– 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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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.
Pranamayakosa is one’s identity as a living, vital being.
Manomayakosa is made up of manas, the “sense”-
Anandamayakosa 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-
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-
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-
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-
Valid Means of Knowledge
Vedanta acknowledges six valid means of knowledge: Perception, comparison, non-
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.