The Almora Swami
Philosophy in General and our Failings in Particular
Theosophist, July, 1883
Editorial Comments and Notes by H.P.B. on a letter from the Swami of Almora.
In our February number (see page 118) prefacing the valuable though somewhat hazy contribution by the venerable Swami of Almora on “Advaita Philosophy,” we wrote the following editorial lines:
“As the subjoined letter comes from such a learned source, we do not feel justified in commenting upon it editorially, our personal knowledge of the Advaita doctrine being unquestionably very meagre when contrasted with that of a Paramahansa—hence the footnotes by our learned brother, T. Subba Row, to whom we turned over the MS. for reply.
This notice, we believe, was plain enough to screen us thereafter from any such personal remarks as are now flung at our head by the holy ascetic of Almora in the paper that follows. Some of those rhetorical blossoms having been left by us for the purpose of enlivening the otherwise too monotonous field of his philosophical subject, the reader may judge for himself. We say “some,” for, having to satisfy all our contributors, and our space being limited, we cannot consent to crowd out more interesting matter to make room for just 15 1/2 columns of quotations profusely mixed with reprimands and flings of any correspondent, even though the latter be as we learn from his own words, “a modest hermit of the jungle.” Therefore, with all our profound respect for our opponent, we had to curtail his too long paper considerably. We propose, however, to show him his chief mistake, and thus to blunt a few of the most pointed shafts intended to pierce through the points of the editorial harness.
If, after the humble confession quoted above from our February number, the editorial reply that followed another paper from the same ascetic, namely, “In Re-Advaita Philosophy,” in the March Number—was still taken as emanating from one who had just confessed her incompetency to hold a disputation with the learned Swami upon Advaita tenets—the fault is not ours. This error is the more strange since the Swami had been clearly warned that his points would be disputed and questions answered in future by our brother Mr. T. Subba Row, as learned in Advaita philosophy as in the esotericism of the sacred books of the East. Therefore we had a right to expect that the Paramahansa would have remembered that he was ventilating his not over-kind remarks upon the wrong person, since we had nothing to do personally with the replies. Thus the disagreement upon various topics in general, and the abstruse tenets of esoteric Advaita Philosophy especially, between the “Almora Swami” and Mr. T. Subba Row, can in no way, or with any degree of justice, be laid by the former at the door of either the “foreigners who have come to India for knowledge,” nor of “Western Theosophy”; for, in this particular case he has found an opponent (quite as learned, we love to think, as himself) in one of his own race and country—a real Advaitee Brahmin. To take therefore to task Theosophy for it or the conductor of this magazine, expressing dissatisfaction in such very strong terms, does not show either that philosophical equanimity, or tact and discrimination that might be expected from one who has devoted his life exclusively to meditation and the Yoga Philosophy. If pardonable in a person who has to lead that sort of life which in the words of Mr. Max Müller, quoted by the “Almora Swami”—(as an additional hint and a hit we suppose)—a life “with telegrams, letters, newspapers, reviews, pamphlets, and books”—it is quite unpardonable in a holy ascetic, who is never troubled with anything of the sort and gets, as we suspect, even his appropriate quotations from European authors ready-made for him by his amanuenses and friends. But, since the article is addressed in the form of a letter to the editor, the humble individual who holds this office hastens to assure the venerable Swami that beyond their appalling length, his letters have never given the said editor one moment of “annoyance and trouble” as he seems to imagine.
In reference to another personal taunt, we agree with him. It is more than likely that some (not all by any means) Vedantists, such as the modern “Aryas” and some Dvaitees and Visishtadvaitees—after “hailing Western Theosophy with joy,” have ended by comparing it “to the mountain that gave birth to a mouse”—the disenchantment being due to many and various reasons upon which it is needless to enter at present. We can only hope and trust that the lofty Almorian mountain, chosen by our venerable friend as the seat of his contemplation, may not bring forth some day, for India, any worse animal than the humble “black mouse.” True we have come to learn in this country, and we have learned a good deal already. One fact, among several others, namely, that the learned ascetics of modern India have widely shot off from the original mark when compared with the Rishis of old. Spinoza is quoted against us in his definition of methods of investigation. Our saintly critic fears that his venerable friends have followed the first (or vulgar) method. The proof which with him goes far to justify his “fear,” rests chiefly upon a fallacy and mistake of ours—one happily held by us in common with nearly all the great men of science in Europe, viz., our ignorant claim that matter is indestructible, hence eternal. We will not understand his ideas, he says, because being fond of absurdities, “our own absurdity would be exposed.” If so, we prefer indeed our absurd belief in the indestructibility of matter to any scientific opinion upholding the contrary, submitting cheerfully, in this case, “the weakness of our understanding to be laughed at”—even by an ascetic in “the state of Nirvikalpa.”
