Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Advaita Vedānta Philosophy: An Introduction & Basic Reading Guide

Introduction [subscript diacritic dots unavailable]

Advaita Vedānta: one of the six ‘orthodox’ (from āstika, one who accepts the normative revelatory status of the Veda) schools (better: darśanas, philosophical viewpoints) of Indic philosophy that emerged in the early centuries of the Common Era. Advaita (Absolute Non-Dualism) is perhaps the best known of the sub-schools within Vedānta, which counts Viśistādvaita (Qualified Non-Dualism, or Non-Dualism of the Qualified) and Dvaita (Dualism) among the most important. Advaita Vedānta formally commences with commentaries on the Brahmasūtras (‘Holy Power Aphorisms’) (c. 300 BCE to 300 CE) of Bādārāyana (also known as Vyāsa, the ‘Arranger’). The main focus is on the relation between ātman (the soul/Self) and Brahman (the One, Ultimate Reality). In the Upanisads we find the claim that, in some sense, ātman and Brahman are ‘One,’ a claim endorsed by Śankara (8th century), the great religious philosopher whose commentaries (bhāsya) on the Brahmasūtras and the Upanisads are taken to represent the crystallization of Advaita philosophy. Mention should be made of Gaudapāda (late 5th to early 6th century), Śankara’s parama-guru (i.e., the teacher of Śankara’s master, Govinda) and author of the Māndūkya-kārikā, passages from which ‘are cited almost verbatim in Śankara’s Commentary on the Brahma-sūtra’ (Natalia Isayeva). The brilliant grammarian and philosopher of language, Bhartrhari (c. 450-510), known largely through his Vākyapadīya and its sphota theory of language, undoubtedly influenced early Vedānta philosophy, although his impact is more clearly evidenced in Kashmir Śaivism. Brahman alone is real (sat), the knowledge of which is an experiential (mystical) realization of a ‘higher’ truth qualitatively different from ordinary or conventional truth. From the vantage point of this higher truth, our perception of and belief in distinct selves and, indeed, any plurality of phenomena, or any subject/object discrimination is indicative or reflective of fundamental ignorance (avidyā) and entanglement in māyā (illusion). Until one has attained this higher truth—the goal of jñāna-yoga—it is perfectly acceptable to rely on the perception and knowledge captured in common sense or conventional descriptions of the world, as well as the applicable ethical rules, values and virtues associated with one’s obligations to and understanding of dharma (hence the acceptance of conventional epistemic criteria and standards as found in classical Indian pramāna theory). A notable Advaita exponent after Śankara, was the twelfth-century dialectician (in the manner of the Buddhist Madhyamaka school) Śriharsa. Advaita Vedānta might be described as monistic, but its monism is decidedly different from modern conceptions (wherein there is one kind of ‘something’ or stuff), for Brahman is (the ‘One without a second’), in the end, beyond predication, beyond conceptualization (a-rational, non-rational, or supra-rational), absolutely indescribable or ‘ineffable.’ It’s perhaps best characterized as a ‘neutral’ monism, and an Asian exemplification of apophatic mysticism.

Brahman is the principle of neutral monism within Advaita Vedānta, and no qualities or attributes can be predicated of Brahman, as it is beyond conceptualization. The jñāna yogi pursues a mystical awareness of that which cannot be an ‘object’ of knowledge, as Brahman transcends subject-object distinction. Brahman is ātman. Realization of Brahman is the supreme good that brings about freedom from fear and evil. The apprehension of Brahman is evocatively summarized in the formulaic expression, saccidānanda, being (sat), consciousness (cit), and bliss (ānanda). If Brahman defies all description and characterization, is beyond all predication, how can one say, for example, that ‘Brahman is truth?’ According to Eliot Deutsch, ‘To say “Brahman is truth,” negates the quality of untruth—and this negation, it is believed, serves pragmatically to orient the mind towards Brahman. All characterizations of Brahman, in short, are intended in their experiential dimension to aid those who are searching for Brahman but have not yet realized it.’ Advaita Vedānta distinguishes two modes of Brahman: nirguna and saguna. Nirguna Brahman is what we have been discussing up to this point, that transcendent indeterminate state of mystical awareness about which nothing can be affirmed (hence the via negativa or apophatic tradition of mysticism is germane). To experientially ‘know’ Brahman is to experience moksa, to be liberated from the beginningless cycles of samsāra, to nullify any further generation of karma. Until such time as we realize (nirguna) Brahman, we are perfectly fit to focus our spiritual energy and sights on saguna Brahman, that is, God with qualities, attributes, or properties. Saguna Brahman is Brahman understood by the yogi or devotee from her necessarily limited, partial, or relative perspective, in which all knowledge and understanding is qualified by ignorance. From this vantage point (saguna) Brahman is Lord, Īśvara, the proper object of our devotion and admitting of degrees of spiritual experience and understanding. Until one has the intuitive spiritual experience of non-duality, an awareness in which all distinctions, plurality, and difference are transcended and obliterated, until that is, nirvikalpa samadhi, one must acknowledge the consequences that follow entanglement in māyā (illusion) and being shadowed by avidyā (ignorance). The illusion, in other words, is for most purposes, real for us. It is an illusion created by the power (śakti) of Īśvara, the Great Magician who created the world. Māyā, in turn, has its own power, for it both conceals reality (āvarana-śakti) and misrepresents or distorts reality (viksepa-śakti). The phenomenal world as we know it (Plato’s ‘Many,’ ‘the ten thousand things’ in classical Chinese worldviews) is neither true reality (sat), nor is it fair to call it non-reality (asat) (e.g. the hare’s horn, or the square circle), rather, it has the status of ‘provisional reality’ (mithya). Another way to say this is that the world is ‘relatively true’ (vyāvahārika) for us, rather than absolutely true, or the ‘ultimate reality’ (pāramārthika). While Īśvara knows himself as Brahman, we know Īśvara as a personal God, for ours is the vantage point of a provisional and relative reality, not (yet) that of ultimate reality.

