Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Orgasmic Absolute: The Ambiguous Role of Bliss in the Vedanta

In my previous post I recounted how the philosophy of Absolute Idealism originated not in early 19th century Germany with Schelling and Hegel -- as is often thought -- but rather in ancient India from the 8th to 5th century BCE. There the polytheistic mythology of the Hindu religion, originally expressed in the Vedas, was gradually rationalized into a philosophical monotheism, culminating in the Upanishads where this monotheism took on the shape of an Idealistic Monism known as Vedanta (literally meaning "end / culmination of the Vedas"). In the Vedanta, reality as a whole is explained in terms of a self-causing Absolute, known as Brahman, the spiritual nature of which is announced through its identification with Atman, the Universal Self, which finds its highest empirical manifestation in the human self. What impressed the Upanishadic sages in the self as the key to the nature of Brahman was partly the self’s epistemological significance, i.e. the fact that the self is presupposed in all acts of thought, experience and knowledge. As a result, Brahman was identified with the Universal Knower, the transindividual subject underlying all individual acts of cognition -- much like the transcendental subject in German Idealism.

Although Brahman, as the Universal Knower, does have much in common with Kant's transcendental subject, we should also recognize their substantial differences. Whereas the transcendental subject is purely epistemological in function (as the formal unity of the transcendental apperception that guarantees the synthetic unity of the empirical object), the Vedantic Brahman is much more: it is volitional and emotional right from the start. Brahman is not just the Universal Knower but also the Universal Willer and Enjoyer -- indeed, Brahman is Will and Joy as such. Brahman is
the self-willing and self-sustaining pure bliss underlying and driving everything that exists. Brahman is the bliss "from which these beings are born, that, by which, when born, they live, that into which, when departing they enter" (Taittiriya Upanishad : 553).1 Hence the standard Vedantic definition of Brahman as satcitananda -- a compounded Sanskrit term consisting of "sat" (being), "cit" (consciousness) and "ananda" (bliss). Satcitananda, then, designates Brahman as the integral unity of consciousness, being and bliss.

"As a man when in the embrace of his beloved wife
knows nothing without or within, so the person when
in the embrace of the intelligent self knows nothing
without or within." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)
This presents us with a unique and attractive feature of the Vedanta, especially when compared to other dominant forms of monotheism in the world, notably Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At the origin of creation, the Vedanta does not place a "jealous God", ruling over mankind with stern commandments, but rather a pure "pleasure principle": a self-creating, self-enjoying, self-reinforcing joy. "It is this delight that overflows into creation," as Radhakrishnan notes (1953: 70). Keeping in mind Oscar Wilde’s dictum “A dirty mind is a joy forever”, we can say that the Vedanta is all the more attractive given the clear sexual connotation to this pure bliss which is Brahman. True, in many religions the imagery of the sexual unification of lovers is used to describe the unio mystica, i.e. the mystical unification of man with God. But the Vedanta is unique because it uses this imagery to explain the nature of Brahman itself. Thus the Vedantic Brahman is the pinnacle of pleasure and is as such analogous to the sexual climax, the orgasm that concludes sexual unification (well, most of the times anyway… but now I am wandering off-topic). In this sense the Vedantic Brahman can be described as "the orgasmic Absolute". The Vedanta has strongly influenced Tantric Yoga in this regard.

At the same time, however, this orgasmic quality of Brahman is highly ambiguous, because in all other respects the Vedanta promotes ascetic renunciation of bodily pleasure, even to the point of extreme mortification (as in Shankara). So how we are to understand the cosmic orgasm which is Brahman? The answer, elaborated in the final section of this post, is that we should understand it primarily in intellectual terms, as the intellectual orgasm that results from reaching (through meditation) the knowledge of one’s unity with Brahman -- a knowledge that participates in Brahman’s own self-awareness. In line with the Absolute-Idealist approach to Leibniz's question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", the Vedanta explains Brahman's self-causation in terms of its self-awareness: Brahman exists because it is aware of itself – it’s pure self-awareness is its self-creation. The attainment of this absolute self-awareness, therefore, is at the same time the intellectual orgasm that produces reality as such. And the sage who attains this absolute self-awareness participates in this ontological orgasm.  

