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Blake 2 12/1/10 “Whoever understands the gods as other than the self, the gods have given him over [to ignorance]” (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad IV.5.7). This quote from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad summarizes the Upaniṣadic critique of Saguṇa Brahman. It implies that true knowledge comes from realizing that each and every human is the source of divinity, that the gods of religion are no different than our true selves. An important distinction to make is that Brahman—the Hindu conception of the Divine that is experienced as pure unqualified being—can be described in two ways. There is Saguṇa Brahman, or Brahman with attributive qualities, and there is also Nirguṇa Brahman, or Brahman without any qualities whatsoever. Saguṇa Brahman is a formed alternative to the unformed, unfathomable Nirguṇa Brahman: that which humans aspire to meditate upon as pure consciousness. Formed qualities in this sense are meant to be attributive statements such as “God is love,” or “He is a merciful Lord.” To ascribe qualities to Brahman is to speak through the use of anthropocentric theology, or theology that finds its origin in human phenomenon and reveals human nature rather than making unique claims about God. That “whoever understands the gods as other than the self” is “given over” to the realm of ignorance highlights the Upaniṣadic thought that all attributive conceptions of Saguṇa Brahman are merely subjective interpretations of the unqualified state of being that is Nirguṇa Brahman, resulting in statements grounded in human phenomena rather than divine revelation. Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th century German philosopher, also voices criticisms about anthropocentric theology, noting that it alienates human consciousness from itself. “The divine being is nothing else than the human being,” he says in regards to the anthropocentric notions of God (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity 14). Feuerbach is clear in his belief that what humans call “God” is nothing other than the ideals of humanity. His theory precurses the field of
Blake 3 philosophical secular humanism, and both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud extensively borrow from Feuerbach’s original thesis—that all talk of an objective God is really rhetoric about the subjective human being. Feuerbach regards theology as a misguided attempt of humanity at understanding its own essential nature. Keeping in mind both the Upaniṣadic and Feuerbachian conceptions of theology, Feuerbach’s criticism of anthropocentric theology reaffirms the earlier Upaniṣadic critique of Saguṇa Brahman. Feuerbach is often viewed as a philosophical atheist who denied the existence of any divine character, and this interpretation enhances the controversy of such a thesis when compared to the metaphysics of the Upaniṣads that find the divine character pervading all existence, present as unadulterated consciousness itself. Both Feuerbach and the teachings of the Upaniṣads agree that human conceptions of God are limited and serve only an intermediate role on the path to enlightenment. The blending of Eastern and Western philosophical theology contributes to an ever-growing body of cosmopolitan scholarly literature, especially with the emergent academic interest in mystical traditions. This topic is also particularly significant in today’s syncretistic society where laity members are more comfortable blending different faiths and philosophical schools with the advent of the multi-religious global culture. Reclaiming Feuerbach as the spiritual humanitarian he intended to be is an important gain for all spiritualists who seek religious freedom from sectarian and dogmatic forms of localized religions, and theologically, this study highlights fundamental agreements between Advaita Vedānta and Western philosophy. These two philosophies will be examined as having seven distinct qualities in common with each other. Both regard anthropocentric theology as leading to the alienation of humankind from itself; both note that human language is fundamentally incapable of unbiased descriptions
Blake 4 of the Divine; both believe anthropocentric gods to be human-made; both note the subject-object dilemma resulting from anthropocentric theology; both view anthropocentric gods as vehicles of complacency; both highlight how anthropocentric descriptions of the Divine shroud humanity’s intrinsic divinity; and both describe anthropocentric gods as illusions. I will reply so several specific objections: that a conception of Brahman with attributes leads to a personal sense of devotion, which has sufficed in devotional sects; that an Ultimate cannot be said to exist if one cannot even speak of it; that there are also instances in the Upaniṣads when the Ultimate is described with attributions and form; and that Feuerbach rejected the entire notion of a God whereas the Upaniṣads affirm the existence of Brahman.
I. Alienation of Humankind From Itself I.1. Theological Alienation and the Human Subject Feuerbach argues that anthropocentric theology alienates humankind from itself. He reasons that anthropocentric theology keeps humankind from knowing itself on the basis that the more humans project into God, the more they take away from themselves (Harvey, “Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach”). Those ideals humans project are essential parts of humanity. Immersed in an existence of anxiety where humankind feels the need to transcend mortality, humans project the solutions to these anxieties and fears onto an objective deity, such as divine grace, omniscience, immortality, justice, etc. Feuerbach recognizes humanity’s constant search for appeasement of these anxieties by noting that “God springs out of the feeling of a want; therefore conscious, or an unconscious need—that is God” (The Essence of Christianity 73). For Feuerbach, then, God is nothing more than a projected source of appeasement for human wants and needs. Unfortunately, when humans project those perfected ideals of humanity onto an
Blake 5 objective deity, those ideals are removed from their source, and humans no longer see those ideals as intrinsically human. Hans Wilhelm Frei points out that the unintended result of this projection is the dichotomy of individual subjectivity “into a supposedly differentiated object over against [humanity], which [we] call God but is merely the alienated subject” (252). The alienated divine subject of humankind worships a supposedly objective deity for the sole reason that “it” possesses those human-generated ideals. No longer is humanity seen as divine in itself, but instead dependent on an external deity for a sense of ultimacy and transcendence. Thus, by removing these ideals from their true source, humankind is alienated from understanding its own intrinsic divinity.
