Three Books on the Vedanta
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1912
1. The System of the Vedanta, by Prof. Paul Deussen.
2. The Philosophy of the Upanishads, by Prof. Paul Deussen.
3. Handbook of the Vedant, by Dr. R. V. Khedkar.
Professor Paul Deussen’s books on Indian Philosophy are of high value, both from the character of their author and from their literary and scholarly excellence. Dr. Deussen is a thorough-going scholar, thoroughly trained and equipped. Though he is, in a certain sense, a specialist in the study of Indian thought, he is a master of the whole field of philosophical thought and study, and has, for many years and with high distinction, held the chair of philosophy at Kiel University. But we can best illustrate his breadth and depth of view by quotation, from the Introduction to The System of the Vedanta:
“The thought that the empirical view of nature is not able to lead us to a final view of the being of things, meets us not only among the Indians but also in many forms in the philosophy of the West. More closely examined this thought is even the root of all metaphysics, so far as without it no metaphysics can come into being or exist. For if empirical or physical investigation were able to throw open to us the true and innermost being of nature, we should only have to continue along this path in order to come at last to an understanding of all truth; the final result would be Physics (in the broader sense, as the teaching of physis, nature), and there would be no ground or justification for metaphysics. If, therefore, the metaphysicians of ancient and modern times, dissatisfied with empirical knowledge, went on to metaphysics, this step is only to be explained by a more or less clear consciousness that all empirical investigation and knowledge amounts in the end only to a great deception grounded in the nature of our knowing faculties, to open our eyes to which is the task of metaphysics.
“Thrice, so far as we know, has this knowledge reached conviction among mankind, and each time, as it appears, by a different way, according to conditions of time, national and individual character; once among the Indians, of which we are to speak, again in Greek philosophy, through Parmenides, and the third time in the modern philosophy through Kant.
“What drove the Eleatic sage to proceed beyond the world as ‘to me on‘ to the investigation of ‘the existent’ seems to have been the conception, brought into prominence by his predecessor Xenophanes, of the Unity of Being, that is, the unity of nature (by him called theos), the consequence of which Parmenides drew with unparalleled powers of abstraction, turning his back on nature and for’ that reason also cutting off his return to nature.
“To the same conviction came Kant by quite another way, since with German patience and thoroughness he subjected the cognitive faculties of mankind to a critical analysis, really or nominally only to examine whether these faculties be really the fitting instruments for the investigation of transcendent objects, whereby, however, he arrived at the astonishing discovery that, amongst others, three essential elements of the world, namely, Space, Time and Causality, are nothing but three forms of perception adhering to the subject, or, if this be expressed in terms of physiology, innate functions of the brain; from this he concluded, with incontestable logic, that the world as it is extended in space and time, and knit together in all its phenomena, great and small, by the causal nexus, in this form exists only for our intellect, and is conditioned by the same; and that consequently the world reveals to us ‘appearances’ only, and not the being of ‘things in themselves.’ What the latter are, he holds to be unknowable, regarding only external experience as the source of knowledge, so long as we are restricted to intellectual faculties like ours.
“These methods of the Greek and German thinkers, admirable as they are, may seem external and cold, when we compare them with the way in which the Indians, as we may assume even in the present condition of research, reached the same concepts. Their pre-eminence will be intelligible when we consider that no people on earth took religion so seriously, none toiled on the way to salvation as they did. Their reward for this was to have got, if not the most scientific, yet the most inward and immediate expression of the deepest secret of being.”
This quotation, I think, gives us a measure of Dr. Deussen’s mind, its accuracy, breadth and imaginative depth, and also of his thorough training, his close and familiar knowledge of both Greek and modern philosophy, as a preliminary to his study of the ancient texts and philosophic thought of India. Let us now try to get a general idea of his book, The System of the Vedanta.
For our purposes, we may consider the material of the Vedanta as consisting of four elements. First, we have the Upanishads, and especially the ten greater and older Upanishads, which go back far into India’s past, and which have come down to us associated with the four collections of Vedic hymns. The central heart of the Upanishads consists of spiritual or theosophic dialogues, generally having the form of conversations between a Master and his pupil or pupils, but sometimes bringing in divine personages, such as Yama, lord of death, as instructors or initiators. The Upanishads contain many passages of singular beauty and power, and are among the noblest and most inspired books in the world; in them, the whole of the Indian wisdom is already contained; later teachers could but expand and comment on them, but in no way departed from this original treasure of wisdom.
