“One early morning in October upon awaking from slumber, there arose a sensation of the sense of self being gone. It was seen that there was literally no one there and that all movement was happening spontaneously without central control.” Nancy Dolen, interviewed by Jerry Katz.
Why the Neo-Advaitin is not an Advaitin at all
Recently, I asked the question: “Who or what is it that acts?” And it led me to think that this is a question that many modern teachers need to ask themselves. The above quotation immediately triggered my antipathy (my apologies, Nancy, nothing personal!) In fact, one could pick up virtually any book by modern neo-advaita teachers and find a similar statement. Here are a few:
“What sees through it? There is simply seeing – there is no-thing, no one that sees.” (Nathan Gill – already awake)
“For this body-mind, when liberation was seen, any sense of localization ended for a while. Awareness was seen to be everywhere. The room in which standing was happening, the street in which there was walking, the bodies and lamp posts and benches and space that were appearing, were not differentiated in the belonging from this arm, this thinking process, this seeing, these feet walking the pavement.” (Richard Sylvester – I Hope You Die Soon) Continue reading →
Revolution The reaction to the perceived unreasonableness of the empirical method was most apparent in the philosophy of Rousseau in France, which eventually contributed to the Romantic Movement, with its disdain for reason and advocacy of giving free rein to feelings and instinct. It was also taken up by those who instigated the French Revolution. Rousseau believed that man is inherently good but that the rise of civilisation, begun through the inequalities created in claiming ‘private property’ had corrupted us. Voltaire, on reading of his ideas, sarcastically commented that he was too old to start walking on all fours or searching out the savages in Canada. They also quarrelled over an earthquake in Lisbon. Voltaire saw in it a justification for questioning the beneficence of a God that would allow such a thing. Rousseau thought it served them right for living in seven-story houses rather than out in the countryside where they ought to have been. In any case, he did not think that we could use reason when talking about God; our attitude should be one of awe and reverence.
More dangerously, Rousseau was advocating democracy in his writings and questioning the divine right of kings. He believed that there should be discussion and agreement amongst the people to determine what he called the ‘general will’. This would then be formed into legislation which, once accepted by everyone, would be forcibly imposed. His best known work, ‘Social Contract’, opens with the challenging statement: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.” Continue reading →
Back in April I wrote an article which looked into the concept of chidAbhAsa – http://www.advaita-vision.org/chidabhasa/. This is the idea that the ‘notion of I’ is a reflection, in the mind, of the non-dual consciousness. The theory is called pratibimba vAda in advaita. It says that there is only one ‘real’, pAramArthika or witnessing Consciousness, although there are many jIva-s; one ‘original’ (bimba) and many ‘reflections’ (pratibimba-s).
But of course, reality is non-dual, so it makes no sense to talk of a ‘Consciousness’ and a ‘reflected Consciousness’! So how do we explain this? In order for there to be a reflection, there have to be two things: an original thing, and some medium in which a reflection can take place. This is obvious in the case of the mirror. We cannot see our face in order to be able to shave or apply make up by looking into empty space. We cannot even do it by looking at a blank wall. There has to be a mirror or some reflecting medium which can serve as a mirror. Here, we seem to be saying that there is Consciousness and a reflecting medium – the mind. But of course if we have these two things, then we’re talking about dvaita not advaita.
Shankara’s Advaita introduces the concept of mAyA to provide a sort-of explanation for the world-appearance but the dvaitin may argue that, pedantically, brahman and mAyA are still two things. Only if we can explain everything in terms of paramArtha alone, he might say, can we establish non-duality. Of course, we can be pedantic too – you cannot explain anything in paramArtha, only in vyavahAra! But we acknowledge that mAyA is mithyA. In reality, there are no jIva-s, no world, no reflections. So, the bottom line is that reality is non-dual, so that we do not really have to justify the theory at all! Continue reading →
Those who have read any of my books, or the brief biography that is available on this site and others, will know that I began my ‘philosophical investigations’ with the School of Economic Science, as it is known in the UK. And you will also know that I have commented frequently upon the misguided notions that were propagated by the school in the name of Advaita. One of the key misunderstandings that I had, which was not cleared for many years, despite reading widely and discussing Advaita with many people on the Internet, relates to ‘action’.
