Does philosophy help?

Riccardo asked me on’s Discord (come join us):

Did you find that understanding the philosophy of self-realization was of help to Realizing?

Short answer: I don’t think it’s a significant help. There are traditions that claim that intellectual understanding is a huge help, even a sufficient factor by itself. Traditional Advaita Vedanta is an example and perhaps also modern teachers like Francis Lucille and Greg Goode. I don’t understand this point of view. Maybe one of the reasons that I react this way is that the philosophical arguments in this literature are unconvincing to me.

Long answer:

First, two disclaimers. I’m not an expert on philosophy and I’m not realized. But I’ve read enough Indian philosophy to understand a few things about it.

The main thing I got out of reading Indian philosophy is extremely basic and simple. If we think in terms of forests and trees, what I’m about to say is a forest. Pehaps the biggest forest of all.

I learned that Indians and Westerners both divide everything that exists or seems to exist into two main parts but they draw the line in different places. Because authors who write about these things often like to focus on complexities and details, and because this is a very basic idea, authors don’t always point this out explicitly, but unless it’s understood, Westerners may misunderstand a great deal when they read about enlightenment.

Westerners lump consciousness together with thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc., and call this “mind.” Everything else (aside from God) is the world or matter. This is Kant’s starting point. Plato’s ideas on one side, mud and horses on the other. Cartesian dualism. This way of looking at things is such a fundamental part of Western culture that Westerners may not realize that Indian philosophy divides things differently.

For Indians, thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc., get lumped not with consciousness but with matter. For India, consciousness is on one side of the line by itself. Everything else including thoughts and wine bottles are on the other side. For India, “mind” is insentient. The ramifications of this are gigantic.

Different darshanas create different ontological theories about the division. For example, in Samkhya/Yoga the two parts are described as purusha on one side, prakriti on the other. In Advaita, as atman and maya. Samkhya regards the division as something real. Advaita says the division is an illusion, that it doesn’t really exist. But Advaita takes the division as its starting point; it is basically a theory that explains what it regards as an apparent division.

In both cases, the fundamental point, it seems to me, is not how the two darshanas explain the division but rather that they put it in the same place, with consciousness on one side and everything else on the other.

The reason this point is fundamental is that it implies or assumes that mind is insentient.

Books I found useful

I’ll mention a few books that I found especially helpful.

For Samkhya/Yoga, Edwin Bryant’s translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Mircea Eliade’s Yoga: Immortality and Freedom.

The best translation of the Upanishads is by Olivelle but if you want to understand how the Upanishads are understood in Advaita Vedanta, you need to read a different kind of translation. I expressed my thoughts about this at greater length under “Recommendations” on this page.

For Advaita, I think it’s useful to read (more likely skim) not only one of Shankara’s commentaries (e.g. Brahma Sutra Bhasya) but also his Upadesasahasri, if for no other reason than to see what Shankara’s writing was really like. It may come as a surprise to some people.

I also recommend The Method of Early Advaita Vedanta: A Study of Gaudapada, Sankara, Suresvara and Padmapada by Michael Comans, who is now known as Sri Vasudevacharya.

Ramana’s opinion

All this book learning and capacity to repeat the scriptures by memory is absolutely no use.

Ramana’s Metaphor of Shaving with a Mirror

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid of aMAZEme installation by Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo, London, 2012.

5 thoughts to “Does philosophy help?”

  1. These are extremely helpful explanations on the difference between Indian and Western philosophies.
    Also very glad to hear your opinions on the usefulness of it all.
    Thank you,

  2. Knowledge helps. I understood things the more I read, wrote and contemplated about it. (Everyone chooses its own preferred philosophy, mine was Advaita). But there comes a time when it is no longer necessary and it is dropped. Otherwise it can become an obstacle. For me, Jnana yoga is about knowledge turning into knowing.

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