The second chapter in Vivekananda’s Jnana Yoga is about the real nature of man. It already touches many of the core aspects of Advaita Vedanta. It is quite deep therefore I need to explain it a bit more detailled. I am going to split the review of this chapter into two parts. Starting from considerations about the nature of reality and the endless pursuit of happiness in the senses he discusses some interesting conflicts between the proposed degeneration of man from a perfect being to the imperfect mortal proposed by many religious traditions and the biological evolution as a process of constant improvement.
In the second part of the second chapter he elaborates on the mind-body-problem. Which came first? Matter or spirit? His final answer is clear, of course the soul, called atman in Sanskrit. Vivekananda explains why one should not fear to lose his individuality in a concept of one universal soul. He also derives the morals of charity and compassion from the existence of the atman. I will discuss this second part in a separate article.
What is real? What makes us happy?
Vivekananda starts with the question whether that what our senses tell us is real or if there is a greater reality behind it. Together with this comes another question if all of this reality is lost after death.
I think the search for reality is not too easy. Is an illusion really unreal? If you play a 3D role play video game you may think all of this is unreal, but isn’t it real in the sense that it is what you are perceiving now? Maybe there are just different layers of reality. You cannot say that what the video game shows is not there. It is there, even if it is in the form of a pixel on the screen.
Vivekananda refers to this in later chapters about maya – the Sanskrit term which is commonly translated as illusion which might be misleading. I would say it rather describes the changing reality of material things which are however not the absolute spiritual truth.
Within this notion of reality there is the pursuit for happiness. Man not only wants to know the truth but find happiness. And many seek happiness in the senses. Yet all of this happiness and misery, wealth and poverty are evanescent. None of these last forever. So ultimate happiness cannot be achieved by pursuing power, wealth, and constant enjoyment. Everything will finally end.
It is interesting that you find this notions also in the foundations of Buddhism. There are also differing concepts of maya and one of the key teachings in Buddhism is that attachment to those earthly things is the root for all frustration and suffering.
Degeneration or Evolution
Vivekananda claims that every religion states that man has been degenerating ever since from a state of perfect purity to the imperfect person on earth. I would be careful to generalize this, yet he cites the fall of Adam in the bible and the story of Manu. Manu is the first man, and again the similarities in the words between Sanskrit and English are obvious.
This Hindu myth is very similar to the story of Noah in the bible as both tell about an enormous flood which washes away everything but selected pairs of each species. Interesting enough, this punishing creator of the universe shows itself first in the form of a small fish, a minnow – which is by coincidence the title of the layout theme for my blog.
Biological evolution on the other hand claims constant progress instead of degeneration. Vivekananda tries to combine both by explaining that indian mythology is often about cycles, ups and downs. He also states that evolution requires involution. A small seed grows into a tree, but everything the tree is made of has always been in the seed. The tree has no property whose DNA information was not already in the seed.
I like how he refers to modern sciences also – and we have to consider that this part of the book is from a speech delivered 120 years ago. Maybe biologists are stricter about evolution, however Vivekananda talks about energy in a broad sense that must always have been there to develop a simple life-form to a more complex one. Something cannot come out of nothing. I see a reference to the first law of thermodynamics, that no energy can be lost.
The second law of thermodynamics which says entropy and hence the degree of disorder increases with time supports the religious ideas of the degeneration of men. So one has to note that physics and religion have similar notions here whereas it is biology that does not really fit into the picture. However scientists say evolution does not contradict thermodynamics as it does not fit the necessary conditions of closed systems needed for the second law.
So what does it all lead to?
In the second part of the chapter Vivekananda explains an interesting metaphor how to view the discrepancy between the views of biology and religion. And he tries to logically infer the nature of the self, where happiness is really found, and why one should do good to others.