Notes on Philosophy & Religion

I am not an orator. I am no writer either. And yet, I attempt to express the inexpressible!

Where seekest thou? That freedom, friend, this world nor that can give!
In books and temples vain thy search - for thine is the hand that holds the rope that drags thee on! Cease lament and let go thy hold….
- Swami Vivekananda, July 1895

The Quest
For as long as I could remember, I was an atheist! A sudden turn of events, a bereavement and sense of total helpnessness found me standing at the doorstep of a place of worship. Tentatively, I went inside and found myself swept up among the masses. Soon, I was in a peculiar state of mind - a sudden sense of freedom, joy and a feeling of having found an answer to all problems (although, in reality, I was nowhere close to it!). This was not so much a reasoned state of mind as an epiphany, something not unlike the "zone" reached by practioners of transcendental meditation.

Thus started my quest. Not that I seriously expected to find anything at the end, but rather find out if the "zone" was repeatable and how various religions and philosophies approach this state of mind.

Abundant joy, acute pain, death of a loved one or ones own mortality, elicits the same questions from almost everyone - "Is this it? or is there something beyond? Was there a purpose to life or was the whole thing a surreal drama?".

Interestingly, Tao says death is a "return to where you came from". So, if you are an atheist and believe you came from nothing, you return to nothing. If you belive you came from God, you go back to God. I'll stop here and not offend the darwinians!

This paper is a collection of questions and their answers culled from Vedanta and Tao (they are remarkably similar and one "path" of Vedanta almost mirrors Tao). I have drawn heavily from Swami Vivekananda's interpretations of the Advaith and on the Tao philosophy. To me, these two seemed to provide the most logical of explanations that appeal to the intellect. Besides, Advaith and Tao are not so much a religion as a school of thought (albeit, an unconventional one).

We can also place various religions into this framework (all of which, distilled, seem to say the same thing). A good analogy would be a circle with religions like Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. on the circumference and Advaith/Tao at the center. Vivekananda says that all of them have their place and depending on the spiritual maturity of a person one of the religions on the circumference or the abridgement at the center may appeal to the individual.

This paper is based on my understanding of the Advaith (I have no else to blame for any error or misinterpretation). There are parts that may seem frivolous or flippant (although, I can assure you it is not!). There is also the "gender bias" of referring to The One as He (I am not sure if it is mine or the influence of the Vedic scholars who reference Brahman as He!), although the infinite is held to be without a name, form or gender!

Why is It inexpressible?
How do you bring people into harmony with the Tao?
You can only point at the invisible.
It is like using sign language in the dark.
The mystery is that it works!
- Tao is Tao

There are lots of theories on this. Most popular is the "He is beyond words and thought and hence cannot be described". One interpreter of Tao says that the concept of The One (which is the basis of Tao/Advaith philosophy) cannot be explained - simply because the moment we try, It becomes Two (I and the One). Therefore, the only way is to realize The One by merging with it, not speculate on, express or try to understand it!

However, the Veda and Tao maintain that they are just pointers to the path and the Truth is a realization. "Atman is not to be realized by speech or intellect. Not even by the study of Vedas" says the Veda! (A profound position, considering the fact most religions want us to believe that the Truth is in the holy book!).

"Try painting a picture of the colorful world to the blind and you'll get an idea of why it is inexpressible".

The Veda (meaning Fountain of Knowledge) is the collection of several hundred years of thought on the subject of the spirit by many different sages. The ancient sages of India were extremely bold and no line of thought was held to be too sacred to question. If a theory did not logically or satisfactorily explain all possible questions, they were more than willing to drop it in favor of a better one. The progression has started of with dualism (and rituals) like most religion. Dualism holds that there is a God and there are mortals. A personal God who bestows favors on those he is pleased with and punishes others. The sages soon realized that instead of trying to answer the Question, this theory just brought God to our own level - with all the frailty of the humans!!. So, they moved on to a higher level. The culmination of this thought process was Advaith. Advaith is not a religion (Hinduism as a religion is quite different from it). It is a philosophy, a framework that beautifully explains all the questions. Remarkably, almost any religion, any philosophy, any idea on this subject can be satisfactorily and logically explained using (and within) the Advaithic framework.

The Philosophy
OM TAT SAT - Thou art that.*

"There is but one Existence, the Infinite, the Everblessed One. In that existence we dream all these dreams. It is the Atman, beyond all, the Infinite, beyond the known, beyond the knowable; in and through that we see the universe."

