Monthly Archives: December 2018

Philosophical Pessimism

Arthur Schopenhauer, the quintessential philosophical pessimist

A thoughtful reader, John Miller, offered a rejoinder to the conclusion of my recent series on life and meaning. In it he advances an unequivocal pessimism in response to my (qualified) notions of optimism and hope.  I repeat it here, edited slightly for brevity.

… We are in a desperate place since there is so much evidence that as Schopenhauer said it is suffering which is primary to existence and our pleasures are only momentary relief from ongoing suffering or strife which is always, like time, nipping at our heels.

However, I think an honest person must as you say admit the fact that there are too many unknowns to say with any certainty what is the ultimate truth of this matter and we don’t know what the end game looks like. However, we do, to the best of our awareness know what is happening now and in the past. With that in mind, I can no longer put your kind of hope near the top of my list of things to believe in. [Just a minor point. I don’t believe in hope or even believe in having hope, rather it describes certain attitudes and wishes that I have.] There is TOO much suffering for that and not very much to your hope that this all ends up with these horrible wrongs righted and all wounds healed and anguish soothed …

You say here it’s the best thing to hope for the good and work towards that in spite of anything to the contrary but what does that mean? … Most would feed the starving and hope they survive. I would say all that does is create more misery as a full belly plus free time creates more innocent babies to starve all over again. There’s plenty of evidence for that. IMO, and that of the tiny few brother and sister antinatalists, … our most fervent and beautiful hope would be the extinction of the human race and even beyond that the elimination of all life that has a nervous system that can feel pain. I cannot think of a more certain way to end suffering and if we are honest we must admit that suffering is a certainty, whereas a happy ending for all is just another hope against hope that has never yet materialized and we’ve been preaching it for a long long time. There is really no evidence for it and if we want to go with the odds we should … have mercy on all future generations by not forcing them into existence.

I do wish I had better things to say than this. I would love to believe that your hope is worth hoping and that the sufferings possibly caused by acting on that hope might be worth it in the end but I can’t do that. I know what suffering is like close up both physically and emotionally and a reality that has this much of it is likely not planning on being kind to us in that unknown end game. Too often humans have felt that the suffering of others is a price worth paying for the chance at a better future that they want to imagine. IMO that’s callus and non-compassionate. Most don’t take the time to really see what some of this suffering actually looks like. It’s easier to look away and hope and that’s almost always what happens. That’s why our newspapers never really show the body parts with graphic close-ups or the screams on TV and radio. We can’t take that and we’d be outraged if we were forced to, but someone is taking it right now. I’m sorry to say all this. I miss that hope you seem to still have a strong hold on. I had to give it up or let’s say put it way down near the bottom of my possibles list. That or feel like a fraud. You’re a very lucky guy. I hope you know that. Best of luck to everyone, we all need it.

I would like to thank my reader for his thoughts.


Buddhist Metaphyics, Epistmology and Ethics

standing Buddha statue with draped garmet and haloStanding Buddha statue at the Tokyo National Museum

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Buddhist Metaphysics

While some strands of Buddhism have very thick metaphysics, there are some forms with an extremely pragmatic orientation and a general focus on practices. Buddhism rejects that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing creator God. Buddhist emancipation is in some forms tied up with devotion to Celestial Boddhistavas, enlightened saints who are thought to have the power to ease others’ karma, but various forms of Buddhism do not accept or focus on this. In particular contemporary forms of Zen Buddhism downplay the importance of such metaphysics. One of the best-known tales of the early encounters with the Buddha makes this pragmatic stance toward metaphysics especially clear.

The monk and the arrow

Once when the Buddha was visiting a sangha (monastery), after some time a monk, Malunkya, who had been practicing diligently with the Buddha became quite dissatisfied with the fact that the Buddha had left various metaphysical questions unanswered. Malunkya thought to himself that he would ask the Buddha these questions and if he was given satisfactory answers he would devote himself to further study; otherwise he would leave the sangha.