The second element of the Vedanta store is the Bhagavad Gita, to which, perhaps, certain other texts in the Mahabharata may be added, such as the Anugita, translated in the Sacred Books of the East series. The Bhagavad Gita gives a warm, personal coloring to the older wisdom, by putting it into the form of a dialogue between the divine teacher, Krishna, and his pupil, Arjuna, whom he initiates into his wisdom, his consciousness and his very being. So full of religious feeling is this book, that many earlier students, with the great German scholar Weber at their head, were persuaded that its essence must have been drawn from the New Testament. But this opinion has few or no supporters today.
The third element of the Vedanta is the book of almost cryptic sentences known as the Vedanta Sutras, and attributed by tradition to the sage Badarayana. It is soaked through and through with the spirit of the Upanishads, taking them, indeed, as divine revelation and incontestable truth. The Bhagavad Gita also it accepts, but as holy tradition rather than revelation. This strangely formed book, strange at least to the Western mind, is one among half a dozen similar text-books, belonging to half a dozen Indian schools of philosophy and psychology, of which the Sankhya and, even more, the Yoga school, must be known at least by name to many of our readers. It is divided into four books of sutras, or thread-verses, which, taken together, sum up the whole system of the Vedanta, resting always on the Vedic revelation, the Upanishads.
But, just as is the case with the Yoga system of Patanjali, these sutras are practically unintelligible as they stand; no one, reading them for the first time, taken by themselves, could make much out of them, or at all determine the fulness of their meaning. Indeed, they seem to have been composed in order that they might be unintelligible without the help of a teacher, in possession of the living tradition and body of knowledge out of which they grew, and whose essence they express; they are, in fact, only for duly qualified pupils, accepted by a teacher, who, from his own knowledge, adds to the meagre outline the warmth and color which are needed to make the system intelligible, living, inspiring.
In the case of the Vedanta Sutras, or the Brahma Sutras, as they are also called, this teacher is the great and luminous sage, Shankaracharya, one of the loftiest and clearest souls humanity has ever produced, a true master of masters. Shankaracharya had already commented on the Upanishads, at least on the ten greatest of them, and on the Bhagavad Gita, if, as the present writer supposes, the Commentary on the Sutras was the crown and end of his work. He had also written short original works, in verse or prose, such as the Crest Jewel of Wisdom, the Awakening to the Self, the Discernment between Self and Not-Self, and several more. So at last, after having gathered together and illuminated the whole body of older wisdom, on which the Sutras rest, Shankaracharya turned to these, and wrote a continuous commentary on them, which is, one may believe, the high water mark of pure intellectual thought, the most perfect piece of reasoning, illumined by high intuition and vision, that the world has ever seen. It is hardly too much to say that the Commentary makes the Sutras; that, without the Commentary, the Sutras would be dull and inert. Indeed, we cannot think of the Sutras without the Commentary; they are but the pegs on which Shankaracharya has hung his luminous disquisitions.
Now for Professor Deussen’s part. He first made himself thoroughly familiar with the Upanishads, in the original, be it understood, for Dr. Deussen is a fine Sanskrit scholar; then he went on to the Sutras, with the Commentary, and with wonderful skill, patience, knowledge and philosophic depth, penetrated to the innermost meaning of both, at the same time analyzing and arranging the material of the Commentary, tabulating, looking up and verifying quotations, counting words almost, with marvelous fidelity, scholarly honesty, and exemplary intelligence. Later, he published a continuous translation of the Sutras with the Commentary, but in the present book he does what is, in reality, a much harder thing: he takes the material of the Commentary, and to some extent re-arranges it, in such a form as to make it more intelligible and acceptable to our Western minds; he gives literal and most faithful translations of the most vital passages; he adds much illuminating comment of his own, comparing the Indian ideas with those of the West, from the time of Plato to our own day; and finally, he inserts the great Upanishad passages on which the whole system rests, making his own translations, which are as eloquent as they are faithful.
