By Valentine Isichei
“Though the visible whole has come out from that invisible whole yet, the whole remains unaltered”Isa-Upanishad
If you were omnipotent, what would you do?
As it’s only you it might start to get a little lonely in the infinite space that you’ve created for yourself. Given this loneliness, you might decide to create some creatures to live in this world with you, but you still have lots of time to fill – an eternity, in fact. Perhaps you could come up with some games to while away infinity. How about Hide and Seek? Perfect! You would never be able to find yourself in this infinite playground you’ve created; better yet, the creatures of this universe would be tormented with quests to find out just where you are!
The quote above is from the Isa-Upanishads, a book that comprises the Upanishads which are late Vedic Sanskrit texts of Hindu philosophy. They are mainly concerned with ideas of meditation, philosophy, and ontology. There are over 105 Upanishads, which for centuries were memorised and passed down orally. Western thinkers such as Schopenhauer, a renowned German philosopher, praised the text for being ahead of its time in its exploration of the world of appearance and absolute reality.
Given this importance and the texts being largely unknown outside India, it is my desire to see what links can be drawn from otherwise disparate cultures. As a result, Western thinkers who also explored these ideas must also be consulted.
The logico-philosophical system that Breathes in Spinoza’s Ethics allowed it to become a seminal work for future Philosophers. The prolific work of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason became a cornerstone of western thought on the faculty of the mind. Although beautiful works in their own right, it is important to use the acute language of the West and marry it with the subtleness of the Eastern doctrines in order to realise the wisdom of the Upanishads and its relation to western thought.
The main ideas included in the Upanishads are that of Brahman (Ultimate reality, Supreme God) Atman (The Self) and Maya (The veil of illusion).
The Beauty that comprises the Upanishads is explicitly shown in the above quote. Although simple in its length, it still is rightly confusing to the uninitiated mind. Thus, in order to unpack the metaphysical and ontological connotations in the quote we should break it down into its constituent parts and see what we can take from it ourselves.
Brahman as Substance
In order to tackle the counter intuitive and seemingly paradoxical quote from the Isa-Upanishad we first have to analyse the concept of Brahman. Brahman is the eternal being without shape or character, yet it is revered as the necessary requirement for all things to exist, an everlasting force that underpins every aspect of reality. As strange as this notion may seem, we can find a parallel idea in the work of Western philosophers’ idea of Substance.
Baruch Spinoza outlined his understanding of Substance in the exposition of his work Ethics
“By Substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.” [Book I Def.III](N.B for Spinoza God and Substance are the same thing. Do not confuse God/Substance with a theistic God who is known through his interactions with man directly)
Substance is that which exists within itself, and therefore the complete knowledge of it is only known through the thing itself. Ordinarily, the knowledge we have can be conceived by external means, while Substance is conceived by itself.
To explain this let us explore how we cognise our existence.
People, mammals, planets, etc., all require each other to exist and be conceived. You cannot conceive of a human being without first conceiving of an animal, and you cannot conceive of an animal without first conceiving of living things.
To qualify our own existence, we require contingent things to exist. For example, our parents (whose existence is contingent) are necessary for us to be born. This is the simple work of cause and effect; everything we see in the universe must have had a cause. However, Substance is self-caused.
A distinction should be made to the concept of Substance. Substance is self-conceptualizing and ontologically independent as it only requires itself to exist and be conceived. Substance is proven through the concept of something that requires nothing else to exist, and therefore its existence is necessary. Although this is likeable to the idea of the “First mover”, the belief that Substance is an active thing is not necessary; all that is necessary is that it exists.
As this is a tricky concept let us use the following explanation: If something is to exist for a part of a greater whole, that greater whole will necessarily ground the part’s existence. The part cannot have independent existence without the whole. For example, the stars and planets that make the universe are subject to the laws of gravity; the law of gravity is not subject to the universe. Gravity caused the formation of planets, but planets are not necessary for gravity to exist.
On the other hand, that greater whole which allows all its parts to exist must either itself exist for a greater whole or exist by the necessity of its own nature; that is to say, its existence coming about due to external causes would contradict its inherent nature.
Again, gravity does not come about from the formation of planets but rather gravity allows for the formation of planets. It would be impossible to say that gravity requires planets in the same way it would be impossible to say that evolution requires differing species. Differing species arise from evolution which is governed by its own laws e.g., survival of those most suited to their environment. Analogously, Substance is its own self-containing infinite system that requires nothing else to exist; its existence is only proven through the things it allows to exist which in themselves are reliant on it. Our knowledge of the cause of existence cannot be contained solely in the existing object itself as we see it. Planets cannot be used to explain gravity or differing species be used to explain evolution as those consequences are external to the thing itself, thus requiring another conception to explain their existence.