I.2. Alienating the Divine Ātman The Upaniṣads, similarly, stress that anthropocentric theology distances human consciousness from authentic relation to divine reality. Saguṇa Brahman, in the Advaita worldview, falsely separates Ātman from Brahman, which are in all reality equivalents. The texts point out this divisive nature of Saguṇa Brahman, proclaiming that “whoever worships another god, thinking, ‘He is one and I am another’ does not know” (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad I.4.10). Individuals who create and worship Saguṇa Brahman, a god exterior to the ĀtmanBrahman experience, do not know the true essence of reality—that is, that each individual is the manifestation of divinity in and through Ātman-Brahman. When humans seek devotion to a deity rather than to the Self (Ātman), they falsely distance themselves from identity with Brahman. Humans find devotion to the Saguṇa Brahman of their choice and meditate upon each specific deity rather than meditation on Nirguṇa Brahman, which can be difficult, as Nirguṇa Brahman is formless and nonconceptual. Therefore, Saguṇa Brahman establishes a false
Blake 6 dichotomy between the divine Self and the divine Brahman, as this barrier is mediated by attribute-formed deities. Humankind is thus alienated from the awareness of its own intrinsically divine nature. Despite these criticisms of anthropocentric deities, it can be argued that a conception of Brahman with attributes leads to a personal sense of devotion. As opposed to Nirguṇa Brahman, Saguṇa Brahman can be concretely conceived of in the mind. Saguṇa devotion is justified on the grounds that each concretely conceived conception “is a proper object of devotion and, when realized in experience, is a state of loving bliss” (Deutsch 12-13). Devotees of Saguṇa formations revel in the sense of blissful love and tranquility that Saguṇa Brahman offers through a unitive experience. Several manifestations of Saguṇa Brahman incorporate human attributes and often espouse a teaching of devotion, love, and grace. This sense of devotion and dependence easily satisfies those human wants and needs pointed out by Feuerbach. In fact, these devotional sects comprise roughly 98% of the world’s Hindu population, illustrating the popularity and commonality of devotional practices in the Hindu worldview (“Hinduism”). Yet, a sense of devotion to a deity is ultimately the love of the Self. Yājñavalkya, the great Upaniṣadic sage, teaches his wife that “it is not for the love of the gods that the gods are dear: it is for the love of the Self that the gods are dear” (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad IV.5.6). The gods are dear only in that we sense in them the universal Ātman, and on that fundamental level, we feel a sense of cosmic endearment. A feeling of devotion to the numerous Saguṇa conceptions is misapplied love of the ubiquitous Ātman. The Self, of the same essence as Brahman, is pervasive throughout all existence and encompasses everything, including the Saguṇa conceptions of Brahman. Existence, we can then say, is ultimately undifferentiated, as it is formed from the same communal essence of the Self:
Blake 7 The entire empirical world, with its distinction of finite minds and the objects of their thought, is an illusion. Subjects and objects are like the fleeting images which encompass the dreaming soul and melt away into nothingness at the moment of waking (Radhakrishnan 431). This empirical world humanity perceives to be real and apart from itself is dreamlike, in that individuals find material form to be the ultimate expression of reality. Once individuals awake from that dream and realize the panenthiestic ramifications of the world existing within the divine Ātman-Brahman, the supposed distinction between subjects and objects slowly dissolves. All manifestations of existence only appear to be differentiated through the powerful illusion of māyā: “the ontic-noetic state wherein limitations are imposed upon Reality” (Deutsch 28-29). Māyā is the mediating adjunct that disrupts our ability to see the true unified nature of the Ātman-Brahman existence. Thus, when humans form anthropocentric conceptions of the Divine, māyā deludes them into finding ultimacy in each particular form and name of Saguṇa Brahman. Rather than seeing the unity of all existence, humans find devotion in each manifestation of Saguṇa Brahman and are prevented from seeing the actuality that the Self is the founding construct of all appearances.
II. The Unqualified Role of Human Language in Theology II.1. Feuerbach’s View of All Theology as Anthropocentric Theology Feuerbach believes that human language cannot transcend itself to speak of a God. Human language and symbolic representations, in his thought, are strictly limited to cognition of formed material—that is, humans can only conceive of things in the mind that in some way have formed attributes. All theology, for Feuerbach, is anthropocentric theology “because it is
Blake 8 necessary [for] man to have a definite conception of God, and since he is man he can form no other than a human conception of [God]” (The Essence of Christianity 16). This fundamentally “human conception” occurs because it is impossible to conceive of something in the mind lacking any attributive description, as human language has its source in phenomenal experience. According to Feuerbach, we can only speak of objects and states of being that have been experienced by humans phenomenally, and therefore human language is inadequate when used to describe states of being that are beyond human experience (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity 14-16). God, then, is necessarily a state of being higher than that of human experience and therefore cannot be properly described by human language or language-formed symbolic representation.