The volitional aspect of Brahman
As noted above, we should not make the mistake of seeing Brahman qua Atman in purely epistemological terms, as the Universal Knower. There is also a strongly volitional aspect to the Vedantic concept of Brahman. What impressed the Upanishadic sages in the human self -- like all Absolute Idealists the world over -- was its apparently free will, its capacity for spontaneous self-determination, to initiate a new course of action seemingly 'out of nothing': "I choose to do this though I could have done otherwise..." Such a capacity for free self-determination seemed precisely what was needed to make sense of Brahman as the self-causing cause of reality. The free will of the human individual was -- and perhaps still is -- the only model available for understanding the possibility of self-causation. Though imperfectly realized in human beings, as finite and empirically conditioned as we are, this capacity for free self-determination becomes absolute as we ascribe it to the Absolute itself. This was the revolutionary step taken by the Upanishadic sages: the cosmic expansion of the human self, the modeling of Brahman on the self-determining power of the self, the Atman. "Brahman, the first principle of the universe, is known through Atman, the inner self of man." (Radhakrishnan 1953: 77) Brahman's self-causation can then be conceptualized as analogous to human self-determination -- as self-determination freed from human limitations, thus as absolute self-determination. "Why is the universe what it is, rather than something else? Why is there this something, rather than another? This is traced to the divine will... The power of self-determination [...] belongs to God." (Radhakrishnan 1953: 63)

Brahman as Self-Willing Joy
We would, however, be unfaithful to the spirit of the Upanishads if we saw this free act of divine will -- which explains why there is something rather than nothing -- as an act exercised by a pre-existing subject, i.e. by God as He exists independently from the act. To conceive of the primordial will in this way would be to relapse in religious dogma, which is precisely what the Upanishads were trying to overcome. In traditional religion we simply presuppose the existence of God to explain the creation of the world ("because He willed it"). But then the question why there exists something rather than nothing is not yet answered; we still have to explain God's existence. Thus, in conformity with the concept of self-causation, we have to see the primordial act of the will as bringing itself into existence. This act, then, does not presuppose a prior subject: it is in a sense a will without a subject, a subjectless will. Or, if the notion of act without acting subject is illogical, we must say that this act of the will produces the subject performing the act. That is to say: insofar as it produces its own existence, the primordial act of the will is its own subject. In the same way, this act of the will must be said to be its own object, i.e. what it wills. For since there is nothing outside of it (given that it is the self-causing cause of all reality), there is nothing for it to will but itself. And it is precisely by thus willing itself that it brings itself into existence: it wills itself into existence -- a self-willing, self-creating will. There is thus in the primordial act of the will, which timelessly 'kick starts' reality, a strict identity between act, subject and object: will, willer and willed are one and the same.

Alex Grey, Big Bang
Brahman, as conceived in the Vedanta, is this self-willing, self-creating will. This explains the Vedantic conception of Brahman as supreme bliss ("ananda"). Brahman's will for itself immediately satisfies itself, since its self-willing is its self-causation. In other words: Brahman gives itself to itself merely by willing itself. Brahman is therefore a self-satisfying will. And as such Brahman is pure bliss, i.e. ananda, a self-enjoying, self-reinforcing joy. Thus the Vedantic philosopher Shankara lets Brahman say in an imaginary soliloquy: "I am both the enjoyer and that which is enjoyed... In myself is the ocean of joy, infinite, undivided." (Shankara 1975: 115) The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad puts it paradoxically as follows: "That, verily, is his form in which his desire is fulfilled, in which the self is his desire, in which he is without desire, free from any sorrow" (262; italics mine). That is to say: Brahman satisfies its desire by being that desire -- by being the self-satisfying will -- and as such (as self-satisfied) it is also without desire.

