The Advaita Vedanta - Part 'B'
Continued from Part XXVI
In the previous part, the core concepts and elements of the Advaita Vedanta were dealt with and the author proposes to address the remaining important aspects of this sub-tradion in the current part. Needless to mention that the philosophy of Advaita as propounded by Adi Shankara is not only logical, resilient, sublime and unique but also it offers the most viable and reasonably credible answers on the spirituality, divine and unknown. The philosophy of Adi Sankara and the core concepts of Advaita could be beautifully summed up in the half-verse: “Brahma Satyam Jagan Mithya Jivo Brahmaiva Na Aparah (Brahman alone is real; this world is unreal; and the Jiva or individual soul is not different from Brahman)”.
Advaita: Knowledge through Pramanas
The literal meaning of Pramana in English is proof or evidence; however, it implies knowledge in Sanskrit. The Hindu philosophy in general and Advaita in particular attach a great significance to the Theory of Pramana (knowledge) that deals with questions like how to acquire the correct knowledge, what the sources of knowledge are, who all can impart such knowledge, what is the distinction between the belief and opinion, and so on. In the process, the Advaita Vedanta recognizes six types of Pramanas, namely Pratyaksha (perception), Anumana (inference), Upama?a (analogy), Arthapatti (postulation or derivation from circumstances), Anupalabdi (negative/cognitive proof) and Shabda (relying on words or testimony).
The aforesaid Pramanas are typically held as the reliable means and followed by Advaitins for finding the right knowledge or the cosmic truth:
- Pratyaksha is linked with the human perception and it relates to the objective knowledge (Jnana) experienced either through the senses or in a deep state of consciousness. Thus in effect, perception are of two types viz. one, external that comes from the interaction of human sensory organs with the worldly objects, and two, internal that relates to the mind itself. Such perceptions are based on the direct experiences of own senses and not merely based on the hearsay, flickering thoughts or doubtful derivations.
- Anumana is the knowledge based on the inference reached by the follower by application of the logical reasoning. No importance is attached to the speculative knowledge based upon any supposition or belief. It could be defined as applying reason to reach conclusion about truth based on the previous understanding of the subject with a couple of one or more observations. To understand this point, a simple illustration could be that if smoke is observed at a place, it would imply the presence of fire there. The Anumana essentially comprised of three elements, namely Pratijna (hypothesis), Hetu (reason) and Drshtanta (illustration).
- Upamana rely on analogy by application of comparison and contrast. It is a relational or conditional knowledge which is considered by Advaitins as another reliable means of knowing truth. In Sanskrit literature, the subject of analogy is formally recognized as Upameyam, the object being compared as Upamanam and the characteristics or attributes as Samanya. Typical example could be that of a traveler who has not traveled a land but is informed by somebody that he would find an animal there that looks like a horse, grazes like the one but is different in so and so ways. Such analogy is recognized as the conditional knowledge which helps the traveller identify the new animal later on.
- Arthapatti relates to knowledge obtained by meaningful postulation or assumption based on the previous experience and application of common sense. This implies a hypothetical knowledge based on the circumstantial implication through application of systematic logic. Many scholars do not accept this Pramana as reliable because so often there could be more than one circumstantial possibilities of an event or situation.
- Anupalabdhi is basically knowing truth through the negative cognitive proof. In Advaita philosophy, a valid conclusion is derived either through sadrupa (positive) or asadrupa (negative) relation and both are held valid and valuable. The successive Advaitin scholars developed and expanded the scope of Anupalabdhi to four categories, namely non-perception of the cause, non-perception of the effect, non-perception of the object and non-perception of contradiction. However, they hold this method as valid and useful when the remaining five pramanas fail to satisfy the person’s pursuit of knowledge and truth.
- Shabda literally means words which relates to the theoretical knowledge that comes through the learning of the scriptures and other means. The other means are gaining reliable knowledge through own parents, teacher(s), family, friends, enlightened members of the society and so on. Various schools of Hindu philosophy, and more particularly Advaita, recognize and rely on the knowledge based on Shabda. The scholars, however, caution about the reliability of the source of legitimate (Shabda) knowledge.
