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8 Great Philosophical Questions - A Vedic Perspective
I came across an interesting article by George Dvorsky, that reiterates 8 philosophical questions that cannot be solved:
- Why is there something rather than nothing?
- Is our universe real?
- Do we have free will?
- Does God exist?
- Is there life after death?
- Can you really experience anything objectively?
- What is the best moral system?
- What are numbers?
These philosophical questions are definitely intriguing and apparently beyond our mental capacity. Innumerable philosophers have spent many mental hours trying to penetrate these mysteries without getting any closer. However, the question may be raised as to where the fault actually lies - the mind, or the approach?
Philosophical Questions and Mind
Vedic philosophy attaches speculation as the inherent nature of the mind. The mind attempts to solve questions till it either reaches a satisfactory conclusion or simply becomes fatigued. If I give a monkey a box containing peanuts with a lock on it, and a key to open the box, the monkey will make no connection between the key and the lock, unless it is trained to do so. The monkey will gnaw on the box, jump on it, dash it to the floor, and eventually give up. From my perspective, I will just see the fun and think, "Foolish monkey!" Similarly, what if there is a key to our unsolvable philosophical questions? What if someone out there, somewhere, is watching our attempts at answering these philosophical questions, thinking, "Use the key, damn it!"
A Specification of our Universe
When we buy electronic goods, we always receive a manual with it. Maybe there's a specification lying somewhere in the dark or right under our noses, giving us answers to all these seemingly complex philosophical questions. We see so many intelligent patterns in our perceptible universe, that it would be untenable to think that everything is a co-incidence or just a chemical reaction. As Sherlock Holmes exclaims in The Mystery of the Norwood Builder -
"I KNOW it's all wrong. I feel it in my bones. There is something that has not come out, and that housekeeper knows it."
There has to be answers to these philosophical questions - somewhere!
Philosophical Questions and Faith
Why not change our approach? We can dispense with the mind because the mind has failed us. Instead, why not search for a specification that gives us enough information and guidance about our existence? Why not use our faith as the primary tool instead of dry mental philosophy? Just as we understand science through a standardised process, there should be a standard process to verify the results of faith.
We readily believe in the conclusions of scientists when their work has undergone validation and peer reviews. We take their word as true even without testing it ourselves because we have a strong belief in the scientific process. Why doesn't this happen with the process of faith? The answer is somewhat obvious - scientific conclusions are empirically measurable. That means our minds and senses can comprehend, measure, and accept the steps involved in the scientific process, whereas in the realm of faith, the mind has no entrance. Unless we accept and follow the process of faith, the conclusions will never be clear to us. Just as "the proof of the pudding is in the eating", the proof of faith is attained in following the process of faith. However, the process is not just a bunch of calculations, equations and experiments. Rather, it is a life-changing approach, a giant leap - "a leap of faith" as they say.
The Vedic Perspective
I would like to present a case in support of the Vedas as a valid candidate for our requirement of a specification. Some may opine that such a case is sectarian. However, it will be a mistake to believe that the Vedas are simply "Hindu religious literature". TheVedas teach the eternal principles of life (sanatana dharma). They explain the intrinsic eternal nature of the individual unit of consciousness - in other words, the soul. Nowhere in the Vedas does it mention that only Hindus have a soul and others don't. Although the analogy is not perfect, the Vedas can be compared to the Internet - all-pervasive, all-knowing, and non-sectarian. The knowledge in the Vedas is available to anyone that can accept it, just as the Internet is for anyone that can connect to it.
The Concept of Eternity
The concept of eternity is fundamental to all Vedic knowledge. The human mind is conditioned or limited by the effects of time. The effects of time is known by the symptoms of past, future and their interactions that we call the 'present'. When our mind tries to perceive a point in 'no-time', it fails miserably. The Vedic literatures present knowledge of what lies beyond time. The Vedas are eternal and are called apaurusheyameaning that they are not manufactured by fallible humans. Ordinary humans are subject to four kinds of defects:
- Bhrama - The tendency to commit mistakes
- Pramada - The tendency to become bewildered
- Vipralipsa - The tendency to cheat and be cheated
- Karanapatava - Imperfect perception due to material senses
Much could be written on this topic, but that is for another article.
In a succinct manner, I'll try to answer the above philosophical questions from a Vedic perspective. The Vedic perspective means understanding through the three divisions of the Vedic literature:
- shruti-prasthana - the original four Vedas, and their corollaries - the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads
- smrti-prasthana - the puranas, Bhagavad Gita, Mahabharata, and Ramayana
- nyaya-prasthana - Vedanta-sutras
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Basically, there's always "something" because "nothing" does not exist. Logically speaking, if "nothing" "existed", it will immediately become "something" because it exists. This answer doesn't do complete justice to the question from the mental platform, because the mind will never accept any satisfactory answer to this question, or indeed any of the philosophical questions.
Modern psychologists generally consider the mind as the very self. However, followers of the Vedas accept the mind as an internal instrument (antahkarana) which accepts and rejects data. The mind is fully dependent on the soul which is the original perceiver of all things. When we say "My mind", we already make a distinction between the 'Self' and the 'Mind'. Not only that, Bhagavad Gita even distinguishes between the mind and the intelligence as being separate subtle material elements. It says:
It is said by the wise that the senses are superior to the sense-objects, the mind is superior to the senses, and the intelligence is superior to the mind. Superior to the intelligence is the individual unit of consciousness.(BG 3.42).
Furthermore, it says:
Knowing the individual unit of consciousness to be superior to the intelligence, steady the mind with the pure intellect of the self and conquer this formidable enemy in the form of lust. (BG 3.43)
The desire to know everything is also a form of lust that arises within the mind. The mind wanders everywhere, whereas intelligence limits it. Out intelligence, based on its platform of logic, accepts the rational conclusion that there’s always “something” because “nothing” does not exist. However, if the mind alone ponders this question without the help of intelligence, it will negate the existence of all “somethings” that ever existed and eventually create the question, “Why do I exist?”, and further question, “Why does the creator exist?”. Pure intelligence curbs the undisciplined nature of the mind by saying, "Stop it right there, else your head will crack!"
The self or the soul is not a material element - rather, it is beyond the confines of time and space. The soul is the living force that activates the material elements that form the body. When the body is destroyed the soul still exists. Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita:
There was never a time, O Arjuna, when I, you, or all the kings assembled here, did not exist. Nor will there be any such time in the future. We are all therefore eternally present." (BG 2.12)
According to this statement, there is always "something" and "nothing" indeed has no room to exist.
Is our universe real?
If this universe is not real, then it has to be false - illusion, mental projection or a simulation, call it what you will. However, reality is the basis of falsity. Falsity cannot exist independent of reality, whereas reality itself is independent.
If we subscribe to the Simulation Hypothesis, or its more accurate descendant, the Simulation Argument, we indirectly support a real universe in which we are being simulated in a real computer. A more formidable argument against the reality of the universe can be formulated using Kant's philosophy of Phenomenalism or even Metaphysical Idealism that somewhat comes close to the Buddhistic worldview.
Buddhism views the rich diversity of this world as a non-ontology (unreal), and assigns it to the characteristic profligate (overly-active, speculative) nature of the ordinary mind. Not only that, even the conscious self and the "other-than-self" are just notions or superimpositions over a constant flow of psycho-physical phenomena. As for reality, unlike Shankara's theory of Advaita, Buddhism does not propose a separate self. Rather, it says, non-identification and non-reification with any kind of consciousness, mind, and form (that are only built out of subtle or physical aggregates) gives an experience of reality. Put simply, Buddhism leads us to nothingness (sunyata), even though nothing does not exist.
