Dvaita vs VishishtAdvaita vs Advaita


Dualism (dvaita) is of course quite clear. The three eternal entities that co-exist forever are Ishvara (the Supreme Soul paramAtman who in this case is strictly Vishnu), jIva (the individual souls) and jagat (the material universe or mAyA).

Although these three are eternal, Ishvara is called svatantra (independent) and both jIva and jagat are called paratantra (dependent on the para, i.e. higher one, Ishvara). However, there is no ultimate similarity between any two of them, nor between any two individual souls (jIvas). So the goal of spiritual practice or worship according to dvaita siddhAnta is to reach one’s own highest potential. My highest achievement may not be the same as your highest achievement, but apparently there is no one standard. Since there is no common standard, there is no common salvation for all souls. Some of them are eternally damned to non-stop cycle of rebirth, as well as “lower” births. Such souls cannot attain mokSha or liberation because that is their individual inherent capacity.

It is quite hard to find direct and explicit support for this doctrine in Vedas & Upanishads.


Qualified non-dualism (vishiShTAdvaita) is a bit complicated. The three eternal entities Ishvara, jIva and jagat are not completely different, but with caveats. There are 4 key terms used to describe their relationship that is unique to vishiShTAdvaita siddhAnta:

  • amsha — amshin : part — whole: The jIvas and jagat are incomplete parts, and Ishvara is the one that brings them together as an integral whole.
  • sheSha — sheShin : remnant — original: This is somewhat similar to the first relationship.
  • sharIra — sharIrin : body — owner of body: The jIvas and jagat form the body of Ishvara, who is the owner.
  • antaryAmya — antaryAmin : controlled from within — inner controller: The jIvas and jagat being the body, Ishvara is the Atman controlling them.

The last two of these relationships do find support in the Upanishads, for example in the antaryAmi brAhmaNam of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.7

Of course, as is well-known, this system also fortified the concept of complete spiritual surrender to the highest deity, called sharaNAgati or prapatti. This idea does not really find support in the Vedas and Upanishads, where the individual is really considered to be of the same substance as the deity, and it is only a matter of realizing that. However, scholars do quote the verse from Katha and Mundaka Upanishad in support of the surrender idea:

“नायमात्मा प्रवचनेन लभ्यो न मेधया न बहुना श्रुतेन।

यमेवैष वृणुते तेन लभ्यस्तस्यैष आत्मा विवृणुते तनूं स्वाम् ॥”

“This Atman is not achieved by listening to lectures, nor by intellectual activity, nor by too much Vedic learning. Only he who is selected by the Atman can achieve it, as the Atman reveals himself.”

This “selection by Atman” is interpreted as evidence that if an individual completely surrenders himself to the deity, then the deity has no choice but to select and approve the individual for mokSha (liberation). The deity in this system is Vishnu or Narayana.

The Bhagavad Gita clearly has Arjuna surrendering his intellect to Krishna for guidance — as he says in the very beginning: “shiShyaste aham, shAdhi mAm tvAm prapannam.” This is a new idea that is not clearly present in the Vedas or Upanishads. Although Arjuna’s surrender was only circumstantial, this may have been a strong source of inspiration for the prapatti concept.

The vishiShTAdvaita siddhAnta also delineates the modes of mokSha (liberation):

  • sAlokyam: “same-world-ness” — the quality of being in the same world as the deity, in this case, Vishnu’s vaikuNTha. This can be considered to be the lowest grade.
  • sAmIpyam: “proximity” — the quality of being close to the deity. Second grade.
  • sArUpyam: “same form” — the quality of having the same form (I guess spiritual form?) as the deity. Third grade.
  • sAyujyam: “union” — the quality of being completely joined with the deity. Highest grade. Note that this still does not imply elimination of the individuality of the soul, because if the experience of union must happen then the soul must still retain some separateness.

Or maybe there are no gradations in the mokSha. In any case, the liberated soul still experiences its individual existence.


Non-dualism (advaita) is simpler than the above system and closer to the Vedas & Upanishads than both the above systems.

According to advaita siddhAnta, the jIva is identical to Ishvara in substance and essence. The jagat is a changing and mesmerizing manifestation of Ishvara that binds the jIva in its limited existence. The analogy is of the air inside an earthen pot. As long as the pot exists, the air inside it appears separated. But as soon as the pot breaks, the true nature of the air as a continuum is evident, and there is no more separation.

In the case of the jIva which is a pure consciousness, the layers of the gross body, with its 5 internal layers (vital breath or nervous system, etc.), and the various modes of the mind all come together to cause an apparent isolation. Hence each jIva considers itself separate and autonomous from other jIvas. Once it realizes its true nature as pure consciousness, it is no longer a limited, isolated entity but rather a cosmic reality. Or at the very least, the notion of association with temporary identities should be gone.

A major misconception about advaita siddhAnta is it teaches that the world is unreal or an illusion. This is not correct. It proposes three levels of perception of reality:

  1. prAtibhAsika (apparent or illusive)
  2. vyAvahArika (empirical or phenomenal )
  3. pAramArthika (transcendental or ideal or noumenal )

For additional perspectives of advaita, please read my other answer on Advaita & atheism.

