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Advaita Vedanta and the Future of Civilization


What we believe, what we value and what we desire determines our decisions and actions and, in the long term, creates our civilization – the world we live in. If we really want a different world, we must first change our thinking.


This text is a translation of the author's article published in this blog under the title "Advaita Vedanta und die Zukunft der Zivilization" on 24 May 2024.


Globe with a seedling


The Indefensible Worldview


It is fascinating how life in the soil has organized itself. The mycorrhizal networks of fungal threads are a good example. Their complexity is beyond our imagination. They connect trees and all other plants to form a forest and transport substances and information to exactly where they are needed most. The individual plants in this network pass on to the community what they themselves do not immediately need, but what the others are currently lacking, and warn other plants of dangers, such as infections, so that they can activate their defenses in good time. The scientists who study these networks look at the intelligence at work there with admiration and awe.


If we set aside our anthropocentric way of looking at things (you could just as well call it arrogance and conceit), we see this intelligence in all living organisms, from bacteria to humans, from anthills to the entire planet. Scientists in many fields of knowledge are now coming to the conclusion that the intelligence, indeed the wisdom, with which life and the earth's systems organize themselves, develop and interact with each other is beyond anything we can imagine or imitate. The further the researchers advance, the greater the complexity of what they discover, the more inexplicable the intelligence and wisdom that presents itself to their eyes and measuring instruments. They do not know how it comes about.


Scientists rush to add the magic formula to this statement: not yet. We do not yet know how life or consciousness came into being. We do not yet understand why individual plants in an ecosystem act in the interests of the community. But if we continue our research, we will certainly be able to explain everything in nature and in humans based on the natural sciences at some point. After all, it's all just matter, the 118 elements of the periodic table, the four forces of gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak interaction, isn't it?


With the “not-yet mantra”, the materialistic worldview can be rescued from any dead end. I also did it for decades. Today I know that we can only find the missing answers if we include the missing dimension in the coordinate system of the scientific worldview. Intelligence is not the product of the complexity of life, but its prerequisite. Wisdom, truth and perfection are not the result of the evolution of the universe and the earth, but their cause. They belong in the field of study. About 300 years ago, we replaced one deception, one lie about God, with another deception, another lie about the world. That would be a matter of opinion – people and cultures are allowed to live in deception if they want to. The only problem with our worldview, which reduces everything to matter, is that it leads to the destruction of life on the planet that has become so obvious today. So, we urgently need to rethink.


Quantum Leap from Matter to Consciousness


In the living system of the earth, everything is connected to everything else, everything has its place and plays its role. It is a whole that perfectly fulfills its task: the development of life. It also embodies beauty and wisdom to an extent that leaves us speechless again and again. It simply cannot be the result of chance. Modern systems thinkers attribute this wisdom and beauty to the growing complexity of the Earth system – these simply go hand in hand with the advancing self-organization within the system. However, scientists have no explanation for this self-organization, only observations. Explanations can be found in social systems – self-organization presupposes autonomous, conscious action on the part of the system elements. This is why it is best analyzed in human systems. Since we attribute conscious action to animals as well, we can also transfer our attempts at explanation to them. But plants, fungi and bacteria, which form the basis of ecosystems – how does self-organization come about here? They don't need a plan (the systems scientists are right about that) but they do need certain rules. A materialist stops here. But what are rules? If you have nothing but matter to explain the world, you say something like: “Well, they're just there.” A philosopher tears his hair out: “What kind of explanation is that? You stop your thinking halfway through.” Rules are mind, consciousness.


The most logical explanation of the development of the Earth's ecosystem is that it is based on consciousness. As the complexity of this ecosystem progresses, consciousness increasingly manifests itself. To paraphrase John: In the beginning was consciousness, and without the same was not one that has become. At the end there is also consciousness: as the light of men. The unfolding in between follows rules, i.e. consciousness. This is the reason why everything interlocks in the living system of the earth. That is the reason why the result is beauty, harmony and wisdom.


All peoples who lived in nature knew this, even if they sometimes expressed it in different words. For all indigenous cultures, animals and plants are relatives, part of the extended family of the forest or savannah. Their metaphors reflect the understanding of an intelligent and ethical world. Since prehistoric times, they have embodied a worldview that would still lead to a sustainable civilization today. However, it is unrealistic to assume that modern Western society, living outside of nature, is satisfied with the justification for this way of thinking. The idea that the tree and the eagle are our relatives within the extended family of life may appeal to our emotional level – to some of us. But emotions are not well suited to justifying lasting change in behavior. Rethinking must also include the intellectual and ethical levels. The ethical level can certainly be inspired by feelings. But feelings come and go. They are not a solid foundation for lasting changes in thinking and behavior. Morality must be rooted not only in the heart but also in the intellect.


