The Monistic Theory

by Nhân Tử Nguyễn Văn Thọ

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Chapter 14

Brahmanism and the Monistic Theory (I)

From Veda to the Bhagavad Gita


Before studying the sacred books of India, let us say some words about Brahmanism or Hinduism.

Hinduism is one of the oldest religions of the world.

Beside Brahman, the supreme impersonal God, Indian people venerate Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Conservator; and Shiva, the Destroyer of the world. Vishnu has ten avatars who come and save the world. Shiva has many wives. One of them is called Kali. They are worshipped as a Lingam (Male) and a Yoni (Female). Beside these Gods, Indian people worship many other. According to Swami Vivehananda, the Indian pantheon contains up to 330,000,000 gods.

Indian people don't eat beef. Cattle and cows, considered sacred, wander freely in large cities. Brahmanism is learned these days, by scholars in this world, not for its rituals but for its sacred books, and for the yogis.


We have:

Vedas consisting of four books: (15th century to 10th Century B.C.)

            (1) Rig-Veda.

            (2) Sama Veda.

            (3) Yayur Veda.

            White Yajur.

            Black Yajur.

            (4) Atharva Veda.

Brahmana (16 books) (10th century to 7th century)


Upanishads (7th to 5th B.C.) (108 books 13 of them are most important)


All of them are translated into English.

The Vedas.

The Rig-Veda.

(1) The Rig-Veda is the most important. It is divided into 10 books, and contains 20.000 verses. Most of these verses are elegies and prayers to various divinities, such as:

Indra (Thunder-Rain god) (250 poems).

Agni (Fire god) (200 poems).

Vishnu, Surya, Pusan, Mithra (Sun god).

Usha (The Dawn)

Varuna (Sky god)

Soma (Intoxicating Beverage) (the whole book IX).

Besides, we can find in the Rig-Veda some famous poems about cosmogony: Rig Veda X, 129.- Rig-Veda X, 121.- Rig-Veda X, 82.- Rig-Veda X,80.

Rig-Veda tries to find out the Reality of this world, through all the statuses of god (polytheism, monotheism).

Through observation, we can find that in every natural phenomenon, there is some Force, bad or good, for man. First, they thought that this Force came from various deities such as Indra, Mithra, Varuna, Agni, Soma, Pudra et cetera.

Afterward, they thought that this Force came from the Creator (Prajapati, Bramanapasti, Visvakarman et cetera...)

Finally, they thought that this Force came from The Cosmic Stuff, the Ultimate Reality that engenders this world. They called this Ultimate Reality BRAHMAN, or THAT.

Only this Ultimate Reality is Eternal, having his own Self (sat), his own knowledge (cid), and happiness (ananda). All other phenomena are considered as belonging to the realm of names and forms, to the realm of Samsara, of Avidya, of Maya or of mortality, be it Brahma himself.

If we call our world as THIS (including everything phenomenal, transitory), the Ultimate Reality or the Eternal as THAT, THIS is then only appearance and not reality, it is not "thing in itself", and THAT only is the real "self" of everything. The "Tat Tvam Asi" "THAT art Thou" of the Chand. Up. has now its full meaning.

In this case, our body and the physical universe, are not the Atman, the Self, the true Reality. We must know that all worldly objects and relationships are of no value for their own sake (as" things in themselves"), but for the sake of Atman. This Atman is Brahman and warriors, is space, gods, and creatures, 'this Atman is the entire universe'. "Verily he who has seen, heard, comprehended and known the Self, by him is this entire universe known. (Brih. 2.4.5)

The Monistic Theory is bit by bit established, especially when in the Chand. Up. everything in this world is considered as made of clay, then the change is a matter of words alone. "Just as, my dear sir, from a lump of clay everything that consists of clay is known, the change is the matter of words alone, a mere name, it is in reality only clay,-thus, my dear sir, is the instruction." (Chand. Up. 6.1.2.)

Therefore, we find no plurality in this world,

In the spirit should this be perceived,

Here there is no plurality anywhere.

From death to death again he rushes blindly,

Who fancies that here are difference. (Brih. 4.4.19)

The cosmogonies in the Rig-Veda are complex.

