Reality, ultimate and otherwise

Hindu reflection upon the nature of reality has been taking place for millennia since the ancient Vedas. The Upanishads, dating from the mid first millennium BCE (see Sacred texts) represent a period when the ‘big questions’ of the nature of reality, and of human existence and purpose, were much debated, particularly by the shramanas or renouncers who left ordinary family life to focus on finding liberation and truth. Since the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, Western philosophy has tended to separate intellectual, cognitive reasoning from religious or spiritual matters, whereas in Indian thought philosophy is never for its own sake but profoundly tied in with the quest for personal liberation. The ideas in the Upanishads and classical accounts of Hindu philosophy were produced by people actively engaged in practices such as ascetism, yoga, meditation, and sometimes also ‘religious’ devotion to deity(ies), seeking meaning in life not just in theory but in practice. Thus, Indian philosophy includes much of what might now be labelled ‘psychology’ or ‘religion’ using Western categories.

Another fundamental difference when comparing Indian and Western views of truth or reality is that whereas now Western thought tends to the binary – things are either true or false, real or not real – Indian thought has room for levels of truth and reality. Things may not be so much true or false, but true, truer and truest, not so much real or unreal as conventionally real or ultimately real. This is particularly clear in Advaita Vedanta (see Hindu philosophies). Seeming contradictions may be all true in different ways, in different contexts and for different people.

When it comes to ultimate reality, most Hindu thought would agree that what is present to our senses and everyday experience is not the deepest understanding, which can be known, at least for the few, through direct mystical experience, and for others, to varying extents, through the teachings of gurus, sacred texts, involvement in ritual and devotional practices and living a righteous life.

Ultimate reality in most Hindu thought is divine or spiritual, rather than material, though Samkhya is a notable exception (see Hindu philosophies). The material may be viewed as real but of secondary importance, as dependent on the divine, or not ultimately real at all. Ultimate reality may be described in theistic terms as a personal God or Goddess (who may have a personal name such as Vishnu, Krishna, Shiva or Durga), or in more impersonal terms as the infinite, formless, pure life energy or consciousness within all things and all people, Brahman, not a being, but Being. These two ideas can be reconciled in a number of ways. They may be seen as two different ways of saying the same thing, sounding contradictory because of the limitations of the human mind and language. Applying the idea of levels of truth, one may be regarded as a lesser level of insight, so that the idea of a personal God may be considered as an easier way for less developed minds to think about Brahman, or the idea of Brahman understood as a step towards realising the supreme truth of God as personal. This attitude can be viewed as a positive way of approaching plurality and diversity, or as rather condescending if your own approach is relegated to the lesser level of truth. Further Hindu perspectives on ultimate reality may be found in the following sections. on Deities, gods, goddesses and God(dess, Hindu philosophies, The cosmos and the natural world and Human nature and destiny.

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Hindu Worldview Traditions


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