Indian Philosophy and Vedanta

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Esoteric and Occult Overview


and it also relates to these:

The Hermetic Society

The Golden Dawn

Vedanta and Theosophy

Though religious opinions were supposedly of little relevance in the Theosophical Society, some backgrounds were more sympathetically regarded than others, and philosophical Hinduism formed a very strong element of the Society’s general teachings. T. Subba Row’s approach to Theosophy was heavily influenced by Vedanta, especially the non-dualism (Advaita or Adwaita) associated with the eighth-century teacher Shankara. [note] Blavatsky defended Subba Row as ‘a true Vedantic Adwaitee of the esoteric, hence genuine Brahman faith and-an occultist’, but his preference for Indian tradition later led to conflict with her during the period when Yeats was discovering Theosophy. In a series of lectures on the Bhagavad Gita (full text), Subba Row questioned the septenary division and, in a politely heated debate with Blavatsky in The Theosophist during 1887, made it clear that he deplored the ‘introduction of anything like an orthodox dogmatic creed’ to Theosophical thought as ‘ruinous to the cause of our Society’. He further held that ‘this unfortunate seven-fold classification is misleading’ and had led its exponent into ‘so many alterations in the conceptions associated with it to keep it in existence’ that it was virtually discredited. Despite the challenge to her authority, Blavatsky went so far as to include a note by Subba Row in the text of The Secret Doctrine outlining his position, making a virtue of necessity. This inclusiveness is dual in origin, firstly springing from a genuine syncretism of outlook which tries to find the common ground between apparently divergent forms of truth, but secondly it is also born of expediency, as Blavatsky came up against authoritatively argued opposition, which she had to prove did not contradict her own statements, and had to square with her earlier positions like the consummate politician that she was.

Subba Row sets forth his position clearly in the second lecture on the Gita, explaining that he is of the opinion that Vedantic or Yogic divisions are more valid, and that the Raja Yoga division of man into upadhis, vehicles of life, bases or foundations, is the most practical:

it is better to adopt the time-honored classification of four principles, for the simple reason that it divides man into so many entities as are capable of having separate existences, and that these four principles are associated with four upadhis which are further associated in their turn with four distinct states of consciousness. And so for all practical purposes - for the purpose of explaining the doctrines of religious philosophy - I have found it far more convenient to adhere to the fourfold classification than to adopt the septenary one and multiply principles in a manner more likely to introduce confusion than to throw light upon the subject.
‘Notes on the Bhagavad Gita’, The Theosophist (Vol. 8, February 1887), 299-311.

In many ways this is the theoretical basis of the division of the principles into pairs of vehicles and agents mentioned in the treatment of Theosophy, and Blavatsky comments on the Yogic divisions of upadhis that ‘it matters little whether one speaks of the three Upadhis with their three aspects and Atma, the eternal and immortal synthesis, or calls them the "seven principles"’ (SD1 158). Another different, division derives from Vedic literature, most particularly the Taittiriya Upanishad, which gives a five- or sixfold analysis, based upon Sheaths, which also links with the four states of consciousness described in the Mandukya Upanishad. The table below is drawn from Subba Row’s note in The Secret Doctrine, but expanded to give translations of the Sanskrit terms and adapted for consistency with the treatment on the Theosophy page:

Theosophical 'Esoteric Buddhism'Hindu Vedanta
viz Taittiriya Upanishad
literally, "sheath made of"looser translationTaraka Raja Yoga
loose translation
Physical BodyAnnamaya kosafoodPhysical BodySthulopadhiPhysical
Energy, PranaPranamaya kosaenergyEtheric Body
Etheric Double
Desire Body, Kama RupaManomaya kosamindAstral/Subtle Body (includes Mind)SukshmopadhiAstral
Mind, (Lower) Manas
Intellect, (Higher) ManasVignamaya kosaintellectCausal Body (Vehicle of individual Karma)
BuddhiAnandamaya kosablissGreater Causal Body (collective Karma)KaranopadhiHigher Ego
AtmanAtman SelfAtmanSelf
adapted from The Secret Doctrine Vol. 1, 157.

