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Epistemological Study of Mysticism in Christianity and Hinduism
Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata, the Ramakrishna Missions English journal, for eight years. He is currently an Assistant Secretary of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math.
The main purpose of this paper is to compare the epistemological theories of mystical experience in Christianity and Hinduism.
There are a number of excellent treatises on Christian mysticism.(1) There are also a few books on comparative mysticism.(2) Fewer still are books on Hindu mysticism. However, in most of these books mystical experience has been studied from the ontological standpoint. In the ontological approach the main question is, what is the content or goal of mystical experience? By contrast, in the epistemological approach the main question focuses on how the experience take place; the primary interest is in the mental processes involved in mystical experience. To the best of my knowledge, a comparative study of the epistemological theories of the mental processes involved in mystical experience in different religions has not been attempted so far.
In the works of the great mystics we come across wonderful descriptions of the vision of God and other mystical experiences but hardly any mention of the mental processes which produce these experiences. It is the commentators, theologians and philosophers who work out the epistemological theories regarding these experiences. Apart from explaining how mystical experiences take place, they have also to explain why all people do not get such experiences. If God is all-pervading, why is it that we dont see Him?
Another related problem which epistemology has to solve is the bewildering diversity of spiritual experience. It is very often held that although religions of the world show great diversity in their outer expressions, such as creeds and rituals, they reveal transcendental unity. That is to say, the transcendental experiences of mystics in different religions are basically the same. On this point Swami Vivekananda, who was himself one of the greatest mystics, has stated: Mystics in every religion speak the same tongue and teach the same truth. (3) The German scholar Rudolph Otto writes, ...it is often claimed that mysticism is the same in all ages and in all places, that timeless and independent of history, it has always been identical. East and West and other differences vanish here. Whether the flower of mysticism bloom in India or in China, in Persia or on the Rhine, its fruit is one.(4)
However, it is well known that the experiences of mystics of different religions, even of the same religion, show irreducible differences. The mystical experiences of St. Teresa and Mirabai, of St. John of the Cross and Tukaram, of Sankara and Eckhart are not the same. According to some scholars(5) these differences are due to the influence of the cultures of the mystics. The present paper attempts to show that there are also basic differences in the epistemological pre-suppositions regarding mystical experience in Christianity and Hinduism.
in Relation to Forms of Knowledge
In Western thought we are here concerned only with those views which accept the validity and cognitive import of religious experience. (There are other views, such as Logical Positivism, Marxism and certain forms of realism, which deny this.) These views fall into two groups. According to the first group, the apprehension of the Divine is the result of inference from, or interpretation of, religious experience. They accept the validity of religious experience but deny that it can be understood as wholly immediate and self-evident, as it needs analysis and critical interpretation.
The second group takes religious experience to be an immediate and self-authenticating encounter with the Divine. However, there are two kinds of immediacy: revelational and mystical. Revelational immediacy pertains to the peculiar ability of the human mind to apprehend God in the form of an insight or certitude. This is usually regarded as a higher form of faith, but is also known as religious a priori. The German Protestant theologian Schleiermacher was one of the first to propound this kind of religious experience. Later on Emil Brunner and several other Protestant theologians spoke of the divine-human encounter, and Martin Buber spoke of religious experience as an I-Thou relationship.
The other type of immediacy known as mystical immediacy refers to the direct experience of God obtained by transcending the senses through contemplation. This is what is called mysticism. Its validity is accepted by Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches.
The dominant and living system of philosophy in Hinduism is the Vedanta, which is divided into several schools. All these schools accept at least three main pramanas (valid means of knowledge), viz. perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumana), and verbal testimony (sabda). Of these, perception alone is regarded as a direct (aparoksha) means; the other two means give rise only to indirect or mediate (paroksha) knowledge.(6) However, all these three means of knowledge refer only to empirical knowledge.(7) Mystical knowledge is different from these. Mystical knowledge of the ultimate Reality is not considered a means of knowledge but its supreme end.(8) The relation between the above three means (pramana) of knowledge and mystical experience of the ultimate Reality has not been properly clarified by Vedanta teachers. A noted authority, Prof. T. M. P. Mahadevan, says, The knowledge of the self that is said to liberate the soul from bondage is direct knowledge, which is like perceptual knowledge. Only, even perceptual knowledge is not so immediate as self-knowledge. In sense-perception there is the intervention of a sense-organ between subject and object. (9)
of Mystical Experience
We may, however, define mysticism as the transcendent, life-transforming experience of the ultimate Reality. The word transcendent in the definition distinguishes mysticism from ordinary empirical experiences; the word life-transforming refers to its pragmatic import; and ultimate Reality distinguishes mysticism from clairvoyance and other extra-sensory or psychic phenomena.