(1) This world is built by gods (Rig Veda X,121.- Rig Veda VII, 8,6.- III, 32,80.- Rig Veda X, 81,2.- X,72,2.- X, 121,4) from existing elements.

(2) Or this world come from a specific element, such as:

Water (Rig Veda X,190)

Air (Rig Veda X, 168)

Or from the incommensurable (Aditi) (Rig Veda X, 72)

Or from the dismemberment of God (Rig Veda, X, 90)

We can see that after many gropings, the Veda reached its climax: The Monistic Theory.

According to the Rig-Veda, this world is governed by fixed and perennial laws, called Rita or Dharma. One should follow these laws. They can be called natural laws.

In the Rig-Veda, they mentioned Paradise and Hell (X,6,10.- IX,41,2. - 1.25.6.- X, 132, 4.- IV, 55.- IX, 73.8.- X,152.4)

Samsara and Karma are not yet clearly defined.

(2) The Sama Veda.

The Sama Veda is a collection of songs, the verses of which are excerpted from the Rig-Veda. These songs are sung by priests when celebrating the office.

(3) The Yajur Veda.

The Yajur Veda, black and white, contain prayers that are recited by deacons, such as prayers when the fire is set, or when Soma is prepared, or when holocausts are killed...

(4) The Atharva Veda

This book contains magic formulas and talismans that cure diseases, or help fulfill human desires, such as formula to cure cough (Sacred Books of the East, Book II, p. 8.- Charles Braden, Les Livres Sacrés de l'humanité, p. 85), magic formula for hair growth (6, 136), magic formula to get a husband (2,3), magic formula to get a wife (6,82), magic formula to be loved by a man (7,38), or by a woman (6,8) et cetera...(Charles Braden, Les Livres Sacrés de l'humanité p. 86- Zimmer, les Philosophies de l'Inde, p. 120-121)

In The Process of Creation (The Clarion Call, Volume 1, No 3, Summer 88, p. 9), Steve Rosen observed: "The renowned astronomer, Dr. Carl. Sagan, admired the Vedic conception of creation. He noted that, of all religious thought, the ancient Vedic teachings about the origin of the universe "are the most acceptable in terms of modern sciences". Sagan explained that the Vedic science of creation is not very different from some of the modern scientific theories about universal origin for it suggests that creation and dissolution of the universe occur at regular intervals, lasting billions of years. Briefly stated, the Vedic principle of creation can be described as "emanationism," the concept that matter is not suddenly created out of nothing. Matter is one of the external energies of God".

Shri Aurobindo comments on the Veda as follows: "... These are profound insights of seers and saints, authors of the Vedas. Man lives in this earth, and knows only this world of deadly things. But besides this world, we still have the Cosmic Mind containing all the worlds of gods, enlightened by mysterious light. And under the surface of all the impressions received in our conscious life, there is also the Unconscious. From the darkness of this unconscious life, spring forth the worlds that we see. Man always has tied connections with these worlds.

Man, if he like, can become illuminated and enter in these worlds, can be born in these worlds. Man can come in these illuminated worlds of Truth, can pass through the gate of Cosmic Consciousness, and enter in the Transcendence. All the gates of the sky will open to welcome all the soul on the way of development.

This transcendence can be done, because all men bear in themselves what they considered as external to them.

And, if gods can build a network of worlds outside, they can also organize in man an hierarchy of orders, spreading from mortality to immortality. The contrast between mortality and immortality that we can reach, is in fact the key to help us understand the idea and the action of the Veda. The Veda is the most ancient evangels to teach us about the immortality of man. Their hymns contain the ideas of saints who have discovered the way of immortality. Understood rightly, the Veda ceased to be a collection of hymns obscure, and barbarous, but became hymns extolling the highest aspiration of man. Their hymns are steps of an epic full of sentiments of the human soul progressing to immortality. At least, they are like that. We can also find contents on archaic science, on knowledge lost, on tradition about psychic and physical elements of the past.(Translated from the hymns of the Atris, Arya II, 45-47 and 97-112) (See J. Herbert, La spiritualité hindoue, p . 294).