In the upcoming rethinking process, the decisive step is to include consciousness as the missing dimension in the worldview that became established in Europe after the Enlightenment. Some researchers into consciousness are beginning to think about the possibility that consciousness can be regarded as an autonomous dimension of reality. Very few of them mention that it could even be primary and matter secondary – it is still a forbidden zone of science. It is physics, the supreme discipline of the natural sciences, that (largely unintentionally) breaks the boundaries of the reductionist worldview. The theory of relativity, for example, shows that the past and the future exist side by side. Time is not a flow: things only change from our subjective perspective. Modern physicists even admit that matter escapes them altogether if they examine it closely enough. At the level of strings (which, according to the current state of science, are the basis of matter), matter disappears completely and turns into mathematics. Classical quantum mechanics also tells us that matter consists of probabilities. You could just as well say that it is mathematics. Because scientists equate reality with matter, they would actually have to admit that reality is immaterial, that it only exists through thought.


The entanglement of the particle pairs occurs without a connection that could be traced back to matter. The particles, i.e. matter, therefore appear to consist not only of thoughts, but also of information. Today, scientists are able to teleport individual particles, i.e. to create the same particle at a distant location. What is transferred is only the information, not the matter or energy. In this process, the original particle loses all the information that makes it up, so it practically ceases to exist. Why is that? Because information is responsible for the existence of matter. Nevertheless, scientists refuse to allow consciousness into their worldview. At some point, however, they will have to make the “quantum leap” from matter to consciousness.


Advaita Vedanta

 

Until the end of the 19th century, there was no convincing alternative to materialism for intellectuals within Western culture. That is different today. Many teachers of the several thousand year old Vedanta philosophy have since then come to the West from India and some leading Western philosophers and physicists have studied it in depth. This philosophy builds a bridge between consciousness and matter, between spirituality and science.


If modern physics teaches us anything, it is that everything we regard as objects and facts of matter can be questioned. There are only two existences that stand out from the ubiquitous fleetingness and which we must therefore regard as objectively existing. The first is the subject: even if all objects escape us, the subject still remains. The second is mathematics and logic, which are pure mind. Advaita Vedanta (the most far-reaching Vedanta philosophy in its conclusions) has emerged from the unconditional search for this subject and used logic only.


Its most important discovery was that the subject must lie behind the mind because mental activity can be observed, i.e. it must be an object. And because everything that can be observed is by definition not the subject, there can ultimately only be one single subject. Only the one observing consciousness exists without reference to anything else, “out of itself”. Only about consciousness, the subject of everything, can we say: “Well, it's just there.” The ultimate conclusion of Advaita Vedanta is therefore: In the final consequence, only pure consciousness, the pure subject, exists. Matter is a projection of this consciousness, which appears to our senses as forms to which we give certain names. The mind is also consciousness, which is reflected in one of these projections, which we call the brain. The universe that can be experienced with the senses and with thinking, the space and time, only exist from the point of view of the mind. Behind this lies consciousness, which is indivisible (advaita in Sanskrit means: free from duality). It is primary, which is why it can be regarded as the actual "substance" of the universe. Matter is a second-degree reality. We experience a “hologram” with our sensory organs and perceive it as the hard matter of the universe.


So, is there no matter, no world as we see, hear and touch it? Yes, there is, says Advaita Vedanta, as long as we are in it, as long as we think and perceive. And we too, with our individuality and our desires, exist. What is special about us, however, is that consciousness has manifested in us to such an extent that we can cross the threshold between the world of matter and pure, unembodied consciousness. In perfect meditation, there is no thinking, and the sensory organs are switched off. It forms a bridge at the other end of which a person can experience pure consciousness. This experience changes everything. It is a fusion of pure consciousness, which was seemingly divided into two. This is the path of yoga, which empirically confirms the purely logical conclusions of Advaita Vedanta.


Everything that science tells us about matter is therefore true as long as we remain within the incomplete coordinate system of matter, energy, mind, time and space. However, these are only one aspect of reality. The other is consciousness. This is the dimension that the natural sciences lack to explain the universe, life and human beings in their entirety. Advaita Vedanta is the only school of philosophy that integrates consciousness (and thus the spiritual dimension of reality) into the worldview and is still easily compatible with all the findings and positions of modern science. What's more, it can help scientists in their quest to understand the world.


