How Well Do You Know Vedic Philosophy?

By editor - 26.3 2024

A profound illusion of simplicity arises in studying Vedic philosophy when we speak of the whole without dwelling on its parts. In the elephant and the five blind men analogy, the elephant is the whole, while the legs, ears, tail, trunk, and stomach are the parts. We can talk about the elephant without talking about its parts. But that doesn’t mean we know the meaning of elephant. Similarly, theology is the elephant, and other subjects (logic, mathematics, physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, linguistics, etc.) are its parts. We can talk about theology without talking about other subjects. But that doesn’t mean we understand the meaning of theology.

Therefore, in this post, I have collected some questions that should be answered by those who claim to know Vedic philosophy. People can use it to self-assess their learning of the Veda. This is a start and not a complete set of questions that need to be answered. The fact is that many new questions arise when we try to answer these questions. It would be pointless to talk about those questions before we know why they are genuine questions required to answer the simpler questions. If the reader doesn’t know the answers to these basic questions, then it could be a good time to start reading the books yet again, with the eyes open and actively searching for answers to such questions.

Table of Contents

1 The Nature of Whole-Part Reality
2 Questions on God’s Nature
3 Questions on Material Nature
4 Questions on the Soul’s Nature
5 Questions on Spiritual Practice
6 Questions on Mind and Body
7 Questions on Vedic Cosmology
8 Questions on Social Organization

The Nature of Whole-Part Reality

To illustrate the issue of simplicity and complexity, we can talk about “God” without discussing His parts—i.e., sat, chit, and ānanda. But that doesn’t mean we know what “God” means unless we understand the parts, their hierarchical subparts, how these subparts combine to create infinite worlds, and how infinite sequences of subpart combinations become a succession of events. Many other subjects are required to describe the (a) parts and subparts, (b) their hierarchical organization, (c) part and subpart combinations, and (d) their sequences.

This whole-part doctrine doesn’t exist in any other religion, due to which it is possible to separate theology from all other subjects, and such separations have been done. However, the whole-part doctrine is the cornerstone of Vedic philosophy, hence, such separations are impossible in it. For instance, we can say that “God created the world by His power” without talking about the specific structure and laws of the world which must have also resided within God as His ideas of the world. Why God had those specific ideas instead of others, requires dwelling on His personality. Thereby, God’s power, His ideas about the world, and His personality that preferred some ideas over others are His parts, and theology cannot be separated from the study of the world. The statement that “God created the world by His power” oversimplifies the problem of knowing God, which Vedic philosophy does not. It is on the basis of this whole-part doctrine that religion transforms into science because religion pertains to the whole and science to the varied combinations and sequences of parts.

To talk about the parts, how they combine hierarchically in many sequences, alternative ideas about reality (such as qualities as opposed to quantities, non-binary logic as opposed to binary logic, hierarchies instead of linearities, irreducibility instead of reduction, underdetermined aspects instead of fully determined parts, personhood as opposed to objectivity) are required. All fundamental ideas of logic, numbers, objects, separation, and reduction that have been presumed to be true must be rejected in the process. This rejection exists in the Veda and is noted while describing the parts, their combinations, hierarchies, and sequences. But those who neglect the parts remain unaware of it.

Questions on God’s Nature

Is Vedic philosophy monotheism, polytheism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, unitarianism, henotheism, or monism? Is Vedic philosophy all of these? Is it none of these? Is there a single good word to describe what Vedic philosophy is? If so, what is that single word?
The opening verse in Brahma Samhita talks about Krishna as sac-cid-ānanda-vigrahaḥ. What is the meaning of these three words, and why are they so fundamental as to make Krishna the cause of all causes, the supreme controller, and the one without beginning or end?
Can you contrast this definition of God to that in Christianity, namely, that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent? What are the similarities and/or differences between these two definitions, to know when we are talking about the Vedic God vs. the Christian God?
God is described as sad-ujjvala-vigrahasya or the form of six self-effulgent qualities, namely, knowledge, beauty, renunciation, wealth, power, and fame. What are these six qualities? How can we perceive God if none of these qualities are sound, touch, sight, taste, or smell?
God is repeatedly referred to as non-dual in contrast to duality (e.g., as non-dual knowledge). What is the definition of duality and non-duality? In what sense is the use of the word non-dual in personalistic scriptures different from the use of the same word in impersonalism?
Why is the truth spoken of in three ways as Bhagavan, Paramātma, and Brahman? Is this a kind of “trinity” of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in Christianity? In what sense are these three notions similar or different from each other, and what conclusions can we draw from either?

