Article 1

Western Theology and Indian Mysticism


Western theology has always been opposed to the mystical traditions of the world. That is why foremost mystics of the Western world including Jesus of Nazareth himself were misunderstood, persecuted, or crucified in their lifetime.

Theology is dualistic and doctrinaire; mysticism is non-dualistic and experiential. Theology is dogmatic and creedal mysticism aims at the unfathomable mystery beyond all dogmas and creeds. Theology is the rational articulation of absolute faith; mysticism encourages transition from faith to personal realization. Theology interposes an organized administrative hierarchy to mediate between the layman and God; mysticism affirms the spiritual equality of all men and their potential for direct union with the Divine.

Since mysticism is recognized in India as the very quintessence of religious consciousness and the ultimate goal of man’s spiritual aspiration, it has been the target of criticism of even some of the most universally minded and sincere Western theologians.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss briefly a few major points of criticism levelled by Western theology against mysticism.

According to the doctrine of Transcendence in Western theology, mysticism’s goal of immediate union with God is a sheer absurdity, a self-contradictory idea. Man is a finite creature of time, whereas God is infinite and eternal. So there is essentially an unbridgeable gulf between them. How can man cross this unbridgeable gulf and become one with God ?

A little reflection will show that the above criticism is based upon a false dichotomy and a wrong application of Aristotelian logic. Absolute separation between the finite and the infinite exists only in the brain of the Logician and the logic-chopping theologian. In the concrete texture of life and reality, the finite and the infinite inseparably intermingle and interpenetrate. They are inseparable, albeit conceptually distinguishable, aspects of the same reality, like waves and the ocean or the finite spaces and infinite space. If the infinite God be rigidly separated from the finite and placed somewhere high up in the sky, as popular religion does, then the whole distinction becomes meaningless. The infinite God becomes finite outside of it, of the world of the finite limiting it. Likewise, the finite by reason of the separate existence of world becomes infinite by reason of its existing by itself. That is why logically it has become possible for the New Christianity or the radical theological movement in the modern West t o dispense with the services of God and reorganize Christianity, on purely humanistic values.

The truth of the matter is that the Infinite is the very foundation or ground of the finite, whereas the finite is a mode or manifestation of the Infinite, as the Upanishads say. The eternal is the Self of the individual self, the very being of his finite being. That is why through full realization of his own self, the human individual can experience oneness with the infinite being. The finite and the infinite are inseparable aspects of the same being (Brahman), just as the enclosed space of a room and the boundless space around it are inseparable aspects of the same indivisible space.

The rigid dichotomy of the finite and the infinite stems from a false application of the laws of Aristotelian logic. According to the law of identity, the finite is finite and the infinite is infinite, and so the ‘twain shall not meet. According to the law of contradiction which follows from the law of identity, reality cannot be both finite and infinite. According to the law of excluded middle which also follows from the law of identity, reality must be either only finite or only infinite–never both.

But unfortunately for logicians and theologians, reality refuses to submit to these regulative dicta of man-made logic. Aristotelian logic has a valid application to the abstract notions of our thought, to the ideas and chains of reasoning of our own mind, not to the concrete flesh-and-blood reality of the universe. Reality in its concrete texture is always the meeting ground of opposites. It is essentially dialectical in its structure without being limited even thereto. So some kind of multi-valued logic is essentially needed to grasp the mystery of ultimate reality as the harmonious fusion of apparent contradictions. Sri Aurobindo has called it the “logic of the infinite” which embraces apparent contradictions in the integral fullness of being.(1)

Let us now turn to some more serious types of criticism which have been levelled against mysticism in recent times by Soren Kierkegaard and Albert Schweitzer.

