Transliteration Key

Introduction -
The advaita philosophy is not easy to explain briefly, and it is not my intention to repeat in a www home page what takes whole volumes for accomplished experts. I will content myself with providing a brief synopsis of the various aspects of advaita vedAnta.

A very important assumption in all vedAnta is that man suffers from bondage in the course of his life in this world. This is said to be sam.sAra, which involves being caught in an endless cycle of births and deaths. The quest therefore is to seek a way out of this bondage, to break the cycle of rebirths and attain moksha or liberation. The most important issues in vedAnta have to be understood with respect to what constitutes bondage and what constitutes liberation. The advaita school is of the view that jnAna (knowledge) of man's true nature is liberation. Bondage arises from ignorance (avidyA) of man's true nature, and therefore removal of ignorance roots out this bondage. Liberation is therefore nothing more or nothing less than man knowing his true nature. This true nature is his innermost essence, the Atman, which is nothing other than brahman. He who knows this, not merely as bookish knowledge, but through his own Experience, is liberated even when living. Such a man is a jIvanmukta, and he does not return to the cycle of rebirths.

brahman -
It may be noticed that at first glance, advaita's solution to the problem of man's liberation does not seem to involve God as a Creator or a Savior at all. If all that is required is to know one's own true nature, what role does God have to play in this universe? advaita's answer to this issue is buried in the advaitic conception of brahman. One is the view of the brahmasUtra that brahman is at once both the instrumental and the material cause of the universe. The brahmasUtra holds such a view because there is nothing that can be said to exist independent of brahman. Is brahman then just a name for a universal set - the superset of all things in this universe? Not so, because brahman has been described as beyond all change, whereas the perceived universe is full of change. Still, this universe is said to have brahman as the only cause. At the same time, to understand brahman truly is to know It to be devoid of parts and diversity, and beyond all causality/action. Such a conception of brahman derives from the upanishads, which say sarvam khalvidam brahma - all this is indeed nothing but brahman - on the one hand, and neha nAnAsti kincana - there is no diversity here - on the other. Thus, the conception of brahman as a Creator in advaita is a unique one, and directly relates to the advaita views on causality.

Causality: pariNAma and vivarta -
There are different theories of causality described by advaita vedAntins, but they are all agreed that brahman is the sole cause of the universe, i.e both the instrumental and the material cause of the universe. The axiom that the One brahman is the cause of the many-fold universe is the foundation on which the entire system of advaita vedAnta is based, and numerous efforts have been made over the centuries, to address logical problems arising out of it. This brahman is also held to be eternal and changeless. It is easy to understand brahman as the instrumental cause of the universe. This view is not very different from the traditional perspective shared by almost all religions - some creator is usually credited with having created this universe. This creator is the instrumental cause of the universe. What differentiates the standard vedAnta position from such general theistic views is that brahman is simultaneously also the material cause of the universe. In other words, creation is never ex nihilo, but proceeds out of brahman Itself, although brahman remains unchanged.

Common-sense views of material causality always involve some kind of change. Thus, for example, milk is said to be the material cause of curds. However, in the process of curdling milk, the milk cannot be recovered. All we have at the end is the curds, the milk being irretrievably lost. This kind of causality involving change is called pariNAma. There is another kind of material causality. For example, gold is the material cause of an ornament made out of gold. In the process of making the ornament, the metal does not change into something else. It is only drawn into another form, from a lump to an ornament; the gold remains gold. This kind of causality is called vivarta, where the material cause itself does not change into something else. The chAndogya upanishad makes very telling use of this kind of causality in its illustrations of how "Being" alone is the original cause (sadeva saumya idam agra AsIt, ekameva advitIyam), and how all perceived change is only in the realm of name and form, dependent on language (vAcArambhaNam vikAro nAmadheyam). The reality of gold is quite independent of what shape it is in.

Although SankarAcArya makes use of both kinds of causality ( pariNAma and vivarta) in his analogies, he denies that brahman's role as the material cause of the universe involves any change in the essence that is brahman. In the logical extreme, both pariNAma and vivarta views of causality are deficient, as they presume a separate reality of the effect, apart from that of the cause. Therefore, the most subtle arguments in advaita vedAnta turn upon the ajAti vAda notion - that there is no real creation. vivarta and pariNAma are both seen as convenient ways of describing causality, only if some provisional reality is conceded for the notion of creation. Those who follow the dRshTi-sRshTi vAda also maintain that brahman is beyond all causality. However, most post-Sankaran authors, who teach in accordance with what is called the sRshTi-dRshTi vAda, opt for a vivarta notion of causality, as far as accounting for all creation is concerned. It should be remembered that the conception of brahman as both the material and instrumental cause of the universe implies a very special kind of causality, one that is not similar to any other, and that cannot therefore be captured completely by any analogy. It is as if brahman has acted upon itself in order to produce this universe, that is full of change. Yet, the upanishads abound with passages denying that any change is possible in brahman, and indeed SankarAcArya denies that brahman really acts. brahman is also described as devoid of all attributes, along with passages that glorify brahman as ISvara, the Lord of this universe, with infinite attributes.

nirguNa and saguNa brahman -
To resolve such passages in the upanishads, advaita vedAnta maintains that really brahman is devoid of all attributes, and is therefore known as nirguNa. brahman may be described as in the upanishads, as Truth (satyam), Knowledge (jnAnam), Infinite (anantam), or as Being (sat), Consciousness (cit), Bliss (Ananda), but none of these terms can be truly interpreted as attributes of brahman as a Super-person/God. Rather, it is because brahman exists, that this whole universe is possible. It is because brahman exists that man ascribes attributes to brahman. However, brahman's true nature cannot be captured in words, for all these attributes are ultimately just words. Hence, it is man's ignorance of Its true nature that postulates attributes to brahman, thereby describing It in saguNa terms (with attributes). This saguNa brahman is ISvara, the Lord, whose essential reality as brahman is not dependent on anything else, and does not change because of the production of this universe. Therefore, advaita holds that brahman's own nature (svarUpa- lakshaNa) is devoid of any attributes (nirguNa), while It is seen for the temporary purposes of explaining creation (taTastha- lakshaNa) to be ISvara, with attributes (saguNa).

So much for saguNa and nirguNa brahman. If brahman cannot be held to have suffered any change because of creation of the universe, then what is the status of this universe? Since the cause does not undergo any change in the process of producing the effect, it is held that the cause alone is Real. The universe only partakes in reality inasmuch as it is to be considered as dependent on brahman. Therefore the upanishads say, " sarvam. khalvidam. brahma." If the universe is considered to be independent of brahman, then it has no real Reality, although the world of human perception can never reveal this truth. This is simply because brahman Itself is never an object of human perception. It is this characteristic of dualistic knowledge, derived from perception alone, that prompts the advaitin to call it mithyAjnAna (false knowledge).

avidyA and mAyA -
Why does human perception fail to see brahman directly? SankarAcArya attributes it sometimes to avidyA (ignorance) and sometimes to mAyA (the power to deceive). As the bRhadAraNyaka upanishad puts it, "vijnAtAram. are kena vijAnIyAt?" - How is the Knower Itself to be known? It also stands to reason, therefore, that any effort at characterizing brahman falls far short of brahman. No words reach brahman; how can mere verbal descriptions claim to describe It? advaita now turns to the ancient technique of adhyAropa-apavAda (sublation of superimposition) to explain this. Thus, although brahman is called the instrumental and material cause of the universe, advaita tells us that this is only a preliminary view of brahman, motivated by a need to explain creation of the universe. In order to understand brahman, one has to go beyond this preliminary view, and understand brahman in Itself, not necessarily in relation to the universe. Then it is understood that the whole universe is only superimposed on the underlying Reality that is brahman. To really know brahman, one needs to sublate this superimposition, and look at the substratum (adhishThAna) that is brahman. As for the exact nature of avidyA and mAyA, later authors seem divided into two major schools of thought, namely the bhAmatI and the vivaraNa schools.

brahman = Atman -
What then of the human self, the jIva? It is here that advaita comes up with the most radical answer, one that is unacceptable to all other schools of vedAnta. According to advaita, what is called the universe is in reality not other than brahman. Similarly, what is called the jIva is in reality, the Atman, which is also nothing other than brahman Itself. The real jIva is the Atman, which is unchanging, ever free, and identical with brahman. This is said on the basis of upanishadic passages where the Atman is explicitly equated with brahman. This equation of Atman with brahman is also explained by means of adhyAropa-apavAda. By sublating the superimposition of human shortcomings and attributes on the Atman, the pure Atman, the substratum, shines forth as brahman Itself. The mani-fold universe and the individual self, which considers itself bound, are both superimposed upon that Transcendental Reality which is brahman. Once the superimposition is understood for what it is, the individual is no more an individual, the universe is no more the universe - all is brahman.

