Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 4

(Read Part 3 of the series.)

Part 4 – Sceptics, Epicureans and Stoics


The Sceptics, noting that different peoples had differing opinions on many subjects, wondered how one could ever justify holding a particular belief. Arguments for one view rather than another were founded on unproven premises and there seemed to be no means of ever being certain about anything. They concluded long before Kant in the 18th Century that we could have no real knowledge about the nature of things and believed that in situations where we were essentially ignorant we ought not to make judgements. This course of action (or perhaps we should call it ‘inaction’) was thought to lead to peace of mind. The outcome was that adherents behaved in whatever way those around them behaved and did not really believe in anything themselves  (what we might now call cynically!). Again, this philosophy offered some consolation to those seeking escape from a difficult life – don’t worry about the future since you can never know anything about it anyway. In fact, the above description seems remarkably similar to the way that the modern generation seems to behave so that it has clearly lost little of its force as a philosophical outlook on life. Continue reading

The Pursuit of Happiness

Everyone wants to be happy. This is the motivational force for everyone. The Vedas acknowledge this. The first part of the Vedas – karmakANDa – is effectively aimed at those who look for their happiness in external, limited, objects and pursuits; the latter part of the Vedas – j~nAnakANDa – is aimed at those who are looking to find the happiness within, through gaining knowledge of their true nature.

Here is a brief article from Ramesh Pattni, called


The pursuit of happiness has been the foremost goals of humanity from time immemorial. There is, however, a diversity of understanding and experience of happiness across traditions and cultures around the world. Eastern traditions which offer great insights into the human condition and psychological processes, have a universal appeal which point towards attainment of happiness by different means.

The development of Positive Psychology in recent decades has focused on the study of happiness and wellbeing and examined evidence for the ways and means to happiness.  Currently there are two dominant Western approaches to human happiness and well‐being: Hedonic and Eudaimonic perspectives. The former is based on the idea that pleasure is the only intrinsic good, and obtained through the contact with the world of objects. The eudaimonic approach is that happiness is an end in itself and the highest good and based on a life of virtuous living and contemplation. Continue reading

Free Will versus Fatalism


Below is another essay from Atman Nityananda whose earlier essay on sAdhana triggered so much interest. This is preceded by an essay on the same topic from Swami Sivananda.



Free Will versus Fatalism
by Swami Sivananda

The controversy between free will and fatalism is still going on in the West and no one has come to any definite conclusion. It is a great pity that the doctrine of Karma is mistaken for fatalism. Fatalism is the doctrine that all events are subject to fate and happen by unavoidable necessity.

Fate is otherwise known as luck or fortune. That indefinable mysterious something which brings trials, successes and failures to man, which shapes and moulds him by teaching lessons of various sort, which takes care of him like a mother, which brings various sort of experiences, which brings cloudy days and days of bright sunshine, which raises a beggar to the level of a landlord and hurls down a mighty potentate to the level of a street-beggar, which gives different kinds of fruits and experiences to two people of equal talents and capacities, which made Napoleon at one time a terror in the eyes of the people and at another time a prisoner, and which makes a certain portion of the life of a man quite stormy and another portion quite smooth, is called fate. Fate educates and instructs man. However whimsical the fate may appear to operate, it works in harmony with the law of causation. Continue reading

Q. 382 – Art and Vedanta

Q: As an artist and casual reader of advaita-vedanta, I wanted to ask about advaita-vedanta’s opinion on Art (be it music, painting, dance etc.).

Generally speaking, we can classify art into broadly 2 categories – sentimental art and non-sentimental art. But, as a practitioner of the former and a student of the latter (I had strict classical music training), I almost think of myself as being ‘attracted’ to art – as in, there is this sense of desire to create music. Personally, I have been advised by several elders to continue producing and practicing music. But does this go against the advice of advaita-vedanta? Am I acting on desires? Will art get artists permanently stuck in the cycle of samsara?

I ask this question because – There are so many Slokas, mantras, verses (sam-veda) that are musical… so it seems like music is encouraged by the vedas and the upanishads. But at the same time, it seems like a thing of desire. This confusion needs to be cleared!

Responses from Martin, Charles, Ted and Dennis Continue reading

Q. 377 – Desire and suffering

(Also discusses Buddhism versus Advaita; analysis versus experience; need for practice)

Q: Your work is both beautiful and rigorous, and I’ve appreciated your continuous efforts to continue the much-beloved tradition of Advaita Vedanta.

As I consider devoting myself to the path of Advaita Vedanta, I find that I keep coming up against a few constant, nagging protests:

First, it seems that the tradition and methodology (although I also assume that there is quite a lot of variety of how Vedanta is taught and realized) is overly academic and scholastic, at least as I view it from the information that I’ve gleaned during my research.  The unfolding of the teaching of Vedanta seems to leave the student engaging in a lot of analysis, rather than a deep exploration of how they genuinely experience the world, which lacks transformative power because it remains something objective.

Second, according to some of the sources that I’ve gleaned, it seems to place Vedanta on an extremely high pedestal, as something engaged in only following years of other preparatory practices.  But modern practice appears to demonstrate that such preparation, while helpful, is not necessary.  I cite websites like “Liberation Unleashed” and Scott Kiloby’s excellent work which show that directly exploring and inquiring into the truth of statements like, “All there is is pure awareness,” etc., can still be highly transformative outside of the context of a more robust regime of spiritual purification and development.