(Another complex example that Spinoza employed [Book II Prop VIII Note II]- let us say there are exactly 20 men, and we are tasked with explaining their existence. We would rightly conclude that there were 20 births, the external cause of the number of men. These 20 men represent a closed system for which knowledge of it is dependent on its constitution i.e., the number 20 and the men. There is nothing in the nature of man that contains the knowledge of the number 20, although we can see 20 men. Necessarily, the numerical fact of this system is reliant on an external cause as knowledge of man does not necessarily involve 20. Therefore, any system that has more than one individual will necessarily have an external cause to give reason to its magnitude. However, the knowledge of the System of Substance will need no external cause as it is a singular system, so all knowledge is contained within its definition. What is most important is to remember that the external cause is always related to Substance as all things exist within it. [Book 1 prop VIII] However, that is not to say that Substance is a multiplicity of things in the same way we would conclude that our universe is made up of many things – Substance is the precursor for multiple things to exist in the first place. As a result, although our world is complex and has many functioning parts, knowledge of any of these things is dependent on Substance)
Are you at a loss? Good! You’re not meant to understand it so quickly because if you did it would make this game very boring!
Let’s get back to the sentimentality of the Upanishads which gives a more straightforward approach to understanding this idea. The Upanishads break down the concept of Brahman as follows:
That immortal Brahman is before, that Brahman is behind, that Brahman is to the right and to the left; that Brahman extends above and below. The Supreme Brahman alone is the whole Universe.Mundaka Upanishads
Here the beauty and wisdom of the Upanishads is shown. Brahman is all encompassing and everywhere, not separate from the universe but the universe itself, much like Spinoza’s Substance.
The Nature of Brahman/Substance
Although a similarity between the concepts of Brahman and Substance can be found in the idea of an independently existing thing that allows other things to exist, there are still more likenesses to be explored.
The immortality of Brahman is important to the Hindus; the transient and ephemeral nature of life in comparison to Brahman reminds many of the smallness of their existence.
That is pure, that is Brahman, that alone is said to be immortal. On That all the worlds rest. None goes beyond That.Katha Upanishads
Here we can gain more knowledge about the nature of Brahman. Brahman is what is immortal. If something is to be immortal, then it must necessarily be unbound to finite time, unlike human beings whose existence is bound to finite time. This reiterates the idea that Brahman exists within itself. Spinoza also argued that the essence of Substance was existence. Meaning that where existence is found Substance is the necessary cause. As Substance is self-caused and contained if it is to be bounded it can only be bounded by itself. It must therefore be immortal, for it cannot be bounded by finite time as it itself is infinite.
Besides God no Substance can be granted or conceived.Book 1 prop XIV
Spinoza argued that there can be only one Substance and it is the actual existing thing as opposed to finite things. Thus, a similarity is found between the above quote and Spinoza’s Substance. Simply the existence of a something else that shares all the qualities of substance cannot be possible.
For example, let’s say you have two friends both named Fred. One likes hip-hop the other likes heavy metal. You go to a heavy metal concert and invite the Fred who likes heavy metal. Although they share the same name it is impossible for you to think of the other Fred as liking heavy metal as he doesn’t; therefore, you make the distinction in your judgment when you conceive of a Fred given the context.
For arguments sake let us say there are two Freds who are completely identical in all aspects. Through experience we can only differentiate them based on the time they were birthed i.e., when the external cause created them.
However, substance needs no external cause it is conceived by itself as a result it would be impossible to have two substances as there would have to be an external cause to explain the existence of two, which is contradictory to Substances’ definition.
Thus, it would not be possible to talk about two substances as due its definition there is no distinction to be made by our judgement as a result it is impossible for that to be the case. Through this proposition we can draw the similarity that this overarching concept is a unilateral one.
The Upanishads also explore the supremacy of this concept.
From fear of Him the fire burns, from fear of Him the sun shines. From fear of Him Indra and Vayu and Death, the fifth, speed forthKatha Upanishads
Brahman can be considered to be the immortal essence of the universe. Many religions have had things, like the sun and fire, that have their actions caused by a God, but both doctrines reduced these aspects of life to nothing but a plaything of Brahman/Substance.
This is where the idea can become confused. Brahman is not God in the sense of a being who creates laws; if there was a God who did as such his existence could only come about through Brahman. Any God which did exist would be subject to the same eternal laws of Brahman, as we concluded with Spinoza’s proposition XIV.
