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Philosophy East and West
In complete contrast to Western thought stands the Indian Vedic philosophy. This is in fact a vast compendium of doctrines and ideas ranging from the resolute materialism of Lokayata, to the pure subjectivism of Advaita, and many points of view between and apart. Where the West has focussed intellectual enquiry on the external physical and objective world, and has only in the last hundred years begun an uncertain enquiry into the subjective, Oriental thought has for the most part accepted consciousness as the dominant and creative principle of all existence, and has devoted centuries of exploration to Man's inner nature and abilities.
Click on any of the terms in the diagram to jump to a explanation.
The evolutionary path of Eastern races has evolved a
consciousness centred more strongly in the heart, favouring an
emotionally-dominated attitude with a subjective focus.
Although the last century has seen a wide and growing recognition of the importance of Eastern teachings, their translation into European languages has produced so much colouration and distortion of ideas as to hinder a clear understanding of them, but the intellectual challenge which they present is both real and rewarding. To give but one example of the confusion that can arise in studying Vedic texts we can take the concept of God, that ultimate irreducible principle from which all of Creation flowed. Instead of a single idea, the Vedas offer a manifold description. The technical name for the Supreme Unmanifest in most Sanskrit literature is The Brahman, and its manifestation as the Supreme Godhead is named Ishvara. All subsequent phenomena are a result of the activity of the three universal principles of Creation, Preservation and Destruction, personified respectively as the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. When to this is added the title of the priestly caste, the Brahmins, and their religion Brahmanism, the potential for confusion is plainly evident.
Click on any of the terms in the diagram to jump to a explanation.
The evolutionary path of Western races has evolved a
consciousness centred more strongly in the head, favouring an
intellectually-dominated attitude with an objective focus.
There are at least two interesting differences in the automatic and traditional attitudes of
West and East. The former assume in their outlook that everything is changing or evolving, usually
from "old and primitive" to "new and modern", where the latter see the world as essentially the
same through many different phases of reality. And where the West has usually sought its gods and
their creative sources "out there" somewhere, the East seeks them within the soul of Man.
It is worth pausing to observe that, to one long accustomed to Oriental thought, the very term Philosophy, as used in the West for many centuries, has come to refer almost solely to political and anthropic philosophy. Those whom the West venerates as philosophers nowadays have concerned themselves largely with the social, religious and political lives of Man. Such topics as Cosmogenesis, the birth of the Universe, have long been annexed by Science, in spite of the fact that the scientific method of repeated observation can never be brought to bear on them.
When the competence and authority of the disciplines of academia are so misused and misunderstood, a state of confusion is inevitable; clarity of thought and speech give way to strident assertions of authority and protracted argument amongst those preaching unity, and the reputation of tradition and learning suffer; their influence declines, and the population turns to men of lesser learning and greater propensity to action; as also, unfortunately, to greater acquisitiveness and corruption. Such is the present epoch, and if the enlightenment which only a living tradition can provide is to revitalize Western intellectual life, it must be by recognizing the one blind-spot in its vision which hides the major cause of its difficulties - the denial of consciousness as an active principle in manifest reality through an historic tendancy to materialist thought.
A recognition of this, and the subsequent integration of balancing attitudes, has been under way for several years, but because most authors feel obliged to adopt defensive, apologetic or explanatory attitudes, little headway has been made in practical progress.
Of greatest assistance at this time to those at the forefront of development would be a conceptual framework from which to approach the often perplexing and disturbing events of their researches, and to which all concerned accord some measure of credence or probability of correctness. A beginning can be made by using the concepts and doctrines of older traditions to erect a simple structure of ideas as a basis for discussion, and since much Vedic discourse specifically concerns consciousness, that ancient body of knowledge makes a sound starting-point. The tale it tells has its own origins in consciousness as the primary and fundamental principle of all creation. In Vedic thought, moreover, consciousness in its purest form is held to be neither subjective nor objective, but capable of apprehending both whilst deriving from neither. "Having given birth to all this vast Universe and everything within it, I remain Myself unchanged", as Krsna spake to Arjun on Kurukshetra,the field of Battle, in the Bhagavad Gita.
