something alien to us that we must confront. But if we see that we came out of the universe, then we are more likely to treat the universe as our home. We will see that the environment that surrounds our bodies is as much a part of us as our heart or lungs. If we despoil the environment, we despoil ourselves; if we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves. So perhaps we are the universe looking at itself from billions of perspectives. In fact, couldn’t we say that, in some sense, we are the universe?

Summary of Buddhism

Buddhism: In The Footsteps of the Buddha

(This is a summary of and commentary on a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, et. al., Oxford Univ. Press.) 

Buddhism developed in Northern Indian in the 5th Century BCE and spread throughout Asia. Like Hinduism it is a disparate tradition, but our chapter will focus on the main differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

We begin with a story in the Pali Canon. When confronted with the great questions “Do we have souls?” “Do we live after death?” “Is the world eternal?” the Buddha refuses to answer these questions insisting that “the religious life does not depend on dogma.” One will die before these questions are answered. Buddha likens asking such metaphysical questions with claiming—after being struck by a poison arrow—that you won’t have the arrow removed until you know who wounded you, what kind of person they were, the nature of the arrow, etc.  Again such a person would die before all their questions are answered.

Moreover even if one had answers to all these abstract questions what good would it do? Would you cease to suffer in this life? [He might be wrong. If you know that you would have infinite being, consciousness, and bliss after death it might help. His point though is to first eliminate the cause of suffering and then proceed.] Thus Buddhism is anti-metaphysical. Rather than constructing esoteric theories, the Buddha wants to understand the nature, causes, origins and the possibility of removing suffering. Buddhism is like medicine that we use until we gain full health.

Life of Buddha – The story of the Buddha, independent of its historicity, is crucial to understanding Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama was born a privileged prince after a miraculous birth. [By legend a white elephant entered his mother Maya’s womb through her side.] Siddhartha grew up shielded from life’s unpleasantness but one day went for a ride outside the palace where he saw, in succession: old age, sickness, death, and finally a simple monk who had renounced the world. Buddha thought the monk revealed a possible way out of this suffering and, in response to these experiences—he left his wife, newborn son, and the comfort of the palace.

For the next six years he tried ascetic experiences with no success—nearly starving to death in the process. Eventually he found a middle way between the opulent decadence of palace life and extreme asceticism. While sitting under the Bodhi tree, determined not to leave until he achieved enlightenment, he finally achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama had become the Buddha, the Awakened One. He decided to share his insights with others [like the enlightened prisoner in Plato’s cave who returns to it.] His own life became the model for the monastic life of a Buddhist monk. He died, surrounded by his followers at the age of 80.

Theory of Existence – The 3 most fundamental characteristics of existence for the Buddha are: 1) radical impermanence (constant change); 2) lack of a solid self (no self); 3) unsatisfactoriness (suffering).

The first mark of existence captures life’s transitory, ephemeral, fleeting nature. Nothing in the world is solid, or independent of anything else. And nothing—no idea, being, state of mind, or thing—endures. Everything is impermanent, changing constantly at every moment. And everything, including you and me, are dependent upon and interconnected with other things without which we wouldn’t exist. [Our parents, grandparents, gravity, evolution, the air and water, the sun and stars, etc.]

Consider also how our thoughts, desires, cravings, interests, wants, preferences, hatreds, loves, lusts, and beliefs, all depend on situations largely out of our control—and consider how much mental suffering we endure on this basis. Buddhism aims to free us from the ignorance that is at the root of all this suffering. Of course our present life is one of a long series of lives, and our present condition is determined by past actions. [Again to make this idea of reincarnation scientifically believable, consider many of your behaviors emanate from your biological past; and how many of your beliefs emanate from your social and cultural heritage.] Karma is the term which denotes this moral law of cause and effect. And karma is enough to propel the universe along in Buddhism, there are no creator or sustainer gods. (While some versions of Mahayana Buddhism imply that some eternal form may be behind the world, this is not a personal god in any sense.)

