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Philosophy Around the World
Philosophy as Teaching & Therapy in Sankara
In a talk to Philosophy For All in London, Trevor Leggett explained the ideas of Sankara, one of the greatest commentators on the Upanishads and a major figure in the history of Indian philosophy.
This is not intended to be an academic lecture. I shall try to say a few things that might be useful, though I shall call attention to points that I think haven’t been noticed by some scholars, perhaps because of unspoken assumptions. Someone can be a great scholar of a foreign language without knowing much about the culture or being in sympathy with it. A man might be a firstrate scholar of German but he might not be competent to translate Einstein if he didn’t know something about relativity. In the same way there are translations from Sanskrit religious or yoga texts made by scholars who are entirely sceptical of the whole enterprise of the work they are translating, and those translations may not necessarily give a proper picture of it.
This talk is to be on philosophy as teaching and therapy. In Eastern philosophy generally, enquiry into what is and how it can be known, has to have a purpose. At the beginning of most classical Sanskrit texts, for instance, it will say what the text is about, what sort of readers it is meant for, and something about the purpose of the work. Now, to many Western scholars the stated purpose, such as realisation of a Universal Self, or therapy for the sufferings of life, may be quite unreal. The yoga or Zen meditations are to them simply self-hypnosis, and as a result they don’t pay much attention to those sections of the text, or if they pay attention, it is simply analytical. They’re like people who are comparing computer manuals but who have no computer, and perhaps who don’t believe in the possibility of a computer. The most one might get from comparing the manuals would be perhaps an idea of how computers, if they ever existed, could work or could be believed to work.
One of the purposes of the sacred texts on which Sankara (788-?820AD) commented is knowledge. But piling up knowledge of so-called facts was not believed to be a meaningful aim of life. This was illustrated long ago by a humourous American cartoon in an Army paper. A platoon is lost in a forest. They know there’s a river and a mountain somewhere but they don’t know where they are on the map. So the sergeant tells Zero, a GI who is a fine fellow but not too bright: “Climb that high tree and tell us what you can see.” When Zero has got to the top, the sergeant shouts: “Well, what can you see?” Zero shouts down “There’s a birds nest here with no eggs in it and there’s some caterpillars eating the leaves!” Just knowledge is meaningless to them; they want to know about the river and the mountain. The Eastern view is that simply knowing things is pointless. Philosophy must have clear objectives, and one of these is knowledge of ultimate truth, and another is Therapy, permanent freedom from disease.
Now as to the search for ultimate truth: Bhrigu approached his teacher Varuna and said: “Sir, teach me that which, when it is known, everything is known,” He is given a few clues, and told to meditate, he is a calm, determined seeker of the highest Knowledge, ultimately found to be the Self. This is Teaching. Different is the inquirer Narada, who has mastered all the knowledge of the time. He says to the teacher: “All this I know, but my heart has no peace; I am burning with frustration.” This is a seeker in great distress. The teacher gives him various disciplines to “rub out his faults”, and then shows him what the text calls the other side of darkness. This is Therapy. So the situations and the objectives seem to be quite different. The first one was Knowledge: “Teach me.” The second one is Therapy: “Relieve me from grief, relieve me from pain.”
The two objectives appear in both Buddhism and in Sankara representing the Indian Advaita. The Buddhist analysis is that the world is a wasting disease full of suffering, and it must be cured by the Therapy of Buddhist practice. In the Yoga of Sankara there is also the path of ultimate Knowledge, but in general one might say that from the practical point of view the presentation is Therapy. One can say that in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Sankara follows the text in presenting the yoga process as first of all concerned with relieving suffering. In the second part of the training it is shown that the complete removal of suffering is by Knowledge, which turns out to be Knowledge of the Universal Self. But the Gita commentary is first of all aimed at people who are in difficulty, who are in suffering. The second Yoga in the book is for people who have become calm, who are not now in particular suffering but who thereupon find rising in them a tremendous drive to know themselves and all else.
So both in the classics of Buddhism and in Sankara’s presentation of Advaita we find the same medical analogy given. However there is some difference. Sankara expresses a reservation, which perhaps has not been much noticed, which comes in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita Ch.II. v. He makes an interesting comment about the Yoga of Action, the first of the two Yogas of the Gita. He is explaining the text phrase “even a little of this yoga frees one from great fear”, He says that no effort made in this yoga is ever lost, unlike the case of agriculture where one may make efforts and get no result at all, or again not like medicine, where the very medicine which is given to heal may on the contrary kill. As far as my limited knowledge goes, this is the only case where a sceptical view of medicine is taken. In the Buddhist texts the medicine (symbolizing Buddhism) is always fully efficacious. Sankara however is not completely accepting that a proposed cure is always successful, and perhaps it is a hint that the yoga practices that are done, must be done properly, otherwise they may have an adverse effect.
