Is the world real? Are the soul and God the same? Shankara vs Ramanuja: the big dispute in the heart of Hinduism

An introduction to the deepest metaphysics of Vedanta, represented by two of its greatest exponents: Shankara and Ramanuja

What is the nature of the Absolute? What is the ultimate destiny of the soul and the cosmos? Is the soul different from God? Is the cosmos anything other than God? What is the highest state of all? Or, in other words, what is liberation, moksha, mystical union, soul deification? Is the world real? Is God personal or impersonal, does he have form or transcend all knowledge? These questions are the very substance of the highest metaphysical speculation in all religious traditions. In India, tradition holds that the answer to all of them is contained in the Upanishad. The Upanishad are the texts that seek to elucidate and extract the essence of the Vedas, which is why they are known as Vedanta, the culmination of the Vedas. However, the Upanishad are not mere comments. They are associated with the esoteric teachings received by disciples sitting around a teacher in the forest; and with the same path of the renunciate, who leaves the material world to devote himself exclusively to the liberation of the soul. Shankara, generally considered the greatest teacher of Vedanta, gives a revealing etymology for the word " sad ": that which destroys or unleashes all ties. For many academics they constitute a kind of leap in the reflective consciousness of humanity, a step of observing the outer nature, full of awe, towards self-observation or contemplation of the inner nature, of one's own conscience. Just the opposite movement that currently leads Western science, which, therefore not strangely, considers consciousness as an enigma, "the hard problem of science." Professor Radhakrishnan, who was also prime minister of India, talks about this turn that would have occurred about 2 800 800 years ago

While the poets of the Vedas tell us about the multiplicity in which the luminosity of the Supreme has been divided, the philosophers of the Upanishad tell us about the Unique Reality that underlies and transcends the flow of the world.

A step from multiplicity to unity and "from the objective to the subjective", in which the Vedic sacrifice ( yajna ) - around which the whole religious life of the Vedic man revolved - ceases to be only an external act that requires of a complicated series of ritual procedures, to also be understood as an internal operation, a meditation on the self, a particular intensity of consciousness. The contemplatives of the Upanishad make the great discovery that life is essentially about knowing oneself, but not because of an individualistic or utilitarian issue, but because doing so obtains knowledge "of the universe and of God", by playing with a phrase of the Pythagorean tradition. The Self, Atman, has a deep identity with the Absolute, Brahman.

Although for the different Hindu schools, the Upanishad have indisputable authority, these texts do not exhibit a systematic theology that does not allow numerous interpretations. That is why Hindu philosophy can basically be considered a series of comments or footnotes of the Upanishad philosophy, even more bluntly than the fact that Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato's philosophy, such as Whitehead said. The text considered with the authority to elucidate the most delicate issues of the Upanishad is the Vedanta-sutra or Brahma-sutra, of Badarayana, the text that supposedly systematizes and synthesizes the Upanishad . Now, this text is composed of enigmatic short phrases, which in turn require elucidation. Hence the great philosophical currents of Hinduism are divided precisely in their interpretation of these sutras.

There are numerous comments from Vedanta-sutra, all the philosophical schools that arise feel the need to produce a comment to legitimize themselves and postulate an uninterrupted continuity with the original spread of the Rishis, the great sages who saw the hymns of the Vedas . It is generally considered that the commentary of Shankara, the first known in the eighth century, that of Ramanuja, in the eleventh century, and that of Madhva, in the thirteenth century, are the most important, each of these philosophers being founders from his own school, Advaita Vedanta (non-dual Vedanta), Vishishtadvaita (or Qualified Advaita Vedanta) and Dvaita (or dualism, respectively).

In this article we will not consider the reading of Madhva, only that of Shankara and that of Ramanuja. Undoubtedly, the interpretation of Shankara is the one that has achieved the greatest fame, to the point of being identified as one with the "sanatana dharma", the eternal dharma of India who came to the West through teachers like Ramakrishna and was assimilated to the " perennial philosophy "by Guenon, Coomaraswamy, Schuon and others. However, the interpretation of Ramanuja, who directly criticizes Shankara, is extremely relevant for interreligious dialogue, since it has notable parallels with the theology of some Church fathers and offers a closer view of the ultimate reality of what what we can call, with Hans Urs von Balthasar, a theology of beauty, where the perception of form plays a central role, since it is the act of participation in divine glory.

Shankara, who is the most influential Indian thinker after the Buddha, according to Professor Dasgupta, points out that it is necessary to distinguish when the Upanishads refer to absolute reality or truth and when they refer to relative reality or truth. Once the highest philosophy they teach can be distinguished, the texts can be read without confusion as presenting a non-dual vision of reality in which the soul and the Brahman (God, but in an impersonal sense) are identical and where Absolute has no form. Shankara quotes some verses from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that say: "Well, where there is duality, as if it were, one sees another, but when everything has become the being itself, then who or what would one see?" . In other words, the ultimate state of liberation, from a non-dual perspective, necessarily implies the fusion or identity of the soul with the Brahman. And this eliminates all perception, all knowledge, for knowledge implies a subject and an object and in the last state there is only one single Self, homogeneous, which is pure consciousness without difference. This state, which is certainly unimaginable for our discursive intelligence, has been compared to deep sleep - which, however, is not considered as an amnesic or unconscious state, but as unchanging bliss, turiya, mysterious fourth state; and the destiny of the soul has been compared with that of a drop that falls into the sea or with a grain of salt that dissolves in a glass of water.

