Understanding Sankara brings together the essays of the late Richard De Smet, SJ (1916-1997) on the great Indian Advaitin. With the help of his discovery of a doctrine of laksana (analogy) in Sankara, De Smet challenges the traditional interpretation of the acarya as an illusionistic mayavadin. He also attempts a dialogue between Sankara’s Advaita and Christianity, especially as represented by Thomas Aquinas. The present collection makes available this important contribution to Indology and opens it up to dialectic and dialogue.
Richard De Smet (1916-1997) taught Indian Philosophy at Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune. Born in Belgium he joined the Jesuits in 1934 and came to India in 1946. He earned a PhD in 1953 from the Gregorian University, Rome for his thesis on the theological method of Sankara, proposing both that Sankara was a srutivadin, and that he used the method of analogy in his interpretation of the Upanisadic mahavakyas. De Smet was a life member of the Indian Philosophical Congress and the Indian Philosophy Association, and Founder-President of the Association of Christian Philosophers of Indian, and in these capacities carried out an ongoing dialogue with Indian philosophers and religious personalities. He died in 1997.
Ivo Coelho is Reader in Gnoseology and Metaphysics at Divyadaan: Salesian Institute of Philosophy, Nashik, and editor of Divyadaan: Journal of Philosophy and Education. Born in 1958 at Mumbai, he studied under De Smet at Pune, and went on to specialize in the hermeneutical thought of the Chandian philosopher, theologian and economist Bernard Lonergan. He is interested in issues of cross-cultural and interreligious understanding, dialogue and collaboration. He is the author of Hermeneutics and Method: The ‘Universal Viewpoint’ in Bernard Lonergan (Toronto, 2001), and editor of Brahman and Person: Essays by Richard De Smet (Delhi, 2010).
After Brahman and Person (2010), I am happy to be able to present another collection of the essays of the late Prof. Richard De Smet (1916-1997), this time in the area of his chief specialization, Sankara research.
In the first place, my gratitude to all those who have given permission to reprint the articles in this volume. Detailed acknowledgements will be found at the beginning of each article, but here I feel obliged to thank very specially the Rectors of De Nobili College, Pune, first Fr Oscar Rozario and then Fr Keith Abranches, for their graciousnessness and encouragement.
A very large number of people have collaborated in the present work, and I am happy to acknowledge their help:
Archbishop Felix Machado, Bishop earlier of Nashik and now of Vasai; Msgr. Markus Solo of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Arul Jeevan, SJ, Librarian of Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune; Errol D’Lima, SJ, Librarian of De Nobili College, Pune; and Banzelao Teixeira, Peter Gonsalves, Tino Fernandes, Jason Coelho, Sahayadas Fernando and Thumma Vijay Prathap Reddy for help with bibliographical research.
Bernard Britto, Edward Pereira, Nazareth Denis and Shyju Babykutty for help with secretarial work: without them this book would hardly have been possible at all.
Banzelao Teixeira once again for his inestimable service of proof-reading.
My young nephew Amish Coelho for the cover design, which alludes appropriately to Sankara’s frequent use of the definition of a lotus through samanya and visesa-“this kind of lotus is blue, big, sweet-smelling” (nilam mahat-sugandhy-utpalam-iti)-in order to contrast it with Brahman which cannot be defined by genus and species.
Michael Fernandes, Provincial of the Salesians of Don Bosco, Mumbai, and the community of Don Bosco Nashik for the support and space I have enjoyed while engaged in this work.
A special word of thanks to Prof. S. Panneerselvam, Dean, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Madras, who had graciously consented to write a Foreword, but which, due to problems of logistics, I had to forego. Prof. Panneerselvam knew Fr De Smet personally, and esteemed him to the extent of regarding him as one of the Advaitins of Indian.
As this collection of essays centred around the great Sankaracarya is offered to the public, I would like to pay homage also to Fr De Smet, himself an unforgettable guru. May his work continue to bear fruit, and, indeed, play its part in leading us onward-together!-to the Ultimate Shore. For is it not part of the effort to at least indicate what cannot be expressed? Tal-laksyate na tu’ cyate! We are, as De Smet himself used to say, like little children throwing stones at mangoes high up in the tree: the stones may not reach the mangoes, but they do go some way in their direction.
