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NITAAI-Veda.nyf > All Scriptures By Acharyas > Suhotra Dasa Tapovanachari > Six Systems of Philosophy > Vedanta Conclusion of Vedas

7. Vedanta: The Conclusion of the Vedic Revelation

In the introduction of this book it was explained that the Upanisads are the subject of the fourth and final degree of Vedic scholarship. Therefore the Upanisads are known as vedanta, "the conclusion of the Veda." Karma-mimamsa philosophy arose from the earlier study of the ritualistic portions of the Vedas, and so it is also known as purva-mimamsa, "the prior deliberation." Vedanta is called uttara-mimamsa, "the higher deliberation", and also as brahma-mimamsa, "deliberation on Brahman, the Absolute Truth."

The word upanisad means "that which is learned by sitting close to the teacher." The texts of the Upanisads are extremely difficult to fathom; they are to be understood only under the close guidance of a spiritual master (guru). Because the Upanisads contain many apparently contradictory statements, the great sage Vyasadeva (also known as Vedavyasa, Badarayana and Dvaipayana) systematized the Upanisadic teachings in the Vedanta-sutra or Brahma-sutra. The Vedanta-sutra is divided into four chapters: Samanvaya, which explains the unity of the philosophy of the Upanisads; Avirodha, which dispels apparent contradictions; Sadhana, which describes the means to attain the Supreme; and Phala, which indicates the goal. Vyasa's sutras are very terse. Without a fuller explanation, their meaning is difficult to grasp. In India there are five main schools of vedanta, each established by an acarya who explained the sutras in a bhasya (commentary).

Of the five schools or sampradayas, one, namely Shankara's, is impersonalist. This means that the Supreme Being is explained in impersonal terms as being nameless, formless and without characteristics. The schools of Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka and Vishnusvami explain God in personal terms; these acaryas and their followers have very exactingly formulated a philosophy that dispels the sense of mundane limitation associated with the word "person" and establishes transcendental personalism in terms of eternity, endless knowledge, complete bliss, absolute all-attractive form and all-encompassing love. Each of the five Vedantist sampradayas is known for its siddhanta or "essential conclusion" about the relationships between God and the soul, the soul and matter, matter and matter, matter and God, and the soul and souls. Shankara's siddhanta is advaita, "nondifference" (i.e. everything is one, therefore these five relationships are unreal). All the other siddhantas support the reality of these relationships from various points of view. Ramanuja's siddhanta is visistadvaita, "qualified nondifference." Madhva's siddhanta is dvaita, "difference." Vishnusvami's siddhanta is suddhadvaita, "purified nondifference." And Nimbarka's siddhanta is dvaita-advaita, "difference-and-identity."

The Bengali branch of Madhva's sampradaya is known as the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya Sampradaya, or the Caitanya Sampradaya. In the 1700's this school presented Indian philosophers with a commentary on Vedanta-sutra written by Baladeva Vidyabhusana that argued yet another siddhanta. It is known as acintya-bedhabheda-tattva, which means "simultaneous inconceivable oneness and difference." In recent years this siddhanta has become known to people from all over the world due to the popularity of the books of Sri Srimad A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Shankara and Buddhism

Sometimes Shankara's advaita vedanta commentary is presented in books about Hinduism as if it is the original and only vedanta philosophy. But a closer look at the advaita doctrine shows it to be in opposition to many of the fundamental tenets of the Vedanta-sutra. In his landmark work "The Brahmasutras and Their Principal Commentaries" the eminent Indian scholar B.N.K. Sharma chronicles how Shankara and his followers go so far as to "openly rebuff" Vyasadeva for his wording of the original text of the Vedanta-sutra. The advaitists are not shy about overturning the original sense of the text in order to push through their own impersonal philosophy.

That Shankara's philosophy is more akin to Buddhism than vedanta is widely acknowledged. A Japanese Buddhist professor of Sanskrit, Hajime Nakamura, has presented strong historical evidence that the ancient pre-Shankara Vedantists were purusa-vadins (purusa = "person", vadin = "philosopher"). Purusavadins understood the goal of vedanta philosophy to be personal and termed God the mahapurusa (Greatest Person). Bhavya, an Indian Buddhist author who lived centuries before Shankara, wrote in the Madhyamika-hrdaya-karika that the Vedantists of his time were adherents of the doctrine of bhedabheda (simultaneous oneness and difference), which is personalistic. Another Indian Buddhist writer, Bhartrhari, who lived at the same time as Shankara, stated that although Shankara was a brahmana scholar of the Vedas, his impersonal teachings resembled Buddhism. This is admitted by the followers of Shankara themselves. Professor Dr. Rajmani Tigunait of the Himalayan Institute of Yoga is a present-day exponent of advaita vedanta; he writes that the ideas of the Buddhist sunyavada (voidist) philosophers are "very close" to Shankara's. Sunyavada is one of four important schools of Buddhism that developed in India before Shankara's time. The word sunya (void) refers to the impersonal emptiness that the Buddhists believe pervades all things. When one attains the Buddha-consciousness, the forms of the world fade away like dreams and only emptiness remains. In his Vedanta commentary, Shankara maintained the same idea of ultimate emptiness, substituting the Upanisadic word brahman (the Absolute) for sunya. Because Shankara argued that all names, forms, qualities, activities and relationships are maya (illusion), even divine names and forms, his philosophy is called mayavada (the doctrine of illusion).

