The following is from the book Dialogues with The Guru (Talks with his Holiness Sri Sri Chandrasekara Bharati Swaminah, late ShankarAcharya of Sringeri Sharada Peetam). The book is a compilation of His Holiness's discussion and talks, compiled by Sri. R. Krishnaswami Aiyar first published in 1957 by Chetana Limited, Bombay. These are from Chapter XII of the book, beginning in page 107.
This discussion is with a disciple, who was well learned in the vedanta literature and a scholar. He once approached HH and asked to be initiated in Advaita - the first portion of the talk relates to ability of one to be initiated/ one to be able to initiate advaita - HH makes the point that advaita is to be experienced, like "sweetness" and cannot be described or one cannot be initiated into it. This discussion below follows that.
Significance of the name.
(G = Guru, D = Disciple)
G: First we shall try to understand what is meant by Advaita. How have you understood it?
D: I have heard it explained thus: dvi means two, dvita means the state of being two, that is two-ness. Dvaitam is the same as dvita. Advaita is therefore that thing in which there is no two-ness or duality.
G: Quite so. What do you call that some thing in which there is two-ness?
D: It is brAhman.
G: Perfectly right. And by brAhman you mean that basic principle of reality where from the universe derives its existence, whereon it rests and wherein it disappears?
G: Let us ignore the word brAhman and its full significance for a moment. You give the name of Advaita to the principle which is responsible for the creation, maintenance and dissolution of the universe?
D: Quite so.
G: You mean then that there is no two-ness in this principle?
G: In other words, you mean that that principle is one and one only?
G: To explain it again, you mean that there are no two such principles?
G: And you claim that our system of thought is rightly called Advaita as it enunciates the doctrine of the non-existence of two such principles?
D: Quite so.
G: That is all right. Now we shall consider for a moment the other systems of thought, be it Christianity or Mohammedanism, visishtAdvaitA or dvaitA, tarka or yogA, be it any system of thought which admits the existence of a principle which is responsible for the creation, the sustenance and the dissolution of the universe. Do any of these systems ever proclaim that there are two such principles or do they all agree in proclaiming that there is and can be only one such principle?
D: No system postulates any plurality in God. There may be and is plurality among the devAs, who are as much created beings as ourselves, but certainly none in the Supreme Godhead. He is ever One.
G: Quite so. No system therefore enunciates any duality so far as God is concerned?
D: It is so.
G: Then, every system, inasmuch as it negatives the existence of two Gods is entitled to give the name of Advaita to the God enunciated by it and to appropriate the same name for itself also. If so, what is the justification for your monopolising the name Advaita specially to your God and to your particular system of thought?
D: I pray that Your Holiness may be pleased to explain it.
G: There is another difficulty. You know that in the Advaita philosophy a practical saguNa brAhman and a transcendent nirguNa brAhman are both enunciated.
G: None of the other systems accepts similar distinction and they decline to conceive of brAhman as twofold?
G: It would seem therefore that all other systems, except your own, enunciate a single supreme principle and that in your system only there is an enunciation of two supreme principles, the saguNa and the nirguNa. Strictly speaking, therefore, it would seem that all systems are equally entitled to call themselves Advaita and that, if any system can be disqualified from using that name by reason of enunciating plurality in God, it is certainly your system only that can be so disqualified. The advaita system is thus not entitled at all to call itself by that name. How do you then call advaita?
D: The answer for this also must come from Your Holiness.
G: Not necessarily, for you yourself can give the answer quite easily.
G: Generally speaking, a name gets attached to a particular thing only if some attribute which is denoted by that name happens to be the exclusive attribute of that thing. If an attribute is common between a particular thing and several others, that particular thing cannot be called by the name which connotes that attribute.
G: A name is therefore given to a particular thing when that thing has an exclusive characteristic of its own which is associated with that name.
D: Quite so.
G: Now, what is the exclusive characteristic of our system of philosophy which is absent is all other systems?
D: I suppose, the doctrine of mAyA.
G: Quite so; and its implications.
D: What are the implications?
G: Before we go to that question, tell me what do you understand by mAyA?
D: I have heard it explained as the differentiating principle which is responsible for diversity in the universe.
G: In the universe of matter or in the universe of souls?
D: In both. mAyA is the prime cause of all diversity, in the objective as well as the subjective universe.
G: Then, but for mAyA, there can be no diversity at all?
D: I have heard it so said.
G: Matter, inert as it is, will have no independent existence of its own but for mAyA?
G: Similarly, I suppose, we, individuals as we are now, will have no independent existence of our own, but for mAyA?
D: It would seem so.
G: If we do not enunciate any differentiating principle as mAyA, matter - inert matter - will persist in having an existence of its own consistently with God the Supreme Principle, just as the mud from which a pot is made claims consistent existence with the potter who uses it for making the pot?
D: It is so. In some other systems, they assign to God only the status of the potter and enunciate a primary substance, be it pradhAna or the atoms or any other thing, as the material out of which the universe is made.
G: But there are some systems which deny the independent existence of matter and which enunciate that God is Himself the material cause as well as the efficient cause. That is, He is as much the mud as the potter.
D: Quite so. I think such as idea is formulated by the viSishtAdvaitins.
G: It finds a place in some other systems also. Though they conceive of God as the material as well as the efficient cause of the universe, they do not grant that God is the material cause of individual souls, for souls are not matter; nor is God the efficient cause of souls, for souls are not 'made'.
D: I understand.
G: Then, by postulating that the individual souls are not made but exist from time beginningless, they assign them an existence, an independent existence, co-eval with God Himself.
D: No doubt so, for they call all souls eternal.
G: But so do we. The difference between our system and theirs lies not is ascribing eternal existence to the individual soul, but in their ascribing eternal independent existence to all individual souls and in out ascribing the eternality to brAhman and deny to the souls any existence independent of brAhman.
D: It is so.
G: Now then, we find that there are some systems which postulate the existence of God as the Supreme Being and at the same time grant the independent existence of matter and also the independent existence of individual souls. In some other systems, God is conceived of as the Supreme Being as well as the primary material cause of the universe of matter, thereby denying to inert matter an independent existence of its own, but conceding such as existence to individual souls.
G: It is only in the advaita system that matter is denied existence independent of God and the individual soul also is denied existence independent of God.
D: Quite so.
G: It will be clear now that the distinguishing characteristic which is responsible for the name advaita, which our system has appropriated to itself and by which it is generally known to all.
D: But how does the name advaita convey the idea of this distinctive characteristic?
G: You your self said that advaita signified a negation of duality.
D: But Your Holiness pointed out that no religion in the world postulated a duality in God?
G: Quite so. You committed the mistake of understanding 'negation of two-ness in God' to mean 'negation of two Gods', thereby giving room for my further questions. If advaita meant negation of two Gods, our system has no sole right at all to appropriate that name to itself but, if it means on the other hand negation of any second principle independent of God, we have the sole right to monopolize that name for our system. It is only in the latter sense that our system goes by the name of advaita.
D: I now understand the significance of the name; but there is mAyA the differentiating principle which is responsible for the diversity in the universe of matter and of individual souls. Surely, that is a second principle.
G: No. That cannot be a second principle. Viewing it as the sakti or power or potentiality of brAhman, it can have no independent existence of its own apart from the sakta, the Supreme Person or brAhman. From the still higher standpoint of absolute truth, it has no existence at all. mAyA is the name given to it because it IS NOT (ya ma), but seems to be, borrowing its seeming reality from the eternal verity called brAhman.