We feel very grateful to the good Swami for his explanation of “Pravana” and other kindred words. Mr. Subba Row will no doubt profit by, and answer them. Personally, however, we respectfully decline to be taught the noble science by any other man, however learned he may be, than him who has originally undertaken the task—namely, our own Master: yet, as many of our readers may well benefit by the controversy, we will, with his permission, leave the arena for the present to Mr. Subba Row, a far abler controversialist than we can ever hope to become.1
1. Following the letter from the Swami of Almora, with H.P.B.’s notes, was a response article by Subba Row entitled “Prakriti and Purusha.”
[The following are letter extracts from the Swami of Almora, with notes by H.P.B.]
Those who seek to find fault with us and become hostile to us, and, we think, prejudiced and stubborn, and we desire them to acquire simplicity of heart and an unbiased mind to enable them to understand us thoroughly.1
1. Quite so; and therefore, this kind desire is fully reciprocated.
Moreover, by laya, we never meant annihilation, as is assumed by you. It is your own version that the word laya means “a state of absolute dissolution, annihilation of all substance,2 etc.”
2. The proof-reader pleads guilty of an omission. The noun (substance) ought to have been preceded by the verb—differentiated.
In some of the former numbers of The Theosophist the word laya was explained by you as merging, and in this number you give another meaning to it.3
3. No “merging” or absorption can take place without dissolution, and an absolute annihilation of the previous form. The lump of sugar thrown into a cup of liquid must be dissolved and its form annihilated before it can be said to have been absorbed by, and in, the liquid. It is a correlation like any other in chemistry. Yet indestructible matter can as in the case of sugar, or any other chemical element, be recalled to life and even to its previous form. The molecule that cannot be divided by any physical means is divided by the universal solvent and resolved into something else. Hence—it is, for the time being, at least, annihilated in its form. This is simply a war on words.
It is odd that our phrase “present developed form” has cost you more than a column to comment on it.4
[The comment in question was from the pen of T. Subba Row, not H.P.B.]
4. It is still odder that a few footnotes should have cost the venerable Paramahansa over 15 columns of ill disguised abuse, out of which number three or four columns are given. That which was suppressed may be judged by what remains.
But, perhaps, nominal yogis, who are disturbed in head and heart, and cannot tranquilize and compose themselves for Nirvikalpa5 ecstasy, will not be able to comprehend us, nor also those who confound Prakriti with Purusha, or matter with spirit.6
5. Surely our respected correspondent cannot mean to convey the idea that in penning this answer he had “composed” himself into the state of Nirvikalpa; unless we take Monier Williams’ definition of the term and bear in mind that it is a state “destitute of all reflection” (See Indian Wisdom, p. 122, footnote 2).
6. To this kind thrust we answer that we have never confounded Prakriti with Purusha any more than we have confused the North with the South Pole. As both Poles belong to the same and one earth, so spirit and matter, or Purusha and Prakriti are the two ends that lose themselves in the eternity of unmanifested and the cycles of manifested matter. But like some of our distinguished Western metaphysicians, our opponent seems to regard matter and energy as two distinct things, whereas the Esoteric doctrine recognizes but one substratum for everything visible as in visible—“Purush-Prakriti” and vice versa. Moreover, we may remind the good Swami, that one need not be a yogi to be a good occultist, nor are there many yogis in India who know anything of real occult sciences.
Now according to our knowledge the inner man means the double, i.e., the Taijasa, Prajña being the original or first, and the Annamaya or the Visva, the third.7
7. In such case, our respected critic ought to criticize and correct Professor Monier Williams and other Sanskritists, who regard Anna-Maya as the “covering supported by food, i.e., the corporeal form or gross body” calling it the fourth, while we name it as the first sheath or Kośa. (See page 123 of Indian Wisdom.)
To this third, we applied the term treble, and we are justified in doing so, in the same way as you apply double to the Taijasa—and we do not see any harm in taking the gross one as third; but those who are fond of absurdities will not understand our ideas.8
8. We leave it to our readers to judge which is the most absurd—to consider our physical body as the first, or to call it, as the Swami does the treble or the third; though of course there is “no harm” in either.
Why, because their own absurdity will be exposed. We beg your pardon for this outspokenness.9
9. We willingly forgive the impolite remark under its garb of “outspokenness.” We beg our respected correspondent to bear in mind though that it is one thing to be “outspoken,” and quite another one to be rude.
