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Possible difficulties in pantheism

by Ernest Valea


This and other similar articles address potential inconsistencies encountered by a certain religious view. While I see them as inconsistencies, for others they may pose no problem at all. For this reason, the articles are entitled "Possible difficulties in [this or that religion]" and not "Contradictions in [this or that religion]". Each of these articles is a list of possible difficulties with short comments aimed at encouraging critical thinking on each issue.


The meaning of knowledge in pantheism


Since the duality knower-known is an illusion in pantheism, what could be the meaning of knowledge in the case of the atman-Brahman identity? "Knowing" this identity cannot be a real epistemological process. S. Radhakrishnan states: "As the distinction between the highest self and the individual is one of false knowledge, we get rid of it by true knowledge." (Indian Philosophy, vol. II, p. 622). This "true knowledge" corresponds to experiencing a pantheistic perspective on reality. To "know" Brahman is not equivalent to having a relationship with an external personal being. Therefore, a better term than that of knowing what Ultimate Reality really is, is that of experiencing unity with it, through certain meditation techniques. Meditation is a way of transcending duality through focusing consciousness on the ultimate unity of the world in Brahman, and terms such as "direct knowledge of truth" represent one's actual experiences in meditation.


The incompatibility between empirical and absolute knowledge


According to the doctrine of world-illusion (maya), empirical knowledge is elusive in matters of finding out ultimate truth. The senses, through which we interact with the phenomenal world, as well as mind, which operates with this data, provide confusing information when trying to grasp spiritual realities. They feed human ignorance (avidya) of the true reality, which is Brahman.

However, we can consider empirical knowledge illusory only by using an objective standard as reference against which it can be proven to be wrong. As long as the knower is inside the world of illusion, bound to it, he or she cannot know what is wrong with his empirical way of knowing. In other words, in a closed system where illusion reigns, we can prove that empirical knowledge is true or false only by having an absolute standard which does not belong to the same system. Without such an epistemological basis we cannot make objective judgments on reality. But what could be the standard for establishing the illusory value of empirical knowledge? If it is a god, a being which is external to our closed system but still able to communicate with humans, we arrive at what is called revelation in theistic religions. In this situation we should accept duality and intelligible communication inside a dualistic system, but this obviously cannot be the case in pantheism. If the required standard were an internal one, such as experience (the effect of living out "reality" in one’s personal life, or experiencing life as suffering), we arrive at another contradiction of an epistemological nature: If we knew from experience that phenomenological knowledge is false, then no room would be left for reaching "absolute knowledge" because it is always introduced and mediated by empirical, or first hand, experience. In other words, as long as all information we get about spiritual reality is mediated by our senses (sight and hearing) and mind, and these have ultimately illusory value, how can we know that the pantheist perspective itself is not a deceptive illusion itself?


Liberation as the abolition of personhood


As long as atman, the core entity that defines human existence, has an impersonal nature, personhood is a hindrance to attaining liberation and, consequently, has to be abolished. The oblivion of personhood does not refer only to some of its products, such as egoism, but to the very existence of the psycho-mental faculties which define it - intellect, will, emotions, consciousness, communion, etc. All these are said to belong to the inferior ego, totally distinct from the self (atman). No possible relationship can exist between them.

However, it is only personhood that makes us distinct humans and confers personal identity, not the impersonal atman devoid of any attributes. Since real freedom is experienced only at liberation it must have a different meaning from what we normally imagine. It means liberation out of personhood, not becoming a free person. So the puzzling thing is that there is no personal agent left to experience freedom when the self merges with Brahman. The raindrop has become one with the ocean. What kind of freedom can this be?

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Copyright Ernest Valea. No part of this work will be used or reproduced by any means without prior permission from the author.