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 … 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 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? …

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4 thoughts on “Hindu Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics

  1. Well done, IMO you’ve asked the right questions. How to know which religion is the true one or how do we know when we are just believing cultural systems imprinted in us by our tribe?
    I do think that if you can awaken to some degree then you might then trust that inner voice, intuition, or whatever you will call it. I’m speaking from personal experience here. I’ve looked deeply into religions and philosophies, psychology and science to the best of my ability and I’ve come to distrust them all more or less. Think and feel that at best they are distractions and at worse an evil plot to keep us in the dark. In the end I had to go it almost completely alone and have indeed taken a “road less traveled”. However my inner voice and my logical mind have come to agree that my best guess is truly my best guess and the one I should follow even if I have to deal with the sheer terror of going in another direction from friends, family, education, culture, country etc. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done since I dealt with very abusive childhood experiences but I’m finally (I hope) finding the courage to follow my own beliefs. Not easy, not easy at all my friends. You really have to look into your dark side and the worlds dark side as Jung pointed out to find yourself as somewhat of a whole being, who is still a mess. Then there is no need for a system or guru or religion. There is only your path and whatever courage you can find to walk or even crawl it. For the first time in my life I can say I am consciously on my path and I’m really scared much of the time of where it is leading me but I really believe I have a true chance to find the freedom I’ve always heard about in books and such but have never seen in anyone, anywhere, whose been telling me about it. And fortunately I’m not totally alone in my choice of path. In fact I believe I’m in very good company however few in number. Good luck to everyone.

  2. “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.”

    From an Eastern perspective, it doesn’t have to be Either-Or:
    it can be reincarnation, karma AND some other explanation all rolled up into One and the Many!

  3. Thanks for the comments. J. Miller, I think that setting out to think on our own is difficult. One problem is that it tends also to lack support groups. I think one of the most compelling reasons for religion for many is that it helps create a community, a support group. Agnostics or those out of sync with dogmas of most religious groups have tended not to replicate such community well. For some, who still think spiritual practices are worthwhile, Universalist Unitarian churches or some other non-dogmatic communities exist. For those who find little desire for communal spiritual practices, there is little available. And we often benefit from such support groups. The Humanist Society has some groups. I have no idea how beneficial they are. I’m also not sure how they are related to the American Humanist Society. There are local chapters. Or one could start one. I’m not recommending them necessarily. But it does seem there may be some value in the community that they could provide. https://americanhumanist.org/get-involved/find-or-start-a-chapter/

  4. Safe to write that people are consciously/subconsciously karmic via their children and grandchildren; they pass on the negative & positive to succeeding generations.
    Am too repetitive to be an academic, but in choosing one meme to expound on, can try. Not that anyone needs to be told, but all the same, in a comment one can cover little without writing a multi-thousand word diatribe few want to read. In this one will v. lightly touch on Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar’s version of Hindu-derived economics. In it, there are four categories of inclination:


    The categories are naturally quite generalized; nonetheless certain patterns can be seen:
    A worker might also teach piano– yet the inclination is towards laboring.
    A Serviceman might write poetry (i.e. Patton) however is more inclined to be martial-oriented than intellectual.
    An intellectual may be involved in business albeit the main interest could well be intellectual all ’round.
    A businessperson could be in the Army Reserves, but military service is usually based on obligation. Few men enjoy living dangerously in the Services.

    Even Ben Franklin, well known for his many interests, was primarily an intellectual. All else was more/less his sideline interest, activities.
    What happens is: corruption spreads throughout different classes, changing things through dislocation and innovation. This is all that can be written in a brief comment.

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