Spinoza and the Upanishads

aurora borealis
Photo by Margerretta on Pexels.com

The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) is considered to be one the leading rationalist thinkers of the Dutch Golden Age. His philosophical works had a huge influence on western philosophy, on the early Enlightenment movement and on modern bible criticism. In his master of works ‘Ethics’, which was published posthumously in the year of his death, a considerable part was dedicated to describing his metaphysical and epistemological views. As being early noticed by the German Sanskritists Theodor Goldstücker and Max Müller, these views espouse certain similarities with some key elements, being described in the school of Advaita Vedānta system, a tradition that is rooted in interpretations of the Upanishads, the Brahma Sūtra and the Bhagavad Gītā.

A core element of Spinoza’s philosophical system was the assumption of the reasonableness of reality. According to this principle, for everything that is, there must be also a reasonable and comprehensible explanation.

Existence belongs to the nature of substance. God (Nature) is the cause and existence of all things. Substance is infinite and from its nature follows an infinity of things in infinite modes. The attributes of God, like everything that expresses the infinite substance, are infinite. However, humans know of the infinite attributes of God only two, namely extension and thought.

This belief in the first place led to his opposition to the Cartesian mind-body dualism. In the philosophical system of René Descartes, humans are a union of mind and body, which are distinct from each other but closely joined. Body and mind are distinct from each other because they are considered to be modes of different substances: body was a mode of the substance related to extenstion and mind was a mode of the substance related to thought. In his philosophical system, Descartes gave place to several individual and finite subtances and one infinite substance, which was God.

Spinoza his definition, however, ruled out the possibility of a plurality of substances. Spinoza defined substance as something that is in itself and is conceived through itself. Therefore, its concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed. Essentially, it means, that substance is whatever can be thought of without relating to any other idea or thing.

According to Spinoza, substances can only get individualized through their attributes or their modifications. An attribute is just the essence of substance under some way of conceiving or describing the substance. A mode, on the contrary, is something that needs a substance in order to exist and cannot exist without the substance. A mode is a way how the essence of substance is perceived, modes therefore get modified by at least partly external causes instead of by its own properties. In that aspect, modes are effects, containing information about their causes.

Substances, however, in principal are able to understand themselves, independent from their modifications. Consequently, this means that not its modifications but its attributes are relevant for the individualization of substances.

In his work ‘Ethics’, Spinoza defines God as a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence. As a substance of the highest reality, God can only contain all possible attributes. This definition alone espouses the idea of one single substance, which is infinite. This definition consequently also contains the idea of one single substance that comprises all reality, being characterized by its infinite number of attributes, all expressing the essence of its nature. This substance is God and in the philosophical system of Spinoza, God is abstract and impersonal.

Spinoza’s system thus envisages a God that does not rule over the universe by providence, by which it can and does make changes, but a God that is the deterministic system of which everything in nature is a part of that God. God, on its turn, as the ultimate substance cannot be affected by anything else, or else it would be affected by something else, and not be the fundamental, all-pervasive substance.

This abstract and impersonal God, being a single fundamental substance, is the basis of all that can be perceived and known. Everything in the by humans perceived reality is determined by this fundamental substance to exist and cause effects. Due to the limitations of our human senses, and the fact that we only know two (‘extension’ and ‘thought’) of the infinite number of attributes of this fundamental substance, the complex chain of cause-and-effect appears distorted to the human mind and is only understood partially and incomplete.

This claim of one infinite substance, call it God or Nature, and the human incapacity to grasp its entire essence, introduced the distinctive aspect of substance monism in Spinoza’s philosophical system. The concept of Spinoza’s substance monism is very similar to the non-dualist monistic model in the Advaita Vedānta tradition, in which the universe is a manifestation of the fundamental singularity of the infinite and independent Brahman.

An essential differentation that we have to make between Spinoza’s God and the Brahman of the Upanishads, however, is based on the description of the nature of its being. Spinoza’s God is considered to be having infinite attributes and manifests itself in the world, as perceived by us humans, through the expansion of two of its attributes, expansion and thought. Brahman, on the contrary, is described as inefable and without attributes. However, the principle beyond Spinoza’s God and the Brahman of the Upanishads seems to be the same. Both traditions propose a monistic and transcendent divine being, which encompasses the entire reality and existence, and which exists independently from any subordinate entity or substance.

Eventually, based on the different description or understanding of the way how Spinoza’s God and the Brahman of the Upanishads manifests itself, we might notice a higher and stricter degree of determinism in Spinoza’s as in the Advaita Vedānta tradition. The notion of determinism of the Advaita Vedānta probably can be best comparatively described or explained by the contemporary thoughts in quantum mechanics, where the process of coming into existence of things is explained in a very probabilistic way and is also considerably dependent on the observing entity.

In the ‘Ethics’, Spinoza also discusses his beliefs about what he considers to be the three kinds of knowledge that come with perception and that are altogether the human possible ways of knowing or forming ideas of things: knowledge by imagination, knowledge by reason and knowledge by intuition.

These three kinds of knowledge distinguished by Spinoza are also found in the Advaita Vedānta system. The valuation of those different kinds of knowledge is – besides some small nuances – quite similar in both the systems.