A necessarily brief review cannot, of course, convey the substance of a book like this. It must suffice to say that the great divisions of the work, after a long and valuable Introduction, are, first, Theology, or the Doctrine of Brahman, the Eternal; second, Cosmology, or the doctrine of the World; third, Psychology, or the Doctrine of the Soul; fourth, Sansara, or the Doctrine of the Transmigration of the Soul, or, as we should say, the teaching of Reincarnation; and, fifth, Moksha, or the Teaching of Liberation.
In order to give a concrete example of Dr. Deussen’s method, let me quote a passage from the fourth part, substituting the word “reincarnation” for “transmigration,” as being more familiar to our ears:
The section is headed: “No Reincarnation from the Esoteric Standpoint.” Professor Deussen writes:
“From what has been said it is clear that, in the Theory of Liberation to which our last part will be devoted, we shall again meet with the twofold doctrine that we have followed out in detail as the lower and higher knowledge in Theology, and as the empirical and metaphysical standpoint in Cosmology and Psychology; while in the present part, on the contrary, which deals with reincarnation, we shall encounter only the lower, exoteric, not the higher, esoteric, doctrine which puts precisely in the place of this pilgrimage of the soul, the knowledge of the soul’s identity with Brahman (the Eternal), through which liberation is gained at once, so that from the standpoint of the higher knowledge there can be no question of anything like reincarnation. Accordingly the reality of the Sansara (the cycle of rebirth) stands or falls with the empirical reality of the world; as the latter is a mere illusion, so also are the ideas as to the former not so much, as with Plato, eikotes muthoi, but rather a continuation of that illusion into the domain of the transcendent; the question remains open, however, how far our author’s mind, deeply embued as it was with the belief in reincarnation according to the general views of his people, reached a clear scientific consciousness of the mythical character of the doctrine of reincarnation.”
Readers must bear in mind that, for Dr. Deussen, “mythical” means “as real, or as unreal, as the visible world”; for him, reincarnation is of a piece with that world, and therefore real to the consciousness to which the world is real. With this is to be contrasted the transcendental reality of the soul, one with the Eternal.
We quote one more passage, that which concludes Professor Deussen’s Short Survey of the Vedanta System, a very valuable summary of the book:
“Knowledge consists in the immediate intuition (anubhava) of the identity of the soul with Brahman (the Eternal). The works of him who has attained this and with it the conviction of the unreality of the world of plurality and transmigration, are annihilated and in the future cleave to him no more. This annihilation refers just as much to good as to evil works, for both demand retribution and therefore do not lead beyond Sansara (the cycle of rebirth). He on the other hand who has attained knowledge has won the conviction—’that Brahman (the Eternal) the nature of which is opposed to the nature, previously considered by me to be true, of agent and enjoyer, which is of its own nature in all time, past, present and future, non-agent and non-enjoyer, that Brahman (the Eternal) am I; therefore I never was agent and enjoyer, and I am not so now, nor shall I ever be!’ With the unreality of activity the unreality of the body which exists as the fruit of works is recognized; therefore he who has attained knowledge is as little affected by the sufferings of his own body as by the sufferings of another; and he who feels pain, has verily not yet attained full knowledge.
“Even as for the man who has attained knowledge, there is no longer a world, a body or suffering, there is also no longer prescribed action. But he will not therefore do evil; for that which is the presupposition of all action, good and evil—illusion—has been annihilated. It is a matter of indifference if he does works or not; whether he does them or not, they are not his works, and cleave to him no more.
“Knowledge burns the seed of works so that no material is at hand to cause a rebirth. On the other hand knowledge cannot annihilate works the seed of which has already germinated—those from which the present life is put together. This is why the body, even after the awakening (prabodha) is complete, continues to exist for awhile, just as the potter’s wheel goes on revolving even when the vessel which it supported is completed. This continuance is however a mere appearance; the possessor of knowledge cannot destroy it, but it cannot deceive him any more either; just so the man with diseased eyes sees two moons but knows that in reality there is only one there.