My fear is that if I follow the traditional route, I will end up entangled in these preparatory practices.  I’ll just be getting the appetizer for years before getting the meal, in other words, but, in my opinion, why wait?

Is this perception true (given that there will be a lot of diversity)?  Do most AchArya-s make their disciples engage in such practices for prolonged periods of time before discussing Vedanta?

I have heard you and many other teachers in the traditional Advaita lineage say things like, “Unless you have a very pure mind…” or “Unless you are highly developed…”  etc., the practice of Vedanta will be fruitless.  But, if you read the logs, for example, of the website “Liberation Unleashed,” you will find some very impure people – depressed, addicted, desperate, you know, the usual seeker lot!, who come out transformed after only a few days of directly looking into their experience.

I appreciate your thoughts on this and your generosity in helping so many confused seekers. Continue reading

Q. 368 – vAsanA-s

Q: Do vAsanA-s belong to the causal body or the subtle body?  

In the subtle body camp I got a response from one of Swami Dayananda’s senior students saying that the causal body is pure ignorance with no attributes and that vAsanA-s “definitely belong to the subtle body”.   In addition, from my own quick review of some of Shankara’s basic works I can find no passage that says the causal body is anything but “avidyA” and find no mention of the term “ vAsanA-s ” anywhere.

In the causal body camp I have James Schwartz and multiple pieces of Chinmayananda literature.   In fact I have seen them equate vAsanA-s to avidyA by pointing out that avidyA and vAsanA-s are both caused by the guNa-s.

Can you help with this one?   What is going on here?  Btw, as an interesting side note, in Swami Dayananda’s extensive Gita course-books the word “ vAsanA-s ” does not appear once.

Answers from Ramesam, Ted, Martin and Dennis. Continue reading

Q. 366 – Self-knowledge – should we bother?

Q: At the end of the day, what does knowledge of self give us ?

It does not help answer the burning question of why the appearance/dream/mAyA that we are experiencing as humans or animals exists.

(I am not clear on this one but..) It appears that even though one attains knowledge of self in one janma, he/she can actually become a cockroach in the next due to karmic effect, i.e. we are not really liberated from the birth-death cycle.

The only benefit I do see in a janma where one attains knowledge of self is that such a person might lead a life devoid of misery in the mind as they sail through good and bad times (although they may still experience physical pain).

A (Sitara): In Advaita Vedanta we ask the question “who or what is the true Self” because we trust (in the scriptures and/or statements of those who claim to have answered this question for themselves) that the true Self is one without a second, meaning the true Self is all there is. So knowledge of the true Self, i.e. Self-realization, equals the realization that the perceived world is nothing but the Self alone. As to why it is perceived as world and not as the Self there are many answers within Advaita Vedanta and in Sri Atmanandaji’s Direct Path. I cannot sum them up in a few sentences, as they belong to an extended teaching methodology. I recommend, for a taste, to watch an interview with Greg Goode.) Continue reading

Q. 365 – Free Will and mumukShutva

Q: In your answer to Q. 12 (http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/q_and_a/q_and_a2.htm#q12), you said: “At the level of appearance, yes, there is only causality to account for actions. But this does not lead to passivity. Darwinian selection naturally inculcates competition, ‘development’ and ‘progress’. And there is no escaping the fact that we feel as though we have free will. We feel good when we get what we want and bad when we don’t. All of this stuff will carry on regardless but there is no need to feel negative about it. It really is all quite amazing, isn’t it? It is all arising within you, for your enjoyment, as it were!”

 And in your answer to Q.22 (http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/q_and_a/q_and_a3.htm#q22) you said: “At the level of the phenomenal, all proceeds according to cause and effect (or the laws of Ishvara if you prefer!). Also, there appears to be free will (although I have argued – and believe it to be the case – that the evidence is that there is no free will even at the level of appearance). Again, at the level of appearance, there are clearly individuals (jIva-s) and they are affected by all of the influences (including their own apparent volition) according to the cause-effect laws.”

 (My italics to highlight what triggered my question.)

 If there’s only causality to account for actions, there should be no space for free will, as all of my actions are causal. And if there is just a feeling that we have of a free will, then there is no free will. To put it in other words, if there is no free will, how can I actually do mumukShutvam (if desire also is a kind of a free will)? For intense Longing for Liberation to happen, I should be blessed with Free Will. Continue reading

Q.364 – Dispassion

Q: I think I understand “Dispassion” and it’s importance, I’ve read “even loathing for worldly objects”. But I do have some passions or so it feels like it. For instance, I enjoy fabric and sewing “alot” is this just Brahman? At times it feels like an addiction. I don’t think there are judgements againt whatever passion one may have?? I guess I am just a bit confused. I am I guess in the beginning of my journey.

A (Ted): The Sanskrit word for “dispassion” is vairagya. Vairagya is defined as “indifference to the results of one’s actions.” Thus, dispassion is not so much a matter of the absence of desire as it is a matter of not depending on the satisfaction of any desires one does harbor for one’s sense of wholeness, completeness, and wellbeing.

 As long as one is ignorant of one’s true nature as whole, complete, limitless awareness, one’s desires spring from a sense of incompleteness and inadequacy. In other words, discomfited by the mental, emotional, and physical limitations with which one seems afflicted as an apparent person, one feels that if one obtains certain desired objects, attains a certain desired status, achieves certain desired goals, accomplishes certain desired feats, or becomes established in a certain desired state of mind, then one will transcend the limited, inadequate, incomplete person one takes oneself to be and consequently become better or whole or even enlightened. Continue reading