Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Advaita Illusion

Advaita Vedanta is often regarded as the ne plus ultra of religion and metaphysics, the spiritual philosophy to which all others tend and for which they are only preparatory. This is because it uncompromisingly boils everything down to the One, and the One alone. Consciousness is not regarded as a property of the Absolute but its very nature. It is all there is and everything else, the world, the soul, even God, is reduced to an ultimately unreal manifestation of that. To some this idea seems a logical progression from the initial sense of multiplicity, and its radical purity and simplicity no doubt increases its attraction. At one time I assumed it was correct, and that it was just another, albeit slightly extreme, philosophy that identified Man’s origin and end as in God, but that was before I examined it properly and realised that its denial of self did not just mean that self (or identification with it) had to be transcended by the spiritual person but that it did not even truly exist in the first place. I now believe that it is based on a one-sided misinterpretation of reality and a desire to force all experience into a pre-determined box. There is no doubt that its position has a good deal of metaphysical justification, but it leaves too much out to be accepted unreservedly, and, in the final analysis, it must be considered a reductive view of how things are.

Perhaps the first thing to appreciate when trying to understand advaita is that it came out of Sankara's attempt to save Hinduism from the increasing spread in India of Buddhism. So rather than a natural thing in itself, arising out of pure spontaneous insight, it is better thought of as developing in reaction to something. It might even be considered, in part at least, as a compromise; and, indeed, later thinkers did accuse advaitins of giving up too much in their efforts to rescue the religion of the Vedas and the Upanishads from the onslaught of Buddhism with its perceived atheism. Specifically what they gave up was the idea of God and the reality of individual souls. This may seem academic in terms of attaining to an absolute consciousness but actually a proper understanding of the true metaphysical nature of things is all-important for determining correct spiritual practice.

Advaita is usually perceived in the West as the essence of Hinduism and the point up to which the entire religion leads, but that is not in fact the case. There are competing points of view within Vedanta itself, in particular that of Ramanuja who, while affirming fundamental unity, also taught the reality of individual souls, thereby rejecting Sankara's interpretation (and it was an interpretation) of the Upanishads. And then there is Tantra which describes existence as Siva-Sakti, roughly translating as Consciousness-Light Energy (or, simply put, spirit-matter), and so confirms the reality of the two poles or facets of existence which are different but not separate, and which need consciously uniting or integrating in the disciple for enlightenment to take place.

Advaita, like Buddhism, reduces the individual to the ego or separate self, but there are no valid grounds for assuming that the self-reflective principle in a human being amounts to nothing more than a veil on pure unlimited consciousness, and is an illusion of ignorance. Just because the soul can transcend identification with itself and know its uncreated origin in God does not mean it does not exist. It is a failure of imagination on the part of non-dualists not to be able to see that the individual can co-exist with the universal. Indeed, that these two should co-exist is the whole point of creation. Of course, advaitins do not believe in creation as such, seeing the world as little more than an illusion caused by ignorance of the real nature of things, but then they have no explanation as to why there should be something rather than nothing in the first place.

It is important to differentiate between ontological identity, which is above the world of sense-perception, and the notion of a separate self. That is to say, between the individual and unique 'I' on the one hand, and the sense of 'me, my and mine' on the other. Neither advaita nor Buddhism do this, and part of the reason they fail to discriminate between the individual soul and the ego, its separated component, is that they have no understanding of the Fall as taught in Judaeo-Christian religions. (The closest they come to it is the Buddhist view that all life is suffering). So they see the self as fundamentally bad instead of understanding that it has gone bad, or been corrupted, but can be redeemed. Truly, a perfect example of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Or, perhaps more pertinently, rejecting the whole grain just because of the husk.

