Intellect and Intuition in

Sankara's Philosophy


            Philosophy is not a matter of dialectics and intellectual jugglery, but a product of life and meditation on it. It is Common enough for philosophers who sport on the surface of life to possess the leisure and the capacity for technical discussions. What is rarer is the combination in one individual of knowledge and wisdom. It is only from those of deep thought and large experience that we can get a breadth and depth of understanding, a hold on essentials too often absent from the works of mere intellectuals. In our ancient scriptures it is laid down that philosophy is not a pursuit to which anyone can take. It requires not only a sharp intellect but a detached spirit. Commenting on the first Brahma Sutra, ‘athato brahmajignasa,’ Vidyaranya observes: "He who possesses the four requisites, since release is not to be attained through works, must enter on an inquiry into the Vedanta texts in order to obtain the intuition of Brahman, which is the means of release."1 This view is not a peculiar idiosyncracy of the follower of the Advaita Vedanta. It is the ancient tradition accepted by all systems. When the old sage Yajnavalkya gave up his all to seek the way of wisdom, he left his possessions to his two wives. Maitreyi refused the riches of the world with the remark, ‘yena na amrita syam kim tena kuryam’? What shall I do with these by which I cannot gain life eternal? Philosophical wisdom is possible only for those who have disciplined their whole nature and not merely those who have sharpened their intellectual powers. Wisdom is integral thinking, while knowledge is fractional thinking. While the latter is more in evidence in science and mathematics, which can be understood by all who possess a trained intellect, the exercise of the former is demanded for an understanding of poetry and philosophy, art and literature.

In a recent book2 I argued that integral thinking or intuitive understanding is responsible for the great insights of philosophy and it is not without reason that philosophy in India is conveyed by the term ‘darshana’ which literally means ‘sight’ or ‘insight’. Philosophy as a ‘darshana’ implies that the ultimate reality is something of which we are directly aware and is not a matter of speculative construction of logical syntheses.

While this view is regarded as true of the Indian philosophers who are theological in their outlook, it is said to be inappropriate to a thinker like Sankara, who does not lean on either dogmatic orthodoxy or emotional assurance. Such a contention is hardly fair.

The real is no mere aspiration unrealised and unrealisable but is the ultimate behind all appearances whatsoever. It is not something which has yet to be accomplished like the future deity of Alexander, but what is already there, ever present. For Hegel the Absolute is a construction epistemologically analogous to similar constructions in the world of knowledge. It is a hypothesis like that of the electron or the neutron. Sankara is definitely opposed to this view. For him the real is genuinely given in knowledge. He distinguishes between purushatantra and vastutantra, that which is constructed by the knower and that which is given to it. Philosophy is knowledge of being, bhutavastuvishaya. It is the apprehension of being, an apprehension which has a distinct flavour of its own. It is more immediate than mediate, more direct than indirect. It has more in common with perception than conception. It is pure immediate self-intuition and is utterly distinct from reflection or mediated thought. Commenting on the phrase pratyakshavagamam,3 Sankara says–"Pratyakshena sukhader iva avagamo yasya tat pratyakshavagamam." In the view of Hegel, the Absolute is a rational synthesis transparent to the human intellect. There is no mystery in it which thought cannot disclose. Protests were uttered immediately. Schleirmacher and Lotze deny the adequacy of thought to comprehend the whole of reality without remainder, and resort to considerations of value. Ritschl, after Kant, affirmed that religious faith is rooted in the practical side of our nature. Systems of voluntarism were the result.

