The Theosophical Forum – February 1946

MODERN THOUGHT IN THE LIGHT OF THE VEDANTA (1) — Ernest P. Horrwitz

Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen,

The great ideal of the West is individual freedom in all social relations, that of the East spiritual freedom from all external relations. Accordingly, the Western type of perfection is the man who has grown into a strong personality and is making good use of it, in order to acquire money, position and influence.

Not so the ideal type of the East, the contemplative mind which loves to turn from the world of sense and its cheap pleasures to enjoy the beatitude of the inner life of the soul. It is the deeply religious soil of India that has matured such tender blossoms of piety as the cultured Rammohun Roy or the saintly Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, whose life and work are now becoming known to us from the lucid account published by Prof. Max Müller.

The evolution of European thought has proceeded in a more material direction, has taken a practical turn. Europe does not pay so much attention to her saints and philosophers as to the practical geniuses which she has produced in abundance. Mechanical inventors and geographical discoverers like Edison and Nansen, physical scientists and popular reformers of the type of Prof. Koch and Gen. Booth, strong will-powers in political life such as Bismarck and Gladstone — these are the men one admires because their ideas are directly applicable to practical life, and conducive to the material welfare of society.

Western people love to build up and to assert a strong personality, whilst Indian thinkers rather endeavor to renounce and to break up the personal self, looking upon it not as a help but a hindrance in the way of spiritual progress. All the ancient systems of India define sin as personal limitation. Man is born in sin, says the Vedanta, that is, as a separate being. He feels limited and in nature's bondage, and has forgotten that he is free and infinite. To recover full consciousness of our true nature is the tempting ideal religion holds up before us; the thorny path to which she points for its realisation is utter self-abandonment. To feel himself free and immortal, man is to reject all selfish desires, and to throw out an unbroken current of sympathy and pity towards humanity, nay, the whole creation.

Love is the law which permeates every great religion, but physical science has no room for ethics. Modern scientists do not refute the fact that all manifestations are necessarily finite, that individual life cannot be but relative; but they are agnostics as to the reverse side of the picture; they will have nothing to do with the absolute side of nature, the Unknowable, the Infinite, God, or whatever name has been applied to the Eternal First Cause. Physicists are, and ought to be agnostics, because metaphysical facts, such as freedom, love and immortality, can never come under the cognisance of the senses and the intellect, but are only realised by mental negation: "Neti, neti," it is not this, it is not that; or by renunciation: Do not attach yourself to this form, do not attach yourself to that form. Therefore, agnosticism seems to me the best justified and the most dignified attitude in the domain of physical science, and her devotees cannot do better than draw a rational boundary-line between the Knowable and the Unknowable, and to exploit the Knowable to the fullest.

Different ideals must lead to different practices. Let us look for a moment at the practical outcome of these two ideas in East and West. There is a lack of organisation in India, I understand; there is but little political freedom, and not enough of national self-consciousness. The Hindus have, at all times, looked upon themselves too much as pilgrims and exiles on earth to feel great ambition for national independence and worldly aggrandisement. Their ultimate desire (I speak of the large class of religious-minded Indians) is rather to go through life untouched by the fleeting pleasures of the noisy world, and, after fulfilling their various duties as householders and citizens, to dissolve all social ties, and to enjoy, in the solitude of the forest, the more lasting comfort of meditating on God. In compensation, the Hindu race has been granted beatific visions of the Heavenly Kingdom of which we poor worldlings can only catch a few occasional glimpses by the study of their divine scriptures and philosophies, more particularly the Vedanta.

How different is occidental life! Look at this tremendous material civilization in the midst of which we live, gigantic in extension and specialisation, wonderful in organisation and working order. Science, in its rapid progress and eager search, has utilised, in the service of man, every department of nature as far as hitherto known, and is daily benefitting human knowledge and human welfare. This huge social fabric of modern civilisation is held together and worked by efficient laws, framed, not by the authority of a few, but by the common consent of all — laws which help to adjust the economic relations of vast masses of population, and which allow, even to the poor and helpless, a share in the blessings of our social legislation, such as free education, free hospitals, workhouses for the aged poor, employers' liability, and many more. A dense net of railway lines and telegraph wires brings the most distant places into close contact; a quick postal service and a cheap daily press bring nearer together and often unite the multifarious interests of whole districts and countries. This is the bright side of the picture.

But where is much light there is much shadow. England is proud of the personal liberty of her citizens, of the economic freedom they enjoy under her rule, and rightly so. But what does social freedom mean? It means that all members of society are equally free before the law, that is, equally limited in their mutual relations in life. Social freedom must, of necessity, be relative. Economic laws are not permanent, but swing to and fro on the self-adjusting sliding scale of concessions and restrictions of class-privileges. So there can neverbe absolute freedom where economic conditions exist, where society is organised, where classes are divided and interests separated, where person stands against person. Personal interests will clash and strife and competition set in; that is the ultimate fate of every organisation.

