The End of Philosophy

By Swami Tripurari

Perennialism is a term that lends itself to various interpretations. Here I am speaking about it as a philosophy. Its loudest proponents today consider the term “sanatana dharma” to be synonymous with perennialism.

The term “sanatana” (eternal) “dharma” (nature) is one that transcends any particular religion and speaks instead about the eternal nature of being. Since all of the great wisdom traditions essentially acknowledge that “being” in some form or another is ultimately eternal, they are all included within perennialism. That being is eternal is of course not all that there is to say about its nature. Many contemporary perennialists are nonetheless content to stop there.

This pause, as I see it, is at a place where Gaudiya Vedanta provides a second wind. By this I mean that our tradition understands the word “dharma” to imply “the serving nature of being,” thus understanding sanatana dharma to refer to “(being’s) eternal (serving) nature,” clearly a theistic twist. This twist, however, is more faithful to the significance of “dharma,” which speaks more of an active sense of dutiful or appropriate being—serving/bhakti/loving—in relation to the Infinite. Our sanatana dharma ascends to the mount of our eternal participation in a dynamic nonduality that lies beyond a static non-difference of suspended animation—peace/shanti—in eternal beatific quietude.

And there are theistic perennialists. Indeed, some scholars have dubbed our Bhaktivinoda Thakura as such, and moreover, the majority of the world’s wisdom traditions are decidedly and, I might add, conclusively theistic. By conclusively I mean to say that the finality of these traditions lies in an eternal relationship with the infinite. In our tradition this amounts to a relationship between the finite self and the infinite self that constitutes a dynamic rather than static notion of nonduality. Absorbed in an everlasting rhythm, we will experience complete identification with God (unity) amidst simultaneous awareness that it is we finite souls who are attending to God (diversity).

Different types of perennialists aside, all perennialists have questioned if not condemned modernism’s notion of progress and scientism at large. And they have done a good job of it. They have also put reason in its place with more insight than postmodernists, and it is to this I now turn, citing the religious scholar and perennialist/practitioner Huston Smith in his review of Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon:

Perennialism offers, it seems to me, the most promising alternative there is to the premise that gave philosophy its lease, which lease seems now to have expired.

To be specific: Philosophy entered the modern world as the handmaiden of theology, but modern science displaced Revelation (and with it theology) as truth’s oracle. Empiricists like Bacon were prepared simply to change the socket-unplug philosophy from theology and replug it into science-but there were things that science still could not get its hands on, so philosophy took off on its own. Why assume that it needs a master? Let reason, its instrument, stand on its own feet. In according it that opportunity, Descartes fathered modern philosophy. If reason is the lever by which ideas are moved, modern philosophy committed itself to the prospect that that lever possesses an built-in archimedean point. What that point is-Descartes’ innate ideas? Kant’s categories? The positivists’ sense impressions?-would be hotly debated, but that reason has a foundation was not seriously questioned.

The predicament philosophy finds itself in today derives from the fact that that assumption now has been questioned. The going name for the assumption is foundationalism, and Isaac Levi speaks for the majority of his colleagues when he contends that “opposition to foundationalism ought to be the philosophical equivalent of resistance to sin.” The repudiation of the premise on which it has staked its existence leaves modern philosophy hardpressed for a raison d’etre. A recent anthology, After Philosophy, shows ranking philosophers divided as to whether to prospect for new oil or simply shut down their pumps. They agree, though, that the wells of modern philosophy have run dry.

The point of mentioning all this here is to suggest that the serious soul searching in current philosophy-one (to repeat) occasioned by the collapse of faith in autonomous reason-gives the perennial philosophy more chance for a hearing than it has had since modern philosophy began. For, never having agreed that reason is autonomous, it provides at least one model of how philosophy  can proceed without that claim.1

Here Professor Smith provides a contemporary illustration of the timeless aphorism of Vedanta Sutra “Reason alone gets one nowhere (tarko ‘pratisthanat).” It is autonomous reason (kevala-yukti) that Smith and apparently many in the academic tradition of philosophy itself have lost faith in. In its stead Smith suggests that philosophy and reason should be grounded in revelation (sastra-yukti). When reason serves revelation it finds its proper place as an aspect of faith, a perennial notion if there ever was one. A notion, I might add, that renders our reason most useful and beautiful, as a tool of the soul rather than something complicit in its betrayal.