As usual, this was a Sankhyan idea effectively being passed off as belonging to Advaita. It was the notion that it is ‘the guNa that act’, or that action is a function of prakRRiti. In the first edition of ‘The Book Of One’, I actually had a chapter called ‘The Myth of Action’ and the first section of this was entitled ‘Only the guNa Act’. Here are several paragraphs from this:
“The three qualities of nature, the guna, of which all of nature is constituted, are in constant motion and this is the only ‘action’. Yes, the body acts – it is constituted of the three guna – but we do not. Here is a useful practical example of this: It may be that you cycle from time to time. I enjoy cycling in the New Forest, where I live – free exercise in beautiful surroundings and fresh air. However, there are a few hills along the routes, and sometimes you have to go up these rather than down. Many people just get off and walk their cycle up. Others take it as some sort of challenge and insist on trying to cycle to the top without having to dismount. When the going becomes hard, they make an extra mental effort, along the lines of ‘I am damn well going to get to the top, even if it kills me’! This is the hard way!Continue reading →
The Scottish philosopher David Hume accepted Locke’s empiricism and also agreed with Berkeley that we cannot ever know that there is a world outside of and separate from ourselves. Indeed he claimed not to understand what people meant by the idea of ‘substance’. We only know about perceptions, colour, sound, taste and so on. If this thing called ‘substance’ is something else, we have no knowledge of it – why invent it? If we took away the sensible qualities of things there would be nothing left, would there? Why should we need anything to explain or support our perceptions and impressions? Questions about why they arise are unnecessary and the answers suggested to explain them are unintelligible. The idea of ‘mind’ is just as illogical. If we simply dropped both of them, we would have no need to try to imagine ways in which such supposedly different ‘things’ might interact, as Descartes had wasted so much of his time doing.
He was also sceptical of Descartes’ conviction of his own existence as a thinking individual and made his own attempts to find some irreducible ‘self’ of which he could be certain. He decided that, whenever he attempted to look for ‘himself’ he could only find thoughts, feelings and perceptions; never a ‘self’ that is the perceiver, feeler and thinker. And so he concluded that there was no such thing. One feels one wants to get hold of him and shake him and say: “Yes, when you look, all that you find are thoughts, feelings and perceptions but who is it who finds this? What is the ‘who’ that is doing the looking?” He also felt similarly about God. We may well feel convinced that there is a God – this is effectively the definition of faith, a firm conviction without any empirical evidence – but this is not the same as knowledge. Continue reading →
I came across this essay last week. I don’t actually remember writing it, although the file was dated Feb of this year! (My memory must be deteriorating faster than I thought!) Anyway, since everyone (who contributes these days) seems to be particularly interested in Consciousness and scientific views, it seemed a good idea to post it. Apologies if I have already posted it somewhere before…
Shankara’s Refutation of the Materialist
Seemingly, the most prevalent view today of the nature of consciousness is that it is a phenomenon that comes into existence when the brain reaches a certain level of complexity. To use the favored term, consciousness is an ‘epiphenomenon’ of matter. In fact, this is not a novel idea; it has been around for a long time. An Indian philosopher with whom the theory is particularly associated is Charvaka, who lived around 600 BCE.
The materialist philosophy itself is called lokayata in Sanskrit, and this is the term used in the principal Vedantic text, the Brahmasutras. It is interesting to note that the term ‘lokayatika’ was effectively used by the eminent philosopher Shankara as an insult but nowadays would be regarded by most people as a compliment, since it literally means ‘someone experienced in the ways of the world’ – an indication, perhaps, of the spiritual depths to which Western society has sunk! Continue reading →
Born some eighteen years before the death of Descartes, the Englishman John Locke claimed that reason was not the principal means for finding out about the world, as the earlier philosopher had contended. Instead, he advocated an empirical approach to knowledge, i.e. using one’s senses actually to see what is the case. This is the only means for obtaining raw data and we use reason subsequently to make sense of it. Only then can it become knowledge. He believed his own purpose in life was to enquire into human knowledge to discover its limits and the extent to which we could be certain of it.
