The Worldview of Eastern Pantheism
- by Rhett R. Totten, MDiv. (c) 2000
When trying to outline the worldview of eastern thought, there is a diversity of views which is somewhat difficult to narrow down, however, this discussion will focus in on the predominant view, which is basic to the Advianta Vedanta school of Hinduism, to much of the Hindu Upanishads, and to much of Buddhism (most notably, Zen Buddhism). As compared to other offshoots of Pantheism, the basic eastern worldview is distinguished by "monism": the idea that there is only one infinite, absolute and ultimate reality.
(...compare to the five basic WorldView questions listed here).
The Six Basic Propositions of the Eastern Pantheistic Worldview:
1. In the Eastern Worldview, the ultimate Reality (the "One") is impersonal, infinite, non-material, non-logical and non-conceptual.
In this system, "Brahman" is the ultimate reality. Brahman "is all in all", the "Universal Soul." It is all that really exists, and nothing truly exists that is not ultimately Brahman. "God" as a "personal" being does not actually exist. Rather, Brahman does not "think" or "know" anything, "sin" does not offend it, and it cannot be said to "love" or "hate". Brahman is absolutely simple, and has no attributes (such as goodness, truthfulness or emotions) or parts or "distinctions" (such as Father or Son), and is thus called "the One". The ultimate reality of Brahman is beyond distinction, so that anything that does appear to exist as a distinct object, such as a human, a computer, or a concept, is an illusion, or "maya." Brahman is totally indefinable and non-conceptual, and nothing can be accurately thought or expressed which is "true" in relation to it ---so, in the eastern pantheistic worldview, intellectual knowledge, thought or logic has no actual place or reality (they are illusion).
2. In the Eastern Worldview, the Universe flows out of Brahman (God), and Brahman is the Universe.
In eastern thought, everything is an emanation or manifestation of Brahman. Eastern thinkers say: "Brahman is all in all" ...Brahman is all, and all is Brahman. Brahman is all that really exists. Anything that seems to exist as a distinct thing or object, such as a planet, a personality or an idea, --is an illusion, "maya". However, some distinct things are less illusory, and closer to "the One" reality of Brahman, namely: Some people, especially the enlightened "Perfect Master" (such as a Buddha or a guru) are closest to the "One" pure being of Brahman; ...then, less enlightened people are more illusory; next comes animals; and then vegetable life; and, finally, elemental matter is the most illusory of all, and has virtually no reality or being at all.
3. In the Eastern Worldview, "Atman" (the soul and essence of each human) "...is Brahman" (the Soul of the Cosmos).
Atman is the eternal principle of Brahman that is found within each individual human. Atman is "the One" within each of us. So, who is man? In essence, at the very spiritual core, man is Brahman (God). Thus, since Brahman is impersonal, man at his core nature (Atman) is also not personal. Similarly, since personality includes self-awareness and self-determinacy, man in his essential real nature is not conscious nor does he will to do anything (Atman is Brahman).
The Eastern Worldview says that the trouble for humankind is: Man does not realize that his essential being is God (Brahman). The goal of human life is the "enlightenment" to pass beyond all self-awareness and existence, and to realize one's oneness with Brahman, "the One," the Soul of the Cosmos. There are many "paths" to this oneness, and one of the most common methods is chanting the word "Om", which is untranslatable because it is contentless (intentionally) as to intellectual meaning. It is said that Atman is Om. Another method is the repeated chanting of a word with no meaning (mantra), to empty the intellect. Similarly, others contemplate illogical sayings and questions, called "koan", for example: "If you have heard the sound of one hand [clapping], can you make me hear it too?" Even doing "good" is another method, but not because doing good really matters ...but is also nonsense. These sorts of methods are used as paths to enlightenment, because the goal of attaining oneness with the "One" includes the annihilation of all thought, logic, knowledge and self-awareness. Ultimately, in the eastern worldview, a person's theology or conceptual beliefs are of no importance at all... being illusory "maya."
4. In the Eastern Worldview, the death of man is the end of individual personal existence ...but Atman is eternal.
The Eastern view says the goal and destiny of man is to attain "Nirvana", which literally means "cooling off" or "going out", like the flame of a candle being extinguished. Only the impersonal spirit of man (Atman) is real, and it needs to attain oneness with the absolute "One", Brahman. So reaching Nirvana involves the annihilation of all self-existence, awareness, thinking and desires. This extinguishing happens when enlightened people die, and the cycle of suffering, thought and self comes to an end.