Three types of mysticism are usually recognized: Nature mysticism, God mysticism, and Soul mysticism. Christian mysticism has always been God mysticism. All three types are found in Hinduism. Perhaps the earliest type was Nature mysticism, as shown by many hymns in the Rig-Veda. But this was soon completely superseded by the Soul mysticism of the Upanishads and God mysticism of Bhakti schools.
Mysticism is also divided into two main pathways: the path of love and divine Grace, and the path of knowledge and self-effort, which are known respectively as Bhakti-marga and jnana-marga in Hinduism. Though called marga or path, they are based on quite different ontological pre-suppositions regarding the nature of God and human destiny. Hinduism is the only religion in which these two paths have been recognized as two independent highways and have co-existed as such from time immemorial. Christian mysticism has developed mostly along the path of love and grace, though some elements of the path of knowledge have been integrated into it by mystics like Meister Eckhart and Ruysbrock.
The first difference is regarding the nature of man. In Christian theology human personality is regarded as dichotomous, consisting of only the body and the mind, the mind itself being called soul and spirit. And, according to the Pauline doctrine of Original Sin, the sin of Adam, transmitted to all humanity, has tainted the human soul so much that man is incapable of saving himself.
All schools of Hindu philosophy hold that human personality is trichotomous, consisting of body, mind, and spirit, the latter being known as the Atman or Self. Evil tendencies, which are derived from ones own actions in a previous life, taint only the mind. The real Self or Atman is ever pure and untainted by evil.
A second doctrinal difference refers to the souls relationship with God. In the whole Judeo-Christian tradition, God is regarded as the wholly Other; He is the self-existent creator whereas all other beings (including human souls) are created things. Mystical experience may bring God and the soul closer together but they can never become one because of the difference in their nature. On the contrary, in Hinduism all schools of Vedanta hold that God is the Supreme Self and that the individual selves, which are self-existent and of the same nature as God, are only reflections or parts of Him. Mystical experience is only the realization of this integral relationship between God and souls. It may also be noted here that whereas some Hindu sects accept God as the impersonal Absolute, other sects accept Him as personal and even anthropomorphic.
A third doctrinal difference is regarding the salvific value of mystical experience. St. Paul held that ordinary religious practices such as sacrifice and penance were incapable of wiping off the stain of Original Sin. Divine grace, won by Christ through his self-immolation on the cross, alone could remove that stain. This grace, known as Sanctifying Grace (gratia gratum faciens), is communicated to man through baptism and other sacraments. A soul that is thus freed from Original Sin will attain salvation (that is, go to Gods presence in heaven) after death. This makes mystical experience unnecessary for salvation.(10)
By contrast, in Hinduism mystical experience of the ultimate Reality is considered to be a sine qua non for salvation (known as mukti or moksha, Liberation).(11)
In the Bhagavad-Gita the Lord speaks of mystic experience and liberation brought about by divine Grace.(12) But it may be stated that the doctrine of grace did not develop much in Hinduism.
Another doctrinal difference between Christian and Hindu mystical traditions is regarding the content of mystical experience. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is a widely accepted belief that the real Essence of God can never be seen by any living person. In the Old Testament God tells Moses, Thou canst not see My Face, for man shall not see Me and live.(13) To see Gods Essence, to see Him as He really is, to see Him face to face (facie ad faciem) is possible only in heaven after death. Some Catholic theologians hold that there are two exceptions to this rule, Moses and St. Paul, who were granted a vision of the real Essence of God, the lumen gloriae or Beatific Vision.(14) All the others, even the greatest mystics, could get only a distant or indirect vision of God. Theologians of Greek Orthodox Church also hold that Gods Essence (ousia) can never be perceived, and according to them, what mystics see through visions is only the Energies (energeia) of God.