Advaita: Means of Knowledge
The Advaita philosophy considers the Jnana-yoga as the ultimate means of achieving knowledge and Moksha. The chief sources to achieve this goal are Vidya (Knowledge), Svadhyaya (Shruti Scriptures) and Anubhava (experiencing Brahman). This tradition emphasizes on the proper reasoning and meditation as the suitable method of pursuing knowledge and Shruti scriptures i.e. Vedas and Upanishads (Svadhyaya) as the right sources for obtaining the knowledge of Brahman and Atman. This knowledge shall come through the study of Vedic texts by practicing through the Shravana, Manana and Nididhyasana, as rooted in the Chapter 4 of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
Shravana has a literal meaning of hearing thereunder the Advaitin follower is expected to listen and discuss Shruti scriptures, ask questions and seek answers about various concepts from any qualified Guru, Seer or Counsellor. Similarly, the literal meaning of Manana is thinking and the follower is expected to seriously contemplate over the various concepts and ideas based on Svadhyaya and Shravana. Nididhyasana relates to meditation, where under a fusion of thought and action is achieved regarding the cosmic truth of knowing the non-duality of Brahman and Atman. Adi Shankara had used the term Anubhava interchangeably with Pratipatta (understanding) which implies that Anubhava is not any mystical experience but having the correct knowledge (Jnana) of Brahman.
Samadhi and Guru
Adi Shankara had essentially recommended practicing of Sravana, Manana and Nididhyasana for acquiring knowledge. However, the later Advaitin scholars added Samadhi and Guru (teacher) as two more requisites for practicing and experiencing the knowledge essential for the liberation. Samadhi as a means to liberation was emphasized by Swami Vivekananda in the modern times. This, in fact, is final yogic step of the eight-fold limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga for the spiritual practice and experience which literally means “wholesome harmony or trance”. In the state of Samadhi though the body and sensory organs appear to be at rest, as if in deep sleep, yet the mind and faculty of reasoning remain in constantly alert state, as if fully awake. In philosophical and spiritual jargon, the it is a state of an identity without difference, when a liberated soul enjoys pure awareness of its pure identity. Thus it is the ultimate stage of Yoga where the mind and the intellect stop wandering, and thus experiencing true consciousness and bliss.
However, the achievement of Samadhi is not an easy task. This is the reason why Yoga insists on certain moral restraints and observances as a general discipline before other yogic components are pursued. To put in short, the practice of Asanas and Pranayama lead to a healthy and fit body and mind that enables the practitioner to observe Pratyahara and Dharana, which are mental activities regulating and purifying otherwise a crowded mind with temporal cravings. Once Dharana is achieved, it becomes easier to practice Dhyana leading to Samadhi. These steps of yoga indicate a logical pathway for the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual health. Yoga does not seek to change the individual; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to become a reality. This is the reason why the later theologians and scholars like Vivekanand endorsed and included Samadhi as a recognized practice of experiencing the cosmic truth.
Advaita Vedanta accords a high value to the Guru (teacher), and recommends that a competent Guru should be sought in one's pursuit of spirituality. The Guru literally means a teacher who is a spiritual instructor that guides and steers the subject (disciple) on the right path. He is accorded high esteem and reverence and his centrality is absolute and unquestionable. According to the Advaita philosophy, having Guru is not a mandatory requirement but it is highly recommended and even Adi Shankara had one. Knowledge through scriptures is mandatory while a competent Guru is considered important for the interpretation and imparting of the scriptural knowledge. Adi Shankara is known to have frequently used words like Sastracaryopadesa (instruction by way of the scriptures and the teacher) and Vedantacaryopadesa (instruction by way of the Upanishads and the teacher) to emphasize the importance of Guru.
Advaita vis-à-vis Other Vedanta Sub-Traditions
Vedanta philosophy developed into several sub-schools or sub-traditions over a period with the centrality of the common core elements and theme remaining same viz. Brahman, Atman, Maya, Moksha and reincarnation. The Vedanta had also adopted concepts from the other orthodox schools like Yoga and Nyaya, and this syncretism too has helped to establish it as the central and the most popular Hindu philosophy in the present age. Though the theologians and scholars remain divided on the historical influence and core concepts of Advaita philosophy, but many scholars and Indologists concede that it is one of the most studied and credible Hindu philosophy as also the most influential school of classical Indian thoughts.
