Friday, April 20, 2007

3 - Basics of Advaita Vedanta

What is Advaita Vedanta ?

It is a rather and complex subject but I shall try to explain to the extent that I understand it at the moment and to the extent to that I can articulate what I seem to understand …

You are being very cautious but please go ahead.

It is one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy and in the opinion of many, including me, the one that is most complete and in a sense the best.

One of the six ? what are the others ?

Well you have Charvak’s school of extreme materialism at one end – where he says, wreenam kritwa, ghreetam pibet drink ghee, even if you have to borrow money for it : or in short make merry at the cost of anything else – and the other end we have Patanjali’s Yoga – the classical school of asceticism that is based on ethical behavior, physical and metabolic activities and intense, introspective meditation. And then you have a few others schools of thought.

Like what ?

We have the school of logic, Nyaya, and this is used by many other systems as a foundation for reasoning and debate. We have the school of Vaisesika, that considers visesa, or uniqueness, as an important aspect of reality. Then we have Samkhya which introduced the duality of Purusha and Prakriti.

What is that ?

We will come to that later, but let me complete the list. Samkhya is the foundation of Buddhism as enunciated by the Buddha, even though his followers deviated from that path and then we have Mimamsa, which in a sense to leads us to that exalted pinnacle of the Hindu world view that is Vedanta. … and all these schools of thought try to address in their own way some basic questions like
* Who am I ? From where have I come from and why ? What is the relationship between me and the universe and other human beings ?
* What is the essential nature of my being and what is the essential of the universe ?
* What is the relationship between consciousness and the objects of the universe ?
* What is truth and how do we arrive at rational conclusions on the question of truth ?

So where does Advaita Vedanta lie ?

It is not quite a linear spectrum so that I cannot say that it lies so far from one end … but in a sense, it builds upon the work of Patanjali and Visishta-Advaita and was articulated most elegantly by Sankara – who was born in Kerala in the 8th century AD.

The same Sankara who created the four maths or institutions at Dwaraka, Kedarnath, Puri and Sringeri …

Yes at the four corners of the country … to reestablish the Sanatan Dharma in the face of aggressive Buddhism.

One second, are we talking about religion or philosophy ?

Let me step back for a moment .. and restart. The word Hindu religion is a misnomer and it does not exist in the lexicon of the people who are supposed to be Hindus ..

I know it was created by Greeks to refer to the people who lived to the east of the Indus or the Sindhu river.

So unlike the religions that are based on “books” that is Judaism, Christianity, Islam or their common ancestor Zoroastrianism that emerged out of Persia, the way of life of the so called Hindus is guided by a set of principles that are referred to as Sanatan Dharma, or the Perennial Philosophy.

But still these so called Hindus have some religious texts – the vedas, the upanishads, the brahmana, the puranas and the great epics. This is what Hindu philosophy should be based on .. is it not ?

They do, but if you observe closely the Hindu word for philosophy is Darshan and this can be loosely translated as vision, sight or even better insight.

So are you saying that the philosophy is world view ? Are you not playing semantic games ?

Darshan refers to the insight that certain individuals had – these individuals are referred to as Rishis, the learned ones – into the nature of the universe. Their articulation – to the extent that this was possible using the finite grammar of a language – and the subsequent attempts to interpret these articulations have resulted in a set of codes of conduct that were of importance for the stability of human civilisation. The set of codes represent the Dharma or religion of the land – the ‘Hindu’ religion or Sanatan Dharma – but the original insights form the basis of the philosophy – and in this case we are interested in the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.

Sankara was the one with the original insight ?

No – he came much later and it is to his credit that he interpreted the Vedas, the Upanishads -- referred to as end of the Vedas or Vedanta – and came out with an exquisite, coherent and consistent description of the nature of the universe.

But all schools of Hindu philosophy – with the possible exception of Charvak – are based on the Vedas and Vedanta .. so what is different here ?

Let me begin with the basic tenets of Advaita, to the extent that I am aware of them.

Are you being modest or being sarcastic.

Neither, only being truthful … for if I really knew or had the first hand experience of Advaita, then I would not be – or need not have to be – explaining all this to you or anyone else.

Curious, but I shall let that pass.

The world Advaita can be literally translated as non-Dual.

Is that what you refer to as Singularity.

Yes, but there are scholars who would not accept that word, they will say it is not Dual, but whether it is Singular or not is debatable.

Sheer semantics.

True, but as I keep repeating, the fact that I am speaking (or writing ) this and you are listening to me .. means that I am not yet free from the limitations of Semantics .. and you have to learn to live with this ..

