Monday, 11 August 2014

An Advaita Debate

I recently had an online exchange with someone who followed the path of Advaita Vedanta who wanted to put me right regarding some remarks I had made on the subject. I thought I would put the gist of our exchange here as it might clarify some of the ideas I have been considering in previous posts. His/her comments (the person remained anonymous) are in italics.

"You don't seem to appreciate that Vedanta is not a religion or a philosophy. It is a means for moksha for individuals who are qualified. It believes that different paths suit different seekers, times and cultures. It has no dispute with "what is" because it knows the nature of "what is".  All religions and philosophies are included in "what is". Any sincere inquiry into the Truth is welcome in Vedanta." 

On the face of it this seems quite reasonable but to me it betrays an assumption common to many non-dualists that their path is the superior one into which all lesser religions and philosophies are subsumed once their adherents see things properly, i.e in the advaita way. They are the ones who are spiritually mature and anyone who takes a different approach is still living in duality hence ignorance. It's an attitude common to many reductionists who like to think that the simplest or most radical explanation is necessarily the truest one. But what they don't see is that this position is largely based on a mental approach not an intuitive one. The mind requires an either/or solution to every problem but the intuition can deal with a both/and one. In this sense you could compare the advaita reluctance to consider that unity and duality could both be true to old-fashioned Newtonian physics whereas reality conforms more to the quantum world where things can behave (apparently) like a particle or a wave depending on how you look at them.

I replied as followed.

"You say that Advaita Vedanta is not a religion or philosophy but for me it's a belief system like any other.  Remember that it only arose as a reaction to Buddhism, from which it borrowed a great deal, so cannot be regarded as a pure explanation of 'what is'. More seriously, it misunderstands the nature of both the relative world of phenomena and the individual self, both of which have far more reality than it allows even if they are both, ultimately, just manifestations of the One Life."

My interlocutor came back.

"You don’t properly comprehend Vedanta. You are not required to but don't make claims about that which you have no knowledge. You only reiterate the common misunderstanding.
A belief system is to be learned...

Vedanta is NOT a belief system. It is a means, or a methodology, a set of tools, or a road map. You don't LEARN it...ever. You USE it, that's all. Do you learn a hammer, or do you use a hammer?"

I could see from the tone and capital letters that this was unlikely to be a reasoned exchange of views and would probably descend into an argument from which neither side would draw much benefit. Nevertheless I still wanted to put my reservations about advaita down in a forum more frequented than this one. Non-duality is a rapidly growing religion/philosophy (for want of a better phrase) but I consider it to have some flaws, a fact that may not have escaped readers of this blog. There is so much about it that is insightful but it is handicapped by its denial of individual identity, the reality or otherwise of which changes how one approaches the matter of oneness. So I replied.

"A belief system is something you believe.  You may believe it because it makes sense to you and seems true, but then Catholics and Muslims and fundamentalist Christians and so on would all say the same about their preferred ideology. Because you consider it to be true doesn't mean that it is. After all, nothing in this world can be all true. I don't mean to denigrate Advaita Vedanta, for which I have a lot of respect, but it has its limitations, chief of which is the rejection of the individual soul, and that’s why, when used as a road map, it’s just as likely to lead to self-deception as enlightenment. You might say that’s because of the lack of qualifications by those who get self-deceived which is true enough, but I would say its extremist stance has a strong bearing on that too."

I went on

"Truth is non-duality and duality together. Don’t dismiss duality. If it weren’t here then neither would you be." In other words unity implies multiplicity and vice versa. Truth is not one or the other but both together in their correct places. Complementarity not exclusivity.

Earlier my interlocutor had stated his (or her) belief that yoga and Vedanta were different things which is quite correct. Sankara said as much, though some authorities believe that the situation is not so clear cut and he may have practiced some form of yoga as well following the path of pure knowledge. But what was meant here was that spiritual practice, being inevitably dualistic, would not bring you to enlightenment which could only be attained through knowledge, the seeing of the non-reality of the self. This is true enough if that practice is undertaken in order to gain something for the separate self. However proper spiritual practice, undertaken in humility and sincerity, is essential and cannot be bypassed with the excuse that it is dualistic for it and it alone helps purify the mind, and only a completely purified mind, purified by prayer, the constant recollection of God and meditation engaged in without desire for experience, can fit one to receive grace. And it is grace not knowledge or even the seeing of 'what is' that eventually liberates an individual. This notion is completely missing in advaita for which Brahman is impersonal and never acts. It is, however, (sticking with Indian philosophy) an essential part of Kashmir Saivism which, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a North Indian non-dualistic system that, unlike advaita, recognises that the Absolute has a dynamic side. Hence there is room for duality in its non-duality which is why it defines reality not as Siva (consciousness) but Siva/Sakti - consciousness/energy. Not just inactive stillness but stillness and movement, eternally together.

