Several weeks ago I was asked to comment on a portion of an article by Swami Siddheswarananda that appeared in the Golden Jubilee Souvenir, a book that was brought out in 1946 to commemorate Bhagavan’s fifty years in Tiruvannamalai. Swami Siddheswarananda was a monk in the Ramakrishna Order. His Guru in that organisation was Swami Brahmananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna.
Swami Siddheswarananda visited Bhagavan in the 1930s and developed a deep and abiding respect for him. He went to Paris soon after meeting Bhagavan, taking charge of the Ramakrishna Order’s centre in Paris. He founded the Ramakrishna Ashram in Gretz, France, in 1947 and passed away in 1961.
Before I begin, here is an entertaining and little-known anecdote from one of his visits to Sri Ramanasramam. It was told to his secretary and was recorded in an Arunachala Ashram newsletter of 2001:
A so-called ‘enlightened man,’ who took himself for Sri Krishna, came for the darshan of Ramana Maharshi, wearing clothes like Krishna. The Maharshi appeared to take him very seriously and treated this enlightened one as Krishna himself. He even arranged for one of his attendants to give special treatment to him, like one making puja to an idol of Krishna with all the worship items, etc. The ‘enlightened one’ was very pleased and went out. All the disciples who were there protested against the Maharshi’s treatment of this pseudo-Krishna, saying that it was not proper for him to treat that man in this manner. Sri Ramana silenced them all by saying: ‘All of you here are taking yourself for Mr X or Mr Y, so what’s wrong for this one taking himself for Sri Krishna?’
This is what Swami Siddheswarananda wrote in the Golden Jubilee Souvenir:
The philosophical outlook of Maharshi tends very often to be confused with that of solipsism or its Indian equivalent, drishti-srishti-vada, which is a sort of degenerated idealism. That Maharshi never subscribes to that view can be known if we study his works in the light of orthodox Vedanta or observe his behaviour in life. When he says that it is the mind that has projected this universe, the term ‘mind’ should be understood in the Vedantic sense in which it is used. Unfortunately I have no books by Maharshi or works on him with me here for reference as all of them have disappeared when our library was looted during German occupation. What I write has necessarily to depend on my memory-impressions. The term ‘mind’ is also used by Sankara and Gaudapada in a wider sense than we are accustomed to use it in, as an antahkarana vritti . In certain places in the bhashyas of Sankara and the Karikas, the pure ‘mind’ is equated with Atman. For example, let us take verse 170 in Viveka Chudamani : ‘In dream when there is no actual contact with the external world the mind alone creates the whole universe consisting of the enjoyer, the objects etc. And similarly in the waking state also there is no difference. Therefore, all this phenomenal universe is the projection of mind.’ If the ‘mind’ used here is taken as identical with antahkarana vritti , Vedanta will necessarily be classed as solipsism! To understand the larger sense in which ‘mind’ is used in many such contexts we have to read the Mandukya Karika . For example, take verse 29 in Ch. III. ‘As in dream the mind acts through maya presenting the appearance of duality, so also in the waking state the mind acts through maya presenting the appearance of duality.’
There are several points of interest that can be commented on here. Let me start with the first sentence: ‘The philosophical outlook of Maharshi tends very often to be confused with that of solipsism or its Indian equivalent, drishti-srishti-vada, which is a sort of degenerated idealism.’
Drishti-srishti-vada is the theory that the world is projected and created by the person who sees it. Bhagavan did teach this, and I am surprised that the swami was not aware of it. One should distinguish, though, between what Bhagavan taught (drishti-srishti-vada) as a working hypothesis for sadhakas and what he himself experienced as paramartha, ultimate truth. It was his own experience that creation had never really happened (ajata-vada ). However, though Bhagavan was sometimes willing to state the truth of ajata-vada , when he spoke about creation, he mostly passed on versions of drishti-srishti-vada. Here are some extracts from the recent edition of Guru Vachaka Kovai (translated and edited by T. V. Venkatasubramanian, Robert Butler and myself) which, I hope, will cover all the nuances of this distinction. I have put these pages (pp. 48-50 in the book) on at least one other post, but they deserve to reappear here since they address and refute the claim that Swami Siddheswarananda is making:
Though Guru Ramana, who appeared as God incarnate, expounded numerous doctrines, as befitted the different states and beliefs of the various devotees who sought refuge at his feet, you should know that what we have heard him affirm to intimate devotees in private, as an act of grace, as his own true experience, is only the doctrine of ajata [non-creation].
