The Limits of Absolute Monism

  • K. Murali (ajith)

(This essay is from the forthcoming book ‘Critiquing Brahmanism — A Collection of Essays’, being published by the Foreign Languages Press, Paris. The book launch is on Sunday, August 30, India: 6:30AM, North America: 9:00PM EST/6:00PM PST. Interested persons are encouraged to register at

  • Some of the basic precepts of Advaita comes from the Vedas. However, their elaboration as theological philosophy arrives with the Upanishads, dated to approximately 800 BCE. Parallel to the Vedic tradition, what is known as the Sramana (non-Vedic) tradition also developed over this period. It seems to have influenced the progress from Vedic ritualism to the metaphysical plane seen in the Upanishads. Just a few centuries after the Upanishads, the Sramana tradition gave birth to the Bauddha and Jaina religions with their distinct philosophies. Among them Buddhism dominated South Asian theological philosophy for approximately eighteen centuries (6 BCE to 12 CE). Though Adi Sankara (788–820 AD) is reported to have overthrown its reign and re-established the supremacy of Advaita, the fact remains that Nalanda, the leading centre of learning in the sub-continent until its destruction in CE 1200 by Bakhtiar Khilji, was Buddhist.
  • Over this long stretch of time, and further, no one theology enjoyed total domination to the exclusion of the others. Besides, Buddhism and Jainism underwent considerable transformations. Vedic schools of thought co-existed with them. Kingdoms guided by Brahmanical principles emerged. The transition from varna to caste was formalised. The Brahmanical moral code was compiled and elaborated through texts like the Manusmriti. All of these factors, along with internal degeneration of the Bauddha and Jaina schools, led to their accommodation of a great deal of Brahmanical values legitimising caste and other social constructs, originally inimical to them. The dominant version of Bauddha philosophy even anticipated much of the mayavad expounded by Sankara.
  • The dilution of Buddhism’s core concepts was one of the factors aiding Sankara in his assault on it. Brutal force, literally decapitating the principal votaries of the Bauddha and Jaina schools, buttressed it. It would have played a significant role in complimenting Sankara’s rhetorical skills and aiding his ascension. But hardly 200 years had passed before Advaita was challenged and dislodged from its prime position by Ramanuja’s (1017–1137 CE) Vishistadvaita. It was followed by Madhva’s (1238–1317 CE) Dvaidavada.3 Both of them rejected Advaita’s absolute monism. They brought back dualist discourses onto the main stage of Vedanta. Continuing the tradition, several other schools followed them. Each had their interpretation of monism and dualism. Notably, all of them worked out their theses within the frame of Brahmanism’s sacred texts — the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.
  • So what does this account tells us? Over three millennia, from the Upanishadic period until its revival in the 18th-19th centuries, Advaita enjoyed philosophical supremacy only for a brief spell. Throughout this stretch of time, either Sramana or Astika schools of thought that proposed one or the other form of combining monism and dualism held sway.4 The “rediscovery” of Advaita as the core philosophy of Hinduism, was a construct of colonialism.5 It was a component of the Orientalist presentation of an Aryan golden age with its high philosophy and spirituality. Reformers of Brahmanism, such as Raja Rammohan Roy and others gladly embraced this. Over the centuries it has been further consolidated, so much so that Vishistadvaita, Dvaidavada and other theologies have been edged out, more or less completely, into the rarefied realm of esoteric philosophical discourse. Even then, the question remains — what was the impulse underlying their fresh interpretations of Brahmanism’s sacred texts, steadily departing from Advaita? I would argue that these arose from multiple fault lines in Advaita — theological, philosophical and sociological.
  • Advaita insists on a monism that is absolute. The only “real” for it is “nirgunabrahma”, which is formless, quality-less, indescribable, undefinable and eternal. Everything else is “maya” or “midhya”, illusion. Maya does not mean “non-existent” in Advaita. The existence of a sensuous universe is acknowledged. But it exists only for the sensory organs. Hence it is considered unreal, untrue. Beyond it lies nirgunabrahma. This alone is real and true. By this logic god also is maya. Adi Sankara in fact argued as such. He was consistently applying an Upanishadic stream of thought. God, heaven and such were declared to be minor compared to awareness of nirgunabrahma and the unity of one’s “atma” (soul) with it. Such awareness, “jnana”, was hailed as the path to “moksha” (liberation) from the otherwise ceaseless cycle of “jani-mriti”, i.e. birth and death.
