April 28, 2010

The Many Paths of Yoga: Tantra vs. Buddhism, Vedanta vs. Marxism

The nondual state of Brahma (Cosmic Consciousness), or the emptiness of Nirvana, as experienced in deep meditation by sages of all perennial wisdom traditions, is essentially the same. Yet when these sages try to explain this trans-rational state of mind, they invariably give that One invisible reality different names.

More importantly, they also formulate various schools of philosophy that differ to some degree or other. Certain aspects of perennial wisdom are emphasized by some schools, while neglected or modified by others. When interpreted by less enlightened followers, further changes take place.

Therefore, the conceptual interpretation of the non-conceptual state of spirituality is, in many ways, as important as the experience itself. Because it is this verbal and written elucidation that formulates the philosophies and worldviews on which many of our ethical and social behaviors are based. In other words, how the Enlightened masters choose to explain their experiences effect the way we feel, think and relate to the world around us.

The spiritual goal of Buddhism and Tantra is the same—Enlightenment. But while Buddhism emphasizes that the reason to seek Enlightenment is to end suffering, Tantra’s emphasis is that the purpose of our spiritual search is to experience divine bliss or happiness.

While both Advaita Vedanta and Tantra believe that nondual Brahma is Absolute Truth, Advaita Vedanta point out that the world is an illusion while Tantra emphasizes that the world is real and thus relative truth.

If we compare, for example, the poised description of Shiva and Shakti in Tantra to the notable Samkyha philosphy–propounded by Maharishi Kapila some 3500 years ago, and also a Tantric inspired philosophy—we will notice that Kapila put more emphasis on Shakti.

He argued that Shakti is not only more important than Shiva, but that She is an independent force altogether. It should be mentioned here that both in Tantra and Samkhya, Shiva is often termed Purusha (cognitive principle) and Shakti is termed Prakrti (operative principle).In Samkhya, however, the main emphasis is on the role of Shakti, as Shiva is seen as inherently dormant.

In Advaita Vedanta, on the other hand, which was advanced by the brilliant scholar and Tantric mystic Shankarayacharya in the eight-century, the world of creation is simply the deceptive camouflage or illusion of maya. To the doctrine of Vedanta, there is only Brahma.

As Georg Feuerstein maintains, to the Vedantic “the world is a phantom produced by the unenlightened mind. When the root ignorance is removed, the world reveals itself in its true nature, which is none other than the universal singular [Brahma].” Feuerstein continues: “What is implied in this concept is, among other things, the idea that the transition from the One to the Many is not genuine emanation but only an apparent evolution (vivarta).”

Although the great Shankarayacharya was a Tantric practitioner, and thus a person with detailed perennial knowledge of the various levels of  mind, his philosophy differed slightly from Tantra in that he preached the idealist doctrine that “Brahma (God) is truth, this world is false (Brahma satyam, jagat mithya).”

This idealist doctrine is thus based on Absolute truth only, that Brahma alone is real. Shankaracharya’s understanding was that due to false perception, we experience this illusory world as real, as if seeing a snake instead of a rope.

For him, ideas alone were the real truth, hence many of his followers denied the world in order to seek Brahma only. This doctrine—which, due to Shankaracharya’s fame as a brilliant logician and spiritual master, eventually defeated the Buddhist influence in India—has been prominent in Hindu thought for the past 1200 years or so.

In contrast, the materialist doctrine of the Carvak philosophy, which is a kind of religious dogma itself, claimed that “God is false and this world alone is real (Brahma mithya, jagat satya).” The Indian Carvak philosophy, which precedes its twin-soul, Marxism, with more than two millennia, was basically the world’s first materialist or, as Ken Wilber puts it, “flatland” philosophy. According to this doctrine, mind evolves from matter while Tantra believes that Cosmic Consciousness creates matter and then mind evolves from the material realm.

Neither Carvak nor Marxism considers the existence of individual soul (jivatman) or Supreme Consciousness (Paramatman) to be real, because to a materialist only the perception of the Eye of Flesh and the Eye of Mind are real.

Seen through the Eye of Spirit or the perennial philosophy, on the other hand, it is  materialism which is limited, even superstitious and irrational. Seen in this light, writes Wilber, Marxism can be considered “the first truly great modern religion–that is, a religion that tried to make scientific materialism, gross-realm naturalism, and flatland holism into an emancipatory God.”

Consequently, the worldviews that are solely  based on the study of the material dance of atoms and molecules,  the interactive relations of natural organisms, or simply the breathtaking beauty of nature, can not be considered perennial philosophies. For, on the ladder of perennial being–from Matter to Mind to Spirit–these concepts will forever remain on the lowest rung.

On the other hand, the social implications of a perennial philosophy in which the relative world we live in is seen as mere illusion can also have negative consequences. Thus, the great insight of Tantra is its emphasis on maintaining a dynamic balance between the relative or dualistic reality of the objective world and the absolute or nondual reality of the spiritual world.

For Tantra there is a dynamic and real interrelationship between Spirit and matter, between That World and this world.

And this is an important perennial message for us modern yogis, we who struggle to find inner equipoise in this maddening world of environmental destruction and shallow consumerism.

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