Meeting the Buddha, Malunkya then asked him his questions: Was the universe was finite or infinite? Were the body and soul one and the same or different? Would the Buddha exist after his death or not? Mulunkya further informed the Buddha that if he refused to answer the questions, he would leave the sangha. The Buddha responded, asking if he had ever asked Malunkya to join the sangha so that he could get the answers to those questions. Malunkya acknowledged he had not.

The Buddha continued, noting that Malunkya’s decision to leave the sangha for not having received the answers to those questions was similar to a man who had been shot by an arrow going to a doctor for help but then refusing to allow the doctor to help remove the arrow until he could answer many questions about the one who had shot the arrow: his caste, his clan name, his height, his skin color, the name of his hometown, what type of a bowstring he used, the shape and material of the arrow, the poison used. The man would die before receiving the answers to those questions. Similarly, a man wanting the answers to those metaphysical questions would die before the Buddha would answer them. One does not have to know whether the universe is eternal or not or the soul immortal, the Buddha emphasized. There is suffering, birth, aging, and death. The teaching is to alleviate the pain accompanying that.


For many contemporary Buddhist practitioners, this story provides a good example of the practical orientation of Buddhism. The focus of Buddhist philosophy is not on certain dogmas but on engaging in practices that change one’s behavior and mental attitude.

The eightfold path provides the set of practices that it is thought end cravings and, by so doing, eradicate suffering. In this tradition, like in Hinduism, meditation practices and ethical behavior should facilitate an understanding of the basic metaphysical truths. But for philosophical Buddhism, the three marks of existence are more fundamental metaphysical truths: impermanence, no-self, and suffering. These are viewed as rather common sense, even empirical psychological observations.

The various elements of the eightfold path work in cohort to create the necessary understanding of these, complimenting one another. Right understanding and right resolve focus on wisdom. Right speech, right action, right livelihood focus on morality. Right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation focus on meditation. Each element works together. By meditating, one breaks down the barriers of the ego and comes to be wiser, while also overcoming the wrong views that lead one to unethical behavior. The ethical behavior, for its part, can also increase one’s empathy and help one to cultivate a better understanding of the world.

All of these things facilitate a conscious living in the moment. From moment to moment what we then have is a mental focus on a particular sensation. We have one interconnected occurrence after another. In the moment, the division between the self and the world break down, as one, for example, breathes in air from outside oneself or exhales it into the world upon which one is codependent. As the zen practitioners especially emphasize, the point is to prevent one’s mind from wandering and focusing on the past or the future. It is to be present.


The approach that Buddhists tend to have to many metaphysical ideas … is instrumentalist. As a tendency, they are not epistemological realists but constructivists. Applied to metaphysical ideas such as reincarnation and karma, as well as Celestial Boddhisatvas, philosophical Buddhists tend to say that if those ideas serve useful purposes, then it is fine to use them. But if they do not, or if they have outworn their use, then one can set them aside.

One finds statements like this in Buddhist thinkers as diverse as D.T. Suzuki, who along with Alan Watts was influential in introducing an earlier generation of U.S. Americans and Europeans to Zen Buddhism, as well as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, two international leaders in Buddhism, who are influential in spreading Buddhist teaching to the West.

Given the doctrine of no-self, the self, as we tend to understand it cannot be viewed as having any kind of permanent existence. It instead is viewed as a construct. It is a useful convention to refer to the self. Indeed it would likely be impossible to live without doing so. And one can hardly talk of the three marks of existence without referencing some individual’s pain or using nouns that refer to stable things. Buddhists tend to adopt a pragmatic approach to these and other distinctions. Various such metaphysical ideas have their uses. But their usefulness does not mean they have any ultimate truth value.

