Q.394 – Becoming One

Q: The question about Ishvara, Atman, Brahman gets confusing once a person starts reading and gaining knowledge from different branches of religions or schools of philosophy. So to put my question as simply as possible: If we are all Brahman then how does Karma come into play for us as individuals ? (As technically it’s Brahman acting against Brahman.)

One other thing:

Let’s say there are two people ( You and Me ) who realises the truth and doesn’t need to take rebirth again, so once their body dies, their Atman merges back with Brahman. So once that happens, do both these people become one ? At the highest level, Yes ! Because they were always One ! But would a part of them both remain ‘Them’ ? As in a person who sent a mail and a person who replied to it ? If so, then is that ‘Part’ what we’d call a soul ?

A (Dennis): In reality there is only brahman, non-dual, formless, eternal etc.

The world (including the ‘person’) is mithyA, neither real nor unreal, depending for its existence on brahman. The ‘person’ is a mind-body, ‘animated’ by Consciousness via a ‘reflection’ of brahman in the mind. This concept, called chidAbhAsa, is fundamental to understanding the seeming problems you raise. See my essays on this subject: There is an article called “The ‘Real I’ verses the ‘Presumed I’ – An Examination of chidAbhAsa” – http://www.advaita-vision.org/chidabhasa/ and a follow-up blog called ‘Continuing Reflections on Reflection’ at http://www.advaita-vision.org/continuing-reflections-on-reflections/.

Ishvara is the (mithyA) macrocosmic entity whose laws govern the working of the universe. One aspect of these laws is embodied by the theory of karma. In reality, none of these things exist in any absolute sense – they depend on brahman for their seeming existence.

In reality there are not two people; there are not any  people. The reincarnation concept is part of the karma theory and provides an interim explanation for how things seem to be at the level of the world. Once a ‘person’ realizes all this, that ‘person’ is not reborn (as part of the karma theory), whereas the continuing ignorant person is reborn until that ignorance is replaced by Self-knowledge.

That is a quick, brief summary! If you want a fuller, but still simple picture, read my ‘Advaita Made Easy‘. If you want the more complete picture, read the 2nd edition of ‘Book of One‘. If you want the bottom-line truth about reality and the world, read ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality‘.

[ As an aside, because it is slightly relevant and was also mentioned in Ramesam’s last post on ‘The Simulation Hypothesis‘, I would like to ask him about eka-jIva-vAda. This is the theory that there is only one jIva, who ‘imagines’ the world and all the other jIva-s as in a dream. I don’t want to initiate another discussion about the subject itself. There is a series of articles by Ramesam on this topic, beginning here. My question is a simple one: What is the point of this theory? We know that the appearance is that there are many jIva-s, and that we act in the world as though there are many. And we (eventually) know that there are none at all – there is only brahman. So why make the effort of trying to advance this ‘intermediate’ position. What purpose can it serve, other than to delay understanding of the reality? Does it not strengthen, rather than weaken, the dominion of the ego?]

10 thoughts on “Q.394 – Becoming One

  1. Thanks Dennis for the queries raised on eka jIva vAda. You ask:
    (i) What is the point of this theory?
    (ii) Why make the effort of trying to advance this ‘intermediate’ position. What purpose can it serve, other than to delay understanding of the reality?
    (iii) Does it not strengthen, rather than weaken, the dominion of the ego?

    I shall try to respond to the best of my ability, as per my understanding, forsaking the technical details, in order to keep the answers straight and simple.

    In the short and quick summary you presented above, you highlighted the basic tenet of Advaita philosophy as: “In reality there are not two people; there are not any people.”

    But you did also point out the hard-to-drop predicament that almost all of us are deeply entrenched in, viz, : “We know that the appearance is that there are many jIva-s, and that we act in the world as though there are many.”

    You expressed later the hope that: ” we (eventually) know that there are none at all – there is only brahman.”

    How does that happen?

    The committed “seeker” obviously has to extricate himself/herself by his/her own effort from the mithya world and achieve the “realization” of Oneness (or no-twoness). To my mind, therefore, the most significant and the weighty key word is “eventually” which you put within parenthesis, indicative of a time taking process required to be adopted by the seeker.

