What is a subject?

The basic axiom of existence

Author: Ronald Engert
Based on the definition of the subject, which is an eternal individual self in a loving relationship with Goddess-God, the relationships between human beings also reveal themselves, because every living being is always a subject. Through our conditionality by space-time we learn to respect the other as a subject instead of exploiting him as an object. This is what gives rise to true humanity and the qualification for enlightenment and perhaps the key to answering the question: What is a subject?.

Advaita and Bhakti

Dr. Andrea Gillert: Can we say that we as human beings are basically a subject in the sense of a truth that cannot be reduced any further?

Ronald Engert: A very beautiful question, which I think goes very much to the core of our existence, which is – you have said it – an irreducible quantity. If I ask the question ‘Who am I?’ and remove everything that are only temporary identifications – the material identifications, the labels that one sticks on oneself, the conventions, the attributions that one gets from the outside, for example ‘I am German, I am a man, I am white, I am such and such an age, I am a scientist’ – so if one gets to the bottom of that and reduces that further and further and asks ‘Who am I really?’, is there still an individual core left at the end, a subject, an I? This is a very deep question that is answered differently in different spiritual traditions.

In the Indian tradition of the Veda – that is the ancient yoga tradition and the Vedic scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita – there are two basic schools, advaita vedanta and bhakti vedanta. The advaita vedanta has become very well known in the West. It says that the individual ego is an illusion. We are in the end only one great entity, one great soul, brahman. The identifications we have – as ego, subject, separate individual – are an illusion. This separation from oneness, according to advaita vedanta, is the main cause of pain. The primal pain of our being is that we are no longer one with everything. This great oneness is also described as non-dual consciousness. I assume that this state exists. It is a certain state of consciousness in which this feeling of ‘I am somebody’ ceases. 

Besides advaita vedanta, there is also bhakti vedanta. Bhakti means love. Vedanta comes from veda anta, where veda means “knowledge” and anta means “end.” Vedanta is “the end of knowledge,” that is, the ultimate conclusion. What is the ultimate conclusion? In advaita vedanta it is the non-dual oneness a-dvaita (not two), and in bhakti vedanta it is bhakti – love of God, here meaning a particular form of love. There are about a hundred words for love in Sanskrit, all describing particular forms of love: love for particular entities, then particular types of love, and particular state forms, degrees of intensity, and so on. For love of God, for this object of love alone, there are quite a few terms. The object of bhakti vedanta is the eternal loving relationship of the soul to the supreme soul, to God.

In bhakti vedanta it is said that we are individual persons. Nityo nityanam cetanas cetananam is what it says in the Katha Upanishad: “We are all eternal persons, and God is the supreme eternal person.”

What is a subject’s relationship with Goddess-God

ANDREA: I’m completely with you there, I see it the same way. What you’re describing also already exists above, and it’s like a reflection of the cosmic order in miniature here on earth and within us. Who knows that it is not the same, that we give Goddess-God, as you said, the chance for the two of them to express themselves through us here, in this form, this name, this capacity for love that we can embody here on Earth.

RONALD: Yep, there are two variations here as well. In bhakti vedanta, there is the Vaishnava tradition and the Shiva tradition. Shiva and Vishnu are the two main major deities in Indian spirituality. From these come the words Vaishnavas and Shaivaites. The latter are the followers of Shiva, and the Vaishnavas are the followers of Vishnu. Both are bhakti traditions in which the personality of God is invoked and worshipped. Shiva and Vishnu are persons in the sense of bhakti, that is, beings with a form, names, characteristics, actions, and feelings.

For example, Shiva has a loincloth on, a crescent moon in his hair, a grayish skin color. He also always has his trident with him. This is usually understood as a mythological image, a myth or a fairy tale. Scientists don’t take it seriously. But this form has a deep meaning, namely each of these insignia, the gunas, the lilas, the paraphernalia – things like the trident, the clothes or the jewelry – says something.

As for Vishnu, the most important form of this god is Krishna. Krishna is blue and carries a flute. He has a peacock feather in his hair and a yellow robe. It occurred to me at some point that in the whole Indian heaven of gods, there is only one male deity who does not carry a weapon, and that is Krishna.

