Reading the authoritative scriptures of Indian thinking, such as the Upanishads and Vedanta sutras , our first impression may be the comparability of this perspective with that of rationalism in western philosophy, which, in R. Puligandla’s term, can be characterized as “substance ontologies”. It includes, on the western side, the philosophies of Parmenides , Plato, Aristotle , Descartes , Leibniz , Spinoza , Locke , etc. Certainly, it constitutes the main current of western philosophy. The general feature of this perspective, as Puligandla puts it, is its maintenance that “underlying the seeming change, variety, and multiplicity of existence there are unchanging and permanent entities”. This is surely the case, at least referring to its expressive form, of Brahmanism. One of the most important insights that run through all Upanishads is that underlying all incessant changes of our inner world, e.g., the streams of sensations, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, images, memories and feelings, there is an unchanging and permanent Being called “Atman ” or “Self”. For instance, one Upanishad says:
As a lump of salt when thrown into water melts away and the lump cannot be taken out, but whenever we taste the water it taste salty, even so, O, Maitreyi, the individual self, dissolved, is the Eternal — pure consciousness , infinite and transcendent. Individuality arises by identification of the Self, through ignorance, with the elements; and with the disappearance of consciousness of the many, in divine illumination, it disappears. Where there is consciousness of the Self, individuality is no more.
He who, dwelling in all things, yet is other than all things, whom all things do not know, whose body all things are, who controls all things from within — He is your Self, the Inner Controller, the Immoral.
The wise one [i.e., the Atman, the Self] is not bom, nor dies . This one has not come from anywhere, has not become anyone. Unborn, constant, eternal, primeval, this one is not slain when the body is slain.
In these passages, the Self (Atman) is expressed as a pure consciousness that is infinite, eternal and transcendent. It is something higher and ocher Chan the empirical and psychological self attaching to the body that can be slain. In this way, the Self is really articulated substantially. That is, it seems to be an ultimate substance in consciousness underlying and making possible the empirical ones. However, it is not a conceptual substance or the subjectivity, such as “soul” in Plato and “I” in Descartes, since Atman is not anything that is opposite to and distinguishable from object ontologically. Atman is Brahman , the unchanging ultimate of the objective world. “I [this Self] is Brahman”. “Pure Consciousness is Brahman”. This ontological identity is regarded as “the pinnacle of the Upanishadic wisdom” which bears profound consequences for Indian philosophy.
In this Upanishadic insight , Atman is not a conceptual subject, nor Brahman an object. Both of “them” are more primordial than this derivative distinction. For this reason, it is emphasized in Upanisbads that both originally are “formless”, which means beyond any representative and conceptualized form. It is said in the Mundaka Upanishad ,
Heavenly, formless is the Person.He is without and within, unborn,Breathless, mindless, pure,Higher than the high Imperishable.
The formless is “without and within”, because its primordial formlessness makes it impossible to distinguish the without from the within. Another Upanishad says, therefore, “What is within us is also without. What is without is also within. He who sees difference between what is within and what is without goes evermore from death to death”. Here to a certain extent we can sense the ontological appropriation that Heidegger recognizes in Parmenides’ identity of thought and Being. This identity is not a logical one but an ontological “bond” that vibrates between thinking and Being. Understood through this ontological bond, Atman is more original than Kant ’s subjectivity, and closer to the “transcendental imagination” intended by him to provide the ontological possibility for the meeting between object and subject (the perceptibility of thinking). Nevertheless, due to the way of uttering the identity, the appropriating “bond” between Atman and Brahman has not yet been fully revealed in our experience of language. That is, it has not found its appropriate Way to language in Heideggerean sense. A painstaking work, like what Heidegger did to Parmenides’ identity is needed to release the formless bond into the horizontal nearness required by ontological appropriation. In light of this, it is not strange that for many Upanishadics, the identity, being completely mysterious, can only be experienced or intuitively seen as a mysterious flash in practice of austerity and yoga . In Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras, the function of yoga meditation is said to be “cutting the mind off from the external world” by concentrating on one single object constantly. In the final stage of yoga discipline, samadhi , the subject’s awareness of himself which is the last form of the subject and still prevents the subject from seeing the object as such, is eliminated. Therefore, as Puligandla writes:
When one goes to the samadhi, the svarupa (residual awareness of the mind of itself) completely disappears, giving place to the object; that is, there now takes place the fusion of the mind with its object — the fusion of the subject and the object. There are no longer two things here; there is only one, pure consciousness, which is not an object. At this point the structure of consciousness and that of the object coincide.
