What is Advaita ( Non Duality ) – A Short Introduction

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Advaita means oneness and non duality. Advaita is often translated as “non-dualism” though it literally means “non-secondness.” Although Adi Shankara is regarded as the promoter of Advaita Vedanta as a distinct school of Indian philosophy, the origins of this school predate Shankara.

The existence of Advaita tradition is acknowledged by Shankara in his commentaries.The essential philosophy of Advaita is an idealist monism and is considered to be presented first in the Upaniṣhads and consolidated in the Brahma Sutra by this tradition.

According to Advaita philosophy, the world has no separate existence apart from Brahman – The “self”. The experiencing self (jīva) and the transcendental self of the Universe (atman) are identical, though the individual self seems different as space within a container seems different from space as such.

These cardinal doctrines are represented in the anonymous verse “brahma satyam jagan mithya; jīvo brahmaiva na aparah” (Brahman (Self) is alone True, and this world of plurality is an error and the individual self is not different from Brahman (Self)).

Plurality is experienced because of error in judgments (mithya) and ignorance (avidya). Knowledge of Brahman removes these errors and causes liberation from the cycle of transmigration and worldly bondage.

It is possible that an Advaita tradition existed in the early part of the first millennium C.E., as indicated by Shankara himself with his reference to tradition (sampradaya). Adi Shankara, as many scholars believe, lived in the eight century. His life, travel, and works as we understand from the digvijaya texts are almost of a superhuman quality.

Though he lived only for 32 years,Adi Shankara traveled across India and writing commentaries for the ten Upaniṣads, the cryptic Brahma Sūtra, the Bhagavad Gita, and authoring many other texts.

The classical Advaita philosophy of Adi Shanka recognizes a unity in multiplicity, identity between individual and pure consciousness and the experienced world as having no existence apart from Brahman (Self). The major metaphysical concepts in Advaita Vedanta tradition, such as maya, mithya (error in judgment),vivarta (illusion / whirlpool), have been subjected to a variety of interpretations.

On some interpretations, Advaita Vedanta appears as a nihilistic philosophy that denounces the matters of the lived-world.

For classical Advaita Vedānta, Brahman (Self) is the fundamental reality underlying all objects and experiences. Brahman (Self) is explained as pure existence, pure consciousness and pure bliss. Brahman or pure consciousness underlies the knowing self. Consciousness according to the Advaita School unlike the positions held by other Vedanta schools is not a property of Brahman but its very nature.

Brahman is also one without a second, all-pervading and the immediate awareness. This absolute Brahman is known as nirguņa Brahman (Self), or Brahman “without qualities,” but is usually simply called “Brahman.” This Brahman (Self) is ever known to itself and constitutes the reality in all individuals selves, while the appearance of our empirical individuality is credited to avidya (ignorance) and maya (illusion).

Brahman thus cannot be known as an individual object distinct from the individual self. It is usually referred to as Ishvara (the Lord). The appearance of plurality arises from a natural state of confusion or ignorance (avidya), inherent in most biological entities.

Given this natural state of ignorance, Advaita provisionally accepts the empirical reality of individual selves, mental ideas and physical objects as a cognitive construction of this natural state of ignorance. But from the absolute standpoint, none of these have independent existence but are founded on Brahman.

From the standpoint of this fundamental reality, individual minds as well as physical objects are appearances and do not have abiding reality. Brahman appears as the manifold objects of experience because of maya (illusion). Maya is that which appears to be real at the time of experience but which does not have ultimate existence. Brahman appears as the manifold world without undergoing an intrinsic change or modification. At no point of time does Brahman change into the world.

The world is but avivarta, a superimposition on Brahman. The world is neither totally real nor totally unreal. It is not totally unreal since it is experienced. It is not totally real since it is sublated by knowledge of Brahman. There are many examples given to illustrate the relation between the existence of the world and Brahman.

The two famous examples are that of the space in a pot versus the space in the whole cosmos (undifferentiated in reality, though arbitrarily separated by the contingencies of the pot just as the world is in relation to Brahman), and the self versus the reflection of the self (the reflection having no substantial existence apart from the self just as the objects of the world rely upon Brahman for substantiality).

The existence of an individuated jīva and the world are without a beginning. We cannot say when they began, or what the first cause is. But both are with an end, which is knowledge of Brahman(Self). According to classical Advaita Vedanta, the existence of the empirical world cannot be conceived without a creator who is all-knowing and all-powerful.

The creation, sustenance, and dissolution of the world are overseen by Ishvara. Ishvara is the purest manifestation of Brahman. Brahman with the creative power of maya is Ishvara. Maya has both individual (vyasti) and cosmic (samasti) aspects. The cosmic aspect belongs to one Ishvara, and the individual aspect, avidya, belongs to many jīvas.

But the difference is that Ishvara is not controlled by maya, whereas the jiva is overpowered by avidyaMaya is responsible for the creation of the world. Avidya is responsible for confounding the distinct existence between self and the not-self. With this confounding, avidya conceals Brahman and constructs the world. As a result the jiva functions as a doer (karta) and enjoyer (bhokta) of a limited world.