How can you, being a practical theosophist, say carelessly that, a mortal wound may be inflicted upon the inner man, etc., etc., when in reality the outer one was the victim. You evade our question in an offhand manner by saying that the question is not whether the double murdered the double or treble. Now we particularly begged you to remove our doubts by establishing this fact scientifically.10
10. It is precisely because we claim to know something of “practical” Occultism in addition to being a Theosophist that we answer without in the least “evading the question” that a mortal wound may be inflicted “not only upon, but also by one” inner man upon another. This is the A.B.C. of esoteric mesmerism. The wound is inflicted by neither a real dagger nor a hand of flesh, bones, and blood, but simply by—Will. It is the intense will of the “Gospoja” that guided the astral or inner body, the Mayavi-rupa of Frozya. It is the passively obedient action of the latter’s “double” that scanning space and material obstacles, followed the “trail” of, and found, the real murderers. It is again that Will shaped by the incessant thought of the revenger, that inflicted the internal wounds which though unable to kill or even to hurt the inner man, yet by reaction of the interior physical body proved mortal to the latter. If the fluid of the mesmerizer can cure, it can also kill. And now we have “established the fact as scientifically”—as science, which generally disbelieves in and rejects such mesmeric phenomena, will permit. For those who believe in, and know something of, mesmerism, this will be plain. As to those who deny it the explanation will appear to them as absurd as any other psychological claim: as much so as the claims of Yogism with its beatitudes of Samadhi and other states, for the matter of that.
. . . may we be permitted to ask an answer to our question—Is spirit and matter the same thing? or whether Prakriti, Shakti, and Spirit are the same thing? Unless Prakriti be the same with spirit, how can the former be eternal, since two eternals cannot exist at the same time, and the belief in two eternals is against the fundamental truths of the Advaita Philosophy,11 as embodied in the aphorism ek meva dwitiyam. And matter has attributes . . . the spirit has none. Matter is dead (jad), spirit is living (chaitanya); matter is temporary and subject to change, and spirit is eternal; matter is partial, and spirit is universal.12
11. This is precisely the question we have been asking; and also the reason why, knowing that matter is indestructible, as also spirit or rather energy—we say with all the esoteric Advaitees that matter and spirit are one.
12. See M. Subba Row’s reply. While we mean cosmic indestructible matter, the Swami speaks of objective and differentiated matter!
Why do you not call a piece of wood or stone spirit?13
13. Because it is not usual to call them by such a name. Nevertheless, we maintain that there is in a piece of wood or a stone as much of latent spirit or life as there is in a week-old human foetus.
Can you prove the existence of matter in sound sleep?14
14. See M. T. Subba Row’s reply.
If matter is merely a manifestation of spirit, why call it by the false name of matter instead of its own name spirit?15
15. For the same good reason that we call a chair by its “false” name of chair instead of calling it by that of the “oak” or any other wood of which it was made.
It is not our object, even if we could, to cite all the Aryan books, but we would desire you and your readers to read in continuation of our quotations all the numbers of the sixth Volume of 1882 of the Suddarshana Chintanika which will show that not only Sankaracharya, but also almost all the commentators and reformers and other great Rishis, not to speak of the Upanishads, have rejected the theory of the matter being as eternal as spirit, by which you are misled.16
16. We thank the good Swami for his advice. We have read all the monthly numbers of the Suddarshana Chintanika with great attention until lately, and advocated it zealously both in America and upon our arrival here. Notwithstanding all that Sankaracharya may be made to say in the above named studied, we claim to know that he said nothing of the kind, not at any rate in the sense conveyed by our opponent. We leave the question to be settled between him and Mr. Subba Row.
The esteemed Editor of The Theosophist seems to follow the doctrine of Madhyamika, i.e., middle class Buddhists, or those who are followers of Sugata’s doctrines of whom we shall speak afterwards.17
17. The “esteemed Editor” follows but the doctrines of Esoteric Buddhism, which are nearly identical with those of the esoteric Advaitees—the true followers of Sankaracharya.
The Boudhas believe that pure Nirvana alone exists. Nirvana is a transcendental condition. It is infinitude. It is not subject to being acted upon. Nothing excels it. The great Rishis who are free from all desire, describe it to be so. Besides the Nirvana, karma or activity is also eternal.18
18. And if “activity is also eternal,” then how can our philosophical antagonist maintain that matter is not so? Can activity (in the usual sense of the word), whether physical or mental, manifest itself or exist without, or outside of, matter, or to be plainer—outside of any one of its seven states? And how about his contradicting himself? “Activity also eternal.” Then there are after all two eternals, how? And he just saying that “two eternals cannot exist at the same time.”
Aided by ignorance, activity produces five elements and develops worldliness. . . . virtue and contemplation destroy the power of ignorance. Activity thus becomes impotent and Nirvana is next attained to.19
19. We beg to draw our correspondent’s attention to the fact that he is again contradicting himself. Or is it the “Boudhas”? But a few lines above he declares “activity . . . eternal,” and now he makes it “impotent”—in other words, kills and annihilates that which is eternal!