Theory of Human Nature – The second mark of existence means that the idea that there is nothing solid or permanent about reality also applies to the self. There is no self. (anatma or no atman.) Consider a chariot (or the car you drive or university you attend.) They are all made up of many parts, but the word chariot or car or university applies to all of those parts together—they are not independent existing things. In the same way the word I, or ego, or self is simply a name for all of the parts put together. There is nothing in addition to the parts—there is no soul of the car, university or body. You are the sum of your parts and their interrelationships; there is no separate soul or essence to you anymore than to your car or university. [Even saying “you” in the above is misleading. When you say “you” that refers to all the parts of your body and their interactions.] Again there is no independent self, ego, I, soul, etc. A truth confirmed by the Buddhists in meditation. (The idea of no self is one of the most fascinating ideas I’ve encountered in 40 years of teaching college level philosophy.)

Of course you have continuity of memory, but there is nothing permanent underlying your being, nothing like a soul. You are a mind, body, and stream of consciousness. You are not really a being [a substance] but a becoming [an event.] The idea that you are a separate ego is also harmful because it leads to fear of death, violence, greed, competition, etc. Realizing the self is an illusion leads to compassion—the most important Buddhist virtue.

The idea of the separate ego is an expression of the 5 attachments or components (skandas) that make up what we call a person. The components are: 1) form—the body and its sense organs; 2) sensations—the physiological process produced by the contact of senses and the world [eyes see objects; ears hear sounds]; 3) perception—sensations that lead to object recognition [What I feel is a table]; 4) mental formations—our predispositions, attitudes, tendencies, habits, and karma [states of mind like conceit, impatience, humility, wisdom, etc.]; and 5) consciousness—not only does one sense and perceive something one becomes aware of something; consciousness is awareness.

Perhaps the most important component are the mental formations, which themselves result from the interplay of bodies, sensations, perceptions, and conscious awareness. All of this leaves karmic residue or ideas in our minds. [This is a fascinating topic. How and why do we form mental constructs? And how do the state of our reality and the reality of the world depends on good and true consciousness.] In short our consciousness is conditioned by [nearly determined by] our mental formations. And if they are in turn completely determined then we have no control over consciousness. In short our consciousness is conditioned by what has gone before which then shapes our consciousness perhaps forever. [How my mind doesn’t feel like my own when I read this.]

Consciousness consists of these every changing, ephemeral states or forms of mind—and how brief our conscious life is. Like a chariot that exists on a single point of its wheels, we live only for a brief moment of a single thought. We are changing every millisecond. Thus there is nothing permanent about us, not even for a moment. [You may think a piece of granite or steel is stable but it too is changing every moment. You can confirm this by looking at ancient ruins, or considering the past of future of the stars and planets.] Ask yourself this. Are you the same or different than when you were 6 years old? In one sense you are the same—born of the same parents, same DNA—but in another sense you are radically different. The Buddhists explain the self using a candle flame. At every moment it is different—you are always changing—but there is a connection between the candle flame now and it flame an hour ago—you have some psychological continuity with your 6 year old self. [In philosophy this is known as the problem of personal identity. How can you be both the same and different from what you used to be? What, if anything, persists in a person over time? It is one of the most vexing and studied questions in contemporary philosophy.] Finally, reincarnation is explained by the analogy of one candle relighting another new one as the former one burns out.

Buddha himself refused to answer the question of whether a separate, permanent soul exists. [I have encountered Buddhism on and off for 40 years and with each new encounter I am always moved by its profundity.]

Diagnosis – We begin with the 4 noble truths. The first noble truth is that life is full of suffering and dissatisfaction. (This is also the third mark of existence.) We suffer from anxiety, insecurity, uncertainty, fear, frustration, anger, disappointment and loss—everything is imperfect and flawed. In addition everything is constantly changing, radically impermanent, so even good things and good times never last. The first kind of suffering is ordinary suffering: aging, sickness, death, unpleasant conditions, sadness, pain, not getting what we want, etc. The second kind results from change, even happiness doesn’t last, is fleeting and ephemeral. The last type of suffering results from the false sense of ego. [Thus we suffer when slighted, insulted, not recognized, etc.] The Buddha did not say that life is essentially or only suffering, but that we experience much suffering. And this is not meant to be pessimistic but realistic—the basic problem of life is that we experience so much dissatisfaction.