Knowledge by imagination by both systems is considered rather inadequate to understand God or Nature. With this kind of knowledge things can get really confused and it can lead to dangerous reasoning, lacking any type of rationality. Therefore, this kind of knowledge rather creates a state of mind that is even more incapable to understand the true and complete essence of the fundamental substance, being God or Nature, and rather leads to passiveness and unhappiness.

Knowledge by reason is based on the understanding of common concepts and notions. Since these common concepts and notions and their causalities are understood and perceived equally adequate by all humans, their casual explanations, to some degree, are leading back to the first and initial cause, being the fundamental substance that is expressed as well in the expansion of nature as in the expansion of thought. With regards to the aspect of adequateness, the second kind of knowledge is very much related to the third kind of knowledge, being knowledge by intuition.

Intuitive knowledge has to be considered as an instant capturing of the essence of perceived objects and subjects of thought by the adequate understanding of what constitutes the essence of certain attributes of the fundamental substance, being God or Nature. Through intuitive knowledge we understand the nature of individual things against the eternal aspect of the fundamental substance. It is the understanding of the created nature (‘natura naturata’) through the creating Nature (‘natura naturans’).

As well Spinoza as the Advaita Vedānta system consider only knowledge by reason (upto a different degree) and knowledge by intuition, as adequate methods to identify ideas or thoughts that already contain an adequate capturing of the seemingly recognized perceived object or subject of thought.

The rational act of reasoning, the second kind of knowledge, can facilitate the manifestation of intuitive knowledge, which makes both kind of knowledge being closely related to each other. However, according to both systems only intuitive knowledge is considered to be eternal and therefore provides the greatest insights and satisfaction to the mind. Basically, it is by intuitive insights, eventually liberated or initiated by rational reasoning, that humans recognize themselves as being a part of the comprehensive physical and mental reality.

Despite some striking similarities between the acknowledged means of knowledge of both the systems, some nuanced differences, most probably based on the nature of their traditions, have to be highlighted at this point. Spinoza, being a western philosopher, supports the preliminary development of knowledge by reason and rationality more than the scholars of the Advaita Vedānta tradition. Being a religious tradition, the focus here is more on the guidance of the knowledge, collected in spiritual textures, with regards to the development of the understanding of God. However, although this disparity between the traditions exists, both traditions acknowledge that the absolute understanding of reality and God, ultimatitvely can only achieved by intuitive knowledge.

Basically, it is by intuitive insights, eventually supported or guided by rational reasoning or guidance of knowledge from spiritual textures, that humans recognize themselves as being a part of the comprehensive physical and mental reality.

In the Advaita Vedānta system this recognition of being a part of the comprehensive and fundamental substance is captured in the assertion ‘Tat tvam asi’: the human self (ātman) and Brahman are essentially the same. In Spinoza’s world the human self is nothing but an expansion of the fundamental substance’s attribute thought. The human perception of an invidual self is illusory, caused by an ignorant, incomplete or even missing understanding of the fundamental substance being God, Nature or Brahman. As long as the world is perceived distinguished from the fundamental substance, one remains in the state of ignorance. In the Advaita Vedānta system this state of ignorance is known by the Sanskrit term ‘avidyā’.

Spinoza considered that only a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the fundamental substance will lead to absolute contentment. His assertion that the more humans are consious of themselves and Nature, the more perfect and blessed they become. Only the understanding of the necessity of events, as being directly caused by the nature of the fundamental substance (God or Nature) will generate freedom towards the determination of all being by the fundamental essence of Nature. This can be considered as being another core thought that is shared with the Advaita Vedānta tradition.

His concept of three types of knowledge – opinion, reason, intuition – and his assertion that intuitive knowledge provides the greatest satisfaction of mind, led to his proposition that the more we are conscious of ourselves and Nature/Universe, the more perfect and blessed we are (in reality) and that only intuitive knowledge can be eternal.

Scholars of the Advaita Vedānta system share this view. Due to the natural limitations of language, they consider any attempt of describing the nature of brahman as not effective, which makes the second kind of knowledge, knowledge by reason, only effective upto a certain level. In Spinoza’s world and terminology, it could be considered this way, that also language is only an expansion of the fundamental substance’s attribute thought. Although language derives its existence and reality from the fundamental substance, the inverse cannot be true, which is the reason why descriptive language always will remain ineffective to fully describe the nature of God, Nature or Brahman. Any linguistic approach to do so, would only serve to limit the understanding of it.

Conclusively, it can definitely be said that there are parallel elements in Spinoza’s God definition and the teachings of the Advaita Vedānta tradition. Core similarities between the systems include their non-dualist, monistic metaphysical systems, a non-deniable relationship between humans and the divine, and a potential for living liberation through correct knowledge and understanding (and that the development of this correct knowledge has a positive impact on as well the individual as the society).

Some differential nuances however, are noticeable in the methodology and are probably related to the much higher tendency towards rational intellectualization and individualism in the carteistic, stoistic and the deterministic philosophical systems, which highly influenced Spinoza his thinking. In the end, however, these nuances really appear more in the applied methodologies as in the conclusive elements of the systems. Spinoza throughout his works, used the conceptual framework and terminology of some influential preceding philosophers in the western world, but content-wise, certain of Spinoza’s core concepts definitely show parallels with some of the core concepts of the Advaita Vedānta tradition.

Because of his argumentation for the existence of an impersonal God, Spinoza his books, after they were published, were temporarily added to the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s