Questions on Material Nature

One of the central problems in religion is that of evil. God created the world, and the world is evil, hence evil must reside in God. What is the answer to the problem of evil in Vedic philosophy, given that God has created the material world, which is seemingly evil in some sense?
The three modes of nature—namely, sattva, rajas, and tamas—are described as mutually opposed qualities. How can there be three opposites, when logic is based on two opposites? What do ternary opposites do to all the logical claims based on binary opposites?
Why is material nature described as a person—i.e., as Durga or Śakti—and yet we perceive the material nature impersonally as tables, chairs, cars, houses, etc.? Is it that there are two kinds of realities—one personal and the other impersonal—and the person controls the impersonal?
The material world is repeatedly described as māyā, or that which is not. What is material nature not? Is it an illusion? Is it non-existent? Is it existent like a dream? Is the notion of māyā anti-realistic in some sense? If instead, the world is real, then why is it called māyā?
The material nature is called aparā or inferior in contrast to spirit which is called parā. And yet, the material nature is called daivi or divine. How do we reconcile the divinity of material nature with the distinction between inferior and superior? How is the material nature divine?
How does material nature expand from a “seed” stage into a full-blown “tree” stage? How does that “tree” then collapse back into the “seed”? Is this expansion and contraction of the universe in any way similar to the notions of “Big Bang” and “Big Crunch” employed in science?

Questions on the Soul’s Nature

The soul is called a part of God, an atom (anu), contrasting it to God (vibhu). Then when the soul suffers in the material world, is God also suffering? If the soul is fallen, then does it mean God is partially fallen? How do we reconcile the suffering and fall of soul with the parthood of God?
The soul has a full body and mind just like God. Therefore, the soul is not literally like the hands and legs of God, for otherwise, the soul will not have a full body and mind like God. So, in what sense is the soul even a part of God, when both soul and God have a full body and mind?
How does the soul move from one body to another, in this life (from childhood to youth to old age), and at the time of death into a new body? Why are these two movements of the soul equated by the use of the words yatha (just as) and tatha (in the same way) in the Gita?
What is the answer to the “mind-body problem” or “soul-matter interaction problem” in Vedic philosophy? If soul and matter are two different kinds of things, then how can they interact? If they are the same kind of thing, then why is the soul considered superior to matter?
What is the meaning of “bondage” and “liberation” of the soul? In what way is the soul “bound” in this world? If it is bound, then what is the meaning of “free will”? What is the answer to the free will vs. determinism problem? Is one of them false or are both true? If so, how?
In what way does a liberated soul exist in the material world without breaking the material laws? E.g., their bodies can be cured by medicines. Does a liberated soul follow all the laws of nature, or some laws are violated? If some laws are violated, what are those laws?

Questions on Spiritual Practice

Why is a deity made out of stone, wood, or metal considered God? In what sense is a temple made of stone, cement, or bricks the place where God lives? In what way is some land or city a holy place? Is God absent in the other places, although present only in some places?
How does God “eat” the food offered to a deity although the plate of food is intact even after being offered to Him? How is food sanctified after being offered? How is a devotee sanctified by eating food offered to God, or accepting flowers, clothes, or ornaments offered to God?
How does chanting a mantra lead to spiritual purification, whether or not you understand the meaning of the mantra? How are people who don’t know the meaning of the sounds in the mantra being purified? Does knowing the meaning of the mantra accelerate purification?
How do offerings made into a fire, during a fire sacrifice, reach their intended recipients when in our vision they are simply being burned by the fire? Alternately, what is the difference between a rice or wheat granary being burned down by fire and the performance of yajñá?
Why is the performance of yajñá said to be responsible for rains, food grains, vegetables, etc.? Why is everyone getting rains, food grains, and vegetables without yajñá? What is the difference between the rain, food grain, and vegetables obtained due to yajñá and those without it?
What are the internal measures of spiritual progress by which everyone can measure how much progress they have made in a spiritual path? What are the external measures of spiritual progress by which others can judge whether someone has made progress in a spiritual path?