  1. Smith, Huston. Review of  “The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon.” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Philosophy East and West 39 (1989): 497-503. []

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12 Responses to The End of Philosophy

  1. Kula-pavana dasa

    Maharaja, you write: “When reason serves revelation it finds its proper place as an aspect of faith, a perennial notion if there ever was one. A notion, I might add, that renders our reason most useful and beautiful, as a tool of the soul rather than something complicit in its betrayal.”

    Where exactly does the Revelation end, and where is the reason allowed to freely probe the accepted tradition, religious thought, religious practice, and their practical validity? That seems to be a very contentious area. Some will argue that whatever their guru says is Revelation and not a subject to reason. Others draw the line (often somewhat nebulous) based on the existing shastras. It seems to ma that this a very important issue to settle.

    For example, Rāmānujā has summed up that according to Mĩmāmsa (Vedic hermeneutics) in order for any Scriptural Text to be considered as authoritative it must fulfil certain conditions:
    -It must conform to reality as we experience it.
    -It must be logical and not contradict any of the other two other means of knowledge such as perception and inference.
    -The content of the text must be internally consistent.
    -The knowledge presented in the text must have a practical application.
    He also said that it is this practical application which is the true test of the Truth of Scripture.

  2. Can you give us a reference for the position of Ramanuja you have cited. As it is, it appears either incorrect or stated such that it is can be readily misunderstood. For example, Ramanuja acknowledges Bhagavad-gita as an authoritative text (revelation). But the Gita speaks of that which we have no experience of, such as reincarnation, the atma, Sri Krishna’s abode (tad dhama paramam mama), etc. Thus by the above standards the Gita does not appear to be authoritative because reincarnation, etc. do not conform to reality as we presently experience it. Reincarnation, etc are something one can experience, but until one does, one has to accept them on faith.

    Furthermore, perception and inference are not always correct. Thus he must mean that revelation must conform with them when they are correct. But . . .

    Otherwise revelation is ultimately about God. Its purpose is to inspire one to realize God, which cannot be done by reason alone. Reason comes into pay in terms of reasoning how to apply revelation such that its purpose is fulfilled. We have to think about its statements and understand them such that we become inspired to apply ourselves in a transrational manner—chanting God’s name for example. It is reasonable to do so, but chanting itself is not an exercise of our reasoning but rather of our heart. This is the fulfillment of reason.

    Theology is also reason applied to revelation, reasoning as to the spirit of the text as opposed to its literal meaning, which involves understanding its purpose and thereby sorting out the relative from the absolute. In the Gaudiya tradition we say sadhu sastra guru vakhya cittete koriya aikya, not only do we have sadhu, sastra, and the words of the guru, but our heart or conscience to consult. All four should be in agreement. If they are not, you must reason them into agreement such that you can proceed enthusiastically with the transrational exercise of spiritual practice.

    • Sri Vedanta Desika says in his *Tattva Mukta Kalapa* that if a scriptural revelation about a sensible object contradicts the evidence of the senses, then the scripture should be reinterpreted so that the evidence of the Pratyaksha pramana can be duly honored. This is a very sane piece of philosophical advice that Gaudiyas could benefit from. Lots of cosmological “problems” arising from the Bhagavatam’s cosmological teachings can easily be reconciled then without resorting to absurdities like Moon-landing denial & insisting that each “universe” has ONLY “one sun”. The Gaudiya purvacharyas certainly knew this but some modern adherents seem to be ignorant of this. A very nice article but the best members of the *Perrenialist* school were not mentioned at all. Schuon, Nasr & Smith were but the dregs of this important school. To get a taste of the genius of this *Perennialism* one must read the works of Rene Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswamy & Julius Evola tho I grant that Evola was inferior to the other two. I hope that Vaishnavas & other Hindus will started engaging with this interesting school of philosophy. Our interaction with it has the potential to produce something important & explosive in world philosophy today. Pranams Swamiji. Radhe Radhe.

      • Yes, Madhva, Ramanuja, and Sankara all take this position,. They also posit that scripture deals with knowledge that is otherwise unknowable. However, in his Sandarbhas and Sarvasamvadhini commentary on them Jiva Goswami accepts the Bhagavatam as the perfect pramana for both material and spiritual knowledge. So he differs. However, he also explains that he is writing only for devotees. So perhaps he would have commented differently if he were seeking to interface with other perspectives on the natural world, such as the Islamic and European perspectives that would not have been unknown to him.

        That said, I believe that the position of Ramanuja and others needs to be thought out a bit. For example, they all accepted the Sankhya perspective on the nature of matter that posits subtle matter and accommodates supernatural atma. This is a very different understanding of matter from what modern science embraces. It is an observer driven natural world, rather than one in which the observer is not real in terms of being identified with the so-called “primary properties” of matter/reality. And what is thought to be observed does not include mind, intelligence, ego and awareness, etc.