Conclusions on the Nature of Brahman/Substance and its importance in The Isa Upanishads
We have now broken down the idea of Brahman, which is considered by the Hindu Philosophy to be an immortal thing from which all things come from. The similarity between this idea and that of Western philosophers can be found through understanding that substance is also an immortal necessary precursor for all things to exist. Furthermore, we understand the characteristics of our world are the effects of Substance existing, rather than being existent in themselves.
Atman and Maya
Both The Ethics and the Upanishads are colourful in exploring the implications of accepting this ontological idea as truth. The nuance of the Upanishads comes from the idea of Atman which is subject to Maya. In understanding the concepts of Maya and Atman we can see again how hidden this concept of Brahman/Substance is by design. Atman can be described as the human self. Maya is simply the veil of illusion under which the Atman exists. We must take the knowledge in the previous section and retain the fact that for both doctrines everything necessarily exists within Brahman/Substance, and therefore so does the self. If Maya is to be the veil of reality, it can only be caused by the Brahman.
We should be careful not to identify our Atman with our thoughts, emotions, or physical body, as it is more elusive than that:
That one [Atman], though motionless, is swifter than the mind. The senses can never overtake It, for It ever goes before. Though immovable, it travels faster than those who run. By It the all-pervading air sustains all living beings.Isa-Upanishad
Atman is motionless, immovable, cannot be perceived, and is the sustenance for all living beings.
Here we can see that the Hindus believed the self is not perceivable by our senses but rather something existing beyond the body and mind. The Hindus believed that once this had been realised then the self would transcend and experience the true nature of Brahman.
The “Mind is the idea of the body”: Spinoza’s Physical Theory and its likeness to Atman
The object of the ideas constituting the human mind is the body/ a certain mode of extension which actually exists and nothing elseBook 2 prop. 13
Spinoza also had an idea of how the self is made: he believed it was a construction of the mind and body working in parallel. The body is affected by external objects; the mind is the processing centre for the consequences of this effect. This interaction, as we have already found, occurs necessarily in Substance. The mind is a thinking non-moving thing and the body a non-thinking moving thing, both of which can be affected by other things that occur in substance.
Spinoza rested his idea on the fact that different objects that exist are differentiated by their movement in space and time, their velocity. The body is considered an existing extended thing as it is contained within Substance, and it physically exists.
Bodies are distinguished from one another in respect of motion and rest, quickness, and slowness, and not in respect of substance.Ethics Book II:lemma I
As all objects that we perceive exist in the arena of space and time, they necessarily will be differentiated from each other by their movement. Space and time are features of substance, but we remember that as Substance is infinite it can have infinitely many of these features or “attributes” Book I [Def VI]. We can conceive of only this aspect of substance, but we must crucially remember that substance itself is infinite, so we are not getting the full picture.
To relate this to our own existence: we come into contact with other things, either animate objects or inanimate objects. These things will necessarily impact the body and our mind will process this impact into an “idea”. For example, when you come into contact with a pet your body on the surface level will experience a blood rush, a contraction of muscles etc; the mind will understand this interaction as the interaction of two different objects: namely your body and your pet’s body. The reaction of the body will be given a classification by the mind. In this scenario the reaction may be called “joy”.
Here we see Spinoza’s idea of the human self. In its essence this self is characterised by its ability to understand its interaction with other bodies and the effects it has on its own body. Given this continual impacting of things on the body, the mind can create a whole identity.
We have found that our sense of self is limited by the power of the mind to understand the idea that the body is being affected by another existing thing. As a result, our self is nothing more than the idea of our own body.
[Spinoza calls this an “idea” as the intellect is understanding the modifications of an object. All objects exist in God which makes their modifications true and anything that exists outside God is logically impossible, which makes the self a true idea [Book, I prop XXX. Proof.] Essentially, something is true if it can be related to God/Substance]
Comparison of Eastern and Western ideas on self
Notwithstanding that both schools of thought accepted the existence of a self-conceived precursor to existence [Brahman/Substance] the implications of this wildly differ between the two. In the east a heavy emphasis is placed on the idea of the self in this lifetime being able to gain enlightenment, thus realising Paramatman or Self beyond in which all conception of individuality is removed. Paramatman is the self-removing of all conceptions of what it means to be “me” and realising its spiritual identity with Brahman. Although the Atman is imperceivable, knowledge of its nature is possible, as outlined in the Upanishads.
