Advaita Vedānta System

Non-dualism (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 )

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.

What is Adhyāsa?

Dec 7th, 2020

Well, if you want the technical answer from Shankaracharya’s Brahmasutra-bhashyam:

He defines Avidyā as Adhyāsa (superimposition) in his introduction.

  • स्मृतिरूपः परत्र पूर्वदृष्टावभासः — It is the form of memory, which imposes past impressions on things other than the original
  • अन्यत्र अन्यधर्मः — Allocation/assumption of alien properties/characteristics to entities
  • विवेकाग्रहनिबन्धनः भ्रमः — Confusion arising from an image built by the conviction of the intellect
  • विपरीतधर्मत्वकल्पना — Imagination of completely opposite characteristics of an entity
  • Examples: शुक्तिका रजतवत्, एकश्चन्द्रः सद्वितीयवत् — a mother-of-pearl (nacre) appearing as silver, or the moon seen as double
  • तमेतमेवंलक्षणमध्यासं पण्डिता अविद्येति मन्यन्ते — The superimposition defined as such is known as Avidyā by the wise

After a long discussion, this Avidyā or Adhyāsa is summarized as “अतस्मिंस्तद्बुद्धिः” i.e. “invocation of a thing in a thing other than it”.

“तमेतमविद्याख्यमात्मानात्मनोरितरेतराध्यासं पुरस्कृत्य सर्वे प्रमाणप्रमेयव्यवहारा लौकिकाः प्रवृत्ताः, सर्वाणि च शास्त्राणि …”

“With this mutual superimposition of the Self and non-Self called Avidyā, all the worldly means of knowledge and objects of knowledge are in motion, as well as all the scriptures…”

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.

Misconceptions about Advaita

Jan 15th, 2020

This confusion comes from the unfortunate availability of all scriptures to everybody, irrespective of qualifications. Everybody reads books on Advaita and Brahman, and without the full understanding of the appropriate application of teachings to appropriate situations.

Here’s an episode from the life of Adi Shankara, the greatest teacher of Advaita:

Once during his travels across India, teaching and debating, Adi Shankara had a discussion with a king. The king misunderstood Advaita and thought that Shankara was teaching that the world is unreal, and nothing has any value. To mock Shankara, the king ordered his attendants to release the wildest elephant in his stable just as Shankara was walking down the path of the royal garden. As soon as he saw the elephant charging, Shankara broke into a sprint and quickly climbed up the tallest coconut tree nearby.

Seeing this apparently hilarious spectacle, the king laughed and asked Shankara, why he ran from the imaginary elephant, as according to Advaita, everything is unreal? To this, Shankara gave a witty reply that what the king saw as Shankara running was also equally as imaginary as the charging elephant.

This witty episode really explains the true philosophy of Advaita.

Adi Shankara was not a fool to ignore the real-world threat of the charging elephant at the physical mundane level of existence. He protected himself with all his physical capabilities. At a higher level of consciousness, the physical level is less real, but these two levels do not interact. This was the misunderstanding of the king, who mixed the two levels of consciousness and mocked Advaita.

But today, Hindus are getting confused from the opposite side — in their immense faith, they apply their naive and dangerously wrong understanding of Advaita to the real, physical, mundane world.

I have said this in many answers and comments — Hindu philosophy guarantees the spiritual equality of everyone “up there” in the sky. But on the ground, in the physical world of flesh and blood — conflict, aggression and predation are real things that need to be guarded against if this beautiful Hindu philosophy needs to survive.

If Adi Shankara did not see the significance of debating and defeating real-world flesh-and-blood people, and re-establishing Hindu Vedic religion in a physical sense, he would not have taken the pains of travelling through the length and breadth of India and establishing real physical maThas and temples and rituals. He would have just sat in his home in Kerala, thinking, “Everything is the same, so there is no difference whether I go and preach Advaita or whether Hinduism dies.”

Author: Ram Abloh

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