More karma

Jonathan Bricklin brickmar at EARTHCOM.NET
Thu Oct 16 16:46:20 CDT 1997

On Fri, 3 Oct 1997, Vidyasankar Sundares, now off-line, but perhaps soon to
consult the archives and return, wrote:

>>> ps. Eliot Deutsch says that karma is a convenient fiction in advaita,
he misstates the issue. The entire universe is a "convenient fiction,"
 which disappears when the unitary brahman is known. In one
 of advaita, the universe is perceived only so that its basis may be known.
However, given the universe, with all its variety, karma stands.>>>

>> Even before Brahman is known there are, for the Advaitin, "means of
 knowledge."  Deutsch has done an able job of showing that Karma does not
 fit any of them.  "Given the universe, with all its variety," only variety
 stands.  You can't get from there to Karma.>>

>Deutsch's reconstruction of advaita is quite different from how advaita
authors themselves treat karma. In standard advaita thought, the "means of
valid knowledge" include Sruti (again, here come the vedas), which inform
you of karma.>

I agree.  Deutsch certainly does not make Sruti his ultimate court of
While we hardly need another round of Sruti substantiation debates,
his rationale for not grounding his reconstruction in Sruti are nonetheless
instructive.  After cautioning his readers that Advaita Vedanta is a
religion as much as it is a technical philosophy system,  he writes :

        "One of the major difficulties that we in the West have with Indian
thought in general, and with Vedanta in particular, nevertheless, is to be
found in what may be called its "traditional grounding."  A Vedantic system
bases itself upon ancient texts, and one of its primary tasks is to show
that these texts represent a consistent (and singular) viewpoint.
Systematic Vedanta was thus formulated in terms of scriptural exegesis as
much as it was formulated in terms of philosophical analysis.  The
exegetical dimension of Vedanta is of great interest to students of
linguistics and Indian cultural history (and naturally to Indian scholars
themselves), but it is of very little interest to Western students of
philosophy.  We do not accept the authority of the Veda (or, for the most
part, the authority of any other scripture);  consequently, we are not
concerned whether one system or another best interprets certain obscure
passages in it.  Our criterion of philosophical truth or significance is
not whether a particular system of thought is consistent with some other
body of work;  rather, it is whether that system of thought is "consistent"
with human experience.  Philosophically, we judge a system of thought in
terms of its adequacy in organizing the various dimensions of our
experience;  in terms of its providing us with new ways of looking at, of
gaining insight into, the nature of the world and of our life in it;  and
in terms of the kind of arguments used to sustain these insights.  Further,
most of us who are acquainted with the ancient Indian
religious-philosophical texts are quite convinced that they do not express
a single, consistent viewpoint, but that they express a very rich diversity
of experience and reflection upon it.  This is readily apparent in the
Upanishads alone, which were undoubtedly set down over a period of several
hundred years.  The early Upanishads (e.g., Brhad-aranyaka, Chandogya) lend
themselves more easily to an Advaitic interpretation than do some of the
later ones (e.g., Isa, Svetasvatara)."  Advaita Vedanta, p. 5

>Moreover, an postulation (arthApatti - another standard
>means of knowledge) supported by an inferential argument (anumAna) will
>also suffice, to take you from the universe with its variety to karma.

It is at this point I'm not sure I agree.  If you are implying (and I am
not saying that you are) that Deutsch does not consider these in coming to
his conclusion that karma is a "convenient fiction" that is incorrect.
When you return, let's have a look at why it is precisely on these grounds,
as well as the other "means of valid knowledge," pratyaksha, upamana,
anupalabdhi, and sabda, that Deutsch comes to the conclusion he does.

>> I don't see how  the import of any of the great sayings, such as tat
 asi, get lost by seeing karma as a convenient fiction.  The description of
 ultimate reality remains intact.  If you stay focused on the description
 you don't need the prescription.  In fact, it could be argued that the
 import of the description is compromised _by_ the prescription.  I have
 same problem in understanding the 8 fold path.  It gets in the way of the
 Buddha's deepest insight into the nature of reality.>>

>Not necessarily. You need one diamond to cut another.

This is to Zen for me.  I will need you to expand this metaphor.  What you
wrote subsequently doen't help me "cut" through.

>The paths taught
have a pedagogical value, which does not compromise the description of
the ultimate reality. You teach a three-year old kid about the commonly
used numerical system, and you don't talk about formal axiomatic theory at
that level.>

One does not sublate the other, so they are not in conflict.

>You teach a ten-year old kid that atoms are indestructible,
and at a later stage you negate that earlier teaching, by informing him
about protons, neutrons and electrons.>

Not my kid I won't.  These two _are_ in conflict.  No kid will ever
encounter an atom.  Atoms are just ways of talking about ultimate reality.
That way of talking, and it lasted a long while, has now been sublated by
quantum physics.  Oppenheimer said that there are 6 year olds walking
around who could solve problems in physics that he no longer could.
Whether or not mine is one of them, I see no point in misleading her from
the starting gate with the notion of some mini material hardball as the
basic building block of the universe.  Starting points in religious
training are crucial.  For instance, there might be a much better dialogue
between Christians and Buddhists, as well as Advaitins, if Jesus was not
emphasized at the expense of the holy ghost!

>Thus, you peel away the layers
stage by stage.>

Sorry, but I can only see that you are adding layers with karma;  or,
worse, helping to generate the illusion of an agent/self upon which all
other layers will get added to.

>A very similar approach is taken in advaita vedAnta, and
this applies to Buddhist teaching too.>

I am interested to hear about the pedagogic approach to Vedanta.  As for
Buddhism, in this country, via the scientific minded Taoists who translated
Indian Buddhism into Asian Buddhism,  Vipassana (again, here comes
experience) tends to be the starting point.

Jonathan Bricklin

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