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Advaita Vedanta

Classic Scriptures

– A very short critical introduction

Advaita Vedanta is an old Indian system of thought that has gained much popularity in the West. Literally “Vedanta” means “end of wisdom” and this immodest name implies that Vedanta contains the highest teachings. In one sense it does, in one sense it does not, as we will see. “Advaita” means “non-dual”, so we first have a division of schools of thought into dualistic and non-dualistic. The non-dualistic are deemed higher than the dualistic within Vedanta. Vedanta is expressed in the ancient Upanishads and was primarily systematized by Shankara. Since Vedanta prefers non-dual texts, it rejects the dualistic, theistic, aspect of the Bhagavad Gita, and relies instead on terse texts like the Brahma-sutras. Vedanta was recently popularized by the great sage Ramana Maharshi and via him has inspired many seekers in the West. Let us discuss its teachings.


Vedanta is mainly concerned with the realization of Brahman. Brahman is not an “It” or a “He” or “God”, Brahman is a state of being. In fact, it is pure being itself. Vedanta has some problems informing us what Brahman is, since Brahman is the primal source prior to anything and thus impossible to describe. The Upanishads say that the best way of explaining what Brahman is, is by applying the expression “neti, neti” which means “not this, not this”. However, we are also informed that Brahman is “sat-chit-ananda”, meaning “being-consciousness-bliss”. We can not apply “neti-neti” to being, since that would deny the existence of Brahman, nor apply it to consciousness, since it would in that case be impossible to realize Brahman (Brahman would be a state of uncosciousness). Bliss has been much debated. Some maintain it is not a quality of Brahman, but rather a quality of mans apprehension of Brahman. Others maintain, correctly, that bliss is the very nature of Brahman, like being and consciousness. The difference is important: In the first case, apprehension, bliss would be seen as something that had to be overcome, in the second case, the very nature of Brahman, bliss is seen as a guide to deeper Oneness with Brahman. “Being” (“sat”) is to be understood in its most ultimate sense. It is Pure Being, unqualified by anything. This means all thoughts, emotions and identities are to be transcended before one can merge with Brahman, - or that all such will be transcended upon merging. “Consciousness” thus means not awareness of anything, but rather Self-awareness of itself as unmanifest, blissful being. One can speculate much along these lines, but the important thing about Vedanta is that it is not a speculative system, but is an attempt at documenting a state of enlightenment, which is considered the highest by Vedantins.

However, Vedanta speaks of nirguna Brahman and saguna Brahman, which means Brahman without and with form. How can Brahman have form? It can not and the saguna Brahman refers to the inferior experience while meditating. Thus saguna Brahman is a subjective interpretation of the absolute Brahman in relative understanding. Here we have the notion of the Divine in a personal sense and saguna Brahman gives rise to devotion to and love of the Divine. Saguna Brahman is experienced in savikalpa samadhi (samadhi with form), while nirguna Brahman is experienced in nirvikalpa samadhi (samadhi without form). One can not, strictly, speak of an experience in nirvikalpa samadhi, it is truly a state of pure being.

What is the relation between Brahman and the world? Vedanta has a problem here. The Upanishads give various answers, mostly relying on another philosophical system, samkhya. But the general idea is that Brahman is “one without a second”, in other words Brahman transcends everything including self, God and creation. This does not answer the question of creation, though. Vedanta gives various answers, but generally maintains that the effect (the objects of creation) pre-exists as a cause within Brahman. But Brahman then becomes Ishvara (God) which is inconsistent with the teaching “neti, neti”, not this, not this. Vedanta also tries to circumvent the problem by bringing in the three concepts: maya (illusion), avidya (ignorance) and adhyasa (superimposition).


Though everything is Brahman, Brahman appears as something given, for example a pot, because of maya. Maya has hold over one because of one’s ignorance about Brahman and maya superimposes the pot, for example, onto Brahman in one’s consciousness. Vedanta explains it is like mistaking a rope for a snake. But Vedanta has still not solved the problem, for where does this mysterious force, maya, come from, what drives it, what upholds it?