Radhakrishnan, in the Indian Philosophy I, on his conclusion of the Veda, says:

"Because the Veda deals with Sacrifices, so the Brahmanas are written. Because the Veda have philosophical assumptions, so the Upanishads are written. Because the Veda talks about the God of the sky, Varuna, they inspired the author of the Bhagavad Gita about monotheism. Because the Veda mentioned about Rita, or natural laws, the notion of Karma is engendered. Because the Veda sustained that in the beginning there is the God Hiranyagarbha floating on the primeval water, the dualism of Samkhya is born (that means the notion of Purusa and Prakriti). Because it maintained that prayers, that Soma can help produce ecstasy, it has, later on, connection with the School of Yoga. (cf. Indian Philosophy, I, p. 116)


The Brahmanas deal mostly with liturgy, and are similar to the Yajur Veda, or the Sama Veda.

In the Rig Veda, the religion was still natural, warm and full of human sentiments, while in the Brahmana period (1000-700 BC) it became dry and arid, because it is locked in fixed liturgy. Here are some tenets of the Brahmanas: Vishnu and Shiva begin to appear (Kausitaki Brahmana VI, 1,9). Brahman is the Cosmic Principle (Satapatha Brahmana XI, 2). Prayers and liturgy become important and necessary. (Satapatha Brahmana III, 1,4,3 - Aiterya Br. II, 1,1) Priests become important and supernatural (Satapatha Br. II 2.2.6.- II 4.3.14). Veda became an inspired book (Aiterya Br. VII, 9)

The Brahmanas exhalt a human life in conformity to the moral law. No adultery (Sat. Brah. II, 5.2.20), no lies (Satapatha Br. 1.2.4) (cf. Rhadakhrisnan, Indian Philosophy I, P. 151).

The society in the Brahmanas period, is divided into castes (Atharva Veda V, 17.8.- Rig Veda VII, 103. 1.7. 8.- Sat. Brah. VIII, 1, 4, 10)

Social life is divided into four stages (Brih. Up. III, 5, 1.- Apastamba sutras II, 9,21,1.- Gautama Sutras III, 2.- Bodhanya II. 6.11.12.- Manu V, 137.- Vasistha VII, 2.- Atharva Veda V 17, 8.- Rig Veda VII, 103. 1.7 and 8.- X, 88, 19.- Sat. Brah. VIII, 1,4,10)

Man, good or bad, can be transmigrated to bear the fruits of their deeds in this world or in some other world. (Cf. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy I, p. 134). Samsara has not yet been clearly discussed (Cf. Indian Philosophy I, 135-136).

We can make a general remark about Brahmana, Yayur Veda, and Atharva Veda as follows: Brahmana and Yajur Veda even emphasizing on liturgy, Atharva Veda even emphasizing on magic formula, deals only with this problem: How to get good luck, and how to avoid bad luck, how man can find happiness and avoid misery.

To reach this goal, we should depend on other forces, on gods (prayers, sacrifices, magic, talismans), or we should depend on our own forces (magic, talismans). We should observe natural phenomena to find out rules that govern our deeds, or we should study ancient culture to find out appropriate behaviors. That is to say, we must find out natural laws (rita, dharma) to obey them. If we live accordingly to natural laws, we can find happiness, if we live otherwise, we will find misery.


The Upanishads have up to 103 books, but only 13 are considered the principal ones.

Let us summarize these thirteen Upanishads:

(1) Isa Upanishads.

It deals with the Inner Reality in man.

(2) Kena Up.

Who is the Controller of the world? This is Atman and Brahman.

(3) Katha Up.

The Real Self is immortal. It cannot be known by Intelligence, but by Intuition.

(4) Prasna Up.

We find there six question on how this world is created, on the personality of man, and on the ground of man.

(5) Mundaka Up.

It stresses two kinds of knowledge: the high knowledge deals with the Substance, the low knowledge with Phenomena.

The culture of the soul is better than sacrifice, and external deeds.

(6) Mandukya Up.

There are four different conditions in a man:

The waking condition.

The sleeping condition.

The sleeping condition without dreams.

The transcendental condition (Turita)

(7) Taittitya Up.