And what does this mean for the understanding of evolution? It too cannot be understood without the dimension of consciousness. Evolution is more than just a combination of chance and competition. Behind it lies the all-pervading consciousness. This is why cooperation, compassion and beauty manifest more and more as the complexity of life increases. Ecosystems raise this complexity to the level of communities and thus offer a new field for this manifestation. The self-organization for cooperation, consideration, respect and harmony has already been perfected in ecosystems.


With humans, evolution has now reached a new stage: that of self-awareness, free will and morality. In this development, however, we are still babies who are just learning to walk. We have only grown up as individuals (some of us), not as a society, not as humanity. Only when we as a society have achieved the same self-organization for cooperation, compassion and beauty that already manifests itself in ecosystems, in the forest floor or in the ant colony, will we evolve from troublemakers to soloists in the symphony of creation. Only when consciousness has manifested itself sufficiently well at the level of human community will we evolve from a disruptive factor to an integrated part of the earth's system. The perfected self-organization of understanding, consideration and love in the human society is what will integrate us as a civilization into the already perfected system of Gaia.


The Worldview for a Sustainable Civilization

 

Why am I boring you with philosophy at a time of natural disasters, social disintegration and wars? Because our view of the world, of nature, of human beings and of society is the real reason for all these disasters. The world we live in today was created by our ancestors through their beliefs and desires. If we want a different one for our children, we must rethink today.


The worldview shaped by science over the past 300 years drove all holiness out of the world and persuaded people that modesty and frugality were not values, but a trick of religion. People found themselves in an unspiritual world based on competition, in which values were relative and the strongest was right. Such a world could be exploited with a clear conscience. Regardless of your worldview, you must admit that the reductionist worldview has put human civilization in existential danger. So, for a sustainable, appreciative world, we need to modify it. Nevertheless, we don't have to wait for physics or biology to be rewritten. There is a shortcut. It is not new, but in the past we have often used it incorrectly, sometimes misused it. We have tried to subordinate it to our fixed ideas and self-interest. That's why it usually led us astray. However, the mistake was not in the abbreviation itself, but in us.


By this I mean the values, what we consider to be right, true, worthy of protection, sacred. I also mean the stereotypes, the basic beliefs, the fundamental stories of culture, the role models of society. People need them simply because they don't want to analyze the pros and cons in detail every time they must decide for or against something. Values and fundamental beliefs therefore determine the world we live in.


The mistake that we have repeated again and again in the past was that we sought the justification for these values in religions and ideologies. This made them the result of beliefs and therefore vulnerable to attack. And because they resulted from the beliefs of individuals, they often led to injustice and excesses in social practice. Advaita Vedanta is the only worldview that is not based on a religious revelation and that at the same time establishes values and morals from a transcendental perspective.[1] Because all human beings, all life, even inanimate matter, including the earth's resources, are a projection of the one indivisible pure consciousness, there is nothing that is not worth protecting, that does not deserve our respect. We are not sisters and brothers because someone has postulated it, but because we are ultimately all one. If I harm someone, I am ultimately harming myself. When someone is injured, I feel compassion for them because I know in the depths of my soul that they behind the form and the name are consciousness, which is also me. This means that the basis of all morality – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – is no longer a postulate or an appeal, but the only logical consequence of objectively existing reality.


If we base our generally accepted values on the worldview of Advaita Vedanta and enforce their observance in society with this justification, there is no danger that they will turn in their practical application against individuals (mostly the weak and powerless) and against nature. These values are, for example, the consequent avoidance of all violence (ahimsa), respect for all life and the limitation of all destruction to what is absolutely necessary, equal rights for all, compassion, peace and responsibility. They are independent, even without reference to Advaita Vedanta, and can be accepted by people of good will regardless of their worldview and religious views. The idea, the conviction that all living things are not only useful but also valuable, that all living beings are conscious, that they differ from us only in the extent to which consciousness manifests itself in them, but not in their essence, is gaining a foothold in people's thinking today anyway.


With these values, we can build a sustainable and peaceful civilization. Without them, all the costly technical solutions and all the administrative solutions to the ecological and civilizational crisis that meet with massive resistance will not save us. The only thing that can stop people from pursuing their selfish interests at the expense of others and nature is if it goes against their values and beliefs. New technologies and old behavior would lead to further destruction of the world and the collapse of civilization. New political forces and old behavior would not stop the exploitation of nature either, because the pressure of consumerism and the greed of finance capital are too powerful, and any power corrupts even the well-meaning at some point. We will of course continue to need technical and administrative measures. What's more, we need to re-design our entire civilizational system. But that alone will not bring about the desired result. These measures must be accompanied by a fundamental rethink that changes our understanding of the world and ourselves, our assumptions, beliefs and priorities.


