An Introduction to Advaita Vedanta

The Fundamental Pursuit of Happiness

All of us engage in varied pursuits. It is necessary for any economic transaction to be fulfilled that our pursuits not only be varied but also be at cross-purposes – a man willing to buy a house needs to come across a man willing to sell a house. It is also our experience that not only are our pursuits at cross purposes with others, but our own pursuits are also at cross purposes at different points in time. To an objective individual, it is clear that behind the varied pursuits that we engage in, there is one fundamental purpose – the pursuit of happiness. Nobody would deny that they would any day like to have a continuous flow of happiness, not limited by space and time and not conditional on the things or people of the world.

However, it is also everybody’s experience that such a continuous flow of happiness is not practically possible. There are limitations to it and the most fundamental of all those limitations is our own bodily existence – a limited body can only allow for a limited experience of happiness. If it were a fundamental desire of everyone to experience a continuous flow of happiness and yet if it were a practical impossibility, then it would be an irreconcilable irony – and a Divine one at that, if you will.

The Contribution of the Rishis of India

This pursuit of happiness has not eluded our Rishis. The लोकायत​-s, for example, explored ways and offered solutions to this fundamental human need to enjoy uninterrupted happiness. Their speculations lead them to conclude that self-interest is never to be compromised since all that matters in life is maximising your own happiness, even if it comes at the cost of causing loss or discomfort to others. This earned them the name “चार्वक-s​”, which means “one whose words are exceedingly pleasing”. The चार्वक​-s are ancient India’s counterparts to the modern YOLO-culture. It must be noted here that the चार्वक​ school is not a product of mere haughtiness but is actually a well-argued school in India.

Addressing this fundamental purpose is what distinguishes Indian schools of philosophy from the western ones. While the western traditions did not necessarily engage in the pursuit to reap practical implications for a workaday life, there are philosophers who pointed out to the benefits of philosophy. Francis Bacon famously said “Seek ye first the things of the mind and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will not be felt.” On the other hand, the primary purpose with which our Rishis engaged in philosophy was to set themselves free from limitations posed to their uninterrupted experience of happiness.

While the heterodox schools of Indian philosophy specifically seek to obtain uninterrupted happiness (or the complete cessation of sorrow), the orthodox schools have all stated मोक्ष​ as their final goal. Some schools seem to be interested in transporting us to a heaven, स्वर्गः. However, even this स्वर्गः the पूर्वमीमांसक-s have defined as a state of happiness which is unalloyed by sorrow.

यन्न दुःखेन सम्भिन्नं न च ग्रस्तमनन्तरम्।
अभिलाषोपनीतं च तत् सुखं स्व:पदास्पदम्॥ (तन्त्रवार्तिकम्)

“That सुख which is untainted by दुःख at the time of its experience, nor is followed by दुःख at the end of its experience, that which gets us our desired object, is what is referred to by the word स्वर्ग।”

Though the various दर्शन-s have held differing and even contradictory views, they are all unified in their ultimate purpose – achieving मोक्ष. This मोक्ष itself is referred to by various names like निःश्रेयस, कैवल्य​, etc.

Orientation of Philosophy in the West and in India

The world ‘Philosophy’ itself means love for knowledge. The origin of the term is attributed to Pythogoras. A desire to engage in speculations about the nature of things is based on the innate curiosity that man has about himself and the things around him. In the Western hemisphere, this was a pursuit that you can afford to engage in when there are no pressing needs on your time from the more mundane things of the world. As Will Durant puts it in his “Story of Philosophy”, a student of philosophy continues to take “pleasure in philosophy… until the coarse necessities of physical existence drag him from the heights of thought into the mart of economic strife and gain.”

Philosophy primarily comprises of five fields: logic, aesthetics, ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. Politics and sciences also started off as philosophies originally but today they (more so the sciences), have moved away and formed an independent discipline by themselves.

In India, the corresponding term for philosophy is taken to be दर्शनशास्त्र​। Philosophers then are our Rishis (ऋषिः दर्शनात् – One who has “seen” is a Rishi). While it was expected that students of the various दर्शन-s take up their study by exclusive devotion of time and mental energy to it, the fruit of the study itself was to live a life where there could be uninterrupted (or maximum) happiness in whichever station of life one was in.

The issues that दर्शनशास्त्र tries to address are primarily threefold – the nature of the jiva (the individual), the nature of the jagat (the world around us) and the nature of Ishvara (a creator of the individual and the world).

आरभ्यते जीवजगत्परात्म​-
तत्त्वाभिधानेन मतं समस्तम्।
(सद्दर्शनम्, ४)

“All schools of philosophy begin by addressing the nature of jiva, jagat and Ishvara”

There have been schools in India who have accounted for the third element ie. a creator, by characterising him either as non-existing (the चार्वाक-s) or non-essential (the पूर्वमीमांसक-s). It is interesting to note that the पूर्वमीमांसक-s, who are the most orthodox in terms of accepting the validity of Vedas, find no reason for postulating the existence of an ईश्वर​ as the creator of the world. In fact, the पूर्वमीमांसक-s state that the world was not created at all, in the sense that there was never a time when this world was not the way it is now.

The Role of शब्द​-प्रमाण​ in Indian Philosophy

Another distinguishing feature of Indian philosophy in general, is the acceptance of शब्द​-प्रमाण​ (verbal testimony) as a valid means of knowledge. This is where the role of the Vedas come in. Recall that the division of orthodox and heterodox in the Indian context is based on the acceptance or non-acceptance of the Vedas. Vedas are viewed as अपौरुषेय​ – “not of human origin”. Even though the बौद्ध-s and जैन​-s do not accept the Vedas, they do accept आप्त​-वाक्य​-s (statements of a trustworthy person) as valid means of knowledge and they recognise the original teachers of their schools (for example, Gautama Buddha and Vardhamana Mahavira for the बौद्ध-s and जैन​-s respectively) as आप्त​-पुरुषाः – trustworthy persons.

