Is Hinduism Rational? (Part II)

“Subration is the mental process whereby one disvalues some previously appraised object or content of consciousness because of its being contradicted by a new experience. […] From the standpoint of the subject, to subrate means to undergo an experience — practical, intellectual, or spiritual — which radically changes one’s judgment about something. An object or content of consciousness is subrated or is subratable when it is or can be disvalued, denied, or contradicted by another experience.” (Eliot Deutsch, Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction, University of Hawaii Press, pp 15 – 16) Note that for our own purposes, I shall use the less technical form, “sublation”.

Western philosophy, now, is all but completely founded in positivism. In practice, this means that knowledge is seen as nothing but the accumulation of facts. While the epistemologies of the various Hindu darshanas do not deny this facet of the pursuit of knowledge — in fact, Nyāya (roughly, Logic) delves quite deeply into determining what constitutes knowledge, and Vaiśeshika (“Particularism”, relating to the physical sciences) mainly uses a positivist approach — they also do not limit themselves to it in matters which clearly go beyond its bounds.


In the terminology of Vedanta, we may speak of parāvidyā and aparāvidyā, that is of superior and inferior knowledge. It is not quite right to call these “types” or “categories” of knowledge, though it is not easy to define them otherwise. In any case, all of what we can reasonably call categorical knowledge — the sciences, mathematics, medicine, the humanities, etc., and all of their data — falls under the heading of the inferior knowledge. This is not because such knowledge is false, nor because it is unimportant. Rather, it is all inherently sublatable by the superior knowledge.

Yoga, Samkhya, and Vedanta all make use of sublation, whether they refer to it or not. While positivist epistemology works by addition — and is, therefore, an endless recursion — sublative epistemologies, such as that of the Dharmic inner sciences, are subtractive. This point may seem at first to be somewhat obscure. It is made quite clear, though, by the teachings of certain saints and sages, such as Sri Ramana Maharshi’s saying: “Darkness never comes nor goes. See the Sun and there is no darkness.” (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramanasramam, pg 345) In plainer terms yet, Philip K. Dick put it thus: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Dick’s bitter flippancy aside, we can summarize by saying that Reality is that which cannot be sublated by any other experience (a paraphrase of Deutsch, pg 18), and the superior knowledge that which cannot be sublated by any other knowledge.

The dharmic sublative epistemology rather uniquely does not dismiss as false every experience or datum which has been superseded by the superior or transcendent knowledge, but rather categories these as “relatively true”, or true relative to a given perspective, without being absolutely true. The example often given in the literature of Vedanta is that of the snake and rope: imagine walking into your living room at night, the lights off and a bit of silver moonlight to let you see silhouettes. You are startled to see a huge snake in the middle of the floor. Jumping back into the hallway, you fumble with the light switch until the room is flooded with bright, electric glare. Looking again, you see that which you had seen as a snake is only a thick rope which you had been using in the day and forgotten to put back in the garage. Your initial perception of a snake was in error, but not completely wrong; you had, indeed, seen something, but had at first misinterpreted its nature. It is not by the addition of facts that this misperception is resolved, but by the elimination of ignorance or of the obstacles to knowledge.

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“[Purity and happiness are maintained] by contemplating ona  person who is perfectly detached.” (Patanjali, trans. by Brahmrishi Vishvatma Bawra, Yoga Sutras 1:37, Brahmrishi Yoga Publications)

The word “guru” is a descriptive noun meaning “weighty”; in today’s politicized English, we might say that guru means “one whose presence and teaching have gravitas,” or more plainly “hold weight”. The title is bestowed in general upon any teacher, of any topic, who has attained notable mastery and authority in the art or science they teach. Such a person is shown due honor: offered cool water on a hot day, a place to sleep and food to eat when traveling, and so forth.

In terms of Yoga and related inner sciences, the word guru is used as short form or Satguru — “true guru” or “guru of Truth”, or “one who bears the weight of Truth”. Just as the more prosaic sort of guru, the Satguru must have achieved mastery of the Yoga he or she teaches in order to warrant the title. There is no doubt that more fraudulent gurus exist — whether they be sincere teachers who overestimate their own accomplishments, or outright charlatans — than Satgurus; consequently, any number of methods of determining the worth and sincerity of prospective gurus have been passed down in scriptures and verbal teachings. A concise example comes Sri Swami Vivekananda: “The Guru only knows what will lead us towards perfection.” ( The Buddha had this to say: “If someone sees an intelligent person who is skillfully able to point out shortcomings, and give suitable reproof, let him cherish such a revealer of hidden treasures. Only good can come from such an association. Let the wise one guide, correct, and deter others from what is base and vile. He will be treasured by the good and spurned by the evil.” (Dhammapada 6:1 – 2)

Hanuman approaching Rama.
Hanuman approaching Rama.

The problem many Westerners and so-called “free-thinkers” have with the concept of the Satguru cannot be simply answered, because it comes from a wholly different notion of selfhood and the goals of life than we are accustomed to. It must first of all be said that the “free-thinking” distaste for the Guru-sishya relationship stems from a combination of incorrect analogies and a rather childish radical individualism built into our cultural assumptions.