But it is not that Shankara himself is utterly disrespected by the Vedantists of other sampradayas. Shankara's purpose was to revive an interest in vedanta philosophy in an India that had largely rejected the Vedas in favor of Buddhism. This task he accomplished brilliantly, albeit by artificially incorporating Buddhist ideas into his commentary so as to make it acceptable to the intellectuals of his time. It became the task of later Vedantists in other sampradayas to rid vedanta philosophy of the last vestiges of Buddhism. Though they attacked the mayavadi conception as non-Vedic, they owed Shankara a debt for having brought vedanta to the forefront of Indian philosophical discussion.

The nature of God in Vedanta philosophy

If, as the mayavadis argue, God is an impersonal absolute that is indifferent to its worshipers, then God cannot be the goal of the Vedic religion. And if knowledge of God cannot be expressed in words, then God cannot be the goal of the texts of the Upanisads either. Thus the mayavadi conception of God undermines the very purpose of the Vedas. The Vedantists of the four personalist schools therefore set out to establish a truly Vedic theology.

The first code of the Vedanta-sutra (athato brahma-jijnasa, which means "Now, therefore, let us inquire into Brahman, the Absolute"), is Vyasa's directive to brahmanas who have tired of the Vedic kamyakarmas (the rituals aimed at material benefits) which yield only limited and temporary fruits. Brahma-jijnasa (inquiry into Brahman) is Vedic metaphysics (meta = beyond, physic = matter). The term jijnana (inquiry) indicates that God is not a being so radically divorced from sensory experience that He can only be known in terms of what He is not (the "via negativa" of European theology, which is the method the mayavadis call neti-neti, "not this, not this"). Quite to the contrary, God may be positively understood by a human being who properly uses his senses and mind to inquire about His positive existence beyond matter.

God as the object of positive inquiry is defined in the second code of Vedanta-sutra: janmadyasya-yatah, "He, from whom proceeds the creation, maintenance and dissolution of this universe, is Brahman." The universe is full of qualities that emanate from God -- hence God Himself must be full of qualities. Mayavadi philosophy denies the reality of the qualities of the universe. This in turn denies the very definition the Vedanta-sutra gives for God, for if the universe is unreal, then the God who is said to be the source of the universe must also be unreal. By what authority can we be sure that the universe is real and that God is the source of it? The third code of Vedanta-sutra answers, sastra-yonitvat, "It is revealed in the Vedic scriptures."

The universe has form; if God is the origin of the universe, then He must Himself possess form. But the Vedic scriptures declare that this form is not limited and imperfect like the forms of the material creation. From the Upanisads we learn that God's qualities are satyam jnanam anantam sundaram anandamayam amalam: "eternity, knowledge, endlessness, beauty, bliss, perfection." This means that God's form is one of infinite and all-pervasive sublime consciousness. A materialistic thinker may object that "all-pervasive form" is a contradiction of terms. The answer is that it is not, once the spiritual substance of God's form is accepted. Spirit is the most subtle energy; even in our experience of subtle material energy, we see there is no contradiction between pervasiveness and form. For instance, the pervasiveness of sound is not impeded when sound is given form (as in the form of beautiful music).

God's form is one, but is understood differently from difference angles of vision, just as a mountain is seen differently by a person as he approaches it from a great distance and climbs to the top. From the great distance of theoretical speculation, God is known as brahman, a vague and impersonal being. A closer look at God is made possible by yoga, by which He is perceived as paramatma, the Supersoul who dwells within the heart of every living being and who inspires the soul with knowledge, remembrance and forgetfulness. And finally, from the perspective of bhakti (pure devotion), one may know God in His feature of personal perfection called bhagavan. Vedanta-sutra 1.1.12 states, anandamaya-bhyasat: "The para brahman (highest God) is anandamaya." Anandamaya means "of the nature of pure bliss." This is a clear reference to God's bhagavan feature, which is all-blissful due to its being the reservoir of unlimited positive transcendental attributes such as beauty, wealth, fame, strength, knowledge and renunciation. The mayavadis take anandamaya to mean merely "absence of sorrow", but as Baladeva Vidyabhusana writes in the Govinda-bhasya, "The affix mayat indicates "abundance" (an abundance of ananda or bliss). The sun is called jyotirmaya, "of the nature of abundant light" (and not merely "of the nature of the absence of darkness"). Similarly anandamaya means "He whose essential nature is abundant bliss"." The Taittiriya Upanisad (2.7.1) states, raso vai sah, "He is of the nature of sweetness; the soul who realizes Him attains to that divine sweetness."

Relation of God to the world

In our study of the other systems of Vedic philosophy we have seen various explanations of the existence of the world. In nyaya, God is the operative cause of the world, but atoms are the material cause. (Note: in philosophy there are four ways to explain causation, as in this example of the causation of a house: the construction company is the "operative cause", the bricks, cement and other building materials are the "material cause", the original type of house upon which this house is modelled is the "formal cause", and the purpose of the house, i.e. that someone wants to live in it, is the "final cause".) In sankhya, creation is regarded as the spontaneous result of the contact between prakrti and purusa. The sankhya philosopher says "there is no need for God" in his system, but he fails to explain what governs the coming together of prakrti and purusa in the first place. Patanjali says God is the Supreme Self distinguished from other selves, and He is the intelligent governor of prakrti and purusa. But Patanjali nonetheless accepts the sankhya view that prakrti and purusa have no origin. God as creator plays no essential role in the mimamsaka system, which believes that the world as a whole is eternal, though its gross manifestations may come and go. Discounting all these theories, Vedanta-sutra defines God as He among all beings who alone is simultaneously the operative, material, formal and final causes of the cosmos. As the intelligence behind creation, He is the operative cause; as the source of prakrti and purusa, He is the material cause; as the original transcendental form of which the world is but a shadow, He is the formal cause; as the purpose behind the world, He is the final cause.

