Advaita Darshana – Part-1

M. R. Dwarakanath

Advaita in a Nutshell: The essence of Advaita is captured in the statement: Brahman alone is real, the world is a mere appearance; the individual self and Brahman are not two separate entities. Brahman appears as the empirical world due to eternal ignorance called Maya. This theory of apparent transformation is called Vivartavada. Brahman as Sakshin reflected in the internal apparatus of perception – Antahkarana is the individual self or Jeeva. When the Jeeva overcomes ignorance and realizes itself as the eternal, immutable, Brahman all dualities disappear which is liberation called Jeevanmukti or liberation in life.

Advaita Vedanta’s primary quest is to seek answer to the question of individual identity; who am I? The answer is a resounding: ‘I am no different from Brahman or universal consciousness.’ The next question: whence this world is answered by the postulate: Brahman appears as this world due to ignorance. There is just a single platform of reality, hence the appellation Advaita – meaning ‘not two.’ The two that are referenced are the subject and object, the seer and the seen, or the self and the non-self. The duality is a variation of mind (self) and matter (non-self) of Descartes. The Self is not the Ego. Advaita posits that there exists only one – the subject or the Self. Reality is but one which appears as many due to co-eternal Avidya or nescience. The concept of Avidya or Maya or Ajnana is so central to Advaita, it cannot stand without it. Advaita does not attempt to explain the phenomenal world as much as it explains it away. The world of multiplicity, though ultimately unreal, it is not unreal like the child of a barren woman. It is not the Shunyata of Madhyamika Buddhism. Advaita admits different shades of reality – the ultimate, the empirical / practical and the fallacious. The ultimate is the ground of pure existence; what really matters. The practical is real like the dream experience which vanishes upon waking; so too the world of multiplicity vanishes when the subject realizes the teaching of Advaita. When one grasps the underlying unity, obscured by the many, a spontaneous act of liberation occurs. This is called Jeevanmukti or release in life. Advaita is at once very simple in its content but very hard to comprehend the concepts. The key to following Advaita is to be very vigilant about what aspect of reality, practical or ultimate, is under discussion at any time. The arguments are analogical to life experience.

Adi Sankaracharya (788-820CE) was born in Kalady in the modern state of Kerala. He took Sannyasa at a tender age under the tutelage of Acharya Govindapada, a pupil of Acharya Gaudapada. Acharya Sankara was the intellectual giant who propelled Advaita Vedanta to the forefront of Indian philosophical thought. He did this by writing commentaries on the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavadgita. He also wrote many original works on philosophy as well as devotional hymns. His Vivekacudamani (the crest jewel of discrimination) is a metrical work of about 600 verses which systematically explains the concepts of Advaita. Tattvabodha is a much smaller, pithy work that distils the same ideas. As was traditional, he engaged in debates with leading scholars of the time from opposing schools (primarily Buddhist) and won them over to his point of view.

Although Advaita philosophy is associated with Sankara as its founder, it is perhaps more appropriate to associate Gaudapada, (if not even earlier interpreters of Vedanta Sutras whose commentaries are not extant,) to this philosophy. As we have already seen there were many commentaries on the Brahma Sutras before the time of Sankara but most of those commentaries are no longer extant. Gaudapada wrote the quintessential commentary on Mandukya Upanishad, the Gaudapada Mandukya Karika, which distils Advaita philosophy from the Upanishads. The Astavakra Samhita in the form of a dialog between King Janaka and Sage Astavakra, expounds the Advaita doctrine. It predates Sankara who is recognized as the philosopher who systematized Advaita into a coherent system based on the triad of scriptures. Sankara’s Guru was Govindapada, himself a pupil ofGaudapada.

Advaita Epistemology: Epistemology has relevance to Advaita only at the empirical level in so far as one is a Jijnasu or a journeyman in search of enlightenment. For the Jnani (the enlightened), there is nothing to know; the knower and the known melt into one; what is to be known is intuitively the self. Even the revealed scriptures are ultimately useless and only immediate intuition is all that matters.

At the empirical level, Advaita accepts all six means of knowledge accepted by the Kumarila Purva Mimamsakas; two more than is accepted by Naiyayikas. These are 1) Sense perception, 2) Inference, 3) Testimony 4) Comparison, 5) Postulation, and 6) Non-cognition. However, there are some differences between the Advaitins and Purva Mimamsakas in the details. Perception alone provides immediate knowledge. The rest provide only mediate knowledge.

Perception: The concept of perception in Advaita Vedanta is quite complex and bears no relation to any contemporary notions based on science. In view of the complexity, one can only touch on the most salient points here. In Nyaya, sense perception is regarded as the coming into contact of the sense organs with the object of perception. When an object is felt with the sense of touch, there is direct contact of the object with the sense organ – the skin. Similarly, the sense of taste arises when food comes directly in contact with the tongue. However, when it comes to sight, hearing, smell or thought there is no such direct contact between the sense organ and the object cognized. The scientific view is rays of light, sound waves or olfactory molecules emanated by the object reach the eyes, ears or nostrils producing sensations revealing knowledge about the object cognized.