Question: In the Vedanta of Sri Sankaracharya, the principle of the creation of the world has been accepted for the sake of beginners, but for the advanced, the principle of non-creation is put forward. What is your view in this matter?
Bhagavan: Na nirodho na chotpattir
Nabaddho na cha sadhakaha
Na mumukshur na vai mukta
Ityesha paramartha ta.
This verse appears in the second chapter [v. 32, vaithathya prakarana ] of Gaudapada’s Karika [a commentary on the Mandukyopanishad ]. It means really that there is no creation and no dissolution. There is no bondage, no one doing spiritual practices, no one seeking spiritual liberation, and no one who is liberated. One who is established in the Self sees this by his knowledge of reality. (The Power of the Presence, part one, p. 240)
The idea expressed in this verse was commented on in some detail in the note to verse 83 of Guru Vachaka Kovai. It was mentioned there that Bhagavan gave out different teachings on creation to suit the different temperaments and attitudes of the people who approached him with questions on the topic. This is how Bhagavan once explained the way he taught these different and apparently conflicting ideas:
The letter [addressed to Bhagavan and read out by him] went on to say, ‘Ramana Maharshi is an exponent of ajata doctrine of advaita Vedanta. Of course, it is a bit difficult.’
Bhagavan remarked on this, ‘Somebody has told him so. I do not teach only the ajata doctrine. I approve of all schools. The same truth has to be expressed in different ways to suit the capacity of the hearer. The ajata doctrine says, “Nothing exists except the one reality. There is no birth or death, no projection [of the world] or drawing in [of it], no sadhaka, no mumukshu [seeker of liberation], no mukta [liberated one], no bondage, no liberation. The one unity alone exists ever.”
‘To such as find it difficult to grasp this truth and who ask. “How can we ignore this solid world we see all around us?” the dream experience is pointed out and they are told, “All that you see depends on the seer. Apart from the seer, there is no seen.”
‘This is called the drishti-srishti-vada, or the argument that one first creates out of his mind and then sees what his mind itself has created.
‘To such as cannot grasp even this and who further argue, “The dream experience is so short, while the world always exists. The dream experience was limited to me. But the world is felt and seen not only by me, but by so many, and we cannot call such a world non-existent,” the argument called srishti-drishti-vada is addressed and they are told, “God first created such and such a thing, out of such and such an element and then something else, and so forth.” That alone will satisfy this class. Their mind is otherwise not satisfied and they ask themselves, “How can all geography, all maps, all sciences, stars, planets and the rules governing or relating to them and all knowledge be totally untrue?” To such it is best to say, “Yes. God created all this and so you see it.”’
Dr. M. said, ‘But all these cannot be true; only one doctrine can be true.’
Bhagavan said, ‘All these are only to suit the capacity of the learner. The absolute can only be one.’ (Day by Day with Bhagavan , 15th March, 1946, afternoon)
Mention was made in the editorial notes that similar ideas were expressed in verse eighty-three. This is the verse and some of the supplementary comments that appear there (Guru Vachaka Kovai , pp. 41-2) :
Through the venba verse that begins, ‘Because we perceive the world…,’ Guru Ramana – who teaches the one true beneficial attainment [jnana] that is needed by the people of the world – declared, out of his love for us, the doctrine of illusory appearance to be the truth that bestows the ultimate benefit, avoiding the consideration of other doctrines.
Editor’s note: The quotation at the beginning of the verse is taken from verse one of Ulladu Narpadu. It says:
Because we perceive the world, there is certainly absolute agreement that there exists a first cause, which is a creative energy capable of manifesting diversity. The picture consisting of names and forms, he who sees it, the screen on which it appears, and the light which illuminates it, all are He, who is the Self.
Editor’s note: Although Bhagavan knew that ajata is the supreme truth, he actually taught the doctrine of illusory appearance as an explanation for the world manifestation since he knew that this would provide the maximum practical benefit. When the devotee truly understands that the world is an illusory projection of the mind, his mind no longer moves towards it. When this happens, the mind goes back to its source and disappears, leaving the ajata experience in which one knows directly that the world never existed or was created except in the imagination. The doctrine of simultaneous creation is therefore a working hypothesis that enables seekers to find the ultimate truth.