5. Ethics are not absolute; to reach enlightenment in the "One" is to go beyond good and evil.
Eastern thought classifies concern over goodness and truth to be lower-level spirituality. No action is really "good" or "evil," ultimately, because Brahman is beyond such things. To be "good" or "bad" are conceptions of illusion (maya). When a person is "enlightened," he is beyond moral concerns for any actions he does. Thus, helping an old lady across the street, as opposed to pushing her down under the wheels of traffic, would (in reality) both be ethically equivalent in this eastern system of thought --even though Hindu people are personally concerned about being good and ethical in their behavior. Still, such thoughts are actually illusion. "Ethical" conduct is merely one of many means or "tools" to progress toward spiritual enlightenment, and is not actually good, in ultimate reality. The pantheist has no absolute, unchanging basis for what is really right or wrong ...ethics is actually unreal... "maya."
6. All distinct "things," events and time are illusion; so history is meaningless and cyclical.
In eastern thought, all distinct things and events come and go in a continuous meaningless flow of illusion. Particulars aren't real, only the absolute. History (with all "events," past, present or future) does not actually exist in reality, so it is something for enlightened man to transcended and leave behind. Yesterday's events do not mean or prove anything significant in reality ...nor will tomorrow's. History does not have any ultimate destiny or goal to which it is heading, and human life has no actual meaning.
Evaluation of Eastern Pantheism
Pantheism does correctly stress that finite, changing, temporal things cannot encompass what is infinite, changeless and eternal. Similarly, Pantheism appropriately emphasizes that the infinite cannot be fully described by finite conceptions.
At its foundation, we see that Eastern Pantheism is self-contradictory, thus, by being internally inconsistent, the Eastern Worldview clearly fails the first Truth Test. This self-contradiction is seen in the fact that one of the fundamental concepts of Eastern Pantheism is that all intellectual knowledge, thought, truth and logic are not real! ---nor do such things have any connection to reality, because they are nonsensical illusion ---- "maya". This worldview is self-destroying, because it is denying the possibility that anyone (including Pantheists or "enlightened" ones) can think any true, logical or real thoughts or realizations about anything, ...which would include all thoughts or "enlightened" realizations about Brahman and its "reality" or ultimacy. From the outset, then, the Eastern Pantheistic worldview forces itself to declare that even everything it asserts is meaningless, non-logical nonsense and illusion. This is an insurmountable problem for Eastern Thought: How can any person even know that such a worldview is right, if all thinking, logic and knowing are nonsensical illusion? Why even discuss it? -- What's more, the Eastern thinker cannot even deny the reality of the laws of logical thought, without using those very laws in one's argument used to deny them! So, if any system of ideas contains essential key elements which are non-logical and self-contradictory (as Eastern Pantheism does), that system must be unavoidably false, and destroys itself. It can comfortably be abandoned for a different logical and reasonable option.
The second Truth Test we've established, says that an adequate worldview must fit virtually all the relevant facts and data of reality and human experience. But since the Eastern Pantheist definition of "reality" is disconnected from human experience and rationality in the world, there is an immediate failure with this truth test. If the world (universe) and all human thinking and experience in it is an unreal illusion (maya), then the question to someone with the Eastern worldview is: Why is that "illusion" of human experience so persistent day after day, and year after year? Even when an "enligtened Master", a guru or "Buddah", comes out of his meditative trance, the world/universe is still there ...somewhat changed, but still there.
One of the worst problems for Eastern Pantheism, though, is the problem of good and evil and suffering. To say that evil and suffering are not actually real, rings extremely hollow to anyone experiencing them. If evil and suffering are not real, then where did the "illusions" of "evil" and "suffering" come from? Why are such realities so persistent? Why do reasonable humans persistently seek freedom, love, comfort and justice?
Similarly, to say that good moral behavior is not actually real, also rings hollow. This is demonstrated by the fact that most hindus and buddhists try to be "good" and moral in their behavior, with hopes of being rewarded in the next life for that good --or receiving negative repercussions from being bad (karma). -- But why try to be good if such behavior is actually an illusion, and ultimately no more significant or meaningful than being evil? Why should "good" behavior be rewarded after death, when it is illusory and not real anyway? And who "decides," since Brahman has no thoughts, logic or judgments on that or any other matter? -- No reasonable person, even with low intelligence, totally denies the importance of ethical behavior. Even all eastern pantheists continue to act as though some actions are right and some are wrong ; ...in "The Teaching of the Seven Buddahs", it instructs people: "Not to commit evils, But to do all that is good, And to keep one's thoughts pure..." --So, what is being talked about there? An illusion? Supposedly it doesn't matter anyway, does it? Those seven Buddahs aren't talking as though enlightened, since Eastern thought says that no action is really good or evil, ultimately. It is illusion. -- So, is the tender love of one's spouse and children a nonsensical illusion? How about helping those who are suffering? How about loyalty and mercy? This concern over ethical living reveals a huge breakdown in the Eastern Pantheist system of thought, because the Pantheist's own lives among their dearest family, neighbors and friends contradict the eastern premise that such concepts are actually meaningless and unreal -- "maya."