Several people see Advaith as the highest expression of human thought. It claims that there is but one universal existence which is the cause and the material of this universe (both the creator and the created are the same). That what we see as this universe, this world, this life, is not real - it is Maya. To quote Swami Vivekananda, "There is neither nature, nor God, nor the universe. Only the One Infinite Existence".

One point needs to be clarified, though. Does Maya really mean Illusion? No. It just means that the world as we perceive it through our sense is not real. Maya doesn't mean "Illusion" or "does not exist" its meaning is closer to "dream", "not real" or mistaking, say, a rope for a snake. The Advaith is implying that by not realizing that all of us are the Infinite spirit and this universe is Him as well, we become too absorbed in this "life" - and that they call Maya. As Vivekanda puts it in his famous poem

There is but One - the Free - The knower - Self!
Without a name, without a form or stain.
In him is Maya, dreaming all this dream.
The witness, He appears as nature, soul.
Know thou art That. Om Tat Sat Om

The Upanishad is a study on the nature of the Universal Existence (the Brahman) and Advaith is the bridge that connects the individual (Atman) to this Infinite Existence. Advaith holds that the Atman is Brahman, but because of the veil of Maya it cannot see It. As Tao succinctly puts it:

The ignorant see the turmoil
flickering before the eyes
as the only reality.
The person close to Tao
sees the forms moving before her as:
empty and fleeting,
a magicians sleigh of hand,
yet timeless and real;
so many thoughts, mere emotions,
insubstantial dreams,
yet the substance of life,
inseparable from emptiness and silence.
The ignorant are trapped by their thinking.
The realization of this is the key to enlightenment.
- Tao is Tao

Interestingly, Advaith and Tao are very similar. They both hold that there is but One Existence (Advaith refers to this as Om and Taoists as Tao). And that One doesn't have a name, form or gender. Both say that the "One just is", not even aware of its own existence! In that sense, neither of them acknowledge a God (as in Creator). The One is variously described as the eternal void, emptiness, the infinite silence, infinite knowledge, infinite love, infinite joy and infinite bliss.

How do we know that the One Just Is? This is the most logical explanation to existence. If it were not true, then the One needs to have a reason for existence. With reason comes a cause and a starting point. All things that have a starting also have an end. If we go through the chain of causation to the source, before the world began, before the big bang, before the cosmos, before everything, there comes a point when something just was! It was not created and hence cannot be destroyed! So, the was still is!

The Tao has
no beginning,
no end,
no past,
no future.

Even this moment is an Illusion
- Way of Tao

*Sanskrit is a polymorphic language. Om Tat Sat has been variously translated as the "Supreme Personality of the One" and "Om is the Truth" (Sat means Truth). Sat also signifies Existence and hence can mean "Om is the life force of Existence/Creation". In Bhagvad Gita, Sat has been used to describe the "performer of sacrifice", the individual invoking the Om. In that sense when somebody says "Om Tat Sat" it means "You are Om" or "Thou art That".

The Universal Framework
If there is one Truth then why are there so many religions? The most popular theory is that all of them are looking at the same thing, but from different angles. Yet the central theme is the same. Another theory is that each religion has to really address the spiritual needs of its target audience and therefore the Truth is presented in such language and metaphor as will appeal to its audience.

The real essence seems to be hidden, though! For example, in the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna that he (Arjuna) is part of Brahman and that both he and the Brahman are in Him (Krishna). This immediately leads to the question, isn't this dualism? The answer is "Yes and No". Yes, when you look at the metaphor and No because the hidden meaning is that of The One. Swami Vivekananda points out a similar thread in Christianity. Jesus saying to the world "Pray to your Father in heaven" and to those that can accept a higher truth "I am the Vine, ye are the branches" and to his disciples "I and my Father are one".

Vivekananda has a nice analogy. Let us say, several people go to the river to fetch water. One uses a mug, another a cup, another a pitcher and so on. The water in all of them is the same - it just takes the shape of whichever vessel is holding it! He insists that all religions have their place in society and demands of us not just tolerance, but acceptance!

The Vedanta in its quest to satisfy the spiritual needs of a large percentage of the population, provides four different approaches. The Karma Yoga for the person who seeks truth through action, Bakthi Yoga for one who seeks It through love, Raja Yoga for the one who seeks It through mysticism and meditation and Jnana Yoga for one who seeks It through philosophy and intellect.

Why can't we know God/Om/Existence?
"Everything limited by the mind becomes finite. Therefore, to 'know the Absolute' is a contradiction of terms" says Swami Vivekananda. But, he hastens to add that "God is more than knowable. He is the Witness and whatever we know we know in and through Him. He is the essence of our own self and we cannot know anything except through Him. We are him and that which is one with us is neither knowable nor unknowable".