II.2. Limiting the Transcendent-Consciousness of Brahman Through Language The Upaniṣads also recognize that attributive human language limits the transcendent awareness of the unlimited Brahman. This is because Nirguṇa Brahman—the ultimate transcendent consciousness—is totally unfathomable. It cannot be conceived of in the mind using analytic cognition, as it cannot even be imagined: Not with consciousness turned inward, not with consciousness turned outward, not with consciousness turned both ways, not a mass of consciousness, not conscious, not unconscious…unseen, inviolable, unseizable, signless, unthinkable, unnameable… without duality. That is the Self (Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad I.7). This Upaniṣadic teaching reveals the fundamental nature of Ātman-Brahman as ontologically above the human consciousness in all aspects, encompassing contradictions and noncontradictions. Without attributes, humans cannot grasp the content or character of Nirguṇa
Blake 9 Brahman. The Upaniṣads go on to teach that when humans try to conceptualize the unfathomable Nirguṇa Brahman, they limit their transcendence of “it.” “It cannot be won by speech or mind or eye. How can it be grasped in any other way than by one saying, ‘It is!’” (Kaṭha Upaniṣad VI.12). Exceeding all conceptual attributes, Brahman can only be understood simply as transcendent existence. No other affirmative or attributive statements can be said outside of Brahman existing, and the preceding teaching highlights the inadequacy of both speech and mind in trying to grasp the nonconceptual Brahman. As Nirguṇa Brahman is a nonconceptual plane of existence, any attribute ascribed to Nirguṇa Brahman limits “it” from encompassing the ultimacy of existence. Limiting Nirguṇa Brahman creates Saguṇa Brahman, which necessarily cannot be the ultimate transcendent consciousness the Upaniṣads strive to contemplate, as much can be said of Saguṇa Brahman in the way of attributions. Thus, human language limits humans from experiencing the perfected nature of total consciousness. However, an Ultimate cannot be said to exist if one cannot even speak of it. Feuerbach himself makes such a claim in regards to negative theology, or non-attributive theology: “Where man deprives God of all qualities, God is no longer anything more to him than a negative being” (The Essence of Christianity 14). He insists that the qualities ascribed to God are what give God its essence, the removal of which creates a hollow, philosophical abstraction. Feuerbach further argues that a being with no attributes, which cannot be conceived of, has no use for humanity and instead is an atheistic construct that essentially denies the existence of the being. He believes that such a being could never truly be known by mankind and therefore serves no purpose in the religious life. The “negative being” is, to use Feuerbach’s phrasing, “virtually non-existent” (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity 14).
Blake 10 In spite of Feuerbach’s objection, the Vedāntic metaphysics maintains that Brahman does not exist as a being. Instead, Brahman can be seen as the act of creation rather than something “created” or existent as beings are existent. Brahman can best be described as “the creative and unifying principle of the universe” rather than an existent “being” (Mathur 392). The word “beings” denotes concretized manifestations that can be conceptualized in the mind, and Brahman is not this. Rather, as the unifying, creative force of existence, Brahman is the act of manifestations coming into being. As the act of creation itself, Brahman is conceptually abstract and void of attributes. Brahman does not and cannot exist in the mind because whereas cognition systematically analyzes phenomena, Brahman is the consciousness which spawns cognition. The Kaṭha Upaniṣad examines the metaphysical relation of Brahman to the created world: “The mind is higher than the senses, Being higher than the mind: the great Self is above being, the unmanifest is higher than the great” (VI.7). If the mind spawns the senses, then Being spawns the mind, and the unmanifest Brahman spawns Being itself. Brahman, then, is on such a level that the mind cannot transcend itself to form cognitive reasoning of “it.” Feuerbach’s criticism of a negative being’s intrinsic nonexistence does not apply to Brahman because Brahman spawns yet does not adhere to the laws of finite beings.