The major sects of the Hinduism such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism are largely shaped and influenced by the sub-traditions and doctrines of the Vedanta philosophy. The epistemology of the Vedanta is based on the six Pramanas referred to in the earlier paragraphs. Various sub-traditions of Vedanta are divided on the core concepts of dualism, non-dualism and their variants. Besides Advaita Vedanta, other major sub-traditions are Dvaita (dualism), Vishistadvaita (qualified non-dualism) and Bhedabheda (difference and non-difference). Dvaita philosophy was propounded by Madhvacharya, a thirteenth century philosopher and scholar; Vishishtadvaita Vedanta was put forth by Ramanuja, a theologian, philosopher and exponent of the Sri Vaishnavism tradition in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; and Bhedabheda by Acharya Bhaskara in the eighth and ninth century CE. Some other variants are Shuddhadvaita (pure non-dualism) of Vallabhacharya, Dvaitadvaita of Nimbarka and Achintya Bheda Abheda of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
All Vedanta sub-traditions or sub-schools talk about three principle entities or core elements i.e. Brahman - the Supreme Consciousness and ultimate reality; the Atman or Jivatman (the individual soul or Self); and Maya that represents the empirical universe or existence in terms of the physical world, body and matter. The first two represent the metaphysical reality while the third the empirical reality of existence. Brahman along with the Atman (soul) represent permanent, truth and key aspects in all sub-traditions while the third dimension and empirical reality, Maya is ever changing, perishable and deceptive.
All the major Vedanta sub-traditions accept Brahman as the supreme authority but with varying nuances. The Advaita philosophy talks of non-duality with Brahman as the Supreme Reality, Who is the root source, remains unchanged, origin and end of everything - material and spiritual. In the Dvaita philosophy, Brahman as Vishnu is propounded as the Supreme Soul or Reality. According to the Vishistadvaita, Brahman alone exists but He is characterized by multiplicity i.e. individual souls explained as the qualified monism or attributive monism, while the Bhedabheda holds that Brahman is the ultimate reality that transforms Self into creation, and at the same time remains a distinct entity. Thus Brahman is both the material and efficient cause of the universe.
The Advaita considers Atman (soul) as self-existent awareness, limitless and non-dual, and that all souls across all space and time are one and the same. To put it in a different and simpler way: the Atman is Brahman - the Brahman is Atman. As against this, the Dvaita holds that the Atman as Individual Self and Vishnu as Supreme Self are two independent and distinct realities, the former forever seeking the latter. According to Vishishtadvaita, though Brahman exists as a unique entity but He is also characterized by multiplicity as individual souls. The Bhedabheda philosophy accepts Brahman as the ultimate reality that transforms into creation, while still retaining a distinct entity. For this reason, Brahman is said to be both different (bheda) and not different (abheda) from creation and the individual Self (Jiva). Thus it could be seen that various philosophies are based on subtle differences and each with some element of mysticism and ambivalence.
According to the Advaita, the Atman (Individual Self) is synonymous to the Brahman inside the being and outside the being but this truth remains obscured under the influence of Maya or illusion. The realization of this cosmic truth in true sense leads to the sense of oneness, self-realization and Moksha (salvation) even during lifetime (Jivan-Mukta). The Dvaita believes that Moksha can be attained only after death. According to this doctrine, there are four levels of Moksha based on good Karma in the ascending order of 1) Salokya, 2) Samipya, 3) Sarupya and 4) Sayujya. In the first order (Salokya), the eligible departed soul after the death goes to the abode of Vishnu and stays blissfully there. In the second order (Samipya), the soul enjoys the bliss of the extreme proximity of Vishnu. In the third order (Sarupya), the departed soul acquires the form of Vishnu to experience intense bliss while in the fourth – the highest order (Sayujya), the soul is absorbed in Vishnu eternally.
According to the Vishistadvaita, the Moksha is possible after the being's physical death whereby the self-realized soul would live blissfully in Vaikuntha (the abode of Vishnu) in spiritual bodies. Such soul may acquire divine powers such as omniscience yet remains subservient to God (Vishnu) and, unlike Him it cannot create, sustain or dissolve the world. Bhedabheda understand the relation between Brahman and the individual souls to be a relation between a whole and its parts. While Advaita and Bhedabheda have several commonalities sans the latter insists that the phenomenal world too is true and not empirical. In this conceptual assertion, they are closer to the sub-traditions like Vishistadvaita and Dvaita.
Though the differences occur in various sub-traditions of Vedanta philosophy on account of dualism and non-dualism, all of them have certain unique and common concepts as follows:
- The Vedanta is ultimate path of knowledge and the Upanishads are the most reliable and authentic source of knowledge.
- Brahman is the ultimate reality, all-pervading and un-changed, and the instrumental cause of the creativity in universe.
- Moksha is the ultimate goal of soul to get riddance from the arduous cycle of the birth-death-rebirth.