Such constructivist pragmatism, especially about the difficult to answer questions of the gods, the afterlife, and so on, has proven attractive to many people in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere who have given up on traditional views of God but find some attraction to meditative or mindfulness practices of the Buddhist tradition, or of yoga from the Hindu tradition, which they view as improving their lives, providing them with some greater felt sense of interconnectedness with the world and others around them, or simply relieving stress and contributing to greater mental balance.

Sam Harris, who is well-known for his arguments against God’s existence, is one well-known public intellectual in the U.S. who has come out in support of Buddhist philosophical ideas and some practices. He, like various others, would like to separate this from the “religious” aspects of the tradition, as he understands those. But for him and many other American Buddhists, the constructivist pragmatism, at least about traditional metaphysical topics, is a great source of attraction.

Of the various religious systems, contemporary forms of Buddhism are probably the least heavily loaded with “requirements” for thick metaphysics. That said, most Buddhists practitioners do believe in karma, reincarnation. Many believe in celestial Boddhistavas. Pure land Buddhists believe in a Pure Land the people inhabit after death. They believe that some individuals can be reincarnated as gods or devils. In Tibetian forms of Buddhism, most believe in reincarnations of Llamas, who refuse the leave the cycle of life and death and are reborn to help lead others to emancipation …

Brief comments on ethics

Much more can be said about the ethics in these traditions. Here I have only emphasized how both Hindus and Buddhists generally believe that ethical practice is part of what helps cultivate the intuition into metaphysical truths. Similarly, they both think that the intellectual intuition that meditation cultivates should break down the boundaries of the ego so that, seeing one’s self as either linked with others in Brahman (in Hinduism) or as co-dependently arising (in Buddhism), one would not act selfishly but cooperatively. Buddhists in particular focus on the virtue of compassion. Both philosophical schools otherwise have multifaceted ethical systems beyond what can be explored here.

Other teachings in Indian Philosophy

… Indian philosophy (and science) has made contributions to multiple areas of human understanding. Amartya Sen, Harvard Professor of Philosophy and a Nobel Prize winner of economics, underlines in particular early views of the 4th century BCE Indian philosopher, Kautilya, who in Arthasastra cataloged all knowledge into four disciplines: 1) Metaphysics, 2) knowledge of right and wrong, 3) the science of government, and 4) the science of wealth. As an early thinker of economics as a mere technical field, Sen contrasts Kautilya with Aristotle, who subsumes thinking about economics under considerations of ethics. But it is Kautilya who may be the first full-fledged economist in world history; and he breaks our mold of Indians as religious thinkers.

So, too, though I have emphasized Advaita Vedanta, the best known of all religious schools of Hindu philosophy, in fact, some of the earliest known expressions of atheism, the view that there is no god, come from Indian philosophy. Of course, as we have seen, Buddhism rejects the idea of a creator god. But the Charvaka or Lokayata, beginning around the sixth century BCE, develop a decidedly less spiritual philosophy than Buddhists. They embraced a form of materialism that accepted that all things were comprised of four elements. They rejected the Vedas, a belief in gods and the afterlife. And they proposed a radical hedonism, thinking we should live for what increases our individual immediate pleasure. Even if pains sometimes arise from doing so, it is in their view, worth it.

The point is, Indian philosophers have done much more than I have been able to indicate in these general statements, where I have confined myself to issues of metaphysics as they intersect with epistemology and ethics and I have focussed in particular on the religious philosophies.

The Basics of Buddhism

standing Buddha statue with draped garmet and haloStanding Buddha statue at the Tokyo National Museum

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Buddhist philosophy originates with Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. The Buddha’s life itself weaves an interesting philosophic narrative. According to tradition, he was born the son of a king in the Magda empire of Ancient India or present-day Nepal. He was raised a prince but eventually turned away from the life of politics that his father had envisaged for him in order to pursue a life of spirituality. Specifically, according to legend, his father attempted to shield him from seeing the troubles of the world. But on various occasions, the young Siddhartha left the princely castle and escaped into the streets of the city where he saw those who were ill, who grew old, who died, and finally a monk. Seeing this suffering Siddhartha felt compelled to seek a spiritual life. He then left his home to join wandering mendicants and try to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