By contrast, from very ancient times Hindu sages and philosophers have held that Gods actual Essence can be directly experienced. In Bhakti schools God is regarded as having not only personal attributes but also a transcendent anthropomorphic form which is real and can be directly perceived. In the Gita, it is repeatedly asserted that through Bhakti it is possible to know and perceive the true Essence of God and attain oneness with it.(15) Even Advaita Vedantins, who deny that the impersonal Absolute known as Brahman can be made the object of knowledge, assert that the attainment of the total identity of the individual Self with Brahman is possible in this very life.
Mystic Path in the Roman Catholic Tradition
Catholic mysticism is centered on prayer. Prayer, as used in mystical life, is a blanket term, which covers a variety of mental exercises expressing the souls dependence on and quest for God. It is often called Mental prayer to distinguish it from worldly prayers. In the Middle Ages prayer was regarded as consisting of three stages: meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.(16)
Reflection on scriptural passages was what meditatio or meditation meant (Christian meditation may be said to correspond to sravana and manana in Hinduism). By oratio was meant intense emotional prayer, nowadays called Affective Prayer. (This may be said to correspond to Hindu prarthana). These two disciplines,(17) when sincerely practiced, were found to lead to an intimate knowledge, gnosis, of God, which was what contemplatio or contemplation really meant. Unlike Meditation (also known as Discursive Prayer) and Affective Prayer, which are within the reach of mans self-effort, Contemplation is a passive state of stillness and silence in which God infuses love and divine knowledge into the soul. This infused contemplation may be said to correspond to Hindu samadhi. As in the case of samadhi, mystical contemplation also has different stages or degrees, although the terms used to denote these stages are often metaphorical and vague.(18) Contemplation is the real field of mystical experience.
The conceptualization of mystical experience in Christianity went on for centuries. Among the influences that shaped this process the most important was that of Neoplatonism propounded by the third-century Greek mystic and philosopher Plotinus. Two fairly distinct phases are discernible in the development of mysticism in the West. During the first phase, which extended from the third to the tenth century, Image mysticism prevailed; during the second phase, which extended from the tenth to the seventeenth century, mysticism became more and more Christo-centric.
Image mysticism had its origin in the Biblical creation myth that God created man in His Image. This ancient Jewish idea, combined with the Neoplatonic concept of the immanence of God, gave rise to the belief that the soul in its pristine nature contained the Image of God, and that owing to the stain of sin this image cannot be seen. Through purification and contemplation the Image of God within can be recovered. Some of the early mystics identified this Image with the Word, the Logos, who incarnated itself on earth as Jesus Christ. Others, like Gregory the Great, identified it with the Unencompassed Light (incircumscriptum lumen) of God.(19)
This more impersonal and intellectual Image mysticism gave way to an intensely emotional and personal bridal mysticism in the tenth century. The person who brought about this paradigm shift in mystical life was St. Bernard, the celebrated abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux in France. He made the image of the crucified Christ the object of contemplation. He looked upon Christ as the Bridegroom and the human soul as the bride. However, Bernard took the precaution of identifying Christ with the Word or Logos and the human soul with the collective soul of the Church. This precaution was ignored in subsequent centuries and most Western mystics after the tenth century made the humanity of Jesus the object of their love and quest.
and Apophatic Pathways
Like the idea of the Image, apophatic mysticism also had its origin in Neoplatonism. It entered the Western Church through the writings of a fifth-century Syrian monk known to scholars as Pseudo-Dionysius. Though the work was translated into Latin in the ninth century, its influence became widespread only in the twelfth century. St. Thomas Aquinas gave apophatism an epistemological foundation. Blessed John Ruysbroeck, Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross were some of the great mystics of the Middle Ages who were influenced by the Dionysian apophatism.
