Tall Tales of the Lonely Void


Void

Let’s think about nothing. It’s a little different from not thinking about anything. If we don’t think about anything then we actually just give the mind free reign to wander without constraint. The mind is always active so not thinking about anything really means not directing thought to a particular object, not thinking about anything in particular.

On the other hand, thinking about nothing means making ‘nothing’ the object of one’s meditation. This carries an exceptionally high degree of difficulty precisely because a void offers nothing to direct one’s thoughts to. In one sense, it’s impossible to think about nothing because there’s nothing to think about: in a void, qualities are conspicuous by their absence. A void can’t feel anything because there is nothing in a void that can generate feelings or be affected by anything. And a void can’t do anything because it has neither the power to act nor any mechanism for action. A void is neither sentient nor is it an automaton.

Curiously, the absence of qualities, energies, and instruments in a void does not always stop people, even scholars of yoga philosophy, from assigning qualities to that which is, by definition, quality-less.

A case in point: I recently heard a talk about divine love in the Bhagavad Gita given by a reputable scholar who has spent the better part of a lifetime studying, writing about, and contemplating Vedantic philosophy. At the core of his presentation was the proposition that avyakta, an unmanifest void, became lonely, split into two parts – male and female – and, from the incestuous union of the One with itself, vyakta – the manifest reality of our experience, with its multiplicity of individual beings and forms – came into existence and made our participation in divine love possible.

When an acknowledged authority on the Bhagavad Gita couches such propositions in the flowery language that is the hallmark of academic virtuosity, it’s easy to overlook what ought to be an obvious flaw in the premise of this proposition, namely, that a void does not get lonely. People may experience loneliness but a void does not experience loneliness or, for that matter, anything. The absence of experience just goes with the territory of being a void.

Even if we stipulate that a void can be lonely (though there is no reason why we should), one may reasonably ask how ‘nothing’ would have volition and agency in the matter of solving the problem of its inexplicable loneliness. Acts of will are performed by people, not by voids. And the means to accomplish the fulfillment of a need or a desire requires a vehicle by which the goal is pursued and attained. A void has neither the power to perform an action nor any mechanisms through which actions might be performed.

There’s an oft-quoted verse in the Upanisads that says ‘from fullness, fullness comes.” It does not say ‘from emptiness, fullness comes.” At first glance both concepts may seem a little opaque, but while the former may sound mysterious the latter just doesn’t make sense: you can’t get something from nothing, can’t give what you don’t have. If forms, qualities, feelings, and actions are present in the world of our experience then they must first be present in the source of the world.

Of course, a modern person may say that the world has no source, that the world just happens all by itself. But a Vedantic scholar with faith in their area of expertise can’t take that position: the first two aphorisms of the Vedanta Sutra declare the existence of an Absolute Truth (Brahman) from which the world proceeds (janmadyasya yatha). One may further argue that if we stipulate a supreme creator of the world then such a being might have the power to create something from nothing; that God can do the impossible. That might be a viable paradox unless you define God as the nothing from which something comes. If God creates something from nothing then there is a distinction between the creator and the nothing from which that something is created. Hence, creating something from nothing is really a transformation of energies, which implies a source of energies, namely, the creator.

So if we are to propose that the unmanifest reality is in possession of the desire for the experience of love and, absent such experience, is subject to feelings of loneliness, then the attribute of person-ness must already be present in the unmanifest reality because feelings like desire and loneliness are attributes of a person. And the idea that the person-ness of the many is derived from the person-ness of the One, that our propensity for love and our susceptibility to loneliness are originally part of the fullness from which fullness comes, makes more sense than the notion that person-ness emanates from a void.

It’s not just a matter of my personal opinion: There’s a verse from the Bhagavad Gita that offers a rather disparaging appraisal of people who think that form is a product of formlessness. And that verse specifically uses the same words that the Vedantic scholar used in his presentation: avyakta and vyakta.

But wait: there’s more! There’s a subsequent verse that directly refutes the premise of the scholars argument. The Gita is very consistent in its emphasis on devotional service to the Supreme Person, it blatantly discourages attempts to pursue realization of the impersonal aspect of the Supreme, and offers plenty of encouragement to understand the transcendental nature of the form of the Absolute Truth. In the Gita’s teachings, notions about the formless aspect of the Absolute being a higher realization than that of the transcendental form of the Supreme Person are clearly rendered null and void.

10 Comments

  1. Posted July 11, 2013 at 7:34 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I especially like your chosen image for this blog—a black square. Your more perceptive readers will no doubt notice its qualities of blackness and squareness and not mistake it for a void.

  2. Posted July 11, 2013 at 7:44 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Nice one. I’m trying hard to find a hole in your argument just for the sake of contraiety, but no luck. Of course, someone might well tell you that void is beyond words and that you are trying to eff the ineffable. Eff that, I say.

    • Posted July 11, 2013 at 10:12 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks, TP. Is “contraiety” a real word? I’m so using that the next time I play Scrabble!