Perception and inference are inadequate to the Absolute. The Real is a vastu but not in space and time; nor is it a mere universal. Bradley correctly represents the teaching of Hegel when he observes: "For thought what is not relative is nothing." 4 The being of Sankara is one which suffers no second. Human thought is bound up with distinctions while the real is above all distinctions. Our linguistic symbols and logical concepts veil the Real and reduce it to an idol. The Katha Upanishad says: "Not by speech, not by thought, not by sight, does one grasp Him." Sankara tells us that Brahman "cannot become the object of perception because it does not possess qualities such as form and the like, and as it is devoid of characteristic signs, it does not lend itself to inference and the other means of right knowledge."5 The Absolute is a positive but unnamable being. It negates limitations, privations. The moment we apply logical concepts to it, we reduce it to a non-absolute, the determinate God. The Absolute is the ground of all possibilities including that of God. To know it we have to pass beyond God (Isvara) into the silent real which precedes and is prior to all things. It is ekam, advitiyam, nirvisesham, avikriyam, opposed to all becoming, formless and fashionless. Simply because we characterise it by the negative terms, it does not follow that it is non-being. It is neither being nor non-being, as it is above both these. It is sad asat tat param.6 Sankara recognised the possibility of directly apprehending the ultimate reality in a way which cannot be equated with either ordinary sense perception or logical inference.

It is what he calls aparokshanubhuti. It is not individual phantasy or illusion. It is unfortunate to characterise this view as mysticism and be done with it. Mysticism is a blanket term, a portmanteau expression which covers a miscellaneous host of ideas, occult visions, apparitions, trance and ecstasy, pious gushing, luminous vacancy, intoxicated erotism, a striving after the bliss of the bridal chamber. While Sankara admits the value of the eightfold yoga; it is only as a means to samyagdarshana, a perfect insight which is far removed from any kind of sentiment or feeling. Nor does he believe that this direct awareness of spiritual reality is a mystical insight or heavenly vision or special revelation. It is the normal experience of all who get to the depths of the soul. It is the possession of self as such and not of this or that special individual. Sankara says: "The self is not capable of proof nor does it need any. It is self-proven (svasiddha). Itself inconceivable, it is the ground of every possibility of conceiving, of every thought, of every act of knowledge. Even he who denies it, admits it." We may call it pure reason if we please, so long as we do not confuse it with either perception or inference in their ordinary significations.

The difference between Sankara and Hegel is just here. Logical reasoning by itself cannot lead to the apprehension of reality. Sankara admits: "On account of the diversity of men's opinions, it is impossible to accept mere reasoning as having a sure foundation."7 Sankara has in view what Professor Taylor in his Gifford, Lectures calls "the systematic ambiguity of epistemology." "There might prove to be alternative metaphysical interpretations of the given historical reality, all equally consistent with the only condition which the epistemologist can legitimately insist on, the condition that on any interpretation the real world must be capable of being progressively known as intelligence is steadily brought to bear on it."8 In other words, the last word on the structure of reality cannot be uttered by the epistemologist who leaves us with open alternatives. While it is disloyalty to reason to deny the known character of the world, it is not disloyalty to reason to note that it is something more than what is known of it. Kant, for example, held that there were alternative interpretations of the pattern of reality, all equally consistent with the legitimate claims of science. The world may be an assemblage of mindless forces or a commonwealth of free, progressive agents. When we accept the second, we go beyond mere logic and take our stand on moral consciousness. It is possible that moral consciousness might leave open a number of alternatives, which insistence on the autonomous religious life might close up. In short we are called upon to supplement logic by the facts of life, ethical as well as religious. Only then is logic complete. The unsuppressed aspirations of mans spirit are as much a part of the natural order as the suppressed desires of psycho-analysis or the ordinary perceptions of mankind. In other words we want a synoptic comprehension of all facts of life. Samyagdarshanam is not merely perfect vision but total vision.

While Sankara admits that sakshatkara is a specific mode of apprehension distinct from ordinary perception or inference, he regards it as a species or knowledge and not of feeling or of desire. It is as much determined by the inward organ as perceptual or inferential knowledge is, If the latter is brought about by antahkaranavritti, even so is the former. Commenting on Bhagavadgita, VI. 20, Sankara writes that the yogin, "whose mind is restrained by the practice of yoga sees the self, the highest which is wholly spirit and essentially light, by means of the purified inner organ."9 Here he differs from the view which is sometimes adopted by Bergson that intuition is a negation of intellect. For Sankara, it is a fulfillment of it. Intuitive experience is the crown of intellectual knowledge. Anubhavavasanam brahma-jnanam, anubhavarudham eva cha vidyaphalam. Intuition is not a substitute for rational knowledge but a supplement to it. It is rational thought matured to inspiration. Intuitive insight while spontaneous does not arise except in the minds of those who are prepared for it by study of scripture and reflection. "Hearing from scriptural texts and reflecting with the help of arguments and meditation are the causes of the insight (into Braman). l0