- The Individual soul is prone to corruption under the influence of the empirical world and it experiences and bears the nemesis of Karma and its consequences.
Advaita and Hinduism Sects
Notwithstanding misconceptions and misinterpretations, the majority Hindus worship the same Supreme Reality i.e. Brahman (God) under different names and manifested forms. The Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) has four principal Sects namely Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism besides many sub-sects and religious movements. The Vaishnavas essentially worship Lord Vishnu and Shaivites treat Lord Shiva in the same way. The Smartas, traditionally considered as more liberal Hindus, exercise more flexibility in their choice of the deity(ies). Among them, Advaita Vedanta concepts are found combined with the Bhakti-yoga as its foundation and Adi Shankara is regarded with high esteemed as a great sage, scholar and teacher.
While out of sheer devotion, an ordinary Hindu adherent simply sees God in whatever deity or deities he (or she) pursues through the image or idol worship, more knowledgeable and enlightened ones understand the philosophical finesse and nuances of using such symbol as icons of Saguna Brahman. Similarly, the multiple deities are considered as forms or representations of the same Brahman with Saguna aspect, philosophically serving the purpose of realizing the ultimate abstract reality, the Nirguna Brahman. Besides Smartas, the Advaita has considerably influenced other Sects too viz. Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism since ancient and medieval times. For instance, among the more popular Puranic texts, Bhagavata Purana centred around Krishna Vaishnavism glorifies the concepts of the Advaita Vedanta.
Similarly, in the Shaiva literature comprising of the ninety-two Agamas, the Adavaita is known to represent sixty-four Agamas as against eighteen of Bhedabheda and ten of Dvaita texts. Among Shaktas, the Goddess Shakti or Durga is considered identical to Brahman and some even define the Goddess as "Brahman is static Shakti and Shakti is dynamic Brahman." The adherents simultaneously visualize Shakti as a source of all creation, its embodiment and preservation, and an entity into which everything will ultimately dissolve. Many other prominent Hindu texts of the ancient and medieval times such as Yoga Vashistha, Yoga Yajnavalkya, Avadhuta Gita and Markandeya Purana etc are found incorporated the concepts and principles of the Advaita Vedanta.
Paul Hacker, an Evangelist and Indologist of German origin, is often erroneously credited with the term ‘Neo-Vedanta’ which apparently he used in a rather contentious way to differentiate the classical or traditional Advaita Vedanta with the modern developments and interpretations. However, most other scholars now interpret it in the context of changes and interpretations that occurred in the Vedanta philosophy since medieval times consequent to Islamic invasions followed by the Muslim rulers and subsequent colonial rule under the British, under exposure and influence of the Western culture, philosophy and evangelical activities of the missionaries. This was the period when the Hindu society experienced tremendous socio-religious and political pressure and crisis leading to emergence of the Indian freedom struggle and socio-religious movements in the country.
The period experienced many socio-religious movements such as Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, and so on in various regions of the country. Almost all such movements sought inspiration from the ancient Hindu scriptures mainly the Vedas and Upanishads glorifying the ancient cultural and religious heritage with simultaneous focus on Renaissance and eradication of contemporary social evil practices. Among the main proponents who are credited with the modern interpretation of Vedanta are Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Dr Radhakrishnan. Despite many criticism and opposition, the thoughts and interpretations of these eminent personalities and thinkers, particularly Vivekanand, significantly contributed to a considerable influence as also emergence of Hindu movements in the West.
According to Wilhelm Halbfass, another German Indologist and ex-Professor in the University of Pennsylvania in USA, the term Neo-Advaita was in use of the Christian missionaries and Hindu traditionalists in Bengal since nineteenth century and then it basically represented the adoption of Western theological concepts and standards to interpret Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta of eight century. In later years, Vivekananda emerged among the most prominent neo-Vedantins who is accredited with original contribution through his philosophy and teachings reinterpreting and harmonizing certain aspects of Hinduism including Advaita Vedanta.
Swami Vivekananda was initially influenced by Brahmo Samaj concepts, which professed a formless God and disapproval of idolatry favouring a rationalized and monotheistic theology based on the teachings of the Upanishads and traditional Vedanta. Subsequently, he became the disciple of Ramakrishna who believed the Supreme Being to be both Personal and Impersonal, active and inactive, in an endeavor to reconciling the dualism of formless and form. In the following years, he became a key figure in introducing the Indian philosophy of the Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world besides raising interfaith awareness towards the late nineteenth century. According to him, Hinduism is mother of all religions which he tried to establish by showing how the Vedic religion had influenced Buddhism which, in turn, heavily influenced Christianity. He held that all the religions of the world have similar value and importance.