Mayavadi philosophy avoids the issue of causation by claiming that the world, though empirically real, is ultimately a dream. But since even dreams have a cause, the mayavadi "explanation" explains nothing. In the visistadvaita explanation, the material world is the body of God, the Supreme Soul. But the dvaita school does not agree that matter is connected to God as body is to soul, because God is transcendental to matter. The world of matter is full of misery, but since vedanta defines God as anandamaya, how can nonblissful matter be said to be His body? The truth according to the dvaita school is that matter is ever separate from God but yet is eternally dependent upon God; by God's will, says the dvaita school, matter becomes the material cause of the world. The suddhadvaita school cannot agree with the dvaita school that matter is the material cause because matter has no independent origin apart from God. Matter is actually not different from God in the same way an effect is not different from its cause, although there is an appearance of difference. The dvaitadvaita school agrees that God is both the cause and effect, but is dissatisfied with the suddhadvaita school's proposition that the difference between God and the world is only illusory. The dvaitadvaita school says that God is neither one with nor different from the world -- He is both. A snake, the dvaitadvaita school argues, can neither be said to have a coiled form or a straight form. It has both forms. Similarly, God's "coiled form" is His transcendental non-material aspect, and His "straight form" is His mundane aspect. But this explanation is not without its problems. If God's personal nature is eternity, knowledge and bliss, how can the material world, which is temporary, full of ignorance and miserable, be said to be just another form of God?

The Caitanya school reconciles these seemingly disparate views of God's relationship to the world by arguing that the Vedic scriptures testify to God's acintya-shakti, "inconceivable powers." God is simultaneously the cause of the world in every sense and yet distinct from and transcendental to the world. The example given is of a spider and its web. The material of the web comes from the spider's body, so in a sense the spider may be taken as the material cause of the web. Yet again the spider and the web are always separate and distinct entities. While the spider never "is" the web, at the same time because the spider's body is the source of the web, the web is not different from the spider.

In terms of vedanta, the substance of the web is God's maya-shakti (power of illusion), which is manifest from the real but is not real itself. "Not real" simply means that the features of maya (the tri-guna, or three modes of material nature -- goodness, passion and ignorance) are temporary. Reality is that which is eternal: God and God's svarupa-shakti (spiritual energy). The temporary features of the material world are manifestations of the maya-shakti, not of God Himself. These features bewilder the souls of this world just as flies are caught in the spider's web. But they cannot bewilder God.

The Christian view of creation compared with Vedanta

Christian theologians have not attempted to explain their doctrine of the relationship of God to the world in the rigorous philosophical fashion as have India's Vedantists. Augustine's doctrine is called creation ex nihilo, "creation out of nothing." In this view, God is eternal and transcendental and creation had a beginning in point of time. But God created the world out of nothing. Augustine argued that if God created the world out of some pre-existent substance, this substance would either be God Himself or something other than God. Since God is immutable, the substance could not be Him. And it could not be a substance other than God, for in the beginning only God existed. So Augustine's conclusion is that the world arose out of nothing at all by the will of God. Thus God is the operative cause of the world but there is no material cause whatsoever. This attitude is a statement of faith, but hardly meets the needs of philosophy. A Vedantist would reply, "If it is the nature of reality that something arises from nothing, then this process should be visible today. But we see that all effects must have a material cause. Furthermore, if something can come out of nothing, then it would logically follow that anything could come out of anything -- a human being could hatch from a hen's egg or a woman could give birth to a chicken. But we observe that creation follows the rule known in Vedic logic as satkaryavada: like cause, like effect. By this rule, nothing must come from nothing, and something must come from something. This rule is not a limitation of God's supreme power, rather it is a statement of His power, because it is given by God Himself."

What about the final cause i.e. the purpose of creation? According to Augustine, God does not create to attain something, for He is infinitely perfect. He was not compelled to create, but His love inclined Him to create as an expression of His goodness. All creatures represent and participate in divine goodness. This doctrine has given rise to "the problem of evil" that has bedeviled European philosophers for centuries: if God is good and the creation is good, why is there evil? The Christian answer is that God did not create evil but permitted it to oblige man to choose between good and bad. By choosing good, man becomes more exalted that he could be in a world that was all-good.