In Advaita, the primary characteristic of perception is the direct acquisition of knowledge; it is immediate without any intervening instrument such as the senses. When an idea flashes to the mind, there is no contact between the object and the sense. So too it is with the experience of pleasure or pain, there is no contact of the mind with the object of pleasure or pain. The involvement of senses in perception is merely accidental; it is non-essential. The mind and the intellect are two modes of the internal sense organ called Antahkarana or the internal instrument. It is insentient, however; active and unstable. This internal instrument operates in various modes – as Manas or mind when it is indecisive or vacillating, as Buddhi or intellect when decisive, as Ahankara or Ego when directed inwards and as Citta or memory shell when the instrument is in a play back mode.

Cognition involves the Antahkarana going out through the senses to meet and wrap itself around the object, taking the form of the object! The mere molding of the Antahkarana around the object does not provide knowledge as Antahkarana is insentient. Only when the Antahkarana is illumined by the self effulgent Atman as Sakshin, the object is grasped. However, the Antahkarana remains unaware of its going out to meet the object etc. The cognized object is a representation or modification of the Antahkarana. This is Vrtti Jnana, arising from a subject – object interaction. The object is a creation of the mind; it is known only by the form which the Antahkarana assumes. The object as a creation of the mind undercuts its reality as something existing out there independent of the mind.

There are two types of perception – Nirvikalpaka (conception free) and Savikalpaka (with conception.) The Nyaya School holds that the Nirvikalpaka is the first stage of cognition when an object is perceived without predication and Savikalpaka knowledge is reached later when the object is known with its attributes. However in Advaita, perception is always about pure existence and is always Nirvikalpaka. Perception is about bare existence without any mental constructs. Such perception is not expressible through speech. Attributes, action, particulars, universals etc. exist in the substance as aspects that are not different from the substance. Later, Advaita scholars have accepted both Savikalpaka and Nirvikalpaka perception in the empirical plane.

Anumana – Inference: Inference is deductive knowledge based on invariable concomitance. When two events are always seen together as cause and effect and when either cause or effect is observed, the other is inferred. Invariable concomitance is the lynch pin of Anumana.

Shabda or testimony is knowledge garnered from Shruti or revealed texts; basically, the Vedas and Upanishads. One common topic of discussion in philosophy is language and its role in philosophy. Philosophy would not be possible without language. A word and its meaning are inextricably entwined. The letters and sounds are eternal. The language of the scriptures and their interpretation is the fount of all Vedanta. Language is what provides reality and continuity for the ever changing objective world. When one claims a book to be a rare original, one is talking about a book that has gone through a lot of changes – become moth eaten, frayed, discolored and so on. What gives it continuity as the same book that was published centuries back is its name and form!

Scriptures are of two kinds – Pauruseya – of human origin and Apauruseya or not of human origin. These latter, called Shruti, are understood to be error free and totally veridical as error is concomitant with human action and thoughts. Much emphasis is placed on Shruti and especially the Upanishads as they alone are considered to be the source of knowledge conducive for cleansing the intellect and pointing to the lore of self knowledge. On the other hand, Smruti is regarded as indirect knowledge. Shabda is useful only at the preparatory level and is of little direct value in release. It is not ultimately real though it reveals the ultimate truth. This is a case of something false teaching the truth! This is analogous to one seeing the image of another in a mirror and concluding the other’s presence in the room. The conclusion is valid though the basis for such conclusion – the image is unreal. However, nothing is absolutely unreal.

Arthapatti –Postulation: Is a kind of inference where an observation requires an explanation through a postulate not involving invariable concomitance between the observed and the postulate.

Upamana: The Advaita view of Upamana is somewhat different from the Nyaya view. In Nyaya, cognizing a Gavaya in the wild from its resemblance to a cow, and the verbal testimony of a Gavaya as resembling a cow, forms knowledge from analogy. However in Advaita, Gavaya is immediate knowledge as it is an object of direct sense perception. On further reflection, knowledge of the cow back home is like the Gavaya in the wild is mediate knowledge – Upamana.

Anupalabdhi: is non-cognition. This is regarded as an independent source of knowledge because it cannot be reduced to any of the other five. It is not a special case of the other five means of knowledge.