It might be countered to the above remarks that many non-dualistic teachers have obviously had some experience that proves the truth of their doctrine, and any intellectual arguments against it are irrelevant in the face of this higher knowledge. Granted, they may no doubt have experienced some kind of mystical at-one-ment. This is not actually that uncommon. In the great majority of cases it will be a contact with the soul which is the spiritual level of consciousness existing above the passing movement of time. However this is then interpreted according to the pre-existing mindset of the experiencer, and often in the context of advaita or Zen or some similar belief system which seems to offer ultimate truth. To an up-until-now materialistic mind any contact with the soul can seem so extraordinary that it might see it as obliterating the self, despite the fact that there has only been a temporary melting of the boundaries of the ego. But what matters with an experience is how you react to it, what you do with it, and to treat it as a reason to deny God and the individual self is to misinterpret it and could well arrest any further future spiritual development. In effect, the supposedly denied and non-existent ego is taking the experience to itself, adapting itself to the experience and possibly even subtly strengthening itself in the process which is why false interpretations of spiritual states must be corrected. The disciple may end up worse off than when he started, spiritually speaking. 

It is well known that Hindu mystics have visions of Krishna while Christian ones see Jesus, and that in many cases this is because their already existing beliefs colour or even determine their experience. Similarly a non-dualistic belief system will influence the subject's interpretation of his experience which assumes the form his mind imposes on it. That is why wise spiritual teachers do not recommend taking personal experience as the sole basis for comprehending reality. The imperfect nature of the mind receiving the experience is a factor in how it is understood. This is not a rejection of mystical experiences (in the examples above the vision of the deity may be an astral illusion but it may also be a crystallisation of a true spiritual energy in a form familiar to the devotee), but points to the truth that an experience and its interpretation are not the same thing.

On one level, advaita seems to teach a pure form of the standard mystical idea of union between man and God, but because it denies the reality of both the individual soul and God (as God), it can lead to a mistaken idea of what spirituality actually is, and this will affect proper practice.  Its absorption of everything into the One might make it seem the highest form of spirituality and the one that lies behind all others as their uniting principle, and that is how it has been presented in the past.  And yet it is essentially reductive since it takes no account of any relationship between God and the soul, has no awareness of why the world should have come about in the first place, no real understanding of the many different levels of being and no insight into the fact that the soul is not just the ego.

To misconceive the nature of spiritual reality means that your approach to it might be completely wrong. The doctrine of advaita has gained considerable intellectual respectability over the last hundred years, but it did not go unchallenged in the past in the land of its birth and should not go unchallenged now that it has become popular elsewhere.  It seeks to express the most profound of truths but leaves out something essential which is the reality of creation. I am not disputing that Man is ultimately woven of the same fabric as God and that we can know this in the sense of wholly realise it, but I reject the notion that individuality is an illusion to be seen through. If that is the case then love is also an illusion other than as a sort of rather bland universal benevolence. I don't mean this entirely seriously, but does the married non-dualist love his wife as a person or as a manifestation of Brahman, one amongst countless others? Tell her that on your next anniversary. Of course, if he is true to his doctrine he will not have a wife or, indeed, any kind of personal relationship at all.

I would also suggest that the non-dualist reduction of God to 'the last thought', as I believe Ramana Maharishi phrased it, is a categorical error. Why limit God as Creator in this way? The Creator of form is surely beyond form. Furthermore, there is a sense in which advaita might be accused of anthropomorphising even the formless Brahman in a way not entirely dissimilar to those who envisage God as a person. By describing the divine reality in terms of pure consciousness is it not saying that the fundamental human state is analogous to the divine state? Why should this be so? Why would the highest form of human knowingness (for want of a better word) be the highest form per se? Might not God in His essence be completely beyond anything we can begin to conceive of? I should have thought that He/It most certainly would be.

Now I have mentioned Ramana I must address the fact that his espousal of advaita might make it seem unassailable. He is, after all, one the major spiritual figures of the last century, and one about whom nothing but good has ever been said. However two things about Ramana should be borne in mind. First of all, his spiritual awakening was not attained within the context of advaita which he subsequently adopted as the one mystical system available to him that could be said to correspond to his experience. He used advaita as the best framework to give form to his insight. I mean no disrespect to someone whose level of spiritual attainment cannot be doubted to say that his experience of the world, both intellectual and actual, was not particularly extensive, and even the best of us must operate within the constraints of our environment, mental and physical. Ramana, as we all are, was a product of his world and had perforce to express himself within the limitations of that world. I know this might seem heresy to some but we would say that about Christian mystics of the order of St Francis of Assisi so why not about Ramana too? So, although he is taken as a sage epitomising the truth of advaita, it must be recognised that he did not come to his realization through that path, and his utilisation of it, to a certain extent at least, was part of his cultural heritage.*