Soren Kierkegaard’s Criticism

In the view of Kierkegaard, “the immediate relationship to God is paganism, and only after the breach has taken place can there be any question of a true God-relationship”. (2) In other words, paganism consists in man’s immediate relationship to God while living the immediate life of nature. True spiritual life begins with a breach with immediacy through the development of the ethical. God is pure Spirit, and therefore radically different from Nature. Man can existentially relate himself to the Divine spirit, according to Kierkegaard, only through the mediation of faith. And faith, according to Kierkegaard, is the irreconcilable opposite of immediate experience. It also is the irreconcilable opposite of reason. The content of faith is, in his view, the absurd or self-contradictory. The salvation of man comes from faith in or acceptance of, the only begotten “sonship” or divinity of Jesus Christ who alone can forgive the sins of man and bestow upon him emancipation. The idea of Jesus as the only begotten son of God–a finite historical individual incarnating the infinite and eternal Spirit–is, for Kierkegaard, an obvious absurdity but still the supreme truth of faith.

Indian mysticism also accepts faith. But faith in its view is not unquestioning acquiescence in the absurd or the self-contradictory. It is rather the acceptance of the revelation of the spiritual enlightenment that the individual self is essentially one with the supreme Spirit. There is nothing absurd or irrational about this truth of identity or non-duality. Because the individual and the universal as well as the natural and the supernatural or the material and the mental are, in ultimate analysis, different modes of manifestation of the same nondual Being.

In the view of Indian mysticism, there are, broadly speaking, two forms of immediacy: instinctual and intuitional, sensuous and supersensuous, infra-rational and supra-rational, infra-ethical and supra-ethical. After a breach with instinctual immediacy through critical reflection and moral discipline, and then through nonattachment and renunciation of ego-desires, a man realizes his own true spiritual essence, his authentic self, his Atman. Since his true Self is an integral part of the supreme Self, through self-realization he acquires knowledge-by-identity of the supreme Self, just as a wave of the ocean, through awareness of its true essence, can experience its oneness with the ocean.

Now, integral experience of Being reveals that it is the indivisible unity of existence and energy (Sat and Sakti). So nature and spirit, matter and mind which are different modes of manifestation of Being, are by the same token different grades of manifestation of energy. The energy of pure spirit which transcends man’s rational mind is superconscient energy (Para Prakrti). The energy of material nature which is the matrix of man’s emergence is unconscious energy (Apara Prakrti). But the word ‘unconscious’ in this context does not mean the total absence of all consciousness. It rather implies the presence of consciousness in a veiled, self-alienated form, in a state of involution, in a somnambulistic mode of operation. So there is no unbridgeable gulf of dichotomy either between nature and spirit, or between the finite spirit and the infinite spirit. Integral knowledge of Being bridges the gulf, and resolves the dichotomy postulated by the dualistic thinking of the divided mind. In the integral knowledge of Being, which is essentially supramental, even the dichotomy of intellect and intuition, that of mediation and immediacy, is resolved. Thoroughly integrated awareness of Being that it is, integral knowledge comprehends Being as unity in endless diversity and as infinite diversity in all-embracing unity. Intellect distinguishes and relates different aspects of the same Being. It breaks down and analyzes different units of existence, eg. atoms, molecules, individuals etc., and also reconstructs different synthetic wholes such as societies, systems, organizations, galaxies, etc. Spiritual intuition reveals at a stroke the underlying, all-comprehensive unity of all the differentiated and interrelated structures of Being, whether atomic or synthetic. The Comprehensive truth-consciousness in which intellect and intuition, reason and illumination. are thus perfectly harmonized, is what Sri Aurobindo has called the Supermind. (3)

Albert Schweitzer’s Criticism Albert Schweitzer agrees with Indian mysticism that the ultimate goal of man–his spiritual destiny–lies in immediate union with the infinite and eternal Being. But in his view, basically a Christian theologian that he is, this ultimate goal must be achieved not through knowledge and renunciation but through faith and ethical action. In his Indian Thought and Its Development, Schweitzer contends that Indian mysticism in its original purity is Brahmanic or Vedic-Upanisadic or Vedantic mysticism. This mysticism posits Being as essentially formless, qualityless and attributeless. The concept of formless Being logically entails the unreality of the world of forms and names (namarupa). It generates what he calls the mystical world-view or world and life ncgation. The sequel to this negative world-view is that one can enter into mystic union with the eternal Being only through renunciation of life and the world by attainment of perfect nondual identity-knowledge of the same. (4)

Schweitzer contends that true ethical action, concernful action aimed at improvement of the conditions of living in this world, is incompatible with the world and life negation of Brahmanic mysticism. If life in the world is false or unreal, then ethical action can at best be a temporary concession to imperfect human nature leading to inner purification and renunciation culminating in mystic union with the eternal Being.

