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Toward a New Hermeneutics of the Bhagavad Gītā: Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, and the Secret of Vijñāna

Toward a New Hermeneutics of the Bhagavad Gītā: Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, and the Secret of Vijñāna

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Article on Vijñāna according to Shri Ramakrishna and Aurobindo.

By Ayon Maharaj (Assistant Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and English at Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University in West Bengal, India.)
Article on Vijñāna according to Shri Ramakrishna and Aurobindo.

By Ayon Maharaj (Assistant Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and English at Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University in West Bengal, India.)

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Published by: Paul Herman Lodewijk Verbert on Dec 13, 2013
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1 Ayon Maharaj Forthcoming in
 Philosophy East and West
Toward a New Hermeneutics of the
 Bhagavad G 
: Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, and the Secret of
Vijñ
na
The
 Bhagavad G
"
 has inspired more interpretive controversy than any other religious scripture in India’s history. The
G
"
, a philosophical and spiritual poem of approximately 700 verses, is part of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the
 Mah
"
bh
"
rata
. In the
G
"
, the Lord K 
!"#
a, who appears in the form of a charioteer, imparts spiritual teachings to the warrior Arjuna and convinces him to fight in a just war that entails the slaughter of many of Arjuna’s own relatives and loved ones.
$
a
%
kara, the great eighth-century champion of the Advaita (“non-dual”) school of philosophy, wrote the first extant commentary on the
G
"
. In his commentary,
$
a
%
kara interpreted the
G
"
 
strictly in accordance with Advaita philosophy and attempted to refute various possible non-Advaitic readings of the text.
$
a
%
kara’s influential commentary on the
G
"
 inaugurated a lively debate about how to interpret the
G
"
’s philosophical teachings that continues to this day.
&
m
&
nuja, the eleventh-century proponent of the Vi
'
i
"
t
&
dvaita (“qualified non-dual”) school of  philosophy, rejected
$
a
%
kara’s Advaitic interpretation of the
G
"
 
and claimed that the
G
"
 
in fact propounds the philosophy of Vi
'
i
"
t
&
dvaita. Madhva, the thirteenth-century exponent of the Dvaita (“dualist”) school of philosophy, argued—against both
$
a
%
kara and R 
&
m
&
nuja—that the
G
"
 
teaches none other than Dvaita doctrine. Over the centuries, countless other commentators holding a variety of philosophical and religious  positions have claimed the
G
"
 
as their own. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, numerous Indian and Western scholars—ranging from B.G. Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose to R.C. Zaehner, Robert Minor, and Arvind Sharma—have rightly complained that many traditional commentators on the
G
"
 were guilty of reading their own prejudices and preconceptions into the text.
1
 As Minor puts it, commentators such as
$
a
%
kara and R 
&
m
&
nuja “believed that their systems of thought must be contained in the
G
"
 
and set out to ‘find’ them there and to claim the
G
"
 
as a source of their point of view, even at the expense of the text.”
2
 In other words, while traditional commentators claimed to provide faithful exegesis of the
G
"
, they often lapsed into the
eisegetic
 practice of imposing their own conceptual frameworks onto the text, thereby distorting or falsifying fundamental aspects of the
G
"
’s  philosophical teachings.
3
 Many recent scholars have rejected this traditional eisegetic approach in favor of a more immanent approach to the
G
"
 
that strives to understand the text on its own terms. One major consequence of this shift away from eisegesis in modern
G
"
 
scholarship has  been an increasing attention to a variety of apparent contradictions and puzzles in the
G
"
 that traditional commentators tended to ignore or explain away.
4
 Perhaps the most fundamental puzzle concerns the
G
"
’s complex views on the nature of God. At various  points, the
G
"
 describes K 
!"#
a as a personal God with numerous attributes. In IV.7-9, for instance, K 
!"#
a declares himself to be an incarnation of God in human form, and in V.29, K 
!"#
a states that he is the “mighty Lord of all the worlds.”
5
 However, the
G
"
 
also accepts the reality of the transcendental “
 # 
tman
” (“Self”)
 
 propounded in the Upani
"
ads,
 
 
2 the culminating portion of the Vedas. In II.17-25, K 
!"#
a asserts in an Upani
"
adic vein that Arjuna’s true self is not the empirical body-mind complex but the eternal
 # 
tman
 that is without form and attributes. Strikingly, despite the fact that the
G
"
 characterizes
!"#
a as a personal God, it also identifies K 
!"#
a with the formless, impersonal
 # 
tman
. As K 
!"#
a declares to Arjuna in X.20, “I am the
 # 
tman
 residing in the hearts of all  beings.” To complicate matters further, the
G
"
 
also maintains that God is at once immanent in the universe and transcendent to it. In Chapters 10 and 11, K 
!"#
a details the various ways he is manifested in the universe, but in X.42, he points out that he nonetheless remains transcendent to the universe: “I support this entire universe with a minute portion of Myself.” The challenge for the exegete intent on reading the
G
"
 
on its own terms is to reconcile the seemingly incompatible aspects of K 
!"#
a’s Godhood without invoking external explanatory frameworks.
6
 Remaining strictly within the
G
"
’s own thought-structure, how can we make sense of the
G
"
’s central philosophical thesis that God is both personal and impersonal, both with and without form, both immanent and transcendent? Recent scholars have not been able to provide a convincing answer to this question.
7
 Indeed, Deutsch and Surendranath Dasgupta have gone so far as to declare that the
G
"
’s views on God are fraught with irresolvable contradictions.
8
 I will make the case, however, that Aurobindo’s unduly neglected
 Essays on the Gita
(1916-20) worked out a convincing solution to this fundamental problem about the nature of God in the
G
"
. Aurobindo (1872-1950), a British-educated Bengali yogi and mystic, was one of the first modern interpreters of the
G
"
 to reject the eisegetic practice of traditional “polemist” commentators who turned the
G
"
 