    It is best to think of “eka jIva vAda” as one such process, nay, IMHO, as the most powerful prakriya. In this prakriya, the aspirant models the entire awake world, which appears to have a touchy-feely physicality to it and which he has been taking to be real, to a dream. S/he does so on purpose knowing fully well the dream world, quite contrary to the awake world, to be patently “unreal and diaphanous.” He is also aware that he alone is the knower of his dream world and its experience is private to him. Yet he sees that it is populated by several creatures and objects, animate and inanimate entities, having interactions and transactions within themselves as well as with him. He may witness even his own death, though, he finds on waking, that there was no death for him. He realizes that he alone was the creator of this colorful and tumultuous world which ended when he woke up.

    The seeker finds that the simulation of the awake world to a dream is flawless and thorough to the last t. As a result of this understanding, the vice grip on him of the solid looking awake world softens, loosens and eventually evaporates. It may even happen that the proverbial dream tiger may appear and trigger a sudden waking up to true Reality.

    The usual methods or upAsana krama-s available to the seeker come principally in two flavors – the pratIkopAsana and the ahamgrahopAsana. In the first one, the seeker meditates on a symbol, a god, a deity or a mantra, a form with attributes for liberation thinking himself to be different from the object of meditation. In the latter, he identifies himself with brahman and meditates on the nirguNa brahman. But it is still gauNa because it is a doer-centered kriya tantra. The successful completion of these upAsana-s leads the seeker to brahma loka and then later on s/he attains brhamajnAna. Shankara exhorts us in his commentary on katha upanishad mantra II-iii-5:

    स च दुष्प्रापः, अत्यन्तविशिष्टकर्मज्ञानसाध्यत्वात् | तस्मात् आत्मदर्शनाय इहैव यत्नः कर्तव्य इत्यभिप्रायः || — II-iii-5, kaTha up bhAShya

    It means: [Attainment of brahma loka, the intermittent stage before the dawn of Self-realization] requires very difficult, intense and special efforts and action (by adopting the progressive path). Therefore, my opinion is that it is better that one should try to achieve [liberation] here (in this world) itself.

    Unlike the doer-centered progressive methods, ekajIva vAda is a vastu trantra and leads the seeker to liberation in the ‘Here and Now’.
    Thus we can see that this prakriyA does not “delay understanding of the reality.” It will not, as you seem to apprehend, “strengthen” but rather it will weaken, the “dominion of the ego.”

    I may also mention here that sage Vasishta teaches in Yogavasista that there are three types of egoisms (vide the Chapter 4: Sustenance, sarga 33, verses 49 – 52). The two egoisms that say that

    (i) “this entire world is me, the endless Supreme Consciousness is me, there is nothing different from me” OR
    (ii) “I am not any of the visible objects, nothing touches me, I am subtler than the subtlest” are good ones and can be cultivated.

    The third egoism that says “the body is me” is the enemy and should be gotten rid of. In the same chapter, the Sage discusses the “Origination of the individual from brahman” in the 40th sarga. Perhaps, one may think of the eka jIva approach to liberation as retracing that path.


  2. Thanks for that, Ramesam. But, as you probably anticipated, I am not convinced!

    I suppose the key aspect as I see it is that EJV seems more improbable from a seeker point of view than the pAramArthika truth. Why introduce something that is more difficult to accept as an intermediate explanation? Why not go straight to the ‘bottom line’?

    Introducing brahma loka and krama mukti does not help at all (as I see it), since these concepts are no more reasonable. (As you know I do not find the theory of karma itself to be helpful). And upASana is only of any value as a mental preparation for shravaNa-manana-nididhyAsana.

    As you know, Gaudapada uses the dream analogy to guide seekers to a final understanding, without resorting to EJV.

    Best wishes,

  3. “Gaudapada uses the dream analogy to guide seekers to a final understanding … …”

    That is excellent, Dennis. Thank you.

    It appeared from your original post that your objection was to the dream analogy itself.

    An analogy, as you know, shows the “similarity in some respects between things.” It is also helpful in drawing “an inference that if things agree in some respects, they probably agree in others.”

    To simulate means “to create a representation or model.” Simulation is “the act or process of simulating.”
    [The quotes are from standard Dics).