      • Posted July 13, 2013 at 10:59 PM | Permalink

        I misspelled it; it’s “contrariety.” The extra “r” means more points for you!

  3. ekendradasa
    Posted July 12, 2013 at 6:57 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I tried to order a void on Amazon but they said they wouldn’t sell me nothing. Another company said they would, but when it never arrived I called UPS. They said it was neither here nor there.

  4. Trevor Shaw
    Posted September 7, 2013 at 6:48 PM | Permalink | Reply

    the mistake is in treating the word void as a synonym for nothing…this are uniquely different concepts…nothing is a mere thought experiment for us to be able to conceptualize the obvious somethings…void is an infinite source containing all person-ness and everything else that is was or will manifest, whether defined as illusoryor real is irrelevant…good job though, love your thoughts, especially your newest on the bobble head

    • Posted September 10, 2013 at 9:11 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for your comment and kind appraisal of my writing, Trevor. The reason I treat the word void as a synonym for nothing is because, according to the dictionary, that’s what it is :

      void – adjective: completely empty; – noun: a completely empty space.

      A completely empty space has nothing in it. If a space contains all person-ness or anything else then it is, by definition, no longer a void; it’s a vessel. To assign mystical attributes to a word in such a way as to change its meaning or to insist that something can come from nothing is to deny meaning and defy logic. A mystical philosophy that posits a transcendental person as the source of person-ness does neither. That’s why I prefer it over self-contradictory philosophies like impersonalism and voidism: I find personalism to be more elegant in its explanations of causality.

      Thanks again – Hkd

  5. corrie
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 4:41 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Void & Empty are not really the same…for a jar can be empty ‘space’ it still has space within it, along with the potential of a void….The opposite of Void in dictionaries gives ‘enough’, ‘adequate’, ‘full’, though it does not say with what, thus what exactly is absent in the void? everything and nothing of course…which funny enough are only incompetent words to describe that which cannot be named, which is Voldemort, which means really the Void is Harry Potters nemesis (which is the aspect of himself). Fun game.

    I was with you all the way to the third to last paragraph to the end, “if we were to propose..” Does the rest of your comments require acceptance of that proposal to make the B.Gita legitimate? Cause, from how I translate what you say about the B.Gita and if the B.Gita is the authority of existence is ‘true’, I can only postulate that the authors ran into the similar obstacles of mental masturbation as modern scholars & yogis who are bumping into & trying to explain the void, or nothingness/everythingness. That is, eventually there are no words to explain and thus the need to make up a new paradigm or directions or koans to explain the unexplainable to soothe or redirect minds that play or perhaps indulge in thought that deeply (instead of being), to answer that which is unanswerable -hence the constant contradictions (classical play with duality) even in the B.Gita?

    • Posted September 19, 2013 at 3:16 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Corrie:

      Thanks once again for your comments and questions. Actually, ‘void’ and ‘empty’ really are, in fact, the same thing. A jar is not a void; it’s a vessel with the potential to contain something. A jar may be void of content in some theoretical, abstract way, but the jar and the absence of content within the jar are two different things.

      Everything is absent in a void; that’s what makes it a void. The mystification of a term, such as saying ‘everything is present in a void’, is only necessary for one engaged in philosophical contortionism or evasive maneuvers. It creates the appearance of replacing a contradiction with a paradox but it only succeeds in an artificial imposition of meaning on meaninglessness and arbitrarily turns sense into nonsense. The plea that language is inadequate to describe the ineffable is the last defense of one who adheres to a philosophy that defies coherent articulation.

      The legitimacy of the Bhagavad Gita rests, in my opinion, on the legitimacy of the speaker of Bhagavad Gita, Krishna. If we accept Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead then we can accept the Gita as a legitimate treatise on transcendental knowledge. If not, then the Gita is just another product of human speculation. My use of the phrase ‘if we were to propose’ is merely a device to set up an ‘if this / then that’ train of logical analysis.

      I don’t think anyone should waste their time trying to explain a void: there’s nothing to explain. There are no contradictions in the Bhagavad Gita and the author is not trying to explain a void. In fact, the author is making it unmistakably clear that, in his opinion, there is no such thing as a void. Brahman is not a void; it’s the impersonal aspect of the Absolute Reality that constitutes the ground of all being. In other words, Brahman is everything. Everything is not the same as the absence of anything. Brahman has no material qualities and we tend to think of qualities as being material by definition; we don’t take into account the possible existence of spiritual qualities. Therefore we look at Brahman and see the absence of material qualities and mistake it for a void.

      The Gita posits a transcendental duality: all individual conscious beings (persons) exist eternally as individual conscious beings (BG 2.12) and there is one individual conscious being, Krishna, who is the source (BG 10.8, among others) and shelter (BG 18.66, among others) of all other beings. Hence Krishna gives us a perfectly coherent explanation about that which is easily explained using simple language. The mystification of the Gita is an evasive maneuver and the thing being evaded is the self-evident conclusion of the Gita, namely, that surrender to Krishna is the perfection of yoga.

      I hope this clarifies a few things that may not have been clear to you. Hope you’re well – Hkd

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