Advaita Vedanta

Richard Williams Brooks – USA

[From the Theosophical Encyclopedia Website; here slightly revised in content and adapted to Theosophy Forward style]

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Sri Sankaracarya

Advaita Vedanta is one of the major philosophical systems of India. Its present form derives from the writings of the eighth-nineth century philosopher Sri Sankaracarya or Sankara in short form, but it obviously has a more ancient history. Sankara identifies Gaudapada (seventh century) as his paramaguru, usually taken to mean “teacher’s teacher,” though that cannot be its meaning in this instance — perhaps “paramount teacher” would be more literally appropriate. But an initial formulation of the ideas of the school was made by Badarayana (sixth century BCE?) in his cryptic summation of the teachings of the principal Upanisads, variously called Vedanta Sutras or Brahma Sutras, the name Vedanta indicating that the system derives its philosophic inspiration from the end (anta) or final texts of the Vedas, which are the Upanisads. The school also interprets end to mean (as it does ambiguously in English as well as in Sanskrit) “final teaching” or “purpose.”

The basic teaching of the Advaita, or non-dualist school of Vedanta is that there is only one fundamental reality in the world, usually termed Brahman when referring to the underlying reality of external objects and atman when referring to the basic consciousness or Self of every sentient being. In other words, the Self is identical with Brahman, not in the sense of participating in Brahman’s nature or being an evolute from Brahman, but in the sense of strict identity. Since we obviously perceive the world in terms of a duality of subject and object, the term advaita is intended to reject that prima facie view, rather than to assert a monism. Furthermore, reality is generally identified in Indian philosophy as something that exists independently of everything else and is unchanging. Brahman is real because it is, in the words of the Katha Upanisad (2.18), “Unborn, unchanging, eternal, primeval.” But since Brahman-atman is, in the often quoted words of the Chandogya Upanishad (6.2.1), “One only, without a second,” the question immediately arises: how is it we perceive a pluralistic world? The first answer is: because we are ignorant of the true nature of reality. Obviously, the only way to get rid of ignorance (ajñana, avidya) is by knowledge (jñana, vidya). And since one can only know for oneself, the idea of vicarious atonement is incompatible with this philosophy. The basic path to release (moksa) in Advaita is Jñana Yoga. When one attains that realization of one’s conscious identity with Brahman, one “obtains all one desires along with the unfettered consciousness of Brahman” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2.1).

The second answer is: because of maya. That is, we are under the influence of an illusion when we assume that the way we perceive and conceive (analyze, conceptualize) the world is the way the world really is. Since Advaita defines the real (sat) as unchanging and independent, but capable of being experienced, and the unreal (a) is “incapable of being experienced in any of the three times [past, present, or future],” it identifies the ontological status of the phenomenal world as “indefinable (anirvacaniya) as either real or unreal.” In other words, the world exists but is not the way things really are in the final analysis. This view is consistent with Advaita’s analysis of our ordinary perceptual illusions, such as mistaking a shiny shell on the beach for a silver coin, a stump or post off in the distance for a human being, or a rope coiled in a dimly lit room for a snake, to use some of the stock examples in Advaita literature. First, one does not perceive the actual object clearly (otherwise one would not misperceive it); that is analogous to our ignorance of Brahman-atman. Second, there must be an actual object that is misperceived — or, to put it in their philosophical jargon, a substratum or locus (upadhi) of the illusion. The substratum is the shell, stump, or rope in the examples given, but could also be the mind in the case of dreams, hallucinations, or hypnotically suggested impressions. In other words, Advaita states that illusions are illusions of something (unlike the Buddhist analysis of illusion). That is analogous to Brahman as the substratum of the world and atman as the substratum our empirical consciousness. But, third, one must have a memory, derived from previous perceptions, of actual silver, human beings, or snakes; one cannot mistake a coiled rope for a snake if one has never seen a snake before. This correlates with the Advaita view that the universe is beginningless (anadi) — that our individual, deluded souls have always existed, that we never became deluded at some beginning of time. We continue to be deluded about the world and ourselves because we were similarly deluded in previous lives and carry over that memory into this life. And finally, Advaita points out the interesting psychological fact that in our mistaken perception of the silver, human being, or snake, we not only overlook or “cover up” the actual locus, but we psychologically project onto that locus the image we mistakenly perceive it to be. The first mistaken perception is termed the power of overlooking or “covering” (avarana-sakti); the second is termed the power of projecting (viksepa-sakti). If one analyzes one’s perceptual illusions of the sort mentioned (and the possibilities of such mistaken perceptions are innumerable), one will find that one actually did see the silver, person, snake, or whatever at the time of the mistake. This is important to Advaita’s theory of error, since it indicates that even in ordinary perceptual illusions the ontological status of the mistaken impression is neither real nor unreal, but merely phenomenal, that is to say, it actually exists, it is not a mere nothing. Advaita frequently draws an analogy, as already suggested, between the substratum of our ordinary illusions (shell, stump, rope) and our mistaken perceptions of them (silver, human, snake) on the one hand and the substratum of the world illusion (Brahman-atman) and our empirical experience of the world on the other. Their basic epistemological defense of their position, then, is argument by analogy.