  • The monism seen here certainly represented a higher level of abstraction, of synthesis. However, in spite of such philosophical and spiritual merits, it would be immensely unfulfilling at the level of religious thought. Any theology must necessarily address the social role of religion, of solace, social communion and ethics. This then is the space of god; the award of heaven and retribution of hell. The absolute monism of Advaita doesn’t allow this. Amends had to be made. Therefore, despite its strident monism, Advaita has always summoned up god, even if it is done as maya. Similarly, it makes room for the diversity, the multiplicities of the world; once again as maya. However, the logic employed to introduce such contortions opens up several doors of doubts in the philosophical realm.
  • Take the classic example offered by Sankara, of mistaking a rope for a snake. This was supposed to demonstrate the “adhyaropa” (superimposition) caused by an illusion that emerges from avidya (ignorance) of the sole real, i.e. nirgunabrahma. Thus, similar to the “rope as snake” confusion, the ignorant err in thinking that the sensuous world is real and fail to go beyond it to nirgunabrahma, the “really real”.
  • A rope and snake do form a plausible pair capable of causing confusion. But, one could wonder, what if the encountered object was a stone? Whatever may be the confused perception, it would certainly not be of a snake. The reason is rather obvious — dissimilarity of shape. We thus see that Sankara’s conclusion does not logically flow from the comparison. Rather, the example itself constitutes the logic. It already presupposes the observer’s acquaintance with both rope and snake, of their shapes and, most importantly, their differing implications for humans. By extension, to superimpose various qualities and forms on maya, we must first be aware of them. Where could that come from?
  • Proponents of Advaita have produced an endless series of explanations to account for the world of objects registered by our sensory organs. We will sample some of them, referring to Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Gita Rahasya.6 To the question of how a quality-less entity (nirgunabrahma) can produce diverse qualities (objects), Tilak takes shelter in sophistry. He claims that the question itself doesn’t arise since nothing is “produced”. What are sensed as objects are only illusionary representations.7 But, whether produced or not, Advaita must account for the diverse, sensuous, objects surrounding us. Tilak relies on an example of sound and colour spectrum of sunlight to satisfy this need.8 Physics instructs us that the former is caused by motion in the air or some other medium. The latter are electro-magnetic waves. But Tilak leaves out all such particularities and presents them simply as “motion”. He then goes on to assert that our ears and eyes register them as sound and colour because they have superimposed these qualities on what is actually one and the same thing, i.e. motion. Maya similarly causes us to “see” diverse objects, when what really exists is only nirgunabrhama.
  • Let us unravel this by beginning from the concluding assertion. We see an object only if reflects light. Our ears hear sound only if air or some medium is set in motion. Neither of them depends on our sense organ. No matter how we name the phenomena, we can never superimpose any other quality on them arbitrarily. They are natural phenomena, each with its own particularity. Besides, our eyes cannot be willed to hear, nor can our ears see or smell. These and other sensory organs can only register those specific types of sensation for which they are suited. Finally, even if all this is ignored, the question of why at all our sensory organs get this urge to impose various attributes, where it comes from, remains. Tilak’s answer is stark in its dogmatism — the senses did so “because” they themselves are part of the web of maya woven by nirgunabrahma.9 So much for Advaita’s claim to be scientific!
  • An escape from this philosophical dead end of absolute monism was sought by borrowing Sankhya’s “prakriti-purusha” dualism. According to this ancient South Asian philosophical school, prakriti is unmanifest, yet laden with the potential qualities of “sat, raj, tamas”.10 Through manifesting these qualities in various permutations and combinations, in the presence of the inert purusha, prakriti brings into existence diverse qualities (sensuous objects). Further combinations lead to the emergence of new objects from existing ones. Advaita employs this scheme to explain the sensuous world, all the while insisting that nirgunabrahma remains unmanifest, lying even beyond prakriti and purusha. It is claimed to be the root cause of both of them. They, in turn, are said to be outcomes of maya11. There is a glaring contradiction in this argument. The Sankhya prakriti, though unmanifest, is attributed with qualities held in potential. It is therefore determined and it makes sense to conceive further generation from it. But this cannot be true of nirgunabrahma, which is not only unmanifest but is supposed to be quality-less, infinite, eternal, etc. It thus evades determination and it makes no sense to speak of something following it or caused by it.
