July 18, 2013

Tall Tales of the Lonely Void.

Let’s think about nothing.

It’s a little different than not thinking about anything. If we don’t think about anything, then we actually just give the mind free reign to wander without constraint. The mind is always active so not thinking about anything really means not directing thought to a particular object, i.e., not thinking about anything in particular.

On the other hand, thinking about nothing means making “nothing” the object of one’s meditation.

This carries an exceptionally high degree of difficulty precisely because a void offers nothing to direct one’s thoughts to. In one sense, it’s impossible to think about nothing because there’s nothing to think about: in a void, qualities are conspicuous by their absence. A void can’t feel anything because there is nothing in a void that can generate feelings or be affected by anything. And a void can’t do anything because it has neither the power to act nor any mechanism for action.

A void is neither sentient nor is it an automaton.

Curiously, the absence of qualities, energies, and instruments in a void does not stop people, even scholars of yoga philosophy, from assigning qualities to that which is, by definition, “quality-less.”

A case in point: I recently heard a talk about divine love in the Bhagavad-gita given by a reputable scholar who has spent the better part of a lifetime studying, writing about, and contemplating Vedantic philosophy. At the core of his presentation was the proposition that avyakta, an unmanifest void, became lonely, split into two parts—male and female—and, from the incestuous union of the One with itself, vyakta—the manifest reality of our experience, with its multiplicity of individual beings and forms came into existence and made our participation in divine love possible.

When an acknowledged authority on the Bhagavad-gita couches such propositions in the flowery language that is the hallmark of academic virtuosity, it’s easy to overlook what ought to be an obvious flaw in the premise of this proposition, namely, that a void does not get lonely. People may experience loneliness but a void does not experience loneliness or, for that matter, anything.

The absence of experience just goes with the territory of being a void.

Even if we stipulate that a void can be lonely (though there is no reason why we should), one may reasonably ask how “nothing” would have volition and agency in the matter of solving the problem of its inexplicable loneliness. Acts of will are performed by people, not by voids. And the means to accomplish the fulfillment of a need or a desire requires a vehicle by which the goal is pursued and attained. A void has neither the power to perform an action nor any mechanisms through which actions might be performed.

There’s an oft-quoted verse in the Upanisads that says ‘from fullness, fullness comes.” It does not say “from emptiness, fullness comes.” At first glance both concepts may seem a little opaque, but while the former may sound mysterious the latter just doesn’t make sense: you can’t get something from nothing.

If forms, qualities, feelings, and actions are present in the world of our experience, then they must first be present in the source of the world.

Of course, a modern person may say that the world has no source, that the world just happens all by itself. But a Vedantic scholar with faith in her area of expertise can’t take that position: the first two aphorisms of the Vedanta Sutra declare the existence of an Absolute Truth (Brahman) from which the world proceeds (janmadyasya yatha). One may further argue that if we stipulate a supreme creator of the world, then such a being might have the power to create something from nothing; that God can do the impossible. This might be a viable paradox unless you define God as the nothing from which something comes. If God creates something from nothing, then there is a distinction between the creator and the nothing from which that something is created. Hence, creating something from nothing is really a transformation of energies, which implies a source of energies, namely, the creator.

So, if we are to propose that the unmanifest reality is in possession of the desire for the experience of love and, absent such experience, is subject to feelings of loneliness, then the attribute of “person-ness” must already be present in the unmanifest reality because feelings like desire and loneliness are attributes of a person.

And the idea that the “person-ness” of the many is derived from the “person-ness” of the One, that our propensity for love and our susceptibility to loneliness are originally part of the fullness from which fullness comes, makes more sense than the notion that “person-ness” emanates from a void.

It’s not just a matter of my personal opinion: There’s a verse from the Bhagavad-gita  that offers a rather disparaging appraisal of people who think that form is a product of formlessness. And that verse specifically uses the same words that the Vedantic scholar used in his presentation: avyakta and vyakta.

But wait: there’s more!

There’s a subsequent verse that directly refutes the premise of the scholars argument. The Gita is very consistent in its emphasis on devotional service to the Supreme Person, it blatantly discourages attempts to pursue realization of the impersonal aspect of the Supreme, and offers plenty of encouragement to understand the transcendental nature of the form of the Absolute Truth.

In the Gita’s teachings, notions about the formless aspect of the Absolute being a higher realization than that of the transcendental form of the Supreme Person are clearly rendered null and void.


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Editor: Thaddeus Haas


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