Why do we organise? Because we wish to assert and protect the particular interests of a special society or nation, and because we do not want that particular body of men to succumb, but to survive in the struggle for superiority or, at least, equality. This process is going on all over nature, in the vegetable and animal economy as well as in the political economy of the human species. Nature is manifestation; we have to face this fact. And all manifestation is necessarily finite and different in parts; and wherever is partition and difference, there cannot be harmony and agreement. That is the invariable law of the natural world. Absolute freedom is not of this world, but is anticosmic and enjoyed in the same measure as attachment to the world of law and sense is renounced. Full freedom from the bondage of economic laws can only be enjoyed by those who have overcome greed and lust and anger, by the humble and unselfish. The truth that freedom and economics are antagonistic has been more clearly reasoned out, it seems to me, and more widely accepted, in India than in Europe; and that is why many thoughtful people amongst us believe that Indian idealism and asceticism will prove a healthful purgative to our materialistic and utilitarian conceptions.

The better man learns to perceive Unity in variety, the Permanent in the transient, God in the world, the more does his consciousness expand, does his heart open, in love and sympathy to his fellow-men, the more freedom and peace does he enjoy in spirit, and the more calmly and efficiently is he able to perform the various duties which are assigned to him in life. God is love, and he who loveth best, worketh best. That is sound Vedanta doctrine.

A monistic faith, such as the Vedanta, appears to me the safest and simplest guide through life's trials and temptations. Every human heart yearns, at times, to be lifted up above the petty cares and the drudgery of the daily routine, and to enjoy holy calm and the peace which cannot be got by mere understanding. Is there any idea more conducive to such a happy state of the soul than the monistic ideal of the Vedanta, than the bold cognition of "One Life without a second" running through the created world, of One Existence, all-conscious, ever free and blessed, than the noble faith in the saving and purifying power of self-sacrifice and disinterested love? The flash of intuition which reveals to man the Infinite through the myriads of its finite semblances, the inner illumination which manifests to the soul the divine essence underneath the human form, is the glorious promise of the Vedanta to her earnest followers: "Tat twam asi," thou art that Infinite, but thou hast forgotten thy God-hood, and hast hypnotised thyself into the narrow belief that thou art man. This nescience is not individual, says the Vedanta, but universal. Nescience is a cosmic illusion (Maya.) which enslaves all nature. We are born in Maya, and shall be born in it again until we acquire true knowledge by means of renunciation, and by the light of the Vedanta.

Vedanta teachers have of late aroused much enthusiasm in England and America. The reason is, I believe, that modern science is unknowingly advancing on the same path, and searching after the same Unity which has been realised by the sages of Greece and India thousands of years ago. But while our modern physicists keep their eyes down to the earth, and look into the minutest details of Nature's shell, your ancient seers and prophets have lifted up their searching soul towards Heaven, and drawn divine inspiration from on high. And that has enabled them to see deeper into the hidden nature of things, and to find subtler laws and higher truths than we can ever hope to discover by comparison, classification and generalisation. Hindu wisdom has been quick in perceiving that every physical force and chemical particle which exists in the macrocosm of nature, must likewise be found in the microcosm of man. And so your Yogins (I do not mean the poor deluded jugglers who run after psychic powers, but the self-illumined Aptas who desire nothing but freedom of the soul and God-consciousness) I say, for this reason searchers after God, are gladly turning from the laborious study of the endless differentiations in nature, and prefer to concentrate their undivided attention upon the inward Self, in order to learn discrimination between their destructible, mortal portion and the immortal Witness who eternally dwells in the heart of the creature. After becoming conscious of that Divine light from which all nature borrows her reflected radiance, the devotee has only one object left in life — to give up, little by little, earthborn desires, and to live more and more in what is now a reality to him, in the One Universal Soul. It is called "Atman" in Sanscrit, and is the same as Emerson's "Over-Soul."

The Over-soul is real and transcending all thought, teaches the Vedanta, whilst the individual soul is called apparent, and a necessity of thought. Everything finite is apparent, and the individual is finite, merely the sum-total of his previous thoughts and desires. The individual is continually changing, according to the thoughts he thinks and the life he lives. The individual is made up, not simple but a compound of little permanence. Therefore, individual limitation is looked upon by Vedantic philosophers as a sinful state of ignorance and bondage, whilst universal expansion by means of love and wisdom is considered perfect freedom and happiness.

(To be continued)

FOOTNOTE:

1. This lecture was presented on December 3, 1898, to the "Hindu Association" in London, President, R. C. Dutt, Esq., C. I. E., and was originally published in The Theosophical Review, London, England. Mr. Horrwitz was formerly lecturer at the Universities of Dublin, Ireland, and Durham, England, and Hunter College, New York. In 1927-8 he toured the East, speaking at the Universities of Bombay, Alighar, Nagpur, and Rangoon. He is now, 1945-46, visiting lecturer at Theosophical University, Covina, California, on World Literature and on Semasiology (science of language), to which subjects he has devoted a lifetime's study. — Eds. (return to text)


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE