Conceiving the Inconceivable
A Scientific Commentary on the Vedanta Sutra
Science, by the commonly accepted definitions, is the study of reality through reason and experience, as opposed to faith. In Vedic epistemology, observation, reason, and faith are called pratyakśa, anumāna, and śabda and the last method (which rests on the authority of the scriptures) is given greater importance over the first two. By this distinction, however, faith is emphasized, and reason and experience are deemphasized. Hence, in what way can the knowledge of God be “scientific”, if the legitimacy of observation and reason is rejected? The answer to this question is that we need to redefine the nature of reason and experience.
The Vedic doctrine of experience is that it comprises three aspects. In the material world, these are called sattva, rajas, and tamas. In the description of a conscious person (e.g. soul and God), they are called sat, chit, and ananda. These are also described as sambanda, abhidheya, and prayojana. In my earlier books, I have termed these relation, cognition, and emotion. In Greek philosophy, these were called ethos, logos, and pathos. We can understand them as the three criteria employed while judging and choosing: right, truth, and good. And there are other names by which these are described in different places.
All of these components are necessary for experience, but each of them is sufficient to cause experience. This leads to the doctrine that each of these three modes is sometimes dominant and sometimes subordinate. When the mode is dominant, then it is the cause, and at that time, it is sufficient to cause experience. But the effect (experience) requires all the three modes.
Thus, the variety of experience is constructed by the innumerable combinations of the modes, and it is described as an inverted tree whose root is the ‘balanced’ state of the three modes in which they are inseparable, but which then ‘expands’ into three ‘branches’, each of which then divides successively by the three modes creating infinite variety which is called the manifest world.
This description of reality however creates three problems. First, context determines which mode is dominant and in different contexts different things are said to be superior. Second, the superior is understood as the whole which is then divided into its parts; however, due to the modes, what is the whole in one situation becomes the part in another situation. Third, what is cause in one context, becomes the effect in another context, and vice versa. The result is that this inverted tree-like structure involves infinite contradictions. The same thing is a cause and an effect; the same thing is the whole and the part; and the same thing is considered dominant and subordinate.
Many commentaries on Vedanta Sutra have tried to address these contradictions. To resolve one contradiction, we can remove one branch, twig, or leaf in the tree, and the tree is now incomplete. But if the branch, twig, or leaf is restored, then the contradiction returns. This is the basis of the problem—now well known in modern mathematics—that knowledge is either inconsistent or incomplete. The problem also exists in Vedanta Sutra commentaries: (1) if everything is described, then there are many contradictions, and (2) as contradictions are reduced, more and more aspects of reality are rejected. A consistent description is also the description of nothingness.
The Acintyabhedābheda doctrine says that the complete description is ‘inconceivable’ because the same thing is a cause and effect, whole and part, dominant and subordinate. That leads to the collapse of rationality and science. But this is not a problem unique to Vedanta. Any scientific theory that tries to be complete, will be ridden with contradictions; fewer contradictions mean more incompleteness; that is, a consistent theory will describe fewer aspects of our experience.
The doctrine of the three modes, with their dominant-subordinate, whole-part, and cause-effect relations, addresses this central problem of knowing through experience. However, to formulate a scientific understanding, we also need to now revise our understanding of rationality or logic.
The problem with logic is that it describes universal truth—logical truth is true in all possible worlds. For example, 2 + 2 = 4 is universally true. Logic is hence incapable of dealing with contextual truth. To solve this problem of universal truth, we must define what we mean by contextual truth: it is the answer to a question; if the question is changed, then the answer is changed.
Logic must now be redefined not as the pair of premises and conclusions, but as the triad of premise, question, and answer. Each premise gives rise to some questions, which then gives rise to an answer. The answer is not universal, because the question is contextual. And yet, it is true—in relation to the question. The original premise, which leads to all questions and answers, is called the Absolute Truth. But all subsequent emanations from this truth are Relative Truths. The relative truth is not a falsity. But it is true only in a context. It is one of the many branches of the tree.
The Absolute Truth is the original premise, but it gives rise to questions and problems—which are termed as the ‘desire’ in the Absolute Truth. Due to this desire, the Absolute Truth is a person, and the premise doesn’t exist merely as an idea. Once these questions and problems are created, then the answer to these are also created. The answer is a part of the premise, and it is connected to the premise through a question. However, since the premise becomes a question, and then becomes an answer, therefore, the same thing is alternately known as a premise, a problem, and an answer.