I would like to conclude with the following brief reflections. These are not made in any negative critical spirit because there are many things about advaita that I unreservedly admire. Its seeing beyond form to the pure reality of Brahman that lies behind all things is an insight of the highest magnitude. However, by dismissing creation as maya and seeing created beings as having no reality other than an ephemeral, illusionary one, it fails to reconcile and integrate being and becoming which I believe is the true purpose of the spiritual path. When the Masters told me to forget the personal self and merge with the universal self they were not saying that the 'I' they were counselling to do this had no existence, but that it had to go beyond itself. When they told me to see all beings as manifestations of the divine they were not saying that these beings had no reality in themselves, but that God was present in everyone.

  • It is true that in absolute terms the essence of your being is in pure being, but if any part of you functions or is expressed on any plane other than pure unmanifest being, which is always the case in this world, then you are a created being and subject to the personal God. This is so even after enlightenment.
  • Advaitins fail to understand that the perfection of being is not in oneness but in relationship.
  • Does the self have real existence or is it just an illusion caused by ignorance and faulty identification with form? I say, in contradistinction to the ego, it has a real, though relative, existence and therefore must be transcended (as a centre) but not denied. However, as the greater includes the lesser, what is transcended is also included, though seen from a totally new perspective. 
  • Advaita says that there is no self and the seeing of this is enlightenment. I say that self does exist but must be actively renounced or surrendered for true holiness and the light to be born. Christ was crucified, that is he had to give up every aspect of his self-nature in a way that was only possible if that self-nature was real. He did not just come to an understanding that he had no self because no such thing existed. 
  • If by maya what is meant is that manifested things have no ultimate reality in themselves, and that behind multiplicity there is unity, then no one could find anything to argue with in the advaita position. This is the standard spiritual belief. But if this is taken to mean that there was no creation and no real individual souls, that is a different matter. If maya is the creative power of God in action, well and good, but if it is reduced to little more than a veil on reality caused by ignorance, as it often seems to be in advaita, that is to misconceive its nature.
  • Advaita says that all is consciousness and that when the sense of 'I' is removed pure consciousness alone remains and there is nowhere further to go as all differentiation and distinction has been removed. There is no individual soul anymore and no God, only the impersonal Brahman. But can this pure consciousness be equated with the divine awareness? Surely the latter would be capable of concentrating on many things (everything, in fact) at once, and this is certainly not a talent possessed by the enlightened human being. In reality the individual soul may have realised its identity with God but it has not become God who remains as a vastly greater Supreme Identity.

If I had to sum up what was missing in advaita, and other non-dualistic systems, I would say that reality encompasses both unity and diversity, and if you restrict it to one or the other then you have missed the mark. And that is what I think advaita does. But this does not mean that it cannot be a genuine spiritual path. It is just not the whole truth and it has limitations which should be understood. So, when I say, admittedly somewhat provocatively, that advaita is illusion I am not referring to its essential point that all things are manifestations of Brahman and that what that is, we, in our essence, are too. The only aspect of it that I do not accept is that the oneness of all things precludes the relative (though real) reality/existence of created things. For God is infinite being and what He creates is real even if it derives all its being from Him.


*It’s been pointed out to me that Ramana’s teachings do actually go beyond advaita in that they include elements from other sources such as Kashmir Saivism and Tantra. There may even be some (limited) influence from Christianity. He did, after all, attend a Christian school, and when he first went to Arunachala he wrote the famous note saying that he was going in search of his Father and in obedience to his command. But still advaita Vedanta is the main influence on how he expressed his realisation. And anyway, none of this alters my general point about the limitations of advaita. In fact, if anything, it supports it.








17 comments:

ando said...

If an Advaitin said, "This is real and that is not," would that not be dualistic??

William Wildblood said...

I suppose it would. Good point!

Neerav said...

It is indeed dualistic in nature, ando, which is why I, even as a Hindu, no longer follow Advaita Vedanta.

William Wildblood said...

Hello Neerav, as a Hindu you have many choices and aren't restricted to Advaita which is an excellent thing. Personally I feel that there's still a lot to be said for theistic religion which is why I have a soft spot for Ramanuja who doesn't belittle bhakti in the ways advaitins seem to.