These values offer a shortcut in the rethinking process because they can be accepted by the majority of society without us having to wait until the sciences, religions and schools of philosophy have rebuilt their understanding of the world. That can take time. Even after many of their leading representatives have spoken out in favor of certain values and behaviors, even if they have justified these values with indivisible consciousness as an objectively existing dimension of reality, the scientific and religious establishment will resist this for a long time because it has a lot to lose: reputation, influence, power, money ... Values that appeal to the feelings, conscience and understanding of people concerned about the future, values that promise them a world in harmony with nature and with each other, are the most promising path to real change in our civilization. Until now, values followed naturally from the accepted worldview. Today, we must propagate them through a collective effort of those being capable for seeing far, without waiting for a complete change of worldview.


Even if genuine values are independent and can appeal directly to people, the reference to a coherent, convincing, objectively founded worldview is important when we decide on a canon. The transcendent yet universal justification of values will protect them from attack and help the intellectual elites to defend against these attacks. And because Advaita Vedanta is not a religion, does not presuppose faith, it makes this rationale acceptable to all humanity. It offers a real opportunity to establish a canon of values that transcends all cultures and creeds – a canon of values for the entire human family. With such a canon, it becomes possible for us as humanity to initiate the process of self-organization towards cooperation, compassion and beauty.


It is Our Duty to Rethink

 

Is it at all realistic to expect people to change their worldview, their self-image and, as a result, their behavior? Well, this has already happened several times in history. So far, these have been slow processes that were not consciously controlled. Today we are in a different situation: we have no time. If enough of those who have the greatest influence on people's thinking commit themselves to this task, they could generate enough momentum within years: scientists, artists, journalists, politicians, activists, opinion leaders ... This change simply needs a powerful push. It is a Herculean task at first, but later, when children grow up with new values and role models, with a changed understanding of the world, they will see this view of the world as natural.


We simply have no choice if we want to save nature, social cohesion, democracy, our Western culture and civilization. The transition to a sustainable, peaceful, harmonious world that guarantees the living system of our planet in the long term can only be solved at the level of consciousness: the consciousness of humanity as a whole. This is the reason why we should choose values such as respect, compassion, consideration and responsibility. Just as the individual plants and animals in the ecosystem of a forest have grown into a life-giving whole, humans must also bring about a new, life-supporting planetary whole at their own level of consciousness.


I only doubt that this task can be solved successfully if it is either described too generally or justified in a too particular way. We simply differ too much in how we justify our values and what place we give consciousness in our worldview. Advaita Vedanta has a clear definition of consciousness and derives from it a coherent worldview that encompasses everything, including nature. All agnostic and (with a little good will on the part of religious leaders) even all religious worldviews could be reflected in this worldview. Only if the rethinking is based on a coherent and conclusive worldview, only if it is also supported by scientists, only if it inspires people's minds and hearts, can the task succeed. Only if the values for a planetary, life promoting whole are justified transcendently, but not from the position of a religion or ideology, will they also withstand the attacks of the establishment, which profits from the exploitation of nature and people, and to which this establishment owes its position of power and wealth.


And that is my thesis. Vedanta led to a peaceful and sustainable civilization that lasted for many millennia, longer than any other.[2] Even though this civilization had some flaws in its practical implementation, we see them clearly today and can avoid them. As Advaita Vedanta, Vedanta provides an intellectual basis that has never been challenged and is appealing to objective, scientifically minded modern people. If we choose to rebuild our worldview on this basis, we can hope that the much-needed rethinking of people and, as a result, the rebuilding of our civilization can succeed.



[1] There are also other philosophical systems that originated in ancient India (including the schools of Buddhist philosophy already popular in the West) that could be included in this consideration. However, they all arose on the basis of Vedanta or in relation to it. Advaita Vedanta represents the most philosophically consistent view of Vedanta and also corresponds best to the scientifically influenced worldview of the Western world.

[2] Indian culture and civilization have grown up on the basis of the Vedas, of which Vedanta is a part. This sentence is therefore a simplification. Nevertheless, it is not wrong because the entire Indian culture implicitly contains the philosophical conclusions of Vedanta.









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