The Identity of Man with the World and its Soul in Hinduism (adapted from a reprint of Spinoza and Buddha, Visions of a Dead God, by S.M. Melamed, Chicago 1933)
What Spinoza called substance the ancient Hindu thinkers called Atman. While Spinoza’s substance never underwent any changes, Atman shows many stages of development. Originally it meant the cosmic ego, which later vanished, leaving only indeterminate, infinite, and inarticulate substance. From this cosmic principle the Hindu sought to deduce the world. This deduction seemed to be the more necessary since this is an articulate world, full of words, expressions, and thoughts, while Atman is indeterminate and inarticulate. This chasm between Atman and the world the Hindu bridged with Brahman, the holy word, accompanying the sacrificial rites. Brahman, or the logos, became the second cosmic force, and then united with Atman to form one cosmic principle. Both, as a oneness, represent the physical and the logical principle of the world.
Just as Spinoza called thinking the son of God, so did the ancient Hindus regard Brahman, the logical principle, as the first-born in this world. In this Atman-Brahman idea, ancient Hindu thought found its kindling-point and anchor ground. It, too, is no more a Deity in the theological meaning of the term than is Spinoza’s Deus. It is a mystical cosmic principle, a dead God. It does not demand that man pray to, adore, or venerate it. It does not pretend to be man’s teacher and guide. Atman-Brahman means ‘I am the all’, ‘I am the cosmos’, and is expressed in the formula ‘Tat tvam asi’, ‘Thou art that’. In this recognition man loses the feeling of limitation and finiteness, and feels himself to be part of the infinite whole, a link in the infinite chain. He is at one with the world and with God, and hence need not face them in opposition. There is no inside or outside, no subject or object. The world is a oneness which manifests itself in variety. None of the parts is isolated from the whole. God’s relationship to the world is identical with [its] inner ground and outer manifestation.
Atman-Brahman is in the final analysis the identity of man with the world and its soul. It is often referred to in the Upanishads as Karya Brahman, the nature of Brahman, or what Spinoza would call natura naturans, as distinguished from Karana Brahman, or natura naturata. This Brahman has all the properties of Spinoza’s substance and is the true hen kai pan [One and All]. It is the infinite in all things finite, and the eternal in all things fugitive. It is the ultimate and highest reality.
This conception presupposes a type of knowledge which cannot possibly be empirical in nature. The senses cannot possibly furnish us with the truth of the absolute. Empiric knowledge is only fragmentary in character. Only knowledge of the whole, which is created intuitively, can furnish us with truth. Only intuitive knowledge makes the unheard become heard, the unperceived perceived, and the unknown known. This form of knowledge also enables man to grasp the highest reality, frees him from passion and suffering, and unites his soul with eternity. It is man’s greatest spiritual treasure. This theory of knowledge is common to all mysticism, including Spinozism.