Summary: This is a comprehensive essay on idealism in Hinduism from various perspectives, with specific reference to Vedanta.
One of the fundamental questions which attracted the attention of many philosophers since the earliest times has been whether there is a basis for the reality that we experience. In other words, whether it is unique and original in itself, independent of outside causes, or a copy, effect, model, version, reflection or projection of a preexisting reality, cause, design, force or archetype. If it is so, what it can be and whether it is part of the same reality or different from it and whether it can be discerned with our faculties.
Secondly, whether the reality which surrounds us is just a product of random and spontaneous causes, without any particular purpose or aim, and if there is such an aim whether it can rationally be discerned, explained and validated with our minds, senses and intelligence. Thirdly whether we play any role with our knowledge, minds, senses, actions and intelligence in creating, altering, influencing or sustaining that reality, apart from any other cause which we may not discern. In short, who is behind all this or what is behind all this or is there anyone or anything behind all this? These are important existential questions to which we still do not have valid answers. Scholars and academicians continue to speculate upon them.
Centuries ago Plato came up with the rudimentary idea that everything existed in the universe as an archetypal idea, quality or essence, which may variously appear in different objects according to the situation, condition, need or circumstance. Thus, for example, the same archetypal beauty or the essence of beauty may manifest in a flower or a person or an object in different ways, producing a diversity of beautifulness, each unique in its own way, but having the essence of beauty.
Plato’s ideas generated a lot of speculation in ancient Greece as well as in today’s world. In the last two centuries various versions and interpretations of idealism came into existence due to the efforts of various scholars and philosophers such as Berkeley, Hume, Kant, etc.1. The Western notions of idealism revolve around the notion that mind or “something mental” is the foundation or the basis of reality, and since mind is the source, all knowledge must be considered in some sense a form of self-knowledge2.
Idealism is an important aspect of Hinduism also. However, the idealism of Hinduism is not the same as the idealism of the Western philosophies. According to Hinduism, by idealism we mean that the reality which we experience preexists in creation as ideas, ideals, potencies and possibilities in the realm of God who is their source and support. They are not products of the mind 3or the actions of the beings upon earth, since both are effects of other causes. They may manifest in the mind before they manifest in the physical realm, but their ultimate source is non-mental or transcendental, but in any case, certainly immaterial. Since the mind is a recipient of ideas from the universe, it may appear to be the source, but the real source or the ultimate source of all knowledge, ideas and ideals is God himself. In the following discussion, we examine the various aspects of idealism in Hinduism from different perspectives and according to various schools of philosophy4.