Sunday, September 16, 2018

Qualified Non-Dualism



The late Swami Tapyasananda was a leader of the Ramakrishna Mission, a modern Hindu movement. Tapyasananda wrote or translated a large number of books on Hindu philosophy and devotionalism. His book on the 11th century sage Sri Ramanuja is excerpted from a much larger work, “Bhakti Schools of Vedanta”. Somewhat surprisingly, “Sri Ramanuja: His Life, Religion and Philosophy” contains almost no polemics, despite the fact that the Ramakrishna Mission are followers of a very different tradition. The Mission follows (perhaps with some twists of its own) Advaita Vedanta or Non-Dualism, where the Absolute is seen as impersonal. Ramanuja was the foremost exponent of a competing school of thought, known as Vishishtadvaita Vedanta or Qualified Non-Dualism, in which the world is simultaneously both distinct from God and part of God. The Divine is a person. In Western parlance, Advaita is (perhaps) “pantheist”, while Vishishtadvaita is “panentheist”.

According to the author, Sri Ramanuja (who was based in Tamil Nadu in southern India) wasn't simply a philosopher. Rather, his project was to fuse the more philosophical musings of Vedanta with the strongly emotional devotionalism (bhakti) of the Alvars, a group of Tamil Vaishnava poets. Vaishnavas are devotees of Vishnu (also known as Narayana) and see him, rather than Shiva or Brahma, as the Supreme Person of the Godhead. This may explain why Ramanuja was attracted to Vishishtadvaita rather than to Advaita. The latter school argued that the Divine is the impersonal Brahman without attributes, while the phenomenal world (including all personal gods) is a grand illusion. To most people, showing devotion to an impersonal god is difficult or absurd. Vishishtadvaita recognizes a personal god and can therefore be adapted to folk devotionalism. At the same time, it also gives philosophical answers to metaphysical problems such as the relationship between the One and the Many.

Tapasyananda does a good job summarizing Sri Ramanuja's philosophy and devotionalism. (The chapters on his life are less interesting and lack historical context.) In Ramanuja's panentheist theology, God is simultaneously personal, transcendent and immanent. The world is part of God. It could be described as God's “body” with the jivas (the souls or monads) as “cells”. Both the world and the jivas are entirely dependent for their existence on God, while God is not dependent on them. (The closest Western concept would be the idea that the world is an “emanation” from God, rather than a creation ex nihilo.) The world is periodically emanated, destroyed and re-emanated in never-ending cycles. All jivas are bound by karma, the ultimate origins of which are unclear. I get the impression that Ramanuja didn't believe in a “fall”. Rather, the jivas emerge from brute matter thanks to God animating it, and have to struggle through countless of lifetimes to reach liberation. Evil and suffering and necessary parts of the cosmic matrix and constitute learning experiences for the jiva. Liberation is by God's grace. The liberated jivas get all of God's attributes except his creative power, and they remain ontologically distinct from him. The goal of both bhakti and liberation is to become the best servant of God, who is seen as a supremely powerful yet benevolent master.

Personally, I must say that I didn't resonate as much with Ramanuja's panentheism as I expected. Perhaps I'm too influenced by Christian models. Vishnu seems blissfully unaware of the sufferings of humanity, indeed “bliss” is one of his principal attributes, while love apparently is not. I got the impression that while the devotees feel strong love for Vishnu, the divine person never reciprocates. He feels love only for a small group of perfect devotees. Towards other devotees, he is benevolent in the same way that a good king can be benevolent, but not loving. The author at one point describes God's saving grace as an act of condescension. Vishnu certainly doesn't love the sinner. When he incarnates on Earth, the purpose of the avatar is to destroy the sinners, rather than to save them! Interestingly, the Vaishnavas worship a goddess, Sri, sometimes seen as Vishnu's consort. Sri does love humanity, including sinners, and acts as intercessor before Vishnu. To Ramanuja, Sri was in some way part of Vishnu, but she still seems to be a subordinate part, function or quality.

Weirdly, Ramanuja apparently argued that God isn't responsible for the sufferings of the jivas, despite the fact that the world is his very own body. God's play, including the never-ending karmic world-cycles, simply happen, more or less automatically. While it's true that humans can't consciously influence the cells in the human body, an omnipotent God should have this ability, rather than having a body which, human-like, works on autopilot. Here, Ramanuja's God comes across as similar to an impersonal deity! Conversely, it's difficult to see how the jivas can have free will if they are trapped in karma de facto created and sustained by God. I always felt that Hinduism combines a personal god who is an inscrutable dictator with an impersonal cosmos which simply moves along, and Ramanuja's philosophy (while interesting in other ways) didn't change my impression…

That being said, I nevertheless consider this work to be an extremely well done introduction to Sri Ramanuja's version of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, and I therefore gracefully bestow five stars on it.

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