The second noble truth identifies the cause of suffering as craving, grasping, desiring. We try to hold on to and possess things that don’t last. The essence of reality is change and grasping or desiring tries to prevent change by keeping things as they are. Much of this desiring is motivated by the idea of the separate ego, which always wants more. [We want money, sex, power, drugs, food, fame, etc. What happens? When in the state of wanting, I am dissatisfied. Then I get what I want, but soon I want more. I want a thousand dollars and then a million and then a billion and I am still unhappy. The thrill of the new car or house makes me happy for a very short time. In fact studies show that after one has about a 100 thousand dollar income more money does not make people happier. Does a glass of wine taste good? Maybe. Do ten glasses make you feel better? Probably not. Is it nice to have a roof over your head? Yes. Does having ten houses make your happier? No. This is what Buddha is getting at when he says our desires cause our troubles.]

Prescription – The end of craving and desiring is the key to relieving suffering. This is the third noble truth. [This is antithetical to a capitalist economy propelled by creating desires through advertising.] This leads to the state of nirvana, a peaceful state with no desiring. But what exactly do we do to experience this blissful state of not wanting and desiring and craving? We understand the fourth noble truth, which is to follow the eightfold path, also known as the Middle Way between a life of complete asceticism and a life of desiring pleasure. This path addresses ethical conduct, which is based on compassion, mental discipline, which flows from meditative practice and leads to the realization of the true nature of self, and wisdom, which is the realization of the true nature of reality.

Ethical components of the eightfold path include: 1) right speech—speech that tries to benefit others, speech that doesn’t lie, and silence when called for; 2) right action—moral, honorable, and peaceful conduct, no lying, killing, cheating, stealing, and the like; and 3) right livelihood—making a living without harming others.

Mental discipline is comprised of: 4) right effort—working toward wholesome rather than unwholesome states of mind; 5) right mindfulness—achieved through mindfulness meditation that leads to a better understanding of the impermanent nature of reality and lack of self; and 6) right concentration—meditation on a single point [like the breath, a flame, an image, a mantra].

Wisdom includes: 7) right thought—detachment from the idea of self; and 8) right understanding—accepting the 3 marks of existence (life is impermanent, there is no self, and there is suffering) and harmonizing the mind with this realization. It also implies accepting the 4 noble truths.

Different Paths – For monks this involves selfless, detached actions which aim to free one from karmic residue, and ultimately which leads to enlightenment. For the laity this involves doing good deeds, accepting the 5 precepts—don’t kill, steal, lie, consume intoxicant or have illicit sex—and improving their karmic lot. The monks provide a model of the spiritual life; the laity provides minimal food for the monks. In the Theravadan tradition the monk who reaches nirvana, while in the Mahayana tradition the bodhisattva does not enter nirvana but stays in this world and helps the rest of us be liberated. The bodhisattva is often characterized as more compassionate than the monk who withdraws from the world. In some schools of the Mahayana tradition the idea our true consciousness already exists and we must work to uncover it. [Similar to how Socrates thought of knowledge.] The idea is that we don’t have to work to achieve Buddha nature, but recognize that it is already within. [Even if it is within it seems we have to work to bring it forth.] The Mahayana tradition also recognizes other ways besides the monastic life to enlightenment, including devotional practices.