The Vedanta-sutra takes up the question of the purpose of creation and the problem of evil in the second chapter, part one, codes 32-37. First it is established that God has no need to fulfill in creating the material world. The motive is lila, "play" -- not the play of a man who is bored or otherwise in need of recreation, but the play of exuberance of spirit. This lila is natural to God, because He is full of self-bliss. But how can causing suffering to others by placing them in a world of birth, old age, disease and death be the sport of God? The answer is that the jivas (individual souls) who fall into the material world have their own motive for entering the creation; this motive is distinct from lila. Their motive is karma, action meant to fulfill material desires left over in the subconscious mind from actions in previous lifetimes. Karma is beginningless. It extends into the past even beyond the beginning of the universe to a previous universe, now destroyed, and universes before that one ad infinitum. Due to karma, some living entities are born into enjoyment and others into suffering. God is responsible for neither good nor evil, which are the fruits of the jivas' own work. Indeed, good and evil are merely dualities of material sense perception which, being temporary, are ultimately unreal. This duality arises from the souls' being divided from God. From the purely spiritual point of view, any condition in material existence is evil because it is the condition of the soul's selfish forgetfulness of God. The absolute good is love of God. God favors his devotees with His absolute goodness by delivering them from material realm of duality and endless karma and situating them in the spiritual realm of eternal loving service.

Relation of God to the individual soul

Indian philosophy abounds with speculations about the self, or soul. The doctrine of Carvaka, an ancient thinker who opposed the Vedic teachings, is thoroughly materialistic. He thought the body itself to be the soul and consciousness to be a product of material combination. There is no God, and the purpose of life is to gratify the senses. Carvaka philosophy was strongly opposed by Buddhism which is yet no less materialistic in its outlook on the soul. Buddhism says that soul does not exist. The very concept of "selfness" is false. The body is but a wave in a stream of events. There is no purpose to existence, not even the purpose of sense gratification. There is no God. The only truth is emptiness. These two philosophies represent the extremes of human materialistic mentality: Carvaka is a "sankalpa doctrine" arising from the mental phase of accepting (sankalpa) the material world for enjoyment, and Buddhism is a "vikalpa doctrine", arising from the mental phase of rejecting (vikalpa) the world in frustration. Sankalpa and vikalpa are mere dualities of the mind which inevitably bewilder one who has no knowledge of what is beyond matter, i.e. spirit.

The six darshanas of the Vedic scriptures all confirm that the individual self is non-material and eternal. The goal of existence is liberation, and each darshana proposes a means by which the soul may be liberated from material existence. In vedanta, there are two basic explanations of the soul, one given by the mayavadis and the other given by the four personalist schools. Mayavadis say that there is only one soul -- the Supreme Soul, God. The the conception of a plurality of individual souls is an illusion. Personalists refute the mayavadi view by pointing out that if it were true that God is the only soul, then that would mean that illusion is more powerful than God -- because the so-called One Soul fell under the spell of maya and became the unlimited living entities subject to repeated birth and death. This is tantamount to saying that there is no Supreme Being at all. The personalists' version is that although God and the souls share the same spiritual qualities (sat-cid-ananda vigraha, "formed of eternity, knowledge and bliss"), still a difference remains between them. God is vibhu (all-pervading) whereas the souls are anu (infinitesimal). The exact relationship between soul and God is described differently by each of the four personalist schools. These viewpoints are synthesized by the Caitanya school, which gives an example of the sun and sunshine to show how God and the souls share the same qualities in oneness and difference simultaneously. Just as the sunshine is the marginal energy of the sun, so the souls are the marginal (tatastha) shakti of God. As sunshine is made up of unlimited photons (infinitesimal particles of light), God's tatastha-shakti is made up of unlimited infinitesimal spiritual particles, each one an individually conscious personal being. The soul is called ksetrajna (ksetra = field, jna = knower), because each soul is conscious of his particular field of awareness, i.e. his own body and mind. The soul is like a candle-flame, the limit of his luminescence being the limit of his field of awareness. God is called vyasti-kstrajna and samasti-ksetrajna. As vyasti-ksetrajna, God knows everything about each individual soul's individual existence (i.e. He knows unlimitedly more about the soul than does the soul himself -- for instance, God knows all of the past incarnations of each soul). And as samasti-ksetrajna, God is the knower of all souls at once in their totality. Because the soul is infinitely small, its power of knowledge can be obscured by maya, just as a ray of the sun can be blocked by a cloud. But clouds are created and destroyed by the influence of the sun on the earth's atmosphere. Similarly, maya is always subordinate to God. The individual souls may come under the control of maya, but maya is always under the control of God.

The Caitanya school of vedanta teaches that the soul has an eternal function which is to serve God. This service may be rendered directly or indirectly. In direct service, the ecstasy (bhava) of spiritual love shared by soul and God is fully manifest in a transcendental personal relationship called rasa (sweet exchange). In indirect service, the soul serves God under the illusion of forgetfulness. Under maya, the soul is attracted by forms of matter instead of forms of spirit. He is overwhelmed by emotions such as lust, anger, greed, madness, illusion and envy which are nothing but perverted reflections of spiritual emotions. These emotions impel him to try to control and exploit the material world as if it belonged to him. The result of the soul's false lordship over matter is endless entanglement in samsara, the cycle of repeated birth and death.