There are five envelopes in a man:

Envelope of Food (Physical body-waking condition)

Envelope of Breath (Subtle body)

Envelope of mind (Soul - Sleeping condition with dreams)

Envelope of Intellect (ib.)

Envelope of bliss (causal body-Sleeping condition without dreams- Avidya)

Then, we come into the Atman, the core.

(8) Aitareya Up.

Discussion on the after-life.

(9) Chandogya Upanishad.

In this Upanishad, we find:

The famous equation ATMAN = BRAHMAN.


And the explanation of the syllable: OM or AUM.

AUM or Turiya can be broken into:

A (Waking condition)

U (dreaming condition)

M (without dreams condition)

OM or AUM is the essence of sound, and speech. Sound and Speech are the essence of man, and man is the essence of all beings. Om is the essence of man and of all beings.

(10) Brihah Aranyaka Up.

It deals with the Real Self, or Atman, universal, undivided, common core of everything.

(11) Kaushitaki Up.

Samsara and Moksa are discussed here.

(12) Svetasvata Up.

It deals with the Ultimate Reality in men and in all beings.

(13) Maitri Up.

Man's highest wish is that of knowing the Real Self.

Yoga is the way to lead us to the union with the Real Self.

The Upanishads: Its main themes.

The main themes of the Upanishads are:

(A) The Real Self or Brahman.

(B) They give us two ways to find the Real Self.

(1) The external or experimental way.

(2) The internal or introspective way.

(C) They use many methods to describe Brahman.

(1) The affirmative method, calling Brahman the sun, the moon, the space, the air or gods presiding over all the natural phenomena.

(2) The negative method, always saying Neti, Neti, Brahman is not this, not that.

(3) The paradoxical method, saying that Brahman is great, is small; is far, is near; is active or is passive.

(4) The method of keeping quiet, because Brahman is ineffable.

(D) The Upanishads tend to describe Brahman as the Absolute Truth, from whom everything emanated. Brahman is self-effulgent.

Everything, in this world, issues from the Eternal, as threads from a spider, as plants from the earth, as hairs from the body, as sparks from a central fire. At the end of the evolution, everything will return to the bosom of the Eternal (Mundaka Up. 1.1.7). Atman is always present in man, as butter is always present in milk.(Amrtabindu Up. 20)

(E) Man has many layers, but in his inner core, there is Atman, the Eternal.

(F) Man is, in fact, composed of two men: One is limited, is subjected to birth and death, and to misery; Another is immense, immortal, and happy.

(G) Man has two kinds of knowledge: Intelligence and Intuition. Intelligence gives us material knowledge, while Intuition gives us transcendental knowledge.

(H) The Upanishads urge man to find out his Real Self. This is the summit of all knowledge, and to improve himself to realize the Real Self by means of Yoga.

(I) The Upanishads don't stress upon external ceremonies, and believe in the transmigration of the souls, and in Karma.

(K) The Upanishads teach us introspection.

"The senses turn outward," observe the Upanishads." Man, therefore, looks toward what is outside, and sees not the inward being. Rare is the wise man who...shuts his eyes to outward things and so beholds the glory of the Atman within." [1]

The Upanishads are then the essence of the Veda, and as they form the last part of the Veda, they are also called Vedanta. Vedanta is also the name of the philosophical school of Samkara: The Absolute Monism or Advaita.

The Upanishads are considered as an esoteric teaching. It should not be given to people that the mind be disturbed (Maitri Up. VI, 29. Svetasvatara Up. VI, 22.- Ait. Ar. Chand, Up. 3. 11.5.- Brih. 6.3.12.-Mund. 3.3.11).

The Upanishads gives to Indians a fundamental presupposition of all their thinking, it is the doctrine of universal immanence of an intelligent monism.