Among Richard De Smet’s chief contributions to indology and to interreligious dialogue are his clarifications regarding the personhood of the para Brahman and his rejection of the illusionist and acosmist interpretation of Sankara’s advaita. Long unavailable to the general public in an easily accessible manner, De Smet’s essays on the first topic were, in 2010, brought together under the title Brahman and Person. His essays on the second topic are now being brought together in the present collection. While I have tried to include all items dealing principally and directly with De Smet’s interpretation of Sankara, there are two significant exceptions: the doctoral dissertation, and the Sankara chapter of his ‘Guidelines in Indian Philosophy.’ The reason is mundane: they were simply too large to be included in a collection of essays, and deserve independent publication.
The essays in the present collection have been divided into three sections: studies, comparative and dialogical efforts, and reviews. Within each section, however, the order is chronological. An appendix contains three unpublished manuscripts from De Smet’s early years. The present introduction will not attempt to give an account of all these items, but will focus simply on a single issue: De Smet’s interpretation of Sankara’s alleged acosmism. Interestingly, we will see that De Smet’s rejection of the mayavada interpretation of Sankara is to be found not in his doctoral dissertation, but only in essays dating from 1964.
1. Early Position
Three facts from De Smet’s early years are significant for his lifelong interst in Sankara: his chancing upon a French article on Advaita while still a 16 year-old schoolboy in Belgium; the light shed upon this article by a much-loved Jesuit teacher in school; and an immersion into Indian thought already during his Jesuit novitiate, especially through the writings of Pierre Johanns, one of the great lights of the so-called ‘Calcutta School’ of Indology.
The fact that De Smet entered the Belgian province of the Jesuits was another important factor in his vocation as indologist. The Calcutta mission was the responsibility of the Belgian province, and it was to this mission that De Smet was assigned after the completion of his philosophical studies. Calcutta was the place of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, whose seemingly failed endeavours at a rapprochement between Hinduism and Christianity had borne fruit in an unexpected manner in the work of William Wallace, SJ (1863-1922). Under Upadhyay’s influence, Wallace became convinced that Christianity had to be Indianized if it had to gain a successful hearing in Bengal. It was Wallace who persuaded the Belgian province to dedicate gifted men to the study of Indian texts. Johanns and Dandoy were fruits of this vision. These Jesuits “produced a duable synthesis of Catholicism and Hinduism…. The ‘Bengal School,’ which these came to be clubbed under, was the lasting contribution to India of Father William Wallace.”
De Smet thus arrived in Calcutta at a moment of significant activity and ferment. In 1922 Dandoy and Johanns had founded The Light of the East, a monthly directed to the Hindu intelligentsia as an instrument of interfaith reflection and dialogue. In 1919, Dandoy had published An Essay in the Doctrine of the Unreality of the World in the Advaita. In 1932 he published L’ ontology du Vedanta: Essai sur I’ acosmisme de I’ Advaita. Johanns’ chief work was To Christ through the Vedanta, published first as a series of articles in The Light of the East (1922-34) and later in book form in French. Other lights were R. Antoine and P. Fallon, Sanskritists and founders of the dialogue centre in Calcutta named Shanti Bhavan.
De Smet recalls that the theology courses in St Mary’s Kurseong, which he began probably in June 1946, were ‘India-oriented’, and that there was even a seminar on the relationship of the world to the Absolute according to Sankaracarya. His earliest statements on Sankara are, in fact, two essays from this period: “Upadhyay’s Interpretation of Sankara” (Ascension Day, 1949) and “A Note on Sankara’s Doctrine of Creation” (13 June 1949). His comments on Upadhyay indicate that he is already seeing similarities between Sankara and the Christian teaching on creation:
Instead of ridiculing Maya as he had done before when Sankara’s statement of the unreality of the world seemed to his mind to be absolute and therefore to lead to a vague theopanism, he henceforward adopted it, identifying it, more faithfully to Sankara’s tenets, with the transcendental relation of the creature to the Creator, or the “creation passive sumpta” of the Schoolmen.
