Origin of the Vedanta Philosophy: Part 1

Origin of the Vedanta Philosophy: Part 1

I AM fully aware of the difficulties which I shall have to encounter in trying to enlist your interest, nay, if possible, your sympathy, for an ancient system of Indian Philosophy, the Vedanta Philosophy. It is no easy task, even within the walls of this scientific Institution, to obtain a hearing for a mere system of philosophy, whether new or old. The world is too busy to listen to purely theoretical speculations; it wants exciting experiments and, if possible, tangible results.

And yet I remember one who ought to be well known to all of you in this place, I remember our dear friend Tyndall, rejoicing over a new theory, because, as he said, “Thank God, it will not produce any practical results; no one will ever be able to take out a patent and make money by it.”

Leibniz, I suppose, took no patent for his Differential Calculus, nor Sir Isaac Newton for his theory of gravitation. Trusting in that spirit of Tyndall’s, which has been so long the presiding spirit of this busy laboratory of thought, I hope that there may be some friends and admirers of his left within these walls, who are willing to listen to mere speculations, speculations which will never produce any tangible results, in the ordinary sense of the word, for which certainly no one can take out a patent, or hope, if he had secured it, to make any money by it; and yet these speculations are bound up with the highest and dearest interests of our life.

What is important and what is merely curious 

Max MullerThe system of philosophy for which I venture to claim your attention is chiefly concerned with the Soul and its relation to God. It comes to us from India, and is probably more than two thousand years old. Now the soul is not a popular subject in these days. Even if its existence is not denied altogether, it has long been ranged among subjects on which “it is folly to be wise.”  However, if I were to claim your attention for a Greek or German system of philosophy, if I were to tell you what Plato or Kant have said about the soul, it is just possible that their sayings might at least be considered as curious. But I must say at once that this would not satisfy me at all. I look upon that word curious as a lazy and most objectionable word. If a man says, “Yes, that is very curious”, what does he mean?

What he really means is this – “Yes, that is very curious, but no more.” But why no more? Not because it is of no importance in itself, but simply because in the pigeon-holes of his own mind, there is no place as yet ready to receive it; simply because the chords of his mind are not attuned to it, and do not vibrate in harmony with it; simply because he has no real sympathy with it. To a well-stored mind and to a well-arranged intellect there ought to be nothing that is simply curious; nay it has been truly said that almost every great discovery, all real progress in human knowledge is due to those who could discover behind what to the world at large seemed merely curious, something really important, something pregnant with results. The electric spark of the lightning has been curious as long as the world exists; it seems but yesterday that it has become really important.

If my object were simply to amuse you I could place before you a very large collection of soul curios, tell you ever so many curious things about the soul, sayings collected from uncivilized and from civilized races. There are, first of all, the names of the soul, and some of them, no doubt, full of interest. Among the names applied to the soul, some mean breath, others heart, others midriff, others blood, others the pupil of the eye, all showing that they were meant for something connected with the body, something supposed to have its abode in the eye, in the heart, in the blood or the breath, yet different from every one of these coarse material objects. Other names are purely metaphorical, as when the soul was called a bird, not because it was believed to be a bird, caged in the body, but because it seemed winged in its flights of thought and fancy; or when it was called a shadow, not because it was believed to be the actual shadow which the body throws on a wall (though this is held by some philosophers), but because it was like a shadow, something perceptible, yet immaterial and not to be grasped.

Of course, after the soul had once been likened to and called a shadow, every kind of superstition followed, till people persuaded themselves that a dead body can no longer throw a shadow. Again, when the soul had once been conceived and named, its name, in Greek Ψνχη was transferred to a butterfly, probably because the butterfly emerged winged from the prison of the chrysalis. And here, too, superstition soon stepped in and represented pictorially the soul of the departed as issuing from his mouth in the shape of a butterfly. There is hardly a tribe, however uncivilized and barbarous, which has not a name for soul, that is for something different from the body, yet closely allied to it and hard at work within it.