ParaVidya and AparaVidya: A central tenet of Advaita in interpreting the scriptures, supported by a passage in Mundaka Upanishad, is the existence of two types of knowledge – the higher and the lower. The higher addresses the ultimate reality while the lower addresses the empirical. (Nagarjuna of Madhyamika Buddhism also regarded knowledge to be so bifurcated.) Apara Vidya or the lower rung provides relational knowledge of the subject – object kind. It is the product of the senses and the intellect. It is limited to the finite, impermanent and objective world. Sense perception and reason are not ultimately valid means of knowledge. This knowledge is subject to subsequent sublation. Sublation is the process by which a previously held idea is discarded because of a contradicting experience. All of science, arts, human transactions and even the Vedas fall into this category. They may be sublated or can only provide knowledge about the phenomenal world. Still, the study of Apara Vidya is essential as a preparatory step for spiritual progress. It points to the ephemeral nature of phenomena and leads to detachment and stilling the mind. Para Vidya is absolute, beyond perception and inference. This knowledge is direct, immediate and intuitive. It teaches about the eternal and immutable, in contrast with Apara Vidya which teaches about transient phenomena. It transcends the knower, known and knowledge itself. The Katha says that such knowledge is not gained by studies of the Vedas or by one’s intellect or by listening to discourses. While Apara Vidya teaches using positive statements, Para Vidya teaches about the Self or the imperishable by the ‘Via Negativa’ method. Para Vidya does not lend itself to positive description as it is not object oriented. Sankara uses this two-fold distinction to explain the apparently contradictory passages encountered in the scriptures. Apparent contradictions arise as the teaching of the Upanishads is not always uniformly directed to one type of audience. What is taught to the novice and a light weight will seem to be at odds with what is taught to an advanced student. Some passages are also taken as the arguments from a contrarian or prima facie view point – Purvapaksha.

Sakshin or Witness: Objects are perceived by the Antahkarana going out through the senses to meet the object of perception. The Antahkarana being insentient does not grasp knowledge of the object. The state of Antahkarana is perceived by theSakshin or witness. The witness alone is the seer of the thoughts in the mind and not the other way around. This is termed Sakshi Jnana. The need for a witness arises from the fact the mind is insentient and also everyone is aware of their own existence from the mind. Is the mind self-conscious? The mind is constantly entertaining thoughts of knowing, doing, enjoying and so forth. The mind is constantly changing. How can one be aware of the changes in the mind? Whatever is changing cannot itself be aware of the changes. Thus there is a need to invoke the unchanging principle of Sakshin. Sakshin is the mind’s passive witness. It is also called Pratyagatma. As Saguna Brahma, it is called Prajna, which is active in dream states. This is all at the transactional level. At the absolute level, there is nothing to witness! It is only self awareness.

From the position of a thinker, there seems to be a witness like the homunculus of Descartes that is cognizing. But, in reality, the witness is pure consciousness, the Self or Brahman. The witness continues to function even when the mind is not active such as in the state of dreamless sleep. In deep sleep state, when the senses are shut down, the Sakshin keeps track of the continuity of time and also of the ego. However, there is no witness other than consciousness. It has been described as being indifferent to what it apprehends and as the illuminator of knowledge. It provides for the continuity of being while the being itself is in flux.

The Sakshin is central to some ontic concepts such as Karana Sharira or the causal body which is Sakshin plus Avidya. It carries the Vasanas or mental impressions of unmet desires in transmigration. Jeeva is Sakshin plus Antahkarana which is the state of bondage.

Cidabhasa – Finite Consciousness: Consciousness at the individual level or knower consciousness is not infinite. This is not the Sakshin / Atman consciousness. It is referred to as reflected consciousness. It is the Antahkarana glowing in the light of Atman. The Antahkarana by itself is insentient but with the light of Atman shining, it becomes a knower. This is called Cidabhasa. As the content of the knower’s knowledge is constantly changing, the Cidabhasa is a mutating entity. Ahankara is Antahkarana with the aid of Cidabhasa. The Ahankara’s awareness of itself as an unchanging selfhood cannot be due to Cidabhasa as it is subject to modification. Sakshin is responsible for that awareness of continuity of being.

Theory of Error: The Jeeva, the passive Sakshin with the active Antahkarana, is the knowing empirical self or Ego. Ego’s self consciousness attests to it being both subject (as Sakshin) and object (as Antahkarana.) There can be no knowledge without both a subject and an object participating. Given the necessity of an object for knowledge, what is the status of illusions? The difference between illusory and ‘real’ knowledge lies in illusion lasting only as long as it is perceived. The ‘real’ knowledge continues to last even after perception ends; it is termed Vyavaharika Satya or transactional truth. The knowledge associated with illusions is Pratibhasika Satya or apparent truth. When a shell is cognized as silver, it is Pratibhasika. This illusion vanishes as soon as the shell is cognized. If the shell is negated, the silver too is negated but not the other way around. Silver can be negated without affecting the shell. The shell is the substratum and the silver is an overlay or Adhyasa. Shell is hidden and silver substitutes for the hidden shell. This is not non-apprehension of the shell but misapprehension. It is perceived as something that it is not (It is not a mental construct of Yogacara School). It is Avidya, a positive entity and not just a lack of Vidya. The locus of misapprehension is an individual, not universal. The ego is such an illusion. A statement such as ‘I am fat’ involves superposing the body on the self; a case of Adhyasa. A different statement such as ‘my body’ makes a distinction between the self and the body. One mistakes the Antahkarana for the self when claiming ‘I am happy.’ Both ‘I am fat’ and ‘I am happy’ are Vyavaharika statements that overlay fatness and happiness on the self. The overlay points to yet another truth which is the Self. It is neither Vyavaharika nor Pratibhasika. It is the absolute or Paramarthika. In a sense the Paramarthika is deduced from the concept of Adhyasa.

(to be continued)


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