“In supposing the existence of a permanent reality, or ‘substance’, beneath the shifting series of phenomena, whether of matter or of mind, the substance of the cosmos was ‘Brahma’, that of the individual man ‘Atman’; and the latter was separated from the former only, if I may so speak, by its phenomenal envelope, by the casing of sensations, thoughts and desires, pleasures and pains, which make up the illusive phantasmagoria of life. This the ignorant, take for reality; their ‘Atman’ therefore remains eternally imprisoned in delusions, bound by the fetters of desire and scourged by the whip of misery. ”
—Thomas Huxley on the worldview of Vedanta
In studying the genealogy of Brahminism from the onset of the primary Vedas (Rig, Yajur and Sama) through its transition to the Upanishads and Puranas, keen insight will at times observe and marvel at how it has morphed progressively from its ritualistic origins to assume more and deadly forms, where caste, religion and spirituality were used as tools in the real scheme of power grab and exploitation of large sections of society.
Given that such a conclusion is not totally unwarranted by historical and sociological analysis, the overwhelming tide of reverence for and fetishistic following of the Upanishads or the Vedanta is a paradox that is a thorny challenge for critical refutation.
In one of my earlier articles concerning the folly of current fashions in the exposition of Bhagavad Gita, which is a particularly vicious and diabolical form of Upanishadic evangelism, I had represented its vision in a mocking vein thus:
“The central conception of Advaita philosophy and its current evangelism, is more or less, building of elaborate ‘castles in the air’ around the definition of the Brahman as the one and only unchanging ultimate reality beneath which lies the illusion of constantly changing appearances and motions of the physical and transient world, where the ‘rope and the snake’ play the game of ‘snakes and ladders’ with our deluded senses, where Rishis, Gurus and Swamis play the great ‘Indian rope trick’ or tighten the hangman’s noose of ‘Self-Realization’ on bewildered devotees and followers, who are made to walk the ‘tight rope’ of avoiding ‘sense-objects’ and senseless objects in crossing the ‘transmigratory ocean of existence’, then selling such spiritual snake oil concoctions through speeches, books, seminars, study sessions and what not and misguiding and cheerleading innocent, gullible and earnest seekers of religion alike into a grand ‘wild-goose chase’ of the Brahman.”
The few critics of Vedanta and their incisive observations
Radicals of India’s pre-freedom era like BR Ambedkar and Lala Hardayal were even more scathing and unsparing in their denunciation of the Upanishadic spiritual tom-foolery. Ambedkar spoke in these unrelenting terms quoting from the observations of Thomas Huxley and Lala Hardayal:
“Of what use is this philosophy of the Upanishadas? The philosophy of the Upanishadas meant withdrawal from the struggle for existence by resort to asceticism and a destruction of desire by self-mortification. As a way of life it was condemned by Huxley in scathing terms: “No more thorough mortification of the flesh has ever been attempted than that achieved by the Indian ascetic anchorite; no later monarchism has so nearly succeeded in reducing the human mind to that condition of impassive quasi-somnambulism, which, but for its acknowledged holiness, might run the risk of being confounded with idiocy.”
But the condemnation of the philosophy of the Upanishads is nothing as compared to the denunciation of the same by Lala Hardyal:
“The Upanishads claim to expound ‘that, by knowing which everything is known’. This quest for ‘ the absolute ‘ is the basis of all the spurious metaphysics of India. The treatises are full of absurd conceits, quaint fancies, and chaotic speculations. And we have not learned that they are worthless. We keep moving in the old rut; we edit and re-edit the old books instead of translating the classics of European social thought. What could Europe be if Frederic Harrison, Brieux, Bebel, Anatole France, Herve, Haekel, Giddings, and Marshall should employ their time in composing treatises on Duns, Scotus and Thomas Aquinas, and discussing the merits of the laws of the Pentateuch and the poetry of Beowulf?
“Indian pundits and graduates seem to suffer from a kind of mania for what is effete and antiquated. Thus an institution, established by progressive men, aims at leading our youths through Sanskrit grammar to the Vedas via the Six Darshanas! What a false move in the quest for wisdom ! It is as if a caravan should travel across the desert to the shores of the Dead Sea in search of fresh water! Young men of India, look not for wisdom in the musty parchments of your metaphysical treatises. There is nothing but an endless round of verbal jugglery there. Read Rousseau and Voltaire, Plato and Aristotle, Haeckel and Spencer, Marx and Tolstoi, Ruskin and Comte, and other European thinkers, if you wish to understand life and its problems.