The ladder of ananda
By being self-reinforcing, this joy -- which is Brahman -- is infinite. It is ultimate bliss, the greatest joy imaginable. The Upanishads occasionally express this maximality of ananda in terms of a 'ladder' of gradations of joy (see in particular the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 266-7, and the
Taittiriya Upanishad: 550-1). At the lowest level we find common human joy, which for most men is thoroughly materialistic: "If one is healthy in body, wealthy, lord over others, lavishly provided with all human enjoyments, that is the highest bliss of men." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 266) Each higher step in the ladder then gives a form of joy that is a "hundred times" stronger than the previous one. Thus above human joy we find the "bliss of the gods by action, those who attain their divine status by (meritorious) action". In turn this bliss "multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of the bliss of the gods by birth". This bliss then forms one hundredth of the bliss of the gods who are not just born as gods but who are also "versed in the Vedas" and "not overcome by desire", and so on... Ultimately the ladder culminates in Brahman: "This is the highest bliss. This is the world of Brahman." (Idem: 267)

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder
It is not exactly clear whether the authors of the Upanishads intended such ladders to be taken literally or as mere pedagogical metaphors indicating the infinite transcendence of divine bliss over human bliss -- though the latter option seems to be the most likely. For the fact is that the ladders do not make much sense when taken literally (even if we bought into the Vedic pantheon, which they still presuppose). The ladders are, after all, just finite: they culminate in the highest bliss after a finite number of steps. The ladder in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad consists of seven steps; the ladder in the Taittiriya Upanishad consists of ten steps. But the highest bliss, i.e. Brahman itself, is supposed to be infinite. Clearly, infinite bliss cannot be reached in a finite number of steps starting from the finite quantity represented by common human bliss. If each next step is a "hundred times" stronger than the previous level, then the bliss of Brahman would according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad be a mere hundred to the power of seven times stronger than human bliss... which makes no sense at all. Thus the Upanishadic ladders of ananda are illogical under a literal interpretation. But the authors of the Upanishads usually display great logical acumen in most other matters; surely the logical deficiency of the ladders of ananda could not have escaped their notice. Thus it seems likely that the ladders were primarily intended as mere metaphors for conveying the infinite distance separating human bliss from divine bliss.2

Ascetism in the Vedanta
It should be noted, however, that such ladders do not just indicate the transcendence of divine bliss over human bliss. They also represent processes of purification and intellectualization: the forms of joy become progressively stronger as they become nobler, less corporeal and more intellectual. In a way, therefore, the steps of the ladder also indicate the stages which a student of the Vedanta must pass through if he is to attain highest wisdom: the spiritual unification with Brahman. This instructional character of the ladder comes out clearly in the
Taittiriya Upanishad, where the ladder ends with the sage finally attaining ultimate wisdom: "He who knows this [...] reaches the self which consists of mind, reaches he self which consists of understanding, reaches the self which consists of bliss." (551) Starting from the lowest level of joy (materialistic joy), the Vedantic student must gradually purify himself from his primitive urges, immerse himself in the teachings of the Vedas, and develop his intellectual powers.

The Upanishads frequently stress these ethical and intellectual requirements which a student must meet. For example, the Taittiriya Upanishad directly admonishes the student: "Speak the truth. Practice virtue. Let there be no neglect of your (daily) reading..." (537). These ethical and intellectual requirements, which the student of the Vedanta must meet, reflect the spiritual nature of ananda. In some Upanishads this spiritual purification required for the attainment of Brahman even takes on a strongly ascetic form, such that the aspiring sage must mortify all earthly desires: "When all desires that dwell within the human heart are cast away, then a mortal becomes immortal and even here he attaineth to Brahman. / When all the knots that fetter the heart here [i.e. earth] are cut asunder, then a mortal becomes immortal. Thus far is the teaching." (Katha Upanishad: 646-7)