  • Moreover, why at all should nirgunabrahma give rise to maya, prakriti and purusha? The answer given by Advaita is a non-answer. It simply states that this is an unfathomable “leela” (play) of nirgunabrahma.12 The Gita has Krishna informing Arjuna that when even the gods don’t know the answer how can we expect this of humans?13 Tilak calls in the Nasadiya Sukta of the Rigveda as substantiation. That sukta speaks of the “nothingness” from which everything came. It further states that no one, perhaps not even that which caused this, knows why this was done or why it happened.14 This sukta has been used to “prove” the generation of maya as something unfathomable. But it could also be used as an argument for spontaneous generation, thus ruling out any role for an extraneous power in the creation of something from nothing!
  • Advaita’s summoning of god, even if as a part of maya, and its relying on some of Samkhya’s key premises, amounts to smuggling in dualism. This is quite visible in texts as varied as the Gita and Patanjali’s Yogasutra, to name a couple. Tributes to absolute monism are repeatedly seen in the Gita. Yet, it also attests Samkhya dualism. The Gita is supposed to be the advice given by a God, Krishna, to Arjuna. He claims to have created maya as “parameshwara” (supreme god, a term used interchangeably with nirgunabrahma). He also states that he himself (as a god) is maya. Metaphysics aside, what comes through is the uneasy relation of Advaita’s monism with a borrowed dualism.
  • The Gita, being the advice of a god, must necessarily acknowledge this duality. But that is not so for Patanjali’s Yogasutra. This text elaborates the process of meditation aimed at attaining union with nirgunabrahma through realising it as the sole truth. It defines “yoga” as the freeing of the atma from all sensory encumbrances. Therefore, the Yogasutra could very well have insisted on the absolute monism of the Advaita, the philosophy that it adheres to. Yet, it too ushers in duality. On the one hand, it proposes meditation through chanting “Om”, which is equated with nirgunabrahma. Yoga is declared as a method through which “sadhana” (union with parabrahma) can be attained, without calling on a god. On the other hand, it also states that the worshipping of a god can help one attain sadhana “sooner”.15
  • The active, operative, aspect here is faith in a god and the mental concentration it could facilitate. Duality is thus accepted as necessary in the passage to monism. One arrives at monism through duality. The latter then has its own space and action. The commentator of the Yogasutra text I have relied on explicitly states that yoga is useful only until a certain stage. Beyond that Samkhya is a must for attaining sadhana.16
  • What is explicitly acknowledged in the Yogasutra is implicit in all the interpretations and treatises of Advaita. Absolute monism cannot but drag along dualism. Its absolutist stance deprives it of any possible elaboration from within itself, on its own terms, that could account for differentiation and the sensuous universe. Whichever may be the text of Brahmanism that posits or elaborates Advaita, the stubborn presence of dualism is all too noticeable. Yet, it is forever the embarrassing intrusion. This has implications beyond the concerns of philosophy.
  • We have seen that Advaita considers god to be part of maya, the untrue. However, in its social avatar, as the ideological core of the ruling class, Brahmanism could not but engage with god; that too in their teeming crores17 (33 crores by one count)! The spread and elaboration of the caste system made this even more vital. Hegemonic assimilation unique to Brahmanism was accompanied by an enthronement of tribal gods or totems in subordinate positions in the Brahmanic pantheon. Obviously, the Advaita philosophy, declaring gods as unreal, wouldn’t be of use here. Its denial of “trueness” to gods was of course equally applicable to the Brahmanic trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. But “equality” of denial wouldn’t be satisfactory for the vast masses of assorted believers. They needed their gods to be real, real enough to heed their prayers and grant them solace. Making gods “true” thus inevitably emerged as a pressing issue of Vedanta theology.18 It was further aggravated by the struggle against caste.