III. The Human Invention of Gods III.1. Feuerbach’s Projection Theory Fulfilling Existential Wants The heart of Feuerbach’s philosophy lies in the idea of God as a human-made conception. This claim is propounded by his theory of projection, stating that God is nothing other than humanity itself: God is, so to speak, the outward projection of humanity’s inward nature, an extension of human aspirations:
Blake 11 Man…projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject; he thinks of himself as an object to himself, but as the object of an object, of another being than himself (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity 29). The gods, in this sense, are objective interpretations of humankind’s own subjective moral ideas —objects above the alienated human subject. Only through delusion does humanity believe these gods to be outside of the subjective human self. The projection of subjectivity is a process by which humankind overcomes the intense longing for comfort and security. When confronted with the imminence of mortality, humanity longs to overcome such mysterious limitations: Anxious and wanting to feel at home in a universe that will ultimately kill it, the self attempts to reduce the mysteriousness of these powers by personalizing them, by transforming this ‘not-I’ into a personal superhuman power that can fulfill our wishes and desires, the most powerful of which is to transcend nature and death (Harvey, “Feuerbach on Luther’s” 5). This existential desire to transcend nature and death occurs when humanity realizes the prospect of a meaningless existence, and to challenge this impasse, humanity looks outside of itself for dependence—what Harvey refers to as the “not-I.” Subconsciously, the individual creates a being that can solve such dilemmas, a being comprised of perfected human aspirations. Worshipped as such, humanity successfully mitigates these desires by relying on the perfection of a deity. Feuerbach also notes that each attribute of God expresses an aspect of the hope humans have to be free from their limitations (The Essence of Christianity 14). A God that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent is ultimately the creation of humanity’s wants to be
Blake 12 free from mortal constraints. Thus, conceptions of God are merely subjective human creations to alleviate the pressures of mortality.
III.2. Creating Saguṇa Brahman as a Source of Devotion and Comfort The Upanishads likewise view anthropocentric gods as creations of human culture. In the Upaniṣadic metaphysical construct, Saguṇa Brahman can be seen as a formation of collective human ignorance, or avidyā. This ignorance is not an intellectual deficiency, but rather, a misunderstood conception of reality. Saguṇa Brahman arises when humans try to conceptualize Nirguṇa Brahman, to give form to something otherwise nonconceptual. Being unfathomable, Nirguṇa Brahman transcends all anthropocentric attributes and is thus reduced with the emergence of Saguṇa interpretations. The Upaniṣads speak directly to this reduction of Brahman’s unfathomable nature with the advent of formed, objective interpretations through Saguṇas: “For human beings the mind is the cause of bondage and freedom. When attached to objects, it brings bondage. When without object, it brings freedom…” (Maitrī Upaniṣad IV.6). The mind attaches and is therefore bound to the objective Saguṇa Brahman, becoming an entity in which humans can confide, trust, and care for. Relying on the objective Saguṇa Brahman, humanity prefers the comfort of a deity rather than the indeterminate bliss that comes with the non-objective Nirguṇa Brahman. The emphasis on a feeling of comfort and dependence rather than existing in the transcendent consciousness thus leads humanity to create multiple variants of Saguṇa Brahman, all interpreted and affirmed by the human mind from its necessarily limited standpoint (Deutsch 12). Nirguṇa Brahman, on a conceptual level higher than that of humankind, can only be conceived in a flawed manner, as the human intellect cannot
Blake 13 comprehend the absence of attributes. Collective human ignorance births such limited, humancreated conceptualizations of Nirguṇa Brahman. It must be noted that there are also instances in the Upaniṣads when the Ultimate is described with attributions and form. In fact, this anthropocentric conception of Brahman correlates with passages that speak of devotion and grace in reference to an external deity. In the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, Brahman is referenced by several manifestations, such as Rudra and Śiva, both of whom bestow grace and protection on devotees (III.1-6). This Upaniṣad stresses devotion and characterizes the importance of a formed Brahman as opposed to the formless Brahman described elsewhere in the principle Upaniṣads. This formed Brahman is easier to contemplate and give devotion to, and Saguṇa Brahman is even referred to as a “refuge” for human fear (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad IV.21). The conception of Brahman in this Upaniṣad also has characteristics such as sentience, omniscience, and the willed power to bestow grace and favor (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad IV.11-21). An important distinction to make in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, however, is that these Saguṇa interpretations are meant only to lead the individual into contemplation of Nirguṇa Brahman, not necessarily to remain ends in themselves. In the same Upaniṣad, the text critiques this Saguṇa interpretation: “Higher than [Rudra and other Saguṇa conceptions] is the supreme Brahman. Knowing that powerful one…one enveloping all, folk become immortal” (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad III.7). The text clearly delineates a higher Brahman from Rudra and other Saguṇa representations, one that “envelopes all” manifestations and leads to undifferentiated consciousness, or nirvikalpa samādhi. Because Nirguṇa Brahman is a totally abstract, unfathomable existence without attributes, it can be a daunting concept on which to meditate. A combative measure to alleviate this abstractedness is to construct Saguṇa Brahman,
Blake 14 which is a convenient modality that humans can comprehend, as it has form and can be conceived of in the mind. These anthropocentric attributes used to form Saguṇa Brahman are human-generated and familiar, and thus, they attempt to fill the void of devotion which Nirguṇa Brahman creates. Saguṇa Brahman can be seen as an intermediary step or portal from the world of form into the transcendent bliss of Nirguṇa Brahman: Experientially, the role of a positive characterization or definition of Brahman is to direct the mind towards Brahman by affirming essential qualities that are really only denials of their opposites. All [Saguṇa] characterizations of Brahman…are intended…to aid those who are searching for Brahman and have not realized It (Deutsch 11). Saguṇa Brahman is a stepping stone from familiar to abstract, helping humans conceptualize the unfathomable Nirguṇa Brahman by directing the mind towards the unknowable through that which can be known. Though the Upaniṣads state that one can find Nirguṇa Brahman through contemplation of Saguṇa Brahman, they stress the transient nature of Saguṇa Brahman in light of Nirguṇa Brahman’s ultimacy. Keep in mind that because they were written over a very long period of time and were created out of several rich, competing traditions, the Upaniṣads often contain conflicting points of view, which can account for the textual contradictions (Deutsch 5).