‘Truth’ is the relation between a question and an answer. If an answer solves a problem, then, it is true. But many answers can address a problem. Therfore, aside from the ‘truth’, we must also judge the ‘good’ and ‘right’. If a surgery is successful but the patient dies, then the surgery is not ‘good’. A surgery performed by an unqualified person is not ‘right’. Thus, the connection between solutions and problems is judged in three ways: (a) it solves a problem, (b) the solution increases happiness, and (c) we are permitted to it. By this definition, the ‘Absolute Truth’ is the answer to all questions, increases happiness in all situations, and everyone is permitted to use the solution.
With the redefinition of experience (as the combination of the three modes), causality (as one of the three modes), reality (as the tree of all possible mode combinations), and reason (as the choice of one of the tree branches), we meet the rational criterion for knowledge—it must be consistent and complete. The tests of truth, right, and good constitute the empirical criteria for knowledge. When rational and empirical criteria are met, then the knowledge is ‘scientific’. Since these criteria are met, therefore, the knowledge of the Absolute Truth is ‘scientific’, i.e. rational and empirical.
This interpretation shows how the above understanding is presented in the Vedanta Sutra. Vedanta has progressed over many centuries through the doctrines of Advaita, Śuddhādvaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, Dvaita, Bhedābheda, and Acintyabhedābheda. As the doctrines have become more complete, they have also become more inconsistent. The Advaita doctrine describes the soul, without matter and God. As successive doctrines add more aspects of reality, more contradictions are created. The Bhedābheda doctrine says that God, matter, and the soul are at once different and identical. And the Acintyabhedābheda doctrine acknowledges the failure of physical ideas of identity and difference. The next step in the progression of Vedanta is to make the complete understanding of reality also rational. And this rationality requires us to revisit the nature of whole and parts.
If wholes and parts are described physically, then we are led to reductionism. For example, if the whole is an ocean, and the part is a drop, then removing a drop reduces the ocean. Indeed, there is no ocean apart from the drops. All physical analogies of whole and part have failed to correctly describe the Vedanta doctrine. Hence, this interpretation changes the wholes and parts to ideas.
For example, a ‘mammal’ is the whole, and a ‘cow’ is the part. We can say: cow is a mammal, but we cannot say that a mammal is a cow. The mammal exists independent of the cow, but the cow doesn’t exist independent of the mammal. If cows ceased to exist, the definition of mammal would not be changed. But if the mammal ceased to exist, then cows will cease to exist as well.
The use of concepts as wholes and parts breaks the principles of modern logic. Since cows are mammals, but mammals are not cows, therefore, the principle of identity is broken (A is B, but B is not A). Similarly, the principle of mutual exclusion is broken (something is either A or not-A) because a mammal is neither a cow nor a tiger. Likewise, the principle of non-contradiction is broken (something cannot be A and not-A) because both cows and tigers are mammals. The failure of modern logic is pervasive, but it is not understood because we view the world physically. If the notion of whole and part is changed, then modern logic is rejected, and a new logic is needed.
This new logic is based on the hierarchy of concepts, and because the conventional separation and identity is rejected while understanding this hierarchy, therefore, we can say that the reality is Bhedābheda—i.e. neither different nor identical. Furthermore, since conventional logic cannot be used with the hierarchy of concepts, therefore, we can say that reality is Achintya or inconceivable. Finally, because everything can still be understood through an alternative conception of reality as concepts, and its associated logic, therefore, the reality is conceivable.
As a result, every past doctrine about Vedanta is considered true, although from a certain perspective, i.e. contextual truth. The Acintyabhedābheda doctrine describes the Absolute Truth, but within current logic. And the present interpretation goes beyond current logic.
The summary of Vedanta is that the Absolute Truth has a masculine and a feminine aspect. In different contexts, they are called superior to each other, equal to each other, different from each other, inseparable from each other, the cause of each other, and the effect of each other. The soul is sometimes called a part of the masculine, sometimes of the feminine, sometimes their child, sometimes similar to the whole, and sometimes dissimilar from the whole. The material world is sometimes called a part of God, sometimes separate from God, sometimes an expression of God, and sometimes God is said to be immanent in the world, and yet, the world is not God. Every position is considered, debated, rejected in some sense, and accepted in another sense.
Vedanta is therefore not for the faint hearted. Those who want to think of reality in terms of absolutely true and false claims, are likely to be perplexed by this description. Similarly, those who come to religion hoping to find an absolute set of unchanging ideas, are likely to be baffled. Vedanta is for the advanced student of Vedic philosophy, and it explains how seemingly contradictory positions are true, although they are not true universally. There is a sense in which one position is true, and another sense in which the opposite position is true. To employ these meanings, we must acknowledge that reality is itself meaning. Otherwise, these meanings and their truth would be attributed only to our minds, not to reality, and philosophy would be mere speculation.