Dearest, this Atman cannot be attained by argument; It is truly known only when taught by another (a wise teacher)Katha Upanishad
The Upanishads state that knowledge of the atman can only be achieved through great suffering or through being taught by a wise man. As a result, the normal self that we associate ourselves with, according to the Upanishads, is an unenlightened self.
The Upanishads also touched on the idea of reincarnation of the atman (the unrealised self)
If a man is not able to know Him before the dissolution of the body, then he becomes embodied again in the created worldsKatha Upanishad
Therefore, emphasis is placed on the wise to understand Brahman in order to reach ascended spiritual existence even in this lifetime. The Upanishads can also be seen as a warning to those who remain wilfully ignorant of Brahman and their relation to it.
Children (the unawakened), in many different ways overpowered by ignorance, imagine that they have achieved their aims. These performers of Karma (sacrifice), be-cause of their attachment to the fruits (of their sacrifice), after a temporary enjoyment of their heavenly reward fall back again into misery.Mundaka-Upanishad
On the other hand, Spinoza recognised the finality of the self as the body is something we can imagine not continuing in its existence; we call this idea death. However, this idea can be seen again in the mind understanding objects that impact the body. If the body ceases the human mind associated with that body must also cease, but the mind can gain understanding of the Laws of Substance, which are eternal.
The concept of Maya and its relation to the idea of Representation
Maya, for the Hindus, is the illusory reality that we concern ourselves with. Maya has also found a type of exploration from western philosophers through the idea of Representation which Schopenhauer coined in his work The World as Will and Representation in which the first sentence unashamedly began “Die Welt ist meine Vorstellung- the world is my representation”.
Schopenhauer, a Kantian through Study and Critique, had in mind Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Schopenhauer said his statement is an innate truth but raising this within us into consciousness is another thing entirely.
In order to avoid all misapprehension, it will first be necessary to explain, as distinctly as possible, what our view is regarding the fundamental constitution of sensible knowledge in general. What we meant to say was this, that all our intuition is nothing but the representation of appearance; that the things which we intuit are not in themselves what we intuit them as being, nor are their relations so constituted in themselves as they appear to us, and that if we remove our subject or even the subjective constitution of the senses in general, then the entire constitution and relations of objects in space and time, nay space and time would vanish. They cannot, as appearances, exist in themselves , but only in us. It remains completely unknown to us what objects may be in themselves and apart from all this receptivity of our sensibilityGeneral Observations on the Transcendental Aesthetic [B59,60 A42,43]
Kant is outlining that our understanding is nothing more than that, our understanding, not the actual state of things.
Our intuition is our capacity to gather data from the world, it is simply our ability to determine something as existing. This intuition rests on sensibility, the power of our body to detect different impacts on it; taste, smell, sound, touch etc all comprise sensibility.
[Intuition can be broken down into empirical and pure intuitions. Empirical intuitions require experience and pure intuitions do not. They are known “a priori” without experience. All these intuitions are sensible (able to be sensed)
A simple sentence such as “Alex went to the shop” has both pure sensible knowledge and empirical knowledge.
Knowledge of ‘Alex’ and ‘shop’ is empirical. (i.e., requiring direct experience through the senses, as you must know the concepts of Alex and shop through experience; these cannot be described in themselves they require sensation to understand their nature.)
Pure knowledge is contained within the phrase as it is necessary for this to happen at a location (the space between the start of the journey and its end) and in time ( the verb “went” implies that this happened in the past). This is pure intuition as it does not require experience to gather such knowledge. What we can see here is the breaking down of the event into its relation in Space and Time.
Thus, the entirety of our understanding rests on the power of the body and mind to receive this empirical or a priori knowledge. The mind is already equipped with the pure a priori intuition of Space and time.]
Phenomena describes the objects of our cognition. Phenomena means that the object we see is not the object itself but rather our understanding of it. As our intuition exists in the manifold arena of space and time so too do the objects of our cognition. However, this is not to say that they only exist through such means.
Therefore, if we remove Space and Time from how we see the world objects would vanish as there would be nothing for our mind to take from the environment. This can be likened to dreamless sleep: although we exist in the world with our physical bodies, space and time are not represented. There is no knowledge of the interaction of objects and our own body. The exclusion of our senses means the exclusion of our understanding of what is external to us, not the exclusion of the external object itself.
We can easily see this idea of Representation in nature. The waste we produce is handled according to its potential to cause us harm if it were left exposed. However, detritivores, who feed on waste, imagine that waste is a good thing as per their actions. This is not to say that animals see objects independent of Space and Time, but that the idea of the waste is represented differently among living creatures.