Schweitzer admits that there are also world and life affirming tendencies in Indian thought. But such affirmative tendencies can be sustained, according to Brahmanic mysticism, only from the standpoint of ignorance (avidya). They constitute a compassionate accommodation to popular needs and demands associated with their ignorant attachment to the world. Secondly, whatever faint affirmative outlook was present in the Vedas and Upanishads was reinforced by the popular religion of later Hinduism which began to interpret Being as God and to look upon the world as a real creation of the real God. Thirdly, popular Hindu belief in reincarnation led to emphasis upon ethical action and consequent world affirmation as essential prerequisites to better fortunes in the next incarnation. Fourthly, the popular Hindu veneration of the sacred social institutions of marriage, family and hospitality, alms-giving and charity, the military establishment and caste duty, civil government and territorial integrity, undoubtedly strengthened faith in world and life affirmation.

But in the view of Schweitzer, the aforesaid world and life affirming tendencies centered around the popular Hindu conceptions of God, reincarnation and sacred social institutions are logically incompatible with the pure Brahmanic mysticism of direct union with indeterminable Being. Because the absolute reality of indeterminable Being is the ultimate negation of world, life and meaningful social action.

It is immediately evident that Schweitzer’s understanding of Vedic-Upanisadic or what he calls Brahmanic mysticism is strongly influenced by the Samkarite interpretation of indeterminable Being as vacant, indeterminate Being postulated as the ultimate. The Samkarite interpretation of Being inevitably leads to the doctrine of the falsity and unreality of the world (Maya).

Following the usual doctrinaire and dualistic tradition of the West, Schweitzer now finds himself confronted with an absolute dichotomy, which he considers incapable of being philosophically resolved: the dichotomy between the mystical world and life negation and the ethical world and life affirmation. In his view, the former is based upon mystical but unrealistic knowledge; the latter is based upon faith in God as an ethical personality who is absolutely good–the kind of faith which may appear absurd and incompatible with the superabundance of evil, suffering and darkness in the world.

Like Immanuel Kant, Schweitzer finds it necessary to demolish knowledge in order to make room for faith. As he puts it, “No ethics can be won from knowledge of the Universe. Nor can ethics be brought in harmony with what we know of the Universe” So the ethical imperative is the starting-point of his philosophical construction. God as an ethical personality is the postulate of our ethical consciousness. In order to justify ethical action he combines faith in an all-good God with the affirmation of the world as an incomprehensible reality. As a Christian theologian, he considers the dualism of knowledge and faith as ultimate and irreducible. The fruit from the tree of knowledge–that notorious apple which Adam and Eve sinfully shared–has always been considered by Judeo-Christian theology as devastating to the religious faith which alone can inspire ethical action.

Integral Philosophy as the Dissolvent of all Dichotomies The outstanding merit of integral philosophy based upon Sri Aurobindo’s masterly interpretation of Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavadgita is that the dichotomies of knowledge and faith, mysticism and ethics, world-and-life affirmation and world-life negation are dissolved in the integral consciousness of Being.

One-sided and imperfect experience of Being as pure transcendence produces the ascetic outlook of world and life negation. The opposite one-sidedness of experiencing Being as an omnipotent ethical personality produces the over-optimistic and aggressive outlook of world and life affirmation. But realization of Being in its integral fullness–as the unity of transcendence and creativity-reconciles in a higher synthesis the affirmative and negative attitudes to the world.