  • There is a long tradition in South Asia of religious, social reformers who, in their confrontation with the caste system, tried to undermine it through fresh interpretations of Brahmanism’s sacred texts. Much of this centred on Gita. The Gita allows for three paths to moksha: jnana, karma and bhakti. The jnana path is that of acquiring awareness of nirgunabrahma through meditation. Naturally, proponents of Advaita like Adi Sankara claimed it to be the purest, most appropriate one. For this very reason, in the eyes of the reformers, it could not be a solution. Similarly, the path of karma (action) too was compromised. Brahmanism conceives karma as carrying out binding duty preordained for every varna (caste). What remained was bhakti, devotion to and worship of god. Bhakti had the potential for social levelling and the elimination of intermediaries.19 However, this requires that the gods be true, not unreal maya. Thus the stage was set for breaking the absolutist mould of Advaita’s monism. Duality had to be given a formal entry in the Vedantic tradition. It had to be acknowledged as a necessary, inherent component of philosophical and theological discourse.
  • Ramanuja was the first to expand this through his Vishistadvaita. He argued that “jeev” (atma) and “jagath” (sensuous universe) are both contained within “easwar” (supreme god). The easwar of Vishistadvaita, which takes the place of nirgunabrahma, is thus unitary but differentiated. The duality of jeev and jagath it contains are as true as it is itself. The multifarious universe and atmas evolved from the original jagath and jeev. Furthermore by declaring worship of god (bhakti) as the path to moskha, Ramanuja reduced caste-determined karma to insignificance.20
  • With Ramanuja, god became true. But the contradictions inherent in his attempt to legitimise dualism on a monist basis remained. They became the entry point for Madhva’s Dvaidavada, i.e. explicit and absolute dualism. Madhva reasoned that jeev (atma) and parameshwara (paramatama) could not be one and different at the same time. Hence, his Dvaidavada conceived both to be always different, distinct, from each other. For him also karma was only a minor means, while worship of god was the sole path to moksha.
  • Madhva was followed by a number of theologist philosophers. All of them attempted to either amend his dualism or propound yet one more version of linking up Advaita with dualism. No matter what, Advaita and its absolute monism were displaced from the centre of philosophical-theological debate among the Vedantis for centuries together. However, being part of the Astika stream, the discourses of the new philosophies shared many basic precepts with it. Moksha as liberation from jani-mriti, maya, the relation of atma and paramatama and many other concepts were recurring themes. Their interpretations, of course, varied.
  • The dethroning of Advaita was, in great measure, inspired by the quest to make room for anti-caste reforms. In turn, it gained impetus from the stirrings of the Bhakti movements in the South Indian peninsula. These movements, seen from early middle ages onwards, critiqued Brahmanist concepts, values and its caste system. Ramanuja is known to have broken from Brahmanist orthodoxy and strictures. He taught its sacred texts to Shudras, who were banned from even hearing their recital and made them “dvijas” (twice born, allowed to wear sacred thread).
  • Among the Bhakti streams of the thought of this period, Basava and his companions (12th century) take the place of honour. Basava’s Lingayat movement was an all-out attack on the oppressive concepts and practices of Brahmanism, such as the caste system and the demeaning of women. One of Basava’s trenchant vachanas makes fun of the Brahminic taboo on menstruation by pointing to its role in reproduction. Basava did not appeal to Brahmanic texts like the Vedas, Smirits, Gita etc. for his authority. He squarely declared the washer-man, woodcutter and others of the “lowest of the low” as his venerated gurus. Though centred on the worship of Shiva, Lingayat bhakti was radically different from other Bhakti movements.
  • Basava propounded “Kayakame Kailasam”. This conveys the message that one’s labour is the supreme form of worship. Mocking the ritualism of those who considered pilgrimage to Mount Kailas (the mythical abode of Shiva) as exalted, he sarcastically queried whether their Shiva was a fool to live in that desolate place where even a blade of grass wouldn’t grow! In its original vision the Lingayat movement was opposed to temples. They were attacked by Basava as cages imprisoning god. Lingayat priests were commanded to be forever on the move, never tarrying in any place. The logic Basava advanced for these precepts and practices was profoundly dialectical: “All that stands will wither away, that which moves will stand.”