He is sharply critical instead of Fr Hegglin, who had taken Upadhyay to task, contending that “Sankara’s theory was in truth that absurd conception of the absolute unreality of all creatures”. Hegglin, says De Smet, “himself held a very unrefined conception of Creation” and was “a perfect rationalist, unable to grasp that our own mode of knowing can in no way be attributed to God. His conception of God was at bottom that of a Super-man, not of a transcendent God.” It is Sankara rather than Hegglin who is much closer to the truth:
It is however an undeniable fact for Sankara as for us that we ourselves and the world are existing. What is the meaning of this existence? Being (satta) is indeed the one characteristic feature of the world as well as of Brahman (B.S.Bh. 2, 1, 6), but they are irremediably distinct and different because existence in the creatures cannot receive the attributes of absolute substantiality and infinity as in Brahman. Created existence is only an image, a reflection of the absolute existence, and as such a dependent participation, not an existence by right.
However, De Smet recognizes that to speak of participation is to ‘neatly delineate’ the ‘what’ of the mysterious relationship between the Absolute and the world, but not yet its ‘how.’ And Sankara’s way of suggesting it, which is different from the Christian one, is that of maya:
In the parts of his works which provide such hints, the notion of Maya, which incidentally is hardly to be found in the Upanisads, is given prominence. The word itself conceys the idea of glamour, illusion, dazzle and by using it Sankara wishes to stigmatize our congenital error of believing ourselves and the world to be self-sufficient beings while compared with the Infinite Being, the only adequate measuring rod of all beings, we are like nothing.
Hence to say that the world is Maya means that the world has no right to exist; it is not absolute but contingent being and entirely dependent on the Supreme.
Sankara therefore does not say that our phenomenal world is a world of dreams but that compared with the absolute being of God it is in a relation of unreality analogous to the relation of unreality of the dreams when compared to the objects of the waking state.
This extremely positive judgment of Sankara is confirmed in conclusion:
We have patiently followed up the direction pointed out to us by Upadhyay towards the great Vedantin and we have discovered a doctrine which, more than the teachings of the Greek philosophers, provides an intellectual body for the Christian Spirit.
The essay on Sankara’s doctrine of creation largely confirms this interpretation and attitude. Sankara’s doctrine is neither monism nor theopanism but Advaita, non-dualism: he denies the existence of anything apart from Brahman. Vivartavada is Sankara’s way of rejecting parinamavada or change in Brahman as material cause of the world. About maya, instead, De Smet is now more circumspect:
The doctrine here hinted at of Maya as a tentative explanatory theory of the ‘how’ of the creation has been explained elsewhere and moreover we do not wish to give it an importance and a prominence which are not to be found in Sankara’s writings; it is but a complementary theory and its value is one of suggestion rather than of assertion.
The concluding estimation of Sankara is once again very positive: “Simultaneously to exalt man up to asserting that he is a reflection of God, and to humiliate him down to stressing that he is only a reflecting participation and as nothing in himself, this is indeed Sankara’s imperishable greatness.”
By 1952 we find De Smet working on his doctoral thesis on the theological method of Sankara. The chief merit of the dissertation is to have demonstrated that Sankara was not a pure philosopher but rather a srutivadin, and that the doctrine of indirect signification (laksana), already recognized by O Lecombe, plays a central role in Sankara’s theological method. But despite the influence of Upadhyay that we have noted above, the dissertation does not really arrive at a clear rejection of the acosmist interpretation of Sankara. This might be explained perhaps by the fact that neither the Calcutta School nor Lacombe had themselves arrived at such a rejection.
Johanns, for example, notes that Sankara’s chief ‘positive’ doctrine is the absolute independence of God: God is self-existent and unrelated to the world, and there is no real parinama or evolution of Brahman, but only a vivarta, the illusion of an evolution. The Sruti teaching that God is not only efficient but also material cause implied that there was a real self-evolution of God, and this Sankara could not accept: for if God has passed over completely into the world, then he no longer subsists in himself; and if he has passed over partially into the world, then there is a split in the divine nature, and God loses his simplicity. “This Samkara refused to admit to be possible. He consequently denied the reality and even the possibility of the world.”Johanns quotes here his colleague Dandoy: “And it is the glory of the Advaita that alone among the Vedanta systems, it has maintained, even at the cost of the reality of the world, the true notion that the Self-Subsistent is absolutely unchangeable, without modes or accidents.” Johanns concludes: “Samkara was so convinced of the truth of his positive doctrine that for its sake, he gave up the belief that men will give up last-the belief in the existence of the world of sense.”
