Philosophy and Vedanta

Although the differences should not be exaggerated, and there are many instances of convergence, philosophy in the sense of the intellectual discipline first developed in ancient Greece and by which and for which the term was first used, is a specific product of Western differentiation and hence unlike the traditions of thought in other cultures. Primarily, what this means is precisely that it is not in principle a tradition of thought based on the acceptance of authority, but a non-traditional discipline, whereas especially in the Vedic tradition (in a broad sense) in India, but also to a considerable extent in China, for instance, the dominant disciplines of thought are traditional, based on traditional authority, as parts of larger traditional, non-differentiated cultures.

Today, “philosophy” is used loosely as covering qualified and more or less organized thought in all cultures (Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophy, comparative philosophy), so that it becomes necessary to speak also of “Western philosophy”, despite the fact that in a strict sense, and if we are not talking about philosophy in the Western sense as pursued in modern, Western-style universities in other parts of the world, philosophy is Western only. In the many contexts in which it is necessary or desirable to bear this difference in mind, it is helpful, as I think Heidegger suggested, to speak, with regard to other cultures, of thought rather than philosophy.

This does not mean that philosophy is necessarily anti-traditional. Already Plato was inclined to revert to elements of traditional teachings in the face of the emergence of the sophists, and to restate them in terms of the new discipline. In this way, it has of course always remained possible to deal with traditional teachings within the specific framework of philosophy and with the non-authoritarian approaches and “methods” of philosophy.

One result of the differentiational shift that defined Western civilization from the outset, and, in another form, shaped also the religions that came to establish during the medieval period the version of Western culture that came closest to the traditional ones (and not least their theology, since it made use precisely of the already differentiated legacy of Greek philosophy), is that, ever since antiquity, Westerners do not accept as literally true the mythological content that is a part of the compact cultural wholes of traditional cultures, and often related to their traditions of thought. Now, the question can be raised if, or to what extent, that content was accepted as literally true even within the traditional cultures. But at least after the establishment of Christianity, and especially in the course of modernity when philosophy was both supplemented and sometimes replaced by science, the West has normally also not accepted the mythological content – its own early mythological content, as in the Greek and Norse myths – as non-literally true, as true in another sense, and as thus related to its specific discipline of philosophy – at least not in any systematic way, as made possible in other cultures precisely though the connection with their respective traditions of thought.

The cognitive content and meaning of myth was retained only selectively and fragmentarily in the mainly aesthetic use of the Western mythological past, in the arts, and the ongoing, broadly romantic attempt by some to defend and revive mythology is also specifically Western in that its context is normally a distinct modern irrationalism considered desirable for exclusively Western reasons and quite different from both philosophy in the classic sense and the partly comparable traditions of thought. What can be understood to be mythological consciousness as such thus did not shape Western culture in its distinctive form, and this historical fact, and its complex causes as they can be summarily described as the process of differentiation, are what accounts for the characteristic difficulties that Westerners may have in understanding traditional cultures.

Some elements of the traditions of thought of other cultures are, however, often sufficiently abstracted from the mythological content even within the compact cultural wholes, for Westerners – and, nowadays, others shaped by the distinct, general Western process of differentiation – to be able to appreciate their substance as separate teachings. In the broadly Vedic tradition, all of the branches and “schools” of thought acknowledge in a general way the authority of the Vedas, the Upanishads etc., and in the most purely intellectual discipline within the tradition, Vedanta, all of the subdivisions and lines of interpretation must, in order to be Vedanta at all, accept and build specifically on not only the Vedanta (or Brahma) Sutra, but also the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. Thought takes shape only within this traditionally and scripturally defined framework.

But within it, it often assumes forms that are conceptually distinct from the mythological-narrative content of the broader tradition, and, while still part of the traditional-authoritative whole, developed in a way that brings it closer in both form and substance to the conceptuality of philosophy in the Western sense. It is not least this that makes comparative study possible, meaningful, and valuable. A dimension of universality is reached which transcends the level where the differences and distinctions between non-traditional philosophy and traditional thought remains significant.