If the 'nothing' of Buddhism is described as indescribable, unquantifiable, un-qualifiable, un-specifiable, and yet in the same breath assigned qualities of truth, knowledge, and bliss, it becomes the Brahman conception of Shankara's Advaitavada. Startling as it seems, if not for the notational differences, we'd find it difficult, if not impossible, to separate the basic truths of Buddhism and Advaitavada (refer Advaitavada and Buddhism - are they one and the same). Unlike Buddhism Advaitavada draws directly form the Vedas and Upanishads. However, it heavily interprets the direct meaning of the Vedic literature.
Personally, I find it too overwhelmingly difficult to wrap my head around philosophies that deny our universe its reality. I do not agree that any amount of mental and grammatical acrobatics, no matter how sophisticated, will lead us to the truth. I would rather agree that the universe is real, even if that means acknowledging an intelligent cause or a creator. As per the specification of the Vedic literatures, our empiric universe is a transformation of the external energy of the creator. This external energy is also called prakrti or material nature. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is mentioned:
Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego — these are the eight different elements that constitute my material nature. (BG 7.4)
Although these elements appear similar to the aggregates of Buddhism (that interact together to form the universe), they are nonetheless considered real and separate. Apart from these elements, the Bhagavad Gita says there is also a superior energy that comprises of the living entities (jiva, or souls) that supervene material nature (prakrti).
However, you should know that there is another energy, superior to this inferior nature. It is a conscious potency that consists of the living beings. This superior energy maintains the entire universe. (BG 7.5)
We reside within the material universe, but there is also a supra-mundane universe that is not affected by time. This supramundane universe is the abode of the creator, the supreme intelligence. The material universe is subject to constant change. It has phases of beginning, transformation, annihilation, and yet again a beginning. This cycle goes on forever, whereas the supramundane world is eternal and not supported by material elements. Those who reach there never return to the material world.
My supreme abode is not illumined by sun, moon, or fire. Once attaining that abode, one never returns.(BG 15.6)
This is just stating the specification. Philosophical questions that arise over these will be suitably answered in the upcoming sections.
As science tries to push through the limits of empirical analysis concerning life, two world renowned scientists, Dr Robert Lanza M.D. and Dr Mani Lal Bhaumik, have added consciousness to the equation (Muddy Universe, True Nature). Till now the scientific community has ignored or rejected the element of consciousness, but now it seems they have no alternative.
Can you really experience anything objectively?
The basic question here is, how can we be sure that the objects we perceive through the framework of our senses are actually what they really are. We cannot perceive an object without depending on our senses and mental faculties. Even scientific instruments that help us reduce errors in perception are also custom-built to show results according to that which our brains can comprehend. Therefore, is our perception only subjective?
If we analyse the process of creation from the Vedic perspective, the sequence of creation begins from subtle to gross and not vice versa. The sense perceptions are created first and from them the basic elements that eventually form the senses and the associated sense-objects are created (tan-mātro dravya-śaktimān). Because the sense perceptions generate the senses and sense-objects, we can safely conclude that the perception of our senses is real with respect to the associated sense-objects. However, the interpretation of our perceptions may not be accurate. For example, the traditional example in Advaitavada is rajju-sarpa-bhranta-nyaya - mistaking a rope to be a snake in the dark. Shankara uses this analogy to propose that everything we perceive in this world is false. Ramanuja, however, counteracts this point, arguing that the analogy presupposes the existence of an actual snake.
Free will and afterlife
Free will is a core aspect of all Vedic literatures, and without it, living entity becomes an automaton. Even enquiry of philosophical questions is possible only by free will to question and form opinions. Each individual unit of consciousness is endowed with free will. However, just as a child can misuse a dagger and hurt itself, the soul can misuse his free will.
The Vedic literatures profess a mutual relationship between the atma (soul) and the paramatma (the creator in his aspect as the indwelling monitor within all living creatures), and no genuine relationship is possible without free will. The atma's choice of enjoying independently of the paramatma, is the primary cause of our existence within the material world. This world is an environment where the soul can create its own small or big circle of control and enjoyment/suffering.
