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How is Vedanta different from philosophy? || Delhi University (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
14 min
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Questioner (Q): I am studying philosophy at Hansraj College, and I have read that Hegel’s philosophy was that mankind has been increasing its power by increasing its knowledge about itself and its surroundings. This kind of a philosophy might suggest that our projected purpose is to become the most powerful or knowledgeable being possible. So, why is it that, according to spirituality, the purpose of life is liberation? Why can’t knowledge or power be the purpose of life?

Acharya Prashant (AP): It is not about your opinion versus somebody else’s opinion. It is not about Hegel versus Vedanta or something. It is about reality. If knowledge or power can give you fulfillment, by all means go for knowledge and power.

The purpose of life is a very, very subjective thing, right? And when I say subjective, I don’t mean variable as per the subject; I mean it is something that is intimately got to do with the subject, and you are the subject. You are the subject because we are talking of your life, we are talking about the purpose of your life.

Why do we need to talk of the purpose of life? Because we don’t feel alright as we are and where we are. Because we don’t feel alright where we are, therefore we need to be somewhere else. Because we don’t feel good about the way our self-concept and our self-image is, therefore there is a need for change, right?

So, it all starts from you. It doesn’t start from the Upanishads or Hegel or Kant or Voltaire; no, not from there. It starts from you. What is it that would fulfill you? Because you are the one who is restless. Over the millennia, countless people have tried power, and countless have tried money and knowledge and prestige and adventure and sex—you name it. Man has tried all kinds of possible means to come to a certain fulfillment because there is a gaping hole within. We are not at rest. We are not alright.

The child is born crying. Human beings are always running hither thither to gain some satisfaction, which in itself is a far cry from fulfillment. But we all are looking for something, no? The eyes are continuously wandering in search of something, the ears want to hear some special kind of news, and the mind is continuously restless. And that is why there is the question, “What do we want? What is all this desire for?” We are desiring all the time.

And then there were those who realized that we want an end to all wants; we desire the end of desires, and that is called liberation, and that is mokṣa . Coming to the end of desire itself, that is what desire wants. Now, power or knowledge doesn’t bring you to the end of desire, because after power you can want more power. And there is nothing called absolute power because the hunger for power will still remain. There is no end to knowledge, because the one who is seeking fulfillment through knowledge will never be satiated through knowledge.

Q: According to Christianity, there is a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing.

AP: No, none of that. Vedanta does not admit any God. Brahman or Truth or Ātman are not God. In fact, Vedanta categorically dismisses all devī , devatā , and Īśvara . Brahman is not God; Brahman is not Īśvara . The Truth is devoid of everything that you can think of.

We want to know who we are and why we are so restless and confused. We want to come to terms with our own existence; that is what Vedanta is all about. And when we come to who we really are, we discover that the reality that we perceive outside of ourselves is identical with the reality within. That is Vedanta.

So, Vedanta is not about believing in some creator God and his created universe. Vedanta says, “Who is the perceiver of the universe? I am that. And who am I? Somebody who is half-mad.” This kind of honesty Vedanta begins with. “Who am I? Someone who is utterly confused, somebody whose perceptions and conclusions are heavily unreliable. And if the world is my own perception, how do I begin with the world? I don’t know whether even the world exists. All I can say is that I am not alright; this much I can say.”

So, Vedanta begins with this simple observation: “All that I see around me is my own perception, my own experience, and I am not alright. So, I will not talk of my experience. I am the kind of person who can say these are twenty-four fingers (raises five fingers) , so how do I go about finding out who made these twenty-four fingers when they don’t even exist? How can I talk of a creator God when the creation itself is still not something to be certain of? Before I say, ‘Who was the God who made the mountains and the trees?’ I have to ask myself, ‘Do the mountains and the trees even exist at all?’

“And who am I to say they exist? I am saying they exist based on my own experience. But I am a lunatic, very humbly I admit that I am a lunatic. And if I am a lunatic, how do I aver that the mountains do definitely exist? They probably don’t. So, I will not talk of the mountains. I will talk of myself, and I will ask myself, ‘Why am I so restless? Why don’t I see things as they really are? Why do I project my desires upon everything?’” That is what Vedanta does.

Vedanta keeps peeling off layers after layers of impurity and conditioning, and comes to the pure mind or no-mind or the core mind, and that is the Ātman , the pure Self, also called as the Truth. And when you are there, then what you see through your senses gains an immense clarity, and then you don’t see distinctions outside of you. Not that the eyes don’t see distinctions and black and white appear as one, but the meanings that those distinctions used to carry, they are no more there. And then you say, “All is Brahman .” That is what Vedanta is about.

Vedanta is not about worshiping a God, or worshiping this or that, or believing in a certain creator. Vedanta believes in nothing. Vedanta is ruthless enquiry. No belief, no superstitions, no mandates, no commandments, nothing of that kind; very, very pure and solid and ruthless enquiry. That’s all.

Q: Our perception of life defines our goal of life, and that defines the path we choose, and that ultimately becomes our lifestyle. This usually leads to many problems. Consciously or unconsciously, we have developed our philosophy of life from outside influences, and now there is not enough time to ponder over each and every aspect of life and rectify all the wrongs we have developed. So, what would be the philosophy of life that causes the least entanglements?

