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The problem of one and many is one of the basic problems of philosophy, both eastern and western. It can be ascertained that the problem is as old as philosophy itself. Philosophy came into existence through formulating and discussing this particular problem of one and many. The most ancient minds had the fine intuition that there lies a unitary law hidden behind the perceived reality, which appeared to them chaotic and pluralistic. The Vedas talked about the rta, an order, regularity and rationality of the otherwise unconnected flow of events and existence of things (anrta). The Vedic search for ‘tad Ekam’ was another attempt to unite the multiplicity of being into one. The early philosophers of Greece desired to discover the unity of objects and events in the form of an initial arch. Heraclitus called it the Logos. The Upanishadic concept of Brahman at its early stage tried to become the singular substratum of the multiplicity of existence. However, many among the ancient philosophers ended in finding out more than one substance as the first and foremost foundation of the multifarious objects and things. The five natural elements and then, innumerable particles named atoms were apprehended as the locus standi units of the entire existence. This trend in philosophical discourse came to be known as pluralism. These two opposing philosophical traditions, namely, the philosophy of oneness and that of maniness, in alliance with various other philosophical problems keyed, the entire course of history of philosophy.

The problem assumed various historical forms in various ages and in different schools of philosophy and religion. The schools which emphasised the holistic approach and unitary vision of reality came to be called as monism and their theistic version as monotheism. In contrast to this, the schools of thought stressing the diversity and multiplicity of reality acquired the name of pluralism and polytheism. In Indian context, advaita Vedanta is believed to be the most radical form of monism. And the Vaisesika and Jaina atomism represent the best examples of pluralistic perception.

The medieval and modern European thought, too, recited the binary of one and many in the form of realism and nominalism, and then, in sensualism and rationalism. The problem has its contemporary modes, too, in the controversies between analytical philosophy and structuralism.

The problem of one and many, it must be mentioned, intersects with many more philosophical problems which are in no way less important in philosophy. The problem of reality and appearance, the whole and parts, substances and modes, cause and effect, identity and difference, synthesis and analysis are a few of them which are inseparably linked with the problem of one and many.

The present article is an attempt to elucidate the problem of one and many as it has been apprehended in Sikh philosophy. In this attempt, we undertake to situate the Sikh version of the problem in the context of Indian philosophy.

Philosophy Of Many
Let us start from the other side and first discuss the philosophy of many. Indian philosophical systems advocating the substantial status of many are often denoted as realistic systems. This is due to their apparent nearness to the common-sense viewpoint about reality and their acceptance of the empirical reality as the ultimate. Jadunath Sinha enumerates the schools of pluralism under the heading of Indian Realism.1 T.R.V. Murti confirms, “All realistic systems exhibit certain common characteristics which cannot fail to strike us. They are, one and all, pluralistic, and this is so not by any accident ......... Their objective ultimates are plural, many.”2

The classical representative of pluralism in Indian philosophy is the Nyaya Vaisesika. It conceives the reality through various independent categories such as Dravya, Guna, Karma, Samanya, Visesa and Samavaya. The Dravyas themselves are again many in number, namely, earth, water, fire, air, ether, time, space, soul and mind. Although some of the categories among these are intended to represent the commonalities and generalities (Samanya) existing among things, the category of Visesa makes Vaisesika into an inevitable philosophy of maniness. Visesas represent the specific nature of a thing distinguishable from any other object. The specific nature (Visesa) of a thing is conditioned by the infinitesimal atoms out of which that particular thing is made up. Thus, Visesas constitute the ultimate differences of atoms existing independently.3 Nyaya Vaisesika expounds the diversity of things through its category of Visesa. And this diversity is again due to the specific differences amongst the atoms themselves. The differences existing in atoms are regarded eternal and ultimate.4

Nyaya Vaisesika handles the problem of cause and effect, too, in its pluralistic spirit. This principle gets the name asatkaryavada, meaning absence of any internal relationship between the cause and effect. According to this viewpoint, the effect, as contrasted with the cause, is something altogether new. Every effect is a fresh beginning (arambha), it does not have any relation with the cause.5