The logic given to explain it is this: any act of knowing involves projecting that object out of ourselves and contemplating on it. This is not possible with God because He is our own self. A beautiful Tao story explains it: "A young fish once asked, ' Tell me grandpa, what is this thing everyone calls the ocean?' . To this the old fish replied, 'it is all around you, son'. The young fish was perplexed, 'then why do I not see it?' "

What is the purpose of life?
According to the Advaith, None! The Infinite Existence just is and the Maya in him also just is. This has always been and will always be for eternity! Advaith says that the "cycle of birth and death will continue till the power of karma (reaction to our actions/the law of cause and effect) is spent and enlightenment dawns". Several people hold this statement to mean that the pursuit of enlightenment is the purpose of life. Since, we are Him and Maya will always be, this "purpose" translates to something like "I am on the path to reach myself and when I have, another one of Me will be in this cycle of Maya!". There is no purpose to life - it is Maya.

We come from silence,
we return to emptiness.
All movements and forms between
manifest emptiness and silence.
- Tao is Tao
Then, why the quest?
Because once enlightened, "this world will come back upon us, but not with the same power. So long we are bound by Karma: men, women, animals, plants, our attachments and duties - all will come back to us, but not with the same power". "The strength of Karma will be broken, its poison lost, the distinction between reality and mirage clear" says Swami Vivekananda.

In this endless and merciless cycle of suffering,
the law of cause and effect reigns supreme.
Karma towers over all,
blocking out the sun.
Yet its shadow does not fall
on the person walking with the Tao
- Tao is Tao

Why does Maya exist?
If life doesn't have a purpose, does Maya have one? If we are Him and eventually we realize Him, then what do we need Maya for? As it turns out, Maya is needed for the Existence to Exist! Take the example of the sun. If you see the nuclear reaction on the sun, it starts of with hydrogen atoms and combines with electrons, goes through four different steps and ends up again as hydrogen atoms. The starting and the ending point are exactly the same. This reaction requires a very high temperature to happen - and it releases a very high temperature as part of this process. In short, it is self sustaining! Of course we can ask, the starting point and ending point in this reaction are the same, so why happen at all? If we can and do break the chain anywhere, the sun would cease to exist!

More on Maya
Know that a slave is a slave -
caressed or whipped, not free.
For fetters, though of gold,
are not less strong to bind.
- Swami Vivekananda
"With every breath, every pulsation of the heart, we think we are free. The same moment we are shown that we are not - bound slaves, natures slaves in body (birth and death), in mind (fear) and all our thoughts (anger/hate/jealousy). This is Maya." says Swami Vivekananda.

Maya is not Illusion. It is real and yet not real! We have to work in and through the Maya to reach the Truth. The following is an excerpt from Jnana Yoga by Swami Vivekananda.

"The existence of the wave is entirely dependent on the existence of the ocean. The form remains so long as the wave remains. This name and form is the outcome of Maya. It is this Maya that makes individuals, making one appear different from the other. Maya has no existence of its own, yet it cannot be said not to exist! I am studying a book. Page after page is being read and turned over. What changes? Not I, but the book. This whole nature is a book before the soul. Chapter after chapter is being read and turned over, but the soul is unchanging, eternal. Birth and death are in nature not in you. Yet the ignorant are deluded."

"The Universe is his dream. This is Maya"

Where do we go when we die?
What becomes of a man when the body dies? "The Wise One is never born, never dies. It arises from nothing and nothing arises from It. Unborn, eternal, everlasting, the One can never be destroyed. If the slayer thinks he can slay or if the slain thinks he is slain, they both do not know the truth. For the Self can neither slay nor be slain" says Yama (Hindu God of death) in Kata Upanishad. The philosophy holds that only the Brahman is eternal. The body and mind are evanescent. The Maya is like a series of mirrors moving before the Brahman. This creates the illusion of birth and death.

The Advaithic philosophy says that the cycle of birth and death continues so long as the Atman is deluded by Maya and therefore is under the power of Karma. Once the realization dawns, karma loses its power, the cycle ends and the Atman reaches its true state, the Brahman.

Why do I cling to myself
as if I really exist?
I refuse to accept with joy
what I will enter through suffering.

Behind me are illusions of reality.
Before me, emptiness and silence.
- Tao is Tao

Mind over Matter!
Although both body and mind are held to be mortal, there are lots of theories that argue the mind is less "mortal" than the body, in that it can carry its "experiences" and that the mind ceases to exist only when enlightenment dawns (and enlightenment can be reached only when the mind or "I" vanishes!).

