Dialectical Spiritualism: Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, Part 2


Conversations wtih HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, excerpted from  Dialectical Spiritualism: A Vedic View of Western Philosophy.

Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855)

Syamasundara dasa: Kierkegaard observed three basic stages in a typical life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. In the aesthetic stage, a person may be either a hedonist in search of pleasure or romantic love, or an intellectual interested in philosophical speculation. Kierkegaard says that both are uncommitted because they do not have specific goals.

Srila Prabhupada: How can a philosopher have no ultimate goal?

Syamasundara dasa: On this platform, they are only mental speculators. They become bored, and their lives become empty.

Srila Prabhupada: This is the result of impersonalism and voidism. Impersonalists or voidists are not necessarily overcome by despair, but they are often disgusted with their present lives because they do not know the aim of life. When one has no goal, he becomes disappointed in life, and that is the cause of despair.

Syamasundara dasa: Kierkegaard sees men as indulging in sense gratification and mental speculation in order to cover up their basic despair.

Srila Prabhupada: In the material world, when a man's business fails, or when he experiences some great shock, he takes to intoxication in order to forget.

Syamasundara dasa: Kierkegaard suggests that this despair may serve as the first stepping stone toward self-realization. Understanding that the aesthetic life ends in despair, a person abandons it for the next stage.

Srila Prabhupada: We agree with this. According to the Vedanta-sutra, people begin to inquire about self-realization after they have worked very hard and still have not attained life's goal. At this point, people begin to think, "What is the purpose of life?" That is called brahma-jijnasa, inquiry into the ultimate truth of life. Such an inquiry is natural, and necessary for further development.

Syamasundara dasa: In order to attain self-realization, we must face certain choices. For Kierkegaard, life is an "either/or" decision. Realizing this, we advance to the ethical stage. The emphasis here is on action.

Srila Prabhupada: First of all, we must understand how action or activity comes about. What is the origin of action? Modem science is interested in describing or witnessing life's activities, and scientists claim that life develops automatically due to nature's interactions, but from Bhagavad-gita we understand that behind all these material activities, there is God. Material nature is a machine working under God's directions. Vedanta sutra explains that the Absolute Truth is that from which all things emanate, and Srimad-Bhagavatam discusses the nature of that origin. First, we must understand that the origin is consciousness. Life does not arise from bones and stones. Once we understand that the creation does not take place automatically, we must admit that there is a creator.

Syamasundara dasa: At the ethical stage, man may perform pious works or humanitarian deeds, and Kierkegaard sees this as a step in the right direction toward authentic selfhood. By making the proper ethical decisions, we can approach self-awareness and the religious stage.

Srila Prabhupada: But what is the ultimate decision? Why do people become moral? Simply to feed the poor and become humanitarians?

Syamasundara dasa: For Kierkegaard, it does not much matter what we choose, but the fact that we make the choice. Through choosing, we discover our own integrity.

Srila Prabhupada: But it is not clear how a person makes the right decisions. One man may choose to slaughter, and another may choose to help others. A man may give charity to others, and at the same time encourage killing animals. What are the ethics involved? On the one hand, Vivekananda was advocating feeding the poor, but on the other hand he was suggesting feeding them with Mother Kali's prasadam, with bulls. So what kind of ethics are these? What is the value of ethics if they are based on imperfect knowledge?

Syamasundara dasa: Kierkegaard would say that by turning inward, we would make the proper decision. This entails self-knowledge and self-commitment.

Srila Prabhupada: But what is that inwardness? One may simply think, "I will protect my brother by killing another." What are the ethics involved? We must have some standard by which to make the right decision.

Syamasundara dasa: His standard would be, "Choose thyself."

Srila Prabhupada: But without knowing yourself, how can you make a choice? And how can you know yourself unless you go to one who knows things as they are? Most people think that they are the body. What kind of self-knowledge is this? If one identifies with the body, he is no better than an ass. Then what is the value of his philosophy?

yasyatma-buddhih kunape tridhatuke 
sva-dhih kalatradisu bhauma ijya-dhih 
yat-tirtha-buddhih salile na karhicij 
janesv abhijnesu sa eva go-kharah

"A human being who identifies this body made of three elements with his self, who considers the by-products of the body to be his kinsmen, who considers the land of birth worshipable, and who goes to the places of pilgrimage simply to take a bath rather than meet men of transcendental knowledge there, is to be considered like an ass or cow." (Bhag. 10. 84. 13)

Syamasundara dasa: Kierkegaard emphasizes the very act of deciding, not the decision.

Srila Prabhupada: But unless we know the aim of life, how can we make the right decision? It is childish to say that we become enlightened by choosing either this or that. A child chooses to play sometimes with one toy and sometimes with another, but where is his enlightenment? Animals also make their decisions. The ass decides to eat a morsel of grass and work all day carrying loads. If the decision is not important, why not decide for unrestricted sense gratification?