Shankara (ca. 788 - 820 CE)
This ascetic tradition, which runs through some of the Upanishads (though it is certainly not dominant in all of them), culminates in Shankara. For example his Crest-Jewel of Discrimination (Viveka-Chudamani) contains a great many and remarkably vehement diatribes against the body and its earthly desires. Here are some of the 'highlights': "He who tries to find the Atman by feeding the cravings of the body, is trying to cross a river by grasping a crocodile, mistaking it for a log... Kill this deadly attachment to body, wife, children and others... This body, which is made up of skin, flesh, blood, arteries, veins, fat, marrow and bone, is full of waste matter and filth. It deserves our contempt." (Shankara 1975: 45) "O fool, stop identifying yourself with this lump of skin, flesh, fat, bones and filth." (Idem: 58) "Do not waste a moment in concern for worldly affairs or attraction to sense-objects... Regard it [the body] as impure, as though it were an outcast." (Idem: 80) "Escape the bondage and the rotten stench of worldliness... Detach yourself completely from this covering, the body, which is sluggish and foul. Having done this, never think of it again. To remember one's own vomit is merely disgusting." (Idem: 101-2) "The knower of Atman does not identify himself with his body. He rests within it, as if within a carriage... He dwells in the body, but regards it as a thing apart from himself -- like the cast-off skin of a snake." (Idem: 122-3) And so on, and so on...   

The orgasmic quality of ananda
This ascetic tendency in the Vedanta may seem surprising when one takes into account the fact that the Vedantic concept of ananda has strong sexual connotations and often indicates orgasmic pleasure (cf. Olivelle 1997). This sexual connotation comes out clearly in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad where the unification with Brahman -- and thus participation in the supreme bliss -- is directly compared to sexual bliss: "As a man when in the embrace of his beloved wife knows nothing without or within, so the person when in the embrace of the intelligent self knows nothing without or within." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 262) Of course, the comparison of man's unification with God to the sexual unification of man and wife is not unique to the Vedanta. Such mystical use of the imagery of marital love (what German scholars call Brautsmystik, "marital mysticism") can be found in many religions the world over (see e.g. The Song of Solomon in the Old Testament: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for thy love is better than wine..."). But the Vedanta is unique in that it uses such imagery to describe not just man's unification with God but the Divine itself! According to the Vedanta, Brahman is ananda, and therefore Brahman is the bliss experienced by the sage who attains unification with Brahman. Since the Upanishads compare the pleasure of this unification with sexual bliss, we must conclude that according to the Vedanta there is an orgasmic quality to Brahman itself. That is to say: Brahman, qua ananda, is a form of orgasmic pleasure. Brahman, we might say, is the orgasmic Absolute.

Tantric Yoga elaborated the orgasmic
aspect of the Vedantic concept of
Brahman as supreme bliss.
This corresponds to the already noted maximality of ananda, its infinite intensity. A sexual orgasm is commonly regarded as the pinnacle of human pleasure, the climax par excellence. Thus the ultimate pinnacle of pleasure, the bliss of Brahman, can be seen as the ultimate orgasm, the cosmic climax or ontological orgasm in which reality gives birth to itself. But how does this relate to the spiritual nature of ananda, the fact that it can only be attained through a process ethical and intellectual purification? How can the orgasm, this epitome of bodily pleasure, possibly be a model on which the understand the bliss of Brahman? Clearly we have to rid this orgasmic conception of ananda from its all too bodily connotations. In conformity with the 'ladder of ananda', where each form of joy becomes a hundred times stronger as it becomes less corporeal and more intellectualized, we should conceptualize ananda as intellectual orgasm, an orgasm of the mind. A common sexual orgasm must then be a faint shadow of this intellectual orgasm which is ananda -- or, in terms of the ladder of ananda, a sexual orgasm represents a mere hundredth of a hundredth of a hundredth -- and so on -- of the cosmic orgasm underlying reality as such.

The intellectual orgasm of absolute self-awareness
To fully understand why the Vedanta emphasizes this intellectual nature of ananda, we must return to the question why the Upanishadic sages made the inward turn, i.e. why they chose the human self as the model on which to understand Brahman. For, as noted earlier, what impressed them in the human self was not just its volitional aspect (the free will as a model for divine self-causation) but also its epistemological aspect, i.e. the relation of the self to sense experience and knowledge. Brahman thus became conceptualized, in the Upanishads, as the Universal Knower, the universal subject underlying all individual acts of experience, thought and knowledge. Since the Upanishads at the same time declare that nothing exists apart from Brahman, empirical reality is effectively reduced to the object of Brahman's consciousness. That is to say: empirical reality exists only insofar as Brahman experiences and knows it. It was this move that turned the Vedanta into a species of Absolute Idealism, on a par with the systems developed by Plotinus, Schelling and Hegel.