Anonymous said...

Surely advaita does accept God as Isvara? It just says that he belongs to the world of duality and ultimate reality is beyond him. So it doesn't deny duality in its proper place. It simply says that ultimate reality is non-dualistic.

William Wildblood said...

In ultimate terms Isvara is seen as part of mitya, neither real nor unreal, and usually only lip service is paid to him, in contemporary Western forms of advaita certainly. For me this is a rather have your cake and eat it too attitude, one that appears to accept something in theory only to deny it in practice. Because, despite Sankara's hymns to the deity, when all is said and done advaitins say that Isvara only exists in the world of ignorance. They might provisionally acknowledge the relative but in reality they don't allow it any value, failing to see that both unity and diversity, both the absolute and the relative, are real, and that enlightenment requires the integration of the two not the rejection of one in complete favour of the other.

This may well be because advaita developed at a time when Hinduism (or what we now call Hinduism) was engaged in a battle for supremacy with Buddhism and, in order to more effectively engage with it, took a lot of ideas from it. These ideas were duly modified to fit in with the Vedas but even so they restricted Brahman to a static, impersonal absolute without qualities or the ability to act. The Personal was sacrificed and reality was restricted to pure consciousness. This is a reductive approach that may have the merit of logic but is superseded by the deeper insights of a more inclusive intuitive understanding that is able to see how you cannot restrict God to the impersonal anymore than you can to the personal. He must include both in His very essence.

Biligere Ramachandra Rao Manjunath said...

It is incorrectly believed that Shankara propounded the Advaita philosophy. This is far from being True. Shankara himself refers to his Guru Dakshinacharya and his Guru Gaudapada. Advaitha was well established even before Gaudapada. It is Mandooky Upanishad which is the basi of Advaita.
Gaudapada wrote. madwoman Kaarika. Today, modern science has validated, through Electro Encephalograph, the 4 states of awareness.
the basic principle is all our perceptions and knowledge about this outer world is through the information gathered from our SENSES. The senses are defective. And incorrect information is conveyed to us through them.Advaita does not state that the world is unreal. it states that our perception about the outer world is unreal.
Quantum Physics States exactly the same. Reality is a construct of the individual observer.
All that is there in this Universe is just ENERGY or CHAITANYA. There is nothing else. That is the non duality
Bhakti requires two persons. Bhakta and Bhagavanta. Infect the Sanskrit word Bhakti comes from the root BHAAGA, a split. There is no splitting between TWO. It is just one all pervading Energy exhibiting itself in multifarious forms.
You are ENERGY and I am ENERGY. There is no second thing in this Universe



William Wildblood said...

I know that Shankara had a guru but it doesn't really matter who initiated the advaita philosophy, he is normally taken as the person who spread that doctrine. The fact that consciousness is one in abstract and absolute terms doesn't mean that in the relative world, which is perfectly real as it is the creation of God, individuals don't exist and don't remain existing as individuals even when they have found their true identity in God. The mistake of advaita is to restrict reality to unmanifest reality alone when it is actually made up of the absolute and the relative and the perpetual interaction between them. Nothing is unreal. All is perfectly real though real in its own place.

Anonymous said...

Hello,
Interesting post. However, Advaita Vedanta Has resonated with me the most out of all spiritual paths this world has to offer. Before discovering Advaita Vedanta, I used to believe in individual souls, etc. However I no longer believe in this because it implies that a separate "self" with various characteristics survives the death of the body. The individual, egoic self is ultimately illusory and anchored in the relative world of body/mind. Only with a body/mind can consciousness be aware of itself, hence the feeling of I AM. Without the mind/body as a vehicle, there is no I Am, no separate entity conscious of itself. All is pure Awareness alone. This Awareness, Supreme Being, Universal Soul, etc is the one thing that remains during the waking, sleep and dream states. It is our True Nature. Every human, animal, plant, star, rock, planet, etc etc are this Absolute Awareness. I love the Ocean analogy. The Ocean is the Supreme Awareness (our true nature) and various forms manifest from that Ocean of Awareness quite randomly. Waves come and go but the Ocean never changes. To say there are Individual souls or personalities that survive the death of the body is to say that a wave could be separate from the ocean. There is no such thing.
Much Love and all the Best..