The soul is meant to love God, but God grants the soul a minute independence of choice whether to love God or not. Love is voluntary. If God forced the souls to love Him, then "love" as we understand it would have no meaning. By loving God the soul automatically attains mukti (liberation); conversely, by not loving God the soul comes under the maya-shakti. There are two kinds of liberation -- jivanmukti and videhamukti. Jivanmukti is attained even before the demise of the physical body. When the embodied soul dedicates all his activities to God as an offering of love, he is freed from the bondage of karma. After death he attains videhamukti, an eternal situation of devotional service within the realm of svarupa-shakti, the divine energy. Videhamukti is described in Chandogya Upanisad 8.12.3: "Thus does that serene being, arising from his last body, appear his own form, having come to the highest light by the grace of Supreme Person. The liberated soul moves about there laughing, playing and rejoicing, in the company of women, vehicles and other liberated souls." As Baladeva Vidyabhusana explains in his Govinda-bhasya commentary on Vedanta-sutra, the liberated souls are in threefold union with the Lord: 1) they are in the spiritual realm of God, which is not different from God Himself; 2) by their constant meditation upon Him, God is ever-within their souls, and 3) they are in union of love with the personal form of God that appears before them. From this state, the concluding code of Vedanta-sutra declares, anavrittih sabdat, anavrittih sabdat, "There is no return (to the material world). Verily there is no return, for the Vedas so declare."

The spiritual form of God

Vedanta-sutra 3.2.23 states, tat avyaktam aha: "The form of brahman is unmanifest, so the scriptures say." The next code adds, api samradhane pratyaksa anumanabhyam: "But even the form of brahman becomes directly visible to one who worships devoutly -- so teach the scriptures" (api = but, samradhane = intense worship, pratyaksa = as directly visible, anumanabhyam = as inferred from scripture). The mayavadis hold that the form of God is a material symbol imagined by the devotee as a meditational aid. When the devotee attains liberation he realizes that God is formless. But this idea is contradicted by Vedanta-sutra 3.2.16, aha ca tanmatram: "The scriptures declare that the form of the Supreme consists of the very essence of His Self." And furthermore Vedanta-sutra 3.3.36 asserts that within the realm of brahman the devotees see other divine manifestations which appear even as physical objects in a city (antara bhuta gramavat svatmanah: antara = inside, bhuta = physical, gramavat = like a city, svatmanah =to His own, i.e. to His devotees).

The personalist schools of vedanta identify the personal form of God indicated here as the transcendental form of Vishnu or Krishna. The brahma-pura (city within brahman) is identified as the divine realm of Vishnu known as Vaikuntha. This conclusion is corroborated by the Srimad-Bhagavatam, written by Vyasa as his own "natural commentary" on Vedanta-sutra. The first verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam begins with the phrase om namo bhagavate vasudevaya janmadyasya yatah, which means "I offer my respectful obeisances to Bhagavan Vasudeva (Krishna), the source of everything." Vyasa employs the words janmadyasya yatah, which comprise the second sutra of the Vedanta-sutra, in the first verse of the Srimad-Bhagavatam to establish that Krishna is brahman, the Absolute Truth. This is clear testimony of the author's own conclusion about the ultimate goal of all Vedic knowledge.

Vedanta-sutra 4.1.6. states, adityadi matayah ca angopapatteh: "Reason dictates that the sun and other cosmic manifestations be thought of as originating from the limbs of the Lord." The "reason" referred to here may be termed (in Western philosophical language) "the argument of design": that because the cosmos is arrayed as if according to design, it is logical to seek a designer as its cause. Scripture explains that the design of the universe (the visvarupa, "universal form") is based upon the eternal transcendental form of Krishna. The sun and the moon are said to be the eyes of the universal form; they derive their splendor from the spiritual eyes of Krishna. In turn, the eyes of all creatures are derived from the eyes of the visvarupa. Krishna is the original designer. He draws the design of the material universe from His personal nonmaterial form, which is the source of everything. The form of the Lord may be meditated upon in this way as long as the soul is embodied in matter.

As mentioned, the mayavadis believe that meditation upon the form of the Lord is to be given up when the soul is at last freed of matter. But Vedanta-sutra 4.1.12 states, aprayanat tatrapi hi drstam: "scripture reveals that worship of the form of the Lord should be done up to liberation (aprayanat) and even thereafter (tatrapi)." Baladeva Vidyabhusana writes in his commentary, "The liberated souls are irresistibly drawn to worship the Lord because He is so beautiful and attractive. The force of His beauty compels adoration. A person suffering from jaundice is cured by eating sugar; but he continues eating sugar even after the the cure -- not because he has any disease, but because the sugar is sweet. So also is the case of liberated souls and worship of the form of the Lord."

Refutation of other systems of Vedic philosophy

The systems of nyaya, sankhya, yoga, etc. all apparently accept the Veda as authority, and each system puts forward the claim of being the most meaningful formulation of that which is to be learned from the Veda. The second and third chapters of Vedanta-sutra go to considerable length in pointing out the fallacies and shortcomings of these competing philosophies.

Nyaya. The followers of Gautama (i.e. the nyaya philosophers) are rejected as being aparigrahah, "they who do not accept the Veda," because they rely on logic rather than on scriptural testimony in defending their theories. Unaided logic has no power to describe the beginning of all things, which is the purpose of vedanta. Where the senses fail in perceiving the source, logic must resort to guesswork. This in turn gives rise to contradictory speculations even within the camps of the nyayas and other logicians, such as the vaisesikas and the Buddhists. Some say atoms are the eternal and only material cause of the universe. Others say the atoms are ultimately temporary and unreal. Others say the atoms are ultimately thoughts. Others say that the void behind the atoms is the only reality. Others say the atoms are simultaneously real and unreal.