“After the works whose fruit has not yet begun to appear have been destroyed by knowledge, and after those, the fruit of which is the present existence, have by completion of this present life come to an end, with the moment of death full and eternal liberation comes to him who possesses knowledge; ‘his vital spirits withdrew not; the Eternal he is and into the Eternal he is resolved.’
‘As rivers run and in the deep
‘Lose name and form and disappear,
‘So goes, from name and form released,
‘The wise man to the Deity.’”
So far Professor Deussen and the great Shankara. I feel that I am doing them both grave injustice by this piecemeal quotation, which may produce an impression of dryness almost, that the whole work would completely remove. Shankaracharya is, for me, the greatest of all Masters of the Mind; he has, indeed, conquered and circumvented the mind at every turning, making a slave, nay, even a most effective servant and ally of that power which, for so many teachers, has bee ceaselessly reprobated, as the Slayer of the Real. Shankara has shown how to draw the grains of gold from the matrix of the mind, to make the mind the door-keeper of the soul. And Professor Deussen is his prophet, a worthy, enthusiastic and effective prophet, who has added every fruit of thorough training and utmost effort to great natural and inborn gifts.
We come now to the second book on our list, also by Professor Deussen. It is entitled The Philosophy of the Upanishads, and is one volume of a complete series on “The Religion and Philosophy of India,” which, in its turn, is the second part of Professor Deussen’s “General History of Philosophy.” This is, in truth, Cyclopean building. Professor Deussen has taken to heart, and acted on, the old Indian admonition: “Follow Wisdom as though you were immortal and eternal; do your duty as though Death already had you by the hair!” Therefore Dr. Deussen has planned largely, and gone instantly to work.
The book which we have already noticed preceded by many years this book on the Upanishads, and was, indeed, the first great achievement of its author, which was the making of him as a student and an authority, the foundation-stone of a great career,—using the word in an entirely worthy sense. It is the richer, fuller work, and, it seems to me, much closer to the subject than the book on The Philosophy of the Upanishads; but I speak here with many reservations, as one who has a view of the theme in hand of such defined nature as, perhaps, in some degree to unfit him for quite impersonal and objective judgment of another man’s work in the same field.
Frankly admitting this disability at the outset, let me try to make clear in what way the work under consideration seems to me to be limited. But first a word as to its great qualities. Professor Deussen published, as we saw, an admirable translation of the Vedanta Sutras, with the Commentary of Shankaracharya: a translation in every way adequate and satisfactory. This is, as we saw, a work quite distinct from The System of the Vedanta, though covering much of the same ground. But he has done a great deal more; he has translated the Bhagavad Gita, and translated it with admirable fidelity and sympathy. There remains an even greater work: his translation of the Upanishads, which is beyond all praise, for accurate and adequate scholarship. It is the best thing of the kind in any Western tongue, and the most trustworthy. Strictly speaking, the book which we are now reviewing is a commentary on that translation.
As such a commentary, it is, first, accurate, then sympathetic, then lucid, and, best of all, enthusiastic. Those who are acquainted with the older book, which we first noticed, will find in this newer work the same familiar framework: the division into Theology, Cosmology, Psychology and Eschatology, the last being the twofold teaching of Reincarnation and Liberation. Here, it seems to me, we get the limitation of the work. For this fourfold arrangement is not really the order which is inherent in the Upanishads themselves; it is rather an order deduced from the Vedanta Sutras with their commentary; an order, that is, belonging not to the Upanishads, but to the Brahmanical system of argumentative and analytical philosophy which grew out of the study of the Upanishads by Brahmans of logical and systematic habit of thought. But, if the present reviewer be right, the Upanishads, at least the greatest of them, are not Brahmanical at all, nor are they works of systematic philosophy, or speculative works in any sense. I believe them to belong, not to the Brahmans, but to the red Rajputs, and to be, not theological speculations, but dramatic books of the Mysteries; text-books of Mystery dramas, of ceremonies actually performed, and having a deep and living significance.
