Universal Brotherhood – April 1899

THE VEDANTA PHILOSOPHY (1) — F. Max Mueller

If, then, we start with the idea of the Godhead, which is never quite absent in any system of philosophy or religion, we may, excluding all polytheistic forms of faith, allow our friends, the Vedantists, to lay it down that before all things the Godhead must be one, so that it may not be limited or conditioned by anything else. This is the Vedanta tenet which they express by the ever-recurring formula that the Sat, the true Being or Brahman, must be ekatn, one, and advitiyam, without any second whatsoever. If, then, it is once admitted that in the beginning, in the present and in the future, the Godhead must be one, all, and everything, it follows that nothing but that Godhead can be conceived as the true, though distant cause of everything material as well as spiritual, of our body as well as of our soul. Another maxim of the Vedantist, which likewise could hardly be gainsaid by any thinker, is that the Godhead, if it exists at all in its postulated character, must be unchangeable, because it cannot possibly be interfered with by anybody or anything else, there being nothing beside itself. On this point also all the advanced religions seem agreed. But then arises at once the next question, If the Godhead is one without a second, and if it is unchangeable, whence comes change or development into the world; nay, whence comes the world itself, or what we call creation — whence comes nature with its ever-changing life and growth and decay?

Here the Vedantist answer sounds at first very strange to us, and yet it is not so very different from other philosophies. The Vedantist evidently holds, though this view is implied rather than enunciated, that, as far as we are concerned, the objective world is, and can only be, our knowledge of the objective world, and that everything that is objective is ipso facto phenomenal. Objective, if properly analyzed, is to the Vedantist the same as phenomenal, the result of what we see, hear, and touch. Nothing objective could exist objectively, except as perceived by us, nor can we ever go beyond this, and come nearer in any other way to the subjective part of the objective world, to the Ding an sich supposed to be without us. If, then, we perceive that the objective world — that is, whatever we know by our senses, call it nature or anything else — is always changing, whilst on the other hand, the one Being that exists, the Sat, can be one only, without a second, and without change, the only way to escape from this dilemma is to take the world when known to us as purely phenomenal, that is, as created by our knowledge, only that what we call knowledge is called from a higher point of view not knowledge, but Avidya. i. e., Nescience. Thus the Godhead, though being that which alone supplies the reality underlying the objective world, is never itself objective, still less can it be changing. This is illustrated by a simile, such as are frequently used by the Vedantists, not to prove a thing, but to make things clear and intelligible. When the sun is reflected in the running water it seems to move and to change, but in reality it remains unaffected and unchanged. What our senses see is phenomenal, but it evidences a reality sustaining it. It is, therefore, not false or illusory, but it is phenomenal. It is fully recognized that there could not be even a phenomenal world without that postulated real Sat, that power which we call the Godhead, as distinguished from God or the gods, which are its phenomenal appearances, known to us under different names.

The Sat, or the cause remains itself, always one and the same, unknowable and nameless. And what applies to external nature applies likewise to whatever name we may give to our internal, eternal, or subjective nature. Our true being — call it soul, or mind, or anything else — is the Sat, the Godhead, and nothing else, and that is what the Vedantists call the Self or the Atman. That Atman, however, as soon as it looks upon itself, becomes ipso facto phenomenal, at least for a time; it becomes the I, and the I may change. This I is not one, but many. It is the Atman in a state of Nescience, but when that Nescience is removed by Vidya, or philosophy, the phenomenal I vanishes in death, or even before death, and becomes what it always has been, Atman, which Atman is nothing but the Sat, the Braham, or, in our language, the Godhead.

These ideas, though not exactly in this form or in this succession, seem to me to underlie all Vedantic philosophy, and they will, at all events, form the best and easiest introduction to its sanctuary. And, strange as some of these ideas may sound to us, they are really not so very far removed from the earlier doctrines of Christianity. The belief in a Godhead beyond the Divine Persons is clearly enunciated in the much-abused Athanasian Creed, of which in my heart of hearts I often feel inclined to say: "Except a man believe it faithfully, he cannot be saved." There is but one step which the Vedantists would seem inclined to take beyond us. The Second Person, or what the earliest Christians called the Word — that is, the divine idea of the universe, culminating in the highest concept, the Logos of Man — would be with them the Thou, i. e., the created world. And while the early Christians saw that divine ideal of manhood realized and incarnate in one historical person, the Vedantist would probably not go beyond recognizing that highest Logos, the Son of God and the Son of man, as Man, as every man, whose manhood, springing from the Godhead, must be taken back into the Godhead. And here is the point where the Vedantist differs from all other so-called mystic religions which have as their highest object the approach of the soul to God, the union of the two, or the absorption of the one into the other. The Vedantist does not admit any such approach or union between God and man, but only a recovery of man's true nature, a remembrance or restoration of his divine nature or of his godhead, which has always been there, though covered for a time by Nescience. After this point has once been reached, there would be no great difficulty in bringing on an agreement between Christianity, such as it was in its original form, and Vedantism, the religious philosophy of India. What seems to us almost blasphemy — a kind of apotheosis of man, is with the Vedantist an act of the highest reverence. It is taken as a man's anatheosis, or return to his true Father, a recovery of his true godlike nature. And can anything be godlike that is not originally divine, though hidden for a time by Nescience? After all, though Nescience may represent Manhood as the very opposite of Godhead, what beings are there, or can be imagined to be, that could fill the artificial interval that has so often been established between God and man, unless we allow our poets to people that interval with angels and devils? The real difficulty is how that interval, that abyss between God and man, was ever created, and if the Vedantist says by Nescience, is that so different from what we say "By human ignorance."

FOOTNOTE:
1. Extract from an article, "A Prime Minister and a Child-Wife," by the Right Hon. Professor F. Max Muller, in "The Fortnightly Review," February, 1899. (return to text)


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