The sixth century was a tumultuous time, with many religious reformers who were dissatisfied with traditional Hinduism. Buddha, not himself a member of the priestly class or the Brahmin, joined these reformers, questioning the focus on the priestly class within Hinduism and more generally its strong caste system. In his search for enlightenment, Siddhartha initially engaged in strict asceticism, denying himself many of his bodily needs. But he is thought by adherents to eventually have achieved Enlightenment, after having long meditated under a Bodi tree.

The Middle Way

One of his first proclaimed truths was the importance of “the Middle Way,” which states that it is not the life of excess (such as he enjoyed as prince) nor the life of ascetic denial (which he attempted in his early spiritual search) that leads to enlightenment. Rather, it is the middle path that neither indulges nor denies basic human needs. Buddha presented some of his basic teachings in his first sermon, to monks with whom he had practiced asceticism but who were drawn to him after believing he achieved enlightenment. In that talk, known as the Deer Park Sermon, besides describing the Middle Way, Siddhartha (who now was given the honorific title of the Buddha, the awakened one) also presented his views of the four noble truths and the eightfold path, two of the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism, accepted by all Buddhist practitioners.

The four noble truths

The four noble truths outlined in this sermon are 1) that life is fundamentally characterized by suffering (dukkha); 2) that the cause of that suffering is attachment or craving (tanha); 3) that suffering can be overcome by the elimination of craving; and 4) that there is an eightfold path that makes it possible for us to eliminate this craving and thus eliminate suffering.

The eightfold path

This eightfold path consists of 1) right understanding; 2) right thought; 3) right speech; 4) right action; 5) right livelihood; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; 8) right concentration. It is through the cultivation of a disciplined spiritual, ethical practice that one is relieved of attachment and one overcomes suffering. These various components of thought, behavior and concentration work in concert to allow individual liberation.

The three marks of existence

Metaphysically, Buddha also went a different path that his Hindu forebearers. While the Hindu thinkers emphasized the unity of all things in Brahman, a world substance that many of them thought to be permanent and unchanging, Buddha proposed a view of reality that continues to change and along with it a view of “no-self.” Where the Hindus focused on a unified “being” that encompassed all things, Buddha focussed on emptiness and non-being. All things, he emphasized, were in a state of constant change. The self, too, then is not “Atman” (Self, with a capital “S” or world soul) but “Anatman” (no-self).

As some Western philosophers have expressed this idea: If an object changes from moment A to moment B, then how can that object be characterized as the same object at those two times? Is it not rather two different ones? Buddha himself highlights how at any given moment the mind is aware of a sensation, a thought, a feeling, etc. These he views as “aggregates.” Where is the self behind all of these? The awareness we have is not of a self, but rather of one of these aggregates. With considerations like these, Buddha develops a considerably different metaphysics than one finds in the Hindu worldview that he grew up with. He speaks of three marks of existence that set his views apart from traditional Hindu thought: impermanence, no-self, and suffering.

Some common questions

Buddhism too raises numerous philosophical questions: For example, if the doctrine of the “no-self” is true, then what sense do moral commands to individuals have? Who is to carry them out? Who is responsible if there is no-self. And how are we to make sense of the goal of liberation or enlightenment if there is no self to be liberated or enlightened?

Buddhists, of course, have ways of addressing such concerns. Buddhists will, of course, acknowledge that as a practical matter, we will continue to refer to the self, use the words that reference the self, like “I,” “me,”  “mine.” Yet this self is not thought to have ultimacy. This language, while needed for practical life, does not, for that, indicate that there is a permanent or separate self.