“But denunciations apart, did the Upanishad philosophy have any influence on Hinduism as a social and political system? There is no doubt that it turned out to be most ineffective and inconsequential piece of speculation with no effect on the moral and social order of the Hindus.”
Spiritualists like the Bourbons learn nothing from history nor forget its wrong lessons
But does any of this deter the almost universal applause and reverential awe that is the constant companion of Vedanta and its myriad gyrations of studies and expositions? Not a whit, if one were to consider how the likes of Anil Mehta and other such spiritual faithful from cults like Chinmaya Mission can dismiss any effort of debate with cryptic 3-liner responses.
So when I heard a response from one of the leading lights of the Vedanta blogosphere, I was initially hopeful that meaningful debate will get its fair share at last. But as it eventually turned out that, such hopes were premature and I realized that I was actually up against a Trojan Horse from the spiritualist camp. After some initial pleasantries, this gentleman committed the same sin of most spiritual apologists, mixing science and religion, using scientific and argumentative generalizations to question the rejection of Vedanta. As another ploy, he sent me a link to a brain-fryer of a book called ‘Vichar Sagar’, another tedious apologia for Vedic and Vedantic scriptures.
I am reproducing below some parts of my exchange with this person, whom I’ll refer to as “H.A.” (not his real name or initials).
H.A.’s first comment to article on Bhagavad Gita via email:
Subject: The Ultimate Scientific Truth.
There is divergence of opinions about the truth, strategy, nature of the people etc. I realize that opinions cannot converge unless we agree on common principles, the biggest of them being ‘the truth absolute or ultimate’. I don’t know what you consider the ultimate truth, if any.
Any way I am interested in knowing what made you question or doubt the following points about Vedanta. I think if i know them i would be in better position to satisfy you to the best. It is from your above referred discussion.
- Questioning the suitability of the ‘rope and snake’ metaphor and its irrelevance to the question of interpreting real
- Pointing out the fallacies of the nature of Advaitic conception of knowledge which seems to fail even most basic tests of reason and empirical inquiry.
- Trying to reason that Consciousness has no real bearing on a comparison of illusion and reality
My response to H.A.’s question:
While there are many common principles which can form the framework of a living philosophy, these principles need to be practical and useful.
In all humility the principle of absolute or ultimate truth is not one of them since it is not practical as there is no definition of what constitutes ultimate truth.
To me, it is one of many jargons that abound in Hindu or vedic metaphysics. Vedanta claims that the ‘Brahman’ is the ultimate and only truth that is worthy of realization. But the texts are themselves not clear about the conception and identity of Brahman. Lot of arguments, opinions and riddles are posed about this entity without any conclusions being reached. One text contradicts the other with some texts even claiming that the ‘Brahman’ is beyond understanding and comprehension. If that is really the case, is not the quest of Brahman a futile exercise?!. Commentaries fare no better than the original texts, since there is not one but many flavors of vedanta:
- Advaita Vedanta
- Dvaita Vedanta
- Visishtadvaita Vendanta
and more that I can’t recollect. But honestly these don’t make any practical sense, because truth or facts cannot be established by arguments and counter-arguments and nit-picking and hair-splitting about verses of Upanishads and the syllables and sounds of ‘OM’. That the earth is round and other physical facts were not determined by round-table debates of misguided prophets and deluded saints, but by observation, experiments and corroboration, and by putting our faculties to right use. Modern science is using such same empirical methods to unravel wonders of our brains and not doubting and dismissing the utility and testimony of our senses.
Vedanta makes blanket statements and assertions of this physical world being an illusion without providing one shred of evidence to support such brazen claims. All its recourse is to blind faith, devotion and surrender to a teacher and unquestioning acceptance of the scriptural word.
H.A.’s counter-argument to my first response:
Belief, confusion, contradictions, mysticism are few of the unscientific aspects of Hindu metaphysics as per your understanding and I agree to the same. But does this all sufficient to dismiss altogether ‘The Truth’ so established by the Vedanta? It needs matching rebuttal comparable to the content and intent of the mechanism followed by these shastras. I expect the same in your next email about the specific few points raised by me.