As Ram-Prasad explains, ‘The dense and intricate metaphysics of Advaita is built on an extraordinarily sweeping conception of consciousness.’ Indeed, the beginning of religio-philosophical and psychological inquiry in this school is found in the assumed consciousness of the individual subject*—the jīva—the sheer primitive ontological or existential presence that is both revealing and concealing: the former, owing to the fact that it is a ‘taste’ of and testament to the pure(r) and universal form of ‘witness’ consciousness (sāksin), the latter insofar as the individual’s phenomenal experience of consciousness amounts to a ‘superimposition’ (adhyāsa) on that which is truly real, a qualification or limitation of universal consciousness that arises in conjunction with ignorance. In one of the schools of thought within Advaita, a theory and metaphor of ‘reflection’ (pratibimba-vāda) is used to clarify this peculiar instantiation or embodiment of reality and appearance, for

‘the jīva is a reflection of Ātman [the Self] on the mirror of avidyā [ignorance], as such it is not-different from Ātman is essence. Just as in everyday experience where we know that the face in the mirror is not really different from the face in front of it, that the face in the mirror does not have an independent life of its own, and yet we maintain a distinction between them, so the jīva reflected in “ignorance” is not really different from its prototype, the Self, and yet it continues to be a jīva until the mirror itself is removed. The pratibimba, the reflection, is actually as real as the bimba, the prototype, being in essence the same thing; the pratibimba is misjudged to be different only because it appears to be located elsewhere than the bimba. One attains the truth of non-difference then, the moment one understands that one is a reflection of Ātman that only appears to be different from it, but is identical with it in reality.’ (Eliot Deutsch)

Intriguingly, the ‘mind (or ‘heart-mind’) as mirror metaphor’ (or the reflection of the person on a body of water) is likewise found in the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi of Chinese philosophy, as the sage or saint in possession of a quiescent mind is able to purely reflect the natural order of the cosmos. In chapter 10 of the former work, the question is posed: ‘In scrubbing and cleansing your profound mirror, Are you able to rid it of all imperfections?’ In both Advaita Vedanta and Daoism it appears, ‘rather than being restless, anticipating, and desiring, our minds ought to be like a clear and calm mirror capable of reflecting truth’ (Eliot Deutsch). The true nature of consciousness in Advaita is universal in scope and thus is not subject to the limiting condition(s) of individual consciousness as the basis of personal identity or the jīva. Awareness of this individual self, however, is critical and serves as the starting point and therefore is emblematic of the possibility of liberation as a locus of reflexive awareness, as it is this reflexivity which in theory and practice points to the true nature of witness-consciousness (sāksin). Ram-Prasad elaborates:

‘The self is individuated and has its own parametrically determined region of reflexive occurrence; it is then called the jīva. It is the jīva that has the “I” sense (ahamkāra). The self [as Self] is also the typical reflexivity shorn of all individuated occurrences; it is then called ātman. Then there is general consciousness, which is typically reflexive and the singular, irreducible entity [hence the ‘monist’ characterization]; it is then called brahman. A proper articulation of the Advaita position must go from highly individuated—personal and subjective—states of awareness to general features across subjects to the universal consciousness.’ (Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad)