When one considers the persistent reality of the world we all live in , as well as the facts of human experience (love, hate, ethics, suffering, mercy, loyalty, justice), it is extremely doubtful that the Eastern Pantheistic worldview even remotely satisfies the second Truth Test.
The third Truth Test confronts us with the idea that an adequate worldview must be subjectively satisfactory and livable on an every-day basis. Is the Eastern worldview livable? Despite the teaching that all material objects are "illusion", eastern thinkers do not step into the street in front of a speeding truck, for example. When they are sick and in pain (an illusion?), they go for medical help. Many Buddhist priests wear glasses ...but why bother? Do they want to learn things ...but what ever for? -- In view of the Eastern teaching that all thoughts and logic are illusion, every Hindu or Buddist who is a technologist or scientist and uses the scientific method along with logical deduction, is declaring with his lifestyle that he finds the Eastern worldview to be unsatisfactory, impracticable, and untrue. All of these people do not live out their Eastern worldview on a daily basis even half of the time, and so, are declaring with their own lives, that Eastern Pantheism fails.
Does Modern Physics Verify the Eastern Worldview?:
In thinking about this further, some have expressed the notion that modern physics offers empirical scientific support for the Eastern worldview in light of the "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle" in quantum mechanics (To read about this Principle, click here). --So, what are the issues here, and is this true?
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle has to do with what is called "Quantum
Mechanics" (behavior of sub-atomic particles) in physics, where it has been found that it is virtually "impossible" (with the knowledge and methods now available) for human experimenters to determine both the exact position and the exact velocity of a sub-atomic particle at the same time. This is because photons of light are used to make these measurements, and when the energy of the light hits the tiny particle, this alters (& therefore ruins the accuracy of) what the experimenters want to measure. --In fact (as I have had it described to me), the structure of quantum theory is such that it is basically "impossible" to even to even give consistent answers to a whole group of questions about the actual properties of sub-atomic quantum particles.
In addition, sub-atomic particles (such as electrons) move in puzzling ways, because when a stream of electrons (for example) move through a metal plate with a pair of tiny little slits in it, they emerge from the other side in wave-patterns and behave like waves even though they are particles. So they exhibit a sort of "dual nature" as particles under some circumstances and waves under others, and we can't accurately predict the behavior of any single particle. In
experiments to determine what was going on, it was discovered that
high-energy light could indicate where an electron's position is, but such high-energy throws its velocity off and changes its course; OR, if
low-energy light is used, the velocity can be determined (and isn't thrown off), but the location (position) of the electron can only be vaguely
determined. In light of such experiments, Heisenberg's Principle states that it is impossible for the human observer determine both the exact position and the exact velocity of a sub-atomic particle.
My comment at this point is: So, why should such "problems" and unknowns be so shocking to scientists? -- Humans are unable to make virtually any measurements of physical things that are actually "exact." --We are not certain about the exact speed of light, nor the exact circumference nor mass of the earth, for instance --nor any number of other measurements with exactness. --We are uncertain about whether light is a particle and/or a wave. -- We are uncertain about the nature of a newly discovered "repulsive force" in the universe, which is causing the universe to expand at an ever-increasing rate. -- We are uncertain about the exact nature of what gravity is.
In light of sub-atomic "Uncertainty" difficulties, a scientist named Niels Bohr
from Copenhagen (Denmark) went much further in his philosophy of physics, by saying that the
electron does not actually POSSESS the attributes of position or velocity
until one or the other is observed by the experimenter. -- You see, Niels Bohr worked
from a basically Hindu (Eastern) worldview, and he championed this
"Copenhagen" interpretation of sub-atomic physics, which essentially stated
that in the absence of an observer, reality actually does not exist... or to say it another way, the act of observing CREATES the reality. He thought the observer created the quantum event and the way those sub-atomic particles behaved.
