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BID: Introduction

Philosophy? What’s that? The word comes from the two Greek words philo (“love”) and sophia (“wisdom”). So philosophy is love of wisdom or knowledge.

Of course, there are many kinds of wisdom and knowledge. Philosophy, however, specifically concerns itself with questions related to the ultimate nature and meaning of experience and reality. As composer Burt Bacharach put it in a famous sung, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

In that sense, we are all philosophers, because we all do, from time to time, wonder what it’s all about. Perhaps this sense of wonder comes from going camping in the desert and looking up at night and seeing the vast array of stars. Or perhaps it comes from a sense of disappointment. We lose something, or fail to achieve something, and we ask, “Why me?” We pray to God for something, and we don’t get it. We see that others get what we want for ourselves. And therefore we ask, “God, are You listening to me, are You really there?” Or perhaps we’re confronted with a difficult choice in life, and we wonder, “God, what should I do?” We search for some basis to make a decision. Or sometimes we find that what appeared to be solid and real—a relationship, a position, something—suddenly disappears. And we wonder, “What’s real? Is there anything in this world I can really count on?” Or we see things happening around us in ways we can’t explain, and we wonder, “Is there any logic, any reason to all this?” Or we hear someone trying to justify himself to us, and we can tell he isn’t making any sense. And we question him, “Do you know what you’re saying?” Whether we know it or not, all these questions we keep asking are philosophical questions.

Philosophy has traditionally been divided into four branches. The first is logic, the study of the formal structure of argument, of how a conclusion properly flows from certain assumptions, premises, and statements. The second branch is metaphysics, the study of the ultimate nature of reality—of God and the universe and consciousness. The third branch is epistemology, the science of how we know things. And the fourth branch is axiology, the study of values, of ethics, of how we determine what is right and wrong. This branch also includes aesthetics, the study of what is truly beautiful.

In all these areas many questions come up, as we have seen. But how do we find the answers? Western philosophy has relied on individual speculation, which involves taking evidence from our senses and evaluating it with our minds. But this method leaves us with a great deal of uncertainty. After all, our senses are imperfect, and our minds are subject to illusion, mistakes, and the propensity to cheat, to pretend we know something when we really don’t. With all these variables, each philosopher tends to come to a different set of answers to the fundamental questions. Indeed, it seems that one really can’t be a leading philosopher without saying something substantially different from the philosophers who’ve come before. This constant overhauling of philosophies throughout Western history can make the study of philosophy very frustrating, especially for people who are consulting philosophers not just to play an intellectual game but to find practical answers to life’s most perplexing questions.

There is another approach to philosophy, however. The philosophers of the Vedic civilization of ancient India distinguished two ways of getting at the truth. One is called the ascending path of knowledge, and the other is called the descending path. Western philosophers commonly use the ascending path, the path of speculation. The Vedic philosophers recognized that one who uses this method can never achieve certain knowledge, free from illusion and doubt, because of those pesky imperfect mind and senses. They preferred the descending path of knowledge. Recognizing the existence of a supreme intelligence behind the universe we experience with our senses, the Vedic philosophers accepted that the only way of getting certain answers to ultimate questions is to receive knowledge coming down from the supreme intelligence, God, known by the name Kṛṣṇa.

This knowledge, originating with Kṛṣṇa, has been passed down through a chain of spiritual masters since the beginning of time. There is no need to change it, there is no need to speculate about it. It is perfect knowledge. The duty of a spiritual master is simply to pass this knowledge on to his or her disciples, who in turn become spiritual masters and pass it on to a new generation of disciples. Because this knowledge is not the product of imperfect human minds and senses, it is beyond illusion and doubt.

But we should not blindly accept knowledge from the descending path. It is not dogma. We can test it with logic and reason and discover for ourselves how it is superior to any contrary conclusions arrived at through the speculative method. And by practicing yoga we can experimentally verify the truths received through the descending path. In this particular age, the most highly recommended process of yoga is bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion to God.