Apart from the mentioned fact that philosophy can always, as such, address any kind of traditional content and of course especially traditional teachings about life, the world, etc., this culture-transcending universality and intelligibility is the obvious reason why “Western philosophers” should pay attention to the substance of this traditional discipline of thought. Needless to say, many Western philosophers have done so, for hundreds of years. But there are many others who still do not, and the explanation for this is of course in most cases to a greater or a lesser extent the historical distance created by the differentiational process and the resulting concept of philosophy, its task, and its reach.

In addition to the partial, intra-traditional differentiation – i.e., differentiation in a much more limited sense that did not at all determine the whole culture, as in the West – on what seems from a Western perspective the conceptual and abstractional level in the Vedic tradition as a tradition of thought, culminating in Vedanta and its sources (according to the intra-traditional understanding, there are in many verses also other, “mantric” qualities that are, as it were, quite concrete), there are other reasons for its proximity to philosophy. First of all, at its origin, before its manifestation in the form of scripture became established as authoritative and tradition-defining, it did, at least in some respects or with regards to some – metaphysical and spiritual – areas of thought, display some of the novel “openness” that was a precondition of philosophy among the Greeks, but which, among them, remained, at least ideally, its basic operational ideal to the extent that no philosophical works became “canonized” as authoritative and conjoined with the larger traditional culture, as in India. The teachings of the Upanishads are what has been seen by especially qualified seers, it is their higher perceptions, not mere revelations of one or more gods, that are the very basis of the scriptural authority and indeed what constitutes revelation in the more general Vedic sense, and hence the basis of the tradition.

A second fact which accounts for the proximity is the sheer vitality of the intra-traditional thought itself throughout history. This might at first appear paradoxical, given its definitional basis in a fixed, unchangeable canon of authoritative scriptures. But it is easily explained by the fact that these scriptures by their own nature to an often remarkable degree require interpretation. This is especially the case with the elliptic sutras, which simply cannot be meaningfully read except in the light of accompanying explanation and exegesis. Within this strictly traditional discipline, its constitutive and defining bases and ever-present points of departure thus in themselves leave vast areas of thought open for interpretation, development, deepening, broadening. At the same time, the given formulations of what is already seen by the seers is sufficiently precise to set clear limits to possible interpretation, and the strictness and fixity of their retention, with those given limits, as the ineluctable reference for all thought, preserves and holds together the tradition as such.

Indeed, the very traditionalism of this unbroken continuity with the given “canon”, the fact that all new thought is just new interpretation and exegesis of the same texts, makes possible a kind of intellectual discipline that is hard to attain in “Western philosophy”, where any new philosopher or school is always in principle at liberty to break radically with the past and their predecessors, and often have done so. Even if, because of the very nature of reality, thought, and language, “Western philosophy”, as a whole, and even including such breaks, of necessity to a considerable extent constitutes a kind of system with identifiable internal laws and dialectical movements, its exploration and exposition cannot possess the internal coherence and rigor of a traditional discipline, a tradition of thought in the sense here discussed, developed to the extent that it is the case in Vedanta; and this is of course true also with regard to the historical succession of Western currents, schools and individual philosophies within the major divisions of this larger system.

I often discuss philosophical positions I am inclined to defend in Western terms, in terms of the mutually adjusted and modifying currents of idealism, personalism, and value-centered historicism. But I also, without making any claim with regard to knowledge about or familiarity with it, frequently make reference to Vedanta, and try to include it as a fourth component. But in its most general formulations, and not just those of the Vedanta Sutra but also, for instance, those of the so-called mahavakyas, the Great Utterances or Sayings which are considered to contain the essence of the Upanishadic teachings, Vedanta is more than a component. Because of the very nature of those formulations, it is not really a matter of their being adjusted and modified in the mutual fashion of the mentioned “Western philosophical” elements of the philosophical whole I tentatively conceive. I regard them rather as their own tradition itself regards them, as the most universal, absolute formulations of the truth on the highest “metaphysical” level, which must, when necessary, adjust and modify everything else without themselves being adjusted and modified. And, for the reasons discussed here, I have no problem in accepting them as such even when I am thinking – as to a considerable extent all Westerners must – from within “Western philosophy” itself.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)


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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi