Idealism and Pragmatism in Hinduism

Breath control

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay presents aspects of idealism and pragmatism in various philosophical systems of Hinduism

To put it in a simple way, idealism is the belief or the argument that for every idea or object in the world, there is a corresponding, perfect idea or object, which is not of this world. For example, idealists believe that there is a perfect world, a perfect God, a perfect mind, a perfect you, a perfect hearing or seeing, a perfect state of liberation, immortality, completeness, wellbeing or happiness or fulfillment, etc. Although I put the whole theory simply and precisely, idealism is difficult to understand because philosophers added many layers of complexity over the centuries, making it almost impossible for anyone to know what idealism really means and whether it has any value in an empirical world.

Ideas and thier source

The basis of idealism is the possibility of perfection of an idea or object or condition. An idea is an objectified or formulated thought or opinion. Ideas may arise from perception, cognition, experience or imagination. Now one of the questions which philosophers tried to explore from the earliest times has been whether ideas and their knowledge preexist in some form independent of the mind or whether they arise from the human mind due to cognition and have no independent existence of their own.

In Hinduism, there is a line thought, which is similar to that of Plato that all thoughts and ideas preexist in the consciousness of Brahman, the supreme being or reality, and we merely receive them according to our knowledge, perfection, evolution and level of intelligence. It further suggests that while we may cognize some of those ideas and concepts, some may permanently remain beyond our realm of knowing for various reasons. Hindu scriptures affirm that we become aware of things and realities according to the degree of purity and intelligence. In the purest mind, knowledge becomes self-evident and there will be no limit for such knowing, as it happens by itself without any dependence upon external organs or entities. Only a few ever manage to reach the highest realms of transcendental knowledge, which is not available to human cognition and exists only in the consciousness of those who reach the most perfect ideal condition of self-knowledge.

This argument is not accepted by the rationalists and pragmatists and the Buddhist mentalists (Vijnanavadins) who believe that ideas and the knowledge pertaining to them do not exist independent of the mind. Consciousness or the mind is their base, and they must exist in it or arise from it only. Without mind participating in that process, none can ever perceive them or know them. Thus, according to them the reality which we experience is made up of ideas which arise in our consciousness due to our interaction with the world through our minds and senses. We become consciously aware of them due perception, apprehension, cognition or imagination. They have no independent existence beyond the mind or the senses. Therefore, whatever can be known is known only through the faculties of the mind and not otherwise.

Ideals and Idealism

An ideal is a perfected or improvised idea, standard, image, opinion or abstraction which we hold as flawless, blemishless, whole, exemplary or not of this world. While ideas exist in our experiential reality as well as consciousness, ideals seem to exist only in our consciousness as possible or achievable or imaginary realities, holding the rather difficult promise that if you try hard enough you may find them to be true in an ideal situation or state of awareness. For example, man is an idea. An enlightened, self-realized person is an ideal. The image of God is an idea. The eternal, infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful and all-pervading supreme being is an ideal. Suffering is an idea; permanent liberation (moksha) is an ideal.

One of the debates that has never been satisfactorily settled is whether ideals are improvised versions of the ideas and objects, and whether they have an existence of their own in the experiential reality. It is very difficult to grasp the numerous ideas and theories that exist about idealism since there is a lot of ambiguity about them. To put it simply, idealism is a set of ideals which serve as a point of reference for the human mind to measure its own experience, ability, potency, progress, perfection or excellence against them. Some ideals may also help you make sense of the world or its present condition. Ideals are unattainable because they do not exist in the experiential world except as ideas or possibilities. Therefore, pragmatists believe that an ideal person always chases unattainable goals. Although idealism is not rooted in our experiential or cognitive reality and cannot be found in tangible or objectified form, it still serves an important role in inspiring the humanity and guiding them towards difficult but attainable goals, perfections and accomplishments.

Is Hinduism idealistic or pragmatic?

It is said that of the six schools of Hindu philosophy, only the nondualistic (Advaita) schools of Vedanta are idealistic because they refuse to acknowledge any ideal or reality in the cognizable world. They hold that Brahman is the one and only ideal, who represents or contains all either ideals that are known and unknown. For them Brahman represents the supreme reality, the highest ideal, and the whole creation is an illusion or a temporary formation. They do not view Brahman as a deity or a being in the objective sense, but the ideal state of pure and infinite consciousness, which is eternal, indestructible, fixed, highest, unchangeable, and without a second. It represents every ideal and notion of perfection, auspiciousness and completeness, which are unattainable in our perceptual reality or worldly life. They are even unattainable to the human mind since they are transcendental and beyond the mind and the senses.

The semi-dualistic and dualistic schools of Vedanta such as Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita contain both idealistic and empirical notions about Brahman and creation. They hold that while Brahman is the ideal state of pure consciousness, he also manifests in creation as numerous deities who are real, eternal and fixed. They can be experienced through human consciousness and realized within oneself or in the perceptual field as existential realities. Thus, they strike a balance between idealism and pragmatism, acknowledging the reality that we experience as well as the reality or the ideal state that possibly exists in the realm of the self beyond our perceptions and cognition.