  • One sees influence of Bauddha and Jaina dialectics, apart from Kashmiri Shaivism and the folk philosophies of the labouring classes in the Lingayat world outlook. They went into Basava’s forging a radically new school in philosophy. Positioning it as a transcendence of the various South Asian idealist philosophical schools through its rich synthesis is a theme worth exploring. It critiqued many views seen in various idealist schools. For example, it rejected the “karma” theory (karma-punarjanma-moksha), commonly seen in all the classical idealist schools, including Bauddha and Jaina ones. But this was not an absolutist rejection. The monist tradition and the Sramana tradition’s emphasis on motion and impermanence were synthesised.
  • Unfortunately, its rich discourse as witnessed in the philosophical debates said to have taken place in the Anubhava Mandapa are mostly lost. Only a compilation, the Sunya Sampadane, made during the Vijayanagara Empire (14th century CE) is available. By this time the Lingayat movement had lost its radical edge. Already, it was well into being assimilated by Brahmanism as yet another sect. What started out as a staunch caste-free community itself became stratified with caste division. The esoteric turn of the verses in the Sunya Sampadane, their very style, is far removed from the lively, earthy, vacanas of Basava and colleagues.
  • Other than social factors, the idealism of this philosophical school also must have contributed to this slide. Idealism inevitably limits, truncates, dialectical thought. To cite another example, Jaina “Anekanta” (a-singularity) espouses a dialectics that perceives opposites as integral to a single whole. Creation and destruction are seen as a constant ongoing process. Yet the idealism it bears as theology conceives the soul as eternal, imperishable, permanent. Dialectics is thus pushed aside by absolute monism, now brought back by idealism.
  • This is by no means an infirmity solely attached to idealism. Even a materialism that adheres to absolute monism would be equally inconsistent. Consider the logic of a materialism that posits some primordial matter as the source of all animate and inanimate sensuous phenomena. This absolutist concept of matter chokes off the possible emergence of new qualities. Not only that, essence and appearance, quantity and quality, in short everything, must be attributed to it from outside. The diversity of material existence must also be explained by external causes. This would necessarily be subjective and arbitrary, thus bringing in idealism! Quite unsurprisingly, all of this gels well with the categories of Advaita: nirgunabrahma as the single source, the superimposition of qualities and so on.
  • The leap from idealism to materialism is not a matter of simply replacing “idea” with “matter” as primary. Consistent materialism insists on grasping “matter” as a philosophical category. It is an abstraction from the essence and appearance of the multitude of objective phenomena, animate and inanimate, populating the universe. The monist view was a momentous leap in philosophy. It allows us to recognise the identity, unity of various phenomena and grasp their interconnectedness. Thus, the dialectical materialist position, “All that exists is matter in motion”, comprehends the whole universe. However, monism, when taken to the extreme, becomes its opposite. Absolute monism denies objective existence to duality or diversity. As a result, it is forced to surreptitiously make room for dualism.
  • An important lesson that emerges loud and clear is that seeing similarities between philosophical systems merely on the basis of their monism would be widely off the mark. This, in fact, was the case with the CPM theoretician, the late EMS Namboodiripad, hailing the monism of Adi Sankara’s Advaita. The errors of Advaita were solely identified in its idealism, its mayavad, leaving out the contradictions of its absolute monism. Such fractured views arose from EMS’ mechanical materialist approach.
  • The undivided CPI, and later CPI and CPM, miserably failed in identifying and drawing on the rich dialectical legacy of South Asian philosophical schools. Rather, instead of focussing ideological struggle on Brahmanical schools of thought, they were valorised, as seen in the case of Advaita. Long before their formal abdication of the revolutionary path, they had laid the foundation for collaboration with the ruling classes. The lone exception, in the field of philosophy was Rahul Sankrityayan who did much to bring out the teachings of Buddhist dialectics. As could be expected, he was side-lined.
  • The mechanical materialism of the CPI and CPM buttress Brahmanism. Their extolling of the Brahmanic precept of “unity in diversity” is a telling example. Presenting a pose of accepting diversities, its real thrust is to reduce all diversity to mere manifestations of some unique, single entity. As noted earlier, to see the unity (unifying factors, interconnectedness or identical elements) among diverse phenomena is an advance made possible by monism. It rescues us from remaining restricted to appearances and viewing objects in isolation from each other. A dialectical understanding of monism helps us comprehend this unity as derived from, abstracted from the interconnectedness of diverse phenomena. Its very objectivity is given by the objectivity of the real, material elements comprising the diversity. But Brahmanism’s absolute monism turns this on its head and insists that only the “unity” is real. Diversity is a mere outcome of its projections, manifestations.