IV. Anthropocentric Theology and the Subject-Object Dilemma IV.1. Feuerbach’s False Object Over the Subject of Shared Humanity Feuerbach makes clear the subject-object dilemma that an objective God creates for humanity. Similar to his argument of alienation, the objective anthropocentric God inspires a false metaphysics in the mind of humanity, one that establishes the existence of an object above the human subject:
Blake 15 In religion man seeks contentment; religion is his highest good. But how could he find consolation and peace in God if God were an essentially different being? How can I share the peace of a being if I am not of the same nature with him? If his nature is different from mine, his peace is essentially different—it is no peace for me (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity 45). The essential nature of objective, anthropocentric interpretations of God, then, becomes qualitatively different to the essential nature of the human subject. Peace is no longer sharing a common subject, but rather, subjecting oneself to an outward, “different being.” For Feuerbach, the only subject is a shared subject—that of common human consciousness, viewed as perfect, infinite, and complete, only becoming both a subject and an object through the projection of internal desires (Galloway 137). This creates a distinction between humankind and an external “other”—in this sense, the anthropocentric God—forcing humanity to view itself as dependent rather than independent. The dilemma further alienates humanity and shields it from true unification.
IV.2. The Single Subject of Ātman-Brahman in the Upaniṣadic Metaphysics Like Feuerbach, the Upaniṣads also seek to overcome all subject-object distinctions. Advaita Vedānta teaches a metaphysical nonduality that is explicit in the Upaniṣadic texts. These texts note that all of existence is merely an expression of Brahman. Uddālaka, another great Upaniṣadic sage, teaches his son Śvetaketu the nondual nature of reality through an illustration delineating empirical form from its abstract essence: “Good lad, just as through one lump of clay everything made of clay is known, so difference of shape is just name, dependent on speech: ‘clay’ is the reality” (Chāndogya Upaniṣad VI.1.4). “Clay,” in this sense, is to be
Blake 16 seen as Brahman, the underlying essence from which all form springs. Where differentiation seems apparent, it is really only an illusion of form. Thus, any subject-object distinction is false and misleading in the Upaniṣadic metaphysics. An anthropocentric God dichotomizes the unified subject of Ātman-Brahman and leads humanity to awareness of a separate nature, outside of itself, where the individual is given over to the realm of ignorance and form.
V. Anthropocentric Gods as Vehicles of Complacency V.1. Redemption as Complacency For Feuerbach, an anthropocentric God encourages complacency in humanity, concluding that such theology “enables us to place our virtues at an impassable distance from ourselves, by projecting them into that higher, and illusory, realm from which they can never thereafter be recuperated” (Scruton). Now at an impassable distance, humanity becomes content in worshiping the virtues and idealized characteristics of an objective deity rather than the subjective self. Those virtues, once placed in the objective deity, are removed from their source in humanity, deluding individuals into thinking that such virtues must be aspired to, rather than understanding how such virtues are already intrinsically present in humanity. It becomes easier to rely on the caprices of an external “other” rather than manage one’s own fate, where “this God so loves and cares for the individual that the individual does not have to love or care for him or herself” (Harvey, “Feuerbach on Luther’s” 11). Relinquishing the duty to care for one’s own fate, complacency for Feuerbach, then, is becoming comfortable with the objective God as a savior who will redeem humankind. This dependence on external redemption relieves humankind of the duty to save itself by understanding the intrinsic nature of humanity as divine.
Blake 17 Such dependence alleviates existential anxieties but at the same time robs humankind of the ability to see itself as a direct expression of the Divine, to see the true nature of human existence.
V.2. Losing Sight of the Divine Self Through Worship of an “Other” A similar case can be made in the Upaniṣads. One critique of Saguṇa Brahman present in the Upaniṣads is that when it becomes an end in itself, Saguṇa Brahman distracts humans from the love of the Self. Extant across various Hindu traditions is the notion of the iṣṭa-devatā, or the “god of one’s choice,” where individuals are encouraged to seek out the God that works best for them. These various Saguṇa interpretations can be seen as wholesome insomuch as they can become a receptacle of love and devotion, though only coupled with the wisdom that each iṣṭa-devatā is non-ultimate in itself, but rather, serves as a ladder towards the unfathomable Nirguṇa Brahman. Yājñavalkya describes Brahman only as “‘not this, not this.’ Because there is no other and more appropriate description” (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad II.3.6). Yājñavalkya’s logic, much like the notion of iṣṭa-devatā, formulates the understanding that the transcendent presence of Ātman-Brahman cannot be adequately described as a particular, historical “this” or “that.” Saguṇa interpretations of Brahman can be seen as localized, non-ultimate representations of Nirguṇa Brahman. Thus, when individuals find solace and complacency in one particular Saguṇa representation, affirming it as higher or more complete than other manifestations, they do not continue contemplating Nirguṇa Brahman’s equivalence to Ātman, rather finding ultimacy in the formed Saguṇa representation(s). Without this further contemplation, moving from formed manifestations to Brahman without form, humanity cannot fully understand the symbolic statement that states “that thou art:” the heart of the Upaniṣads that clearly equates the divine Brahman with Ātman (Mathur 392). By distancing Saguṇa
Blake 18 Brahman from Ātman, humanity “forgets” its true essential nature of divinity. Saguṇa Brahman aids in this forgetting as it offers humankind the space to devote to and love an external other, focusing more on the external divinity than the internal divinity, stalling the devotee in a state of loving complacency.