There are three planes of existence according to classical Advaita Vedānta. The plane of absolute existence (paramarthika satta), the plane of worldly existence (vyavaharika satta) which includes this world and the heavenly world and the plane of illusory existence (pratibhasika existence). The two latter planes of existence are a function of maya and are thus illusory to some extent. A pratibhasika existence, such as objects presented in a mirage, is less real than a worldly existence.

Its corresponding unreality is however different from that which characterizes the absolutely non-existent or the impossible such as a sky-lotus (a lotus that grows in the sky) or the son of a barren woman. The independent existence of a mirage and the world, both of which are due to a certain causal condition ceases once the causal condition change.

The causal condition is avidya, or ignorance. The independent existence and experience of the world ceases to be with the gain of knowledge of Brahman (Self). The nature of knowledge of Brahman is that “I am pure consciousness.”

The self-ignorance of the jiva that “I am limited” is replaced by the Brahman-knowledge that “I am everything,” accompanied by a re-identification of the self with the transcendental Brahman. The person who understands the Brahman (Self) sees the one non-plural reality in everything. He or she no longer gives an absolute reality to independent and limited existence of the world, but experiences the world as a creative expression of pure consciousness.

The states of waking (jagrat), dreaming (svapna) and deep sleep (susupti) lead to the fourth nameless state turiya, pure consciousness, which is to be realized as the true self. Pure consciousness is not only pure existence but also the ultimate bliss which is experienced partially during deep sleep. Hence we wake up refreshed.

The Advaita tradition puts forward three lesser tests of truth- correspondence, coherence, and practical efficacy.

These are followed by a fourth test of truth: epistemic-non-sublatability (abadhyatvam orbadhaṛahityam). According to the Vedanta Paribhaṣa (a classical text of Advaita Vedanta) “that knowledge is valid which has for its object something that is non-sublated.” Non-sublatablity is considered as the ultimate criterion for valid knowledge. The master test of epistemic-non-sublatability inspires a further constraint: foundationality (anadhigatatvam – “of not known earlier”).

This last criterion of truth is the highest standard that virtually all knowledge claims fail, and thus it is the standard for absolute, or unqualified, knowledge, while the former criteria are amenable to mundane, worldly knowledge claims. According to Advaita Vedanta, a judgment is true if it remains unsublated.

The commonly used example that illustrates epistemic non- sublatabilty is the rope that appears as a snake from a distance (a stock example in Indian philosophy). The belief that one sees a snake in this circumstance is erroneous according to Advaita Vedānta because the snake belief (and the visual presentation of a snake) is sublated into the judgment that what one is really seeing is a rope. Only wrong cognition can be sublated.

The condition of foundationality disqualifies memory as a means of knowledge. Memory is the recollection of something already known and is thus derivable and not foundational. Only genuine knowledge of the Self, according to Advaita Vedānta, passes the test of foundationality.

It is born of immediate knowledge (aparokṣa jnana) and not memory (smṛti). Six natural ways of knowing are accepted as valid means of knowledge (pramana) by Advaita Vedānta. Perception (pratyakṣa), inference (anumāna), verbal testimony (śabda), comparison (upamana), postulation (arthapatti) and non-apprehension (anupalabdhi).

The pramanas do not contradict each other and each of them presents a distinct kind of knowledge. Non-foundational knowledge of Brahman cannot be had by any means but through sruti, which is the supernaturally revealed text in the form of the Vedas (of which the Upaniṣhads form the most philosophical portion). Inference and the other means of knowledge cannot reveal the truth of Brahman (self) on their own.

However, Advaitins recognize that in addition to sruti, one requires yukti (reason) and anubhava (personal experience) to actualize knowledge of Brahman (Self). Mokṣha (liberation), which consists in the cessation of the cycle of life and death is governed by the karma of the individual self and is the result of knowledge of Brahman. As Brahman is identical with the universal Self and this Self is always self-conscious, it would seem that knowledge of Brahman is Self-knowledge and that this Self-knowledge is ever present. If so, it seems that ignorance is impossible.

Moreover, in the adhyasa bhaṣya (his preamble to the commentary on the Brahma Sutra) Adi Shankara says that the pure subjectivity—the Self or Brahman—can never become the object of knowledge just as the object can never be the subject. This would suggest that Self-knowledge that one gains in order to achieve liberation is impossible.

Adi Shankara’s response to this problem is to regard knowledge of Brahman that is necessary for liberation that is derived from scripture, to be distinct from the Self-consciousness of Brahman and rather a practical knowledge that removes ignorance which is an obstacle to the illumination of the ever-present self-consciousness of Brahman that does pass the test of foundationality. Ignorance, is not a feature of the ultimate Self on his account, but a feature of the individual self that is ultimately unreal.

Four factors are involved in an external perception: the physical object, the sense organ, the mind (antaḥkarana) and the cognizing self (pramata). The cognizing self alone is self-luminous and the rest of the three factors are not self-luminous being devoid of consciousness. It is the mind and the sense organ which relates the cognizing self to the object. The self alone is the knower and the rest are knowable as objects of knowledge.