From the vividness of the experience arises emotional intensity but these accompaniments are not a guarantee of the truth of the object intuited. These intuitions, simply because they carry conviction to the seer, are not to be taken as true. Subjective certitude is different from logical certainty. The sense of assurance is present even when the object is imaginal and even such unreal objects, so long as they are believed to be actual, evoke feelings and attitudes quite as intense and effective as those excited by real ones. The strength of assurance and the intensity of the experience are not a proof of the reality of the object experienced. Intuitions, sensuous as well as spiritual, require to be tested and criticised before they are accepted as valid. Questions of validity are not answered by the experiences themselves. Certitude is not certainty. Psychological objectivity is not ontological reality. While religion may be satisfied with the sense of convincedness, which is enough to foster spiritual life, philosophy is interested in finding out whether the object believed in is well-grounded or not. Pramanair arthaparikshanam nyayah. Nyaya is knowing an object thoroughly by means of the pramanas.

What is intuited cannot be irrational. It cannot be in conflict with reason. What reason suggests as the truth, intuition reveals as the reality. The intuited truth that the self of man is eternally one with the supreme is the ultimate fact to which we are led by a rational ontology which establishes the unreality of multiplicity, division, manifoldness, and separateness. The unreality of the world is just its self-contradiction. It is said to be avastu since it is contrary to reason.11 What is self-contradictory and yet actual cannot be real. The real is what is not self-contradictory. Reality cannot explain the possibility of mere appearance. Error can be dispelled but not explained. What is of its own nature irrational does not admit of explanation. Reason affirms the complete oneness and simplicity of the real. But reason by itself cannot disclose this truth. When once the beliefs arise through intuition or scripture, then logic can tell us whether they are valid or invalid. Sankara uses the methods of proof and dialectic in the formulation of the absolutely inconceivable absolute which escapes all definitions. Sankara's samyagdarshana does not express itself in song or ritual but in a rational dialectic rather cold and stiff, when we compare it even with the mysteries of the Upanishads, Dialectics help us in proof but not in discovery. They point the way and reveal the defects of the rival views but they are dependent on given facts. Pratyakshagamasrtam anumanam. Reasoning is dependent on perception and testimony.12 If reasoning is uncontrolled by facts, it is only reverie or imagination or tarka which is notoriously apratistha.

Even the scriptural texts are to be used with discrimination. We cannot interpret them arbitrarily. Blind acquiescence in authority is as unsound as a cheap rejection of it. A wise Greek has said: "Not to know what was done in the world before we were born is always to remain a child." We must always begin as learners, accept something which we did not create. Even scripture is a means to the insight into the real,13 and loses its point when enlightenment arises. "Sruter api abhavah prabodhe."14

It is obvious that Sankara believes in a direct awareness of reality which is neither perceptual nor conceptual. Here he differs from Hegel, but he also affirms that this direct awareness is through and through rational, and in this he differs from Bergson.

To dissever thought and intuition is to dismember the real and deny the eternal unity of life. The puzzles and paradoxes of philosophy are due to the fallacy of abstraction, and if we are loyal to the great tradition of this land, we shall always use intellect in the interest of intuition and adopt that is called anukulatarka.