This position is much subtler than the advaitic one and has some important consequences. For one thing, the world is viewed as a perfectly real manifestation of consciousness in form and not merely mithya (neither real nor unreal). Maya (or sakti) is the creative power of the divine. It is the measuring out in time and space of the Immeasurable, and, as such, what it produces may not be ultimately real but is phenomenally so and has real existence and not just the appearance of such. Maya is not simply something that is superimposed on reality but is fundamental to reality. So this world is not a neither real nor unreal illusion (advaitins don't like that word but if something is not properly real then what is it?), but a perfectly real manifestation of God. And the upshot of this is that the individual soul is also real. Not ultimately real in the sense that ultimately there is only God or spirit, but certainly real as far as manifestation and the created world are concerned.

This brings us to my main criticism of Advaita. It doesn't understand that ego is not identity. Ego is certainly based on ignorance and the identification of consciousness with its vehicles or upadhis (limiting adjuncts) as they would say, but individual identity is a definite part of our reality.  Otherwise put, individuals have a real existence. God (or Brahman) is, of course, the supreme reality but that does not mean that the created world and, in particular, individual human souls do not have their own, certainly dependent but still absolutely genuine, reality. We have to see this individuality in the context of oneness but nevertheless it is real. What marks out an enlightened, liberated or saved person is that individuality has moved from the centre of his being to the periphery but it still exists as a real thing. In fact the reason for this whole world of manifestation is so that life may become more by being multiplied through countless individuals. And so truth is not oneness but oneness and individuality or unity and multiplicity together. This has more in common with Christian beliefs than Eastern ones and many reject it on that score but it’s the only answer to all the questions that life poses that takes everything into account.

The debate continued.

"Advaita Vedanta does not dismiss duality. Vedanta deals completely with SATYAM and MITHYA. To know the complete teachings of Vedanta one must step off the sidelines of intellectual spectatorship and set all collected ideas aside (even if only temporarily) and apply an open mind to the teachings.

Vedanta may never be your path, but please don't claim to know what it is or isn't without the full commitment required to investigate its teachings with an open mind and a qualified Vedanta teacher."

Well, that was telling me! I began to write a response but realised there was not much point in continuing a discussion in which whatever I said would be rejected as coming from the closed mind of ignorance But this is what I would have said.

"I do understand about satyam and mithya which simply refer to absolute and relative truth. However mithya (the world is neither real nor unreal, a concept Sankara took from Nagarjuna) is a very imperfect appraisal of what the relative world actually means, and by no means accounts for the richness of the world or the reality in duality.  When it comes down to it, traditional advaita sees the world as false as in the snake/rope analogy. The rope (reality) is perceived by ignorance as a snake (phenomena) but the snake has no true existence. (By the way, this metaphor ignores the fact that snakes do actually exist!). However wiser philosophies regard the world as a real manifestation of the divine, real in itself, and not an illusion of ignorance. 

I certainly don't dismiss advaita as a spiritual path. I just don't regard it as a universal nostrum. My criticism of it is that it does not understand that the individual human soul is more than the separate self. That 'I am' is different to 'I am this or that'. That is its flaw and is why those who follow it must be, to an extent certainly, believers. They are taking on board a premise that isn’t actually true, not wholly so anyway. This will affect how they approach the spiritual path.

So advaita contains one false premise, that the sense of individual identity is an illusion caused by ignorance, but along with that it also has a very limited conception of God because it doesn't believe Him capable of creating real things. These are beliefs arising from pre-conceived ideas, and they are why I find advaita an incomplete system. It doesn't grasp that unity and individuality are both true and that the goal of the spiritual life is to integrate them. You might counter that it does give individuality a reality in its restricted place, but that place is so restricted as to be virtually non-existent. As far as advaita is concerned the individual has no purpose or existence."

There were further exchanges which are not really relevant to this post but they included suggestions that it was not possible to understand advaita without having had a qualified teacher  (I don't see why, its theoretical basis is easy enough to understand), but I concluded with a summing up of my position as follows.