Vivekananda had a great faith in Vedantic philosophy, monism (Advaita) and one formless God. He suggested that like water of rivers mingles in the sea, same way all religion find its place at the feet of God. He did not differentiate between a Veda or Koran or Bible, which according to him had same sanctity and conveyed same message to the mankind. While spreading this message, he regarded Hinduism as the best of all religions, and Advaita Vedanta as the best of all Indian philosophies offered wherein he is said to have also reconciled dualism and non-dualism. He is best known to illustrate this point through the story of a “frog living in well” during his famous and iconic lecture at the Parliament of religions in Chicago on September 15, 1893. He played a key role in revival of Hinduism through Advaita in the West through the Ramakrishna Mission and his understanding of the Western esoteric traditions helped him to succeed in this venture.
He propagated the idea that the divine is part of all human beings and that seeing the divine as the essence of others promotes universal love and social harmony. He also introduced a new dimension of Raja Yoga including the goal of yoga with the method of attaining it based on his interpretations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that offered a practical means to realize the divine. His book on Raja Yoga was published in 1896, which gained instant popularity in the western understanding of Yoga. In the same context, he emphasized “Samadhi” as an important means of attaining liberation. The modern and universalistic interpretation of the Vedanta could be observed from Vivekananda’s following summation:
“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy - by one, or more, or all of these - and be free.”
Sri Aurobindo is another Indian philosopher, yogi and nationalist of twentieth century who had strong belief in human progress through spiritual evolution. He argued that Brahman manifests as empirical reality through Lila (divine play). He even suggested that Darwin’s theory of evolution merely explains a phenomenon of the evolution of matter into life, but does not clarify the cause behind it. He suggested that life is already present in the matter, because all of existence is a manifestation of Brahman only. Dr Radhakrishnan, philosopher, statesman and ex-President, too attempted to reinterpret Advaita Vedanta for the contemporary understanding in the twentieth century India. He acknowledged the reality and diversity of the empirical world, which he saw as grounded in and supported by the Brahman. According to him, Maya is not a strict absolute idealism, but a subjective misperception of the world as ultimately real. In the modern times, though MK Gandhi, also known as Mahatma or Father of the Nation, was not a philosopher or scholar but he is known as a strong proponent of the Advaita philosophy with his belief in the same soul in all beings and Ahimsa (non-violence) .
A close analysis of the theology and metaphysics would reveal basically two types of principle belief systems world over. On one hand, we find dogmatic, doctrinal or cult-based religions which prescribe, or rather impose, on their subjects a set of dictat or rules contained in a holy book or delivered by a prophet or messenger alleged to be the words of God. The followers are forbidden to raise any questions, doubts, debates or criticism which is interpreted by the clergy as blasphemy and many states have even laws in place to prosecute subjects for such offence. On the other hand, Hinduism is not only the oldest surviving religion but also one which is neither based on any particular dogma/doctrine nor dictum of any one prophet or messenger of God. In fact, the spirit of reasoning, questioning, exploration and debate in the quest of finding absolute truth exists in this religion since the Vedic era. This intellectual freedom has led to the evolution of several philosophies as also paths to achieve the same goal. Besides, Hinduism remains the only religion rich and relying on the ancient scriptures and texts which stand further expanded and enriched with umpteen commentaries and interpretations.
Spirituality itself is a mystifying and often obscure quest of the “supernatural” or unknown. Many sages, philosophers and scholars have spent life time to understand and describe the nature and attributes of God – with different names and nuances. In the context of the dogmatic or doctrinal faiths, it is beyond comprehension why an almighty God would ask or inspire his followers to engage in coercion or evangelical practices to bring people under a particular umbrella. I raise this issue because the distinction on the basis of colour, creed, region, cast and religion, and so on, are not divine but man made. Besides, if the clergy of two different religions argue that only their belief system is true to God, who will decide their claim or dispute and how? In such scenario, Hinduism as a religion and Advaita Vedanta as a spiritual philosophy appear to offer viable and logical answers to most queries or questions. In the same context, it made sense when neo-Vedantins like Vivekanand offered convergence of religions with the talk of monism and suggested that all religions find their place at the feet of same God. While doing so, he did not discriminate between the Hindu Vedas, Islam’s Koran or Christianity’s Bible, as all of them, according to him, have same sanctity and convey same message to all mankind.
Continued to Part XXVIII