The apophatic principle is frequently conveyed through the Biblical story of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. At the heights he was lost in a cloud, and it was through the cloud that Moses saw God face to face. In the same way, the mystics say, God can be realized only through a Cloud of Unknowinga state of mind in which it is free from all forms of cognition, thinking, imagination, conceptualization, etc. As far as worldly objects and knowledge are concerned, it is a state of total ignorance. It is described as darkness only in comparison with the super-luminous light of God. To quote a passage from Dionysiuss famous work which was cited throughout the Middle Ages as the locus classicus for the method of contemplation:
Dionysian apophatism reached its culmination in Meister Eckhart, who spoke of the desert of the Godhead, and in St. John of the Cross, who wrote about the Dark Night of the Soul. Although apophatic (via negativa) mysticism dominated spiritual life in the West, cataphatic (via positiva) mysticism was also quite popular, especially with women saints.
of Spiritual Experience
However, even this intellectual vision (lumen sapientiae) is far lower than the direct experience of the Essence of God which takes place in heaven when God is seen as He really is without any medium. This vision, known as lumen gloriae or Beatific Vision, is possible only after death for the blessed. This is the ultimate end of human life, which Christ has won for mankind through his self-sacrifice. St. Thomas, however, held that this Beatific Vision of glory was granted to Moses and also perhaps to St. Paul while they were still on earth.(22)
Since our main approach to mysticism in this paper is epistemological, we now pass on to a brief study of the epistemological presuppositions of Roman Catholic mysticism. The foundation of the epistemology of Catholic mysticism was laid by St. Thomas Aquinas. Later writers did little to add to this, and what great mystics like St. John of the Cross did was to build the superstructure of their experiences upon this foundation.
Epistemology of Mysticism
Thus there are two kinds of impressions or species impressae. Sense impressions are called species sensibilis impressae; the resulting conscious precepts are known as species expressae. Intellectual knowledge stems from the phantasmata (mental images of objects) out of which the active intellect disengages the universal nature which, as species intelligibilis impressae, inform the passive intellect and there become concepts known as species expressae or verbum mentis.
(i) Ordinary Human Knowledge: Ordinary people can know God only indirectly. In his major work, Summa Theologica, St. Thomas explains how this happens. In mans present state the only species impressae that he receives are conveyed to the mind through the senses; they are but attributes of material objects abstracted (that is, considered apart) from the objects. Hence by means of these impressions the mind (a) directly knows abstract qualities which exist individually in material objects. Further (b) our intellect knows the individual things themselves indirectly by their qualities and (c) it can arrive at some kind of knowledge of non-material things by reasoning from its abstract ideas. Thus it cannot know God directly but can demonstrate His existence and His nature from creatures by abstraction and negation.
But the intellectual ideas thus formed in the mind are not really understood by the mind unless it represents them by the imagination; it turns to images (phantasmata) so that it may behold the universal in the particular, wherein alone it has real existence. We can represent to ourselves spiritual truths and spiritual substances (God, angels and souls) only by phantasmata (images) which we know to be inadequate, yet in which we behold something more than the phantasma.
(ii) Angelic Knowledge: An angel or a disembodied soul is an intelligence independent of bodily organs; it understands spiritual things as they are, without turning to phantasmata. Since it has no bodily sense-organs, it cannot get impressions by the senses. Therefore its impressions (species impressae) must be infused in some way natural to it, but unknown to us. These species will not be abstractions from matter, but purely non-material. Furthermore, such pure intellects, instead of knowing the universal in the particular, know the particular in the universal in one glance; they do not argue from fact to fact, from premise to conclusion, but in one act know the conclusion and the premises in it. Thus the angelic cognition resembles the intuitive perception of senses rather than the analytic and synthetic process of reason. Its knowledge is direct, immediate, and intuitive, in comparison with the abstracting and reasoning mind of ordinary people. In this way it is possible for angels to know God intuitively instead of by reasoning.
(iii) Mystic knowledge: The main thesis of St. Thomas Aquinas is that it is this angelic knowledge of God that is attained in apophatic contemplation by the infusion of pure intellectual species. When the soul is freed from all desires and images, God infuses knowledge of Himself through pure intellectual species into the soul, resulting in lumen sapientiae or intellectual vision. This angelic intuition is utter ‘darkness to the intellect itself but it inflames the will with intense love. This pure contemplation was termed the Dark Night of Spirit by St. John of the Cross. The mystic or prophet can understand and communicate the truth which he has thus received only by turning to phantasmata.
St. Thomas held that Adam in his state of innocence (before the Fall) could see God in this angelic fashion by pure species. In other words, pure apophatic contemplation restores to man the state of Adam before his Fall. The only difference is that Adams infused knowledge was from the irradiation of divine Wisdom, whereas we get it by divine Grace (sanctifying grace) infused at baptism. (It is regarded as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit). This view of higher mystical experience had earlier been propounded by St. Bernard and Richard of St. Victor, but St. Thomas gave it a proper epistemological foundation.