In recent times, the most prominent spiritual master in the line of spiritual masters coming from Kṛṣṇa was His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. His own spiritual master, His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, asked Śrīla Prabhupāda to spread the methods and conclusions of Vedic philosophy throughout the world.

In the early 1970s, Śrīla Prabhupāda, decided to analyze Western philosophy in light of Vedic philosophy. In a series of tape recorded conversations, his scholarly disciples Hayagrīva dāsa and Śyāmasundara dāsa presented to Śrīla Prabhupāda selections from the teachings of prominent Western philosophers, from Socrates to Carl Jung, and Śrīla Prabhupāda commented upon them. Beyond Illusion and Doubt is based on those conversations.

We are under no illusion that Beyond Illusion presents an exhaustive treatment of Western philosophy. After all, for the most part the philosophers presented here, some of the most prominent in the West, wrote voluminously and created a complex system of thought outlining an original worldview. Rather, what you’ll find here is a fascinating series of insights into some of their most salient ideas and a concise yet thorough presentation of the basics of bhakti-yoga. You’ll read how Śrīla Prabhupāda applauds Socrates’ opposition to the Sophists’ view that morality is relative—that there is no absolute standard of right and wrong. “The highest duty of man is to care for his soul,” Socrates declared; Śrīla Prabhupāda agrees, and explains how. Excerpts from Plato’s Republic provide Śrīla Prabhupāda with a context to explain the Vedic social system, while Aristotle’s speculations on God and man come in for some sharp criticism. Śrīla Prabhupāda notes several similarities between the Vedic view and the ideas of Origen, the father of Christian mysticism—especially concerning reincarnation—but points out that Origen was wrong to believe the soul is created. Śrīla Prabhupāda shows how ridiculous is Augustine’s statement that “Reincarnation is ridiculous,” but he approves Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God. Kierkegaard was perfectly correct, says Śrīla Prabhupāda, when he wrote that in the highest stage of life a person submits himself to God and obeys Him totally, but he was wrong when he insisted that the truly religious life must entail great suffering. Schopenhauer recommended that the way to real happiness is to destroy all desire and will and thus reach “nirvāṇa”; no, says Śrīla Prabhupāda, desire and will are intrinsic to the soul and must simply be purified of their material focus. Darwin draws some heavy fire for his evolutionary theory, which ignores God’s role in the origin of the species. “The greatest good for the greatest number” was the slogan of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian philosophy, but Śrīla Prabhupāda asks, “Who will determine what the greatest good is?” Almost two decades before the fall of the Soviet Union cast Marx’s atheistic philosophy into the dustbin of history, Śrīla Prabhupāda points out the fatal flaw in the communist doctrine: everything belongs not to the state but to God, and therefore everything must be used in His service. Nietzsche extolled the “superman,” one who has completely conquered his passions and is dependent on no one; Śrīla Prabhupāda shows how the real superman is the fully self-realized soul who recognizes his complete dependence on God. Regarding Freud, Śrīla Prabhupāda explains that whatever relief psychoanalysis can give is simply palliative unless the patient recognizes that the root of his problems is his misidentification of the self with the body and his alienation from God. Quoting the Bhagavad-gītā, Śrīla Prabhupāda calls Sartre’s existentialism demonic because it ignores the authority and very existence of God and declares man a “useless passion” striving vainly in a purposeless world. Finally, Śrīla Prabhupāda heartily applauds this statement from Carl Jung’s autobiography: “One must be utterly abandoned to God; nothing matters but fulfilling His will. Otherwise, all is folly and meaningless.” Unfortunately, Jung never found a qualified guru from whom to learn the science of Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

We’re not so unfortunate as Dr. Jung. From Beyond Illusion and Doubt and the many other books Śrīla Prabhupāda has left us, as well as from his followers who are faithfully carrying forward his teachings, we can learn the philosophy, practice, and goals of Kṛṣṇa consciousness and make our lives successful.