Women in Buddhism – In some texts women are treated as inferior in Buddhism; yet the Buddha allowed women to be monks as long as they were subordinate to men. On the other hand, some Buddhist texts advocate an all-inclusive salvation. Today Buddhism is dealing with these issues.1

_________________________________________________________________________

1. If you think this is only an issue in Hinduism or Buddhism consider what seminal Catholic thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas say about women:

“Woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition…” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I q. 92 a. 1

“I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes the purpose of procreation. If woman was not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?” St. Augustine, De genesi ad litteram, 9, 5-9

“Good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I q.92 a.1 reply 2

And you can find other disparaging remarks about women throughout the history of philosophy. I’d say the first thinker who says nice things about women is John Stuart Mill. For more see his book: The Subjection of Women (Dover Thrift Editions).

Summary of Hinduism on Human Nature


Om (Aum)

Upanishadic Hinduism: Quest for Ultimate Knowledge 

(This post is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.) 

While Hinduism is incredibly diverse (consider also that there are about 41,000 denominations of Christianity worldwide1) and there is no way to adequately capture that diversity in a few pages. In response the authors will focus on the Upanishads, the most foundational texts of Hinduism. Unlike Confucianism, Hinduism is a metaphysical philosophy whose “overall theme is one of ontological unity.” [Roughly the idea that all being is one. In fact, in non-dualist Vedanta, only Brahman is real.]

Theory of the Universe – All reality is one, in other words (philosophical) Hinduism a type of monism. This ultimate ground of all being [a phrase later adopted by 20th century Christian theologians like Paul Tillich and John T. Robinson] is called Brahman. Brahman is a force, power, or energy that “sustains the world;”an ultimate reality that causes or grounds existence, an essence which pervades all reality. Ultimately all of reality is one; all is Brahman.

But why then is it (or does it appear) that reality is a plurality composed of many things? A possible answer lies in the Hindu creation myth. All originates in nothingness [as it does in contemporary quantum cosmologies] except for Brahman [this is similar to creation “ex nihilo” in Christianity.] Being lonely Brahman divided into female and male and from this the entire plurality of the elements of the universe came into being. [It is hard to reconcile this story with the non-personal nature of Brahman.] However, “the original unity is never lost; it simply takes on the appearance of multiple forms.” [So multiplicity is ultimately an illusion—there is really only Brahman.]

This also implies that Braham is both immanent and transcendent—it both within and outside all reality. [This view is called panetheism, “… a belief system which posits that the divine (be it a monotheistic God, polytheistic gods, or an eternal cosmic animating force) interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond it.”2] These are the two aspects of Brahman. It is both all the changing things of the world and the unchanging ground of all things. This is the one ultimate reality seen from different perspectives. [Think of a gestalt picture like the faces/vases or young woman/old woman. One picture, two perspectives from which to see it.] But in the end there is only Brahman. Finally there is a tension in Hinduism between those who believe Brahman is ineffable and impossible to conceptualize, and those who disagree, identifying Brahman with everything.

Theory of Human Nature – We are all one and thus radically interconnected with all being. The self or soul within all, the Atman, is connected (identical?) with all other selves. We are like spokes all connected to a central hub or, more radically, what we are is identical to all of reality. Thus Hinduism distinguishes the transitory self as ego or I or persona (ahamkara), with the eternal, immortal self, the Atman. This true self is identical with Brahman. [Thus Atman is Brahman or, as it appears in the Vedas Tat Tvam Asi (Sanskrit: तत् त्वम् असि or तत्त्वमसि), … translated variously as “That art thou,” “That thou art,” “Thou art that,” “You are that,” or “That you are,” or, for western ears, “you are god.”]

Atman is not an object of consciousness but the subject of consciousness—it is consciousness itself and thus cannot be known like other objects. [This distinction is important in contemporary, western philosophy of mind.] Our true selves are identical with the consciousness which animates all consciousness. We are not transient egos inside bodies but identical ultimately with all reality. Again Atman is (ultimately) Brahman. [You are identical with whatever power, force or energy animates all reality; you are (non-personal) god.] Moreover this true self migrates from body to body. [To make reincarnation plausible, consider that people die and other people are born, in other words Atman/Brahman continues. Remember this is a very brief, general description of Hinduism and there is a lot of disagreement in Hinduism like there is in any religion. For example some believe in Saguna Brahman, a personal god with attributes as opposed to Nirguna Brahman, transpersonal without attributes. Some Hindus are completely non-dualistic, there is only one reality; others are dualistic, etc.]