"My objection to advaita is that it only acknowledges half of reality and so fails to see that the reason for this whole manifested universe is relationship. In other words, oneness expresses itself in a duality which, properly understood, includes and goes beyond a standard issue non-duality. Or, to put it in a nutshell, God is love. So advaita is correct to see that all is One but fails to see that when the One becomes the Many (while remaining the One, of course) it does so with a purpose. It has intelligence and it has will. The Many are not separate from the One but they have their own reality too because what God creates is real. That is why I don’t think that the insight that derives from advaita is complete. It restricts reality to its static side and ignores the dynamic or, at least, reduces it to near superfluity.

You say that Vedanta does not require you to believe anything that is not the result of your own investigation. What if that investigation reveals that Advaita Vedanta is only a half-truth? As I've said, I do have a lot of respect for advaita but, for me, it just doesn't fully describe things the way they are. It misconceives the nature of spiritual reality for it sees that the One is the One but doesn’t see that the Many are the Many, and that these are not contradictory truths but complementary ones. Thus my intuition (not my mind which only formulates what the intuition reveals) tells me that God created real beings which are certainly individualizations of himself and as such divine, but they are also themselves and will remain so even after they have realized the truth of their own divine nature. And that is why I have come to regard advaita as, in the last analysis, reductive. You will say I don’t understand it and should go to a properly qualified teacher but I don’t need an advaita teacher to see that the basic premise of advaita is mistaken. As far as I am concerned, it is only a partial understanding of reality and any enlightenment it offers can only be partial too.

One final thing. Advaita is based on sruti* but, as I’m sure you know, Sankara’s interpretation (correct word) of sruti did not go unchallenged which is not surprising since it was really just an attempt to blend Buddhism and the Vedas. I used to think that Ramanuja* was a step down from Sankara and his fellow non-dualists, but I now see him as a step up because he was less exclusive. He evidently did not think that any of the Mahavakyas* meant that unity and diversity did not co-exist."

I intended that to be that but a further response prompted me to think again. The crux of it was that advaita fully included all dualistic practices but went beyond them. Some of the points made are quoted in my reply.

"When you say that 'Vedanta embraces and celebrates the Many, and sees no contradiction between the Many and the One' aren't you being just a little bit disingenuous? Swami Sivananda says that according to Sankara all difference and plurality are illusory. I realize that means ultimately illusory but that's just the point. Either the individual is really real or it's not. You can't have it both ways and advaita, it seems to me, tries to. It wants to have its cake and eat it too but when it comes down to it the fact is there's no room for individuality in advaita. It's not a genuinely created and real thing, identification with which must be transcended but which still remains as a real thing in terms of experience and expression. It's purely and simply the product of ignorance. And that's because advaita puts Ishvara (God) at a lower level of reality than Brahman. As you said, God is an effect of maya. That is incorrect. How can the Creator of form be a product of form?

You also said that `Vedanta embraces love and worship of God, encourages prayer for those who are so inclined. There is no conflict or judgement.' But is that really so? Surely there is judgement. Such people are regarded as jivas (separate individuals) who are unable to let go of their attachments and so are not ready for a proper appreciation of non-duality. Theirs is a lower level of understanding instead of a recognition that, although they may be one with God in terms of being, they are and remain God's creatures. The same sap that runs through the tree runs through the leaf but the leaf is not the tree.

It comes down to this. For me, there is no difference between Brahman and Ishvara, the impersonal and personal aspects of God. They are the same so Ishvara is not a product of maya which is creative power not illusion of any kind.

I do find that whenever I discuss such things with non-dualists they will always say `Oh yes, all that is fully comprehended in advaita which includes everything and rejects nothing'. But really, that's just not true. At the end of the day it allows God and the soul a reality only on the level of ignorance instead of seeing that there may be something beyond these but that does not in the least invalidate them as full realities in all worlds except that of pure unmanifest, unmoving, static being.

Of course, God is not separate from us. Of course, we are God because there is nothing else but we are also ourselves. That is the wonder of life, that the One and the Many can and do both exist together without contradiction.

Sometimes I wonder if even Sankara completely signed up to advaita or if he mainly used it to take on the Buddhists. After all, he is supposed to have written a lot of devotional poetry and built shrines to deities."


1). Hindu sacred texts mostly the Vedas and Upanishads on which Vedanta is based.
2). A proponent of Vishistadvaita or qualified non-dualism who argued for the reality of God and the soul.
3). The 'Great Sayings' of the Upanishads such as Tat Tvam Asi (Thou art That).

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