A unique concept in advaita siddhAnta is that of jIvanmukti (i.e. jIvat + mukti — liberation while alive). Knowledge or enlightenment (jnAna) removes ignorance, thereby leaving behind the pure, absolute state of Brahman. We cannot prove the existence of heavenly worlds – these are only based on belief. So we cannot truly rely on going to a better world after death. So advaita is brutally honest about it and says — do what you can, here and now. Become enlightened here and now.

This concept does find support in the Vedas and Upanishads. For example, in the Rig Veda 3.26.7, rishi Vishvamitra realizes that he is essentially Agni, and he says “agnirasmi janmanA jAtavedAh… — I am Agni by birth omniscient”. Also in RV 4.26.1, rishi Vamadeva realizes that he is essentially everything, and says “aham manurabhavam sUryashca… — I was Manu and Surya”. This same idea is echoed in the statement “aham brahmAsmi — I am Brahman” in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

However, it is also true that in the Upanishads, the dominant concept of liberation is “krama-mukti” (i.e. graded liberation, step-by-step transition to higher worlds until final liberation). My gut feeling about this is, it was done to cater to the beliefs of the majority of the people of the time. As there are equal number of instances of jIvanmukti and kramamukti in the Vedas and Upanishads, I don’t think it is too much of an issue.

Advaita :  three levels of perception of reality

Aug 14, 2014

The dual (dvaita) and non-dual (advaita) views have been defined by Shankara in three terms:

  1. prAtibhAsika (apparent or illusive)
  2. vyAvahArika (empirical or phenomenal )
  3. pAramArthika (transcendental or ideal or noumenal )

These three levels of being in that order correspond to increasing levels of correct or true knowledge and decreasing levels of incorrect or false knowledge.

These three levels of being also correspond to decreasing levels of temporariness and increasing levels of permanence.

These three levels of being are linked through the varying levels of pure knowledge that is revealed when ignorance is removed. How is this ignorance removed? It seems very mysterious, but it is not. The key to removing ignorance is acute perception. The more acute the perception, the higher of the three levels we can reach.

The classic example in Vedanta of the prAtibhAsika (apparent or illusive) state is that of seeing silver on a piece of a seashell on the beach from a distance. The ignorance is caused by the distance and the angle of incidence of light on the seashell. The ignorance is removed by getting closer and closer to the seashell, and perceiving through sight and touch that there is no silver. The knowledge of the absence of silver is more correct than the prior knowledge of the presence of silver. This also corresponds to the temporariness of silver in the seashell and the permanence of its real material. In Advaita terms, the silver was superimposed (adhyAsa) on the real material.

Another example of prAtibhAsika state is that of perceiving a tall pillar of wood as a person in the darkness. Yet another example is that of perceiving a piece of rope as a snake in the darkness. In these cases, ignorance is caused by the darkness, and it is removed by introducing light. The temporary characteristics are gone, and the permanent characteristics remain.

So you see, so far, temporary = unreal; permanent = real. If these are rephrased, we can say: less permanent = less real; more permanent = more real.

Knowingly or unknowingly, in the three examples above, we are making observations about the prAtibhAsika state, from the vantage point of the vyAvahArika (empirical) state. In this state of being, our tools for gathering correct knowledge are our sense organs and mind (which is actually called antahkaraNa – “internal organ” in Advaita) (with all its various modes like manas, buddhi, citta, viveka). The acquisition of empirical knowledge happens when observations cease to change with respect to the permanence of the senses and intellect. When observations of the same object become steady, then the steadiest observation is considered ‘knowledge’. Of course, the process and ability to make observations implies the duality of the vyAvahArika state. This is the state of being of worldly life, of science and finance; business and politics; crime and punishment; war and peace. Almost the entirety of Western philosophy works in the vyAvahArika realm of being.

The tricky aspect of the vyAvahArika (empirical) state is that it always contains the prAtibhAsika (apparent) state within itself.

Nobody needs to know any further than the vyAvahArika state if they have a satisfactory life. If they have an unsatisfactory life, every cause and remedy exists in the vyAvahArika state, i.e. the state of duality.

The quest for the pAramArthika (transcendental) state is purely for the joy of the ultimate discovery.

Exactly analogous to the relationship between the prAtibhAsika (apparent) and vyAvahArika (empirical) states of being, is the relationship between the vyAvahArika (empirical) and pAramArthika (non-dual) states of being.

The classic example in Vedanta to show the relationship between empirical and non-dual states is the “avasthA-traya-nyAya” i.e. the reasoning with the three states of consciousness. The three states of normal consciousness are waking, dreaming and deep sleep. In the waking state, the senses and the mind are at work interacting with the outside world (typical of vyAvahArika or empirical state). In the dreaming state, the senses are quiet but the mind is active creating a world of its own, but which is usually a twisted version of the outside world. So the dreaming state is also a reflection of the vyAvahArika state. However, in deep dreamless sleep, it is as if we were dead. Neither the senses nor the mind is active. There is no perception of space and time. There is no active awareness. And yet, after coming out of deep sleep, the experience is of deep inexplicable satisfaction and bliss. In fact, the only recollection of deep sleep is that we had neither positive nor negative experiences.