Whenever there is a sense of “I”, “me” or “mine”, there is maya. Maya is all experience based on a subject-object relationship, it is whenever one perceives something as other than Brahman. This means identities, memories, fears, pleasures, etc. are maya. In fact everything is maya except the crystal clear oneness with Brahman in unity consciousness. Since maya precedes everything, it is indescribable, for language is maya, and it is unthinkable, since thoughts are maya. Maya is that mysterious force which makes us take the empirical world as real. But where does maya come from? Maya can not be Brahman, since that would negate the “neti, neti” definition of Brahman. Also Brahman is a passive state of witnessing, it does not, according to Vedanta, take part in creation, since that part is played by maya. Thus Vedanta, which claims to be non-dualistic, in fact is dualistic since it proposes two basic things: 1. a state of stasis (Brahman) untouched by maya, 2. a dynamic creative force (maya), hiding Brahman from Brahman and creating the world. Ignorance (avidya) becomes synonymous with maya, since avidya is non-cognition of Brahman and identification with body/ego/etc. It may be said, that maya comes from Ishvara, but then the question is: how does passive Brahman become active Ishvara? Then we have two, if not three basic principles: Breahman and Ishvara (and maya) and Vedanta is still a dualistic system now based in the impersonal passive divine Brahman and the personal divine Ishvara.

Samkara explains that the world may be considered the sport or play (lila) of Isvara and that it has no purpose. He also explains the world may be seen as the expansion of Isvara. What is not explained in Vedanta, is how Ishvara arises from passive Brahman. Vedanta tries to avoid this dilemma by insisting everything is illusion, maya, and if everything is illusion, the dilemma is also illusion so there is no need to answer it. But this denial does not solve the problem that if Brahman is passive pure being without any causal power, how does causal power come into being? This causal power may be either inherent in a superbeing (Ishvara) or may be an illusion (maya), but never the less, the world is here and it is a dynamic functioning organism. So how does this dynamic functioning come about if the world is an illusion and in reality is passive Brahman?

Vedanta admits Ishvara can not be demonstrated rationally, but only be affirmed on the grounds of experience. So Vedanta is forced to admit there are two principles at work: Passive Brahman, and something else. This “something else” is of course Shakti, as explained by Kashmir Shaivism. The existence of Shakti does not make a system dualistic, because Brahman in its nature is both Shiva and Shakti at once: pure being and creative energy as One.

Vedanta maintains there is no causal relationship between Brahman and the world, that the world is the play of Ishvara. It also maintains the world is a mere appearance of Brahman through superimposition and maya. Thus Brahman experiences Brahman as a superimposition and is ignorant of itself believing the superimposition to be real. How does this split in Brahman come about? Vedanta has no explanation. Neither to how this split is overcome. Both can only be explained by recourse to Shakti.

The Self and the self

The Self (Paramatman, or just Atman) is not different from Brahman. Why, then, do we think otherwise? How do we overcome ignorance of this our very own pure being? Vedanta relies heavily on jnana yoga (the path of knowledge) to help set man free from ignorance. But why are we ignorant of our Self? Vedanta offers two explanations: pratibimba-vada (the theory of reflection) and avaccheda-vada (theory of limitation).

Pratibimba maintains the jiva (the small ignorant self) is a reflection of the Atman (the Self) but the reflection can be more or less pure. It is reflected in ignorance, so one has to remove ignorance to get a better reflection. Ultimately the reflection must vanish, or unite, with the source. Practice is to clear the mind and calm it. One should remove desires and calm the emotions.

Aveccheda maintains the jiva is a limitation of pure consciousness. It rejects the theory of reflection on the basis that pure being without qualities can not be reflected. The limitations are made up of ignorance, thus the infinite is seen through ideas and concepts that do not match the infinite. One has to clear up one’s understanding.

There are five sheaths that cover the Self and with which one identifies. One has to remove identification with all of them.

is one’s identity as a physical body.

is one’s identity as a living, vital being.

is made up of manas, the “sense”-mind” without any discrinminating abilities. It gives rise to the sense of “my” and “mine” because it is manas that enables one to handle external objects.

is one’s identity as a thinking, rational being. It is made up of buddhi, the intellect.

is one’s deep sleep, in which one, according to Vedanta, lies in a state of bliss. This is also referred to as the causal body.