While the modus operandi of शब्द​-प्रमाण​ in the various दर्शन​-s is a subject matter in itself, a few comments on the Vedas would be in place. While counting the number of valid means of knowledge, प्रमाण​, in the various दर्शन​-s, the main criteria has been that its subject matter should be unique. If one प्रमाण​ has as its subject matter something which is also revealed by another प्रमाण​, then either of the two प्रमाण​-s are redundant. प्रत्यक्ष (direct perception) and अनुमान​ (inference) are accepted as प्रमाण-s by almost all दर्शन​-s except the चार्वाक​-s. Therefore, the subject matter of the Vedas should not overlap with the subject matter of प्रत्यक्ष and अनुमान for the Vedas to be valid. Keeping this in view, the validity of the Vedas has been defined thus:

प्रत्यक्षेणानुमित्या वा यस्तूपायो न विद्यते।
एनं विदन्ति वेदेन तस्माद्वेदस्य वेदता॥
(श्रीमत्सायणाचार्यः श्रीकृष्णयजुर्वेदीय​-तैत्तिरीयसंहिता-भाष्य​-उपोद्घाते)

“That which is not known either through perception or through inference is known through the Vedas. This constitutes the validity of the Vedas.”

Therefore, you can know through the Vedas only that which cannot be otherwise known through any other means of knowledge. The existence of a स्वर्ग​ and the means to attain it, for example, is something that only the Vedas can reveal. What the Vedas reveal cannot be proven or disproven through other means of knowledge, but other means of knowledge can be employed to support the statements of the Vedas. Similarly, a reference in the Vedas to a thing that can otherwise be known, is only taken as a mere restatement or declaration (अर्थवाद​​) by the Vedas.

While there is disagreements among the various orthodox दर्शन​-s on what exactly is the prime conclusion of the Vedas, that the Vedas themselves are an authority is accepted by all of them. To an आस्तिक​, a statement from the Veda is the final authority, though he might want to interpret the statement itself differently, within an accepted framework of rules of interpretation.

The question of which प्रमाण​ would prevail when there is a conflict between प्रत्यक्ष, अनुमान and शब्द​ is a debate that is central to most दर्शन​-s and we would have the opportunity to study it in some detail in future articles.

मोक्ष as a पुरुषार्थ​

If मोक्ष​ is the stated purpose of all दर्शन​-s, then one who desires मोक्ष​ is the eligible candidate for the study of any of the दर्शन​-s. This desire for मोक्ष​ is an informed choice made by a person. All human pursuits have been exhaustively classified into four types: अर्थ, काम, धर्म and मोक्ष. A human being would begin by accumulating basic securities of life and thus अर्थसञ्चय is the first pursuit that ​is recognised by the Rishis. A reasonably secure person would like to accumulate a few luxuries in life – thus enters the pursuit of काम​। Being exposed to the धार्मिक​ traditions around him, man would then think of ensuring a better life even after his present bodily existence comes to an end and thus takes up धार्मिक​ pursuits.

मोक्ष​, the fourth type of pursuit, is different from the other three in the sense that it a pursuit that can get you released from the cycle of births and deaths that an individual is caught up in. Battered by the various events and experiences in his life, a person comes to seek everlasting happiness. In his pursuit of this everlasting happiness, he is willing to give up on his securities and comforts, sacrificing the momentary joys that they offer so that he can reap a higher return by the dedicated pursuit of मोक्ष। As stated earlier, a discerning person will soon find out that in and through all his other pursuits, he was primarily seeking only मोक्ष।

Primary and Incidental Results of studying the दर्शन​

A question often asked is how relevant are these दर्शन​-s in directly contributing to the quality of our lives. By making a particular type of person eligible for their study, the दर्शन​-s are actually attempting to be of utmost relevance to our lives. This is the essence of अधिकार​-वाद​, the issue of eligibility that is invariably discussed in every दर्शन​-शास्त्र​। The primary benefit of studying these दर्शन​-शास्त्र-s accrues to him who is the अधिकारि for their study; and if he is an अधिकारि he will definitely be benefited by its study.

There are other incidental results that accrue to a serious student of the दर्शन​-s. For one, since these various schools are well argued and defended, an exposure to their texts trains us in rigorously articulating our arguments even in our day to day affairs. Secondly, the study of Nyaya and Purva-Mimamsa purely for their methods of reasoning and rules of interpretation of texts respectively, is immensely beneficial. Also, Yoga as a means for disciplining the mind is popular today like never before (though it is unfortunate that the popularising of Yoga is sans its philosophical foundations). And it is seen that even a little exposure to Vedanta makes our lives relaxed and less burdensome.

In the Forthcoming Articles – The most popular of the schools of Indian philosophy existing today is that of Vedanta. Vedanta is perhaps the most radical in its prescription that the only source of permanent happiness that man was constantly seeking for himself, is actually his own nature. In the forthcoming articles, we will attempt to study this school in some further detail. Vedanta is also universal in the sense that as the pinnacle of spiritual truths, it can accommodate within its folds all the other schools of philosophy, giving them their due place in the spiritual evolution of a human being – and we will explore this theme a little more in the next article.

(The author wishes to thank Pujya Swami Tattvavidananda Saraswati ji and Dr Rajit Biswas ji, at whose feet he has been fortunate to study some Vedanta.)

More Stories
Srimad Appaya Dikshitendra