India is a land of enigmas and wonders. Prevailing cults, doctrines and dogmas present a confused tangle. Their time-honored customs and manners challenge and baffle the most penetrating of inquirers. The Indian subcontinent may thus be said to present the aspect of a veritable museum, with endless variety of interesting features. Enjoying comparative isolation by natural frontiers, this land has preserved something of its ancient personality, surviving the cross-breezes of time that have more easily ruffled the atmosphere of neighboring regions. Exaggerations and superlatives are normal in this land of rolling planes and snow-capped mountain peaks. Humanity in South Asia exhibits striking contrasts as between high and low, rich and poor etc. The major portion of the submerged masses today are inarticulate, driven by stark necessities of life. Caste, Cultism and tribes have thus persisted, graded between static and closed groupings and more open and dynamic ones.
Since the Indian mind is accentuated toward subjectivity, the historical sense in respect of actual dates of facts is poorly developed. This is due to the least 2500 and possibly as many as 7000 years to which memory must be stretched backwards to find the sources of secular or spiritual life. Speculation has gone on unbridled through the ages on the Indian soil, Specific and generic personalities, half real and half mythological, abound, such as Brihaspati vying with a Dakshinamurti, a Viswamitra with a Vasistha, and Vyasa with a Valmiki — We are offered a gallery of figures about whose lives we know next to nothing.
Skepticism and belief, reason and sentiment, have crossed over from one side to other, changing between what was considered orthodox at one time to heterodox at another, and so on, many times over, during the long history of Indian thought. Such are some of the background aspects into which we must fit our study of Hinduism or Sanathana Dharma, which is a revaluation of the Knowledge that went before it. We can think of this situation as a tree of Wisdom which has put forth its best blossoms through a period of about five thousand years. We must think of this cultural expression as a process of dialectical revaluation and restatement, taking place imperceptibly and in infinitesimal gradations through decades, centuries and even millennia, resulting in what is now recognized as present-day Hinduism or Sanathana Dharma. Alive even to this day, it may be said to be the culminating expression of Indian Wisdom.
India was already civilized before the Aryans came with their Vedic religion. When the Aryans came, they had to face the challenge of an order of things that existed before, and to respond to new situation. The Vedas, which began by reflecting a simple, natural and fully human sense of wonder about the phenomenal aspects of life, based on vague belief in the Absolute, had to be subjected to several revisions, revaluations and restatements, after this contact with previous civilization. The result is discernible in the various grades of wisdom literature, of which the three Vedas, the Rik, Sama and Yajus stand apart as a group in themselves by the primitive purity of their style and subject matter. They are filled with a sense of the numinous. They represent the first outpourings of the awakened self of man at the dawn of Indian history.
Vedanta is the result of the interaction of primitive and crude Vedism — which latter was vitiated by the acceptance of cruel and unclean animal sacrifices and a harsh, exclusive priesthood, who would not allow a Shudra to study the secrets of his Wisdom — with a form of higher Wisdom of the Absolute, which grew up from the meeting of the twin philosophical and critically revalued spiritual traditions called the two mimamsas (critiques), the purva (former) and the Uttara (later), this last being closer to Vedanta proper. Vedanta combines and reconciles Veda with the critical and philosophical aspect of wisdom into brahmavidya, the Science of the Absolute.
The two mimamsas (critiques) called the purva (anterior) and the Uttara (posterior), have between them a sublte dialectical affinity, based on an apparent opposition, and it is to explain this affinity that the subltest polemical, logical, exegetic and semantic powers of great teachers like Jaimini and Badarayana have been lavishly expended in their writings. When one is understood in terms of the other, reciprocally both ways, with all their subtle epistemological and axiological implications, cosmologically, psychologically and eschatologically, we can consider ourselves to have touched the core of our subject. There are the three canonical texts which have been accepted for this purpose in Vedanta, namely Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. When these texts are treated together with the Mahavakyas (the great dicta of the Vedanta), and if they are properly explained and understood with their significance and position in the body of knowledge, we can rest satisfied that we have given some definiteness of content to the complex and multi-apartmented mansion of what is vaguely referred to as Hindu wisdom.
It is already conventionally accepted that the totality of Indian Spirituality of the Vedic context may be divided broadly into the Jnana-Kanda (section on pure reason) and Karma-Kanda (section on practical, ritualistic or other action). When both of these exist together, they enter into conflict with each other if not handled dialectically; but if treated dialectically they are absorbed without contradiction into a middle ground which is inclusive of both, where both contradiction and paradox are transcended.
Advaita (non-duality), Visishtadvaita (non-duality admitting some difference between quality and the qualified Absolute) and Dvaita (accepting the duality of ambivalent poles within the structure of the Absolute) are all possible varieties of Vedanta, each of which finds justification in the three canonical texts referred to above, and without violating the requirements of the great dicta and the spirit of Vedanta as a whole. They represent grades in which the Absolute Idea or Norm can transcend paradox or bypass the principle of contradiction and excluded middle ground in giving differing accentuations to the value-factor of the content of the idea form the theological, psychological or purely epistemological angles.
Ritualism and gnosis, which are rival factors involved in Hinduism, either enter into conflict horizontally, or absorb one another when vertically treated. Herein is a secret of Vedanta, on which the author of Gita has put his finger with precision and certitude when he says:
“On what is action and what is inaction, even intelligent men here are confused. I shall indicate to you that action, on knowing which you will be emancipated from evil.”
“One has to understand about action and understand about wrong action. Again, one has to have a proper notion of non-action. They way of action is elusively subtle (indeed).”
“The one who is able to see action in inaction, and inaction in action, he among men is intelligent, he is one unitive attitude (Yogi) while still engaged in every (possible) kind of work.”
(Bhagavad Gita IV, 16–18)
In the last of these verses we have the paradox of action and inaction most squarely faced and the dialectical solution suggested without contradiction of their rival claims. Dialectically treated the paradox is resolved, but when treated from the point of view of ordinary logic which excludes the middle ground and accepts the principle of contradiction, the conflict stares us in the face, and so to treat jnana and karma together would be unjustified. These citations from the Bhagavad Gita, which is perhaps the most central authority for Hinduism, being repeatedly cited in the Brahma Sutras of Badarayana, which latter is perhaps its only possible rival if any, suffice to show that gnostic and the ritualistic traditions in Hinduism need not divide wisdom into two watertight compartments (as
popular opinion might want us to believe) when viewed in the context of the higher wisdom that Hinduism is meant to represent.
What Shankara refers to as the evil of promiscuously mixing up wisdom with action (jnana-karmasamuchchaya) can thus be avoided when the dialectical methodology proper to Vedanta is fully explained and understood, since samanvaya (dialectical agreement or “harmony” as often translated) can replace samuchchaya (mixing up) which would spell wrong Hinduism. At the core of Hindu wisdom there is lodged a paradox which we have approached frontally here, to get started on our subject. Hinduism transcends paradox by the postulation of an overall normative notion of the Absolute as an Existent-Subsistent-Value.