A reflection on the Ishavasya Upanishad

In a previous reflection (see Against Grand Unity) I criticised monism as being an anti-intellectual belief system which demanded the rejection of reality and a retreat from discourse. In that critique, I characterised monism as the belief system of the ascetic – a rejection of the physical world and retreat into the shell of the self. This rather superficial criticism shows the danger of relying too heavily upon the texts of a critic rather than reading the argument of the professed believer. It is one thing to agree to the opinion of another, something else entirely to attempt to gently but firm attempt to investigate and unravel the underpinning mental framework of a belief system.

Firstly, I wish to rephrase some of my criticism – and repudiate some of its harsher aspects. Monism is more than asceticism, a form of life and thinking that I still reject. Rather, monism is more a realisation and acceptance of the fact that we are, as individuals, not fundamentally separate from the world which we inhabit. Even if one rejects the spiritual concepts of monism of the fundamental unity of soul, I think that the belief has significant insight into the egotistic elevation of the self over the external world – an unnatural distinction in several ways. As I have previously stated (see on Capability) genetic expression, environmental conditioning and chance largely define who we are as an individual; our agency has a limited impact on our identity.

With this commonsensical revelation, the arbitrary distinction we draw between ourselves and others begins to blur. The actions we take are not completely within our control, and their effects are not only felt upon our own lives. Even at a physical level, our bodies are not entirely our own; the entire system of digestion, circulation and respiration is constantly feeding the cellular structures of our frame. Micro-biological actions expel waste and slowly reconstruct our very being from new material absorbed from the external world. Consider to what level do you control the inputs and outputs of your system at a conscious level. This line of thinking can lead to perturbing questions: do we have control over reality, or are we stuck in the wheel ruts of existence – doomed by the rules of the game?

Although I think that monism has the danger of dragging its adherents down the path of uncritical mysticism, it also has key insights into the nature of reality and the place of the individual within the greater whole. To deny that we are a product of our environment and that our destiny is not, in part, shaped by factors beyond our control is to fall into an equally dangerous trap: myopic individualism. We may shape our future – and more importantly the way we accept or reject it – but the power to bend fate lies primarily beyond our grasp.

Original text

Ishavasya Upanishad

Painting

Sayed Haider “S. H.” Raza, Bindu, 1980

4 Replies to “Monism Redux”

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