There are preset laws of action, or karma, in the material world that leads to good or bad results. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is mentioned that there are three modes of material nature that the soul is subjected to when it chooses to reside in the material world:
Goodness, passion, and ignorance, are the modes born of material nature. These modes bind the immutable individual being to the material body, O mighty armed hero. Amongst these modes, goodness is free from impurities. It gives knowledge and frees one from distress. It conditions one to pleasure and knowledge. O son of Kunti, you should know that the modes of passion manifests desire, hankering and attachment. It binds the embodied living beings to their actions. You should know that the mode of ignorance bewilders all embodied beings It binds them through confusion, laziness and excessive sleep. When the light of knowledge illuminates all the senses of the body, it should be understood that the mode of goodness is most prevalent. When the mode of passion is predominant one is under the influence of greed, selfish activities, ambition, restlessness and hankering. O descendent of Kuru, by the influence of the mode of ignorance, darkness, laziness, confusion, and delusion are manifest.
When an embodied being dies under the influence of the mode of goodness, he reaches the higher planets wherein those of great intellect reside. When one dies in the mode of passion, he is reborn amongst those who are attached to worldly activities. If one dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth again in the womb of unintelligent people. It has been said that the result of good deeds is purity, the results of passionate activities misery, and the results of actions in ignorance is bewilderment. Goodness gives birth to knowledge, passion gives rise to greed, and ignorance breeds illusion, confusion, and a lack of knowledge. Those in goodness attain the higher realms, those in passion remain in the middle (the earth planet) and those in ignorance descend to the lower planes of life. (BG 14.5 - 14.25)
The cycle of birth and death is inherent to the laws of karma. Karma is attached to the soul, therefore it is carried over even after death and determines the conditions of the next life. This perfectly explains why some people are born with physical or mental disorders and others are not, why life is easy for some and difficult for others. But there is always a choice that gives us a reprieve from this continuous cycle of birth, disease, old-age, and death.
By transcending these three modes that appear within the body, one becomes liberated from the miseries of birth, death, old-age, and other miseries. Then one tastes the nectar of immortality. (BG 14.27)
Does God exist?
I think out of all other philosophical questions, this question is the most debated. In the Katha Upanishad we find the following conclusive verse:
nayamatma pravachanena labhyo, na medhaya na bahuna shrutena
One cannot ascertain the principle of God just by reason, scholarship, or listening to lectures.
This question still prevails and will always prevail in scholarly circles because the rationalist's approach is purely based on reason. Reason alone is unable to establish the existence of God. And yet, if you still believe in the rational approach, one can study the argument known as Pascal's Wager.
In the Vedic literatures, the concept of a supreme person is the central focus. Everything, starting from his name, his abode, his associates, his activities, and the ways to reach him have been discussed and presented in detail. If you're wondering, who created God, the Vedic answer would be, God always exists, he has no beginning and no end. Since, there is always something, God is the supreme and primeval "something" that always existed, and will always exist.
Nityo nityanam chetanas chetananam - He is the eternal amongst eternals, he is the supreme consciousness amongst the conscious entities. (Katha Upanishad)
As mentioned earlier, it is only through faith that the supreme is understood. Faith is the substance that transcends all limitations of finite knowledge. Since the supreme cannot be established without the help of faith, an argument on the basis of intellect will in itself be an eternal phenomena.
What is the best moral system?
Dharma, the natural duty of the soul, is a widely used term in the Vedic literatures that incorporates the meaning of morality with a better comprehension. Dharma, the Vedic literatures say, cannot be man-made. The following verse from the Srimad Bhagavatam says that Dharma is initiated by God himself.
