Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Realistic Vs. Idealistic Metaphysics

P.J.Mazumdar


Here we examine another question that has often proved a source of much philosophizing and argument. This question also virtually divides Hindu and western philosophy.

Metaphysics or ontology may be loosely defined as the study of the existence of things – how things exist. There are two ways in which to look at it. Idealistic metaphysics is the viewpoint of western philosophy and also Mahayana Buddhism while Realistic metaphysics is the viewpoint of Hinduism and Hinayana Buddhism.

Idealistic metaphysics starts with the examining the question of existence by first taking up and proving the existence of the ‘I’, the subject. This is seen in the famous Cartesian dictum: I think, therefore I am. The existence of every other thing is then taken up from the viewpoint of this ‘I’, their existence is secondary to the ‘I’ and their reality or not depends on the ‘I’.

But if we start examining the world by taking up the I alone or our consciousness alone as the only proven existence, then we see that the world we see around us is only what we contain in our minds. Now we know that our minds can very well conjure up a dream world when we are sleeping. There is then no way to prove that the world we see around us in our ‘waking’ state is any more real than the dream state. There is simply no way that we can offer any proof of this. Hence Idealistic Metaphysics ends up with the proposition that the world around us is nothing more than a dream of our consciousness. It does not exist independently of us, it exists only as our dream and once we stop dreaming, the world also will disappear.

This is a rather startling view, but once we begin from the Idealistic viewpoint, that of assuming the ‘I’ alone as the first existence, there is no way we can prove any independent existence of the world apart from our consciousness.

In Realistic metaphysics, the thinker (subject) and the thing–thought–of (object) are taken to exist simulataneously and independently. Both the thinker, the subject, i.e., the ‘I’, and the object, the things of the world, are taken to exist independently and on their own strength. The existence of the objects do not depend on the subject.

Hence in Realistic Metaphysics, the confusion of Idealism is avoided. The world exists independently of our consciousness and it is not just a dream. Of course, the image of the world that we have in our minds is our own personal image, it depends a great deal on our senses and is a reading of the world via our senses and our minds. Hence the picture that we have in our minds would not correspond exactly to what exists out there. But unlike Idealism, it accepts the existence of objects independently of our consciousness; whether we are there to see or experience an object, it exists.

Idealistic metaphysics has the fatal weakness that it inevitably degenerates into utter nihilism if followed to its logical end. This was shown by Hegel in the West and Nagarjuna in India whose Madhyamika Buddhism was a system of total nihilism.

This happens in idealistic metaphysics because, as discussed, if we take the existence of objects to depend on the subject, then it can be shown that since the objects of the dreamworld are not real, the objects of the real world may also be just another dream and not real. There is no way to show that the objects of the waking world have any more reality than those of the dream world. And if the objects and thoughts of the waking mind are not real, then the mind itself has unreality associated with it. This was shown brilliantly by Nagarjuna in Indian philosophy, whose philosophy of Madhyamika Buddhism is a nihilistic philosophy, and by Hume in Western philolsophy. Kant and others attempted to stop this slide into nihilism in western philosophy, but this was not entirely possible by relying on logic alone, and Kant achieved it with a jump in logic.

Idealistic metaphysics also has many other logical flaws like whether it is really possible that it is all a dream, whether this means that I alone exist (solipsism), whether all the people I see around me are just characters I dreamt up, and if not, how and why we share dreams, etc. The questions are quite bewildering, and Idealism has no effective answers, but it cannot avoid calling the world a dream world once it starts from the ‘I’ alone, even if it means a bizarre way of understanding the world.

Realistic metaphysics, on the other hand, suffers from no such weakness. Since the objects are not dependent on the subject and exist independently, there is no question of any nihilism. Both subject and object are equally true. This is taken to be so because thought can exist only in the presence of both the object and the subject. Hence both subject and object must have simultaneous and equally valid existence for there to be valid knowledge.

As discussed in my book, the Cartesian dictum has a fundamental flaw. When Descartes stated, ‘I think,...’ he was already assuming the existence of the ‘I’. but he needed to prove this, and this formula is only an attempt to prove this. The ‘I’ exists because the ‘I’ thinks, and all it proves is the existence of the ‘I’.

But if we are to examine the question without any pre–assumptions, if we are to examine what is the first thing that exists, then we have to say, it is thought. The first fundamental that we know to exist is thought. But thought can exist only if both he thinker and the thing–thought–of exists. Both have to exist together for thought to exist.

So the formula in terms of Hinduism would be, ‘thought exists, therefore the thinker and the thing–thought–of exists. This is the basis of realistic metaphysics.

In understanding Advaita, there is often a confusion whether Advaita Vedanta starts from Realistic Metaphysics or Idealistic Metaphysics. In the West specially, Advaita is often explained as Idealism. This perhaps has to do with the fact that philosophy in the West is usually Idealistic, starting from the Greeks and including Descartes. But this is a wrong reading of Advaita.

Advaita Vedanta, in common with all Hindu philosophy, is very firmly Realistic in its metaphysics. All the other 5 Hindu philosophies, the Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Yoga and Mimamsa, are Realistic. The other Vedanta philosophies, Dvaita and Vishista-dvaita, are also realistic. Shankaracharya also was very clearly Realistic, he never denied the ‘Vyavaharika‘ or phenomenological reality of the world.

In India, Advaita Vedanta has always been understood in this Realistic way. Of course, this does not mean a naive realism but rather a ‘relativistic realism’. Swami Vivekananda defined a strongly realistic interpretation, he called the world a ‘relatively’ real world and hence there is no question of denying its independent existence. As Swami Vivekananda studied under Ramakrishna Paramahamsa who in turn studied under a monk called Tota Puri who came from an ancient order in the Himalayas dedicated to Advaita, we can take it that the traditional teaching of Advaita has always been Realistic. At present, the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission in their writings also have always advocated Realistic Advaita.

Doubts about whether Advaita is Realistic or Idealistic stem from the way Gaudapada has interpreted it in his Karika. The overall trend of this important text seems to be Idealistic in its metaphysics. Yet this may not be so, see here.

That Shankaracharya was Realistic in his interpretation of Advaita can be proven by numerous examples. He firmly denies that the world does not exist at all, by saying that it is not like ‘the horns of a hare’ or ‘the son of a barren woman’, something by definition is non–existent. In his commentary on the Karika, he may sometimes seem to be defining an Idealistic viewpoint but this is likely to be only as an analogy. link.

All differing views on this can be corrected by looking at the Upanishads themselves. The Vedas and the Upanishads, the Shrutis, are the defining scriptures of Hinduism. Wherever subsidiary texts or views seem to oppose the Shrutis, it is the authority of the Shrutis that must stand. There can be no second thoughts on this. Hence any doubts on whether we should define Advaita through a Realistic or Idealistic viewpoint can be cleared up by looking at how the Upanishads define Metaphysics.

There is no doubt that the Upanishads define a thoroughly Realistic metaphysics. In the Upanishads, the existence of both the object and the subject together is shown repeatedly in the sutras. The most common manifestation of this is in the sutras describing the ‘sun’ and the ‘eye’, the subject and the object. This is also stated in several other sutras. The overwhelming purport of the Upanishads is without doubt a Realistic Metaphysics.

In these pages, I will describe only a few important Sutras to show that this is so. There are many other Sutras which can be given, but I have felt it unnecessary to include all of them as these few are representative.

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