---This is very much like the old question which states:
"If a person is not there to observe and hear it, does a tree which falls in the
forest and make any sound?" Bohr would say "no" --on the quantum level, at
And our response? --Well, on the face of it, such conclusions seem very far to go because of human inabilities and ignorance. Most people (including many scientists) would find the Copenhagen view to be somewhat ridiculous --and a scientist named Erwin Schroedinger tried to indicate as much by giving an illustration involving a cat:
Schroedinger said that if we set up an experiment where a radioactive atom (a quantum particle) would have a 50-50 chance of firing off within an hour, and if it does fire, it would trigger the killing of a cat that is being held in a box. So, after waiting an hour, has the atom fired or not --and is the cat dead or alive? ---According to the Copenhagen view, until someone observes the situation in the box, nothing has happened one way or the other, and the cat is neither dead nor alive.
Many would agree with Schroedinger that much of this Copenhagen view of Mr. Bohr is clearly nonsense. The act of observation does not create reality... and yet, many people are even trying to apply this interpretation of physics to all of life and even to the entire cosmos! They say that it is the human observer who "creates reality" in the world and in the universe, merely by observing it. This is what is called "New Age" philosophy, and is related to the Eastern (& Hindu) worldview, because it is thought that any particular physical thing --such as a sub-atomic particle-- is not truly real, but is actually an illusion, or "maya." Elemental matter has virtually no reality or being at all.
However, this "evidence" from quanatum physics for the Eastern view is quite evidently flawed, because:
1.) Quantum physics mainly just reveals the limitations of man's ability to describe, and observe, and measure with perfect accuracy.
--If this inability of man shocks anyone, it is only a few physicists who are shocked --along with others who have tried to get some philosophical and religious mileage out of a puzzling situation beyond our present ability to comprehend. Our inability to measure is alot like someone's inability of measuring the exact temperature of the water in a small test-tube by putting a large thermometer into it, because the thermometer itself has a certain amount of heat or coolness, and merely inserting it into the water changes the temperature of the water. Man's inability to measure the physics of sub-atomic particles does not imply the correctness of the Eastern worldview. And, incidentally, man's inabilities also include volumes of things which are not even sub-atomic: such as being unable to precisely predict the path and velocity of individual air molecules in weather patterns, where even our most powerful super computers are overwhelmed with the data for a single thunder-storm or hurricane. This doesn't make the physics of the weather patterns an "illusion" of eastern "maya," and it certainly doesn't demonstrate that our observation of the weather creates the reality of the weather patterns. A little humility is called for here.
-- 2.) No one has demonstrated that mere human "observation" of anything (quantum or otherwise) has made any sort of change in any level of reality (other than our own personal thoughts in our brains). --Rather, it is the crudeness of our methods of testing that change things; we have merely (so-to-speak) stuck our clumsily huge thermometer in a small amout of water, and then we're amazed that we have trouble determining the exact temperature. Some people make the mistake of thinking they are "only" observing, whereas they are actually changing the conditions of the experiment.
--Besides all this, in general (to my limited understanding), the physics of Newton and Einstein apply quite consistently well to everything above the sub-atomic level.
-- 3.) Almost all of what has happened down through the billions of years of cosmological and geological history has not been observed by mankind, and it has occurred perfectly well without us observing it (thank-you very much), and would continue to do so even if mankind were totally eliminated from the cosmos. All in all, this indicates that human observers (purely as observers) are virtually totally powerless to effect any change in anything physical, and in light of the overwhelming evidence, it would seem to be absurd "philosophising" to conclude anything much different from this.
-- 4.) Finally, any sort of "evidence" from science (or anything else) is totally irrelevant to the Eastern worldview, because Brahman is totally indefinable and non-conceptual, and nothing can be accurately thought or expressed which is "true" in relation to it --so, in the eastern pantheistic worldview, intellectual knowledge or logic has no actual place or reality. All such things are illusion to the Eastern worldview, and it would only be the western mind that would wish to inject any sort of logical reasoning to support this worldview.
Instead, the ovewhelming preponderance of scientific facts throughout the universe would seem to give us an alternative philosophy for quantum
mechanics, as well as for the rest of the cosmos, which would state (as suggested by Dr. Hugh Ross) that: A coherent reality does exist entirely
independent of human thinking, AND the world and cosmos is made up of matter and objects that have properties whether or not that matter is observed by humans. ---We humans are rather arrogant and naive to conclude much else.
--This is what the Biblical worldview would conclude.
In light of such observations, it is quite apparent that the Biblical Worldview is more consistent with the facts of science and reality as people have lived them out down through the millennia.
Questions or Comments? :