Knowing God — Comparing Platonists and Advaita Vedantins

I’ve written before about the interesting similarities between Platonism and the Advaita Vedanta; here’s more grist for the mill.

Andrew Louth writes about the Platonist conception of “knowing the Good”: “The Form of the Good is unknowable, and so, if the soul is to know it, it must in that act of knowing break through the normal limits of knowledge: it is in ecstasy that one knows the Unknowable. Such a connection is not merely implicit. Plato himself makes it in his Seventh Letter, when speaking of the ultimate knowledge, which is the goal of the philosophic quest: ‘for it does not admit at all of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden (exaiphnes), as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself’ (Ep. VII, 341 CD)” (Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, 13).

Francis Clooney writes about the relation between Upanishadic study and realization of Brahman in the Advaita tradition: “In neither Advaita nor yoga is realization caused by anything: twisting one’s body this way and that does not cause realization, words uttered or written on a page do not cause knowledge of Brahman. But in both, practices are essential to the achievement of what can never be the result of practices. If one were to despise bodies or to avoid texts because of some desire for a higher spiritual knowledge, one would be left with an undisciplined and unrealized desire; only through the physical and textual does one acquire a knowledge which is reducible to neither…It is a skill practiced and perfected over time. Nonetheless, the resultant realization is not temporal and is not merely the product of certain actions effected in a certain order” (Theology after Vedanta, 128-9).

The thought here, expressed by Plato and Shankara, separated by continents and centuries, is virtually identical: communion with ultimate reality happens only through and after a demanding apprenticeship in knowledge, but that practice is only a necessary condition for, and not a cause of, the sudden union of the soul with that Reality. In both cases, the language of “grace” is almost irresistible. And indeed, if we turned to Christian accounts of this same kind of experience — for instance, the one Augustine reported himself and his mother to have had at Ostia (cf. Conf. book 9) — that’s exactly what we would find…


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