St. Thomas also held that God may infuse images along with intellectual species; then an imaginary vision, as described earlier, results. This is the realm of prophecy. Images and words, however, can express pure truth only in an inadequate and symbolic way, and spiritual images often get mixed with worldly images and concepts. Hence such visions and locutions are liable to error except in so far as the intellectual light helps the prophet to understand them.
Finally, according to St. Thomas, all mystic experiences, including the highest lumen sapientiae, fall far short of the Beatific Vision of God in heaven, which is possible only after death. In this vision God is seen as He is by means of Himself, He Himself being united immediately to the human intellect so that He is both the thing seen and the ‘means by which it is seen. This divine impression is called lumen gloriae. Thus the blessed participate in their measure in the act in which God knows Himself without medium, and are united to Him as Act (God is actus purus, pure Act) without losing their own individuality; they are transformed into God without ceasing to be themselves. This participation in divine Glory is the ultimate goal of all mankind.(23) Catholic theology holds that Jesus Christs salvific work will be completed only when all human beings are elevated to this state and thereby the Divine Pleroma (fullness) is restored.
in the Greek Orthodox Tradition(24)
One of the important points in the theology of the Cappadocian Fathers is the clear distinction they made between Gods Essence (ousia) and Energies (energeia). According to St. Basil, man cannot know even the real substance of the physical world; we can perceive only the properties of matter, not matter itself. Still less can we see of the actual Essence of God; what we can perceive is only the Energies of God.(25)
In mystical contemplation these divine energies become manifested as the ‘uncreated Light. This Light is identified with the light that appeared on Mount Tabor during Christs Transfiguration.(26) The vision of this uncreated light is the goal of contemplation known as theoria. For the attainment of the uncreated Light, a distinctive spiritual technique known as Hesychasm was developed by the Desert Fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries in the desert regions of the Middle East(27) by combining (a) austerities, (b) apophatic prayer without images and (c) repetition of the Jesus Prayer, which may be regarded as a kind of Greek Mantra. To this was added in the eleventh century a certain bodily posture and breath control. All these, however, represent only the first stage of hesychasm, known as praxis.
As this prayer deepens, it becomes theoria or contemplation and the seeker sees the uncreated Light. Greek saints have given vivid descriptions of this interior mystic Light such as: far surpassing in brilliance the whole light of the heavens, a truly divine fire, uncreated and invisible, eternal and immaterial, perfectly steadfast and infinite, inextinguishable and immortal, incomprehensible, beyond all created being.(28) The vision of the uncreated Light is one of the most distinguishing features of Greek mysticism.
However, it is not the last stage of contemplation. Beyond that lies the union (henosis) of the soul with God and the resulting divinization (theosis) of the whole personality. Surprisingly, this union takes place not in light but in darkness. Gregory of Nyssa, who developed this idea of union in darkness, compares it to Moses entering the cloud.(29) Gregorys apophatic mysticism was carried further by Simeon the New Theologian in the eleventh century and by Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century, but it never assumed the extreme form found in Catholic mystics such as Eckhart and St. John of the Cross.
Mystic union is not the union of substances but of energies. It results in theosis or deification of the whole personality. This is the ultimate goal of human life on earth. The idea of deification is far more common in Greek mysticism than in Catholic mysticism. Thus, Purification, theoria and theosis constitute the three stages of the Greek mystical path known as Hesychasm. These stages do not exactly correspond to the three stages of contemplation in Catholicism, namely, Purgation, Illumination and Union.
How does mystical experience take place? We have seen that in Roman Catholicism, mystical experience is understood in terms of certain mental processes. But in Greek mysticism mystical experience is regarded as the function of certain faculties. Just as physical eyes are needed to perceive external objects, so also an inner spiritual sense is needed to perceive the energies of God.(30) This spiritual sense, regarded as the ‘eye of the soul , is the nous. Unfortunately, the word nous is used in different senses in the teachings of Greek mystics. We may, however, take it to mean the intuitive faculty. It is different from reason and is said to be located in the heart. Owing to Original Sin, the nous remains stained or clouded. When it is purified by divine grace during contemplation, it becomes fit to receive the reflection of Divine Light. The nous then becomes as clear as a mirror. Describing this process, St. Gregory of Nyssa says:
Image mysticism (that man carries the image of God in his soul), which we encountered in the Catholic tradition, finds clear expression in the Greek tradition all through its history.