Vedanta says that the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the material cause. Logicians attempt to defeat this by arguing, "This position makes out the potent (the Lord) and His potency (spirit and matter, which together are the ingredients of creation) to be identical. Thus vedanta, when examined logically, is shown to hold that the individual soul and God are one and the same. But this contradicts the evidence of the Veda, for instance Svetasvatara Upanisad 4.6-7, wherein the body is compared to a tree and the soul and Supersoul are compared to two birds within the tree. So how can Vedanta philosophy be said to be based upon the statements of the Veda? Nyaya upholds the distinction of God, the souls and matter which is asserted by the Vedic scriptures. Therefore this system is truly Vedic, whereas vedanta is anti-Vedic."

The Vedic scriptures assert acintya-bhedabheda-tattva, not the erroneous notions of nyaya. A man may hold a stick. The stick is his potency. In one sense, he and the stick are one; but then again they are also different. In the same way the Lord is one and different from His potencies. So while the Lord is the material cause of creation -- because the ingredients of creation have their source in Him and are not utterly separate co-existing entities that have no source -- the Lord is simultaneously distinct from his energies. Some Vedic statements assert the oneness of the Lord and His energies and others assert the difference. The validity of both viewpoints must be accepted, understood and explained by a true Vedic philosopher. Logicians accept only the Vedic statements of difference, which is like accepting only half a hen. In fact nyaya philosophers do not accept the Veda at all.

Vaisesika. This philosophy may be briefly restated as follows. Atoms are eternal and indivisible, possess form and other qualities, and are spherical. There are four kinds of atoms. During the cosmic dissolution, before the creation, they are dormant. At the time of creation, impelled by the invisible fate (adrsta-karma) of the souls, the atoms begin to vibrate and then combine into dyads (molecules of two atoms each). Three dyads combine into triads, and four triads combine into quaternary molecules. In this way larger and larger molecular structures are formed that comprise the stuff of the manifest universe. Atoms, therefore, are the immediate material cause of creation; their initial movement and combination into dyads is the remote material cause. The operative cause is adrsta-karma. The Lord is the destroyer of the material manifestation. He nullifies the connecting force that joins the atoms and thus dissolves the cosmic creation.

Vedanta philosophy asserts that the Lord and He alone is the cause of creation. The adrsta-karma theory will not suffice as an explanation for the combination of the atoms, for vaisesika states that during dissolution, the souls lie dormant without possessing any intelligence. So how can their innate karma influence the atoms? The dormant souls, being inert, are in no way superior to the atoms. Though the vaisesikas do say that the will of the Lord is the starting point of creation because He awakens the adrsta-karmas, this still does not explain the motion of the atoms and their subsequent combination.

Another failing of the vaisesika philosophy is its reliance upon the samavaya theory to explain why the single atoms form dyads. Samavaya (the theory of intrinsic relationship) is a category of fundamental reality that determines atomic conjunction and the qualities, actions and distinctions inseparably associated with material elements. The vaisesikas speak of samavaya as eternal and inherent, whereas other relationships (samyoga) such as seen between functionally connected objects (table and chair or automobile and road) are temporary and external. But in a universe that itself is temporary, as the material world is admitted to be also by the vaisesikas themselves, this appeal to "eternal and inherent" material relationships as the determining factor in the combination of atoms is contradictory.

Another weakness is the assignment of qualities such as form, taste, aroma and touch to the atoms. Experience demonstrates that material objects possessing these qualities are temporary; when these objects cease to exist, the qualities associated with them also cease. Since, at the time of the dissolution of the universe, all material qualities cease to exist, it follows that the atoms themselves cease to exist. But in vaisesika, atoms are held to be eternal. If the vaisesika philosopher adjusts his doctrine by saying that atoms actually possess no qualities, then he is at a loss to explain the origin of the qualities perceived in the elements the atoms make up.

Sankhya. The sankhya philosophers say, "The Upanisads directly glorify our Kapila with the words rsim prasutam kapilam, "He was the great sage Kapila." He spoke the Sankhya-smrti as a commentary on the jnana-kanda portion of the Veda, and he firmly approved of the agnihotra-yajnas and other rituals described in the karma-kanda portion. Kapila explained that insentient prakrti is the independent creator of the material universes, just as milk spontaneously creates cheese. If the Vedantists argue that the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the material, operative, formal and final cause of everything, they contradict Kapila, the great Vedic sage. Therefore to truly uphold Vedic tradition, Vedantists should interpret the Vedic texts in such a way that they do not contradict his writings.

But the explanation of prakrti as the cause of creation is not supported by the statements of great sages like Manu and Parasara found in other smrti-sastras. They declare that the material world was manifested from Lord Vishnu. The Kapila whom the sankhya philosophers follow is not a Vedic sage at all. The Padma Purana says, "One Kapila Muni, who was named Vasudeva, taught the sankhya doctrine fully supported by Vedic evidence to the demigods Brahma and others and the sages Brghu, Asuri and others. But another person named Kapila taught a form of sankhya that contradicts the Veda. He also had a disciple named Asuri, but this was a different Asuri. This sankhya is full of false reasoning and bad arguments." The statement, rsim prasutam kapilam (from Svetasvatara Upanisad 5.2), refers to Vasudeva Kapila who appeared as the son of Kardama Muni and Devahuti. The other Kapila, whom the atheistic sankhya philosophers revere, is an imposter.