It is popularly said that there are about 330 million gods in India (a figure that must have increased with the demographic explosion of the modern era!). A jungle of deities that corresponds perfectly to the enormous abundance of that land and the great devotion of its inhabitants. However, for Shankara none of those deities exist absolutely. It is not that they are mere hallucinations or that the universe does not have a divine source, but that for Shankara all manifestations of gods such as Vishnu, Krishna - of whom he was probably devoted - or Shiva - of whom tradition says he was avatar - are projections or relative aspects of this transcendent unconditional reality called Brahman. (Now, we as individuals are even less real than these gods who at least realize the Maya, the illusion produced by the world of multiplicity whenever there is ignorance of the original condition). God, for Shankara, is not a person and has no form. The multiple divine manifestations, "the 330 thousand faces of God, " and even Ishvara, the lord of the universe, can only be dissolved when the highest wisdom is reached. This wisdom is expressed in one of the central sayings of advaita vedanta: "Brahman is real; the world is a false projection; the individual soul is exactly the same as Brahman."

Although Shankara taught or at least tolerated devotion to a personal god as part of a preliminary path, especially appropriate for people of lower faculties, the idea of ​​sustaining a personal relationship with God and perceiving the deity separated from oneself contradicts and lowers the status of an authentic advaitin, whose Self is indistinct of God. Atman is Brahman, the individual Self is identical to God. "All discussions of Brahman characterized with distinctions such as devotee and object of devotion are part of a state of ignorance." After all, for Shankara, God could not be perceived as anything other than the unique reality, that the Self that is one and is everything and therefore devotion, bhakti, was a state inferior to jnana, gnosis .

The latter was precisely the problem Ramanuja had with Shankara, since Ramanuja was first and foremost a great bhakta, a devotee of Vishnu. According to tradition, Ramanuja himself was initiated in the Advaita Vedanta but considered that a state even higher than the state of total integration in the Brahman was the devotion to that divinity that is everything, which shines in the heart of the devotee but which in turn transcends the world. For Ramanuja, devotion is not only a path to liberation, it is the activity of the state of liberation itself: worshiping and contemplating the beauty of God in eternity, participating in its nature but not merging into it. This is a qualified non-duality, being part of the body of God, but not absolutely equal to him. Souls are for Ramanuja the accessories, the subsidiaries ( shesa ) of God.

In Ramanuja's theological vision, the world is real: it is the body of Bhagavan or Ishvara, of God, of the Controller of the universe. This is not a pantheism like Spinoza's, since the body of God is not absolutely identical to nature and the soul is not identical to God, there is an "identity in difference", and divinity transcends the universe; As Krishna says in the Gita, this universe is just like a pearl in a necklace that has the deity as its support. For Ramanuja, the body is everything that can be controlled, and uses the metaphor of the charioteer and the carriage with horses: there is a controller, but on the other hand there is a kind of freedom to resist or accept and align with the will of the controller . This relationship is analogous: God is like the controller of the soul and the world, in the same way that the individual soul controls the body. The freedom that man has in this relationship is to respond to God's love with love, according to Lipner. It is this same freedom that allows us to have a personal relationship and fulfill the destiny of the soul, which is to glorify God. Lipner suggests that Ramanuja's theology is a polarity theology, and that the great vedantin bhakta feels comfortable in the realm of paradox and mystery. And isn't our existence like that? We can see that there is a superior will, a supreme force that moves the world and moves in us, a Being that gives us our being, but still our individual lives have a unique meaning and purpose, although only as parts of the body of the body. deity, as part of the enterprise of absolute consciousness, of the infinite light that the world creates by playing, as Badarayana himself says, to his own delight.

To conclude, it remains only to say that while the non-dual vedanta system, which I have not been able to do justice in this brief outline, is one of the highest lights in the history of thought and could seem the most perfect of these two systems, Ramanuja's system has at least the advantage of allowing a soteriological state in which there is a form of communion and contemplation of divinity, ecstasy and aesthetic enjoyment, in which the soul maintains a certain ontological quality and is not reduced to a unit in which it is difficult to preach any positive quality. Shankara's path is more similar to the apophatic path of great mystics such as Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart and that of Ramanuja to that of St. Augustine, for whom the ultimate goal of existence was the contemplation of God in the civitate Dei, with a body spiritual, in eternal bliss.

Author's Twitter: @alepholo


JJ Lipner, The World as God's Body, In Pursuit of Dialogue with Rāmānuja .

The Principal Upanisads, translation and introduction of S. Radhakrishnan.

The Vedanta Sutras, translation by G. Thibaut.