If Johanns and Dandoy-regretfully perhaps-acknowledge that Sankara was an acomist, Lacombe is less clear He seems to hesitate to call Sankara an idealist, if by idealism is meant the primacy of thought over being, and also admits that Sankara vigorously refuted the idealism that preceded him. But, like Johanns, he does talk, and repeatedly, about Sankara’s doctrine of vivarta or illusory transformation. He notes that Sankara admits both the real transformation of the cause into the effect (parinamavada) and illusory transformation (vivartavada), but that he does not put them on the same level. From the point of view of the effect, it is satkaryavada or parinamavada that is valid; but from the point of view of the cause, it is satkarana-or vivartavada that is valid. But the former can be seen clearly only on the basis of the latter. One has to mount from the effect to the cause, from a lesser to a greater reality, in order to return to the effect and to be able to say to it: ‘You do not exist as effect, you are nothing but your cause.’
A similar ambiguity seems to mark De Smet’s own position in his doctoral dissertation. He recognizes that Sankara abides by the principle of abadhitatva: only what is never contradicted is real. He knows that, on the basis of this principle, Sankara distinguishes three degrees of reality: the utter unreality (atyantabhava) exemplified by the son of a barren mother; the utter Reality (paramartha satta) of that which is never contradicted; and in between all the objects of possible and actual secular (laukika) experience, which are either pratibhasiki satta, those things contradicted by waking experience which are themselves contradicted from the standpoint of the paramartha satta. Thus he is aware that the objects of the second degree are false and yet not absolutely non-existent: they are objects of the pramanas, the correct means of truth, and are neither existent nor non-existent (sad-asad-vilaksana). They cannot be called real in the strict sense. Still, it is as particular that particular objects ar unreal. Supreme Knowledge destroys the individuality of things, the particular forms, by negating the limits they put upon Reality and reabsorbing them into the partless Being. “But, it cannot be said that the whole of our secular knowledge is thus destroyed; no, the samanadhikarana, the substratum common to both the true and the erroneous ideations which constitute every ordinary judgment, remains after the discrimination has taken place and shines in the splendor of Being itself from which it is now known as non-different.” Thus even a pure illusion, such as a mirage, is never a mere imagination of the mind, but depends upon the reality of its substratum, the desert, on which the imagined water is superposed. The mirage has, of course, no reality apart from the surface of the desert. There obtains a non-reciprocal relation between Cause and effects: the Cause is the atman of its effects; the effects are nothing apart from it.
The Cause is anya; they are ananya. “Ajnana consists in nothing else than the belief in the absolute reality of the effect independently from its cause.” And again: secular knowledge has a legitimacy of its own within the sphere of duality which it creates. This world receives its consistency from the immanent presence of its basis, sat, affirmed in every cognition and pervading all. Thus, on account of the omnipresence of this self-luminous substratum, the world is not a mere absurdity.
Despite this rather nuanced treatment of the reality and unreality of the world, however, in his conclusion De Smet refers to Sankara as an acosmist, though, in the light of his disquisition on the use of language, he finds this acosmism “less paradoxical and, even, more acceptable”:
On the contrary, the world and all worldly beings are validly said to be sat, vastu, etc., if these terms are used in their primary and ordinary sense (vyavaharika), but no longer when they are taken in their secondary and full sense (paramarthika). And the language of Samkara being always of the latter kind when he speaks paramarthatah (from the supreme standpoint), the acosmism of his advaitavada becomes less paradoxical and, even, more acceptable.
In sharp contrast, on the question of pantheism De Smet betrays no ambiguity: Sankara is, in his opinion- and here again he is following Johanns and Dandoy-no pantheist at all.
The ambiguous attitude regarding Sankara’s acosmism continues to be reflected in De Smet’s writings of the immediate post-doctoral period. Thus in “Towards Re-orienting Indian Philosophy” of 1956, he regards the vivartavada of Sankara’s disciples as a distinct advance on the master’s position, and even thinks that this theory will help work out a more adequate expression of the causality of Brahman:
In the wake of his own effort, his disciples elaborated vivartavada which is surely a more adequate, though still imperfect, theory of the total causality of the independent Absolute. It is, in my opinion, at the level of this formulation that our attempt to find an improved expression of it should take its departure.