This doctrine of advaita should not be misinterpreted to mean that the human self is in and of itself God, without any qualification whatsoever. SankarAcArya most emphatically asserts that such is not his intention. On the other hand, he is at great pains to point out that one who is desirous of moksha needs to overcome his human shortcomings in order to achieve full liberation. Sankara prescribes rigorous prerequisite qualities for the person who is to study vedAnta. These form the practical aspect of the effort to rise above and sublate the characteristics of the human jIva, in order to understand the Atman/brahman. The non-dual reality of the Atman is revealed to the intense seeker, as an experience that defies words. One might call it a mystic experience of brahman, in which to know brahman is to be brahman. Thus, rather than being atheistic or non- theistic, advaita vedAnta is meta-theistic: it points to the basic underlying Reality of all, including what humans call God, what humans call the universe, and what humans call human. This Reality is the unchangeable brahman.

tattvamasi -
At this juncture, it is instructive to look at the advaitin interpretation of the chAndogya statement tattvamasi, following SankarAcArya. This is one of the four statements that have become well- known as the upanishadic mahAvAkyas, which equate Atman with brahman. The four most important mahAvAkyas (one from each veda) are:

- "ayamAtmA brahma" (muNDaka)
- "tattvamasi" (chAndogya)
- "aham brahmAsmi" (bRhadAraNyaka)
- "prajnAnam brahma" (aitareya)

Sankara explains tattvamasi as follows. tat is a common designation for brahman in the upanishads, while tvam (thou) addresses the student. The sentence states an equation of two seemingly different entities tat - that, and tvam - thou, by means of the verb asi - are. In general, brahman (tat) is commonly understood as ISvara (saguNa brahman), with an infinity of attributes, including the power of creation. tvam is the individual who is bound, who is embodied, and who is in need of liberation. The difference between tvam and tat seems to be a matter of common knowledge for all individuals. What is the reason for the upanishad to teach an identity then? An identity cannot be stipulated, even in infallible Sruti, if there is a real difference. Keeping in mind that Sruti is infallible, advaita therefore concludes that really there is no ultimate difference between tat and tvam.

The identity expressed in a statement like tattvamasi is therefore held to be Real, and its realization constitutes the height of knowledge (jnAna). Direct experience of this jnAna is in fact moksha. It also follows that since this identity is not perceived normally, difference arises out of avidyA, ignorance of the true nature of Reality. Since Sruti is superior to perception, this identity is indeed the supreme truth, all difference being in the realm of relative perception. If non-dualism is the true nature of Reality, why is this difference perceived in the first place? Given advaita's basis on the non-dualistic scriptures, the perception of difference remains, in the final analysis, inexplicable. This is labeled "anirvAcya/anirvacanIya " in advaita - something that can never be fully understood by the human mind. Since perception of duality presupposes avidyA, no amount of logical analysis, itself based on this duality, will satisfactorily explain avidyA. Hence, SankarAcArya is not much interested in explicating avidyA, except to acknowledge its presence in all human activity, and in trying to overcome it to understand brahman.

vyavahAra and paramArtha -
This exegesis of scripture leads to the well-known advaitic doctrine of two levels of understanding: vyAvahArika satya (phenomenal or relative reality or just "reality", where duality is seen) and pAramArthika satya (transcendental reality, or "Reality", non-duality). One important upanishadic source for advaita vedAnta's theory of two levels of truth is the analysis of the Atman as "neti, neti" - not this, not this. This is from the bRhadAraNyaka upanishad. This upanishad also describes the highest state of the Atman in purely non-dualistic terms - "yatra tvasya sarvam AtmaivAbhUt, tatra kena kam paSyet? ..... vijnAtAram. are kena vijAnIyAt?" - Where the Atman alone has become all this, how is one to see another? ..... How is the Knower to be Known? Most advaitins point to the quotation from the bRhadAraNyaka that immediately precedes this: "yatra tu dvaitamiva bhavati, ..." - where there is duality, as it were, ... - as the scriptural basis for saying that perception of duality is an appearance only, "as it were" and not the supreme Reality. This rejection of all characterization as partial at best, and ultimately untrue, means that the Atman is beyond all duality, and all attempts to describe It fail, because language itself presupposes duality. This via negativa approach is very much favored in advaita vedAnta. This emphasis on identifying the Atman with brahman by means of sublating the commonly understood characteristics of each term, to affirm the real nature of the Atman, is central to advaita vedAnta.

Note: The standard vedAntic position is that brahman is both the material and the instrumental cause of the universe. This is a notion shared by advaita, viSishTAdvaita and the various bhedAbheda schools of vedAnta. The dvaita school denies that brahman can be the material cause of the universe, and (in my opinion) goes against the brahmasUtras in the process.


There is a large body of literature on advaita vedAnta. Check the bibliography page for a list of references.


Last updated on May 5, 1999.

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