Science and philosophy both seek certitude. Each in its own way attempts to interpret the world in undeniable
The history of European or Western science and philosophy is of a roughly linear progression from ignorance or
doubt toward more clearly defined states. By contrast, Indian thought has followed a cyclic or circular pattern. Various systems
of complete visions or darshanas have existed from very early on, but over time most of those systems degenerated into agglomerations
of faith, confusion or superstition. Periodically, great thinkers have been able to restore the meaning of some of those systems
by restating them in terms of their own era. Such a process is known as revaluation, by which value is restored to a vision
from which all meaning has been leached out.
Narayana Guru was one of the great revaluators of India's Vedantic wisdom of the twentieth century. His disciple
Nataraja Guru, with an extensive grounding in both Western and Eastern science and philosophy, became his expositor, enthusiastically
applying the Guru's wisdom to the modern world, where it can be seen as encompassing numerous lines of thought.
The modern mind has been weaned on wisdom presented in simplified and easily digested language, which is fine
as far as it goes. Nataraja Guru is not part of that movement, however. His aim was to complete and fulfill the historical
trends in philosophy, and the vision he imbibed from Narayana Guru does not comfortably fit into simple terminology. It requires
substantial effort on the part of the reader. Nataraja Guru leaves it up to the individual whether to appreciate what he says
or not, refusing to draw attention to conclusions he considers obvious. Guru and disciple are to him equal partners in the
learning process, the former striving to express truth in ever more perfect terms, while the latter works equally diligently
to bring the words to life in his or her own mind.
Since many people wonder why they should bother with such a taxing philosophy, let's turn first to the Guru's
defense of it:
The question that a modern man will naturally ask about this taking refuge in such subtleties like "the meaning of
meaning" for proving the reality of the Absolute would be: Why take so much trouble when the visible, demonstrable, practical
world in which we live is sufficient for man for all ordinary purposes?
This would be quite germane, if bread here was all that we needed for life. Man, however, does not live by bread alone.
He craves for freedom too, and as Homo sapiens he is a thinking animal. This means that he must solve problems big or small
to fulfill his life's purpose. Speculation inevitably steps into the breach.
Philosophy would be superfluous if building bridges or developing the land for gaining bread were all that man needed.
Man wants to live in security, free from fear. Fear of calamities, avoidable or inevitable, comes from various sources. Doubts
from within cause discontent in each person. The mystery of life itself causes alternate fear or wonder in all normal men
who do not willfully live in a fool's paradise, whether they are considered primitive or civilized, however much the latter
may deny it in their pride. Wars and pestilences, famines and genocides due to fanaticisms or idolatries, need effective remedies
which wisdom alone can give. Truth must make man free. (Vedanta Revalued and Restated, Ch. 4.)
Nataraja Guru was a master wordsmith, his speech a whirling symphony of interwoven ideas. It takes more than
a little patience to learn to follow the music of it, but the vast terrain that opens up to view amply rewards the effort
made. For his is that rarest of creatures: a fully formed philosophy.
Nataraja Guru scorned what he called half-baked philosophy. He felt that most people made do with unquestioned
beliefs that would not stand up to unbiased scrutiny. Such poorly understood opinions are the seedbed of unhappiness, often
leading to violence. He never lost sight of the idea that philosophy must bring happiness or it had no value whatsoever. He
felt that Vedanta properly understood produces peace and joy without limit, as should any full-fledged system of thought.
One might initially be tempted to give up the inquiry altogether when confronted with Nataraja Guru's welter
of words, unless convinced in advance of the superlative importance of their content. His insights provide access to the heart
of any and all matters, leading to wholesale liberation from the bondage of incomplete or partial perspectives. To put it
in a nutshell, the Guru's philosophy reveals a structural key to apprehending the absolute norm in any situation. His complex
thought-structures are actually an integral part of his yogic wisdom discipline. As he sums up in the very last chapter, "The
practical or beneficial service to which the scheme could be put by thinkers or writers is finally the only criterion of its
Despite appearances, all (or nearly all) of Nataraja Guru's sentences can be decoded on a careful second or third
reading. Often there is an initial sense of bafflement as the train of thought appears to have wandered out of sight. But
it's still there, clothed in the dazzling verbal cloak of many colors of the Guru's inimitable style. By taking the time to
sort out the clauses and catch the rhythm, the reader will begin to be amused rather than baffled, and will eventually find
the style extremely precise and revealing. As an editor, I can attest that it is nearly impossible to change even a single
word without disrupting the meaning.