At the same time the existence of mind is indubitable. It is the mind that helps to distinguish between various perceptions. It is because of the self-luminous (svata-prakaṣa) nature of pure consciousness that the subject knows and the object is known. In his commentary to Taittirīya Upaniṣad, Adi Shankara says that “consciousness is the very nature of the Self and inseparable from It.” The cognizing self, the known object, the object-knowledge, and the valid means of knowledge (pramana) are essentially the manifestations of one pure consciousness.

Shankara uses adhyāsa to indicate illusion – illusory objects of perception as well as illusory perception. Two other words which are used to denote the same are adhyaropa (super imposition) and avabhasa(appearance). According to Adi Shankara the case of illusion involves both super imposition and appearance. Adhyasa, as he says in his preamble to the Brahma Sutra, is the apprehension of something as something else with two kinds of confounding such as the object and its properties.

The concept of illusion, in Advaita Vedanta, is significant because it leads to the theory of a “real substratum.” The illusory object, like the real object, has a definite locus. According to Shankara, adhyasa is not possible without a substratum.

The Advaita theory of error (known as anirvacanīya khyati or the apprehension of the indefinable) holds that the perception of the illusory object is a product of the ignorance about the substratum. Adi Shankara characterizes illusion in two ways in his commentary on the Brahma Sūtra. The first is an appearance of something previously experienced—like memory—in something else (smṛtirupaḥ paratra pūrva dṛṣṭaḥ avabhāsah).

The second is a minimalist characterization—the appearance of one thing with the properties of another (anyasya anyadharma avabhāsatam. Shankara devotes his introduction to his commentary on the Brahma Sutra, to the idea of adhyasa to account for illusory perception relating to both everyday experience and also transcendent entities.

This introduction, called the adhyasa bhaṣya (commentary on illusion) presents a realistic position and a seemingly dualistic metaphysics: “Since it is an established fact that the object and subject which are presented as yusmad—‘you’ (the other) and asmad—‘me’ are by very nature contradictory and their qualities also contradictory as light and darkness cannot be identical.”

Plurality and illusion, on this account, are constructed out of the cognitive super imposition of the category of objects on pure subjectivity. While two conceptual categories are superimposed to create objects of illusion, the Adavita Vedanta view is that the only possible way of metaphysically describing the object of illusion is with the help of a characteristic other than those of non-existence and existence, which is termed as the “indeterminate” (anirvacaniya) which also somehow connects the two usual possibilities of existence and non-existence.

The object of illusion cannot be logically defined as real or unreal. Error is the apprehension of the indefinable. It is due to the “illegitimate transference” of the qualities of one order to another. Perceptual illusion forms the bridge between Advaita’s soteriology, on the one hand, and its theory of experience, on the other.

The relationship between the experience of liberation in this life (mukti) and everyday experience is viewed as analogous to the relation between veridical and delusive sense perception. Shankara formulates a theory of knowledge in accordance with his soteriological views. Shankara’s interest is thus not to build a theory of error and leave it by itself but to connect it to his theory of the ultimate reality of Self-Consciousness which is the only state which can be true according to his twin criteria for truth (non-sublatability and foundationality).

The characteristic of indeterminacy that qualifies objects of illusion is that which is truly neither real nor unreal but appears as a real locus. It serves as a stark contrast to the soteriological goal of the Self, which is truly real and determinate.

On the basis of his theory of knowledge, Shankara elucidates the fourfold (mental and physical) practices or qualifications—sādana catuṣṭaya—to aid in the achievement of liberation: (i) the discrimination (viveka) between the permanent (nitya) and the impermanent (anitya) objects of experience; (ii) dispassion towards the enjoyment of fruits of action here and in heaven; (iii) accomplishment of means of discipline such as calmness, mental control etc.; (iv) a longing for liberation.

In his commentary to the Brahma Sūtra, Śaṅkara says that the inquiry into Brahman (self) could start only after acquiring these four fold qualifications. The concept of liberation (mokṣa) in Advaita is explained in terms of Brahman (self). The pathways to liberation are defined by the removal of self-ignorance that is brought about by the removal of mithyajñāna (erroneous knowledge claims).

This is captured in the formula of one Advaitin: “[He] is never born again who knows that he is the only one in all beings like the ether and that all beings are in him” (Upadesa Sahasri XVII.69).

Many thinkers in the history of Indian philosophy have held that there is an important connection between action and liberation. In contrast,Adi Shankara rejects the theory of jñāna-karma-samuccaya, the combination of karma (Vedic duties) with knowledge of Brahman(self) leading to liberation.

Knowledge of Brahman (self) alone is the route to liberation for Adi Shankara. The role of action (karma) is to purify the mind (antaḥkaranasuddhi) and make it free from likes and dislikes (raga dveṣa vimuktaḥ). Such a mind will be instrumental to knowledge of Brahman.