“Radical individualism” is radical not because it is individualistic; in point of fact, Hinduism is mostly individualistic, as well. The distinction is in what constitutes an individual and what concerns an individual. In the West, broadly speaking, and in the US in particular, an individual is a body and its corresponding wants and needs — food, shelter, a wish to feel “special”, etc. Dharmically, and individual is awareness, first and foremost, with the body, mind, and senses essentially playing the roles of limiting valves and channels of experience. By natural extension, the West’s individualism concerns itself mostly with personal rights, privileges, and pleasures; there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with these things, but they are quite restricting on their own. The Western vision of freedom is more or less limited to the desires of personhood. On the other hand, dharmic Liberation transcends these concerns in favor of experiencing the Reality which encompasses and rests at the root of all things. If this sort of Total Freedom exists, we are justified in intentionally foregoing certain lesser freedoms in the attainment thereof, for we thereby attain That from which all lesser freedoms flow.

Two questions which arise from this are: How can we know that this Liberation exists?; and, What is the nature of the sacrifice we make in reaching for it?

What we must toss away in the quest for Truth is not, as some believe, self-determination. Rather, it is a false identification in the notion of the self upon which we rely. The Satguru does not take over his student’s life, but only serves to reorient his student to an emphasis on these facets of life which most immediately save the process of discovering That which when discovered all else is revealed.

Ramana Maharshi taught very explicitly that God, Guru, and Self are not separate. In a sense — very much blasphemous to most Western religious thinkers — they are all symbols of one another, and each one is the One Reality. In prayer, we concentrate on God, in Whom we immerse our individuality; in service, we concentrate on Guru, in Whom we see the ultimate destiny of individuality; in meditation, we concentrate on the Self, in Whom we experience the apotheosis of individuality.

Even before we each have this experience, we can know with startling reliability that the experience is there to be had. This also is the Guru’s role. Rajiv Malhotra qualifies the dharmic mode of spiritual authority as “embodied knowing” — in contradistinction to the “history-centrism” of Western modes of such authority. Every sādhaka is, to some degree, an “embodied knower”, but not all are thus qualified to teach. And even among those so qualified, only he or she who has truly achieved detachment — signified by cheerful indifference to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, lack of favoritism, immunity to praise and insults alike, etc. — may be called a Satguru.

A Guru does not merely possess transcendent knowledge; the full experience of Reality does not leave room for mere possession of such, but rather assumes the subject into Itself; the Guru is then the walking symbols — which is to say, embodiment — of the  parāvidyā. The comparison is sometimes made between this role of the Satguru and that of the Pope as infallible interpreter and expositor of doctrine. This comparison is faulty, however, in two regards: First, the Pope needn’t ever be required to have specific experience of an esoteric nature. Secondly, it is not the job of the Guru to infallibly interpret doctrine to the whole world, but rather to guide his own students to the point of no longer needing outside guidance. In short, the Guru’s experience positions Him to make Himself obsolete!

Though pertaining to the inner sciences, rather than the outer, the Satguru’s authority is analogous to that of the academic mentor in the experimental “hard” sciences. The sishya is not servant to the Guru so much as apprentice. The Guru and sishya vet one another, often for months or years, before the relationship is formalized; either one can simply walk away prior to initiation. Even after initiation, the Guru is in many ways more beholden than the student, for the student may at any time decide to seek another Guru or a different lineage, while the Guru remains responsible for the student’s spiritual wellbeing without revocation, from the point of formal initiation onward. Not the Guru’s wealth or social status or high-sounding titles make the Guru effective; only the Guru’s actual illumination and capacity to connect with the student and aid in achieving the same state can do that.

Matsya, avatar of the Hindu deity Visnu.
Matsya, avatar of the Hindu deity Visnu.

More, the Guru does not merely say, “Student these books, believe these points of doctrine, and all will be well,” then toddle off to the next class. No, the Guru properly teaches these points of doctrine as experiential and not merely conceptual. As in the outer sciences, the inner sciences are taught as a dynamic relationship between fact and method. No dogma is given which cannot be confirmed, and the experimental protocols by which these dogmas can be either confirmed or disconfirmed are taught in progressive stages of difficulty. It is not for its own sake that some methods are held back; secrecy is means, not end. Most of these practices are long since written down, diagrammed, and translated to many languages. Anyone with access to the Internet or a good library system can have them in written form. But, as with physics or chemistry or medicine, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” It is altogether too easy for a person to take information outside of its proper context and thus misinterpret and misapply it. The popular understanding of “yoga” and New Age misapprehensions Advaita (non-dualism), while often quite sincere, serve to underline this point as much as silly uses of quantum mechanics to “prove” any pet theory at all, or archeology to furnish “evidence” of extraterrestial hands in building the pyramids, etc. So, just as in any discipline worth the title, material is introduced so as to build upon the prior foundations, and in such a way as to aid the individual to fill in any significant deficiencies before moving on. This, really, is the ideal model for any education, not just the spiritual one.

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These are a few of the key aspects in Hinduism — the venerable Sanātana Dharma — which point to its basic reasonability. The dharmic traditions in general — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, among some minor others — in no essential way place themselves in opposition to reason or the ongoing findings of the material sciences. Rather, Dharma embraces — even encompasses — these pursuits as quite necessary to the greater meaning of sentient life. It is only by ignorance, and a resultant perversion of reason, that a rational person could insist upon an inherent illogical base to Hindu thought and practice. It is undeniably true that the understanding of some Hindu people is superstitious and to that extent unreasonable, but that no more undergirds Dharma than to popular misunderstandings of electronics undergird the design of increasingly sophisticated computers. To fully practice Hinduism, logic and rigor are requirements for virtually all significant attainment; while many experiences of Yoga transcend the limits of rational thought, they in no way contradict real logic.

purnacandra-sivarupaPurnacandra Sivarupa is a Western-born Saiva Tantrika and freelance arcanist. He can be found at where he shares more writing on esoteric and occult topics.

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