Diagnosis – The main problem of human existence is ignorance regarding the nature of ultimate reality. Most do not recognize the reality of infinite Brahman, and thus identify with the transitory objects of consciousness which all fade away. Since Atman is Brahman this ignorance is also ignorance of our true selves. [As we proceed into metaphysics one wonders how we know if any of this is true. Through experience? Meditation? The power of the arguments? Or could this all be speculation designed to comfort us at the thought of life’s transitory nature? How do we decide?] We identify with the phenomenal world instead of with Brahman. We concern ourselves with our little egos and small threats of offenses to them, rather than recognizing that are egos are essentially illusory, and we are identical to all reality. We are alienated from ourselves, from others, and from all reality. We are isolated and lonely.

This (misguided) individualism is caused by karma. [This is simply a moral law of cause and effect.] This means that our actions are not free but determined by past desires and actions. We are in psychological bondage to previous actions and the desires that caused them. [Consider the binding nature of previous gambling, smoking, eating junk food, aggression, etc.] Hindu meditation in large part is an attempt to get in touch with our true nature and free us from egoistic desires.

Prescription – Hinduism is generally optimistic about attaining freedom from desire and discovery our true nature. This is done by multiple paths. The beginning of freedom though is a special kind of knowledge. [The basic ways (or yogas) are the paths of: 1) knowledge; 2) love; 3) work; and 4) psychological exercises. The way one chooses depends on their personality.]

Upanishadic Hinduism: Quest for Ultimate Knowledge

(I am teaching the course “Philosophy of the Human Person” at a local university. These are my notes from the primary text for the course, Twelve Theories of Human Nature.)

Divergent Interpretations – Hindus disagree regarding whether ultimate reality is personal or non-personal, (and whether the world is real or not.) Two seminal thinkers who espouse different views are Shankara (sometimes called the” Thomas Aquinas” of Hinduism) and Ramanuja.

Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta – This is a highly philosophical form of Hinduism. (The kind you would probably find in Vedanta centers in the US, especially those run by the Ramakrishna order of monks, a highly intellectual branch of Hinduism somewhat like the Jesuits are to Catholicism.) Shankara was interested in big philosophical questions like: “what is the relationship between Brahman and the world as it appears to our senses?” and “what is the relationship between Brahman and atman?” His is a philosophy of total unity. “For Shankara, Brahman is the only truth, the world is ultimately unreal, and the distinction between God and the individual is only an illusion.” Brahman is the only reality, and it is without attributes [it is not omnipotent, omniscient, personal, fatherly, etc.] To fully realize Brahman all distinctions between subjects and objects fade away [since there is only one reality]. Shankara concludes that the phenomenal world is false—it is maya, it is illusory.

Maya is the process through which we perceive multiplicity, even though reality is one. The world as it appears to our senses is not Brahman, and thus not ultimately real. This does not mean the world is imaginary; it is real; it exists. But it is not ultimate or absolute reality. [It is derivative from Brahman. This parallels Plato’s notion that things in this world are derivative from forms, which are more real.] The world of the senses exists in relation to Brahman the way a dream stands in relation to being awake. We may think that a rope in dim light is a snake, even though in good light we could tell the difference. [The parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave in Shankara’s philosophy are striking.] By analogy, the world of multiplicity is superimposed on Brahman in the way the snake might have been superimposed on the rope.  [Modern science has confirmed that humans are pattern-seekers who superimposed order when there is none. They see the face of a man on mars, Jesus in grilled cheese sandwiches, or destiny in sporting events that were really decided randomly by statistical fluctuation.] The experience of the world is finally revealed as false when one comes to the knowledge of Brahman.

