According to Plato, this essence has an eternal existence independent of all particular cows. Cows may come and go, but the Form of cow remains and is found with other such abstract essences in a higher realm of Ideas. (Incidentally, the philosophical doctrine that the essences or referents of class names objectively exist outside the mind, in some way or other, is called realism.) There is some truth to Plato’s realism. The realm of Forms seems to closely correspond to what the Vedic traditions regard as existent, namely, the Vedas themselves.
It is said the Vedas are eternal, while the material world is temporary. How is this possible when the Vedas contain the names of temporary entities (Indra, Candra, and other demigods), all of whom are destroyed during the dissolution? The answer is that these names and other names like tree and cow are names of types, or rather archetypes, which are manifested in concrete particulars whenever there is a creation. The Vedas therefore contain the blueprints and assembly instructions for all creation in the material world. Brahma, the created creator, becomes impregnated with the Vedas, and thus inspired, brings into manifestation the material world.
Interestingly, the Timaeus of Plato also posits a creator god, known as demiurgos in Greek, who has a vision of the self-existent ultimate source and the Forms, and is able to manifest those Forms in pre-existing matter, thus imposing order on chaos. According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Brahma has a similar direct vision of the spiritual world: Vaikuntha and Goloka Vrindavana (as recorded in the Brahma-samhita). But Plato gives no indication of any knowledge of a realm of transcendental variegatedness. His Absolute Truth is described in impersonal terms. The Platonic realm of ideal Forms, which is subordinate to that Truth, does not therefore correspond to the spiritual world, though it seems to closely parallel the Vedas.
It is also possible to find a correspondence between the Platonic Forms and the creative potentiality latent in Brahman, or brahmajyoti, the shining impersonal spiritual sky. The Vedas teach that the brahmajyoti contains the seeds for all the species in the world and that Brahma creates by making the seeds manifest. Each seed (bija) seems to be like a Platonic Form, at least as these Forms are understood in later Neoplatonism, where they are thought to possess a creative potency.
By a process of abstraction, Plato arrives at the idea of a realm containing a multiplicity of ideal Forms, or separated abstract essences. He carries this speculative ascent still further and concludes that all these Forms must have a single, ultimate source, which is the Form of the Forms themselves. For example, each individual cow is a cow by virtue of its participating in the Form of cow. In the same way, each Form is a Form by virtue of its participating in the Form of Forms. The process of abstraction is thus carried one final step further to the Form of all Forms, the essence of all essences. Plato called this the Form of the Good.
In fact, three different names are given to this ultimate source: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This triple characterization corresponds fairly closely to the Vedic characterization of Brahman as sat (the Good), cit (the True) and ananda (the Beautiful). The Form of the Good is thus extremely abstract. As the source of everything, it can be defined only by negation. It is completely ineffable, or inexpressible in words. At the apex of Plato’s ontology is a fairly standard version of the well-known impersonal Absolute.
The Form of the Good is perfect, self-sufficient, self-contained, and needs nothing other than itself. Yet it boils over, as it were, effervesces, and out of the immutable One devolves the world of changing things. Here’s a single entity without name, form, diversity, multiplicity of any sort, and then out of it wells, in a falling away from perfection, a multiplicity: initially, of abstract essences, the realm of the Forms. Those Forms then engender a further multiplicity and manifest themselves into a gross material world of concrete individuals.
Ravindra Svarupa Dasa holds a Ph.D. in religion from Temple University and is a governing body commissioner of ISKCON. This article was excerpted from an article published in ISKCON Communications Journal, No. 12.