Since all is provisional within maya or manifestation, Nataraja Guru is relentless in his use of conditional
tenses, usually using "would be" or "might be" when the rest of us would say "is." His reversal
of clauses may initially cause consternation, but the point is to counteract the habitual linear tendency of ordinary word
usage. The flow of thought is reversed, twisted and ornamented like the development of a theme in music. It's a dynamic part
of the presentation, dialectics in action. The reader must keep in mind the exhortation of the I Ching: perseverance furthers.
Like the crosshairs in a spotting scope, a structurally valid norm provides a reference to which all aspects
of the situation can be referred. An accurately determined normative notion therefore allows the objective to be seen as it
is, and not merely from one or another relative perspective. Lacking those crosshairs, a relativistic outlook displaces what
is under consideration in the direction of the prejudice with which it is applied, and so misses the mark. Understood in this
way, a normative notion of the Absolute is the most essential element in a scientifically balanced point of view.
The Absolute is the ultimate meaning contained in any system. Such meaning imparts value to all relative levels
in respect to it, in the same way the trunk of a tree supports and nourishes the branches. In Chapter 6 of Philosophy of a
Guru, Nataraja Guru describes the comparative value of the Absolute and the relative:
A mathematically understandable schematic universe where thoughts and their linguistic expression overlap or coincide,
as when names and forms converge when we say "rose" and visualize it, is at the core of the notion of the Absolute,
when everything gross or inert and in reality extraneous to the Absolute, compromising or hiding it through degrees of opacity
or ignorance, is shorn from its pure, luminous and transparent nature. The veil can be thickly or thinly laid on but it is
the degree of veiling that makes for all the gradations of apparent manifestation which are, in fact, extraneous to the notion
of the Absolute as such.
The Guru spoke passionately of structuralism, in part because he strongly believed a pictorial approach to spirituality
or reality could free humans from the veiling generated by wordy religion or philosophy. Not just any picture, certainly,
but a well-organized, balanced pictorial structure with the potential to incorporate everything is the means to transcend
the bondage of partial understanding.
The fault of descriptive verbiage is that its linear approach can never quite arrive at totality. The infinite
is not reached by numerical increments, but by an all-encompassing, intuitive comprehension. The Absolute must be grasped
as a whole.
A key idea to keep in mind here is that any standpoint that has an opposite cannot be the Absolute. Structuralism
helps to identify opposing factors, which can then be discarded. In other words, structuralism is a method to envision the
Every interpretation posits a particular static framework by which the non-static Absolute is viewed at that
particular moment. All frames are necessarily limited in this way; oddly, the mathematical measurement of this limitation
is well known and is expressed in Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Henri Bergson attempted to overcome this seemingly insuperable
barrier through an act of intuition that leaves all frames of reference behind. "The true mystic just opens his heart
to the onrushing wave," is his instruction, providing a link between the highest expressions of Western philosophy and
Vedantic wisdom. The Guru elaborates on this same realization by saying:
The Absolute has to have a living content, without which it is nothing more than a word without meaning in life. The content
is the resultant of the meeting, from two opposing sides, as it were, of physical and metaphysical factors, both reducible
in terms of intuition into a common homogeneity. When so reduced into unitive terms there will be a mutual transparency and
participation between matter and mind in a neutral matrix with a constant osmotic interchange, like respiration mentioned
in many of the Upanishads.
Action and inaction meet in such an alternating osmotic interchange that is both inter-subjective and trans-physical.
This grand osmosis, which includes the macro- and microcosms at once within consciousness, collective or individual, yields
peace and joy without limit. Such are some of the high claims of Vedanta. (Vedanta Revalued and Restated, Ch. 12)
The Guru adds that the process "involves neither positive effort nor negative passivity to attain."