The identifications give rise to various states of consciousness. When one identifies with anandamayakosa, one is in deep sleep. When identified with the prana-, mano- and vijnanamayakosa, one is in the dream state. When identified with the physical body, one is in the waking state. Of course manas and buddi are active in the waking state also, so one should not take this simplistic model too literally. What is interesting and important is the fourth state of consciousness, which is transcendental consciousness, or “turiya”. In this state one is temporarily free of identifications and more or less resides in the Self. By repeatedly entering turiya one will achieve Self-realization in due time. Oneness with the Self is called “samadhi”, however, there are two kinds of samadhi: savikalpa and nirvikalpa. Savikalpa is imperfect while nirvikalpa is perfect, though still temporary. In savikalpa there are still mental and emotional movements, though one’s awareness is sunk deeply into the Self. But it is as if only part of one’s awareness is in the Self, while another part is attempting to let go of the psycho-physical movements. These movements are not directly disturbing one’s samadhi, but they are never the less there. In nirvikalpa samadi, there are no involvements with the psycho-physical movements (if there are any left) and one’s entire awareness is merged with the Self. With repeated nirvikalpa samadhis, one will reach Self-realization and full enlightenment.

Karma and moksha (liberation)

“Karma” literally means “action”, but refers to a general theory that every action has an effect that one is bound to suffer, be it good or bad. It is both “as you sow, you shall reap” and: As you sow, you shall act. Vedanta, and Indian philosophy in general, does not explain karma very well and it appears to be more a convenient theory than an examined fact. Unlike the Self and samadhi, which everyone can explore and find, karma has to be intuited or taken on faith. Also you have to understand past lives in order to understand karma, for one’s present life karma is to a large extent generated in past lives. The problem of fatalism that follows in the wake of the karma theory is obvious, but free will and responsibility for one’s actions is acknowledged, though not discussed well. One could object to the karma theory, that if it was all that accounted for one’s situation in life and actions, then it negated itself by denying freedom to man. But self-determinism is a given fact in Indian philosophy that is taken for granted. Karma may give one an impulse to act in some way, but it is one’s own decision to decide if one wants to act thus or not. Thus the karma theory acts as a moral imperative, rather than the opposite which would follow from fatalism.

Naturally the question arises: How can one be free of the effects of karma? This freedom is called “moksha”. Moksha is actually freedom from “bondage” and karma is the major bondage in one’s life. One is also bound by one’s ideas, concepts, feelings, etc. as well as the cycle of birth-death and rebirth. Moksha, however, is not solely negatively defined, it is actually more a positive concept about the attainment of Self-realization. But since Self-realization can not be defined or described, it is common to approach it negatively; here as freedom from non-Self-realization, or ignorance (avidya). Freedom is oneness with being-consciousness-bliss: Atman, the Self, Brahman.

In order to attain moksha, one has to examine everything circumvented by the question “who am I?”. This means rejecting everything conceivable and reaching the pure being prior to I-ness (ahamkara). This kind of meditation is known as “self-enquiry” in neo-advaita. Traditionally it is a form of jnana-yoga, the yoga of wisdom. First one has to hear about enlightenment and moksha and so forth., then one has to think it over thoroughly. Finally one has to meditate constantly on “Who am I?” rejecting all false identifications and hoping somehow to plop into savikalpa samadhi or nirvikalpa samadhi. Michael Langford refined the self-enquiry method to a question of awareness watching awareness, so that awareness would fold back in on itself and plop into samadhi.

Valid Means of Knowledge

Vedanta acknowledges six valid means of knowledge: Perception, comparison, non-cognition, inference, postulation and testimony. It is noteworthy none of these methods are capable of grasping Brahman, thus Vedanta implicitly states that Brahman must be grasped by no-means. It is also noteworthy that karma can’t be grasped by any of these six means and thus must be taken on faith.

Deutsch, Eliot: Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction
, Hawaii UP. 1973 (1969).

Deutsch, Eliot, ed.: The Essential Vedanta
, World Wisdom 2004.

Langford, Michael: The most Rapid and Direct Means to Eternal Bliss
, The Freedom Religion Inc. 4th ed. 2006 (1998).

Waite, Dennis: The Book of One, The Spiritual Path of Advaita
, O Books 2003.

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