Advaita Vedanta operated at broadly two levels in the Indian society.
One is the epistemological-ontological level, dealing with the nature of human knowledge, means of valid knowledge, the nature of the world we see, the degree of reality in things we see and so on. All the paradigms like the discrimination of seer and the seen (dṛg-dṛśya viveka), erroneous cognition and its analysis (khyāti vāda-s), the five-fold sheaths of existence (pañca kośa), the nature of Truth and Consciousness (sat and cit) fall under this category. This is the high-brow stuff which the pundits learn and pontificate. The common man is largely unaware of it though he may be indirectly influenced by it.
The second level is the one which directly impacts the society. It is about the nature of Reality or God as we call it, about man’s relationship with It, beliefs like karma, rebirth or liberation (mokśa), idea of good and bad deeds etc, about which every person is bothered every day.
There is no connection between these two i.e. speculative philosophy and religion in other cultures. What Socrates said did not have anything to do with Greek religion, or what Hegel or Kant or Russell said had anything to do with Christianity. Philosophy and religion grew independently though philosophical thought might have affected the religious beliefs.
Religion in other cultures is a mere set of incontrovertible beliefs about what no one has seen but everyone contends as true. If one book says that creation took place in 4004 BC it is a belief which influenced scholars till about hundred years ago.
In the Indian context religion and philosophy are interwoven, as we noted how Vedanta operates at two levels. Religious thought either grew from the philosophy of the Upanishads or drew the upanishadic ideas to evolve the multiplicity of belief systems which outwardly differ from each other but which are all under the umbrella of the Upanishads. What the Upanishadic sage told of the Ultimate has everything to do with the Indian idea of god at an empirical level and God at the absolute level.
God at the empirical level is Rama or Krishna or Shiva or Vishnu or whatever. All these forms are accepted for a formless Brahman, which is the concept of Ultimate as per the Upanishads. A common man has no conflict worshipping Rama on one day and Shiva on another day. He has no problem with the deities of other religions as he ‘knows’ that all forms are one and the same. There is no dogma, no command that he cannot worship any other god-form. The forms may change, but the basic idea of the Ultimate is a product of philosophy, which has got integrated with religion in a happy manner.
Shankara used philosophy for social reconstruction. At a time when there were several local beliefs and cults he moved round the country and evaluated the local practices and integrated different belief systems of his time. Social integration was done by philosophers but not by kings and soldiers. This is in sharp contrast to the physical elimination of belief systems which we see in other cultures. Shankara was called ‘the establisher of six religions’ (ṣaṇmata-sthāpakācārya), because he studied the six sects – worshippers of Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, Ganesha, Skanda (Kumaraswamy) and Sun – and brought them under the vedic umbrella. He refined the practices of worship and composed hymns for all these deities. All this is in conformity with the philosophical tenets.
Philosophy, probably, had to make some compromise in giving room to certain established beliefs in almost all the existing religious sects of the time – ideas such as rebirth, doctrine of karma and ideas of heaven and hell. Shankara and others had to accept the prevalent beliefs and integrate them with philosophy. That is why it is difficult, or perhaps dangerous, to allow too much of tampering with philosophy.
The vedic ṛṣi-s had a scheme of teaching in different style to different persons depending on the capacity of the receiver. The philosophy of the Upanishads is too abstruse for a lay person and so the scheme was to convey the message through some symbolic tales called itihāsa-s and purāṇa -s. The first chapter of Mahabharat has a line – ‘itihāsa-purāṇābhyāṃ vedaṃ samupabṛṃhayet – which means that the message of the Upanishads has to be spread through the means of itihāsa and purāṇa. These have become the mainstay for the religion as it was practiced, and the teachers were, till recently, were aware of the umbilical connection between the Vedic philosophy and the purāṇa-s.
Recent degeneration in Indian scholarship has made the purāṇa-s vulnerable for indecent and rather uncivilized attacks by some of the modern writers. One western writer writes: ‘The Ganesha story is full of sex……the myth shows conflict between Ganesha and his father Shiva, for the attention of mother Parvati……..Courtright interprets these stories in keeping with the idea of oedipal conflict’ (‘The Clash Within’ by Martha Nussbaum). She goes on to say – ‘the broken tusk (of Ganesha) is a sexual wounding, by contrast to Shiva’s triumphant sexuality, and the trunk ought to be seen in contrast to Shiva’s erect phallus’. Interpretations go on and on by several other writers in such vulgar and perverted manner. We have only to appeal to their conscience to introspect whether this is the culture engendered by their religion. I do not think that any Indian writer can ever be so indecent with others’ belief system, as, for him, it is yet another path to the Absolute.
Such deplorable attacks do have an agenda, but we need not go into that.
What should an advaitin do? Should he be entertaining himself in discussions in polemics, talking of ontological issues, phenomenalism and so on or should he also take note of the social impact of the barbaric criticisms and explain the ancient Indian concept of itihāsa and purāṇa correctly?
This is an important question for a modern advaitin.
There are profound teachings on human nature which have to be brought out. The time scale of creation is close to what the modern science says and not a few thousand years before as the western myths taught. Bringing out the positive is also the talk of the philosopher because he created the structure of itihāsa and purāṇa.