Nataraja Guru occasionally gets sidetracked by his desire for the beauty and harmony of Vedanta to be recognized
by modern scientists and philosophers. There is an element almost of defensiveness, as if he is acutely aware of the disinterest
of the thinkers of his day. Since these books were written, philosophy has largely removed its blinders in respect to pure
Vedanta, and the Guru would find a much more receptive audience today.
Be that as it may, his point is well taken that skepticism is as much an a priori belief as is faith, and a fair-minded
scientist must strike a balance between them. It is very difficult to prove something is impossible; our doubts most often
spring from simple assumptions rather than rigorous proof. Referring to the impact of the wonder experienced in arriving at
a valid norm of mental orientation, the Guru says:
The correct focus is the one that knocks down and stuns the onlooker to an utter forgetfulness of his individuality. He
then experiences union with the Absolute--an experience "beyond all thought or word" as the Upanishads prefer to
put it in the mildest of terms. There is nothing humanly impossible here, as moderns empirically-minded or conditioned might
seem to think. If such a vision is the prejudice of the believer, the rejection of the same is open to a similar charge of
scepticism from the opposite pole of the same knowledge situation. To keep the middle or neutral ground is what lends scientific
status to such matters. A scientist holds the balance between scepticism and belief. (Vedanta Revalued and Restated, Ch. 6)
Nataraja Guru's contention that the West bears a bias against the idea of the Absolute held over from the days
of the Inquisition is well taken. He adroitly identifies the absolute element in a broad segment of western philosophy, much
of which styles itself anti-absolutist or relativist because of this bias.
The term relativity is itself misleading. By incorporating all relative factors into one overarching perspective
the aim is to arrive at the Absolute via a unified field. Thus relativity embraces the Absolute, while absolutist attitudes
paradoxically tend to become mired in parochialism, as the various totalitarian systems of the past and present attest all
Actually, being "scientific" is no guarantee of a normative or balanced orientation to life. Examples
abound of prejudicially biased experimentation, to the point where science itself has for a long time been aware of the pervasive
effects of pre-established expectations, and takes steps for their elimination. Bias is relatively easy to detect when we
look back in history, but is more elusive when dealing with the present. The deconstruction movement is aimed at unearthing
this built-in bias, with the discomfiting discovery that in most cases after subtracting prejudice from a field there is not
much of anything of substance left in it.
While even more elusive to uncover than prejudice, any integral philosophy will have at its core an assumption
of irrefutable truth on which the rest hinges. Although named differently by different thinkers, this bedrock assumption is
none other than the ubiquitous Absolute itself. Thus the Guru feels it is high time to abandon the bias against the Absolute
as a last clinging tendril of the Inquisition.
The danger inherent in latent bias is well expressed by the Guru when speaking of Hegel, whose philosophy he
Here his pan-Germanic "will to power" becomes already evident. This is the factor that warped and distorted
his approach to absolutism, as we have already said. His approach needs axiological reorientation so that the pure creativity
of the Absolute may not give justification for partial egoistic distortions of the will and its miscarriage into undesirable
and disastrous channels, which it did, as later history records. The ego in man is an ever-present danger which will distort
any normative notion and bend it to its own prejudices. Only on the soil of absolute detachment and dispassionateness can
the right kind of absolutism flourish, as history and individual lives have amply shown. (Search for a Norm in Western Thought,
There are a few ideas peculiar to the Guru it will be helpful to be familiar with ahead of time.
Often the Guru would begin a discourse by drawing a vertical and a horizontal line within a diamond lozenge and
labeling their intercept with an O. This was the most basic version of his structural scheme of correlation. Under the heading
The Absolute Independent of all Relative Reference in Chapter 6 of Vedanta Revalued and Restated there is an explanation of
Nataraja Guru's use of the Cartesian coordinates to express truth, mentation and values. This may well be considered his most
important single contribution to philosophy.