The atheistic sankhya system is to be completely rejected as non-Vedic, not only because of its doctrine of "prakrti as the cause," but also because it holds that 1) the individual souls are all-pervading consciousness and no more than that; 2) the souls are bound or liberated by the arrangement of prakrti alone -- indeed, liberation and bondage are simply features of material existence; 3) there is no being who is the Supreme Soul, the Lord of all; 4) time is not eternal; 5) the five pranas are identical with the five senses.

The atheistic Kapila tried to prove with logic that prakrti is both the material and operative cause of creation. Yet his position is illogical and inconsistent. If prakrti is both the material and operative cause, then nothing apart from prakrti has the power to make prakrti act or stop it from acting because it is both the prime mover and first ingredient. But when the logic that "a cause will continue to be seen in its effect" is rigorously pursued, this premise breaks down. If it were so that prakrti is both the material and operative cause, then in the effect (the material creation), the same principle should be observed: that ingredients (e.g. the building materials of a house) spontaneously assemble themselves. Belief in the spontaneous assembly of complex material structures is universally deemed illogical. Moreover, this belief is inconsistent with other statements of the pseudo-Kapila. Prakrti is said elsewhere in the Sankhya-smrti to only become creative when spirit comes near it. Then how is inert matter alone the only cause? This gives rise to a new problem: at the time of devastation, spirit and matter are also near to one another. Why doesn't creation continue at the time of devastation? The sankhya philosophers may say, "During devastation, the karma of the living entities is not awakened," but there is no provision within their system that prevents it from awakening.

Sankhya philosophers give many examples to illustrate how prakrti alone creates, but none are valid. They say, "Just as milk spontaneously becomes yogurt, rainwater spontaneously becomes both bitter and sweet fruits, grass spontaneously becomes milk in the belly of a cow, and a pile of rice spontaneously gives birth to little scorpions, so inert prakrti alone generates all varieties of creation." In each of these examples, the factors of the living force (spirit soul) and the superior direction of the Supreme Soul have been excluded. Thus the arguments of the sankhya philosophers are unintelligent to the point of silliness.

The atheist Kapila claimed prakrti to be the final cause (the very purpose) of creation: "First, the living entity enjoys prakrti, then after experiencing her many defects he renounces her and attains liberation." In other words, souls are conditioned only because of experiencing the attractions of matter, and they are liberated only because of experiencing the defects of matter. Thus it would appear that the soul is a helpless pawn in the grip of matter, subject to bondage or release at her whims. Kapila tried to depict matter's purpose as beneficial because in the end the soul is released by her. But if both bondage and release are up to matter, then a soul so "liberated" may be bound by matter again at any time.

Sankhya theory states that prakrti is the equilibrium of the three modes of nature. When the modes compete for dominance over one another, the process of creation begins. But how this upset in the balance of the modes begins is not explained. God does not set it into motion, because God plays no role in sankhya philosophy (isvarasiddheh, "God has not been proved," said the pseudo-Kapila). Even time cannot be the reason, because Kapila said, dik-kalav akasadibhyah: "space and time are manifested from ether", i.e. time is a much later effect of a creation already set into motion. The spirit souls also play no part, because they are neutral and aloof from prakrti.

There are many more strange contradictions in the statements of the pseudo-Kapila. In one place he is quoted as saying, "spirit is conscious, for it is different from matter." In another place he says, "Because it has no qualities at all, the spirit soul must be devoid of consciousness." He asserts that the souls who understand they are different from matter are liberated and those who do not understand this are conditioned. But elsewhere he says that material bondage occurs whenever matter approaches the spirit soul, who then becomes pasu-vat, "just like a helpless animal."

Yoga. The adherents of patanjala-yoga cite passages from the Upanisads that praise the practice of yoga to support their claim that the vedanta can be grasped through the Yoga-smrti (the Patanjala Yoga-sutra and allied writings). But they hold that in order to use Patanjali's philosophy as the key for unlocking the highest meaning of the Veda, the Vedic scriptures should not be interpreted in a literal sense. This is because the Yoga-smrti: 1) depicts the individual souls and the Supreme Soul as being only all-pervading consciousness, with no further characteristics; 2) says that prakrti is the original independent cause of all causes; 3) says that liberation is simply the cessation of pain, obtainable only through the Patanjala system; 4) presents theories of sensory perception and the workings of the mind that are different from the explanations given in the Veda. Therefore, whenever contradictions are seen between the Yoga-smrti and the Veda on these points, the Patanjalas argue that the Vedic version must give way to the version of yoga.

Vedanta-sutra 2.1.3 replies, etena yoga-prayuktah: "As sankhya was refuted, so also is yoga." Sankhya and yoga are closely allied systems. As they share the same philosophy of purusa and prakrti, they share the same philosophical defects in their understanding of the origin of the universe. Though the Upanisads do employ the terms "sankhya" and "yoga," it is wrong to assume that the speculations of pseudo-Kapila and Patanjali are being praised. sankhya simply means knowledge, and yoga simply means meditation. There is no possible harmony between yoga and vedanta on the subject of liberation, which yoga claims is attained only through discrimination of spirit from matter. Vedanta teaches that liberation is attainable only by knowledge of the Supreme Lord and by His Divine Grace. Though the Yoga-smrti is not atheistic in that it admits the existence of God in several sutras, these theistic sutras are not essential to the system as a whole, which is mostly based upon principles imported from atheistic sankhya philosophy.