Questions on Mind and Body

What is the difference between a dead body and an alive body? Why does a dead body start disintegrating while the alive body doesn’t disintegrate? If the liveness of the body is due to the soul’s presence, then how is the soul’s presence preventing the body’s disintegration?
What is the difference between sense organs and senses? The senses are working during the dreaming state—e.g., you can see colors and hear sounds—while the sense organs are not. Similarly, there is Blindsight and Phantom Limbs where senses are active but organs are absent.
How is the body produced from the mind? A different species of life is based on a different kind of mentality. So, how is a lion body produced from lion mentality as opposed to a human body from a human mentality? Is a “species” defined by the body-type or by the mind-type?
Why is it that the body is produced from the mind and yet when the child is born, it has an underdeveloped mind and comparatively better-developed body? Why does the mind develop after birth, and can continue developing after the body’s development stops or is reversed?
What is the significance of dividing the “internal instrument” into four parts—namely, mind, intellect, ego, and mahattattva? Why are these four organized hierarchically? Does one part influence other parts? If so, how do these effects travel both bottom-up and top-down?
Why does damage to the brain affect a person’s mind? Is it because the brain is the mind? If so, how can the mind go to the next body while the brain is left behind? Is the mind confined to the brain? Or is the mind also found in other places in the body—e.g., the heart or stomach?

Questions on Vedic Cosmology

Why is over 99% of the cosmos—topmost 4 planetary systems, lower 7 planetary systems, the bottommost 28 hells, the 7 divisions of the “earthly” planetary system, the 7 coverings of the universe, etc., invisible to us? How can we study cosmology without observation?
How can “up” be superior and “down” be inferior when you can stand upside down to overturn all notions of up and down? What kind of space conception is required to talk about superior or inferior places denoted by “up” and “down” different from the space that we perceive?
Why are there no “galaxies” in Vedic cosmology, and “Milky Way” galaxy is the only recognized galaxy, while everything else supposedly much farther than “Milky Way” galaxy is never spoken of? Are they part of other universes—which we are not supposed to be able to see?
Why is the earth flat in a space with the “up” and “down” conception in contrast to the round earth in a space without “up” and “down”? What is that space in which we cannot see everything at once even when it seems “flat”—e.g., the various parts of the earthly planetary system?
What alternative conceptions of causality are involved in the movement of planets in the “solar system” (e.g., sun, moon, mars, etc.) when the solar system is not heliocentric and therefore the gravitational model of movement cannot be used (as it assumes a heliocentric model)?
Why is it impossible for bodies from one planet to go to another planet while the soul can go to other planets? How is the soul movement different from the body movement? How do we reconcile these two models of movement in the ordinary idea of “motion” on earth?

Questions on Social Organization

What are the easily observable symptoms of a person in sattva, rajas, and tamas? How do we decide a person’s class (i.e., Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, or Sudra) based on their guna? “Everybody is equal” is a statement in which of the three guna—sattva, rajas, or tamas?
What is the relation between the qualities of a person and their occupations? Or, what is the relation between guna and karma? Why are both guna and karma prescribed as determinants of a class, rather than one of them? If we used only one, why would it be incomplete?
Is the monetary value in something objective, subjective, or intersubjective? Why is a pure metal like gold recommended as a reference for pricing everything relative to gold? In what way can we compare the properties of gold relative to the properties of food or clothing?
Is knowledge free, or should it be priced? If it is priced, then how should we determine the price of knowledge? If knowledge is free (i.e., not priced), should it be distributed to everyone? If not, then how does a teacher decide the qualifications of a student to receive knowledge?
Are religion and culture interdependent or independent of each other? Can we plant any religion in any culture—e.g., as the freedom of religion and equality of religions? Or some religions will die in some cultures like animals and plants don’t survive in all habitats?
Should a society emphasize the development of “institutions” or of “people”? An institution serves the people or do the people serve the institution? Is an institution a person or something impersonal? Under what situations should the people reform or change the institutions?