The tragedy of our age is traceable to its excessive intellectuality. A narrowly intellectual life is lopsided. It revels in the abstract and the repetitive and believes that it is the real. Life is sacrificed to its appurtenances. To give to millions of men the electric light does not mean the development in them of clearer illumination. Cain, in Byron's poem, asks of Lucifer, the prince of the intellectuals, "Are you happy," and the great intellectual says to him, "No; art thou?" Our civilisation is shadowed by a sense of defeat and depression. The typical characters of our age are represented by the Forsytes of England, the Babbitts of America, and the Buddenbrooks of Germany, all small adventurers with no heroism about them. They do not know what to do, and so spend their time playing golf, cursing the weather, revising the prayer book, and ruling empires, if they get a chance, Philosophy is dismissed as a narrowly intellectual affair dealing with proofs and evidences, with the result that it has become negative and arid.

Our literature is critical and realistic. It deals with life as a formula or a pattern and not with men and women, their ardours and ecstasies, their strange possibilities and endless mysteries. Great literature ought to produce a sense of something inexplicable and overwhelming. It must "tease us out of thought" with the pale light of another world, and if the works of today do not possess such compelling or consecrating power, it is because they are mainly intellectual, "Analysis kills spontaneity just as grain, once it is ground into powder, no longer springs and germinates," says Amiel. The true seers possess a different tone and temper, a spirit out of the common, touched with a light from beyond. When we read their writing, they quicken a like life in us and make us glow with the ardours of self-discovery.

In art, again, the greatest triumphs are of exact science. They are not the pyramids or the temples but the sky-scrapers which show a sense of mathematical law. We teach drawing and painting in our schools to help us to understand the works of Botticelli or Michael Angelo, but the faith and the passion that made their works possible are no more available. Ethical life is reduced to a code of rules supposed to be rational. Our conventional codes are pretentious failures, which break down at the first touch of reality. We extinguish the light within us for the sake of peace with the world.

We should recognise that happiness is found in the adequate realisation of all human powers. Physical prowess, mental cunning, and spiritual peace are needed. The ancient text says: Pranaramam manasanandam santisamruddham, amritam. The play of life, the satisfaction of mind, and the fulness of peace form the life eternal. It is emphasis on intuitive understanding or spiritual values that we need today. How we can develop them in the intellectual conditions of today is the problem to which philosophers have to address themselves. The work which ancient religions did requires to be done now be a new synthesis or samanvaya.

India of the ages is not dead; nor has she spoken her last creative word. The time has come for a few religious expression, a new language for the old everlasting emotions in terms of modern knowledge, a religious form that should Contradict no fact and check no inquiry. The everlasting spirit of love and righteousness which has inspired the religions of the past must now quicken and inform the new learning. 15


1 Tadevam sadhanachatushtayasampannasya, karmabhir mokshasiddher

mokshasadhanabrahmajnanaya Vedantavakyavicharah kartavya iti srautyarthah.-

Vivaranaprameyasangraha, p. 6.

2 An Idealist View of Life. Allen & Unwin, 1932.

3 Rajavidya rajaguhyam pavitram idam uttamam. !

Pratyakshavagamam dharmyam susukham kartum avyayam. !!

4 Appearance and Reality, p. 30.

5 Thibaut's E. T. Vol. XXXIV, p. 316. Rupadyabhavaddhi nayam arthah pratyakshasya gocharah lingadyabhavascha nanumanadinam. III, 11. S. A.

6 B.G. XI. 37.

7 Na pratisthitatvam tarkanam sakyam asrayitum purusha mativairupyat. S.B, II.1.ii.

8 The Faith of a Moralist, Vol. II, p. 378.

9 Atmana samadhiparisuddhena antahkaranena atmanam param chaitanyam jyotissvarupam pasyan upalabhamanah.

10 Vivaranaprameyasangraha.

11 Cf. Anirvachaniyavadinam asmakam adhyasasyavastutva yuktivirodhayor

istatvat. Vivaranaprameyasangraha, pp. 12-13.

12 I. 1. 1. N. S.

13 Brahmadarsanam uddisya sravanavidhanetu. Vivaranaprameyasangraha, p. 4.

14 S.B.XV. 1. 3.

15 The Presidential Address at the Mysore session of the Indian Philosophical Congress, December 1932, with H. H. The Maharaja of Mysore in the chair.


–Reprinted from Triveni, July–August, 1933