Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
In the Hindu renunciatory traditions, in particular Vedanta, the basic impetus driving the quest for release and "enlightenment" is the existential need to face, and in the end, overcome, death. This need, this impetus, can be traced through the Upanishads, back through the Brahmanas, back to the Aryan sacrificial cult itself. The cult was based upon the primordial duality of life and death, and the recognition that life comes from death. Later, the pure ritualism of the Brahmanas attempted to transcend the violence of the sacrificial cult. Here we see the first attempts to overcome death itself, to bypass the duality of being and nothingness.
At the same time, the question of personal eschatology permeates the discourse of the Vedas and Brahmanas: "besides our collective struggle, what about my own death, my own agonistic struggle with death itself?" No doubt, the experience of bodily transcendence, found in states of swoon or ecstasy, led some to speculate about the afterlife in terms of their experience of bodily transcendence. We can find evidence of such speculation early in the Vedas. But at some point, perhaps with the rise pure ritualism, it all becomes rationalized to a much greater degree.
At this time, various theories begin to arise as to what happens to the individual person after death. At a certain point, however, another problem begins to present itself. In the sacrificial and ritual cults, it was assumed that certain forms of ritual actions could ensure the continued existence of particular special individuals (i.e., war-lords with lots of bling) in the afterlife. But in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad we find suggestions to the contrary. At Brhad 1.4.15; 3.8.10; 4.4.6; and 6.2.16 we read that when the karmic results of the rite performed to ensure life after death have exhausted themselves, the one who has reaped their benefit is reborn. Chan 5.19.5; 8.1.6 reflect the same idea.
What is the basic idea underlying such conception? We find it expressed succinctly in a much later text. Gita 2.27 says, "What is born dies, and what dies is born again." The idea is that the results of ritualized action (karma) do not last; they come into being, and therefore they must go out of being. The principle, stated most succinctly at Gita 13.2, is this: "what comes into being, goes out of being." This is the first part involved in the principle I call the "logic of being".
At this time, the Upanishadic sages begin to fret, the way Nietzsche did: "What if this cycle of coming to be and going out of existence were to happen eternally? What if I were to undergo this kind of dread for all time?" For the Indian sages, the problem of samsara was not so much about rebirth as redeath -- innumerable agonizing episodes of dying.
Let us now move to the second part of the "logic of being." It is found most primordially at Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.2. The passage reads: "Being does not arise from nothing." Or put more radically, "true" being never comes into being. And nor does it ever go out of being.
The implications of this passage for the soteriology of Advaita Vedanta are stated for the first time at Gaudapada karika 4.30: "if release is a product it is impermanent." This means that release cannot be the result of any action; and therefore, it cannot be the fruit of any sadhana. This principle is stated many times by Shankara in his works.
We also find this principle clearly enunciated by that major influence upon the author of the Gaudapada Karikas: Nagarjuna. Madhyamika Karika 15.8 says, "true being, svabhava, cannot be otherwise that it is." This means it can never come into being. This is the same Upanishadic principle, but given a Buddhist twist. Nagarjuna's point is that absolute being never "becomes." Emanationism is thus an impossibility. And indeed becoming itself is an impossibility if we accept the notion of an absolute being (sat).
The author of the Gaudapada Karika's steals the principle back and puts it into use toward the ends of Vedanta. Echoing Nagarjuna's notion of svabhava, but also the Gita's idea of "prakriti," GK 4.9 says, "prakriti is that which does not lose its essential nature." Gaudapada Karika 3.19 says, "the mortal cannot become immortal and the immortal cannot become mortal". GK 3.19 says, "what exists does not become." We see here the same principle being applied: True being cannot come into being, and nor does it go out of being.
The soteriological implication now becomes clear: If release is to be permanent, it cannot come into being. And this means it can have no cause. In other words, it must have always been. This is the well known "always already" bandied about so much in Neo-Advaita discourse.
But it also means something else. It means that bondage cannot be real. For if it is real, if it really exists, it will never go out of being. Thus we read in Shankara's commentary at Brahma Sutra 2.3.40, that if bondage is real, it will never be removed. This can only mean that it is unreal, for otherwise redemption is impossible.
Enter the concept of maya, and also something else: the notion of the "liberating insight".
Early in the Upanishads we read that it is not ritual action, but knowledge, that gives release. As Mund 3.2.9 says: he who knows Brahman, becomes Brahman. This means that the "problem" was never ontological at all, but "epistemic" or gnoseological. It means, ontologically speaking, we were, all along and in our true nature, released; the problem was that we did not recognize that fact. We are "covered over", as it were, by a fog of illusion and delusion. Once that fog is lifted, our true nature shines forth. In this way the inexorable "logic of being" is overcome. In other words, by resorting to a myth of "primordial ignorance", and its transcendence through the "liberating insight" of enlightenment, the rigorous "logic of being" is overcome.
My argument is that in Advaita Vedanta, release (moksha) is more or less defined so as to meet a specific existential need --- the need to overcome death --- in a manner that also meets the needs of reason (so as to be persuasive). Basically, release must be permanent; and thus begins the "search" for that which is permanent, i.e., the brahman, the atman, etc.
Paul Hacker has noted how, in Vedanta, "brahman" starts out its career as the unseen aetheric "stuff" that binds the magical incantation to reality -- the hidden "force" that makes the ritual mantras efficacious -- and ends its career in the philosophical Vedanta as, ironically, not that which is hidden, but as that which is always present.
In Advaita Vedanta, reality is defined as that which "never strays" (a-vyabhichara). This term, "vyabhichara," is taken over from the logicians. If we say, for example, "where there is fire, there is oxygen," we know this statement is valid since, in this case, fire never "strays" from oxygen. But if we say, "where there is oxygen, there is fire," we know this is wrong because, in this case, oxygen "strays" from fire. The idea here is that oxygen is always present whenever there is fire; this is what is meant by "never straying." So, in Advaita Vedanta, ultimate reality will be that which is always present. Reality, in other words, is Pure Presence.
Mandana Mishra, Shankara's great contemporary, chooses "being" (sat) as that which fulfills the Advaita criterion of reality. Shankara chooses "consciousness" (chit). Following the Brhad Up, Shankara's inquiry "investigates" (ie., demonstrates to the student) how it is that consciousness permeates the three states (waking; dreaming, deep sleep). His conclusion is that consciousness is that which "never strays" from the three states. The obvious difficulty here is deep sleep. An interlocutor asks Shankara how it is that we can say that consciousness permeates deep sleep when there is no consciousness in deep sleep. Shankara replies that there is no reflexive consciousness in deep sleep because there is no object for consciousness in deep sleep. But "consciousness" as the pure Spectator (drastr), the transcendental witness (sakshin), remains. (Paul Deussen called this doctrine a "monstrosity.") But, if there is no reflexive consciousness in the state of deep sleep, then it seems clear that the Advaitins did not arrive at their teaching by means of some "experience." Orthodox Advaitins claim it is true because it is revealed in the Upanishads. But, in any case, it looks suspiciously as if the doctrine of consciousness surviving deep sleep has been constructed in an ad hoc manner so as to meet the above soteriological criteria.