OK .. no offence meant

None taken, except that we are slowing down. So let me continue with the three principal characters of this great play - the Atman, the Brahman and Maya.

And who are they ?

Atman - the Self : The entire phenomenal world is bound by time, space and causation and as long as one is confined by these concepts, the experience is limited. Beyond the realms of time and space, there is an absolute and unconditional Reality that has no beginning and no end. That is Atman, the Self. The Self cannot be experienced by the senses. This Self is both within and outside the body. Unlike the body it is beyond death and decay. The Self is the fountainhead of the life force that animates and motivates the mind-body complex. According to Sankara, this Self is the all-pervading, self-illumined Consciousness.

Brahman - the Supreme Consciousness : Brahman is the ultimate Truth within and without. Brahman is also all-pervading and self-illumined Consciousness and the relationship of the Brahman to the Self is that of the forest to the tree. The entire universe emanates from Brahman, exists in Brahman and at the time of dissolution returns into Brahman. Stepping beyond the primitive monotheism of the Judeo-Christian philosophy/theology, Sankara asserts that the individual Atman and the universal Brahman are one and the same and the concept of a creator that is distinct from the creation is a cosmic illusion.

Maya - the Illusion : The phenomenal universe that can be perceived by the senses is actually an illusion called Maya. This Maya is what causes human beings to perceive worldly phenomena and respond to the environment. Vedanta states that Maya shields the Truth or Brahman from the Self or Atman. The concepts of time and space that veil the face of Truth are aspects of Maya. Because Maya veils the Truth, the individual Atman misconstrues both the world and itself as different from the Truth or Brahman.[1]

The concept of Non-Dualism or Advaita, goes back to the luminous era of pre-Mahabharat India ..

I see that you are consciously avoiding a reference to the dim, dark past of history !

Yes, for me it was neither dim nor dark .. because it was in these Vedic or Upanishadic era someone visualized ( remember “Darshan” is insight ) this idea – this spark of illumination – and it was subsequently developed by Sankara around the 8th century and elaborated by many others including Vivekananda.

And what was this spark all about ?

At the core of Advaita is the startling assertion : Brahma satya, Jagat mithya – the Divine is Real, the World is Unreal. For the lack of a better word, I have translated Brahma as the Divine, but it could also use terms like the Universal Consciousness or the Universal Soul none of which however are quite adequate.

I suppose this Brahma is different from the four faced ‘god’ of creation ..

Good point, you are right .. Brahma, the four faced ‘god’ is one of the members of the Hindu trinity … but that is more of mythology and doctrinal religion, far removed, and in a sense irrelevant to the principles that we are dealing with in Advaita. Here the word Brahma refers to the Brahman that I had introduced in the Dramatis Personae of our Advaita story.

The first part of the statement, in its English translation, certainly seems like a self-defining axiomatic play on words, but given the limitation of the language I can let it pass. But I have some difficulty with the second part of the statement – that asserts that the world as we know it is unreal – is very startling. How is it that the world that we KNOW so well be not real. … How can all this be illusory ?

Perhaps you have to learn to give up this most cherished belief ..

How can this be ? How can this world be unreal ? The world has form and shape, colour and texture that we can see, feel, hear, taste and smell. This observable world has a persistence across time, space and individuals. We know that the Taj Mahal has existed for the past 500 years and countless individuals have recorded its existence over generations. Fossil records date back even longer and if one were to look at astronomical evidence then we have records stretching back to the Big Bang, that created the observable universe. In the face of such irrefutable evidence, any attempt to deny the existence of all these observable objects as well as the physical existence of millions of conscious observers is impossible, if not downright absurd.

I know that this is like running into an impregnable wall – a wall that has been built with the bricks of meticulous observations and resting on a solid foundation of logic and rationality. I do not deny that this is difficult but as I said before, we have to learn how to give up our most cherished beliefs and learn to accept the inevitability of living with illusions.[2]

[1] This brief introduction to Vedanta is based on the book "Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy" by Pandit Rajamani Tigunait, Ph.D. ISBN 0-89389-076-6 © 1983 by The Himalayan International Institute

[2] Ya Devi Sarvabhuteshu Bhranti-roopena Sangsthita, Namastasyai Namamstasyai Namastasyai, Namoh Namaha – Salutations to the Devi who abides in all beings in the form of Error or Illusion.


neo said...

simple and well stated. Please carry on the dialogue :)

Manu Namasivayam said...

A comprehensive non-commercial site exclusively for the articles related to Nisargadatta Maharaj, the great sage of advaita vedanta. Books, Photos, Videos, and others.

Manu Namasivayam

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