The integral realization of Being reveals the truth that Being as the limitless ground of the universe is both indeterminable and the source of endless determinations. There is no contradiction here, provided we learn to look beyond language to reality, beyond symbols to the symbolized.

Being which is truly infinite is indeterminable in the sense that it is beyond all limiting concepts and categories; beyond all anthropomorphic forms and images, beyond all particularizing qualities and attributes. Spinoza was perfectly right when he said, “All determination is negation or limitation.” Boundless Being is indescribable fullness, infinite plenitude, overflowing abundance (Purnam).

Since Being is indeterminable, logicians and dialecticians including Samkara and Scheitzer draw the conclusion that the universe as the sumtotal of diversities and determinations must be a product of ignorance or nescience (avidya, maya) The tacit assumption underlying this conclusion is that qualityless Being must be void of creative energy (Saktimukta) inasmuch as the latter is no other than a quality or attribute. But this conclusion is vitiated by the fallacy of false equation. Energy which is the source of endless qualities, attributes, forms and determinations, is not itself a quality, attribute, form or determination. Creative energy is the very essential structure of Being, is Energy;and Energy is Being, just as the existence of fire and its burning capacity are inseparably one. (6) Brahman and Sakti, Siva and Kali, are indivisibly one. So whereas Being as pure existence is the ground and support of the universe, Being as pure energy is the source of infinite diversities and determinations in the universe.

It follows that the world of manifoldness is a real manifestation of the real Being-Energy. So the integral world-view which reveals being as the unity of transcendence and creativity, is simultaneously world and life transcending and world and life affirming.

From the integral standpoint, the mystical world and life negation, properly understood, is not an incompatible opposite of the ethical world-view of affirmation On the contrary, disciplined world and life negation, which is part of yogic or spiritual methodology, is a dialectical moment in the full flowering of comprehensive Being-Realization inspiring authentic ethical action.

So long as man lives in ignorance and bondage, he has a distorted view of life and the world. His world-view is tainted and twisted by bias and prejudice, by wishful thinking and selfish motivation, by instinctual drives and emotional attachments. In order to know the universe as it is in its pure proportions and essential structure, the distorted world-view of original ignorance must be negated. Inward renunciation of emotional bonds and instinctual compulsions is essential for the unfoldment of the true world-perspective. So, far from renunciation or negation being the opposite of an affirmative world-view, as Schweitzer supposes, it performs an essential function in the perfecting of our world-view and in the: spiritual transformation of our life in the world.

When in consequence of the spiritual transformation of our personality, a perfectly balanced world-view is unfolded, ethical action, i.e., action inspired by egoless and unmotivated love is perfected, too.

Schweitzer thinks that ethical action is incompatible with the mystic realization of Being because the latter is placed beyond good and evil in Indian mysticism. But here again his understanding of Indian thought is rather shallow and superficial. The words “beyond good and evil” means in the Indian context ‘beyond social and conventional morality’ or ‘beyond narrow group morality’, whether that group be a separative tribe or community, or sect or society, militant nation or international alliance. When a person realizes being as the unifying ground of all the interrelated groups of the universe, he sees through the relativity of the laws of conventional morality and authoritarian ethics prevailing in different groups. For instance, laws about polygamy or monogamy, sanctity of private property or public ownership of all national resources, violent or nonviolent freedom movement of a country, etc. are all relatively valid depending upon changing historical circumstances.

A spiritually enlightened person rises above the rigidities of authoritarian and conventional ethics and dedicates himself to the service of Man and God out of the free spontaneity of cosmic love and compassion. His love or compassion (prema,karuna, viswamaitri) lows from his vivid realization of the spiritual oneness of all existence. What becomes his one overmastering motivation is his free, illumined, egoless will. And what is this egoless will? Sri Aurobindo has described it as the felt will of the Divine in one’s liberated consciousness. The Gita has variously described it as the will to promote, regardless of profit or loss, the welfare of the people (Janahita), or the will to desireless action (nishkama karma), or the will to establish truth and righteousness in the world (dharma-samsthapan) after renouncing all ignorance-born standards of action such as scriptural injunctions or conventional notions of right and wrong.