(1) The apophatic (via negativa) and cataphatic (via positiva) paths of Christian mysticism have their counterparts in the neti, neti (not this, not this) paths of Vedanta. But there are basic differences between them. In Christian theology God is a personal Being endowed with many divine attributes, only his essential nature cannot be perceived by ordinary mortals. What Christian apophatism does is to deny the ability of discursive thinking and the rational mind to perceive the real transcendent nature of God. In other words, Christian apophatism is mainly epistemological.
In Hinduism, according to the Advaita school of Vedanta, the ultimate Reality known as Brahman is nirguna, the impersonal Absolute devoid of all attributes. And what the apophatic process of neti, neti (32) does is to negate all qualities attributed to Brahman owing to ignorance. In other words, Vedantic apophatism is mainly ontological. Furthermore, Vedantic apophatism, which originated in the Upanishads, belongs to Jnana marga, the Path of knowledge followed by Advaitins. The Bhakti schools of Vedanta follow only the cataphatic, iti, iti,(33) approach. In Bhakti-marga images, concepts and visualization are freely employed either as pointers to the transcendent Reality or as agents for the transformation of consciousness. But in Christian mysticism the apophatic technique is applied in the path of love itself. This is what gives to Christian mysticism its uniqueness.
There is, however, another pair of concepts, Asamprajnata Yoga and Samprajnata-Yoga in Patanjalis Yoga-Sutras, which bear a striking resemblance to the apophatic and cataphatic paths of Christian mysticism. A comparative study of Asamprajnata Yoga and Christian apophatism, although these are based on different presuppositions, may lead to some new understanding of mysticism.
(2) The second difference is with regard to cognition. The basic assumption in Thomistic epistemology, based on Aristotelean psychology, is that knowledge comes from outside, that is to say, the basic cognitive act is a movement from the outer world to the inner world. First comes an impulse from outside in the form of a species impressae, which changes into species expressae within. This applies to God-vision also. God is seen only when He impresses Himself upon the soul in a direct or indirect manner.
The basic assumption in Hindu psychology is that the source of all knowledge is within, in the Atman, and the basic cognitive act is a movement from the inner to the outer. God vision is the culmination of an intentional act originating in the human soul, although divine grace may facilitate this process by removing the ignorance covering the soul.
Means to Mystic Experience in Hinduism
In the Gita also we find this idea of a higher faculty. In the eleventh chapter Krishna tells Arjuna that he would give him a divine eye to see the transcendental Cosmic Form and the Divine Mystery. In later Hinduism this ‘faculty psychology gave way to a more dynamic psychology, and the mental processes involved in perception were formulated in the form of theories of perception. Though these theories mostly refer to empirical experience, a study of these theories is necessary to understand the epistemology of Hindu mysticism.
of Perception in Hinduism
(i) Sense contact theory developed by Nyaya-Vaisesika and Prabhakara-Mimamsa schools. This theory states that the chief cause of perception is the contact of the sense organs with their objects.(35) According to the Vaisesika school, Atman is one of the nine ultimate substances, and knowledge exists in it as a guna or attribute. The contact of the sense-organ with the mind makes the Atman manifest the knowledge. The actual cognitive process is an intentional movement from the Atman to the mind to the senses to the object.
(ii) Vritti or mental modification theories. These theories hold that the chief cause of perception is the modification (vritti) that the mind undergoes when it comes into contact with an object (through the sense-organs). And according to this view, the Atman (also known as Purusha) is of the nature of pure consciousness (cit); in fact, it is the only source of consciousness, everything else being unconscious (jada). This view has three versions.