William Wildblood said...

First of all, thanks for your comment. I have to say though that I think the ocean analogy is just wrong. It's poetic and pretty, certainly, but it makes no sense in terms of God and human beings. We are not like waves on the sea because we have distinct individuality unlike the ephemeral wave which never holds the same form from one moment to the next. Despite changing, we do hold the same form using that term in its Platonic sense. I am the same at 60 as I was at 6.

I believe the advaitin mistakes identification with the ground of his own being for union with God but that latter is a higher state and the reason we were brought into being and sent out into this world. Non-dualistic realisation would not have required that. We could have just rested in pure being, pure awareness,but God created human souls in order for them to integrate being and becoming, not renounce becoming, and that is a much greater state than passively resting in pure being alone.

Gama said...

Dear William

I am doing an objective critique on what is posed as argument... "I believe advaitin mistakes identification..." is itself an inconsistency. One should go through Kants Critiques, Hegel's Phenomenology to understand Sankara's philosophy. Becoming is subsumed under Being. All identification is about an apparent form that will subsist only till such time it is disproved under a higher truth. The highest truth is the form of unity called as Absolute because there is nothing beyond it, call it God and it is immediately given the form (conceptual) of God.

Hope I am not being ambiguous!!

William Wildblood said...

Hello Gama

Or call it the Absolute and it is immediately given the form of the Absolute!

I don't think you need Kant or Hegel to understand Sankara. If you do then he failed to get his point across. I appreciate what you mean about becoming being subsumed in being and I don't dispute that that is what happens insofar as the focus of identification or centre is concerned. But I believe the mistake of advaita is then to ascribe to the relative world no point or purpose at all. This is indicated by Sankara's inability to explain why the world should have arisen in the first place and what its purpose might be.

Individuality is not the result of ignorance but a real God-given thing without which we could never even know the Absolute or God, call it what you will.

It's easy to get lost in intellectual abstractions (a bit like Kant and Hegel) and advaita quite frankly is often guilty of that. I'm not aware of one person who really demonstrates the truth of advaita in themselves and I include such people as Ramana and Krishnamurti for whom I have the greatest respect as well as a whole host of lesser luminaries. In each of them, very obviously, the individual still remains and, in fact, must do as the vehicle of their realisation. Are we really saying that the consciousness of a Buddha or Ramana is the same as the consciousness of the Creator of the universe? Really? If not then individuality must be a real thing and a lasting one too even if it is transformed.

That is why I regard the true goal as the integration of being and becoming, not the seeing of the former as fundamentally illusionary in the light of the latter.

This world is a far richer and more meaningful thing than advaita allows. It is the expression of love which, if advaita practiced what it preached, could have no real meaning in its eyes. It’s no good saying that love exists in the world of maya but not at the level of pure non-duality because that leaves love as a manifestation of ignorance in which case it has no true reality.

Advaita fails to see that reality transcends a mere logical interpretation of it and that there is differentiation right at the heart of unity. That is how a universe can arise. God cannot be limited to oneness or non-duality! Advaita needs to be supplemented by the Christian concept of the Trinity.

Thanks for commenting and sorry if I've gone on a bit.

Unknown said...


1. It doesn't "boil everything down to the One." Literally Advaita means "not two." There is nothing that says it is "One." Common misperception.

2. So is Advaita a reductive view or a compromise?

3. "Specifically what they gave up was the idea of God and the reality of individual souls." Not true. Advaita allows for what is called "Saguna Brahman" which is God with attributes. It also allows for worship of this God, etc. etc. Also, "Individual souls" or "jivas" are not given up. It depends on the teacher (and perspective) as to whether or not the jiva exists. From Brahman's perspective, they don't. From the seekers, they do (until they don't)

4. "There are competing points of view within Vedanta itself" As there are in Christianity. Many. The difference being, that Hinduism (as a whole) allows for all competing points. Hinduism is still whole, you see. Christianity has split so many times.

5. In Advaita, there is the "self" which is the jiva, which is apperceived by the average person as their identity. Then, there is the actual identity, which is termed "Atman." Atman is Brahman. Facts are important.