This subjective analysis of deep sleep reveals that there is a state of being other than the vyAvahArika (empirical), and that whatever exists in this different state also persists in the vyAvahArika (empirical) state, because otherwise we would not be able to recollect our experiences from before and after this state. If all knowledge can only be known by a knower, if all observations can only be made by an observer, then the experience of this state of deep sleep is also a result of an observation. Now then, there cannot be a different observer for the waking and dream states, and a different observer for the deep sleep state because there is continuity of memory, which is a non-active function. So the active observer is one and only one. This is how the vyAvahArika (empirical) is linked to the pAramArthika (transcendental or non-dual) state.

Then what is this observer observing during deep sleep? Not objects of the outside world, and not the fanciful creations of the mind. The observer is observing ‘itself’ (or the more comforting ‘himself’ or ‘herself’). In other words, the active observer is purely self-aware, in the presence and knowledge of itself, without anything external to it, without a second thing (i.e. non-dual).

Rounding up all this back to the top, the equations, “temporary = unreal; permanent = real” still hold for the relationship of vyAvahArika (empirical) to pAramArthika (transcendental). The non-dual, self-existing, self-knowing observer is present in the transcendental state in the absence of the senses and the mind, and is also present in the empirical state underlying the senses and the mind. So this observer is more permanent than the senses and the mind. Hence this observer is more real than the senses and the mind. Since the outside world is basically a creation of the senses and the mind, this whole series implies that the observer is the most real thing that exists.

Now the question arises – how can we just say that the concrete and material world is only a creation of the senses and the mind? We perceive things solidly everyday. Yes, we perceive the material world in the empirical state. We are not in the transcendental state when we perceive the world. Just as the silver in the seashell is fully real as long as we don’t get closer and find out the “truth”, in the same way, the empirical world is absolutely real as long as we don’t experience the transcendental state. Once we do, then our perspective changes. We can then control and balance our indulgence and immersion in both the empirical (vyAvahArika) and the transcendental (pAramArthika) states.

Avidya in Advita

Feb 23, 2020

The verse is talking about the state of people who are at various stages of spiritual maturity.

Ishopanishad 9:

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽविद्यामुपासते। ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ विद्यायां रताः ॥

Here, avidyA is clearly ignorance of the metaphysical reality of existence. So people in avidyA are in darkness, i.e. ignorance. However, vidyA, which is the knowledge is the corresponding polar opposite of avidyA. So vidyA is still the formal category of knowledge in opposition to ignorance. The verse says that both these are still categories operating in the duality of the universe.

People who think that they have knowledge as opposed to the ignorant, are still within the framework of the duality and finiteness of the universe. Hence, association and indulgence in the category of knowledge vis-a-vis ignorance is also a serious pitfall in the path of metaphysical (spiritual) enlightenment.

The true state of Brahman is beyond all categories of duality. The pair of opposites knowledge-vs-ignorance is still within this category of duality because the definitions of both “knowledge” and “ignorance” require “the other”. In other words, “knowledge” is the “lack of ignorance” and “ignorance” is the “lack of knowledge”. So they are still mutually dependent.

The state of Brahman is completely independent.

As essential as knowledge is to reach the state of Brahman, you only actually reach the state of Brahman when you have given up the category of knowledge.

This is what the Upanishad is conveying in a series of seemingly confounding verses.

Advaita to an Atheist

Sep 16, 2016

Advaita is not any kind of theism. So an atheist has no vantage point to launch an attack. Advaita does not propose a human-like personal deity as the ultimate truth.

Advaita talks about the innermost reality that is the basis of every living creature’s existence, and is within reach of everyone to experience first-hand.

Perhaps Adi Shankara, the foremost teacher of Advaita, anticipated this when he made this seminal statement in his Brahmasutra Bhashya (commentary on Brahmasutra):

“य एव हि निराकर्ता तस्य आत्मत्वात्”

“The innermost reality is the very observer who denies the existence of everything”

This is true because the denier cannot deny his/her own existence. This applies so easily even in everyday life without us realizing it. Every occurrence and activity starts from acknowledging our own existence first. Then with our existence as the foundation, the world comes into existence.

Now, there is value in this innermost ultimate reality because it is something that is constant, ever-existent, and unchanging. It is the substratum of all experience — both affirming and negating. This is because all knowledge is gained through observation by an observer. When we say gravity exists, it is an observation by an observer. When we say nothing exists, that is still an observation by an observer. There needs to be a constant observer even to experience “nothingness”. This is the pure absolute ultimate reality that takes the form of consciousness without a subject/object bifurcation. This is the ultimate innermost truth of everybody and everything.

Advaita is not even in the field of action of an atheist. Advaita is what powers up the atheist in his atheism, just as it powers up a theist in his theism.

Author: Ram Abloh, (Hindu, studied Veda (incl. Upanishads), Vedanta, Gita)
Dec 2, 2017

Full profile of this Author can be viewed at : https://www.quora.com/profile/Ram-Abloh?ch=10&share=8afff2bd&srid=12MJJ