        Really the modern picture of matter is sorely lacking, and this is something that even modern science admits. Even biology and physics are in disagreement. As I have stated in Sacred Preface, “In consideration of quantum mechanics, science needs a new concept of matter if physics is to be more than a pragmatic tool with only technological success. All major quantum physicists, including all of its founding figures down to contemporary Nobel laureates, have gone on record to say that we do not yet understand the physical reality underlying quantum theory. To interpret quantum theory realistically in a manner com­patible with everyday intuitions, current classical or quasi-­classical space­time visualizations do not suffice. All possible combinations of such ideas have been tried, and they generate only more con­fusion. Thus the need for a new understanding of space and time.” And it is possible that the Samkhya perspective may be helpful in this regard.

        What an improved description of matter will say about the Bhagavata cosmography remains to be seen, but if it is Samkhya influenced, it could include visitations to the moon of human perception but not to the moon of the Bhagavata. In other words to understand the cosmography of the Bhagavata or of Brhad-bhagavatamrta I believe one has to understand Samkhya’s description of matter. I doubt that Ramanuja would accept the observation/description of modern science that gives rise to the mind body dilemma and its understanding of cosmology and cosmography and is so much in conflict with Samkhya’s description of matter as information, etc.

        Rupa Goswami writes in Laghu-bhagvatamrta “Spiritual education has five aspects, samkhya, yoga, vairagya and krsna bhakti. By such education one can enter into the existence of Lord Hari.These are mentioned in the Pancaratna.”

        Regarding perennialism, I have read some of the works of Rene Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswamy. Schuon, Nasr & Smith certainly came after them and acknowledged their contribution, but I believe Smith did much for it in our times to keep it alive and vital.

  3. That is interesting. I feel that for the heart and conscience to be in agreement with the other three pramanas is difficult for many people because the current state of the heart maybe governed by one’s cultural entrappings and political stance(call it hrdaya daurbalyam or weakness of heart). Maybe the paramatma can facilitate the satisfaction of the heart if the desire to pursue spiritual life is sincere.

  4. Kula-pavana dasa

    Maharaja, you can find the reference here:
    In general, I find Sri Vaishnavas and Madhvas less dogmatic and more rational in their approach to shastra and devotional practice than Gaudiyas.

    • i don’t agree that Sri and Madhava sampradayas are more rational and less dogmatic than Gaudiya sects in general. The link you have cited is Australian wing of Sri Vaisnavism which is definitely more liberal than the Indian branches. That way even Sri Chaitanya Sangha is liberal.

      Merely by stating Ramunuja’s propositions, the author does not help us understand how we should accept karma and reincarnation as these two concepts are not verifiable through sense perception.

  5. This was a great article. Very topical and timely. It is wonderful that the Goswamis of Vrindavan wrote amazing texts. But unless there is a live teacher who can translate the meaning so that it is pertinent for the times, then the beauty of ancient texts is never fully realized by the masses. Its great that there are people like Tripurari Swami waving the banner of Gaudia vaishnavism amidst the ‘dry spells and dry wells’ of existential vacuousness pervading in popular society.

    Tripurari Swami wrote:

    Absorbed in an everlasting rhythm, we will experience complete identification with God (unity) amidst simultaneous awareness that it is we finite souls who are attending to God (diversity).

    On college capuses these days I see many sign boards tht say ‘diversity,’ by which I assume that the students mean cultural diversity. I think that cultural diversity is important. But I think it is also wonderful to realize that Krishna is the original diversity. All forms of diversity come ultimately from Krishna. Krishna is so diverse that one can chant his one name, Krishna, over and over and over in the form of the Hare Krishna mantra and it doesn’t get old. Over and beyond that, the more one chants his name, all the diversity within God himself is revealed by chanting his holy name. His holy name appears to be like any other ordinary static name. And though it is uttered with the tongue just like any other ordinary static name, because all of God himself is contained in his name, the scriptures explain that his name is non-different from his form and his past-times. Within the one unit of His holy name is all the diversity of creation. Who can beat that? 🙂

  6. Byootiful. <3

    Reminds me a bit of the first part of Behold the Spirit by Alan Watts, which is what I'm reading right now. It's so great!

  7. Shashank Khattar

    Just stumbled upon this. My faith in humans, reason and truth was just revived.

    Is there an Indian chapter? I am in Delhi.

  8. Very good!

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