AP: In your situation, the best philosophy of life is the philosophy of negation. You are talking about external influences, how they determine your definition of life, your goals and your path towards those goals, and how those external influences ultimately become your lifestyle, your day-to-day living. So, you see already that the external influences are causing you a lot of problems; hence, it should be easy for you to proceed via the way of negation.

You are saying you do not have enough time to ponder over each and every aspect of life and rectify all the wrongs. You don’t need time; you need attention. You need time only when you are pursuing a separate or a dedicated activity. Attention, on the other hand, is parallel to life. Attention is like the light that is shining upon us in this room, here. Even as we are working or speaking or going through the motions of life, the light is there. You do not require a separate time to illuminate this room, or do you? Do you say that we would be working in this room from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and then from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. we would illuminate this room? No, it doesn’t happen that way, right? You require light parallel to your work. You require light exactly when you are working.

So, it is not as if you need separate time or dedicated time to ponder over life. Even as you are working, right in that moment you have to be alert to what is really happening. In that alertness you catch falseness, because you, and only you, are in the best position to clearly see what you are doing, what is the thought behind that, and what is the intention or the fundamental tendency that is giving rise to that thought. It is best appreciated in the live moment. It becomes very clear, just as things become clear, at least momentarily, in a flash of lightning.

So, given that your central philosophy is corrupted by so many external influences—as happens with probably all of us—the way is to catch all that which is external, and hence false, and hence not really beneficial to you. It is easy. You will have to watch your moment-to-moment activity.

When you are acting, do not be obsessed only with the object of action. We always act with respect to something. For example, we say, “I am running.” So, if I am running, then I am probably looking at the running track, or I am looking right in front of me to see who is approaching. Or, if I am picking up this towel, then I am paying attention to this towel. The trick is to pay simultaneous attention to the actor as well. So, when you are speaking to the other, do not just listen to the other; in that very moment, know where your own words are coming from. See how you react when a favorable or unfavorable word falls upon your ears; that will tell you how your inner self is operating.

Our nature is Truth and purity, which means once you detect falseness and corruption within yourself, then it becomes quite easy not to let that falseness remain, or to drop that falseness. But before it is dropped, you have to call it out; you have to realize that it is false. And that realization does not come so much by dedicated introspection; it comes from a process of live attention. Then it demands neither dedicated time nor separate effort; what it requires is pure honesty and willingness to be free.

I sense from your question that that willingness is present, so now proceed.

Q: How is it practically possible to eliminate everything that is false? Is that even possible within a single lifetime? Do we even need to reach the purity of the core, the core of Truth?

AP: It is not an external obligation; it is an internal thirst. It is not as if I liberate you from the obligation to reach purity, and you can go out there and celebrate, saying, “Wow, the teacher has waived the homework today!” It is not homework that a teacher is foisting on your face; it is real homework. It is the very purpose of your own life, irrespective of whether or not I say that.

Tomorrow I may lose my brains and start saying that one need not have any purpose, there is nothing called purity, one need not reach any kind of liberation. Anything is possible, I may start saying all those things. Will those things really relieve you of the obligation to be internally liberated? No.

So, it is not a thing about what I say or what the books say or what the religions say. It is your own inner matter. You have fallen in love with… I don’t know. It is your own inner thing. So, it is not as if, “Must I do this? Must I not do this?” Who will tell you? There is nobody to tell you. You have that burning thing within, and that thing is asking for relief. That thing is asking to be quenched.

It is not an external law. There is nothing called a spiritual constitution or something. And you won’t be penalized by any law of the world if you do not purify your mind; life itself will penalize you. No country, no prosecutor, no police is going to come and arrest you because you did not live spiritually enough; that won’t happen. But still, you will be in shambles.

Q: Are suggesting that the process of eliminating the false should be at the core of our living and we should enjoy the process throughout our lives?

AP: No shoulds. Son, no shoulds. If I say you should not enjoy it, will you stop enjoying it?

Q: No.

AP: No shoulds. It is enjoyable. Not that you should or must enjoy it; it is enjoyable. And the other thing you asked is, is it practically possible to eliminate all the darkness? You enter a room that you live in and you switch on the light. Have you switched on the lights of the entire city?

Q: No.

AP: You eliminate the darkness around yourself, and that will suffice. Outside this room it is pitch dark. It doesn’t matter to you or me, does it?

Q: No.

AP: So, as limited human beings, it is sufficient that we keep eliminating darkness to the extent we can and wherever we perceive it. Irrespective of how great you are and how liberated you are—you might be the Buddha verily—the next child will be born with darkness. How much can you do? Even the Buddha has his physical limits, right? Krishna narrates the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna—has all the darkness on the Earth disappeared?

You do the best you can. Darkness will still remain, but you still do the best you can. In that is Krishna’s joy; in that is the Buddha’s joy; in that is Arjuna’s redemption. Duryodhana was still not redeemed. What can you do? You are a human being, not God Almighty—not that any God Almighty exists, but you are definitely a limited human being.

So, in your limits, do the best possible and sleep peacefully.

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