Hindu philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

2. Metaphysics

The concept of ātman was crucial in many debates, because there were many who either had a different understanding of it or who claimed to need no such concept. Argument helped towards a more precise articulation of the term, although many Hindu thinkers held that knowledge of ātman is only a partial understanding of reality; the individual self is only a part of the larger scenario of the universe. The universe was thought to be an all-encompassing spiritual entity, of which ātman is a minute fragment. Experiencing this spiritually, through meditative practices, frees a person from the ordinary way of things: such a person is not reborn, and does not repeat the anguish, pain, disease, old age and death of ordinary mortals, but is instead forever free. This can be accomplished through one’s own efforts, although often the guidance of a teacher, a guru, is needed. These efforts may need to be extended over several lifetimes in order to work off all the accumulated karmic impressions. Karmic impressions, which may result from physical activities, speech or mental acts, are what actually bind people to the revolving process of rebirth.

Gradually, notions of divine intervention in the process of liberation found their way into numerous teachings. It was a combination of one’s own efforts plus divine grace which would grant final deliverance, which was now not only freedom from repeated cycles of lives, but also either an identification with the divine, or companionship with a god as a lover or eternal servant. Some Advaita philosophers postulated a single ultimate principle, whereas others argued for the existence of an ultimate cause of the universe, namely God. Yet the worship of a multitude of gods was still widely practised, as it is to this day (see God, Indian conceptions of).

Udayana (eleventh century), one of the most prominent thinkers of the School of Logic (Nyāya), constructed an elegant set of arguments for the existence of God. Put crudely, his claim is that this multifarious world must obviously be the effect of some cause, and that cause must be nothing other than God. On the other hand, not all thinkers felt a need to trace the world to one primary cause, even though most took it for granted that causal chains are of prime importance in interpreting the world. The nature of the causal relation was much debated. Some claimed that an effect somehow already exists in latent form in its cause, just as yoghurt is potentially already present in milk even before the milk turns sour. In the same way, this whole manifold world somehow pre-existed in an undifferentiated primeval watery mass, into which it will dissolve itself again at the end of its existence. There are repeated existences and dissolutions.

Other philosophers, such as Śaṅkara (eighth century), interpreted the relation between cause and effect in a slightly different way. The difference between the two is only apparent, because in reality the universe is only superimposed onto an unchanging, everlasting, universal and undifferentiated principle, the Brahman of the Upaniṣadic thinkers. We superimpose things out of ignorance. A favourite analogy is that of a man walking along the road, half-blinded by the brilliant sunshine at noon. Suddenly he jumps across an elongated shape in the road, out of fear that he may step on a snake. A passer-by laughs and asks, ‘Are you afraid of a dirty old piece of rope?’ The person who jumped with fear was superimposing a snake onto the old rope. In the same way, we superimpose the whole universe onto Brahman. In reality, there are no causal relations at all. We talk of such concepts to facilitate debate, but they have no place on the ultimate level.

Citing this article:
Clear, Edeltraud Harzer. Metaphysics. Hindu philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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