Briefly, the horizontal and vertical axes are used as a schematic representation of dialectical polarities such
as physical and metaphysical, concrete and abstract, observables and calculables, space and time, name and form, and so on.
Near the end of Search for a Norm in Western Thought, Nataraja Guru provides a broad definition: "What is given to the
senses objectively is the horizontal, and what is given to the self as 'I' or 'my' or 'mine' belongs to the vertical."
He further points out:
Each such pair can be said to belong together to a psychophysical grade or order of its own. Contrast, contradiction or
contrariety belong to each ambivalent, reciprocal or dichotomous couple or set of poles in the total knowledge situation,
with degrees of duality regulating their bipolarity. When there is full accentuation of the differentiating principle, we
live in a horizontal world of values, with plus and minus separating each pair of the same grade. When, on the other hand,
the polarity is less accentuated, contradiction tends to cancel differences between pairs of counterparts by one term canceling
out the other. The former has a horizontal or arithmetical status, while the latter has a vertical or geometrical status.
(Vedanta Revalued and Restated, Ch. 10)
By viewing polarities as being united by an axis of relative values, a harmony may be struck between them. Such
equipoise does nothing less than reveal the Absolute.
Much of this thought structure springs from dialectics, equivalent to the Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita. The Guru
quotes Hegel in Chapter 9 of The Search for a Norm in Western Thought: "Every concept is rational, is absolutely opposed
to another, and is united in comprehension together with its opposites. This is the definition of dialectic." Further,
in Nataraja Guru's words, dialectics consists of "equating counterparts, which give us certitude by revealing that one
set of facts, truths or realities are the same as another, thus disclosing some fundamental relational aspect having significance
in human life."
Dialectics has a specific place in the overall scheme:
This kind of reasoning, the dialectical, which takes us to the threshold of higher idealistic values in life is the third
and the last step in philosophical methodology taken as a whole. The laws of nature refer to the world of existence. Rules
of thought, whether axiomatic or based on postulates, refer to the world of subsistence. The third step of reasoning lives
and has its being in the pure domain of human values, those referring to the True, the Good or the Beautiful, which are values
in life and thus belong to the domain of axiology.
The experimental method suits existential aspects of the Absolute, the logical suits the subsistential and the dialectical
suits the value aspects of the Absolute. Interest in the physical world gives place in the second stage of ascent to logical
psychology or phenomenology, where ratiocination plays its part. Finally we ascend higher into the third aspect of the Absolute
where value relations hold good and the instrument or methodology used is that of dialectics. (Search for a Norm in Western
Thought, Ch. 5)
The overwhelming experience of wonder or beauty literally springs from a normalized attitude of mind, often called
samadhi or sameness. How this plays out in real life is the story of the spiritual search itself:
If we add that higher and higher bipolar interests which bind the Self with the non-Self can be imagined, some having
proportionately more horizontal values implied in them than others, and which can rise vertically to the limits of purity
in the Absolute itself with fully conscious affiliation to absolutist values, then the modus of spiritual progress will be
fully outlined. (Philosophy of a Guru, Ch. 5)
Nataraja Guru uses methodology, epistemology and axiology as English equivalents to sat, chit and ananda, or
existence, knowledge, and the parameters of value. While he is trying to find equivalents in western terminology here, for
most readers the Sanskrit terms are actually more familiar.
Polyvalence refers to the many-sidedness of possible meanings that can arise through exploding previous understandings.
And lastly, the reader should try not to miss the sly humor with which the Guru expresses many of his ideas.
Speaking of how the world of horizontal necessity interferes with the quest for truth, he says:
Utilitarian interests in social life are many at any given time. From the refrigerator to the television set, we can think
of various utilities or luxuries between which a pragmatist can be torn every minute in his life by rival and multiple attractions
and repulsions. (Philosophy of a Guru, Ch. 8)
The ecstatic wonder and quiet humor of the vision Nataraja Guru consistently strove to impart is beautifully
expressed by Long Chen Pa in his Natural Freedom of Mind: "Since everything is but an apparition, perfect in being what
it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may well burst out in laughter."
Portland, Oregon, 2004