The unliberated state is individual consciousness as experienced by the subject in a phenomenologically dualistic manner, with consciousness reaching out as it were, to both mental (intrinsic) and physical (extrinsic) objects. The pure state of universal consciousness, on the other hand, is purged of all ‘otherness,’ it is consciousness as such, sans determinate and contingent individuation or conditionality. One way to describe this is to state that it is the selfsame empirical jīva now freed of all conditions or determination, in its pure or ultimately real state as ‘transcendent’ consciousness (Ātman or Brahman). The seed-thought or intuitive spark that awakens the thirst for liberation could be said to commence with the thought or awareness that this transcendental consciousness is ever-present, veiled or obscured by the individuated consciousness tied to locus- and object-specific states. Individuation should eventually give way to de-individuation, being two sides of the same coin. Brahmānubhava, experience of Brahman, is a ‘context-free’ state of consciousness, making it difficult to intellectually comprehend how this is in fact an experience of any kind. One must account for the nature of liberation as a personal quest in a way that accounts for de-individuation as a process capable of overcoming individual will, which seems to imply that one must not become ‘attached’ to liberation, pursuing this goal in a roundabout or indirect fashion wherein realization of the true nature of the self is attained as a by-product of spillover effect of spiritual praxis (the yogas, for example, but especially jñāna yoga), as a necessary yet not sufficient condition for Brahman-awareness.

Reflection on the scriptural texts of Advaita Vedānta is an integral part of the spiritual praxis that serves as a necessary condition for the knowledge of Brahman. With Mīmāmsaka, another āstikadarśana, Advaita views its sacred texts as revelations or manifestations of the ‘primordial Word,’ eternal and eternally valid with regard to their statements about liberation (moksa). On this account, religious language is understood to have the capacity to precipitate a spiritual experience or awareness that is itself beyond all thought (in which case śruti, the Vedas as revelatory texts, and anubhava, the knowledge gained from experience, are inextricably intertwined) and the theoretical justification for this view draws upon Indian poetics or ‘Sanskrit criticism’ (alamkāra śāstra), including the ‘evocative’ character of poetic utterances insofar as they call to mind feelings (not, however, arousing the actual feelings embodied in the poem). As the great Kashmiri Śaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta (c. 950-1015) noted, it is the poem’s cognitive content that allows our own mental states to be objectively perceived by awakening latent memories, impressions or dispositions. The resulting rasa experience is said to be self-validating (or –certifying) (svatah prāmana, the notion that the validity of a cognitive episode or knowledge is present in the material that creates the object and that the awareness of this validity arises spontaneously with that episode or knowledge itself; for example, in Advaita Vedānta, awareness is said to be self-validating—and self-illuminating—such that the doubt ‘Am I aware or not?’ cannot occur). The self-validating character of rasa experience appears to countenance the idea that, in the end, such experience is a species of self-knowledge, in Abhinavagupta’s words, ‘a form of self-contemplation.’ The religious authority of śruti is understood as independent and self-evident, acting as a fundamental axiom of this philosophical school. Reflection and meditation on certain formulations in the Vedas can directly lead to, and are a necessary condition of, the experiential awareness of Brahman. The apparent paradox that arises with the Advaita understanding of its sacred texts (or at least certain formulations therein) is well-captured by Ram-Prasad: the sacred text is part of the world that is not ultimately real and thus the Advaita conception of liberation must explain why and how ‘the teachings of the sacred texts…are both necessarily part of primal misunderstanding and indicators of a liberation that is necessarily beyond that understanding.’

In Advaita Vedānta, ‘a good deal of importance [is attached] to the phenomenology of dream consciousness [svapna-sthāna] in order to show the continuity of consciousness and the persistence of self-awareness throughout all states of consciousness:’

‘According to the Vedānta, the three kośas or sheaths associated with the dream state of consciousness and that constitute the “subtle body” (sūksma-śarīra) of the self are the prānamayakośa, the sheath of “vitality,” the manomayakośa, the sheath of “mind,” and the vijñānamayakośa, the sheath of “understanding.” [….] Both the manomayakośa and the vijñānamayakośa form the antahkarana or “internal organ,” which is the psychological expression for the totality of mental functions in waking-dream consciousness, [and, as such, are subject to a pervasive avidyā (ignorance)].’ (Eliot Deutsch)