6. "Advaita, like Buddhism, reduces the individual to the ego or separate self" Buddhism has no self at all. They call the ultimate "no-self"

7. "is that they have no understanding of the Fall as taught in Judaeo-Christian religions."


AH, you're a Christian. That explains a lot.


Nevermind. You don't understand Advaita (or Buddhism), because you choose not to. That's fine. I gave up (lifelong) Christianity just recently. I am now an Advaitin. And now can see clearly how arrogant some Christians are about their "faith."

Whatever pamphlet you read about Advaita was probably written by another Christian. If you honestly want to learn about Advaita, seek it out sincerely. Like a real man.


“Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 16:5)




William Wildblood said...

Dear Unknown

You're on the war path but I will try to respond to your points so that we don't end up in a fight with each of us trying to score points off the other.

First of all, let me say that I wrote this piece a few years ago so I don't fully remember it. But nevertheless I wrote it in response to what I saw as the deficiencies of advaita Vedanta. Let me take the issues you raise one by one as that seems the easiest way to go about things.

1. I know advaita means not two and I know it tries to distinguish itself from monism. Nevertheless it does boil everything down to the One or the Self or Brahman. Nothing else is allowed any true reality. That is what it effectively does without the word games.

2&3. I do think advaita is a reductive view because it doesn't allow for the reality in creation. You mention saguna Brahman which is more or less the realm of Isvara, their idea of God, but this (and he) is still seen as belonging to the world of ignorance and individual souls are only given provisional reality. As I said in an earlier comment on this thread:
"In ultimate terms Isvara is seen as part of mitya, neither real nor unreal, and usually only lip service is paid to him, in contemporary Western forms of advaita certainly. For me this is a rather have your cake and eat it too attitude, one that appears to accept something in theory only to deny it in practice. Because, despite Sankara's hymns to the deity, when all is said and done advaitins say that Isvara only exists in the world of ignorance. They might provisionally acknowledge the relative but in reality they don't allow it any value, failing to see that both unity and diversity, both the absolute and the relative, are real, and that enlightenment requires the integration of the two not the rejection of one in complete favour of the other."

4. Ramanuja completely rejects Sankara's interpretation of the Upanishads often in very strong terms. There is no compromise there.

5.Again in advaita the jiva only has provisional reality, to be seen as unreal once ignorance is dispelled. I say it is God created and has an eternal reality though, always, of course, utterly dependent on God for its being.

6. Buddhism does not teach no self but not self which is different. But that's not the issue here. I think that Sankara, who did not originate but did propagate advaita, was acting in reaction to Buddhism which he feared was taking over India. So he did the classic trick of taking enough from his opponent to disarm him. If you read him you will find an intellectual out to win an argument. I don't see much to indicate a true spiritual sensibility.

7. Well, I believe the Fall took place and that it explains many things which those who don't acknowledge it struggle to come to terms with. But I don't think that because I'm a Christian. I'm not sure I am a Christian in the regular sense at all actually. I believe in reincarnation for a start and I don't belong to any church or follow any branch of that religion. I do believe in Christ though I must admit.
(contd)

William Wildblood said...

My understanding of advaita comes from over 30 years of reading ancient and modern texts, that is Sankara, Ramakrishna, Ramana and so on, plus talking to convinced advaitins in India and the west. I have a lot of respect for it and have almost gone along with it at times. But I always find it leaves something important out and that ultimately it is an intellectual doctrine not a spiritual one. That's my take. If it answers your questions that's fine and I certainly don't mean that in a condescending, one day you'll see the light kind of way. Different paths etc.

However for advaita reality is impersonal when you get down to the bottom of things and I don't believe that nor does it chime with my intuitive take on things. For me God is personal and that is not on a lower level of reality as Isvara most certainly is. God is love which he cannot be in advaita. Love is the meaning of the universe which it cannot be in advaita. The goal of life is to have a relationship of love in a union with the Creator which cannot be in advaita.

MURALI said...

If the man is illusory, then how can he know a reality. Only a real thing can know another real thing. So dualism is correct

William Wildblood said...

I think that's a good point, not sufficiently appreciated by advaitins.