Conclusions on Atman (Self) and Maya (Representation)
More elusive than Brahman; Atman is the self that is unenlightened. This unenlightened state is caused by Maya which is a direct purposive effect of Brahman. In realising this through a liberating experience one can reach the Paramatman and understand their spiritual unity to Brahman. Much like a son finding a long-lost father who worked in the shadows to look after his son until the time was right to reveal himself.
For Spinoza, the self is an actual existing thing as it can be related to God. This self is determined by the power of the mind. This power is restrained by the ability of the mind to understand the impacts of other bodies on its own. Although Spinoza did not explicitly argue for the possibility of any form of immortality or transformation, he postulated that the Laws of Substance will necessarily contain the Laws of Human existence which must be eternal due to the substance’s own eternal nature. That our minds are able to grasp these laws shows that, in some small way, we too can transcend our finite nature and come to terms with the eternal.
Kant’s prolific works allow us to postulate how our minds, owing to their limited perceptions, are flawed in understanding the true nature of objects. This is a direct likeness to Maya which shrouds Brahman in the powerful illusion of everyday life.
Dissection of the Isa Upanishad Quote
Though the visible whole has come out from that invisible whole yet the whole remains unalteredIsa-Upanishads
Now, having worked through the preceding ideas, we can easily parse this.
The visible whole is what we see in the universe represented to us through our human understanding; this understanding is subject to Maya/Representation which stops us from understanding the true nature of things. This was given birth by the invisible whole (Substance/Brahman). “Whole” underpins the idea that this invisible precursor is complete i.e., it needs no prior concepts to understand it, so it exists necessarily.
This whole is unaltered when we ‘add’ the visible element, as the visible element through which we see the interactions of individual things can only come about through Substance/Brahman itself which is already complete, so in reality there is no alteration.
Our representation, while given by Substance/Brahman, is not Substance or Brahman itself but rather a section of its infinite nature which we come to understand through the concept of self. This self is subject to its own personal Maya/Representation which itself is caused by Brahman/Substance.
This self, according to the Hindus, will be fated to re-incarnation unless it comes to realise the nature of Brahman. Hindus believed that the self in this life can transcend itself and exist as part of Brahman through education or great suffering.
On the other hand, Spinoza concluded that the self is finite, and immortality can be understood by looking at the eternal laws that govern our small section of existence. Finally, for Spinoza it is these laws that actually exist, not the body, as these laws are eternal.
Personally, I find it important to ask how such conclusions affect me; so, I shall use one more example.
Imagine you are a bird on an island; it’s only you. As far as you can see is the open ocean, which is still for the most part.
Your main concern is finding a mate, building a nest, and acquiring food. Every so often there is a little ripple in the ocean here, and even more rarely a wave over there. You don’t know what caused it, but you investigate the disturbances from your nest thinking it may be a fish or even another bird. Sometimes it’s a fish, but so far it’s never been another bird. When this happens, you return back to your nest, your thoughts filled with ideas of the next day; getting food, resources for the nest and perhaps a mate. These thoughts pollute your mind and give you no rest. However, when you’re lucky you gaze out into the still ocean and focus your attention on it. You realise it is at peace with itself, it cares not for the ripples and even less for the waves. You recognise it is a force for wonderful creation and just as wonderful destruction.
It is perfectly uncaring and unbothered.
you realise this within yourself; you rush from ripple to ripple, from wave to wave, hoping the next one will reveal or give you something back that it never does. But then you remember the ocean, that peaceful home of yours that was the cause of your island, the food you have, and for all you know it created you also. You see how it does infinitely more than you, creates more than you and causes more things to happen than you. And most importantly, you remember how peaceful it is not disturbed by your problems.
So, the next time you leave your nest you remember that the place you are going to which gave you all that you know is at peace; and, selfishly, you learn to steal that peace for yourself.
May my limbs, speech, Prdna (life force), sight, hearing, strength and all my senses, gain in vigour. All is the Brahman (Supreme Lord) of the Upanishads. May I never deny the Brahman. May the Brahman never deny me. May there be no denial of the Brahman. May there be no separation from the Brahman. May all the virtues declared in the sacred Upanishads be manifest in me, who am devoted to the Atman (Higher Self). May they be manifest
OM! PEACE! PEACE! PEACE!Kena Upanishads
Spinoza’s Ethics – https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3800/3800-h/3800-h.htm
Upanishads – https://estudantedavedanta.net/The-Upanishads-Translated-by-Swami-Paramananda.pdfS
The World as Will and Representation Translated from the German by E.F.J. Payne Dover
Critique of Pure Reason – Penguin edition