For the Vedanta, then, it holds that everything exists because it is thought and/or experienced by Brahman. But what, then, about Brahman's own existence? To be consistent, the Vedanta must claim that Brahman, too, exists only because it is thought / experienced by Brahman -- that is to say: Brahman exists because it thinks / experiences itself. Brahman, in other words, is self-causing through its self-awareness. This is indeed the answer we find in the Upanishads: "Brahman, indeed, was this in the beginning. It knew itself only as 'I am Brahman'. Therefore it became all." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 168) Thus, as Radhakrishnan explains, in the Upanishads the term being "expresses simultaneously God's consciousness of himself and his own absolute self-absorbed being" (Radhakrishnan 1953: 54). Brahman's being, then, is its consciousness of itself. It should be noted that in this regard, too, the Vedanta is very close to Western Absolute Idealism, for there too the self-causation of the Absolute is explained in terms of self-awareness. Thus Plotinus: “The One [...] made itself by an act of looking at itself. This act of looking at itself is [...] its being.” (Ennead VI, 8, 16, 19-21) Thus Fichte: "The I exists only insofar as it is conscious of itself." (Fichte 1991: 98) Thus Schelling: “[I]t is through the self's own knowledge of itself that that very self first comes into being.” (Schelling 1800 [2001]: 27) We also find it in the American Idealist Royce: “[I]f whatever exists, exists only as known, then the existence of knowledge itself must be a known existence, and can finally be known only to the final knower himself, who, like Aristotle's God, is so far defined in terms of absolute self-knowledge.” (Royce 1899 [1959]: 400)

Alex Grey, Oversoul
It is this intellectual nature of Brahman's self-causation through absolute self-awareness that explains the intellectuality of the pure bliss that defines Brahman. What we should appreciate is how the volitional-emotional and epistemological aspects of Brahman's being coincide: Brahman's self-knowledge, self-willing and self-enjoyment are one and the same. Brahman's self-caused being is at the same time the highest pleasure and the highest knowledge. The sage who reaches this knowledge -- i.e. who realizes his unity with Brahman and thus 'loses' his empirical individuality -- at the same participates in the ontological orgasm that underlies reality as such. That sage not only experiences the pure bliss which is Brahman but at the same time participates in the creation process that produces the universe: "Whoever knows thus, 'I am Brahman', becomes this all... He who knows this as such comes to be in that creation of his." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 168, 165)  

All quotes from the Upanishads are taken from the translation by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1953).
2 This does, however, lead to an interesting side question: can we use modern mathematics to construct a correct ladder of ananda, i.e. a ladder that respects the infinite transcendence of divine bliss over human bliss? This question, of course, is irrelevant to the interpretation of the Upanishads. But it does matter for the continuing relevance of the Vedanta. If the philosophical core of the Vedanta is still to have truth value for us, and if the notion of a ladder of ananda forms an intrinsic part of that core, then that notion must allow of a precise and logical formulation. The modern mathematical theory of infinity, inaugurated by Cantor, seems especially relevant in this regard. Cantor's notion of Absolute Infinity, which is the entire sequence of transfinite ordinals but which itself is not mathematically construable, seems to be the mathematical analogon we need to make sense of Brahman's absolute bliss as the highest point of the ladder of ananda.

-Fichte, J.G. (1991), Science of Knowledge with the First and Second Introductions. Edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
-Olivelle, Patrick (1997), "Orgasmic Rapture and Divine Extacy: The Semantic History of Ananda", in: Journal of Indian Philosophy, 25, pp.153-180.
-Plotinus, Enneads, translation by A.H. Armstrong, Loeb edition.
-Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli (1953), The Principal Upanishads. New York: Harper.
-Royce, Josiah (1899 [1959]), The World and The Individual, First Series: The Four Historical Conceptions of Being. New York: Dover Publications.
-Schelling, F.W.J. (1800 [2001]), System of Transcendental Idealism. Translated by Peter Heath. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
-Shankara (1975), Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. Hollywood: Vedanta Press.

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