Vedic thought views humanity as but one amongst many living, conscious and evolving entities in Creation. This contrasts sharply with the orthodox Western view of Man as unique, and the zenith of the evolutionary process, an attitude which many in the West are coming to regard as hopelessly anthropocentric and outdated. Although paying tribute to human faculties and the supremacy of the mind in daily life, yoga and other practices can provide practical experience of states of consciousness which transcend the human, or are completely alien thereto. Such experiences can unbalance the mind if not adequately preapred for, which is why those who seek them using drugs so often come to grief. But having once been achieved, such experiences provide absolute conviction as to the vastness of Creation, so that one's conception of the Supreme Creator, whatever that may be, embraces realities far beyond the human. When asked about the nature of the Supreme Creator, such a one is apt to smile and insist, "Not this, not that!" as testimony to the impossibility of conveying anything useful in words. Vedic thought therefore prefers not to name the Supreme Creator, since it both Being and Non-being, alive and beyond life, personal and impersonal. However, certain terms are used to imply aspects of it. Ishvara is the name given to the Supreme when conceived of as a Personality; other terms such as The Brahman, Purushottama and The Paramatman are given below or in the Sanskrit Glossary.
The subjective world of inner awareness is held to be the true reality in Eastern thought, and the various states of consciousness owing to various planes and states of conscious manifestation and existence. When one is able to move at will between several distinct and disparate states of consciousness, the modifications produced by external stimuli are often found to be transient, trivial and unsatisfying by comparison. The modern Western adventure into technological development is viewed by most enlightened men as something of a juvenile obsession, useful enough in its way if responsibly directed, but demeaning to the soul of Man when it dominates the personality.
Individuality is held to be the summit of personal development in the West, but the East finds greater delight in the harmonious interplay of many different states of being. From this latter point of view, the individual is a point within a field, a wave on the ocean, a single note in the complex moving harmonies of universal existence. The qualities of individuality are seen to be useful when directed by and in harmony with the larger existence, but a trammel and discomfort otherwise.
The higher states of consciousness are held to exist 'outside' of time, and a single second spent in full waking knowledge of Eternity is enough to mark a person for life. it is thought by some that the purpose of human existence and evolution is to train and prepare the soul for Eternity, and certainly it is something that can inspire awe and terror if fully comprehended.
The Sanskrit atman means soul, and the Paramatman is the Universal soul, that vast unity of experiential Being which arises as a consequence of all living existence. it is one aspect of the Supreme.
A Jivatman is an individual soul as usually understood in English by that word.
The Ego is the sense of "I-ness", ahamcara in Sanskrit.
The Material Realm
The Material Realm is a state of being subject to the laws of temporal existence, in which the soul trains itself for a conscious awareness of Eternity.
The Brahman is the Supreme Unmanifest; that vast reservoir of Non-being from which all manifested existence arises, and back into which it ultimately passes. There is little or nothing in Western thought which corresponds to this idea; those to whom it is novel will find that, although beyond conception, it is still capable of apprehension as an abstract notion.
The word personality usually includes all of the common manifestations of an individual, but tends to centre around the emotions and their consequences.
Intergalactic space is held to be a void in Western thought - a vast desert of emptiness. To the Eastern mind it is full of potential manifestation, so the Latin plenus meaning 'full' conveys the nub of the idea.
Individual humans are held to evolve through many lives, and once free of the limitations of time and temporal manifestation, achieve a state of being and consciousness beyond present-day conception. in this state they partake consciously and deliberately in the drama of universal evolution, instead of being victims of it.
The physical body anchors the soul in temporal deterministic existence, in which state it undergoes experiences not available in more liberated conditions.
The devas are beings different from humanity, but who undergo a similar process of evolution. They share with us a dependence on the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and occasionally interact with humanity, not always happily. The more highly evolved devas are often worshipped as gods by primitive men.
The Sankhya is a branch of the Vedas which teaches of The Supreme as distinct from humanity.
The Yoga is a branch of the Vedas which teaches of The Supreme as being at one with humanity. The word derives from the Sanskrit yug meaning 'yoke' or 'union'.
Buddhi is the faculty of discrimination corresponding roughly to spiritual intuition in Western thought. Prince Gautama was named 'The Buddha' because he demonstrated this faculty most perfectly to his comtemporaries.
Elementals are simple creatures of the non-physical realms corresponding to the plants and animals of the physical realm.
Maya means 'illusion', and refers to the objective world of manifested existence which is regarded by Eastern thought as a consequence of consciousness acting within temporal constraints. When Man identifies with this objective realm, he exists in a state of illusion; when he knows himself as separate from it, he has achieved an awareness of reality.