We now come to your footnote. “Asat or Prakriti existed first, etc.” A brief reply to this is given somewhere in the History of Philosophy. “The pagans said ex-nihilo nihil. The Christian father altered it to ex-nihilo-omnia.” Still let us see what our Aryan Rishis say. We call your attention to the verses from the second Book called Panch Mahabhuta Viveka of Panchadasi, which speaks in accordance with Upanishads20 . . . You will please understand the verses according to their commentary, now very ably translated into Hindu.
20. The reader is invited to turn to the Sanskrit verses of the above named work, as the additional quotations would again require at least two columns. Our magazine avoids as much as possible the publication of anything that is not original matter.
As you have purposely come to India for true esoteric knowledge, we always pray for your success, and entreat you to understand us a little hermitically.21
21. See Mr. T. Subba Row’s reply. We thank again our kind adviser for the interest he displays in our spiritual welfare, and refer him if he desires to learn the cause of our refusal to our note at the end of his latter. We can also assure him that we have never and nowhere, called Laya “a protest of religion.”
Below are the few verses on Laya Prakarana from Siva Sanhita, which it is hoped will show you how you mistake our meaning.22
22. Reader referred to the abovementioned work.
Purusha, according to Upanishads, is Svayam-Prakaśa, i.e., self-manifesting; therefore cannot be dependent on Prakriti only, for its manifestation. No Advaitee will take Brahman with Prakriti or gun or duality. Their Brahman is Purusha beyond the Prakriti, or in other words, Akshara. Latent spirit is never referred to as Maha-Iśvara. Please read the verse quoted below, which distinctly states that Maha-Iśvara is the spirit beyond Prakriti when the latter is layed [laya-ed?].23
23. We beg to be explained the hidden meaning of this really incomprehensible sentence. “Latent spirit is never referred to as Maha Iśvara,” (a term we, at any rate, never used), while the Sanskrit verse “states that Maha Iśvara is the spirit beyond Prakriti, when the latter is layed [laya-ed?].” Now does the learned Swami mean to say that the spirit beyond differentiated matter is active? It cannot mean anything else, for otherwise the two assumptions would contradict each other most absurdly and would be suicidal; and if he does mean that which he says, viz., that Maha Iśvara (if the latter is identified here with Parabrahma), the spirit beyond Prakriti becomes active since it is called Maha Iśvara, which it would not be were it latent—then, we are sorry to say to the learned Paramahansa that he does not know what he is talking about. He is no Esoteric Advaitee and—we close the discussion as becoming quite useless.
As the subject is very serious and important, we entreat you to discuss the point calmly and dispassionately; without this mood of mind, one cannot penetrate into the esoteric philosophy of India. Your present opinions are not esoteric, they are rather exoteric.
Editor’s Note. [HPB]—We sincerely regret that such should be the opinion of the Swami of Almora. But since we know neither himself, nor the religion or school of philosophy he belongs to, we may perhaps repeat with him: “It does not, however, matter much” whether he agrees with us or not for practical (esoteric and initiated) Vedantists have found our opinions correct and in perfect harmony with their own. There are nearly as many interpretations of the esoteric meaning of certain words we have to use as there are yogis and sannyasis of various sects in India. A Viśishtadvaita yogi will contend the correctness of the meaning as given by an Advaitee-ascetic, and a devotee of Chaitanya or a Bhakti-yogi will never accept the interpretation of the Vedas or Bhagavadgita made by a Brahmo or an Arya. Thus truth is everywhere and may be said to be nowhere. For us it is absolutely and solely in the Arhat esoteric doctrines; and—we remain firm in our conviction, all our opponents being quite as free as ourselves to adhere by their own views. We have met in the N. W. P. with an erudite Pundit, a renowned Sanskritist, the most learned authority with, and at the head of the Vaishnavas, and recognized as such by many others; and he wanted us to believe that the culmination of “Raj-yoga” was the practical and absolute powers it conferred upon the Raj-yogi over all the female sex in creation!! Shall we believe every exponent of the Vedas, the Śastri of every sect, only because he may be an authority to those who belong to the same denomination with him, or shall we make a judicious selection, following but the dictates of our reason, which tells us that he is most right and nearer to truth, who diverges the less from logic and—Science? The occult philosophy we study uses precisely that method of investigation which is termed by Spinoza the “scientific method.” It starts from, and proceeds only on “principles clearly defined and accurately known,” and is therefore “the only one” which can lead to true knowledge. Therefore, by this philosophy, and no other shall we abide. And now we must leave the venerable Swami and his views to the dissecting knife of Mr. T. Subba Row.
[Here followed a reply article entitled “Prakriti and Purusha” by T. Subba Row.]