THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF MONISM
As you all know, monism is a philosophical and religious theory which holds that the ultimate reality is one. There are, of course, several theories or isms in regard to the nature of ultimate reality. For instance, in addition to monism there is dualism, the view that there are two realities-the soul and God and that they are separate from one another. Truly speaking, dualism is a sort of pluralism, because it not only maintains that the soul and God are two separate entities, it also holds that there are innumerable souls, and that there is, of course, an insentient reality called the world. So although the term pluralism is used for philosophies that explicitly maintain that there are many realities, every dualistic theory is actually pluralistic.
Then there is an ism in between monism and dualism that is called qualified monism. Philosophically speaking, qualified monism can be said to be allied with monism, but in spirit, it is dualistic. All qualified monists, you will find, are devotees of God; they maintain that the souls are distinct and different from God. Distinct in the sense that while they are not the same as God, they are not independent realities completely cut off from Him, and different in the sense that God is vibhu, vast, and the soul even in its perfect state is anu, atomic. That is to say, the souls are distinct in nature from God, although they, as well as the world which according to qualified monists is insentient are all held together in one reality, all subsumed in the being of God not separate and outside of Him. Just as our concept of a tree contains branches and leaves and flowers and whatever else there might be, all distinct from one another, and certainly distinct from what we call a tree (we cannot call a branch or a twig or a leaf a tree), similarly, the qualified monist’s concept of God contains within itself the distinct presence of an infinite number of souls and the insentient world all are bound up together, not separate. Therefore, the view is called monism, but since it is not pure monism it is called qualified monism.
What I want to discuss this evening, of course, is monism. I think most of you have a general idea of what is indicated by the term monism. In our present experience, we are aware of several kinds of reality. There is first of all the soul or conscious entity. Then there is the mind, and there is the body. We know that our body is made up of living matter, and we are also aware of dead matter, of which this universe, to our present understanding, seems to be formed. In short, we see an infinite number of conscious entities, we find many living forms, and we see this vast world of dead matter. All these things seem to be somehow governed by laws, which we are trying to discover through the study of science. And of course, either because of inherited superstition or tradition or whatever it might be, we cannot altogether forget the existence of God. You might say that God is not a matter of experience to us now; nevertheless, God is certainly one of the dominating ideas in our mind. So all these things you could call realities. Now, according to monism, the differences and distinctions that we now make between the living and the nonliving, the conscious and the unconscious, between one soul and another, between the soul and the world, between the soul and God, and so on all those distinctions are our mistakes.
That we are prone to make mistakes must be admitted; we are full of ignorance. Many of the authors of books on Vedanta, particularly monistic Vedanta, point out that in explaining the state of things and in trying to find the truth we should take into account the presence of a pervasive ignorance. If I have some disease of the eye, then certainly I must take this fact into consideration in deciding whether or not things are really as they appear to me. If a person were suffering from jaundice and found everything yellow, he would certainly take this fact into consideration.
He would say, Probably the yellow does not belong to things; it might belong to my eyes. He goes to a doctor and has his jaundice treated, and after he is cured, he finds some things white, some grey, and so on; then he is sure he is seeing rightly. Vedantic authors give this kind of illustration and warn us that we must not ignore the fact that our knowledge, our motives, our feelings, our instincts are all somehow flawed by a mysterious ignorance. They say if you trace everything to its source, you will be surprised to find that this world is not at all various; there are not many kinds of realities here; all these distinctions and differences are due to our ignorance. If this ignorance were not there, we would not feel that we have these garbs of mind and body in which we are enclosed, and, therefore, we would not feel that we are separate from other beings or from God. They come to the conclusion that since ignorance is not to be considered as something actually existent, actually real, there is only one reality. Vedantic monism starts with that idea: there is just one reality, one Being, one infinite, eternal Consciousness; according to the monists, that is the ultimate reality, or the only reality that exists.