Unlike modern, evolutionary psychologists, he believed that we are effectively born with no innate knowledge, a metaphorical ‘blank slate’. All of our knowledge and understanding is therefore built upon information derived from our senses. Everything we know or think about ultimately comes from experience. The limits of what we can know about reality are fixed by the abilities of the senses and the associated mental equipment. Continue reading →
Descartes’ separation of man into the two aspects of mind and matter also became the principal way in which Westerners subsequently viewed the world. Matter is extended in space, can be divided and so on, while mind is indivisible and seems to exist separate from the body, somehow outside of space. This is the theory known as Cartesian Dualism. Unfortunately, he was never able to explain how such completely different ‘substances’ were able to interact. The idea of an immaterial ‘little me’ somehow sitting in the brain (Descartes thought the soul resided in the pineal gland) and interpreting the information transmitted from the eyes and other material senses just did not make sense. How could this interface work? The so-called ‘mind-body problem’ has intrigued philosophers ever since and no universally accepted model of the nature of the self has yet emerged.
One of his disciples, a Dutchman called Arnold Geulincx, suggested that the mind and body were separately governed by God, who kept the two in synchronisation, like clocks. Thus, when we decide to do something and it happens, such as getting out of bed, there is no actual interaction between the two, no ‘willing’ as such, it is simply the consequence of the two being synchronised. A similar theory, called Occasionalism, was proposed by the French priest, Nicolas Malebranche. He said that neither mental nor physical events cause other events. Instead, what we call a cause is simply the occasion for God to exercise his will and instigate what we call the effect; there is no actual connection between the two events at all. All of this meant that life is strictly deterministic, with no place for free will and everything happening according to physical (or divine) law. Continue reading →
Ignorance is a fundamental concept in Advaita and most people who call themselves Advaitins will believe that they understand what it is. After all, enlightenment is often equated to the gaining of Self-knowledge, which is equivalent to the removal of ignorance. Here is the definition of avidyA in John Grimes’ excellent ‘Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy’:
“It is the key concept in the Advaita Vedanta system. It serves as the cornerstone for Advaita Vedanta metaphysics, epistemology, and ethical disciplines; thus its role cannot be belittled. It is characterized by six marks: it is beginningless (anAdi); it is removed by right knowledge (j~nAna- nivartya); it is a positive entity of the nature of an existent (bhAva rUpa); it is indescribable (anirvachanIya); it has the two powers of concealment and projection which respectively represent the truth and suggest the false (AvaraNa and vikShepa); and its locus is either in the individual self (jIva) or in the Absolute (Brahman).”
And this is pretty much how most teachers and writers use the term. For example, in ‘Back to the Truth’, I said: “As long as the ignorance remains, there will be identification of one form or another and we will believe ourselves to be other than our true nature. The ignorance is said to be anAdi, without any beginning, and it will continue until it is removed by knowledge and enlightenment dawns.” This is backed up by shruti. The sarvopaniShad, for example, says (verse 1): “…this egoism is the bondage of the soul. The cessation of that egoism is mokSha, liberation. That which causes this egoism is avidyA, nescience.” Other, later scriptures echo this; e.g. the advaita bodha dIpaka: “Though the Self is Brahman, there is not the knowledge of the Self (being Brahman). That which obstructs the knowledge of the Self is Ignorance. Just as ignorance of the substratum, namely the rope, projects the illusion of the snake, so Ignorance of Brahman projects this world.” Continue reading →
The age of increasing importance of science is usually claimed to have begun with Copernicus in the early 16th Century when he argued that the sun is the centre of the solar system and not the earth as the church had always insisted. (This is stated in the Psalms of the Old Testament and by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd Century.) In fact, so afraid was Copernicus of incurring the wrath of the clergy that publication of his beliefs did not take place until after his death. Even Galileo, later confirming the facts by telescope, was forced to deny it since he wished to stay alive. Galileo advocated that all prior beliefs and opinion should be kept out of scientific observation, which should be completely objective. Needless to say, once such ideas gained support, the authority of the church began to diminish and their dogmatic pronouncements about the nature of everything began to be supplanted by more tentative suggestions based upon specific observation and experiment.
Isaac Newton was born in the same year that Galileo died and his discoveries were to have a devastating effect on religious faith. Once it became accepted that the workings of the universe could be understood through scientific laws, the idea of a divine creation became suspect. Man was just a tiny phenomenon in a vast universe, no longer the centre of everything. This had a profound effect upon man’s self-image and outlook. Previously it had been believed that our earth was effectively the creation and that man was the most important being in it, capable of communing with God and aspiring to union with Him. Henceforth it became increasingly apparent that the earth was insignificant in the immensity of the universe and the concomitant conclusion was that man himself was nowhere near so important as had previously been supposed. Continue reading →