The parallels between the Yogic dissection of the human with the divisions of the Principles are strong, and undoubtedly the Upanishads’ association of each of the sheaths or vehicles with a particular state of consciousness or non-consciousness became central to Yeats’s understanding of the Principles. In this form the Physical level is associated with waking consciousness, the Astral level with dream consciousness, the Higher Ego with dreamless sleep (Sushupti) and the Self with conscious enlightenment (Turiyā). When Yeats came to introduce the concepts concerning the after-life in A Vision B, he does so through Valéry’s ‘Cimitière Marin’ and the Upanishadic states of consciousness (see Upanishads below).

Also important, bearing in mind the enigma of the Ghostly Self, is the Vedantic system, where the Sheaths made of food and of energy, show possible parallels with the Faculties and Husk, and the ‘Sheath made of mind’ with Passionate Body. These dominate during incarnate life, yet are eventually all discarded, while the karmic debt of the individual is carried forward in the two ‘causal bodies’, the Sheaths made of intellect and bliss, analogous with Spirit and Celestial Body. Beyond all of these Sheaths is Atman, which is the only true Self and the only true identity. The Sheaths are linked particularly to the Sun, Moon and Earth in Vedic astrology: the birth chart can be viewed through the position of the Ascendant, the Moon or the Sun, the Ascendant chart representing the Physical, the Moon chart representing the Astral or Subtle Body and the Sun chart representing the Causal Body. Though the System of A Vision is not astrological, the symbolism is not dissimilar, since the Faculties are bound up to the physical incarnation, the Lunar Principles are linked to the emotional and mental states of the soul, while the Solar Principles are those which are carried forward from life to life and are therefore the vehicles of Karma and represent the causal structure which informs the shaping of the lower bodies.

Mohini Chatterjee

The Indian element in Theosophy was always important, and Yeats’s earliest personal introduction to Theosophy was as much an introduction to Indian thought, through Mohini Chatterjee. Though Chatterjee was a trusted spokesman for Theosophy when he visited Dublin in 1886, like Subba Row his Theosophy was closely linked with Vedantic philosophy, and the two strands are evident in his written work. In Man: Fragments of Forgotten History, which he wrote in 1884 in collaboration with Laura Holloway, and articles such as ‘The Common Sense of Theosophy’, published in the Dublin University Review of 1886, he put forward a form of Theosophy that was entirely in consonance with Blavatsky’s views, yet also used the same Vedantic and Yogic ideas as Subba Row in order to convey some of the subtler points.[note]

He explained Theosophy as the truth behind the outward forms of differing religions, ‘not eclecticism, which is a mosaic, while Wisdom-Religion is an organic whole. Theosophy is like an abstract mathematical formula of which each religion is a particular application’; it was found in its least corrupted form in the most ancient systems, the ‘Society therefore earnestly labours to promote an appreciative study of Eastern philosophy, built up by generations of Theosophists, as affording easy access to the Wisdom-Religion of the world’. Chatterjee was keen to disseminate specifically Indian wisdom through translating and explaining Sanskrit works, and, after his return to India in 1900, though some have found his prosperity as a lawyer somewhat at odds with his earlier image, he continued to translate and interpret Indian philosophy for a Western audience. Asked about his beliefs, ‘he would look embarrassed and say, "This body is a Brahmin"’, indicating that he recognised an element of relativity in religion, which could not entirely be subsumed in the Theosophical Wisdom-Religion, and that the outward forms were inevitably affected by the circumstances of his incarnation as a Hindu of the priestly caste. Certainly, the Indian elements of his discourse were what lodged in Yeats’s mind from the evidence of both his contemporary poetry and his later recollections. Though Chatterjee’s writings do not bear out Yeats’s impressions, what Yeats took away from their conversations was a doctrine of withdrawal from worldly matters, ‘that all action and all words that lead to action were a little vulgar, a little trivial. Ah, how many years it has taken me to awake out of that dream!’. Yeats admitted that his recollections were fragmentary, and that ‘when I try to remember his philosophy as a whole, I cannot part it from what I myself have built about it, or have gathered in the great ruined house of “the prophetic books” of William Blake’, and evidently the ideas which clung to his memory were those that had struck a chord with him in 1886; accuracy in recording the whole was not his concern, as he was searching for his own personally valid synthesis. The impressions that Yeats records in ‘The Pathway’ suggest an ascetic aestheticism more akin to the exquisite reclusion of his own protagonist in ‘Rosa Alchemica’ (1897) than to Krishna’s advice of disinterested action in the Gita, which appeared in Chatterjee’s translation in 1887, the year after his visit to Dublin.