At this stage, in the eyes of a Brahmin or an Advaita Vedantic, the very identity of Atman and Brahman is directly seen by or realized in the pure consciousness because now there is nothing that can “form” the distinction between the consciousness and object. In Husserl ’s phenomenology, we observe a comparable attempt to “go back to things themselves” with phenomenological and transcendental reduction. It reaches its highest stage also in pure consciousness or transcendental subjectivity. However, for a yogic, the transcendental subjectivity in Husserl’s presentation is not pure enough yet, i.e., it still bears some “form” (svarapa), since the dichotomy of noesis and noema still exist and the consciousness, although essentially constitutive, is still a “consciousness of something”, rather than a consciousness pure and simple.
In the sense that the realization of identity of Atman and Brahman lies in a more primordial level than what Husserl’s “consciousness of something” indicates, the identity or “the fusion of the subject and object” arouses an issue that Heidegger’s discourses on an ontological and appropriating horizon can more adequately address. But it is clear that the Upanishads and Samkara ’s Advaita Vedanta did not in their sayings expose this identity as an appropriating horizon-region . What they did is rather to argue and establish the necessity of this identity out of a transcendental logic. In Samkara, for instance, the way to discover the ultimate reality in sayings is “sublation”. As Puligandla presents:
Sublation is essentially the mental process of correcting and rectifying errors of judgment. ... For Samkara sublatability is the criterion of ontological status of any content of consciousness; anything that is in principle sublatable is of a lesser degree of reality and value than that which replaces it as a result of sublation.
For example, the observed event in daytime can sublate or replace the mental event in dream; a scientific knowledge about electricity can sublate an empirical one; a logical relation can sublate a conventional one; and a non-dualistic being can sublate a dichotomical being. In this way, Samkara arrives at his “ontological hierarchy:
On the criterion of sublatability, Atman distinguishes reality, appearance, and unreality. Reality is that which in principle cannot be sublated by any other experience. Appearance is that which in principle can be sublated by other experiences. Unreality is that which in principle neither can nor cannot be sublated.
The reality exposed by this method, regarded to be theoretically correct, must be further realized and directly seen in yoga practice. Otherwise, it would not be a shining and appropriating truth that can liberate us from the law of karma .. For Advaita Vedanta, the theoretical reference and the practical discipline are complementary to each other. This is true to most Indian schools, since for them yoga is the necessary step to experience intuitively the non-conceptual freedom (moksha ). It shows that yoga practice, as non-conceptual and intuitive as it is, may serve different theoretic goals. Puligandla writes:
According to Samkara and Yoga [as a philosophy], the goal of Yoga is the self’s realization of its true nature as the immoral and all-pervading Purusa [Self], utterly separate from Prakrti. For Advaita Vedanta, the goal of Yoga is the realization of the fundamental unity and identity of the individual self with the absolute self, Brahman. For the Nyaya-Vaisesika, the end of Yoga is the elimination of all pleasure and pain and joy and sorrow and therewith the attainment of a state of total repose, devoid of even consciousness. Advaita Vedanta, Samkara, and Yoga disagree with the Nyaya-Vaisesika on this point. Thus, according to Advaita Vedanta, the liberated state of the self is one of pure bliss; for Samkara and Yoga, it is one of pure consciousness.
So, Upanishadic and Samkara’s approach implies a methodological dichotomy between theoretical expression and intuitional discipline. Also, as we have seen above, according to certain theoretical or methodological standard, an “ontological hierarchy” may be worked out, in contrast to, say, the “ontological equalitarianism” of Buddhism and Taoism . All these, i.e., “methodological dichotomy” and “ontological hierarchy”, are the consequences of a substantial (conceptual, logic) way of expressing an originally non-dichotomous insight.