The idea of a personal god [Saguna Brahman] with attributes is ultimately an illusion, since Brahman is not limited by attributes. Such a being plays a role for those “still enmeshed in the cosmic illusion of maya.” In other words the notion of a personal god [who you can talk to and listen to] helps most people begin to leave behind the attachments of this world. But ultimately [Nirguna] Brahman is transpersonal, and without attributes. [Some philosopher said he preferred the personal god because the impersonal god seemed like a bowl of tapioca pudding.]

And Shankara also rejects the individual soul. Positing an individual soul is better than being attached to one’s ego and body, but the final realization is that the true self is Atman, or pure consciousness. Thus the world, god, and the individual soul are merely apparent reality—the ultimate and only reality is Brahman. Atman is Brahman. This realization is the ultimate one in Hinduism; it is the goal of spirituality. There is no ultimate distinction between subjects and objects [for there are no multiplicities that can be distinguished.] We are like drops of water trying to understand that we are ultimately united in one big ocean of being. This describes the quest for ultimate knowledge.

A necessary step in this spiritual journey is the realization that desire [especially for the things and activities of this world] must be eradicated. The highest spiritual path consists then of renunciation of the world followed by a lifetime of meditation designed to confirm the insight that “I am Brahman.” [If this sounds strange consider the typical vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience” of priests and nuns and monks. All designed to turn one’s back on this world and focus—in different ways—on a more real spiritual world.]

Ramanuja’s Vishishta Adviata Vedanta – For Ramanuja the divine is personal, and different things are real, although they are still attributes of Brahman. Brahman is the sole reality but with different aspects or qualities. Ramanuja thus accepts a personal god—a god with personality and qualities—and rejects Brahman as “undifferentiated consciousness, contending that if this were true, any knowledge of Brahman would be impossible, since all knowledge depends on a differentiated “object.” [He is presupposing that knowledge is subjects knowing objects, and that knowledge of oneself—like being able to see your own eye without a mirror—is impossible.] The love of god entails a subject knowing and loving an object. Ramanuja wants to taste sugar not be sugar. [I suppose the theologians who wrote this centuries ago didn’t realize that sugar is bad for you!]

And the physical world is real for Ramanuja. It was created from divine love, and is the transformation of Brahman, similar to the way that milk transforms into cheese. In this view the world is not something to be overcome but something to be appreciated as the product of Brahman’s creativity. Maya refers not to illusion, but to this creative process. Thus the world is god’s body. [Here we find echoes of pantheists like Spinoza.] The world is an attribute of the eternal god analogously to how the body is an attribute of the soul. The soul is also part of god; it is both different and not different from god. [This “paradoxical logic” can be hard for Westerners. But the idea is that truth is often found in paradox.] The soul separates from Brahman at creation and returns to Brahman at dissolution. Yet the soul is still somehow both separate and eternal. [This probably sounds more familiar to those raised in Western monotheistic religions.]

The path to freedom for Ramanuja consists of action “that avoids both the attachment to the results of action and the abandonment of action.” [Do your homework and the results will take care of themselves.] We will be more effective if we are not overly concerned with the results of our actions. After all the world is lila, or god’s play, and we are actors not the playwright. There is so much beauty in the world that if we do our duty we will be fulfilled. We need not renounce the world, but revel in it. As for worshipping various manifestations of the gods, Ramanuja believes this helps most people as it appeals to their emotions. [Think of veneration of saints in Roman Catholicism.] The goal of these devotional acts is a feeling of the presence of gods, not oneness with a god. Finally the book notes that for the majority of Hindus “devotional practices in temples and home shrines dominate the Hindu tradition. [Something similar could be said about almost all religious traditions, they emphasize the emotional and devotional rather than the abstract and intellectual.]

Critical Discussion – Vedanta philosophy is highly textual—reliant on ancient scriptures—which most contemporary philosophers reject as a source of truth. It also makes transcendental claims, which is also problematic in modern western philosophy. Vedanta philosophy also has little to say about social and political philosophy or practical morality, concerned as it is with esoteric metaphysical concerns. Vedanta is also an elitist philosophy, generally excluding the uneducated.