Those with only an outsider’s interpretation of Hinduism often assert — or, depending on one’s own worldview, accuse — Hindu metaphysics of being purely solipsistic in the Western sense. Both academic theologians and New Age followers make this case, though for different purposes.
Solipsism, to be clear, is the idea that nothing exists (or, at least, nothing can be proven to exist) other than or outside of the self. The barrier to interpretation is on that last term: the self. In our common parlance, as well as in most American and European philosophical, religious, and psychological schools, “self” refers exclusively to the ego — that ersatz entity which claims independent existence and ownership in the face of all evidence. Hindu philosophy, however, has separate words for these things allowing for greater precision in discussion. What we translate as “self” (slightly more adequately as “Self”, or by Paul Brunton’s “Overself”) is the Sanskrit term ātman. (For those who are curious, the term for ego is ahaṁkāra, or “I-am act”.) Ātman is not the personal self, nor even the impersonal intellect, but is the transpersonal Consciousness at the root of all phenomena, at once the individual Spiritual Monad and the unitary Oversoul. It is not at all proper, therefore, to compare ātman and ego, let alone to equate them.
And, yet, because of this basic misapprehension, most Western philosophy students and seminarians are given the impression that Hinduism claims the godhood (or even godhead) of the individual person. (See, for instance, the idiocy concerning Buddhism and Hinduism perpetuated in Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ, a trivial little text which insults Christianity no less than any other religion.) Worse than this are those spiritual seekers who misunderstand these teachings (usually by way of equally misinformed popular writers and teachers) and conclude potentially dangerous and often immoral interpretations of them.
An example of the problem involved is the extremely common belief among relatively comfortable Americans that we each create our own individual reality by our thoughts and beliefs, an implication of the idea that the universe is a construct of individual minds. This is used to justify everything from conspicuous consumption to failure to give to those in need, citing a misapplied “karmic” reason for the fortune or misfortune of others. I have even heard it said that Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, remarked that if copies of her book were given to starving African villagers (presuming, I suppose, that they could read it), all of their worldly problems could be solved! I do not know the source of this story, and it may be inaccurate, but it is hardly outside the realm of this mode of thinking. One individual involved with an obviously fraudulent world-wide pseudo-Hindu New Age cult (with a membership roster boasting none other than feel-good motivational hukster Tony Robbins), once told me personally that Hitler did the world a good turn by intentionally taking on the whole planet’s bad karma by way of his actions. In other words, his killing of millions of people in cold blood — let alone the millions more who died because of him in war — was a sacrificial act of himself to help the rest of us, including the people he murdered! So much for divine grace, I suppose, when we’re all spiritually dependent on Hitler! Distance from atrocity in either time or space makes these interpretations of events extremely convenient in denying that any of us is — or could be — responsible for the well being of anybody else.
Just as awful as the moral implications of this sort of egotistical solipsism are the intellectual ramifications. If the outside world may as well not exist at all, if all things are the result of one’s own beliefs and fancies, or if (more charitably) reality is so malleable to the human mind as to have no meaningful attributes at all, there is really nothing to be learned from or about anyone or anything outside one’s own sentimental inner ramblings and errant whims. Not only do science and engineering go out the window — despite the luxury they provide to the spiritual hedonists under discussion — but so goes all philosophical and spiritual speculation; after all, what need is there for metaphysics if physics is denied its place already?
The remedy to this dangerous nonsense is twofold. First, we have the common philosophical gambit of pointing out that any belief not given expression in behavior is no belief at all, but empty rhetorical fumbling. If these hedonic solipsists were fully convinced of their ideas, they would be required by gravity to belief that Hitler’s and Stalin’s pogroms were unimportant, just dramatic but trivial phantasmagoria.
Second is the true perspective of Tradition: Nondual Realism. Far from the meaningless illusion of Western monist-idealism, the Hindu Ṛishis — in solidarity with the Buddha, Jewish kabbalists, Lao-tze, and others — recognize the reality of the material world, and of our place within it. What distinguishes them from monist-materialists is their understanding that, from an earthly perspective, there are degrees of reality (or, more precisely, degrees of our awareness of Reality), and, consequently, the material universe is real only in relativity to what we may tentatively call Divine Attention. In this connection, it is interesting that some kabbalists teach that if God were to look away for even an instant, the universe would dissolve into nonexistence. And, yet, so long as God’s gaze remains, this whole vast cosmic system is quite real enough. To be blunt, no matter how hard we think that solid matter is illusory, we still cross the street with caution!
Yoga is sometimes called dualistic because it seeks to transcend physical existence. This is a misunderstanding. If there were not a pre-existing and eternal unity of the individual soul with the Oversoul of Paraśiva, no artificial unity would be possible regardless of our efforts. In reverse, there could be no being or consciousness in the individual soul if it were not rooted in the Being and Consciousness of the Absolute. The same holds true for the material world: it exists insofar as God imparts it with His attribute (to use unfortunately necessary imprecise language) of Being. From a certain angle, we could then see the world as a grand illusion or play, but with the same interpretation and a different angle, we can see the same world as solid and important; both are true. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi “said that [the world] is unreal if viewed as apart from the Self and real if viewed as the Self.” (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 516) In Saivite terms, “‘Recognition’ says that Śakti (power) is coeval with Śiva. The one does not exist without the other. Śiva is unmanifest, whereas Śakti is manifest on account of Her independent will, swatantra. Her manifestation is the display of the cosmos on pure consciousness, like images in a mirror.” (Talks, 288) In short, the world is real if viewed as one with the Whole, but utterly unreal is taken as independent. Such is Hindu Nondual Realism.
Karma is a reality, but it is neither unbreakable destiny — as the philosophers and theologians see it — nor is it an excuse to smugly enjoy success while ignoring the suffering of others. Similarly, for as much as our beliefs and attitudes can and do influence our individual experience of life, this is not the effortless influence of some all-powerful personal magnetism. Reality is what it is, and the universe has a great deal to teach us. We can only learn the greatest lessons, though, if we first acknowledge that there are lessons to learn in the first place, and that it is only our unselfish engaged interdependence which makes wisdom accessible. Worship the ego and live in the darkness of self-sustaining ignorance. Worship the Reality and watch as the Universe opens up to you like a morning glory at first light.
Aum Namaḥ Śivaya