VI. The Intrinsic Divinity of Humanity VI.1. Humans Have in Sight Themselves Alone Interestingly enough, Feuerbach is not the vehement atheist later schools made him out to be. Feuerbach instead voices his conception of “God” as inextricably present in humanity: In and through God, man has in view himself alone. It is true that man places the aim of his action in God, but God has no other aim of action than the moral and eternal salvation of man: thus man has in fact no other aim than himself. The divine activity is not distinct from the human (The Essence of Christianity 29). The activities and actions of God are non-existent apart from the ideals of humankind, and humanity has itself in mind continuously when constructing a God. God, then, is an agent on behalf of humanity, subjected to humankind’s wants and desires: hardly an objective, allpowerful deity. For Feuerbach, a deity only exists insofar as collective humanity exists. Feuerbach further notes that those attributes humans project onto God are essentially perfected human ideals. They are, in his thought, divine because humanity worships them enough to subconsciously ascribe them to a deity (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity 183). Rather than loving an external object for the reasons of being all-merciful and all-loving, humanity must invert the predicates and worship itself for having the capacity to love and be merciful to one another. Feuerbach even heralds Christianity as a “perfected” religion in that the God it
Blake 19 worships had to relinquish divinity and become a human in order to save humankind (Harvey, “Feuerbach on Luther’s” 4-5). Humans have the innate ability to distinguish what is divine and what is not, and those traits are what are to be revered in the human consciousness as humans hold their own fates and divinity.
VI.2. The Shared Ātman as Divine It is clear that the Upaniṣads similarly espouse a teaching that highlights the intrinsic divinity of all humanity. The supreme teaching is phrased tat tvam asi, or “that thou art.” In context, it means that humankind is of the same essence and being of Brahman, the divine fullness of being, simply summarized as “all this is Brahman. The Self [Ātman] is Brahman” (Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad 1.2). The ultimate goal of the Upaniṣads is to highlight the identity of Ātman with Brahman, to point out that all existence is unified and without duality. All that exists, including humanity, is an emanation from the divine source of Brahman. The goal of the individual, then, is to awaken to knowledge of this indissoluble union with the Divine (Woodburne 54). Humanity is intrinsically divine because at the root of all humanity is the collective divine Ātman, and Brahman is equivalent to Ātman, which all existence shares. Thus, humankind does not need to depend on external manifestations of Saguṇa Brahman to experience its own divine nature. When the individual exalts the Self, the anthropocentric gods disappear, or rather, are subrated with the individual’s knowledge of the Saguṇa’s transience and ultimately evasive relation to the intrinsic Ātman (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad IV.3.22).
VII. The Illusion of Anthropocentric Gods VII.1. God as the Illusory Externalization of Human Hopes
Blake 20 Feuerbach’s theory of religious projection claims that an anthropocentric God is a conceptual illusion. He posits that “the object of any subject is nothing else than the subject's own nature taken objectively. Such as are a man's thoughts and dispositions, such is his God” (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity 3). The objective anthropocentric God, in Feuerbach’s view, is merely the subjective self taken as object. Humankind’s God, then, is an illusion, an amalgamation of perfected human ideals projected by man’s inner desires, fears, and confusion. Sylvester Schilling expounds the illusory nature of a “projected” God: [Humanity] therefore posits a God who will realize for [it] in another world the wishes which are thwarted on earth and the evils which are so devastating here. But this God is nothing else than the illusory externalization of human hopes (24). These illusory externalizations of the anthropocentric gods, for Feuerbach, become receptacles for human hopes, devoid of any reality. They are sustained by an individual perceiving the natural limitations of humanity and then projecting the unlimited onto an external deity. These objective gods, when stripped away of all attributive ideals, do not exist. The anthropocentric deity’s existence is dependent solely on those attributes used to build it. Finding refuge and ultimacy in such an anthropocentric deity is therefore illusory and essentially a misdirected love for collective humanity (Galloway 137).