Looking at it from this point of view, Sankara is very insistent that the philosophical basis for the practices must be clear. People sometimes say: “Why have a philosophy? Why can’t you just do the training without bothering with these technical ideas? It works, or it doesn’t work: what has philosophy got to do with it?” The reason is, that if you just do the training following directions, you would not end up with no philosophy. In fact, you would begin to invent your own philosophy, and that philosophy of your own would not be one that has been worked out by many former experts, and confirmed by others. It may be like medicines given by untrained persons, in the light of nature so to speak, and that wrong medicine might indeed kill you.
On the other hand, philosophy by itself can become lifeless. There are two things: the philosophy, which cannot be much more than a hint of the truth which is beyond words, and the system of practices. Now there is a traditional little practice which the teachers explain, which can give a hint that there is a life in the philosophy. They tell us:
Sit reasonably upright. Touch with the finger the spot between the eyebrows, or press a fingernail there, or you can give a pinch. Then use the after-sensation to bring your attention to that point. If the mind wanders off to outer things or inner things, bring it back to that point. Classically, behind the left side of the forehead is the Minister for the exterior, and behind the right-hand side is the Minister for the interior. In the centre however is the king, who is master of both. So touch the point and bring the attention back again and again to the central point. The practice makes the mind more capable of appreciating subtle things.
We can do it for a minute: I will begin and end the practice with the syllable OM. [Meditation period]
It is worthwhile practising this in ordinary life. When you are overwhelmed by things from outside, or overwhelmed by disturbances from inside – memories, desires, triumphs, disasters, aggressiveness, fear – come back from all these to the serenity and independence of the centre, the King. If we have practiced in quiet regularly for a good time every day, then the time will come when in a crisis when there’s no time to philosophize, no chance to ‘think reasonably’, there will be something like a breath of peace, coming of itself. In that peace the knots can be untied.
This is a small hint given to reinforce the idea that there is something behind the traditional philosophy. It is not of course itself a demonstration of any profound truth. But it can help to dissolve some of the unspoken assumptions which lie behind some scholarly attitudes. For instance, a great Sanskrit scholar, Wilhelm Halbfass, writes in one of his books: “Sankara’s aim is a purely cognitive, radically theoretical, commitment to the identity of self.” This is the view of someone who doesn’t practice, whereas the whole presentation by Sankara is centred on practice. This stands out with luminous clarity in Sankara’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, which is full of directions on various practices suited to different stages of development; the later ones can hardly be done until the inner drive for realisation overcomes the hesitations and fears of individual identity. Of course, books cannot practice for us, any more than they can eat for us or sleep for us. But they give directions for us.
In some of Sankara’s commentaries, an opponent is introduced who asserts bluntly that people do not in fact achieve any change of consciousness by the study and directions of the holy texts. The so-called realisation of the universal Self does not in fact happen. When the opponent says that these things do not happen, Sankara replies that they do, because the holy texts say so. But he adds forcefully: “they do happen as you can see, for you see men who are free from grief, pain, delusion, and fear even of death.” In these replies, he cites not only the sacred authority but appeals directly to observation. The ultimate appeal, however, is to experiment on oneself.
There are different kinds of ‘knowledge’, and Sankara is careful to distinguish them. As a simple example, take the famous distinction made by Bertrand Russell in his early book Problems of Philosophy. He speaks of knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. The terms are self-explanatory; we hear about computers but have never seen one, so that we know by description. Then we see and handle one, and that is knowledge by acquaintance. Russell seems to stop here, but in Eastern philosophy there is a further kind of knowledge.
For Sankara, knowledge by being is the essence of knowledge, in fact the only knowledge that is real. Knowledge by description is that of the sacred texts; knowledge by acquaintance is the mystical experience of spiritual things and ultimately of the Lord, as "it is one and I am another". Knowledge by being is identity-consciousness: “I am He, I am That.” Knowledge by description is necessary for most people, but it may be very shallow. Knowledge by acquaintance goes deeper, and can change the very life.
For instance we can learn from physics textbooks, by description, about the so-called cosmic rays which ceaselessly bombard our planet from outer space. But if you go to the Science Museum you can find an exhibit called a cloud chamber or a bubble chamber. There is a transparent box, filled with a sort of mist. When a cosmic ray passes through, it leaves a little track of bubbles. As you stand there looking, you see a track that begins at the near side of the box and goes straight away, and you realise that this particle must have gone through you. You don’t feel anything, but in a way you have knowledge by acquaintance, and it changes one’s attitude to the reality of cosmic rays considerably. Before that it was just a theoretical item, never thought about, but now it has somehow become much more real.