Muruganar: The Self, consciousness, is the material and efficient cause for the appearance of the world. When the rope [the material and efficient cause] appears as an illusory snake, this is vivarta siddhanta [the doctrine of illusory appearance]. The meaning is, just like the snake in the rope, the world is an imaginary appearance [kalpita ] in reality, consciousness. People who lose hold of the state of the Self mistake themselves for the seer [of the world] and regard the perceived world as real. Such people cannot get peace through [being taught] ajata siddhanta. To remove the idea that the world exists apart from them, [an idea] that confounds and distresses them, vivarta siddhanta is taught. So, there really is no contradiction between these two [ajata siddhanta and vivarta siddhanta].
Though Bhagavan was careful and even-handed when he spoke about creation theories in the reply I cited from Day by Day with Bhagavan (15th March, 1946, afternoon), it was more usual for him to say that the drishti-srishti position was not only an accurate explanation of the world we see in front of us, it is also the most useful perspective for a seeker to adopt:
Later, Sri Bhagavan continued: ‘The Vedanta says that the cosmos springs into view simultaneously with the seer. There is no detailed process of creation. This is said to be yugapat srishti [instantaneous creation]. It is quite similar to the creations in dream where the experiencer springs up simultaneously with the objects of experience. When this is told, some people are not satisfied for they are so rooted in objective knowledge. They seek to find out how there can be sudden creation. They argue that an effect must be preceded by a cause. In short, they desire an explanation for the existence of the world which they see around them. Then the Srutis try to satisfy their curiosity by such theories of creation. This method of dealing with the subject of creation is called krama srishti [gradual creation]. But the true seeker can be content with yugapat srishti – instantaneous creation.’ (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 651)
Most of these quotes and arguments will be familiar to readers of Ramana Maharshi’s teachings. What may not be so familiar is how these ideas relate to the western notions of solipsism and idealism that Swami Siddheswarananda referred to in his opening sentence. Here is it again: ‘The philosophical outlook of Maharshi tends very often to be confused with that of solipsism or its Indian equivalent, drishti-srishti-vada, which is a sort of degenerated idealism.’
Solipsism is the philosophical position that nothing exists other than one’s own mind and its perceptions. The logical extension of this is that ‘other’ minds do not exist. Various strands or subdivisions of solipsism have been identified and pursued in western philosophy:
|(a) Metaphysical solipsism
This maintains that the individual self constitutes the sole reality. The external world and the people in it are part of the perceiving individual self and have no independent existence apart from it.
|(b) Epistemological solipsism
Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how it is validly or invalidly acquired. Epistemological solipsism states that only the accessible contents of the mind can be known. It does not, though, accept that this is the only possible knowledge. Though it concedes that there is a possibility that an external world exists, it states that such a thesis is impossible to prove or disprove.
|(c) Methodological solipsism
This is a philosophical principle that the individual self and its states are the sole and proper starting point for philosophical speculation. Its basic premise is that all philosophical statements and conclusions must derive from the irrefutable and directly experienced fact of personal consciousness.
All of these positions can find parallels in things that Bhagavan periodically said, but the major reason why Bhagavan could not be considered to be a solipsist is that solipsism does not accept the reality of anything that is prior to or beyond the mind. It has no transcendental aspect.
In Ulladu Narpadu, verse 26, Bhagavan wrote:
If the ego arises, all else will arise. If the ego is not, nothing else will exist. The ego, truly, is all. Know that simply to enquire what it is, is to renounce everything.
A western philosopher who read the first three sentences of this verse would undoubtedly classify Bhagavan as a solipsist. However, the final sentence, with its recommendation to enquire into the nature of the ego, takes Bhagavan’s teachings out of the realm of pure solipsism. What happens when this enquiry is done properly? Bhagavan gives the answer in verse seventeen of Upadesa Undiyar:
When one scrutinises the form of the mind, without being inattentive [it will be found that] there is no such thing as mind. This is the direct path for all.
Bhagavan teaches that the ego exists by repeatedly attaching itself to objects. He also tells us that we can break this chain by focusing intensively on the subjective essence of this ego. Intense attention to the primary form of the ego, the ‘I’-thought, quite literally causes it to run away and disappear:
The ghost ego, which has no form, comes into existence by grasping a form, and having grasped it, endures. Thus grasping and consuming forms, it waxes greater. Letting go of one form, it will grasp another. If you seek it out, it will take flight. (Ulladu Narpadu, verse 25)
Solipsism only accepts the reality of those things that can be ascertained by the mind. Bhagavan, on the other hand, does not claim that the mind is everything. He says that there is an underlying state that has nothing to do with the mind, a state that can be discovered and directly experienced by eliminating the individual ‘I’ that superimposes itself on this substratum.