The first version is that of Samkhya-Yoga. According to this view, the mind (known as citta) goes out through the sense-organs and takes the form of the object; upon the modification of the mind (called vritti) thus produced, the light of Purusha falls, revealing the nature of the object.(36)
The second version is that of Advaita Vedanta. It accepts the first version but adds that the mind (antahkarana) does not merely go out and take the form of the object; its primary function is to remove the ignorance (ajnana) covering the object. According to Advaita, everything is Brahman, and the appearance of subject and object as different entities is due to ignorance. Antahkarana overcomes this ignorance and establishes the unity of consciousness underlying the subject and the object. This Advaitic view itself has three interpretations, which cannot be discussed in a brief survey such as this one.(37)
Quite a different version is provided by Ramanuja and Madhva. According to them, the Atman directly perceives objects. The antahkarana only serves to classify and identify the objects. Ramanuja holds that the Atman has two kinds of knowledge: svarupajnana, by which it knows itself, and dharma-bhuta-jnana, which reveals objects. This view occupies a position in between the Nyaya-Vaisesika theory and the Samkhya-Yoga theory.
Recognition (pratyabhijna) theory. This theory was
propounded by Kashmir Saivism and some schools of Tantra.
It holds that all knowledge is a recognition or recollection
of something known earlier. When we see a known person after
several years we say, This
is that person.
Furthermore, according to this school, consciousness has
not only the power (known as prakasha) to reveal
objects but also the power (known as vimarsha) to
reveal itself. This view is linked to the ontological view
that mind and matter are only different states of vibration
of consciousness. The dynamic aspect of consciousness is
called Sakti and the static aspect, Siva.
The evolution of the universe takes place in the form of
a series of emanations of the ultimate Reality, which is
of the nature of Pure Consciousness. The individual self
is only an aspect of the ultimate Reality in a dormant form.
The whole system of thought has some resemblance to the
Neoplatonism of the Greek pagan philosopher Plotinus.
Bases of Hindu Mysticism
(1) The Nyaya-Vaisesika school accepts the possibility of supernormal experience known as Yogi-pratyaksha but does not explain the mental processes involved in it.
(2) According to Patanjalis Yoga, all experiences, from those of external objects to the highest knowledge known as Viveka-khyatæ (knowledge of the distinction between Prakriti and Purusha), take place only through Vrittis. When the mind is sufficiently purified a superior kind of awareness rises in it known as rtambhara-prajna, which reveals supersensuous truths. The resulting transcendental state of mind is known as samprajnata-yoga. Patanjali, however, holds that the final liberation takes place only in an apophatic state devoid of all vrittis (hence of all experience) known as asamprajnata yoga.
(3) Advaitins, as we have seen, accept the theory of vrittis but according to them, the function of vrittis is only to remove the ajnana or ignorance covering objects. Since Brahman is infinite, the ajnana covering it (known as karana-ajnana or mula-ajnana) can be removed only by a vritti, which can take an infinite dimension; it is known as akhandakara-vritti. When ajnana is removed, Brahman reveals Itself. How this takes place is a matter of controversy, although all are agreed upon purification of mind as a precondition. According to the Vartika and Vivarana schools, knowledge of Brahman arises in a purified mind by the mere hearing of the sacred statements of the Upanishads about the unity of Jiva and Brahman. (How exactly sound symbols produce this superior knowledge is not properly explained.) According to the Bhamati school, knowledge of Brahman arises by the combined effect of hearing sacred texts, reflection, and a higher type of contemplation known as nididhyasana.
The Bhakti schools frequently speak of visions of the anthropomorphic
forms of the Supreme Deity but do not explain clearly the
mental processes which produce such experiences. It is,
however, usually assumed that such experiences are produced
by higher refined vrittis in the mind, which are roused
by Divine Grace.
Ramanuja accepts the validity of Yogi-pratyaksha, the direct intuition of Yogis. But his own explanation of God-experience is different. According to him, higher spiritual experience takes place by the expansion of the dharmabhuta-jnana inherent in the Atman. The expansion is facilitated by purification and Divine Grace.
(5) It is only in the system of religious philosophy known as the Tantras that we find an elaborate treatment of the psychology of mystical experience. The Tantras provide an entirely different psychological-epistemological paradigm, which is so complex that it cannot be dealt with here. We would, however, like to mention that it is the only system which attempts to provide a cogent explanation of the way sound symbols affect the mind and give rise to higher spiritual experiences.
Since Hindu mysticism is a vast subject, and is also more widely known, our treatment of it here is brief. Our main attempt in this paper has been to focus attention on Christian mysticism and compare it with the mystical traditions of Hinduism. In these days of dialogue it is hoped that this kind of study at a deeper level of religious life will help to foster greater inter-religious understanding.
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