We find in Robert Ernest Hume a beautiful eulogy of the Upanishads. "They have also been taken up, said Robert Ernest Hume, by the theosophists, who recognize in them the source of deep mystic knowledge and look upon this group of texts 'as a word-scripture, that is to say, a scripture appealing to the lovers of religion and truth in all races and at all times, without distinction.' And occultists of many lands find in these treatises numerous hints of things hidden from ordinary sight and clues to progress on the pathway of spiritual attainment. "...And Western professional students of philosophy, as well as literary historians, have felt and expressed the importance of the Upanishads. In the case of Arthur Schopenhauer, the chief of modern pantheists of the West, his philosophy is unmistakably transfused with the doctrines expounded in the Upanishads, a fact that might be surmised from his oft-quoted eulogy: 'It (i.e. Anquetil du Perron's Latin translation of a Persian rendering of the Upanishads) is the most rewarding and the most elevating reading which (with the exception of the original text there can possibly be in the world. It has been the solace of my life and will be of my death.' [2]

As a strenuous student of comparative religions since 45 years, I have read the Bible, The Koran, all the sacred books of Buddhism, of Confucianism, and of Taoism, I have seen that none of these books can be compared with the Upanishads, for its insight and introspection.

I don't accept the dualism of Samkhya (Purusa or Buddhi and Prakriti); neither do I accept the absolute dualism of Madhva, nor the conception of God of Ramanuja, but I accept the teaching of Sankara (c. AD 788-820), that is his Absolute Monism, because it has counterpart everywhere in the world. The teaching of Sankara, or the teaching of the Upanishads, can be resumed as follows:

"There is, says the Chand. Up. (7.25), a spiritual principle called Brahman, which creates the universe, pervades the universe, and is the universe:

That (i.e. the spiritual principle), indeed, is below. It is above. It is to the west. It is to the east. It is to the south. It is to the north. It, indeed, is the whole world.

The self or the soul (called Atman) also pervades the universe.

Next,, the instruction with regard to the Ego. I, indeed, am below. I am above. (etc.) Next, the instruction with regard to the soul. The Soul, indeed, is below. The Soul is above (etc.).

...The great teacher Sankara (c. 788-820) chose to have them meant that, the soul, the Atman, is identical with the all-pervasive spiritual principle, the Brahman, and that release is the experience of this identity. ...The Upanishads, he (Sankara) held, demonstrated that the pure self as pure being, pure intelligence, and pure bliss is itself the ultimate truth, and that the world and all else that is contingent is imperfect and false (Maya).

Moksa, or release, to the Vedanta "meant the dissociation of the self from the subjective psychosis and the world...The Vedanta...held that the world as such, has no real existence at all, but is only an illusory imagination which lasts till the moment when true knowledge is acquired".(From S.N. Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy)

To attain this knowledge, to separate the contingent from the eternal, to realize oneness with Brahman, no action or worship is necessary. Knowledge is what pierces the veil of ignorance that hides the truth. It is only necessary that a man lead a disciplined life, that he be no longer concerned with the things of this world, that he be able to discern what is transitory and what is permanent, that he be desirous and capable of peace, and that he exercise restraint and faith, and be capable of deep concentration... [3]

Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is a small book of 18 chapters, excerpted from the epic Mahabharata of Vyasa, reporting the dialogue of the god Khrisna with the prince Arjurna. From the standpoint of religion, the Bhagavad Gita is less strict than the Upanishas. While the Upanishads sustains Absolute monism, the Bhagavad Gita proclaims that one can be saved:

By gnosis (The way of knowledge).

By ardent love (the way of devotion)

Or by unselfish action (The way of action)

The Bhagavad Gita accept all tendencies in Hinduism. It doesn't criticize ritualism, and sacrifice. It maintains that God can be impersonal or personal. It promotes both the Absolute Monism of Sankara, and the Dualism of Samkhya (Purusa and Prakriti).

Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his Autobiography, that "the Bhagavad Gita is the book par excellence for the knowledge of the Truth". [4]

A century ago, Thoreau could testify that his mind has been influenced by two books, Emerson's Essay on Nature and the Bhagavad Gita. [5]

[1] Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, p. 16.

[2] The thirteen principal Upanishads, Robert Ernest Hume, Delhi, Oxford University Press, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras,1988, p. 3)

[3] The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1973-1974, VIII, 924.

[4] Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, 1958, Perennial Library, Harper & Row, publishers, New York, Evanston, London, p.57.

[5] Ib. 15.

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