It says a lot when someone doesn’t carry a weapon. Krishna has a flute that he plays with, and he uses it to charm the gopis, the cowherd girls in the spiritual world, Goloka Vrindavan, to perform the rasa dance there, or the rasa-lila, as they call it in Sanskrit. Rasa, as I said, is the feeling or the taste. The rasa dance is the dance of the erotic sentiments of goddess-god. Rasa literally means ‘juice’. In theological meaning it describes an intense emotionality or mood of mind.

One thing is very unusual: I know of no other spiritual tradition in which God and Goddess appear so explicitly together. In fact, Krishna is accompanied by Radha, the goddess. She is still very unknown in the West. Radha is also called Radharani or Radhika. She is actually even more important than Krishna because she is the epitome of love. 

What is Subject

RONALD: Subjectivity is the basic axiom. Now, if I assume I am a subject – we have just discussed this possibility a little bit – then certain knowledge emerges about how a subject functions. With the mentioned structural features of characteristics, feelings, actions, names and forms. So far, people have not integrated this knowledge so well and cannot really perceive themselves as subjects. And, above all, they cannot perceive others as subjects. The objectification of the world is actually an attempt to dominate it.

We humans are like predators, running around looking at the other as a victim or as an object (even if it is the object of desire) we can take and use. This is the basic structure, that one does not perceive and recognize the other as a subject, as a sentient being with dignity and aliveness, with the desire for love and protection, with the desire for peace, for sad cit ananda. But these are the desires of the living being, because life wants to live, no one wants to die voluntarily, and no one wants to be the object of someone else. No one wants the other to incorporate him, eat him, flatten him, exploit him, use him, abuse him, mistreat him. Yet we see these bad behaviors so often in the world.

But when I finally experience myself as a subject, then I can also experience the other as a subject. I have this subject experience originally with God, in worship and relationship with Goddess-God. That is the primordial relationship. We humans have many relationships with each other. With our partner, with our children, maybe with a dog, some even with their car. But I can also have a relationship with God, and that is the primordial relationship, the matrix. The primordial correspondence, where I learn who I actually am, what my subjectivity is, what these feelings are that I feel in this relationship. 

The sense of the 3-D world

The whole society is in a negative, destructive mode because of this desubjectification. The theme is ancient. Whenever people wage war, the opponent has to be desubjectified, he is destroyed or at least subjugated. But we are evolving more and more towards ethical principle. I think that is our task in this 3-D world, in space and time: to learn to get along with each other. Everyone can’t be in the same place at the same time. We have to go around each other. If you are in my way now and I want to go straight ahead, then I have to go around you. That is already spatially impossible, that I can go through you.

That all makes sense, because that’s how I learn “Oh, there’s someone I have to be considerate of and somehow get along with.” I have to somehow get along with the other person. This counterpart is a subject that has needs and desires of its own, possibly even different from mine. I have to ask it: “Hey, who are you anyway and what do you want here? What do you need, what are your needs?” That’s how we have to work through until we become liberated beings, because actually it’s our liberation when we also consider other people and appreciate them as subjects, value them and recognize, “I recognize you!”

This is the prehistory with Adam and Eve: “And they knew each other”. We have to go through the Fall to come out the other end, where we are then no longer the children in Paradise, in the Kingdom of God, but adults. Then we are on a level with Goddess-God, because that is what they want from us. Then we have a purified judgment. They don’t want little children who are always whining or doing stupid things. Everyone is born at some point and has to go through these developmental processes. At some point, however, we should become reasonable and acknowledge our responsibility. Then maybe someday we will be like Goddess-God – when we have done all this. Right now, we’re like naughty children, or worse.

The interview was conducted by Dr. Andrea Gillert.

About the author

Portrait von Ronald EngertBorn in 1961, Ronald Engert studied German, Romance languages and literature, and philosophy, Indology and religious studies at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt/M. He co-founded the magazine Tattva Viveka in 1994 and has been publisher and editor-in-chief since 1996. In 2017, he received a Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Now in master’s studies. Author of “Good That I Exist. Diary of a Recovery” and “The Absolute Place. Philosophy of the Subject.”

Blog: www.ronaldengert.com

Journal: www.tattva.de 

This article was originally published on the German Homepage of Tattva Viveka: Was ist ein Subjekt?

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