  • Advaita terms concrete objects in the sensuous universe as “namarupa”, i.e. that which has name and form. As seen in Tilak’s exposition, this philosophy goes on to insist that, since these “namarupa” keep on changing, there must be something beyond them that remains unchanged.21
  • This assertion is easily contradicted. Though a number of material phenomena are fluid, volatile, there are so many more that are relatively stable. Even those that are fluid have a certain stability, which differentiates them from other phenomena. The assertion of ever-changing namarupa is made by Advaita to bring in its supposed opposite, a permanent “something” beyond them. Namarupa are pictured as a thin film on water. “We are compelled to state that the many namarupa are like a film on some singular, root, material. …We are pushed to the inference of this essence, which though unmanifest, cannot be sensed never becomes non-existent”22.
  • Tilak gives the example of various types of ornaments made of gold as proof of this assertion: “If there is nothing at the root of the sensed manifestations then there won’t be any basis for our knowledge that despite being different [these ornaments] have been made from a single [thing] gold…. Gold is that which forms the basis of all the different ornaments.”23 Gold is a natural element. Even in its purest form, as for example an atom, it can still be detected. It is thus a namarupa, to borrow Advaita’s language. This is precisely why we can distinguish an ornament made of gold from a fake. Contrarily, the nirgunabrahma of Advaita, the “something” that is supposed to be beyond everything, can never be sensed; by definition itself. It forever remains a supreme figment of imagination. The unity it is said to represent thus turns out to be an imagined construct. It is not an abstraction derived from concrete reality. Quite significantly, one of the accusations made by Brahmanism against South Asian materialist thought was that its insistence on many essences denied the singular unity asserted by Advaita.24
  • Carried over into the ideological make up the ruling classes, “unity in diversity” is a prominent element of the hegemonic consensus evolved by them. Whether it be the Gandhi-Nehru Congress stream or the Savarkar-Golwalkar Hinduvadi stream, “unity in diversity” underpins the reactionary notions of national integration and Indian nation, denying the multinational character of the country. It is employed to deny Adivasi people their ethnic identities.
  • The CPI-CPM leadership has become staunch proponents of this Brahmanist precept. They acclaim it as the “strength” of the Indian polity. There is, however, a notable difference in emphasis. The CPI-CPM leaders stress on “diversity” in contrast to the RSS insistence on “unity”. But it is still firmly placed in a common frame set up by Brahmanism. This causes a blunting of the ideological, political attack on Brahmanic Hindu fascism. Worse, it traps many who wish to join this struggle in a pretence, a superficial opposition, allowing the ruling classes to contain it within safe channels.
  • To repeat, for dialectical materialism, the primacy of matter over mind as a defining principle of materialism means the primacy of objective reality in all its diversity. It rejects any notion of some entity termed “matter”, which forms the permanent source, basis or material of objective reality. Dialectical materialism, as opposed to the absolute monism of Advaita, does not dismiss duality, diversity. It transcends both absolute monism as well as dualism. As Lenin puts it, dialectics is “the splitting of the single whole and the study of its opposites”; the study of their interrelation and struggle. Thus, a synthesised view of singularity and duality in their unity and opposition is achieved.
  • We saw how a materialism that embraces absolute monism complements idealism. Taking this as guidance, the critique of absolute monism can be fruitfully extended to achieve greater clarity on Marxist analytical categories. For example, how should the primacy of class in social analysis be grasped and applied? Often, at times spontaneously, class is treated as some self-existent material phenomena. Class analysis then becomes a matter of matching social groups with various pre-fixed criteria and their subsequent classification. This is really of no use in grasping the actual dynamics of the society under study. Social reality is a complex ensemble of relations that are generated, sustained, reproduced and changed through social practice of the individuals who are part of that society. Class is an abstraction made from this social reality. Its material basis is the position of people in the process of production and distribution of the surplus.