VII.2. Saguṇa Brahman Under the Veil of Māyā. The Upaniṣads also espouse the illusory nature of anthropocentric gods. The Vedāntic worldview focuses heavily on this idea of illusion, or “māyā” in Sanskrit—mainly that all aspects of existence distinguished by form and name are part of this māyā, as the Upaniṣads clearly teach a nondual metaphysics. Consider the following teaching that highlights how
Blake 21 enlightenment is dependent on seeing the illusory nature of differentiated form: “There is nothing various here. The one who sees things here as various goes from death to death” (Kaṭha Upaniṣad IV.11). This statement argues that existence seems multifarious and differentiated, though really it is not: it only appears so through illusion. Saguṇa Brahman, therefore, is the result of the illusory world of formed material, because it is separated by name and form. Saguṇa Brahman becomes an external entity and therefore differentiated. Eliot Deutsch points out this illusory nature of Saguṇa Brahman by saying, “Whenever we transform the impersonal into the personal, that is, when we make Brahman something or someone who cares, we bring about an association of the impersonal with māyā” (28). The anthropocentric deity, then, is the personalized manifestation of the impersonal Nirguṇa Brahman through the lens of māyā. By attributing form to something formless, an illusory picture of an abstraction forms in the mind of the individual and is therefore non-ultimate. Saguṇa Brahman can further be said to be illusory because the conditioning used to describe it is not real but only apparent, as the form and name used to build attributes are both transient and marked by māyā (Bhattacharyya 138). Although much evidence has been provided that Feuerbach’s thought can be aligned with Upaniṣadic texts, it still remains that Feuerbach rejects the entire notion of a God while the Upaniṣads affirm the existence of Brahman. Feuerbach upholds humanity as the highest ideal and criticizes any conception of a God outside of humankind: Who can deny that human egoism is the fundamental principle of religion and theology? For if a being’s worthiness to be worshipped…depends solely on his relation to human welfare…then the ground of divinity is to be sought solely in human egoism (Lectures on the Essence of Religion 62).
Blake 22 For Feuerbach, what is normally considered “God” is nothing other than the collective speciesnature of humanity. Human egoism is the ground of divinity, and no religious claims can be made outside of this source and still retain their integrity and function for humanity. His philosophy vehemently opposes any divinity outside of our species, placing man as the pinnacle of creation in his secular humanistic paradigm. The Upaniṣads, though, recognize the divine presence of Brahman pervasive throughout all existence. Humanity is not divine for humanity’s sake, as is with Feuerbach, but rather, because all beings are expressions of the divine Brahman. This seems to be an irreconcilable difference in these two modes of thought. Yet, Feuerbach denies the existence of the anthropocentric Judeo-Christian God. Feuerbach was trained as a philosopher in a Judeo-Christianity-saturated Germany. It was the predominant religion of that culture and the only tradition referenced specifically by Feuerbach in his writings. Though it is possible for Feuerbach to have come into contact with the Upaniṣads or at least the ideas therein, we can assume he was unfamiliar with the theological intricacies outside of the monotheistic religions. Interestingly enough, Feuerbach’s metaphysics regarding the natural world are strikingly similar to the worldview of the Upaniṣads. Note the Upaniṣadic undertones of Feuerbach’s exhortation on the transiency of form and matter: In the inmost depths of thy soul, thou wouldest rather there be no world, for where the world is, there is matter, and where there is matter there is weight and resistance, space and time, limitation and necessity…Nevertheless, there is a world and there is matter. How dost thou escape from the dilemma of this contradiction? Only…by giving it an arbitrary existence, always hovering between existence and non-existence, always awaiting its annihilation” (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity 110).
Blake 23 Here is an uncanny resemblance to the Upaniṣadic conception of the illusion and non-ultimacy of form, where Feuerbach would stand with Yājñavalkya in teaching that a strict materialism leads only to endless limitation and necessity, weight and resistance. The metaphysics of Feuerbach and the Upaniṣads can agree on this exaltation of the unformed, but can these two philosophies agree on the characteristics of divinity? Actually, Brahman as Self is more aligned to Feuerbach’s metaphysics than the Judeo-Christian God, which Feuerbach denies. Because Nirguṇa Brahman is attributeless, Feuerbach cannot confuse “it” with projected subjective ideals. Nirguṇa Brahman cannot be limited by anthropocentric theology, and “it” takes no part in the arbitrary existence of form and matter than Feuerbach so eloquently refutes. Also, revering Brahman leads to the continual reverence of humanity, because Ātman and Brahman are identical, and all humans share Ātman. Feuerbach and the Upaniṣads can both agree that “the self must be glorified, the self must be served here. Glorifying and serving the self here, one attains both worlds” (Chāndogya Upaniṣad VIII.8.4). As the Upaniṣads glorify the life found within all humans, dedicating our shared human existence to finding the divine Brahman present in all humanity, so too does Feuerbach revere the shared human experience as divine. Both philosophies argue the importance of serving our species, viewing it as the closest and most honest representation of divinity that can be sought.