The ‘Ultimate Truth’ may be defined as the one ‘which reveals and accounts for the existence of the universe as it is’ with all its cause and accordingly the scientific advancement may be directed.
Before you reply I wish you would have read or referred the likes of the book ‘Vichar Sagar’ by Nischal Das (http://www.archive.org/details/themetaphysicsof00sreeuoft ). If not taken as spiritualistic and viewed with scientific angle, it is formidable.
Before you explain the few points as referred by me I expect you would take the pros and cons of the issues as discussed in this analytical book. Of course you may not afford to spend such a time thing is different. Just like you I do believe Truth cannot be accepted just because Vedanta says. Let us arrive at it independently. Let us supplement science with the ideas of human beings. For I am satisfied with the ultimate truth ‘Brahman’ as realistically as E=mc2.
My rejoinder to his response above:
Skeptics are not dismissing the theories of the Vedanta. They are trying to question the claims of this school of ‘philosophic’ thought that their version of ‘truth’ or conception of the nature of reality is the real deal.
The playing field of a skeptic or a critical thinker is that of evidence, objectivity, feel, experience that is capable of validation by senses, perception, reason and logic, cross-verification of clues that must all tie to all threads and ends of a proposed theory that explains a phenomenon.
If this ‘truth’ that Vedanta is talking about of a unchanging reality super-imposed on an ‘illusory world of physical object and sensory experiences’ because senses are deluded into accepting illusion of physical appearances as reality, is an objective and valid one, as it sometimes claims, that claim should submit itself to objective and empirical verification.
But Vedantic apologists are not forthcoming with their proofs and evidences. They keep shifting the goal-posts, definitions, theories from time to time and hard as skeptics keep trying to pin them down, these idealists keep slipping out by changing the rules of the game. Vedantists cannot have their cake and eat it too.
Though commentaries, lectures and books on the Upanishads create heavy smoke-screens and fog around their theories, we can ferret out these recurring themes and components
- Universal Soul
- Individual soul
- Transmigration of the soul
- Karmic cyclicality and endless reversions of its cycles
- Release of the soul from transmigratory agony
- Final liberation of the soul and its unity with the Universal soul
- Realms through which the individual soul passes on its journey of final deliverance and unity with the Brahman
- Unified reality of the Brahman manifesting as the illusion of the physical world and sensory experience though the mechanism of Maya ( No explanation of why such an atrocity is being done by the Brahman is anywhere in the Upanishads)
I could go on and on, but the point is that all these things are in realm of speculation and imagination. The easiest way to resolve a controversy is provide a proof and experience of the claims that is at the heart of a controversy.
Skeptics have been waiting for centuries and no convincing proof or even good reliable evidence is forthcoming. All these airy-fairy concepts are resting on the shaky foundation of arguments, stories, fairy tales, tautological statements ( one example of a tautological statement is like this ( 1. “Since a higher reality exists, the current physical reality is not the ultimate reality” 2. “Because the the current physical reality is not the ultimate reality, therefore a higher reality exists and that is Brahman”).
The above is just one example, but the Upanishads, commentaries, its schools of thought are full of such circular arguments and reasoning. Upanishadic wisdom is worse than science fiction, it is metaphysical fiction.
When contradictions are pointed out, the defenders say that you have transcend your mind. My response is Good luck with that! As We have better things to do in life.
The final critical punch that hoped to nip misleading and diversionary arguments in the bud:
Further to my mail before this, let us briefly consider your statement
“So hope you will be as realistic as E=mc2 in your rebuttal of ‘Brahman’”
I see this as a trap that I don’t wish to fall into.
E=mc2 was proposed by scientists, which has been validated and accepted universally. It is upto the Advaitins and Vedantins, to contest and disprove it if they can with objective proofs and validations.
‘Brahman’ is a proposition of the Advaitins and Vedantins. The burden of proof is on them and lets us play by the rules of the game. As a skeptic I have the least eagerness or responsibility to provide a rebuttal. In my previous email I provided a few criteria that can serve to expose the lack of objectivity of the Vedantic propositions.
Don’t get me wrong, but refuting the Brahman or any other Vedic or Vedantic fantasy is like expecting to refute incontrovertibly the existence of fairies, ghosts, narasimha, pixies, flying monkeys, heaven, paradise, astral realms etc.
As the saying goes, “Fools can pose many many more questions than the wisest men can ever answer”.