Karma-mimamsa. Vedanta-sutra 3.2.41 cites the viewpoint of Jaimini (the author of the karma-mimamsa philosophy) on the fruits of karma. He thinks that karma alone awards fruits to the performer of Vedic rituals, because after an act is completed, it leaves behind a force called apurva. After a lapse of time, this apurva force gives the reward that is consistent with the karma to the performer of the ritual. Where there is good karma, there is good fruit. Where there is no good karma, there is no good fruit. Jaimini concludes that it is wrong to think that karma is rewarded by God. Dharma comes from the Lord, karma comes from the Lord, but the fruit comes from karma itself.

Badarayana Vyasa gives his reply to this in Vedanta-sutra 3.2.42: purvam tu badarayanah hetu vyapadesat, "But Badarayana holds that the Supreme Lord is the bestower of rewards, because that is the version of the Vedic scriptures." The Lord is proclaimed in the scriptures as the cause of all causes. Therefore it is unintelligent to isolate apurva -- an unintelligent material principle without any force of its own -- as the cause of fruitive rewards. Apurva is given no such credit in the scriptures. If it is argued that the demigods are the givers of karmic fruits, and therefore the Lord Himself need not be dragged down to their level of being a mere order-supplier, the reply is that the Lord is the indwelling ruler of all these inferior demigods. They punish or reward only as He impels them to do within.

Vedanta-sutra 3.4.2-7 cites sage Jaimini's objection to the cultivation of brahma-vidya (knowledge of brahman) as recommended in the Upanisads. He says that vidya is subordinate to karma. Indeed, whatever glory is given to vidya (purification, elevation and liberation) is really the result of performance of Vedic karma-kanda rituals. Worship of Vishnu is also accomplished only by karma. The passages in the Veda recommending renunciation (sannyasa) apply only the enfeebled, blind and crippled persons who are unable to perform rituals. It is seen in the sastra that the best among the learned and wise men of old used to perform karma. In fact, there are direct sastric statements declaring that vidya is but an aspect of karma. The Brhad-aranyaka Upanisad 4.4.2. says that when a man dies, his vidya and karma take hold of him and carry him to his next destination -- therefore, since vidya cooperates with karma to yield results, it is subordinate. Sastra directs persons having vidya to perform karma -- therefore also vidya is subordinate to karma. There is also an injunction directing a person to perform scripturally authorized karma through his whole life. Therefore vidya is to be cultivated through karma, not that karma is to be renounced so that vidya may be cultivated.

Sage Badarayana Vyasadeva begins his rebuttal of Jaimini's karma-mimamsa arguments with Vedanta-sutra 3.4.8. It is true that vidya is cultivated by karma, but it is not true that therefore karma is greater than vidya. Vidya is the goal of karma. When the end is accomplished, the means is no longer required. Some authorities like Janaka continued karma after attaining vidya solely for the benefit of mankind. But many great sages (Yajnavalkya and the Kavaseyas) abandoned karma and retired to the forest to devote themselves to vidya alone. Regarding Vedic statements that vidya is just an aspect of karma, these do not refer to brahma-vidya but to specific vidyas related to specific rituals (e.g. the udgitha-vidya, the science of chanting Vedic hymns). Regarding statements that vidya and karma cooperate to yield results, these are like the statement, "I sold a cow and a goat and received 100 coins." This means that 90 coins were received for the valuable cow and only 10 coins were received for the not-so-valuable goat. Similarly, though both the fruits of vidya and karma accrue at the time of death, they are not the same fruit, not are they two fruits of equal value. The value of vidya is much greater. The statement (from Taittiriya Upanisad) that directs one in knowledge to perform karma is addressed to the brahmanistha, he who is well-versed in the Veda. But a brahmanistha is merely a sabda-jnanin, a knower of words. He is not a brahmavit, a knower of brahman (God). A brahmavit is an upasaka (enlightened devotee), and his vidya is anubhava (consciousness of intense joy). The difference between a brahmanistha and a brahmavit is like the difference between one who says "honey is sweet" and one who tastes honey. The brahmavit is a naiskarmi (he does not perform rituals). He engages in transcendental acts of pure devotion to Lord Vishnu. The claim that puja to Lord Vishnu is merely karma is hereby refuted. The statement directing a person to perform karma throughout his life is a nonspecific recommendation. It does not apply to everyone. And even when it does apply, it is meant as a glorification of vidya, because by vidya a person is saved from the binding effects of karma, even though he continues to perform karma through his whole life. For example, a saintly devotee retains his body (the vehicle of active or prarabha-karma) to spread the glories of the Lord throughout the world. But in this embodied activity, he is liberated.

In Vedanta-sutra 2.3.15, the science of the potency of sound is explained. The words which in ordinary use are the names of things movable and immovable are really all names of God. All things get their particular names because He abides within all things. All words have power of denotation (tad-bhava) because they are nothing else than names of God, although common men do not know this. Only one who understands Vedanta understands that every word is really the name of the Supreme Lord. The karma-mimamsa theory of sabda, which holds that the personal God is but a visual manifestation of impersonal sound, is hereby refuted.

There are other refutations of karma-mimamsa misconceptions in the Vedanta-sutra, but as they are of a more specific or technical nature, they will not be mentioned here. Besides the five other systems of Vedic philosophy, Vedanta-sutra refutes four systems of Buddhist thought, the theories of the Jains and the pasupata and shakti schools.