Again, in “Indian Contribution to General Metaphysics” of 1961, after summarizing Sankara’s position on the ontological status of worldly realities (the terms being, true, meaningful, valuable cannot be applied to anything but the permanent and uncaused pure Consciousness; w.r.t. the absolute Being everything else, insofar as it is independently affirmed, is a mere upadhi), he concludes:
This is the view of Sankara which is at least preferable to the pure pantheism of Ramanuja.
Later in the same paper, speaking of tadatmya De Smet says:
But when we come to the Upanisads, we find many expressions and assertions which incline heavily towards an affirmation of pure identity, together of course with other which emphasize distinction between Brahma and his effects. We further notice that reflection has now shifted from eschatology to downright ontology.
Hence, it is not surprising that the first great systematic advaitin, Sankara, choses [sic] the term ‘tadatmya’ to express the intimate invariable relationship of changing beings with the unchanging Brahma. This term can sometimes be translated as ‘identity’, but etymologically it means ‘having that as one’s own atma’. Hence, it possesses a certain ambiguity which allows it to become one of the chief technical terms of a system which itself is not without ambiguity, since it seems to oscillate between sheer acosmism and a theory of ontological participation with a strong bent towards apophatism. Sankara affirms with all due emphasis that ‘the effect has its atma in the cause, but not the cause in its effect’ (Ved. Sut. Bh., 2, 1, 9) and thus tadatmya is not a reciprocal relationship such as pure identity would be.
And yet he is able to say: “the relationship of tadatmya between every being and Brahman is its relationship of total ontological dependence upon Brahma.” A subsequent discussion indicates, in fact, that he is already on his way to negating his earlier remark about the preferability of vivartavada. “The followers of Sankara,” De Smet tells us, “have tried to clarify more and more this tadatmya… mostly by elaborating technically the theory of vivarta.” Sankara himself tended to avoid the term vivarta, because it was connected with the bhedabheda theory that he emphatically rejected. Even when he uses the term ‘vivartate’ in B.S.Bh. 1, 3, 39, he puts it in the mouth of his opponent. The term he accepts is parinama, because it is found in Badarayana’s Sutra, but at the same time he rejects parinamavada, because Brahman is absolutely without change. Still, he uses many examples and comparisons “in order to make it clear that the mode of causality which is suitable to Brahma does in no way detract from his complete transcendence, simplicity, unchangeability and freedom, and neither implies, as does parinamavada, any univocal community of being between changing beings as such and their total Cause.
“It is this intention of Sankara which his disciples have correctly perceived and tried to translate through unambiguous terms.” Suresvara till works with comparisons, engages in a polemic with Samkhya parinamavada, and never uses the term vivarta in connection with Advaita. Padmapada is the first Advaitin who relates vivarta from parinama and vikara, but under the influence of Sabdavaita gives it the meaning of an external manifestation which, though objective, is yet somehow illusory; he thus unwillingly [unwittingly?] paves the way for the future mayavadins.” Prakasatman, commenting on Padmapada, defines vivarta in opposition to parinama, and insists on the fact that the self-manifesting Cause remains absolutely unchanged by the vivarta process of self-manifestation. Vimuktatman avoids giving a definition of vivarta, and fully introduces the term maya into Advaita, and so assimilates Advaita to its chief enemy, the pure mayavada of the Buddhists. He also makes fashionable the term anirvacaniya, which becomes an excuse to avoid delving deeply into the mystery of finite existence. “Yet, besides refuting Dvaita, he strongly rejects the pure identity of Brahman and world as implied in the Sabdadvaita theory of Bhedabheda.” Vacaspatimisra does not contribute anything new. Sarvajnatman sees that no theory can measure up to the reality of the mystery. Parinamavada is a first approach; it is cancelled by vivartavada, which is itself cancelled by a perfect intuition that completely sublimates causality as a conception. As for Prakasananda, he practically returns to the Buddhist position which Sankara had so strenuously opposed:
Prakasananda hardens this interesting view and his monism (rather than non-dualism) seems to Dasgupta “surprisingly similar to the idealism of Vasubandhu.” Indeed, his drsti-srsti, which is quite alien to Sankara’s Advaita, eliminates all forms of ontological causality, and he expressly states that vivartavada is a mere pedagogical device.
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