Co-dependent arising

This is tied to the Buddhist idea of “co-dependent arising.” That teaching, as we might express it in relationship to certain ecological ideas today, emphasizes the interconnection of all the conventionally understood self with an entire world. For example, though we might think of the boundaries of our skin as the boundaries of our self, in fact, we breathe in the air continually. We need the resources of water and food. Cut off from those things, the self disappears.

So, we might wonder, can we adequately consider the self as cut off from the world around it? Without the oxygen, produced by the plants, we will expire. Without water for several days, we also die. The self is tied into and co-dependent upon these other things. So we might think of those things too as only conventionally existent. For they, too are dependent on other things, which undergo change from moment to moment and do not retain a permanent existence. What we have, though, is always only the happening of each moment, itself continually undergoing change.

Some similarities between Hindu and Buddhist thought

In some general way, philosophers of the Hindu and the Buddhist traditions that we have discussed here display similarities. Both emphasize an interconnection between things. Yet, while Hindu philosophers speak of the individual self as part of a larger “Self,” a kind of Superorganism in which each individual is like a cell, Buddhists question that there is some overarching “Self.” They emphasize instead that all processes are undergoing change. They emphasize emptiness and nothingness rather than “Being.”

Yet other elements of these systems of thought are similar. Both traditions emphasize the need for adherence to a quite similar moral code and the need for a set of spiritual practices in order to achieve an intuitive awareness of metaphysical truths. They both generally accept the idea of reincarnation, and that the form of one’s reincarnation is dependent on how one has lived in previous lives — that is, they accept the reality of karma. Finally, they both accept the goal of enlightenment, even if they think that enlightened individuals understand the ultimate reality differently in these two traditions.

This conversation is only hinting at some of the philosophical issues at play in Hindu philosophy and Buddhism. Various concepts described here are also understood in other ways. And it is important to bear in mind that these worldviews are not static or uniform. In fact, we find various Hindu and Buddhist philosophers, all with subtle differences in how they understand their own traditions. These are rich thoughtful systems of thought, which each contain thinkers who debate issues with each other and with the traditional bodies of knowledge acknowledged by their traditions.

Some basic questions

Questions of course abound. Many of those posed when discussing Hinduism apply to Buddhism. Some of the following apply to both worldviews:

  • Why should we accept that there is anyone who can be fully enlightened and that enlightenment comes through a spiritual practice rather than analytical thinking?
  • If there is karma, why do so many good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people?
  • Is the evidence that this is somehow related to past lives in any way convincing, or does it function as an ideological foil?
  • Are these spiritual systems too focused on individual mental liberation and do they short social justice concerns?
  • Are these systems ultimately overly pessimistic? Is individual life so oppressive and disappointing that we ought desire to escape the cycle of existence?
  • Finally are basic elements of these systems of thought self-contradictory?

Hindu Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics

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© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Metaphysics of Advaita Vedanta

Metaphysics studies the type of things that exist and includes reflections on ultimate reality. In the presentation of ideas so far, the views of Brahman and the self in Hinduism and the marks of existence in Buddhism, as well as related discussions of the five aggregates are all part of the subject matter of metaphysics. Reincarnation and karma also can be included in this area of philosophy, as they concern processes to which existent things are subject.

The discussion of the self in Advaita Vedanta offered earlier was incomplete. So far, besides discussing the self as we normally understand it — a given individual, named Sarah, for example — we discussed Atman, the world soul of which Sarah would be an expression. Beyond that, however, the Hindus speak of self in a further sense called jiva. Jiva is an individual soul, separate from the world soul, but also not identical with a specific person. The jiva undergoes reincarnation, passing through various reincarnations as specific individuals until it achieves Moksa, the full awareness that ultimate reality is one unified whole. While Sarah is the individual in a particular lifetime, the jiva is the soul that transmigrates from one life to another. Sarah in this life may become Shiela in the next. A typical analogy is that of water which can be poured from one container to another, taking on the form of whatever container it is in.