  • Though one of the most basic ones in social existence (the other being reproduction), production is not the only social relation humans enter into. Individuals belonging to a class are also differentiated by various other social relations. In our context, to name some of the prominent ones, they included those of caste, gender, ethnicity, regionality, nationality and religious community. Class, therefore, is mediated through all of them. Furthermore, each of these have their specific dynamic that impinges on that of class. Such nuances must necessarily be grasped if we are to carry out a comprehensive class analysis of a society, if we wish to make a concrete analysis of its classes, their interrelations and social consciousness. On the contrary, if class is taken in isolation or if its mediations are grasped in a linear, absolutist manner, then the social view being generated would be subjective and truncated. At an extreme, it would lead to crass forms of class reductionism.
  • Guarding against absolutist tendencies, the analytical categories of Marxism must be grasped and applied with full awareness of their limits as abstractions. “One divides into two” is equally applicable to them, just as much as to material phenomena. Such foresight is of greater importance in the case of a category like class, which is more determinant. Otherwise, rather than illuminating reality it will obscure it.
  • Every tendency of one-sided mechanical thinking has an absolutist core. There is an insistence of the “this and this only” sort, a refusal to view the matter at hand from multiple angles. The inherent presence of the opposite side is either ignored or denied. No law, no analytical category, can grasp the pulsating, dynamic complexity of objective reality in its completeness. That is why Lenin pointed out that they “freeze reality”. This is an unavoidable infirmity in the process of knowing. But that doesn’t make such “freezing” worthless. By identifying the key features, the principal one among them, the contradictions driving them, our abstractions allow us to grasp a phenomenon in its essentials. Guiding our practice, this, in turn, helps us to delve deeper into its complexity, which is both inherent to it as well as a product of its interconnections with other phenomena. Yet, we cannot forget that the problems inherent to any “freezing” are also true.
  • Not just categories and laws, ideology, itself is subject to this. Ideology, understood as a worldview, is universal. In its actual development it is the totality of ideas associated with revolutionary praxis in both the practical and theoretical spheres. Praxis always addresses a particular concrete situation or issue. Hence, the dialectics of particularity and universality is ever present in ideology. This must be kept firmly in mind while applying it. What was particular to a situation, what is universal in the received ideology — much hinges on a correct assessment.
  • For example, in the view of Marx and Engels, derived from then existing conditions, proletarian revolution was expected in countries where capitalism had developed. All through the Second International period, this was taken as a basic position. Leading theoreticians — Kautsky and Plekhanov and others — were citing it to justify their opposition to the proletariat leading a revolution in Russia, which was still quite backward. In a sense, they were “standing firm” on ideology. In actual fact, the emergent reality of imperialism and the new potential for revolution it offered were being denied. In their received ideological consciousness, the pre-imperialist world condition remained “frozen”. Its vision now came back as an imposition on the new reality, inserted through their ideological understanding. Ideology as guidance turned into ideology as false consciousness. It took a Lenin to rupture from the redundant in Marxism and develop it to a new height through revolutionary theory and practice.
  • Objective and subjective conditions change over time with the working out of inherent contradictions. Class struggle is part of this. The revolutionary praxis of the proletariat is guided by its ideology. But that very practice sets up and unleashes a dynamic between revolution and counter-revolution. This in turn brings about significant changes in the conditions of practice, especially when the class struggle is a long drawn out one. Major contradictions, on which the strategy of practice was firmed up, may well remain. But the emergence of new facets, or the waning of some earlier prominent ones, is inevitable. And this has great significance for further advance. If these are not identified in time and ideological, political positions and practices are not developed accordingly, the earlier ideological understanding and practice will become fetters. They will be generating false consciousness. This potential for transforming into false consciousness is ever present in ideology. “One divides into two” must be applied to guard against it.
  • Monism was a leap from the “both this and that” confusion of dualism. Dualist thought hampered — blinded — synthesis and the deepening of knowledge. However, to be consistent, monism must be dialectical, that too on a materialist basis. This is the great achievement of Marxism. It drew out the full potential of monism by pointing out that “every single whole is a unity of opposites”. Nothing exists by itself or in and through itself. Everything exists in interconnection, interpenetration. This must be addressed by monism. While insisting on oneness, singularity, it must simultaneously accept multiplicity. Any monism that refuses to do so, such as the absolute monism of Advaita, will inevitably end up as an eclectic mash-up with dualism.