In addition to the states of consciousness associated with the waking state and the dream state, there is the third state of consciousness found in ‘deep sleep’ (susupti). Only turīya (lit., ‘the fourth’), the fourth state of consciousness recognized by Vedānta, is characterized as the ‘transcendental’ or a ‘pure’ state of consciousness. Later in the tradition, we find not one but two states of consciousness beyond deep sleep: savikalpa samādhi and nirvikalpa samādhi, the former still a ‘determinate’ spiritual experience, ‘but unlike in susupti, the deep-sleep state, the emphasis here is not so much on the absence of duality as it is on the presence of non-duality.’ This might be described as a liminal state betwixt and between the jīva and the Ātman, the self poised on the precipice, as it were, of nirvikalpa samādhi, the awareness of nirguna Brahman. As Deutsch explains, the waking and dreaming states of consciousness correspond to the phenomenal world of gross and subtle bodies; the states of deep sleep and savikalpa samādhi correspond to saguna (‘qualified’) Brahman, while turīya or transcendental consciousness and nirvikalpa samādhi correspond to Ultimate Reality or nirguna Brahman (recalling the equation ‘Ātman = Brahman’). Just as the dream state is ‘subrated’ (disvalued, contradicted, and transcended) by the state of waking consciousness, so too nirguna Brahman, as ‘ultimate reality’ subrates all prior experience, while nothing else is capable of subrating Brahman, defined as spiritual experience utterly bereft of distinction or determination (nirvikalpa samādhi), and described as an immediate (hence unmediated) consciousness or awareness on the order of complete or absolute self-knowledge and self-realization.

Vasubandhu, a Yogācāra (or Vijñānavāda) Buddhist, argued that dreams were evidence of the possibility of experience without an external world. Śankara, the Advaita Vedāntin philosopher,

‘provides a refutation of this argument, based on its inability to meet the requirements (accepted by Vasubandhu) of the pramāna theory for knowledge. Vasubandhu’s crucial move in his use of the analogy of dreaming is to point to the lack of externality in dreaming when the experience of dreaming otherwise resembles that of waking. Śankara points out a fallacy in this form of reasoning. In order to deny externality in dreaming, Vasubandhu borrows the concept of it from waking in the first place, and so cannot deny it altogether. [….] Śankara also has a wider argument against any idealist denial of externality in the account of experience. He points out that externality is a feature of experience [within the domain of “provisional reality” in light of nirguna Brahman], and while an idealist account may reduce every other feature of experience to a mental construct without losing its claim to be veridical, the same cannot be said of externality. Reducing the feature of externality to mental construction results in denying that that feature of experience is veridical. So experience cannot be entirely veridical in seeming to be of an external world, if the idealist is correct. But the idealist does want to say that experience is veridical, even if mentally constructed; in this he differs from a sceptic who denies that experience is veridical. Śankara’s argument shows that idealism cannot but collapse into scepticism about the external world. However, Śankara does agree that dreaming has a role to play: it alerts one to the possibility that this current experience may be overruled [‘subrated’] by some other type of consciousness [as we saw above]. [….] It has been observed that dreaming itself can make sense only in the context of being awake. There must in general be veridical experience for error to occur; there must be real coins for there to be counterfeits.’ (Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad)

‘Nothing that is available in our experience, that is to say, no knowledge-claim which can meet the standards of the pramānas, allows us to claim that what is currently experienced can never be invalidated. This is the real lesson of the analogy of dreams. Dreams teach us that even within a consistent system for the validation of knowledge-claims, nothing in what is experienced will license the non-invalidable assertion that what is currently experienced is the sole reality. Consequently, the soteriological claim, that this world is indeed subsumed by the reality of brahman, cannot be gainsaid. The system for the validation of claims arising from experience itself derives its authority from what is experienced. The system of validation is legitimately applicable so long as that to which it is applied is the very same experienced world from which the system’s authority is derived. Since the pramāna theory is understood as being about the world from which its causal authority is derived, the legitimacy of the theory is limited to the currently experienced world. If all claims are valid or invalid because they succeed in or fail the tests of the pramāna theory (the system of validation), the validity of experiential claims is circumscribed by their being about the world that is experienced. The reality putatively behind the world [i.e., nirguna Brahman] would legitimately and coherently be known only according to standards derived from it—but those standards, the standards of the liberated self [i.e., Ātman]—are currently unavailable to ordinary subjects.’ (Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad)

Ram-Prasad also cogently summarizes the soteriological logic of Advaita Vedānta’s metaphysical ‘non-realism’ (similar in some respects to, but ultimately distinguished from, absolute idealism), which has effectively combined two seemingly contradictory theses: (i) ‘The ultimate state, that of brahman, is not the experiential reality of the world; to experience the world is not to be in the state (of experience) of the reality which is brahman. (ii) But at the same time, experience of the world is not at the time of that experience, illegitimate/invalid.’ Or, to put it differently, very few people are qualified by their religious experience to proclaim that ‘all is māyā.’