So in one life, the water is in the form of a cup (Sarah), in another it takes the form of a pot (Shiela). Another analogy is that of a pillow and a pillowcase. The jiva is the pillow, in one life slipped in one pillowcase (Sarah), in another slipped into another one (Shiela). This is supposed to happen until jiva (non-named since it always takes on the name of its present incarnation) learns the lessons it should and awakens to the deep truth of the fundamental unity of everything through a practice of yoga. That knowledge is sufficient to end the cycle of births and rebirths. The individual soul at that point simply disappears again into the primordial unity of Brahman. To return to our water analogy, the water is then returned to the ocean, where it simply exists in unity, losing its individual features.

Epistemology in Advaita Vedanta and Beyond

One of the great difficulties with any of these religious-philosophical systems concerns how we are to know these difficult metaphysical truths — about the self and ultimate reality — that they expound.

Generally, we accept that we gain knowledge through reflection on our sense experience and logical deductions. But the spiritual systems propose metaphysical truths about which we have no sense experience. Generally, the religious systemizers will maintain that a type of internal sense, an internal sight, or insight, is possible that allows us to understand the metaphysical truths that are expounded. These Eastern systems, in particular, are less dogmatic than the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) tend to be.

Hinduism does have many sacred texts that are formative for all in the tradition, but it largely does not understand itself as a dogmatic belief system but as a living system. Gurus are thought to have the insights and to be able to guide others to have these as well. This requires the practice of various forms of yoga, which eventually should allow the insights among the practitioners. It is this kind of intuition that should lead individuals to accept the truth of the ideas of Brahman, Atman, reincarnation, and so on.

There are five general types of yoga: 1) Hatha yoga is the type of yoga most people are familiar with through yoga centers in the U.S. and Europe. In this form of yoga … one assumes asanas (or postures), engaging in physical practices that are to reform the mind, leading to Moksa. 2) Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. 3) Karma yoga is the yoga of service. 4) Raja yoga is the yoga of meditation. 5) Jnana yoga is the yoga of theoretical learning.

In Hinduism, the practice of these forms of yoga is related both to epistemology and ethics. Each of these practices should lead individuals to understand their ultimate unity with one another in Atman and Brahman. Knowing this, these individuals will also lose the egoism that drives selfish and immoral behavior. So, it is such practices, along with the adherence to a moral regime, that lead to insight about metaphysical truths.

Of course, it has to be acknowledged that only very few individuals will indeed have had such deep insight. But in the most charitable reading, one might note that few understand relativity theory or string theory either. But the assumption accepted is that with enough work they would be able to understand it. In these religious systems, the vast majority have some faith that they could, one day with enough practice, understand the truths that they now largely accept on faith.

Should we trust our cultivated inner perception?

A problem with such arguments about an inner perception is that there seems to be little agreement among those who maintain they have one (whether in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other traditions). Most of these worldviews maintain that some such insight is available, at least to some. Yet the fundamental descriptions of the metaphysical reality across these traditions are not in agreement, unlike the descriptions of relativity theorists, for example, in diverse places such as China, Germany, the U.S. and so on.

Reincarnation is also a process that practitioners of these Eastern systems maintain one might also have an inner perception of. Deja vu experiences, dreams, and the like are the general reports used in support of veracity of such views. The question for those considering such views is whether those experiences are best explained as indicating the reality of reincarnation and as lending sometimes support for the mechanism of karma, or whether some other explanation might be more compelling.

Indeed, given the lack of agreement among the various religious systems in the world about what that inner perception is — regarding views of God, the self, the afterlife — how reliable of a guide is it? …

The Basics of Hinduism

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© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers has characterized the period of the 6th to the 2nd century BCE (before the common era) as the Axial Age. This is a period of the establishment and flourishing of new worldviews that began to replace the polytheistic religious views that were dominant before that time. Many significant figures for the development of worldviews that were determinant for two thousand years lived at this time. In Greece, we see the early natural philosophers, as well as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (who for their part go on, along with the Old Testament prophets of this period, to strongly affect Christianity). In India, we see the formulation of the philosophical ideas in the Bhagavad Gita that serve as the foundation for the later developed Advaita Vedanta. We also see Buddha challenge the Hindu ideas that he inherited. In China, Loazi (the founder of Taoism) and Confucius (the founder of Confucianism) begin to develop their philosophical systems …