Vaisesika regards the souls as many. It construes consciousness as an aggregate of physical elements. As such, the problem of cause is the weakest point in the philosophy of many. According to it, “The whole cannot be perceived apart from its parts. The whole exists in its parts. Therefore, there is no difference between the whole and its parts. The whole is nothing but an aggregate of parts ......... Further, the perception of unity is a mere fiction of imagination... The whole is a mere collection of atoms (anusansayamatra). It is not a composite whole.”6

The atomistic perception of reality is characteristic not only of Nyaya Vaisesika, but also of Jainism and Samkhya. T.R.V. Murti identifies the Jaina doctrine of Anekantavada as another major version of Indian pluralism. He asserts, “the pluralistic tendency is nowhere more thoroughgoing or consistent than in the Anekantavada of the Jainas.”7

The limitations of the philosophy of many are crystal clear. It is aimed at explaining the reality from the empirically perceived physical elements and their mechanical collections. Such an interpretation inevitably reduces the human life into physical elements, and the physical world into lifeless matter (jada). Even a materialistic philosopher of our time feels dissatisfied that “For them, the matter is intrusically static.”8 No interrelationship, not to speak of unity, is identifiable among the manifold objects or among the manifold souls. The Nyaya Vaisesika perception of the whole as mere collection or summation of parts is a philosophical failure. It shows only the inability of the philosophy of many to explain the phenomenon of the whole. Sociologically, the philosophy of many occupies the individualistic position. Not to speak of ideational unity of being, even material unity of being is not assumed by the philosophy of many. It prefers an absolutist methodology. Identity with itself, and so, difference with the other are the aspects which have been absolutised in this type of philosophy. To conclude this discussion, it has to be stated that the philosophy of many, due to its pre-occupation with the physical world and positivistic approach, badly accommodates the social, ethical and spiritual values and ideals.

Philosophy Of One
In contrast to the pluralistic schools of thought, one finds the Advaita Vedanta at the other end in the spectrum of Indian Philosophical thought. “The absolutistic systems — Vedanta, Madhyamika and Vijnanavada — conceive reality as approached only through negation or the cancellation of the World-illusion ......... One thing they all have in common. They deny multiplicity. (The multiple) Phenomena are illusions, and reality is apprehended through negation, cancellation.”9

Advaita asserts that Brahman is the only reality without the second. It rejects every kind of multiplicity as illusion. “Unity alone is the highest truth and multiplicity is conjured up by false ignorance.”10 Brahman is not something which is immanent in the multiple existence, but it is beyond multiplicity, “complete transcendence”, “in contrast and opposition to the many.”11 Rudolf Otto rightly calls it “Aloneness.” “The realm of the many is now wholly evil in contrast to the realm of the one — it is mithyajnana.”12

The Advaitin find it impossible to combine one and many, because such a combination is seen by him as contradictory and illogical. T.M.P. Mahadevan summarises this position, “How could one and the same thing possess contradictory attributes ? ”13 Sankara calls the knowledge which combines together one and many as “indefinite”, “doubtful” and “indeterminate.”14 Thus, we find Sankara desiring to reach a doubtless, determinate and definite knowledge as it was sought by Descartes a few centuries later. Sankara wants a type of knowledge which rigorously satisfies the laws of formal logic.

There are some striking similarities between the philosophies of one and many. Both these philosophies rigorously follow methodological absolutism. That is, the moment of identity is overstressed in the one, and the moment of difference is overstressed in the other. Secondly, both the schools reject the idea of immanence, and thus, refuse themselves to relate with the other. Thirdly, both Advaita and Vaisesika are reluctant to discuss moral and religious problems. To quote P.N. Srinivasachair, a scholar of Bhedabheda philosophy, “Absolute identity as well as absolute difference is a mere abstraction devoid of meaning, and both are subversive of moral and religious needs.”15 Fourthly, both Vaisesika and Advaita repudiate the relation between cause and effect. Vaisesika openly advocates Asatharyavada, where as Sankara’s Advaita distorts Satkaryavada with its conception of Vivarta. If we conceive Satkaryavada as a doctrine relating positively one phenomenon with the other, then both the philosophies of one and many work against the conception of relatedness. And finally, both these philosophies are metaphysical in the sense of one-sidedness and anti-dialectical. Both the philosophies are trapped by the limitations of formal logic, each in its own way. Vaisesika ends as a pure empiricism, while Advaita ends as pure transcendentalism. They do not explore the possibility for a dialogue with the other.

