Essays on Vedanta and Western Philosophies

Vedanta as interpreted by Sri Aurobindo

— Arun Chatterjee


Price: Rs 175

Pages: 152
Dimensions (in cms): 14x22
ISBN: 978-0-9406-7636-7
Soft Cover
Publisher: Lotus Press, USA

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About Essays on Vedanta and Western Philosophies

Focussing on Vedanta as interpreted by Sri Aurobindo, the author finds similarities between certain concepts in the philosophies of the East and West, including the Ultimate Reality and the Self, the nature of the Divine and his relation to the world, immortality and rebirth, and free will and determinism. Key to his analysis is the first chapter on the meanings of the terms religion, philosophy, and spirituality. In his comparative studies the author’s primary interest is in the philosophies of Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, Vedanta, Schopenhauer, Spinoza, and Sartre. There is also a chapter comparing Jewish mysticism and Hinduism and an appendix on the place of bhakti in Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga. These essays were originally published as articles in various journals.


Today, an increasing number of people adulate Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as religious icons, to be worshipped in photographs and treated as two more of the myriad gods and avatars of Hinduism. A devotional attitude, of course, is not excluded by Sri Aurobindo or the Mother, but an exclusive devotionalism without understanding the life mission of these figures and the goals of human transformation they strove for and taught, is not what either of them supported. Repeatedly, in the writings and sayings of both, one encounters the warning against turning them or their teaching into yet another religion. On the other hand, those who have delved into the spiritual philosophy of these teachers or tried to discuss them have sometimes lost themselves in an ocean-in-a-teacup of cultic jargon and hair-splitting, reminiscent of Christian apologetics. The importance of a spiritual philosophy (darshan in the Indian tradition) is to provide a structural framework and goals for practice (yoga). Without a comparative context for orientation, it is easy to miss the wood for the trees or to believe one wood to be the only forest there is. Under these circumstances, Arun Chatterjee’s Essays on Vedanta and Western Philosophies serves a salutary function in offering a concise, comparative guidebook to the global terrain of spiritual philosophy closely related to that of Sri Aurobindo, so that a general reader may form a clearer understanding of the theoretical and praxical options of the broader field and the specificity of Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s goals, methods and vocabularies based on these.

To orient the reader to approach the domain appropriate to Sri Aurobindo’s works, the author begins with a chapter distinguishing religion, philosophy and spirituality. He points out the overlapping nature of these categories, but also draws attention to what characterizes each. As he explains, religion serves a mainly social function, binding a people through cultural practices to a theological framework. Spirituality emphasizes a path of subjective practice leading to the experience of cosmic and/or transcendental forms of consciousness. Philosophy privileges rational contemplation and critical judgment leading to classificatory structures relating the human to the cosmos and, perhaps, something beyond it. Each can operate with the others, or independently of the others, or against the others. The author clarifies how Sri Aurobindo’s teaching is a spiritual philosophy and not a religion. He ends the chapter by pointing out how, in our times, there is a growing global trend towards what is being called a “spiritual but not religious” stance.

This chapter is followed by one in which Sri Aurobindo’s views are contextualized within the Vedantic tradition. This chapter deals with two aspects, those of reality and the self. In discussing reality, it introduces the three major schools of Vedantic interpretation, Advaita of Shankara, Vishishtadvaita of Ramanuja, and Dwaita of Madhavacharya, and shows how Sri Aurobindo’s integral philosophy posits a consciousness which integrates these understandings, and how he interprets the Upanishads to demonstrate this. In dealing with the self, the chapter introduces the views on the self (atman) in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. A fully developed metaphysics from these sources includes a supreme Self (paramatman), a universal self, the one Self of all beings of the cosmos (atman), and its individual poise that remains outside time and space and presides over the cosmic becoming of the individual (jivatman). The author distinguishes these spiritual “selves” from the ego (ahamkara). The Upanishads and the Gita also speak of an “inner atman” (antaratman) which enters the manifestation. The author does not refer to this specifically, but introduces the idea of the soul (purusha), pointing to the Gita’s distinction of a status of soul that remains unchanging outside the manifestation (akshara) from a status that changes with the fluctuations of nature (kshara). He also introduces the Sankhya distinction of soul and nature (purusha and prakriti). Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation and contribution to this theory of the self and the soul are then discussed. The author brings out effectively Sri Aurobindo’s finely developed notion of the individual soul in the becoming (psychic being) and his special contribution of an evolutionary component to the individual and cosmic becoming.

This treatment of an Indian metaphysical context is followed by a consideration of two Western philosophers, one of the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza, and the other straddling the 18th and 19th centuries, Arthur Schopenhauer. The choice of these philosophers follows their similarities with or interests in Indian philosophy. Spinoza was a Dutch Jew who lived in the thick of what has been called the Enlightenment, and may be said to have contributed in a special way to it. As the author points out, he stands apart from other Western philosophers due to his uncompromising substance monism. This means that reality is a single substance, in contradistinction to the Cartesian theory that Matter and Spirit (God) are radically different. This is fundamentally consonant with Vedanta’s notion of Brahman, which may appear in different forms, but is the only thing there is. The author draws this parallel while also pointing to some differences between Spinoza and Vedanta, particularly the absence of a reciprocal emotional relationship between the human and the divine. The chapter on Schopenhauer introduces him as the first European philosopher to draw explicitly on Indian philosophy. This is mostly true, though it needs to be pointed out that Indology was well established in Germany at this time, mainly in Philology. Though Kant believed that reality in itself could never be known, Schopenhauer, who was deeply influenced by Kant, held that Will was the foundation of reality and was present in all beings, who could thus intuit and experience reality-in-itself. He held that the willed renunciation of the action of will could help the human to transcend the field of contested wills and achieve peace. His take-away from the Upanishads could thus be called world-renouncing in a way similar to Shankara’s Advaita. It is difficult to do justice in such a short scope to complex philosophers like Spinoza and Schopenhauer, but the author touches on germane aspects of their philosophy. One wishes, though, that the modern and contemporary legacies of these philosophers had been touched on as well; for example, Schopenhauer’s influence on Nietzsche, and the latter’s traces in Sri Aurobindo, or Spinoza’s influence on Gilles Deleuze as a contemporary philosopher of cosmogenetic individuation.

These chapters are followed by one on rebirth and immortality and another on determinism and free will. Both of these are excellent exercises in comparative philosophy, marshalling a variety of views from world traditions to engage their considerations. The first brings its discussions to a focus in the metaphysical justification of rebirth in Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary cosmology, while the second deals with the conditions for freedom in Vedanta and Sri Aurobindo as well as views on the topic by Western thinkers, including the modern existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. Next comes an interesting comparative study on Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism and Vedanta. The book ends with an Appendix on the place of Bhakti in Sri Aurobindo’s yoga, written by the author’s father and translated by the author.

Given that the author is not a trained professional philosopher, the accuracy, clarity and economy of his introductions are remarkable. The result is a slim, readable volume that covers a large amount of ground, and one that many should find rewarding in providing a broad contextual understanding to spiritual philosophy and the ideas of Sri Aurobindo.

—Debashish Banerji

Debashish is the Haridas Chaudhuri Professor of Indian Philosophy and Culture and the Doshi Professor of Asian Art at the California Institue of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

December 2018