into “a weapon for dialectical warfare.”
9
 Ironically, Aurobindo himself has sometimes been accused of eisegesis, since it may appear as if he read his own experiences and presuppositions into the
G
"
 
instead of taking the text on its own terms.
10
 I hope to demonstrate, however, that Aurobindo’s highly original interpretation of the
G
"
 is, in fact, rigorously immanent to the thought-structure of the
G
"
 
itself. Parts I and II provide the biographical and intellectual background necessary to appreciate the rigor and far-reaching significance of Aurobindo’s reading of the
G
"
. In Part I, I discuss some of the key teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the nineteenth-century Bengali mystic whom Aurobindo considered to be an
avat 
"
ra
, an incarnation of God.
11
 In his recorded teachings, Ramakrishna repeatedly contrasts “
 jñ
"
na
,” spiritual knowledge of the impersonal
 # 
tman
, with “
vijñ
"
na
,” a deeper and more intimate realization of God as at once personal and impersonal, at once beyond the universe and immanent in it. Part II begins with a discussion of Aurobindo’s account of his formative mystical experiences between 1907 and 1909, which correspond quite closely to the experiences of
 jñ
"
na
and
vijñ
"
na
 described by Ramakrishna. I then briefly examine Aurobindo’s essay, “The Yoga and Its Objects,” which was written shortly before he started composing
 Essays on the Gita
. In “The Yoga and Its Objects,” Aurobindo sketches a spiritual philosophy based implicitly on his own mystical experiences and begins to explore how the concept of
vijñ
"
na
 can motivate a new hermeneutic framework for reinterpreting the Indian scriptures, especially the Vedas, the Upani
"
ads, and the
G
"
. With this background in place, I turn to an examination of Aurobindo’s
 Essays on the Gita
 in Part III. Aurobindo, I argue, makes a convincing case that the cryptic distinction drawn in the
G
"
 
 between “
 jñ
"
na
 
and “
vijñ
"
na
”—an aspect of the
G
"
’s
 
 
3  philosophy not especially stressed by traditional commentators—holds the hermeneutic key to understanding the
G
"
’s entire thought-structure. Aurobindo claims that in verses such as VII.2 and IX.1 of the
G
"
, “
 jñ
"
na
” means the spiritual realization of the impersonal
 # 
tman
, while “
vijñ
"
na
 
is the higher and more “comprehensive” knowledge of God as at once the transcendent
 # 
tman
and the supreme Lord pervading the universe. I will argue that Aurobindo provides a thoroughly immanent justification of his interpretation of
 jñ
"
na
and
vijñ
"
na
in the
G
"
 by situating the concepts within the  broader context of the
G
"
 
as a whole. In fact, he demonstrates that the concept of
vijñ
"
na
 —when properly understood—helps clarify many of the
G
"
’s most distinctive and puzzling philosophical doctrines, including its seemingly contradictory account of the nature of God. Part IV gestures toward some of the broader implications of Aurobindo’s radical reinterpretation of
vijñ
"
na
in the
G
"
. The concept of
vijñ
"
na
not only furnishes the  philosophical basis for the
G
"
’s unique syncretic approach to spiritual practice but also hints at a fresh rationale for religious pluralism that could make a significant contribution to contemporary interreligious dialogue and suggest new directions for comparative theology. I. Ramakrishna’s Philosophy of
Vijñ
"
na
 Ramakrishna (1836-1886), who reported having had mystical experiences of God in numerous forms throughout his life, has earned a unique place in the history of world religious figures. He practiced—and claimed to have attained perfection in—a variety of Hindu and non-Hindu spiritual and religious disciplines, including Tantra, Advaita, Vi
'
i
"(&
dvaita, Vaish
#
avism,
$
aivism, Christianity, and Islam. Mahendranath Gupta, a close householder devotee of Ramakrishna, carefully recorded in Bengali many of the conversations held between Ramakrishna and his devotees during the last five years of Ramakrishna’s life. In his recorded teachings, Ramakrishna repeatedly draws a distinction between two forms of spiritual knowledge, which he calls “
 jñ
"
na
 
and “
vijñ
"
na.
In a dialogue dated April 5, 1884, he explains this distinction in great detail:
 Jñ
"
na
 is the realization of the
 # 
tman
 through the process of “
neti
,
 neti
,” “Not this, not this.” One goes into
 sam
"
dhi
 through this process of elimination and realizes the
 # 
tman
. But
vijñ
"
na
means a deeper and more intimate knowledge of the supreme reality [
bi
 $
e
 %
&
 pe j
"
n
"
]. Some have heard of milk, some have seen milk, and some have drunk milk. He who has merely heard of it is “ignorant.” He who has seen it is a
 jñ
"
n
. But he who has drunk it has
vijñ
"
na
, that is to say, a more intimate knowledge of it. After having the vision of God, one talks to Him as if He were an intimate relative. That is
vijñ
"
na.
 First of all you must discriminate, following the method of “Neti, neti”: “He is not the five elements, nor the sense-organs, nor the mind, nor the intelligence, nor the ego. He is beyond all these cosmic principles.” You want to climb to the roof; then you must eliminate and leave behind all the steps, one by one. The steps are  by no means the roof. But after reaching the roof, you find that the steps are

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