Sikhism And The Problem Of One And Many
In a sense, the philosophical context of Sikhism is the absolutised philosophy of one on the one hand, and that of many on the other. It is the reality dichotomised by pluralism and monism from which Sikhism assumes its beginning. Sikhism intends to unite them.

The Sikh Mul Mantra starts with the numeral one — IK — indicating and uncompromisingly stressing the oneness of reality. But, the reality now comprises both one and many. “Wonderful Thy creatures, wonderful their species. Wonderful their forms, wonderful their colours”,16 asserts Guru Nanak. The many is seen as the plural manifestation of the one. Not only the one, but also the many has been declared holy. “Holy is the Lord, ever holy, holy all created forms” (S.G.G.S., p. 1131),17 says Guru Amar Das. Guru Ram Das utters, “Himself is the Lord unattached, Himself also of varied manifestations” (S.G.G.S., p. 726). In Sukhmani, Guru Arjun affirms, “Varied are His forms, varied His hues : With varied disguises, yet is His state one and sole. With varied ways has He created the expanse of existence —” (S.G.G.S., p. 284). The Sikh Gurus do not recognise two realities — the reality of one and of many. The dualism has been transcended. “In the earth and sky, see I not duality manifest. In all humanity is manifest the same Divine Light ......... In all worlds is operative God’s sole Ordinance : From the One has arisen all creation”, declares Guru Nanak (S.G.G.S., p. 223).

The synthetic spirit of Sikhism is astounding. The one becomes the principle of ideational unity of the multiple existence. “Should brass, gold or iron be broken, the smith in fire fuses it together” (S.G.G.S., p. 143). Guru Arjun says, “Wherever I look, His sole presence I behold; Himself in each being immanent. Himself the sun, with rays outspread; Himself the hidden reality; Himself the visible forms. Attributed and unattributed are two terms devised — both in unison one Reality formulate” (S.G.G.S., p. 387).

What Sankara could not do, the Sikh Gurus did. What looked impossible, illogical and contradictory to Sankara in terms of formal logic, has become possible to Guru Nanak, that is uniting in singular whole the one and the many. This has been done by transcending the limits of formal logic. To quote Rudolf Otto, “The unity, being one, is a fact in the sense of mystical synthesis of multiplicity, which though not reproducible by any of our rational categories is nevertheless a synthesis.”18 It is “Mystical and not reproducible by any of our rational categories” of formal logic, on which, as we have shown, the one as “aloneness” of Sankarite thought was founded. The one here does not fall into the “complete transcendence”, but establishes itself “the immanence of the unity in and of things and the immanence of things in one.”19

The Sikh Gurus outrightly repudiate the Advaitic conception of maya attributed to the manifold nature of existence. Guru Ram Das exclaims : “Air, water, earth and sky — all are the Lord’s abode : Himself in all these He operates — What may I call unreal” (S.G.G.S., p. 723). Guru Arjun warns : “Revile not the world for anything — by the Lord it is created” (S.G.G.S., p. 611). Bhagat Ravi Das asserts that we have already transcended the Sankarite dichotomy of rope and snake. “Of the episode of the rope and the serpent; Now the mystery have we realised somewhat. As by sight of innumerable bangles, one forgets the gold; Now I express not that illusion. In all innumerable forms is the sole Lord pervasive; Disporting in all” (S.G.G.S., p. 658).