There is an interesting school of thought that maintains genetics play no part in "instincts", but the mind's "experiences" do! For example, how does a small baby automatically break its fall with its hands? Or how does a new generation of birds know the entire route from the north to the south pole without being taught? The proponents of the evolutionary theory say that this is the "instinct" born out of experience over several generations. Critics argue that there is absolutely no proof of knowledge passing through genes - only physical characteristics; and limited ones at that! So, they claim that these experiences must have been carried by the mind!

Is there a heaven?
Yes, to those that are trapped in the veil of Maya. No, to those that realize there is but One. Most dualistic religions maintain that there is a heaven and promise this to its faithful. However, a quick analysis shows that all pictures of heaven are that of earth with the negatives removed. For example, almost all religion hold heaven to be the place of perfect health, eternal life, song, dance and rejoicing. With the picture of heaven, several religions paint the picture of hell, where a "person may be eternally barbecued" for such a simple reason as not belonging to that religion! Such a theory was not appealing to the ancient sages. They hold that there is no devil, no heaven no hell - just that one infinite being.

However, the Advaitin does not push the theory of heaven and hell under the rug! Instead he explains it also as Maya. He says, it is the same universe that seen from a human plane is the earth, sun, moon and stars. Seen from a plane of wickedness, it is a place of punishment. And this very universe is heaven to those that want to see it as heaven. Those who have been dreaming of going to heaven when they die will see a heaven - but this is also Maya and of their own making. To the enlightened, there is but One Universal Existence.

When I am the One and Only Existence, who will I reward or who will I punish?

Why is there good and evil?
This is a very popular question: if there is only one universal existence, then why do we see so much evil on this earth? People hurting and killing each other? Before trying to find an answer to this question, we need to understand that an Advaitin does not see good and evil as two separate things, but rather as two ends of a line - the extremes of one continuous progression. The difference between the two is not one of type, but of degree. Advaith holds that neither can exist alone. Each is needed for the existence of the other.

The Advaithic explanation of good and evil is tied to Karma and Maya. Evil exists because we "think" it does. As an analogy, a child may see a man in a mask escape with a painting and yet not see a theft! It means that our thoughts and actions create the Karma that binds us back to this good and evil. The Atman itself is not touched by any of this and is ever pure.

So, the Advaitin says, the problem is not with the Self which is ever pure. The problem is not with Maya either. It is just that the egoistical beings in the Maya don't want to stop even for a moment and see the Truth and instead go through the grind of Karma again and again until eventually they reach enlightenment! This is exactly what the earlier Tao poem means by "I refuse to accept with joy, what I will enter through suffering". For the enlightened one, there is no good nor evil. When all that there is, is Him, who will he hate? Who will he hurt? Himself?

Advaith holds that, Maya is bondage and realization of the Truth is freedom. Karma and Maya do not hold any power over Him. For, the Enlightened One can take any number of forms and names and will have all power over Maya. This explains the supernatural power of the truly enlightened. Even within Maya, belief seems to provide a special strength all its own. We have heard of people walking away cured, after the doctors have given up hope; of miracles being performed; of the rules of Maya being bent - "true and strong belief about anything comes to pass". These class of people may not be enlightened in the sense of knowing the One, but their intense belief holds sway over Maya. The difference, however, is that Karma is still in effect for those using these "powers" for good or bad. For the realized One, the Maya is His dream and a playground.

There are questions on the apparent contradiction in Vedas, when they say "we come under the power of fate" and "fate is in your hands". One explanation is that, by knowing the former, our actions are modified and therefore the later becomes true. A better explanation is based on their context in Vedas. The first one holds true for those in and under the control of Maya. The second is true of the realized (and even those that are on the Path).

Science and Advaith
Mathematics and astronomy were well advanced during the Vedic days. In fact, there are entire books devoted to "Vedic Mathematics" which detail the methods in Vedas for working out very complex mathematical problems without pen & paper! A study of science is outside the scope of our philosophical quest, so let us focus on how the Big Bang theory of Creation and Darwin's theory of Evolution fit into our Advaithic framework.

Advaith maintains that everything in Maya is created and eventually will be destroyed. It is an eternal cycle. It follows that the universe as we see it will end one day, to be replaced by another. Big Bang explains the start of one such cycle!

Darwin's theory of evolution talks about the progression from single celled beings to man, where better more intelligent beings evolve out of lower forms. Advaith also holds the same to be true. In Maya is evolution, physical and spiritual evolution, moving from lower forms to higher forms to ultimately reach that one perfect being, Brahman!

The Path to Enlightenment
Enlightenment is not gain;
it is the loss of everything.
Even wisdom and truth disappear
when only silence and emptiness remain.