When Yeats later came to epitomise Chatterjee’s effect on him and his thought in Reveries over Childhood and Youth, he selected a different kernel of teaching: ‘It was my first meeting with a philosophy that confirmed my vague speculations and seemed at once logical and boundless. Consciousness, he taught, does not merely spread out its surface but has, in vision and in contemplation, another motion and can change in height and depth’ (Au 91-92; 1915). The nature of consciousness was certainly a subject with which Chatterjee had been concerned in the previous two years, and the basis of what he spoke about to the young men in Dublin can probably be seen in the first chapter of Man: Fragments of Forgotten History, which delineates the septenary human constitution in broad outline. It warns against the impression that the principles form ‘a very complicated kind of onion’, since they ‘lie on different planes of existence’ and interpenetrate rather than lying within one another. The writers then explain the nature of the septenary through the Upanishadic levels of consciousness:

Following the mystic idealists, we may divide the whole range of existence into different states of consciousness, with their appropriate objects or functions. . . . the consciousness of a man awake, the consciousness of a man dreaming, and the consciousness of one in a state of dreamless slumber. . . . Besides these three states . . . there is a fourth state of consciousness, which may be called transcendental consciousness.
(Man: Fragments of Forgotten History, 5)

The respective ‘objects of these states of consciousness . . . exhaust the whole range of existence’, though Chatterjee and Holloway only examine the first two. They also propose that these four states ‘are all closely inter-related and form one synthetic whole’, and can be viewed as ‘the four points of a square’, with lines connecting each of them to form four sides and two diagonals, comparable to the six lower principles, while a circle surrounding the square would represent Atman (6-7). The precise application of the figure is not expanded, and it is difficult to see if it has an exact function, unlike the very precise formulation of the Four Faculties or Principles within their own circle or sphere.

A further important element is the potential incorporation of the ‘objects of these states of consciousness’ within the constitution of that consciousness. In Chatterjee’s formulation of the seven combinations of square and circle, based on expressions of the four states of consciousness, are themselves ‘states of consciousness’, which ‘viewed in reference to the subject, man, are the seven individual principles, and in reference to the object, matter, are the seven universal cosmic principles’. This last distinction depends upon our current perspective, however, since:

In the ultimate reality matter and spirit are identical; matter in that connection being but what Kant calls objective reality, and spirit abstract consciousness. The mystical philosophers maintain that the ultimate reality is absolute consciousness, which has objective existence and is not unsubstantial, unreal. According to the language of some Brahminical philosophers the ultimate reality is the mystic union of Prakriti (Matter) and Purusha (Spirit).
(Man: Fragments of Forgotten History, 8)

It is clear that Chatterjee, rather than Holloway, is responsible for such material, and there is enough similarity with some of Yeats’s later recollections to see that the young Yeats misunderstood substantial elements of the thinking. When he characterised the philosophical position that ‘Everything we perceive "including so-called illusions, exists in the external world"’, as the view which he had learned ‘from a Brahman when I was eighteen’ (TSMC 67-68), it was not only his memory of his age that was hazy. Yet despite the fact that he remembered elements imprecisely, it is clear that the more general idea that consciousness ‘can change in height and depth’ (Au 92) remained with him, and with it the idealist conception that the material world is ultimately an expression of the same forces as consciousness or spirit. Indeed ‘objective reality’ and ‘abstract consciousness’ are potential definitions of Celestial Body and Spirit, the two ultimate Principles of A Vision.

Later Indian Influences

An Indian influence continued throughout Yeats’s life with periodic ebb and flow, and reaching its strongest manifestation in his final decade in his friendship and work with Shree Purohit Swami. Yeats was to return to a consideration of forms of consciousness in the 1930s in his introductions to The Holy Mountain and ‘The Mandukya Upanishad’, and generally Yeats became increasingly familiar with both the Vedantic and Yogic systems through his association with the Swami, working with him on the Vedic Upanishads, and writing introductions to Purohit’s other works, including his autobiography, that of his guru and his translation of Patañjali’s Aphorisms of Yoga. The series of introductions which he wrote to the Swami’s work and to their joint work, show a deep engagement with the material and it is difficult to tell how far Yeats’s work in formulating the Principles enriched his understanding of the Upanishads or Patañjali, and how much his study of ancient Indian philosophy contributed to his understanding of the Principles.