The Sikh Gurus shift themselves to various metaphors to demonstrate the unity of one and many, leaving behind the ill-fated Sankarite metaphor of rope and serpent. They are the metaphors of gold and bangles, clay and pots, sabda and millions of musical notes, ocean and its waves, thread and beads, root and branches of a tree, sun and its rays, etc. All these metaphors are designed to express adequately the unity of one and many.

“ Thou the tree — all existence is Thy blossoming branches.
Thou the subtle essence hast turned :
Thou the ocean, foam, bubble —
Nothing besides Thee is visible.
Thou the string and the beads;
The knot and the principal bead too art Thou.
In the beginning, end and middle is solely the Lord —
Nothing else is visible, says Guru Arjun.”
(S.G.G.S., p. 102)

It is noteworthy that the Sikh Gurus consciously avoided the metaphor of rope and serpent.

Sikhism also denounces the absolutist philosophy of many. This can be understood by its outright condemnation of individualism or haumain. Individualism is the ground on which, as it has been shown earlier, the philosophical pluralism is founded. Engulfed by the feeling of haumain, the individual being, in reality associated with other beings and with the whole, declares its non-relatedness. Haumain has been identified by the Sikh Gurus as the greatest malady of mankind. Using the metaphor of tree, Guru Nanak says, “Those that are forgetful of the Name, and into illusion of duality are strayed; Discarding the root, to the branch are attached” (S.G.G.S., p. 420).

At this level of our deliberations, we can delve into the various but interrelated meanings of the Sikh concept of one, and enumerate the outcomes of the dialectics of one and many.

Above all, the Sikh conception excludes the formally polarised ends of raw manifoldness and the aloneness. The one becomes the law of many (hukm), the substratum of various modes, the one immanently and all-pervadingly living in many, causing them to unite into a system. It presents us a concrete picture of reality with all its complexities, richness, variety and diversity, and also with their underlying ruptures and unity. In this concrete and structural conception of reality, it has ably succeeded to include historical time, human action, social changes as its inseparable moments. The Sikh approach here is synthetic and holistic. Every individual moment is situated in the whole as an inalienable part of it. No individual moment occupies a privileged position, and thus, a sense of equality and justice permeates the system. Positively expressing, the relationship of love is the uniting principle of the system. Non-aggressive and non-destructive inter-relationship among the particular moments is presupposed for the successful functioning of the system. One creating the many and the many becoming one also guarantee dynamism to the whole system. Is not the Khalsa, designed by the Tenth Guru, the embodiment of these principles of love, justice, dynamism and unity ?



1. Jadunath Sinha : Indian Realism, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1972.

2. Studies in Indian Thought, collected papers of Prof. T.R.V. Murti, (Ed.) by H.G. Coward, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1983, p. 128.

3. S.N. Dasgupta : A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. I, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1975, p. 287.

4. Ibid., p. 318.

5. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya : What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy, PPH, New Delhi, 1976, p. 248.

6. Jadunath Sinha : Indian Realism, op. cit., pp. 172, 197-199.

7. Studies in Indian Thought, op. cit., p. 128.

8. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya : op. cit., p. 401.

9. Studies in Indian Thought, op. cit., pp. 134-135.

10. Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Sri Sankaracharya, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1977, p. 329, II, i. 14.

11. Rudolf Otto : Mysticism East and West, Collier Books, New York, 1963, pp. 70-71.

12. Ibid., p. 71.

13. Brahma Sutra Bhasya, op. cit., Introduction, p. viii.

14. Ibid., p. 429, II, ii, 34.

15. P.N. Srinivasachari : The Philosophy of Bhedabheda, Srinivasa Varadachari & Co., Madras, 1934, p. 7.

16. M.A. Macauliffe : The Sikh Religion, S. Chand & Co., Delhi, 1963, Vol. I, p. 221.

17. All verses quoted from S.G.G.S. with page numbers are from : Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Translation by Gurbachan Singh Talib, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1990.

18. Rudolf Otto : op. cit., p. 71.

19. Ibid., p. 71.



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