Therefore the limitation of Professor Deussen’s work on the Upanishads, in the view of the present writer, which is put forth with all due reservation, inheres in the fact that he does not clearly recognize their character and source, the race from which they sprang, and the genius of that race, which was mystical, of the will, and not speculative, of the intellect. Yet Professor Deussen has more than an inkling of the relation of the Brahmans to the Upanishads. Thus we find him writing (p. 396-7):
“The Upanishads (apart from the later and less important books) have been handed down to us as Vedanta, i.e., as the concluding part of the Brahmanas and Aranyakas, which teach and expound allegorically the ritual of sacrifice. They are nevertheless radically opposed to the entire Vedic sacrificial cult, and the older they are the more markedly does this opposition declare itself. “He who worships another deity (than the Atman, the self) and says ‘It is one, and I am another,’ is not wise. But he is like a house-dog of the gods. Just, then, as many house-dogs are of use to men, so each individual man is useful to the gods. If one house-dog only is stolen it is disagreeable, how much more if many! Therefore it is not pleasing to them that men should know this!” . . .
“According to these testimonies, which carry all the greater weight because they have reached us through the Brahmans themselves, the Brahmans had received the most important elements of the science of the Atman first from the Kshatriyas, and then in course of time had attached them to their own Vedic curriculum, so that the Upanishads became what they now are, the Vedanta, (‘end of the Veda’).”
Here is the clue, but perhaps Professor Deussen does not see how far it leads. He hardly sees that the difference between Brahman and Kshatriya is something much more than a difference of caste or class; it is a difference of color, of race, of civilization, of spiritual ray and pedigree.
But we need not press the point. Given this limitation, if we are right concerning it, the book is excellent, trustworthy and illuminating, and both author and translator (Rev. A. S. Geden, M.A.) are to be congratulated.
We come now to the third book on our list, the Handbook of the Vedant, by Dr. Khedkar of Kolhapur, in Bombay Presidency. It is by no means such a weighty treatise as Dr. Deussen’s two books, yet it has both interest and value for the student of the Vedanta; interest, because it represents the thought of one of the direct lines of the Indian pupils of Shankaracharya, and valuable, from its perfect sincerity and earnestness. There are many things in this book which win one’s heart; for example, the conviction, clearly stated, that the Vedanta is a religion as well as a philosophy. Dr. Khedhar says:
“Unfortunately a very wrong impression is abroad that the Vedanta is a dry philosophy and not a religion, so most people have hitherto ignored it. We are ready to admit that it is their fault; but the actual, moral and political changes which have occurred in India during the last few centuries, the selfishness of some of the Mathas (colleges of philosophy), religious societies and Vaidic Brahmans, and the heavy fetters of caste principles have greatly to account for this misappreciation of the value of the Vedant. . . . The principles of the Vedant philosophy and religion, being of universal nature, impartial and definite, can be followed out in any religion.”
That, it seems to the present reviewer, is the best thing in the book.
What else can one expect to find there? It is not, strictly speaking, a Handbook; that is, a book which will give, to one coming fresh to the subject for the first time, a practical working knowledge of the Vedanta philosophy. It is, far rather, a handbook of some terms and important phrases of the Vedanta, with suggestive illustrative quotations, in Sanskrit and in Devanagari character,—which gives the book an aspect likely to frighten timid readers.
The truth is, that Dr. Khedkar is far from realizing how deeply his own mind and nature are saturated with the method of the Indian philosophical schools, that genius for systematization which has been, for many centuries, the great power of the Brahman culture. Dr. Khedkar writes English so well that we may say he has a very thorough Western training of a certain kind; he is also learned in Western medicine, which means also some mastery of cognate sciences, like chemistry. And his medical training crops out amusingly, as where, speaking of religious observances, he writes (p. 17, part II), “A dualist swallows the above pills of admonitions under the hope of future rewards.”
Yet under this surface of Westernism, Dr. Khedkar is deeply and wholeheartedly Indian; so completely so, indeed, that this is likely to make him a less effective interpreter of India and Indian thought to Westerners, whose own thought and whose difficulties still remain outside his consciousness. Yet the book is sterling, and of great interest and value to every student of the Vedanta.
The System of the Vedanta (published by The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, 1912).
The Philosophy of the Upanishads (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1906).
A Handbook of the Vedant Philosophy and Religion (Kolhapur, 1911).