The Unmanifest is that vast reservoir of Non-being from which all manifested existence arises, and back into which it ultimately passes. There is little or nothing in Western thought which corresponds to this idea; those to whom it is novel will find that, although beyond conception, it is still capable of apprehension as an abstract notion.
Purusha means roughly 'spirit' or 'energy', and the superlative indicates its highest manifestation; 'divine essence' or 'supreme spirit' are English approximations.
The Racial Mind
A postulate of Carl Jung which has strong parallels in Eastern thought.
The Three Worlds
The physical, emotional and mental realms of consciousness are held to be the fields of action for human consciousness and evolutionary development.
The creative faculty of the intellect is called 'the imagination'. in Western thought the term connotes illusory, fantastical or unreal, but in Eastern thought it is viewed as a source of manifestation if continued for a time accompanied by a powerful will or desire.
The Real World
Reality is a ultimately a subjective impression of phenomena upon consciousness, not an absolute construct. Because Western thought has been steadily moving into increasingly objective attitudes for the past several centuries, the consciousness of Western peoples identifies strongly with the objective manifestations of the physical world, and largely neglects the inner subjective aspect. The Indian peoples, by contrast, have long focussed on the inner subjective world and neglected the objective one. Both extremes lead to entrapment and pain. By practising meditation one is able to recenter one's consciousness between these two poles - the Middle Way of Buddhism - and to cease identifying with anything other than one's core being. Reality then takes on a very different meaning.
The subconscious is comprised of those parts of the mind to which we do not normally have access. Meditation allows one to penetrate and interact with them. Western psychology seeks means of influencing them through objective processes.
Oriental thought sees all creatures as being conscious in greater or lesser degree. Conventional Occidental thought sees the 'dumb animals' as being little more than biological machines incapable of true sensation or consciousness.
Influences from Objective Reality
The data of the senses provides us with experience of the objective physical world, and these impinge upon our consciousness with a force sufficient to drown the faint impressions from subjective reality. In Oriental thought, however, Objective Reality is a consequence of the Subjective; Occidental thought takes the opposite view.
Influences upon Objective Reality
Our consciousness can influence Objective Reality through our physical actions, and also perhaps in more subtle ways. Western thought sees the mind as comprised of processes ultimately deriving from Objective reality, and thus our actions upon it are simply a mirror of its influences. Eastern thought allows a large degree of autonomy to subjective processes, and therefore sees them as a creative influence on Objective reality.
Outer Space is conceived of in Western thought as a complete vacuum, a perfect void with occasional regions of gas and solid matter scattered through it.
The operation of our consciousness in conceiving of images which are not derived from Objective reality is named Fantasy in Western thought, and is seen as having no influence upon the physical world, nor any purpose or function within consciousness.
The Material World
The Material or physical world is the sum total of creation in Western thought.
Agnosticism (from the Greek gnosis - knowing) teaches that knowledge of any ultimate purpose or reality to life is impossible, and that seeking it is therefore futile. It has both good and bad aspects; a focus on the here-and-now is a powerful means of developing one's own life, but this can lead to a state of loneliness and despair that becomes a spiritual dead-end.
Spiritualism teaches that creatures have a nonphysical aspect to their nature which survives after the death of the body, and that communication with these non-physical remains is possible.
The notion that the Universe was created by a single deity is the basis of Monotheism. A more abstract concept, Monism, does not conceive of the ultimate principle as a god, but allows that it is singular or unifying in its essential nature.
Mystics have appeared in every race in every period of history. In the West they are usually seen as fantacists, often deluded, but the origin of all religions is always in mystical experience.
Atheism denies the reality of a supreme being or cause of creation, and usually by extension of any superphysical or nonhuman consciousness.
The idea that the ultimate creative principle resides in Nature is the basis of Pantheism, which often sees it manifest as deities of various grades and powers.
Polytheism conceives of many gods with various and often specific powers, and attributes creation to them.
Those events and phenomena occurring within our own consciousness are termed subjective. Materialism sees them as unreal and illusory, but as those who have undergone great pain, struggle or joy can attest, the ultimate reality is in fact subjective. If one is happy and contented within oneself, external circumstances can vary widely without disturbing one's equanimity, whereas one who is deeply unhappy and disturbed can find no pleasure or satisfaction though every external desire be satisfied. Subjective phenomena cannot be measured in any meaningful way except by comparison with one's personal aspirations and ideals, and are difficult to communicate to others.
Objective events and phenomena occur in the consensus reality of the physical world external to our own being. Most are amenable to accurate measurement, and can be observed and verified independently by others.