Both Advaith and Tao insist that when the ego, the individuality or the "I" vanishes completely, all that remains is the Universal Existence and when you merge with the One, you find infinite joy and freedom.

The Vedas provides four different approaches: The Karma Yoga for the person who seeks truth through action, Bakthi Yoga for one who seeks It through love, Raja Yoga for the one who seeks It through meditation and Jnana Yoga for one who seeks It through intellect.

Tao holds that no effort is really needed! "What is so difficult about giving up the dream?" Tao asks. "You can do it this very moment and be free!". Tao is of the opinion that there is no "approach" - each person has to walk his own path to get there. All one can do is "point the way".

A sect of Buddhism says that "when the act of looking is turned back on itself, we will see this infinite void". However, all of these philosophies agree that the search is not outside of us, but at the very core of our own being and when the "I" as we see it vanishes, the Truth will be apparent.

But, giving up this ego is the most difficult of tasks. The first step is to give up all desires, including the desire to give up the desires!

Even trying to get rid of the ego inflates the ego.
The person in harmony with Tao ignores the ego,
as compassion immerses him in the eternal flow of Tao
The Taoist sage
does not cling even to freedom.
He is truly free!
The humble man close to Tao
becomes less every day.
When he has lost himself completely,
only his true self remains.

- Tao is Tao & Way of Tao

Although Advaith and Tao are the most logical and generalized of philosophies, both are of the opinion that beyond a point the thinking faculty will not be able to help us. Our power of reasoning can take us down the path to the very edge. But once there, we will have to let go and take that leap to reach enlightenment. Vivekananda says "our reasons work within the network of our consciousness and not beyond" and adds that this leap is not a contradiction to reason as "the old man is not a contradiction of the child, but rather fulfils the child". Tao explains this with a beautiful poem:

Analytical thinking does not satisfy the needs of the spirit,
for the spirit finds peace in unity.
To step into the realm of the spirit
is to abandon thinking.
Can you step over the precipice,
not knowing what is below?
Life starts this way.
- Tao is Tao

Tao on the Path

The Tao is the source of all words
to those that are silent.

The Tao gives true power
to those that do not use power.

The Tao fills with thoughts
those minds not attached to concepts.

The Tao shows the way
to those who do not need to be shown.

The Tao approaches those
who have stopped searching for Tao.

Logic and Truth
Advaith is one of the most simple, elegant and optimistic of philosophies. It maintains that we are Him. It doesn't believe in the existence of a heaven or hell. It says that we are, all of us, pure by our very nature and whatever we do or not do, we will eventually reach enlightenment! This has led to the question, especially from the west, of whether this Truth is true! Certainly the Advaith presents the most generalized and most logical of frameworks; probably the only one within which all other theories fit. A framework within which we can explain all questions without contradicting each other! This still leads to the question of "does logical mean true?".

Even from a very materialistic standpoint, one can argue that when one dies what goes away is the individuality, the ego, the "I". If we can give up this "I" consciously, we can probably see the true self or at the very least, know the meaning of death!

What does the Veda say about this topic? "The Atman is not to be realized by speech or intellect. Not even by the study of Vedas!". Don't take the word for granted, go out and realize, seems to be message. "What right do we have to believe or not believe in a God that we have not seen, yet whose Existence we cannot disprove? We are all atheists until we realize God".

Swami Vivekananda's recipe is simple: "theories won't do you any good. First we have to hear about them, then we have to think about them. We have to reason the thoughts and impress them on our minds and we have to meditate on them, realize them until at last they become our whole life". He says that "a true religion is realization; not talk, not doctrine, nor theories, however beautiful they may be. It is being and becoming, not hearing and acknowledging. It is the whole soul becoming changed into what it believes."

Tao has a very different answer to this question:

The intelligent
win arguments
and lose.

The foolish
lose arguments
and sulk.

The wise refuse to argue
and gain.

The person close to Tao
does not argue,
because she has nothing to say.

We have come to the end of this paper and you may be inclined to ask, "what is the conclusion?". Like it or not, there is none! What questions have been asked a greater number of times, what ideas have led men more to search the universe for an answer?, what question is inseparably connected with our very existence than these fundamental questions for which we are seeking answers?

These questions have been asked millions of times over several thousand years and will continue to be asked so long as there is humanity. Each time a different set of theories may be propounded to suit the times and needs of the people. The questions will continue for eternity. Just like a new crop of students enter school each year, we come into the realm of spirituality and our thirst quenched, walk away - each to find his or her own Truth. We can only try and wait till realization dawns.