© 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 …
… 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.