It is not yet knowledge by being. The yoga experiments give a tiny glimpse of it. First there is a study of the philosophy to tell one what to look for; then there is the practice of meditation on some aspect of it, to get some fractional acquaintance of it, but still as something Other. But then there grows an awareness within the body-mind complex itself of a consciousness, provisionally called the Self, which is neither caught up by the external, nor by the internal. Impossible, impossible, cries the mind. But it has to be experimented upon. At first it is only a glimpse. Then it has to be returned to, stabilized, matured. The technical Sanskrit word is nishtha, which means something like a firm stance, steadiness, stability. Most scholars simply ignore this word. Again and again Sankara in his Gita commentary uses the compound jnananishtha, which means ‘stabilisation of knowledge’. No attention is given to it scholars think that there is either knowledge or there is not; what can ‘stabilization of knowledge’ possibly mean? So they pass over it. But Sankara says that the knowledge has to be stabilized, and only then does it lead to universal consciousness and freedom. It is not just theoretical, but leads to freedom from grief, pain, delusion, and the fear of death.
Some scholars say Sankara is not interested in the world at all, that he does pronounce sometimes on the physical world but he’s simply reflecting the ideas of the time, a little bit of animism and so forth, and basically you should ignore all those parts of what Sankara is saying. Because he simply knew no science. But this is not the position at all. Sankara does talk about the world, and he sees it quite differently and analyses it quite differently from our analysis of cause and effect. Often you’ll hear someone claim that we can predict the movement of every molecule, every particle, if we have enough information. It is now known this completely deterministic view is wrong. The basis is uncertainty. Einstein and Schrödinger fought against this for so long, but they lost.
Sankara does speak about the world, for example in his commentary to the Prashna Upanishad, the Upanishad of Questions. There it is said that the goddess of the earth holds us steady on this earth by pulling at the vital current in man. She pulls just so much: if she pulled more, we should fall flat on our faces, and if she pulled less, we should float away into space. Now what he is saying is, that we are held to the earth by a pull. It is a remarkable anticipation by Sankara of the idea of gravity, long before Newton. Everybody sneered at the idea of gravity for a long time. Even Galileo called it a medieval occult concept, the idea of invisible fingers stretching through the void.
But Sankara’s account there was very much in accord with modern physics, except for one thing. He says it’s a conscious action. It’s not blind cause and effect. The goddess of the earth could do something different but chooses not to. There are the potentialities and there is something which actualises the potentialities into definite order. We do not know what that something is. Sankara’s view is that what he calls the ‘inner ruler’ controls everything, controls the movements of water, of earth, of air. The natural state would be chaos. For Sankara the whole universe is shot through with purpose and we are on this earth as human beings in order to work up our karma, create new and better karma and then finally achieve freedom.
I want to give a quotation from one of the latest textbooks on physics, a massive thing called The New Physics, edited by Paul Davies. This is from a chapter by Abner Shimony called ‘Conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics’.
“Another possibility is a further radical modification of the conception of physical reality: for instance the elimination of the dichotomy between potentiality and actuality proposed by Everett, or the attribution to consciousness of the power to actualise potentialities.”
Something actualises the potentialities into the irregularities which we perceive in our ordinary lives and what Sankara is saying is that it is the Inner Ruler which does this.
It’s been compared by Sankara to a game. At school, you play games and when you’re small you want to win and that is encouraged by the teachers. They make this your purpose. But their real purposes are to encourage co-ordination and balance and speed, and also to make you want to try harder. They have a hidden purpose; they don’t tell the child “we want to teach you to run about,” because it loses its zest. They say “no – try and win.” Well, this is a little bit similar.
Some of the texts say that the spiritual agencies who control the world, the inner rulers that control the goddess of the earth, do intervene. But they mustn’t intervene in an obvious way. It must seem as though it’s by the natural action of the humans involved. This is the view that there is a concealed cosmic purpose which must not be made too obvious or else we won’t struggle.
Sceptics say “Well, where is the evidence for this? Where are the gaps which this divine influence fills? There are no gaps”, but then we’re back in the 1920s, where everything is determined, everything is preordained, which is nonsense. There are things which are not noticed. Take David Hume, sceptical Hume, who said “Is it easier to believe that a miracle has taken place against the laws of nature, or that somebody is lying?” He’s like a conjuror, he’s slipped in that ‘against the laws of nature’, he’s slipped in the presumption that they are known. As a matter of fact we do know what the laws of nature were when he died, because we can find them in the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which appeared around the same time. Light consisted of corpuscules. Yet every time Hume looked at the reflection of a lamp in a slightly dusty mirror he would have seen fringes; that’s a wave phenomenon. Light didn’t consist of waves, light was known to consist of corpuscles, so he was seeing it but not noticing it. In the same way, Sankara says, everywhere this divide is actualised but we do not notice it. Everything takes place through our own actions.
One of the therapies for the people of the world who believe, as most of us do, that we can find satisfaction in adjusting circumstances has three main elements or disciplines: gift (dana), austerity (tapas), worship (yajna).