It was but lately that I received from the Bishop of North Caledonia a new metaphor for soul. The Zimshian Indians have a word which means both soul and fragrance. When questioned by the Bishop on the subject, the Indians replied: “Is not a man’s soul to his body what the fragrance is to the flower?”

This, no doubt, is as good a metaphor as any, and it may fairly claim a place by the side of Plato’s metaphor in the “Phaedo”, where he compares the soul to the harmonious music that can be drawn from a lyre.

If I wished to excite your interest in a collection of such curios, I might place before you ever so many names, ever so many metaphors, ever so many sayings with reference to the soul. Nay, if looked upon as contributions to a study of the evolution of the human mind, as documents for the history of human wisdom or human folly, such curious sayings might even claim a certain scientific value, as giving us an insight into the ancient workshop of the human intellect.

The Importance of the Vedanta Philosophy

But I may say at once that I shall not be satisfied with metaphors, however poetical or beautiful, and that in placing before you an outline of the Vedanta Philosophy I have far higher objects in view. I wish to claim the sympathy not only of your mind, but of your heart for the profoundest thoughts of Indian thinkers about the soul. After all, I doubt whether the soul has really lost with all of us that charm which it exercised on ancient thinkers.

We still say, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” And how can we even claim to have a soul to lose, if we do not know what we mean by soul. But if it seem strange to you that the old Indian philosophers should have known more about the soul than Greek or Mediaeval or modern philosophers, let us remember that however much the telescopes for observing the stars of heaven have been improved, the observatories of the soul have remained much the same, for I cannot convince myself that the observations now made in the so-called physico-psychological laboratories of Germany, however interesting to physiologists, would have proved of much help to our Vedanta philosophers. The rest and peace which are required for deep thought or for accurate observation of the movements of the soul, were more easily found in the silent forests of India than in the noisy streets of our so-called centres of civilization.

Opinions of the Vedanta by Schopenhauer, Sir W. Jones, Victor Cousin, P. Schlegel

Victor Cousin
Victor Cousin

Anyhow, let me tell you that a philosopher so thoroughly acquainted with all the historical systems of philosophy as Schopenhauer, and certainly not a man given to deal in extravagant praise of any philosophy but his own, delivered his opinion of the Vedanta Philosophy, as contained in the Upanishads, in the following words:

“In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death”.

 If these words of Schopenhauer s required any endorsement, I should willingly give it as the result of my own experience during a long life devoted to the study of many philosophies and many religions.

If philosophy is meant to be a preparation for a happy death, or Euthanasia, I know of no better preparation for it than the Vedanta Philosophy.

Nor is Schopenhauer by any means the only authority who speaks in such rapturous terms of the ancient philosophy of India, more particularly of the Vedanta Philosophy. Sir William Jones, no mean authority as an oriental as well as a classical scholar, remarks “that it is impossible to read the Vedanta or the many fine compositions in illustration of it, without believing that Pythagoras and Plato derived their sublime theories from the same fountain with the sages of India”. (Works, Calcutta ed., i. pp. 20, 125, 127.)

It is not quite clear whether Sir William Jones meant that the ancient Greek philosophers borrowed their philosophy from India. If he did, he would find few adherents in our time, because a wider study of mankind has taught us that what was possible in one country was possible in another also. But the fact remains nevertheless that the similarities between these two streams of philosophical thought in India and in Greece are very startling, nay sometimes most perplexing.

Victor Cousin, the greatest among the historians of philosophy in France, when lecturing at Paris in the years 1828 and 1829 on the history of modern philosophy, before an audience, we are told, of two thousand gentlemen, spoke in the following terms:

“When we read with attention the poetical and philosophical monuments of the East, above all, those of India which are beginning to spread in Europe, we discover there many a truth, and truths so profound, and which make such a contrast with the meanness of the results at which the European genius has sometimes stopped, that we are constrained to bend the knee before the philosophy of the East, and to see in this cradle of the human race the native land of the highest philosophy.” (Vol. i. p. 32.)