Conclusion Though the Upaniṣads were written in a vastly different intellectual and cultural era, they practically mirror the writings of the 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. The parallel is striking between the two philosophies’ agreement that anthropocentric theology results in the alienation of humankind from itself. Both the Upaniṣads and Feuerbach constantly uphold the
Blake 24 unqualified role of language used outside the realm of human phenomena. Feuerbach and the Upaniṣads both view anthropocentric conceptions of God as human-made. Both philosophies highlight the subject-object dilemma present in anthropocentric theology. Textual analysis shows the similarity between the Upaniṣadic and the Feuerbachian affirmation of humanity’s intrinsic divinity. Such analysis also reveals the belief that God is an illusion and the inevitable complacency stemming from devotion to an anthropocentric deity. Though there is little evidence that he had training in the mystical texts of the Upaniṣads, it is clear that Feuerbach’s criticism of anthropocentric theology reaffirms the earlier Upaniṣadic critique of Saguṇa Brahman. Criticism and objections of this thesis can easily be made, the most obvious of these objections being that Feuerbach rejects the entire notion of a God, whereas the Upaniṣads affirm the existence of the divine Brahman. This objection is valid, as Feuerbach has classically been seen as the forefather of secular humanism, while the Upaniṣads expound a rich and diverse world pervaded by the divine essence of Brahman. However, this interpretation of Feuerbach’s vehement atheism must be viewed in Feuerbach’s relation to Christianity: the source of his argumentative material. No other conceptions of divinity outside of the Judeo-Christian worldview are found in his arguments, and it is assumed that Feuerbach had little-to-no training in Upaniṣadic philosophy. Instead, conceptions of the Divine set forth in the principle Upaniṣads are much more closely aligned to Feuerbach’s thought as opposed to the God of monotheism, as the divine Brahman is cognate to the divine Ātman, the intrinsic nature of humanity—precisely where Feuerbach finds divinity. Brahman is not outside and above humanity, but rather, its essence and support.
Blake 25 Finding this common thread of the inadequacy of human language in theology and the illusory nature of formed gods between these two superficially disparate philosophies only strengthens the West’s growing fascination with Eastern philosophy. Such an inclusive examination provides a rich source of dialogue between atheistic schools and classical spiritualists. That Feuerbach and the Upaniṣads can agree and often even mirror one another justifies the position that philosophy is a progressive, aggregate field that builds off its own ideas. More importantly, seeing how both a secular humanist and a rich Hindu tradition criticize anthropocentric gods gives some credence to the seemingly worldwide intellectual disillusionment with dogmatic and outdated images of what is commonly identified as “God.” Comparative philosophy and religion is often considered impossible or misguided given the differences across culture and time, yet conceivably, the similarities found between Feuerbach and the Upaniṣads transcend culture and time. Studying these two philosophies together presents a framework that implies that perhaps atheism is on some level compatible with non-anthropocentric conceptions of divinity. Viewing Saguṇa interpretations of the Ultimate with hesitancy—interpreting them not as definitive manifestations of divinity, but rather, as stepping stones into or historical representations of a higher level of consciousness—satisfies both sides of the dialectic. Understanding that these anthropocentric creations have their place and value in culture yet do not summarize or encapsulate the complexities of existential questions, non-theistic thinkers can appreciate the beauty and relevance of Saguṇa interpretations while spiritualists from all devotional sects can still look past localized religions if necessary for alternative vehicles of enlightenment.
Blake 26 Works Cited Bhattacharyya, Ashim Kumar. Hindu Dharma: Introduction to Scriptures and Theology. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2006. Print. Deutsch, Eliot. Advaita Vedānta: A Philosophical Reconstruction. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1969. Print. Feuerbach, Ludwig. Lectures on the Essence of Religion. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Print. – – –. The Essence of Christianity. Trans. George Eliot. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957. Print. Frei, Hans W. “Feuerbach and Theology.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 35.3 (1967): 250-256. Print. Galloway, Allan D. “The Meaning of Feuerbach: The Hobhouse Memorial Lecture, 1974.” The British Journal of Sociology 25.2 (1974): 135-149. Print. Harvey, Van A. “Feuerbach on Luther's Doctrine of Revelation: An Essay in Honor of Brian Gerrish.” The Journal of Religion 78.1 (1998): 3-17. Print. – – –. “Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2007. Web. 6 Sept. 2010. Hinduism. ABC Australia, n.d. Web. 12 Sept. 2010. Mathur, D.C. “The Concept of Self in the Upaniṣads: An Alternative Interpretation.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 32.2 (1972): 390-396. Print. Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. “The Vedānta Philosophy and the Doctrine of Māyā.” International Journal of Ethics 24.4 (1914): 431-451. Print. Schilling, Sylvester Paul. God in the Age of Atheism. New York: Abingdon Press, 1969. Print.
Blake 27 Scruton, Roger. “The Sacred and the Human.” Prospect Magazine, 01 Aug. 2007. Web. 23 Aug. 2010. The Upaniṣads. Trans. Valerie J. Roebuck. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print. Woodburne, A. S. “The Idea of God in Hinduism.” The Journal of Religion 5.1 (1925): 52-66. Print.