Ramakrishna: His life and sayings
If now we return to Râmakrishna, I can assure Keshub's zealous advocate that I never looked upon Râmakrishna as the originator of the Vedânta-philosophy. He was not a man possessed of a scholarlike knowledge of the ancient system of the Vedânta-philosophy, nor do I feel certain that even Keshub Chunder Sen had studied Samkara's
or Râmânuga's famous commentaries on the Vedânta Sûtras. But both were thoroughly imbued with the spirit of that philosophy, which is, in fact, like the air breathed more or less by every Hindu who cares for philosophy or religion. It is difficult to say whether we should treat the Vedânta as philosophy or religion, the two being really inseparable from the Hindu point of view.
What is curious, however, both in Keshub Chunder Sen's and in Râmakrishna's utterances, is the admixture of European ideas. Neither the one nor the other would have spoken as they did, before the English Government began its educational work in India. The bulk of their teaching is, no doubt, Indian to the backbone. It is the old Indian philosophy, properly called Vedânta or the highest goal of the Veda, but there is clearly a sprinkling, and sometimes far more than a mere sprinkling, of European thoughts in Keshub's writings; and we often meet with quite unexpected references to European subjects, not excluding railways and gas, in the sayings of Râmakrishna.
It is necessary to explain in a few words the character of that Vedânta-philosophy which is the very marrow running through all the bones of Râmakrishna's doctrine. It is by no means easy, however, to give a short abstract of that ancient philosophy, particularly if we consider that it exists now, and seems always to have existed, under three different forms, the Advaita School (non-duality school), the Visishta-advaita School (non-duality school, with a difference), and the Dvaita School (real duality school), the last of which seems hardly to have a right to the name
of Vedânta, but nevertheless is so called. The Advaita or non-duality school, chiefly represented by Samkara and his followers, holds that there is and there can be one reality only, whether we call it God, the Infinite or the Absolute, the Unknowable or Brahman, so that it follows by the strictest rules of logic that whatever is or seems to be, can be that one Absolute only, though wrongly conceived, as we are told, by Avidyâ or Nescience. The human soul, like everything else, is and can be nothing but Brahman or the Absolute, though for a time misconceived by Avidyâ or Nescience. The desire of each individual soul is not, as commonly supposed, an approach to or a union with Brahman, but simply a becoming what it has always been, a recovering and recollection of its true being, a recognition of the full and undivided Brahman as the eternal basis of every apparently individual soul.
The second school, called Visishta-advaita, or Advaita, non-duality, with a difference, was evidently intended for a larger public, for those who could not bring themselves to deny all reality to the phenomenal world, and some individuality likewise to their own souls. It is difficult to say which of the two schools was the more ancient, and I am bound to acknowledge, after Professor Thibaut's luminous exposition, that the Visishtâdvaita interpretation seems to me more in keeping with the Sûtras of Bâdarâyana. It is true that Râmânuga lived in the twelfth, Samkara in the eighth century, but there were Visishtâdvaita expositions and commentaries long before Râmânuga. Considered as a case of philosophical athletics, the rigidly
monistic school cannot fail to command our admiration. Samkara makes no concessions of any kind. He begins and never parts with his conviction that whatever is, is one and the same in itself, without variableness or shadow of turning. This, what he calls the Brahman, does not possess any qualities (visesha), not even those of being and thinking, but it is both being and thought. To every attempt to define or qualify Brahman, Samkara has but one answer--No, No! When the question is asked as to the cause of what cannot be denied, namely, the manifold phenomenal world, or the world as reflected in our consciousness, with all its individual subjects, and all its individual objects, all that Samkara condescends to say is that their cause is Avidyâ or Nescience. Here lies what strikes a Western mind as the vulnerable point of Samkara's Vedânta-philosophy. We should feel inclined to say that even this Avidyâ, which causes the phenomenal world to appear, must itself have some cause and reality, but Samkara does not allow this, and repeats again and again that, as an illusion, Nescience is neither real nor unreal, but is something exactly like our own ignorance when, for instance, we imagine we see a serpent, while what we really see is a rope, and yet we run away from it in all earnestness as if it were a real cobra. This creative Nescience once granted, everything else proceeds smoothly enough. Brahman (or Âtman), as held or as beheld by Avidyâ, seems modified into all that is phenomenal. Our instruments of knowledge, whether senses or mind, nay, our whole body, should be considered as impediments or fetters rather, as
Upâdhis, as they are called, which one feels tempted to translate by impositions. And here the difficulty arises--are these Upâdhis, these misleading organs of knowledge, the cause or the result of Avidyâ? With us they are clearly the cause of Avidyâ; but are they not, like everything that we call created, the result also of that universal beginning-less Avidyâ, without which Brahman could never have become even phenomenally creative? This is a point that requires further consideration. It is touched upon, but hardly decided, by Samkara in his commentary (pp. 787, 789), where we read 1: 'The omniscience and omnipotence of the Âtman are hidden by its union with the body, that is, by the union with the body, senses, Manas (mind), and Buddhi (thought), the objects, and their perception as such.' And here we have the simile: As fire is endowed with burning and light, but both are hidden when fire has retired into the wood or is covered with ashes, in the same manner, through the union of the Self with the Upâdhis, such as body, senses, &c., that is, with the Upâdhis formed by Avidyâ from Nâmarûpa, names and forms, there arises the error of the Âtman not being different from them, and this is what causes the hiding of the omniscience and omnipotence of the Âtman. It is under the influence of that Avidyâ that Brahman assumes or receives names and forms (nâmarûpa), which come very near to the Greek λόγοι, or the archetypes of everything. Then follow the material objective elements which constitute animate and inanimate bodies, in fact the whole objective world. But all this is illusive. In reality there
are no individual things, no individual souls (gîvas); they only seem to exist so long as Nescience prevails over Âtman or Brahman.
73:1 Deussen, System des Vedânta, p. 115.
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