Advaita Vedanta

… Here we will only survey some basic ideas of the school of Indian philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta. This philosophical school was developed by the philosopher Shankara in the eighth century of the common era. Yet it draws on ideas in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, sacred texts within the Hindu tradition, the latter of which was developed in the Axial Age. Advaita Vedanta is particularly important for its clear expression of pantheism, the idea that there is one thing and that thing is God. Hindus view everything in the world as ultimately an expression of one underlying godhead.

While the main forms of Hinduism are pantheistic, Hinduism generally also accepts that one can speak of a plurality of gods. Hinduism generally acknowledges hundreds of thousands, or some say even millions, of gods. Yet the entire Hindu pantheon can all be viewed as expressions of the same underlying godhead, Brahman. Hindus believe that one can worship any of them as a vehicle for Moksa, or enlightenment. Brahman can work through the varying guises.

Given that Hinduism generally accepts that one can worship any of the various manifestations of the Godhead, Hinduism is also known as henotheism. Henotheism identifies all particular deities ultimately with one ultimate reality and accepts that one may worship whichever manifestation one wants. As a rule, the proponents of Advaita Vedanta focus on seeing this philosophically, however, and emphasize Brahman.

While this is already complicated, in fact, the discussion of ultimate reality in Advaita Vedanta is more complicated still: Just as that pantheon can be identified with the one Godhead, Brahman, so all different people and things in the world can ultimately be viewed as expressions of a single world soul, known as Atman. This world soul is the true Self underlying many apparently separate visages of individuals. So you and I and all others are actually expressions of this world-soul comparable to how the manifold gods are really expressions of one basic godhead, Brahman.

Ultimately, in fact, yoga (in any of its multiple forms that allow a binding of the individual to the Godhead) will unveil that Brahman and Atman are also really unified. In other words, those forms identified with transcendent Brahman (the pantheon of gods) and the individuals of the world (viewed as expressions of Atman) are themselves really one thing. This too is called Brahman. Rightly understood, the transcendent and the immanent aspects of the Godhead are seen as unified: Brahman and Atman are the self-same. Advaita Vedanta also … has well-known views about the soul and its possible reincarnation and posits laws that control the transmigration of the soul–karma. These ideas will be expanded on later, as we also consider philosophical conundrums of pantheism.

One of the most serious questions involves ethics: For example, if all individuals are really an expression of the one Godhead, of Brahman, then what ultimate importance do moral ideas possess? If they slayer and the slain are one and the same, as is famously said in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, then how do we really make sense of moral command not to kill? (Shankara’s commentary on some of the Upanishads can be found online.)

Other questions concern what evidence is really sufficient for showing that there really is only one substance, Brahman and that our sense of individual existent entities is ultimately illusory? What evidence, too, is strong enough that we might believe that there is a soul and that reincarnation really occurs? Other questions of the afterlife also present themselves: Sri Aurobindo, a premier Indian philosopher of the 20th century and the developer of Integral Yoga, has asked what real consolation a belief in reincarnation provides for individuals given that it is not the individual self as we normally understand it who is reincarnated. If a man named John in one life is reincarnated as Leslie in a future life, there is in some sense no more John. Leslie will not generally have memories of having been John. John’s body will not exist, etc.

Of course, the discussion here of this as “Hindu philosophy” is oversimplified. There are minority positions within Hindu philosophy, like the Dvaita Vedanta, that are not monistic, … Proponents of Dvaita Vedanta are dualists who maintain that in fact the Godhead, the world, and the individuals in the world exist as separate substances. They focus also on the personal worship of Vishnu.