Finally, it is often assumed, understandably, that the Buddhist doctrine of ‘no-self’ (anattā/anātman) is fundamentally at odds with the Advaita understanding of (nirguna) Brahman (or Ātman), but Miri Albahari** has (along with a few others) recently—and controversially—argued that this may be a mistake, the concept of anattā best understood rather as indispensable to a cognitive and affective spiritual praxis (by means of which one ‘disidentifies’ with conditioned existence) and not as a metaphysical doctrine as such. This would soften if not eliminate the principal metaphysical difference between Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism while leaving intact differences of practical emphasis and in spiritual exercises or methods. With my theosophical friends, I’m inclined to look with favor upon this argument, which would certainly be in accord with what has sometimes been termed the Buddha’s ‘metaphysical reticence’ as evidenced on several occasions (cf. the four ‘Inexpressibles’ or avyākrtavastūni). The compatibility of Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism comes to the fore elsewhere as well: ‘Famously, the Mādhyamika Nāgārjuna asserts that there is no difference [in the end, we might say] between unliberated existence and liberation. Śankara says much the same thing…: “In fact there is no distinction between freedom and bondage. The self is eternally the same. But the ignorance regarding it is dispelled by the cognition born of the teachings of the texts. Prior to getting such instruction, it is appropriate to strive for the goal [of liberation].”’

* This is identical to what Raymond Tallis terms the Existential Intuition (EI), namely, ‘[That] I am [this: person, life, consciousness, body],’ and to which he accords a ‘central place…in the creation of the “species being” of humanity.’ The EI is said to incarnate both logical and existential (or carnal) assumptions that are ‘necessarily true.’ EI is ‘the “ur-proposition” which underpins the special consciousness of humans, the propositional awareness they do not share with other creatures.’ The EI has two fundamental aspects: ‘consciousness of self in the form of bodily self-awareness or awareness of the behaviorally engaged body; and the sense of the embodied self as an agent.’ The EI is an assumption that does not have to be ‘proved,’ nor could it be, it is a subject(ive) truth that is incorrigible. The ‘assumption of the identity is that by whose identity is assumed.’ We have ‘living proof’ of the EI. Self-awareness or self-consciousness ‘overarches specific contents of consciousness.’ As earlier with Bishop (Joseph) Butler, personal identity here is in the first instance consciousness of personal identity. Please see Tallis’s I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

** Please see Albahari’s article, “Against No-Ātman Theories of Anattā,” Asian Philosophy, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2002), and her book, Analytical Buddhism: The Two-Tiered Illusion of Self (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

A Basic Reading Guide:
  • Bartley, Christopher. Indian Philosophy A-Z. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
  • Chari, V.K. Sanskrit Criticism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
  • Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy, 5 Vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922/New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.
  • Deutsch, Eliot. Advaita Vedānta: A Philosophical Reconstruction. Honolulu, HI: University Press of Hawaii, 1971.
  • Deutsch, Eliot and J.A.B. van Buitenen, eds. A Sourcebook of Advaita Vedānta. Honolulu, HI: University Press of Hawaii, 1971.
  • Ganeri, Jonardon. Philosophy in Classical India. London: Routledge, 2001.
  • Gupta, Bina. Perceiving in Advaita Vedānta: Epistemological Analysis and Interpretation. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1991.
  • Gupta, Bina. The Disinterested WitnessA Fragment of Advaita Vedānta Phenomenology. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998.
  • Gupta, Bina. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy: Perspectives on Reality, Knowledge, and Freedom. New York: Routledge, 2012.
  • Grimes, John. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996, new ed.
  • Isayeva, Natalia. Shankara and Indian Philosophy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1986.
  • Mohanty, J.N. Classical Indian Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
  • Phillips, Stephen H. Classical Indian Metaphysics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.
  • Potter, Karl H., ed. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991 (first published in 1963).
  • Potter, Karl H., ed. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. III, Advaita Vedānta up to Śamkara and His Pupils. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981.
  • Rambachan, Anantanand. Accomplishing the Accomplished: The Vedas as a Source of Knowledge in Śankara. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.
  • Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. Advaita Epistemology and Metaphysics: An Outline of Indian Non-Realism. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.
  • Rao, Srinivasa. Perceptual Error: The Indian Theories. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1998.
  • Sharma, Arvind. The Philosophy of Religion and Advaita Vedānta: A Comparative Study of Religion and Reason. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
  • Sharma, Arvind, ed. Advaita Vedanta: An Introduction. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004.
  • Smart, Ninian. Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1964.
Image: Daksināmūrti
[Please note: I deleted my first version of this Introduction and posted this somewhat longer version.]


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