Real Dharma is enacted by the Supreme Personality himself. Although fully situated in the mode of goodness, even the great sages who occupy the topmost planes of existence cannot ascertain the real religious principles, nor can the universal authorities or the leaders of enlightened souls, to say nothing of the demons, ordinary human beings, lesser gods and heavenly musicians. (Srimad Bhagavatam, 6.3.19)
The fact that even great scholars and philosophers cannot fully ascertain dharma is the reason why this question is still being debated and has made it to the top 8 philosophical questions that has no definite answers. Numerous literatures derived from Vedic thoughts have been written in the form of stories and fables to educate the ordinary people on the best moral systems to follow. The compiler of the Vedas,Veda Vyasa, has himself brought out the best moral systems in his historical epic, The Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is considered as itihasa (history as it happened), and within the Mahabharata we find the conclusive instructions of the Bhagavad Gita. Bhagavad Gita explains different levels of dharma and ultimately concludes that all mundane dharmas pertaining to this world should be given up in favour of the supreme dharma of surrender and service to the supreme.
What are numbers?
Numbers are not confined to mathematics alone. Mathematics per se is a field inconsequential by itself. Yet, in the empiric reality, mathematics is the most recognized language that can communicate abstract patterns that guide any phenomena. As discussed before, the Vedas are eternal, not affected by our empiric reality, and yet we find they are written in metres that gives them a particular rhythm. Therefore it is safe to say that numbers are not just confined to the material world, but they also pervade the supramundane cosmos. However, the mathematics of the supramundane world does not represent the same mathematical laws of this material world; There, they play in a different fashion. This world is limited by the mathematical laws and dimensions of time and space. The supramundane realm has no such limitations. Everything is according to the will and the play of the supreme. For example, a room in the mundane world can only accommodate a certain number of people, whereas in the unlimited sphere, the same size room can accommodate unlimited people.
What are numbers? Since nothing does not exist, there must be a something. The Buddhists support the concept of nothingness that does not exist. Advaitavada says there is something and that something is One (kevala). However, that One cannot be called supreme, unless there is another. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, we find the statement raso vai sah, that means, that One is rasa - the taste or mellow of relationships. Just as sugar cannot taste its own sweetness, the One requires another to exchange a sweet relationship - ekaki na ramate ("Alone there is no pleasure" - Brhad-Aranyaka Upanishad 1.4.3). Therefore there is another called the second. There being an infinite variety in relationships, the second expands into third, fourth, fifth, and so on. So, the concept of multitude units of consciousness gives rise to numbers, and among the multitudes, the One is the supreme, the predominator, and the rest predominated. In the Svetasvatara Upanishad, we find the following verse:
eko devo nityalila' nurakto, bhaktavyapi bhakta hrdy antaratma
"The one Supreme Person is eternally engaged in many, many transcendental forms in relationships with His unalloyed devotees."
The material world limits our capability to understand a finite amount of numbers. Even though we have an abstract concept of what is infinite, we are unable to pin-point it. In mathematics, we say "n approaches infinite" (n => ∞). Infinite only means a very large number which cannot be ascertained or limited. To know about the infinite, the ascending intellectual process (the way of our own endeavour) needs to be rejected, and the only path that remains is the path of faith or in Vedic terms, shraddha.
Millions of philosophical questions similar to the above eight can be and will be asked concerning our intrinsic nature, the existence of god, our own existence, and the phenomenal world. While we remain in mundane consciousness and attempt to perceive everything with our myopic vision, based on our limited intellectual capacity, we will never find satisfactory answers. Ultimately, only faith can be our guiding principle, bridging the vacuum between the mundane and the supramundane.
Scientific verification of Vedic knowledge - By Swami B.B. Vishnu
- Srimad Bhagavad Gita | Sri Krishna's illuminations on the Perfection of Yoga
Bhagavad Gita - Sri Krishna's illuminations on the perfection of Yoga - With thought provoking, cutting-edge commentary by Swami B. G. Narasingha.
- Ashram Means No Effort
Ashram - A training ground for faith.
© 2013 Arun Ramchandramurthy