  • Notes
  • 1 Strictly speaking, Vedanta refers to all schools of philosophy that take the Brahmasutras as their foundational text. But it has usually been employed as a synonym of Advaita, as it was in this quote taken from Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Gita Rahasya. (All quotes from Tilak’s work are translations from the Marathi edition)
  • 2 Advaita means “non-dual”. It is termed by some as monism. That is not accurate since Advaita represents only one type of monism.
  • 3 Vishishtadavaida is “qualified Advaita”. Dvaidavada is dualism.
  • 4 It may be argued that Advaita remained a living tradition through various Bhakti schools during the Middle Ages. Its insistence on “oneness” would have been an attractive proposition for these streams opposing the Brahmanical caste order. Yet, in actuality, their bases were versions of modified Advaita, with emphasis on worship of a God and the philosophical implication of making room for dualism.
  • 5 In the centuries immediately preceding colonial rule, the Nyaya-Vaisesika School enjoyed prominence in the new interpretations and lively debates going on in the South Asian philosophical realm. Jonardon Ganeri’s The Lost Age of Reason gives a good introduction to this period. The British role in appointing Advaita to the prime position of South Asian philosophy was noted by Trevor Ling in his Karl Marx and Religion.
  • 6 Gita Rahasya [GR], Bal Gangadhar Tilak, 26th Marathi Edition, Pune, 2015.
  • 7 GR, pp. 143–144.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 144.
  • 9 Ibid,. p. 145.
  • 10 Samkhya philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two independent realities, purusha (consciousness) and prakrti (substance). These two realities exist parallelly, without affecting each other. According to Samkhya there are three gunas (innate tendencies) — sat (goodness), raj (activity) and tamas (negativity).
  • 11 Ibid., p. 145.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 160.
  • 13 Gita, 10.2; GR, p 156.
  • 14 GR, p 153.
  • 15 Patanjali Yogasutra with commentary by Nandlal Dashora, Randhir Prakasan, Haridwar, 2009, p. 38. (in Hindi)
  • 16 Ibid., p. 39.
  • 17 Crores are a unit of measurement. One crore is ten million.
  • 18 Brahmanism has a tradition of declaring the “god” concept as something designed for the “less intelligent”, i.e. those incapable of gaining jnana through contemplation of a formless, quality-less, nirgunabrahma. But the real theological, sociological need underpinning it is seen in Tilak’s explanation of why a “prathyaksha roopdhari” (one who has visible form) is necessary and his enumeration of its qualities: “…One who speaks to me, who has affection for me, who guides me on the path of righteousness, who will condone my errors, whom I can call mine, who protects me like a father.” (GR, p 252.) In other words, someone who can give solace — including to those with “higher” intelligence!
  • 19 Tilak admits the role of bhakti in addressing the spiritual needs of women and the varna (Shudra) excluded from gaining jnana, as an “additional” factor, apart from being suitable for the “alphabudhi samanya jana” (less intelligent common masses) [GR, p 267]. He draws attention to a sloka of the Gita (9.32; GR, p. 468) that states that “those who put full trust in me even if they be women, Vaishya, Shudra or Antyajas, can gain moksha.” While this seems very generous, the next sloka puts it in perspective when it adds “then what would be the case of the pious Brahmin or Kshatriya who are my followers (bhakts)?” (9.33; GR, p. 468) Though Tilak tries to stretch the former sloka’s meaning and claim bhakti to be a levelling factor across varnas (GR, p 237) the Gita evidently did not have this view. The interpretation and deployment of bhakti as a social leveller was a contribution of the Bhakti movements challenging Brahmanism.
  • 20 This account and the one of Madhva’s Dvaidavada are based on the brief summary seen in Tilak’s Gita Rahasya.
  • 21 GR, p. 131.
  • 22 Ibid.
  • 23 Ibid.
  • 24 Gita, 16.8; GR, pp. 516–517.




Maoist ideologue

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K. Muralidharan

K. Muralidharan

Maoist ideologue

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