German philosophers have always been the most ardent admirers of Sanskrit literature, and more particularly, of Sanskrit philosophy. One of the earliest students of Sanskrit, the true discoverer of the existence of an Indo-European family of speech, Frederick Schlegel, in his work on Indian Language, Literature, and Philosophy (p. 471), remarks:

“It cannot be denied that the early Indians possessed a knowledge of the true God; all their writings are replete with sentiments and expressions, noble, clear, and severely grand, as deeply conceived and reverentially expressed as in any human language in which men have spoken of their God”.

And again:

“Even the loftiest philosophy of the Europeans, the idealism of reason, as it is set forth by Greek philosophers, appears, in comparison with the abundant light and vigour of Oriental idealism, like a feeble Promethean spark in the full flood of heavenly glory of the noonday sun faltering and feeble, and ever ready to be extinguished.”

And with regard more especially to the Vedanta Philosophy, he says:

“The divine origin of man is continually inculcated to stimulate his efforts to return, to animate him in the struggle, and incite him to consider a reunion and reincorporation with divinity as the one primary object of every action and exertion.”

The Vedanta, both Philosophy and Religion

What distinguishes the Vedanta Philosophy from all other philosophies is that it is at the same time a religion and a philosophy. With us the prevailing opinion seems to be that religion and philosophy are not only different, but that they are antagonistic. It is true that there are constant attempts made to reconcile philosophy and religion. We can hardly open a Review without seeing a new Eire icon between Science and Religion. We read not only of a Science of Religion, but even of a Religion of Science. But these very attempts, whether successful or not, show at all events that there has been a divorce between the two.

And why?

HereticsPhilosophy as well as religion is striving after truth; then why should there be any antagonism between them? It has often been said that religion places all truth before us with authority, while philosophy appeals to the spirit of truth – that is, to our own private judgment, and leaves us perfectly free to accept or reject the doctrines of others. But such an opinion betrays a strange ignorance of the history of religions. The founder of every new religion possessed at first no greater authority than the founder of a new school of philosophy. Many of them were scorned, persecuted, and even put to death, and their last appeal was always, what it ought to be an appeal to the spirit of truth within us, and not to twelve legions of angels, nor, as in later times, to the decrees of Councils, to Papal Bulls, or to the written letter of a sacred book. Nowhere, however, do we find what we find in India, where philosophy is looked upon as the natural outcome of religion; nay, as its most precious flower and fragrance.

Whether religion leads to philosophy, or philosophy to religion, in India the two are inseparable, and they would never have been separated with us, if the fear of men had not been greater than the fear of God or of Truth. While in other countries the few who had most deeply pondered on their religion and most fully entered into the spirit of its founder, were liable to be called heretics by the ignorant many, nay were actually punished for the good work they had done in purifying religion from that crust of superstition that will always gather around it; in India the few were honoured and revered, even by those who could not yet follow them into the purer atmosphere of free and unfettered thought. Nor was there in India any necessity for honest thinkers to screen their doctrines behind the name of Esoteric Religion.

If religion is to become esoteric in order to be allowed to live, as it often is with us, what is the use of it? Why should religious convictions ever fear the light of day? And, what is even more creditable to the ancient believers and philosophers of India, they never, in the exalted position which was allowed to them on account of their superior knowledge and sanctity, looked down with disdain on those who had not yet risen to their own height. They recognised the previous stages of submissive studentship and active citizenship as essential steps towards the freedom which they themselves enjoyed; nay, they admitted no one to their companionship who had not passed through these stages of passive obedience and practical usefulness. Three things they preached to them as with a voice of thunder:

“Damyata, Subdue yourselves, subdue the passions of the senses, of pride and selfwill; Datta, Give, be liberal and charitable to your neighbours; and Dayadhvam, Have pity on those who deserve your pity, or, as we should say, Love your neighbours as yourselves”.

These three commands, each beginning with the syllable Da, were called the three Da’s, and had to be fulfilled before any higher light was to be hoped for (Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad V. 2), before the highest goal of the Veda, the Vedanta, could be reached.

~ Hon. F. Max Muller, K.M., Foreign Member of the French Institute;
 Part 1 of 3 of “Origin of the Vedanta Philosophy” from “Three Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy” delivered at the Royal Institution in March, 1894.