The other schools of Hinduism such as Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya and Yoga are all dualistic. However, as S. Radhakrishnan said in his book, An Idealist View of Life, they “are not in serious disagreement with the fundamental intention of the idealist tradition of the Upanisads, viz. the inseparability of the highest value from the truly real.” They also contain idealistic and abstract notions such as eternal souls or liberation as in case of Samkhya Yoga, although for them such notions are well within the field of human awareness and understanding or the experiential reality, which can be brought into our cognitive experience through transformative practices such as the classical yoga system of Patanjali. In the same book whcih was quoted before, S. Radhakrishnan said, “In a sense, as Hegel said, all philosophy is idealistic. In contrasting appearance and reality, fact and truth, existence and essence, it is led to admit an ideal world beyond the phenomenal. Even absolute materialism is idealism.”

Idealism in Hinduism

In Hinduism we find a fine mixture of idealism and pragmatism. Its essential purpose is to help human beings attain the most ideal and perfect state of supreme reality, known in the Vedas as Brahman. It contains many transcendental ideals, or the realities which are not of this world. They exist by themselves and are independent of human consciousness, cognition and recognition. The knowledge of them, which is unattainable through the human mind, is considered true knowledge. It is known to human beings through self-knowing, or revelation or subtle cognition or hearing (shruti). They collectively represent the supreme reality or state (sat) of Brahman which is pure, eternal, indestructible, permanent, infinite and all pervading. Human beings can enter that state and experience those ideals, truths, principles or realities through transcendence only. None can cognize them in the wakeful or dream states or through direct apprehension (pratyaksha) in which the mind and senses participate. However, one can make sense of them or objectify them in relative terms with the help of symbols, word descriptions, comparison or inference.

The highest ideals or supreme realities which are found in the Vedas and other scriptures are numerous. The most important ones are, Atman, Brahman, the infinite supreme reality (sat), pure and infinite consciousness, Purusha (the Cosmic Being), Isvara, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Para Shakti, Saraswathi, Lakshmi, Uma, guru, incarnation, liberation, suddha sattva, Dharma, the Vedas, sat, truthfulness, nonviolence, renunciation, detachment, sameness, equanimity, samadhi, primal mother, ananda (eternal and infinite bliss of the self), immortal heaven, supreme goal (parandhama), spiritual perfection (siddhi), enlightenment, self-knowledge, pure intelligence, transcendence, divine qualities, austerity (tapas), etc. The scope of this article does not permit me to explain each of these concepts. However, I have already explained each of them in several articles which are available on this website. You may find them through site search.

Pragmatism in Hinduism

In Hinduism, creation or the objective reality is viewed differently from its source, the creator God (karta). While Advaita holds the empiricial world as a projection or illusion which emanates from the supreme reality of Brahman either by itself or through an active and intelligent agency, other schools do not accept it as an illusion. They acknowledge it as real, which may be dependent or independent from God and which can be known or perceived or cognized through the subtle or gross mind and senses. Most of them also view the existential reality as problematic since it is a source of delusion, ignorance and suffering. However, they do not ignore or undermine the importance of knowing it and dealing with it to ensure one’s continuity and progress.

The pragmatism of Hinduism is represented by several ideals and ideas which point to the conditions and limitations to which we are subject. They arise in the mind from experience (anubhava) or perception or imagination or understanding or interaction with the objective world. Most of them represent the objective or the perceptual reality, which we can cognize or understand. Here, we are not entering the debate to decide whether they exist without the mind or because of the mind. Suffice to say that in Hinduism they represent the reality to which all beings are subject and which are inherent to creation by design or by the will of the creator. They all have a purpose in ensuring the orderly progression of the world as well as the liberation of the beings.

Some of those ideals and ideas which represent our empirical reality are creation, impurities, afflictions (klesa), modifications of the mind (vrittis), instability, impermanence, sorrow (dukkha), pleasure (sukha), dualities (dvanda) such as day and night or heat and cold, attraction and aversion (raga and dvesha), desires and attachments, egoism (aham), delusion or confusion of the mind, Nature (prakriti), finite realities (tattvas) that make up the mind and body, the elements (bhutas), the triple modes or gunas, living beings (jivas), matter, energy, stars and planets, time and divisions of time, birth, death, aging, sickness, creation, preservation, destruction, renewal and regeneration of life, samsara, bondage, gross body, maya, rites, rituals and sacrifices, time, yoga, spiritual sadhana, obstacles, karma, conflict between good and evil, sin, duties and obligations, impermanence, modifications, the senses, the mind, the intelligence, egoism, rebirth, caste system, the purusharthas (the aims of life), memorial knowledge (smriti), pramanas (proofs), worldly life, etc.


It is difficult to say whether Hinduism is a purely idealistic belief system or a pragmatic. Perhaps, the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. It acknowledges the reality or the illusion or the predicament in which beings are caught and offers possibilities that are not of this world. Although those possibilities fall in the realm of idealism Hinduism promises that when you reach there by whatever means, you will know them to be not idealistic or unrealistic at all, but an integral part of your consciousness and awareness as cognizable realities. By asserting that the transcendental reality of the self can be known by the self only, it affirms that idealism can be realized by the self in its ideal and purest state. The problem is that you will not know it unless you reach that state and know it by yourself.

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