Schweitzer thinks that true ethical action can stem only from. the natural feelings of sympathy and altruistic impulse present in the human heart. He rightly takes note of the fact that Indian mysticism lays stress on the spiritual need for transcendence of all natural feelings and altruistic desires through austere renunciation. Does not this mean, queries Dr. Schweitzer, the death of all ethical action? Can true compassionate action be derived from mysticism’s theoretical world unity rooted in the abstract notion of being (Brahman)? So Schweitzer maintains: “the idea of active love is probably present somewhere in popular thought, but that Brahmanic, Buddhist and ancient Hindu thought, cannot find room for it within world-view”. (8)

In posing these problems, Schweitzer betrays again his lack of understanding of the central message of Indian mysticism.

The mystical world-view of Vedas, Upanishads, and Gita, is not based upon any abstract notion of being, as Schweitzer mistakenly supposes. It is based upon the illumined soul’s personal, concrete liberating experience of being as the unifying foundation of the universe and also as the ontological root of his own self. Concrete personal realization of being involves blissful experience of the spiritual oneness of all existence and the organic interrelatedness of all living creatures in the creative unity of being. Such a realization of the unity of all in the identity. of being necessarily inspires the unconditional spirit of cosmic love and spontaneous compassion. This illumined spirit of love and compassion is infinitely superior to the natural feelings of sympathy and altruistic desires which are more or less ego-tainted and selfishly motivated.

Immanuel Kant was right when he said that the true ethical impulse was unconditional or categorical imperative. He had the profound insight to realize that much of our ordinary altruism or do-goodness is prompted by an ulterior ego-motive. Much of our so-called benevolent action is mere expediency or calculated self-seeking, not genuine ethical action But as a rationalist thinker, Kant thought that it was reason which held the key to the categorical imperative of ethics. Having failed to probe deeper than reason in his analysis of human personality, Kant had no inkling of the spiritual dimension (Atman) of man, in which wisdom, love and action are fused into one. Reason by itself is abstract; it is void of bliss and love; it is void of dynamism and spontaneity. The rationally conceived ethical imperative can, therefore, hardly inspire one’s active life of pure compassion.

According to Indian mysticism, concrete and direct realization of being in its fullness is a moving experience of unconditional joy and love. So a person with Being-realization is spontaneously inspired by the unmotivated spirit of compassion. The compassion of the illumined soul cannot but issue forth in total dedication to the service of Man as God, setting aside personal considerations of profit or loss, praise or blame, social approbation or persecution.

When the pure flame of Being-knowledge is kindled in the heart, the natural ego-impulses of love and hate, sympathy and antipathy, attraction and repulsion, are consumed in that flame. Out of the ashes of ego-nature is born, like beauty out of beast, the spirit of nondual desireless actions (nishkama karma) which is, as the Gita maintains, the essence of genuine ethical action or rather divinely inspired world-transformation.

REFERENCES 1. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine,(New York: Sri Aurobindo Library, 1951), pp. 298-304, 307-310, 313, 320, 324, 328-329, 241 2. Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1960) p.218. 3. Sri Aurobindo, op cit., Chs. XIV, XV, XVI, XVIII & XXVIII. 4. Albert Schweitzer, Indian Thought and Its Development (Boston: The Bacon Press, 1936) pp. 43-45, 5. Ibid., p. 12. 6. Sri Aurobindo, op cit., pp. 78, 121, 514. 7. Schweitzer, op.cit., pp. 43-44 8. Ibid.,p.l99 9. Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita (New York: The Sri Aurobindo Library, 1950) 75, 82, 95, 99, 120, 358, 359, 525.

Copyright 2010, Cultural Integration Fellowship. No part of this article may be copied or recirculated without the express permission of the Cultural Integration Fellowship. Send Permission Request to the Cultural Integration Fellowship.