Advaita: Empirical or Dualist

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 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 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, the 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 manasbuddhicittaviveka). 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.

July 28th 2020

Advaita is completely focused on the non-dual ultimate subjective experience beyond the dualities of the mind, that is available to every human being regardless of their peripheral theories and belief systems constructed at the level of the mind.

Advaita relies strictly on the deepest experience of pure existence and consciousness and bliss (sat-cit-Ananda), and backs it up with pure logic and scriptural authority.

Advaita does not incorporate unprovable theories of divine worlds and divine persons, into its doctrine of the ultimate state or experience.

It does acknowledge the usefulness of these peripheral belief systems as stepping stones, in preparing the individual to go beyond the mind. However, these are not an integral part of Advaita’s teaching of the non-dual state, because these peripheral belief systems are inherently constructed with dualities.

For example, in the Dvaita or Vishishtadvaita or other non-Advaita systems, the final doctrine is a state of dual existence with a deity. But there is no independent proof of experience of the ultimate reality of such deities, and adherence to such systems depends on trust and faith. Advaita is brutally honest in sticking to purely the deepest experience available to every individual beyond mental states such as trust, faith, belief, analysis, etc.

Hence, diverse individuals with diverse peripheral belief systems can still experience the non-duality explained by Advaita.

As the great scholar Shatavadhani Ganesh has said, the non-Advaita systems criticize Advaita on the point that it is extremely arrogant for the individual to be equated to the deity. However, isn’t it hundred times more egotistical and arrogant to think that even in the ultimate state, you as an individual are so great as to be a separate existence face-to-face with the non-dual Brahman. It is more humble to be able to merge into the Brahman and lose your individuality, than be so arrogant as to want to maintain your separateness. And this complete loss of individuality is also in concordance with actual experience at the deepest level. “Individuality” is still a worldly attachment.

Author: Ram Abloh
Aug 14th, 2017

Full profile of this Author can be viewed at :