At the February 15th Kīrtan Party, I will try to explain that India has a few different philosophies. Philosophies of “0″, “1”, “2”, and “1&2.”
The foundation of knowledge is called Veda. In the beginning of each major cosmic cycle Veda is put into words by the Creator, Brahmā, and circulated in the world by the sages who are Brahmā’s children and students, and their children and students. However as the ages wear on from Satya to Treta to Dvāpara, everyone including Brahmā become increasingly confused about the meaning of the Vedic words. By the end of Dvāpara Yuga, everyone is completely confused.
To remedy this two things have to happen: (1) The old misunderstanding has to be swept out, and (2) a new, clear understanding has to be brought in.
Vyāsa is the name of the super-human person who accomplishes the second part of this mission. He dramatically edits the Veda, organizing it to make it much more clear. He does this at the very end of Dvāpara and very beginning of Kali, over the course of many centuries.
The first part of the mission, sweeping out the old misunderstanding, also takes many centuries. It begins with Buddha and proceeds through Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, and Caitanya. The process can be explained like a sequence of numbers:
Buddha created the philosophy of “0.”
Śaṅkara created the philosophy of “1.”
Madhva created the philosophy of “2.”
Caitanya brought all of the above to fruition, embracing the “1 in 2” philosophy hinted at by Rāmānuja and developed by Nimbarka.
Buddha’s Philosophy of Zero
Buddha realized that everything causes pain and suffering, so his solution was to become nothing, Zero. The idea that nothing is the ultimate goal completely contradicts the Veda, so Buddha’s followers abandoned the Veda, thus initiating the process of sweeping out the old misunderstandings.
Buddhism flourished in India for more than a dozen centuries, but was eventually rejected for two main reasons: (1) it ignores the Veda, and (2) it is irrational and unrealistic. It is irrational because there is no rational way to explain how or why nothing could be everything and everything could be nothing. It is unrealistic because it doesn’t describe the world we actually live in, which is certainly not “nothing.” Thus, in the 8th Century a new philosophy, Śankara’s Philosophy of One almost completely drove Buddhism out of India.
The enduring contribution of Buddha, however, is his conviction that ahiṁsa (non-violence) is the central principle of all morality, religion, and spirituality.
Śankara’s Philosophy of One
Śankara realized that everything is made of the same stuff. Thus he saw that everything is one.
This philosophy is different from Buddha’s because (a) Śankara selectively accepted some parts of the Veda, and (b) One is a bit different than Zero. But Śankara’s philosophy is still unrealistic and irrational. Like Buddhism, it doesn’t describe the world that we actually live in, a world that is certainly not zero or one, a world of infinite different people, places and things.
Śankara’s followers tried to address this by proposing two theories of how one substance can exist as many: the Theory of Division, and the Theory of Reflection. The theory of division explains itself with the analogy of a pot and the sky. “The one sky exists within infinite pots.” The Theory of Reflection explains itself with the analogy of the sun reflecting on water. “One sun exists in many lakes, as a reflection.”
Both theories are irrational because Śankara’s “One Reality” is brahman, which cannot be reflected or divided. He declared his “One Reality” to be the Vedic brahman so that he could link his philosophy with the Veda and thus begin the process of allowing a Vyāsa’s new, clearer Veda to be embraced. But in doing so, he rendered his philosophy irrational, because the Veda defines brahman as pure, flawless, homogenous, and unlimited awareness. It is irrational to propose that an indivisible, un-delimitable substance (brahman) can be divided into the infinite limited things we see all around us in the everyday world. If Brahman is indivisible, it’s irrational to claim that it gets divided. If Brahman is flawless, it’s irrational to say it can develop flaws. If Brahman is unlimited, it’s irrational to say it can become limited.
Actually, Śankara’s philosophy is irrational even without claiming that the one reality is brahman. It is irrational to say that a reflection can occur if there is only one entity, no matter what the one entity is. The sun alone, for example, casts no reflection unless there is also a lake. Similarly, it is irrational to say that a thing can be divided if nothing separate exists to divide it. The sky alone cannot be divided unless pots also exist.
Some followers of Śankara say, “The division/reflection isn’t real. It’s just an illusion. The pot and the lake are illusions.” We can call this the “Philosophy of Illusion” (māyā-vāda). However, (1) It is irrational to claim that illusion can dominate pure, flawless awareness. (2) It is no longer a “Philosophy of One.” Now it is a “Philosophy of Two” for it claims that there are two fundamental entities: awareness (brahman) and illusion (māyā).
Nonetheless Śankara’s philosophy flourished in India for a few centuries, and is still embraced by some Indian Philosophers. In the early 20th Century it was popularized around the world by Vivekānanda, and for a while was wrongly thought to represent the philosophy of India.
Madhva’s Philosophy of Two
Madhva redressed the weaknesses of the Philosophy of One by creating a Philosophy of Two towards the end of the 13th Century. This philosophy fully accepts the entire Veda. It says that consciousness (brahman, the basis of reality) comes from sentient beings, and that there are two types of sentient beings: one with infinitesimal sentience (Ātmā) and another with infinite sentience (Paramātmā). It is called the Philosophy of Two because it proposes that there are two real entities: Ātmā and Paramātmā.
Both Ātmā and Paramātmā have infinite qualities and energies. Brahman is their primary energy. Māyā is an energy of Paramātmā that particularly affects the Ātmā.
Vyāsa’s Philosophy of One-in-Two
In Vedic tradition, an idea is considered more exalted the more fully it encompasses, reconciles, and harmonizes the validity in all other ideas. The ultimate Vedic philosophy established by Vyāsa is one which harmonizes the Non-dualism of the Philosophy of One with the Dualism of the Philosophy of Two. Rāmānuja began to work towards pointing this out in the 11th Century. Nimbarka very clearly pointed it out in the 13th Century (according to most modern scholars, but contemporary with Vyāsa according to Nimbarka’s own tradition). In the 16th Century, Caitanya’s follower Jīva Goswāmī made it clear that Caitanya embraced this point of view, and elaborated upon it.
In this view, everything is made of the same substance, brahman. Thus there is oneness. But the distinctions between various forms of brahman are real and eternal. Thus there is eternal individuality and relationship within the scope of oneness.
Philosophy of Zero: Śūnya-vāda
Philosophy of One: Advaita-vāda / Abheda-vāda
Philosophy of Two: Dvaita-vāda / Bheda-vāda
Philosophy of One-in-Two: Dvaitādvaita-vāda / Bhedābheda-vāda. Rāmānujā’s philosophy: Viśiṣtādvaita-vāda