There are three kinds of gift, and the gift of charity, physical charity, is the lowest. It is important, but it is less so, and everything we give one man we take away from another. Far higher is the gift of courage. The highest gift is the gift of wisdom. So there are these three gifts and if we try to actualise them in our lives well then, our lives will change, we’ll begin to become freer, able to set ourselves free from delusion.
The second discipline is tapas, which means something like austerity. It is quite important to have some austerity in our lives. Sometimes go out without a scarf, with a positive attitude. Sometimes sleep on the ground, sometimes sit up all night, studying, saying a mantra. Sometimes miss a meal. Just momentarily show a sort of independence. In Sankara’s tradition, personal experiences are not spoken of, but I once had to endure a very severe pain, and I said to the teacher, afterwards “I couldn’t control my mind, with that pain”; and he said “How do you feel now?” I said “Oh, very well.” He said “Well, that is already some advance. There are some people with a pain like that, they’re upset for days or weeks. So it is some advance if you can expect to feel alright when the pain ceases, without being upset for a long time.” If we pass through something like this where practice increases your independence a little, then generally we get a small experience. It’s like learning science. You perform the little experiments at the beginning and if you confirm them then it seems reasonable to you that the rest will be confirmed also.
The third discipline is worship, or yajna, which means a sort of reverence. Perhaps with the ecology movement we’re beginning to get a sense of reverence for things. It doesn’t mean not to do anything, but to do things with reverence for them. There are people who hold their pens right at the end as they did when they were a child, pressing on them. A pen has length, it should be balanced on the fingers. A first class highspeed shorthand writer does this so he doesn’t have to keep moving his hand. This is reverence for the nature of the thing. One of the features of our comfortable society is that we’re plagued by anxieties and uncertainties. Even a little reverence for the everyday world and practice of the gifts of austerity and worship begins to free us from these fears.
The disciplines are not for their own sake but to lead to knowledge. These holy texts often speak about knowledge and then speak about knowledge not being stabilized, not being matured. What does this mean? Some of these Sanskrit texts speak of false knowledge and true knowledge, and they speak of them as existing together. True knowledge is never lost and yet there is false knowledge. Well, scholars who translate these texts simply don’t know what to make of this and they ignore it, but if we think around we’ll find examples of this in our daily lives.
There is a soap opera called The Archers. I’m not a fan but I did follow one little sequence which illustrates this well: A good girl has a villainous brother who intimidates her into collaborating with him in a crime. She’s a nice girl – she’s married with two small kids. But she’s arrested and brought to court. The judge says “I realise that you were frightened by your brother but that’s no excuse. You do have to report these things and you didn’t and you do have to go to prison.” So, she goes to prison and then her two children are absolutely bewildered. Now, this sounds incredible but some fans of the programme met together and wrote a joint letter to their MP asking the MP to urge the Postmaster General who is in charge of the BBC to direct the scriptwriter to arrange for Susan, the mother, to have a free pardon, so there would be no stain on her honour, so that she could go back home immediately and comfort these terribly distressed children. They’ve got a clear consciousness that this is something which happens in the studio and that consciousness is never lost in everything they’re doing – writing the letter; addressing it to the MP; mentioning the scriptwriter; mentioning the change; changing the script – all that is clearly based on a knowledge that this is simply a fantasy that doesn’t exist outside Broadcasting House and yet they worry that the two children are so distressed!
There you have clear consciousness, clear knowledge, not lost but obscured by false knowledge. It happens again and again and again. This is Sankara’s point, and therefore to talk of therapy in a way is meaningless because the basic awareness is always untouched and untainted, but there is an obscuring veil of ideas like clouds obscuring the Sun, though they are in fact lit up by it and so manifest it.
So in summing-up, Sankara’s view of the teaching is that the world on which we have a view is a field for action and that field is subject to cosmic purpose which is difficult to discern because it is masked by our actions. Our minds are made clear and steady by worship, and then we fully realise what has been only half-realised. The so-called laws of nature are not blindly mechanical, as Shimony says in his ‘Conceptual framework of quantum mechanics’. Consciousness has to be brought in; he’s saying that classical physics doesn’t in fact work. He gives some examples – the stability of the benzene ring can’t be explained in classical physics, and he says cohesion generally is stronger than might be expected. Sankara refers to this. He says there is an Inner Ruler who holds things together. To Sankara, nature consists of conscious forces, controlled by something which transcends them: “That god, the Inner Ruler, about whom you have asked, who controls the earth and all else from within is your own immortal self – as also self of all beings.”
Thank you for listening.
© Trevor Leggett 1999
Trevor Leggett is a very well-respected scholar of Eastern philosophy, the author of many books on the subject. You can find out more from his website: www.leggett.co.uk