(nibbana) = (Nirguna Brahman) ?

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Wed Oct 1 19:43:24 CDT 1997

On Wed, 1 Oct 1997 un824 at freenet.victoria.bc.ca wrote:

> Namaste,
> Vidyasankar writes:
> >In both cases, there is no insistence upon taking the vedas as *literal*
> >truth. In fact, where a statement in the vedas contradicts direct
> >perception, one is forced to interpret it in a metaphorical fashion.
> >the vedas, for all their infallibility, cannot contradict the fact that
> >fire burns.
> >
> The vedas contain statements about the physical universe which seem to be
> contradicted by science as we now know it.

Why is this a problem? The statements of the vedas about the physical
universe are mostly in terms of the five elements of worldwide ancient
thought - space, fire, air, water and earth. Modern scientific notions of
the physical universe contradict not only the vedas, but also the
theologians and philosophers of every country and time. It is only within
the last two hundred years or so that philosophers have started to take
science seriously. If along with our knowledge of science, we can see the
truth behind all these, then we should also be able to see the truth
behind the vedas. This also answers the next question below.

> What is our reason for assuming
> those statements refer to truths represented in a "metaphorical fashion"
> rather than mere falsehoods? Can we be orthodox followers of advaita
> vedanta and admit even one such falsehood exists?

Literally speaking, every metaphor/personification carries a falsehood in
it. Richard de Coeur did not have a real lion's heart instead of a human
heart. Still we know what the word lion-hearted indicates. So also with
vedic statements that need interpretation as metaphors. If we all spoke
Sanskrit as a matter of course, the metaphors would be intuitively obvious
to all of us. Interpretation is needed only because the language is no
longer commonly understood.

> What is the minimal requirment of
> faith in the vedas in order to be an orthodox follower of advaita
> vedanta?

That the veda is a valid source of knowledge, along with perception,
analogy, inference, non-cognition and postulation.

In another mail,
> So what is the source of the vedas according to vedantins?

brahman, in the special sense that if we talk of things coming into being,
then the source is brahman.

> Do vedantins really think the vedas are "coeval with the universe"?

Yes. As far as advaita is concerned, there is an interesting corollary to
it. Along with the universe and all of creation, the vedas also disappear,
when the essential reality brahman is known. In non-advaita schools, the
vedas are more eternal than the universe, in that the veda continues to
exist through the periodic dissolution and re-emergence of the universe.

> Do vedantins think the vedas are"infallible"? In what sense are they
> considered to be infallible if the vedas are allowed to be wrong about the
> physical world, etc.?  How could the "cosmic blueprint" contradict the cosmos
> of which it is the blueprint?

Again, as far as advaita is concerned, don't take the "cosmic blueprint"
idea too literally. It is one model of creation, like many others. After
all, ultimately advaita is not very much interested in proving or
upholding the reality of creation.

> How wrong can the vedas be about little things (like the creation
> of the world for instance) and still be "a valid source of knowledge"?

One example from the chAndogya upanishad will answer this. The standard
vedantic theory about the order of creation is called pancIkaraNa.
According to this, space, fire, air, water and earth are produced in
subtle form, from brahman, in that order, and then compounded so that each
gross element partakes of portions from the other four subtle element, in
adition to its own subtle form.

In the chAndogya upanishad, the elements are described as three, not five.
These are fire, water and earth. This text's account of compounding the
subtle elements is also only threefold, which is called trivRtkaraNa.

Commenting upon this passage, Sankara observes that the intention of the
upanishad is not to present a detailed account of creation, its sole
purpose being to point out "sat" as the ground of all being, culminating
in a teaching expressed as "tattvamasi."

Given this handling of the text, the modern scientific account which
proceeds from elementary particles via hydrogen and through nuclear fusion
to heavier elements can easily be accepted by a vedantin, without taking
away from the general validity of the vedas.

> If they can be wrong about anything, how do we *know* they are not wrong
> about almost everything? In a court case when a witness gets several facts
> wrong, the facts he may have right are thrown into doubt and necessarily
> so. Those facts he *may* have right must be subsequently established by some
> other testimony or means. Somehow this common sense approach does not seem
> to apply to the vedas and I'd like to know why that is so...

Beyond a point, it is a question of belief. For the standard
Jewish/Christian theologian, the validity of the Bible is never in
question, even though Genesis holds that the entire universe was created
in six days and that God rested on the seventh. I do not belong to a faith
which accepts Genesis, but I do not expect to convince a Jew that there is
no such thing as the chosen people, nor do I expect to convince a
Christian that a real historicity of Christ is not necessary for his
salvation. And some of the best physical scientists have been very devout,
believing Jews and Christians. But I can appreciate a philosophical
arguments offered by an Aquinas. Similarly, the tradition of advaita
vedanta comes with its scripture, the veda, and its legacy of
interpretation. The vedas are not restricted to advaita vedantins, but
they are the scriptures of a number of traditions that are classified
under the name Hinduism. One can take the philosophy of advaita and not
bother too much about the details of its scripture, if one so wishes.

Secondly, the veda should not be viewed as only one witness. It is a
collection of witnesses. Generally, the students of one veda, say the Rg
do not learn the other three (yajus, sAma and atharva). Within a veda,
there are branches, and typically, one only learnt one particular branch
of a veda. Thus, the testimony of the veda is in fact a collection of
testimonies of different branches within the vedas.

Besides, in a court case, the testimony of a witness relates only to the
case being argued. What the witness thinks or says about other things, or
whether he lied to his wife yesterday, are not relevant to the case.
Moreover, witnesses are also allowed to revise testimony so as to
contradict the previous one. So long as the grand question of Atman and
brahman is concerned, the vedas never contradict themselves. It is only
the interpreters of the veda who disagree amongst themselves, and each
interpreter offers an internally consistent explanation of all the
relevant vedic statements. Now, one cannot hold the vedas to be at fault,
just because the interpreters disagree on details.

Finally, for all its basis in a set of scriptural texts, the advaita
teaching has always emphasized the personal realization of brahman too,
and does not tell you that something is the truth just because a text says
so. Even for those who believe in the infallibility of the scripture, the
personal realization is necessary, to really know brahman, and to ground
it as a firm conviction. This constitutes the other means or testimony
that ascertains the truth of scripture. However, the personal experience
is never offered as a validation of the scripture, precisely because the
personal experience is totally private, and not accessible to others.
Personal conviction aside, it is a question of maintaining the integrity
of the tradition. If one's personal experience were to be the ultimate
deciding factor, human nature is such that there can be no guarantee of
upholding the integrity of the tradition.


More information about the Advaita-l mailing list