The Principles are treated more fully and explicitly in AV B than AV A, and it is significant that Yeats had explored Indian philosophy far more fully in the intervening period. The Principles come to the fore during sleep and after death, and in seeking to explore them, Yeats seems to have found the Upanishads a particular help, not least because of the link that they make between sleep and the after-life. He draws on Vedic thought about the nature of different states of consciousness, and introducing ‘The Soul in Judgment’, refers to ‘[c]ertain Upanishads’ which propose three states of consciousness or soul. He is vague about which Upanishads he is drawing on because his direct source was A. Berriedale Keith’s digest on ‘The Four States of the Soul’ in The Religion and Philosophy of the Vedas and Upanishads as the wording of his quotations indicates (AV B 220; see below). His quotations largely derive from one of the oldest, the Brihadâranyaka Upanishad, where the teacher, having established that the Self or ‘soul (âtman), indeed, is [a person’s] light’, proposes the conditions of a person as ‘the condition of being in this world and the condition of being in the other world’ with ‘an intermediate third condition, namely that of sleep’ from which the soul sees both the other conditions (see Hume, The Thirteen Principal Upanishads). Keith summarises that: ‘In the waking state the man uses all his faculties and is confronted by a real world, but the waking state is in reality merely a dream condition’, since it is itself a form of illusion, and this must have struck a strong chord with Yeats, not least in the choice of the term ‘faculties’. Meanwhile, the dream world is a singularly creative state:

In the case of a dream, however, the outer world is not there: there are no carts, horses, roads, but he makes them for himself; there is no joy, happiness, nor desire, but he makes them for himself; wells, pools, and streams, also he fashions for himself. The spirit serves as light for itself in this condition.

The stage beyond this is a dreamless sleep, where the sleeper ‘desires no desires and sees no dream’. During this the spirit loses contact with desire, in Yeats’s terms the Passionate Body, to come closer to the archetype of itself in an indifferent ‘state of pure light or of utter darkness, according to our liking’ (AV B 220).

The difference between death and sleep appears more one of degree than kind and, like Hamlet, the teacher views death as a sleep in which dreams may come, suggesting that ‘man passes from waking through dreaming to dreamless sleep every night and when he dies’ (AV B 220). The living and the dead therefore inhabit all three worlds, though the waking world dominates life and the dreamless world death. The world that both share more or less equally is the intermediate world of dreams, ‘because all spirits inhabit our unconsciousness or, as Swedenborg said, are the Dramatis Personae of our dreams’ (AV B 227). The dreaming of the living derives not just from the mind of the living individual but comes as much from the dead, who use the living person in order to complete their reviews and extend their awareness of the consequences of their lives.

The dead of our dreams are those still purifying or refining their knowledge, but the living can also have contact with those spirits which have completed this process. The Mandukya Upanishad expounds a similar group of three states to the earlier Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, each symbolised by the elements of the sound A-U-M, but dreamless sleep becomes seen as Sushupti, or dark Samadhi, and the range is extended to include a fourth state, Turiya, corresponding to the whole Aum (cf. E&I 456-466), which is reached ‘in contemplation and in wakefulness’ (AV B 222). In this state ‘the soul, as much ancient symbolism testifies, is united to the blessed dead’, signifying that the soul of a living meditator shares the state of the purified dead and can be in contact with them. It is because modern or Western man has lost the practice and beliefs of Vedic antiquity that ‘we no longer discover the still unpurified dead through our own and others’ dreams, and those in freedom through contemplation’ and that religion and philosophy fail to satisfy us or to answer our questions about the nature of existence (AV B 222-23). Yeats proposes that in the after-life the dead inhabit the three states apart from the waking state of life, and that the living could have contact with them, particularly in the two states of dreaming and contemplation, but that we have lost the ability.