Like all other schools of Indian philosophy, Advaita has both a theory of knowledge and a theory of error. The latter has already been sketched out above. The former falls into two categories: a theory of empirical (vyavahara) knowledge (derived from perception or pratyaksa, inference or verbal testimony) and a theory of transcendental (paramartha) knowledge. Advaita rejects all other theories that attempt to account for how we distinguish between knowledge and error, substituting its own unique theory in their place. Essentially, it states that perception, or more generally experience, which is not superseded — or, to use their technical term, sublated (abadhita) — by any future perception, or experience, is true. Since Self-knowledge (atma-vidya) is an experience that cannot be sublated, in the final analysis it alone is true.

For a cosmological theory of the world, early Advaita utilizes Sankhya categories, while rejecting the basic dualism of Sankhya philosophy. It also makes a distinction between the transcendental reality or “higher (para-) Brahman” and Brahman as the apparent creator of the phenomenal world or “lower (apara-) Brahman,” a distinction that goes back to the earliest Upanisads (see, for instance, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3.1). The term Parabrahman (or Parabrahm) is used frequently also in early Theosophical literature to refer to absolute reality. Advaitins often speak of the “lower Brahman” in theistic terms as Iśvara or Śiva. (Sankara, in fact, is just another name for Śiva, indicating the Śaivite orientation of this philosophic system.) Thus, they can view the recurrent creation and dissolution of the universe as acts of God. Although there is not much discussion of it in Advaita literature, it contains a general theory of a manifestation-dissolution cycle, with the former consisting of four ages (yugas) and the latter being a rest period of equal duration to the former.

Contemporary Advaitins tend to use categories of modern science instead of those of Sankhya. But both are explanations of mere appearance, not of ultimate reality, according to Advaita. But Advaita philosophers do make a distinction between analogies used to explain the superimposition (adhyasa) of the empirical world upon Brahman and those used to explain the superimposition of our limited consciousness, soul or ego (termed jiva by them), upon atman. The shell-silver, stump-person, and rope-snake analogies are used for the former purpose, but at least two fundamentally different analogies are used for the latter. They are referred to as limitation (avacchedaka) and reflection (pratibimbaka) analogies. The stock example of the former is our conceptual attitude toward space within a room or a pot as separate from space generally, as if it had a separate, independent existence. For example, we say a parking area has a lot of space for cars or say that a building has lots of space for storage in it. The stock example of the latter is our conceptual attitude of taking a reflection as if it were a separate entity from the object reflected. Sankara himself uses both analogies in his writings, but later Advaitins tended to prefer one or the other, giving rise to two different post-Sankara schools of Advaita, respectively the Bhamati School (named after a commentary by Vacaspati Misra on Sankara’s commentary on the Vedanta Sutras) and the Vivarana School (named after a similar commentary by Padmapada, one of Sankara’s own pupils).

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