Although Yeats certainly uses the Upanishadic parallels to illuminate his anatomy of the after-life, his description of the process is entirely distinct (see the After-life). Yet in many ways the fundamental outlook of his System has a certain kinship with Vedantic thought.

When Morton Irving Seiden, one of the most intelligent commentators on A Vision in the context of Yeats’s later thought, seeks to summarise Yeats’s thought in conventional terms (in Yeats: The Poet as Mythmaker), he characterises its salient argument as a form of grand unification, which proposes that:

the human mind projects itself outward, remakes the universe in its own image, and thus in a very important sense contains nothing but itself. But, since he feared solipsism even more than scientific empiricism, he also pointed out that, so far as he was concerned, the human mind can do these things only because there is a reality external to it; and both this external reality and the human mind, he added, embody each other. (YPM 134)

Seiden goes on to identify the fallacy within this reasoning: ‘In his identifying of the human mind with the physical universe, on the basis of their sharing in the same primordial substance, he again failed to realize that the differences among things are frequently as important as-perhaps even more important than-their similarities’ (YPM 134-35). Yet this very difference lies at the heart of Yeats’s conception in the duality of the One and the Many, while the identification of self and universe lies at the core of Indian Vedanta, in particular the non-dualist school of Advaita Vedanta.

In his introduction to The Holy Mountain (1934), Yeats writes of duality of Purusha and Prakriti in Patañjali (in terms also recognisable from Chatterjee’s summary): the ‘Spirit, the Self that is in all selves, the pure mirror, is the source of intelligence, but Matter is the source of all energy, all creative power, all that separates one thing from another . . . almost what Schopenhauer understood by Will’ (E&I 461), and it is clear that Yeats sees in this a version of his own Principles and Faculties, primary and antithetical, Solar and Lunar, Daimon and human.

His search for correspondence becomes slightly more complex when he moves on to the two forms of samadhi or release: Turiya, the samadhi of wakefulness is aware of all levels of being, while Sushupti is the release of unknowing, abstraction into dreamless sleep. He looks to certain passages in the Upanishads, where ‘mention is made of the moon’s bright fortnight, the nights from the new to the full moon, and of the dark fortnight of the moon’s decline’. These suggest that those who are under the waxing half are individual in their devotions and ‘may, if wise, go to the Gods (expressed or symbolised in the senses) and share their long lives’ or even pass out of life, while for the ascetic the ‘bright fortnight’s escape is Turiya’; in contrast, the pious of the waning half follow the crowd and ‘can go to the blessed Ghosts, to the Heaven of their fathers, find what peace can be found between death and birth’ but are denied any escape, though the ascetic may ‘find Sushupti an absorption in God’ (E&I 469-470). Yeats’s imagination makes two groups of associations, ‘in one line Turiya-full moon, mirror-like bright water, Mount Meru; and in the other Sushupti, moonless night, “dazzling darkness”-Mount Girnar’ (E&I 472). The people of the waxing fortnight are clearly associated with the antithetical in Yeats’s reading, though the first half of this is primary in his own System, while the people of the waning fortnight are associated with his primary Tincture, even though the first half of this is antithetical in his System, and his own Phase falls in this fortnight. The shift is crucial in terms of detail, but less important in general principle, and when he considers the astronomical conflict symbolised in Sun and Moon, Yeats wonders whether he is ‘justified in discovering there the conflict between subjectivity and objectivity, between Self and Not-Self, between waking life and dreamless sleep’ (E&I 470).

Some critics have felt that during his last years Yeats moved away from occultism and magic towards a more Indian form of thought, and in many ways this is probably true. It does not mean, however, that he rejected the thought of A Vision which is generally closer to esoteric philosophy than occultism, certainly than magic, and which he was already beginning to see as consonant with certain elements of classical Indian Vedanta. He told Shri Purohit Swami that he would not write an introduction for the Awadhoota geeta, since he was ‘not in any great sympathy with anything but the Upanishads and the Aphorisms’, but he still felt that, although A Vision was ‘meant for Europe’, it was ‘only in India’ that he could ‘find any body who can throw light upon certain of its problems’ (letters to the Swami, University of Delaware Library; see Saddlemyer, 527-535).

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