    While the analogy is a hint; the simulation is a look-see. The analogy serves at an intellectual level, simulation is at a down to earth lab level. Both are models bringing out the similitude.

    If an analogy is acceptable, what objection can be there if it is expressed as a process?

    A nod or wink may work for the adept; a novice may need a bit more elaborate map. But it is not definitely an additional step / an extraneous avoidable intermediary. It is more like a cookbook recipe.

    Though Swami Prakasananda of the 16th century is usually credited for the formal formulation of EJV as a doctrine, learned Pundits tell us that it is actually derived from what Gaudapada Acharya himself said in his kArikA.

    According to the scholars, EJV emerges from kArikAs: II -12, 16, 17, 18, 19.
    The seeds for the concept of “only one (eka) sajIva jIva” are hidden in GK III – 10.
    GK IV – 64 and 65 go to help resolve all doubts about the simulation process of awake world to a dream.

    So we are on the same page.
    Or am I still missing something?


  4. You should recall that we discussed EJV itself in connection with Gaudapada when you were reviewing ‘A-U-M’. Partly as a result of that, I included Appendix 7 on EJV. But, as I pointed out at the time, despite researching every available commentary on Gaudapada, I was unable to find a single one that suggested he was proposing EJV as a viable adhyaropa-apavAda hypothesis. Also, I think you will agree that Shankara does not mention this in any of his bhAShya-s or prakaraNa grantha-s. I do feel that, if it had been considered worthy, it would have appeared somewhere in an overt form before the 16th century.

    Best wishes,

  5. Dennis,

    How about Upadesha Sahasri, 7.5:

    “The object only manifests in the mind and only when the mind itself is manifest (as in waking or dream). When as in dreamless sleep, the mind is not manifest, the object has no existence. Therefore because the Seer is constant (throughout waking, dream and deep sleep) duality does not exist.”


  6. Dear Dennis,

    If I understand right, the objection now seems to arise from (i) lack of documentary support for the word EJV in the pre-16th cent texts; and (ii) Absence of a mention of EJV as a viable adhyaropa-apavAda hypothesis by Gaudapada and by Shankara bhAsShya-s.

    I agree that lack of documentation in general has been a scourge of Indian Vedic scene. Added to that, ancient Indian Vedic teachers did everything to totally efface their personal IDs from preservation for posterity. We struggle with this handicap as a major factor in Indian historiography. So I would not give much importance for the presence / absence of documentary evidence for our philosophical teachings.

    As far as the word “EJV” is concerned, we always find that new names may come into vogue in later days as per the general information level of the populace. Now a days words like “vivaraNa, bhAmati, akhaNDAkAra vRitti ….” are freely thrown around but you do not see them even in prasthAna traya of Shankara.

    Shankara himself popularized the word “mithya,” though it never occurs in the major upanishads. I think you yourself wrote about it.

    So the absence of a particular ‘word’ cannot also be a matter of concern. What is important is to examine if the “concept” itself was available or not. To that extent, the references from GK given above do show that the seeds of EJV have been already there.

    Coming to the superimposition-sublation aspect, we know that a majority of scriptures adopted this as their principal upAya. It involved postulating a fictitious imaginary construct palatable to the seeker’s level of understanding and then leading him/her gradually to the Ultimate Truth when the device gets dropped. That is the way the adhyAropa – apavAda nyAya functions. That was the concept driving the traditional teaching of the time. The techniques are ‘doer-oriented” (katru tanta-s).

    But as I already said in my earlier post, I wouldn’t place EJV as a doer-centered method. It is based on vastu tantra. Right upfront, the finite “I” of the seeker identifying himself/herself as a separate individual is dissolved into brahman (comparable to ahamgrahopAsana, but going beyond it).

    Therefore, I will not expect EJV to be reflected in spiritual texts dealing dominantly with superimposition – negation technique.


  7. Dear Dennis,

    After posting the above comment, I did some quick search on the internet regarding the “concept of eka jIva in Advaita.”

    I found that Prof. M. Hiriyanna summarized “iShThasiddhi” of Vimuktatman chapter by chapter. It is quoted by Karl H Potter in his book on “Advaita Vedanta from 800 to 1200,” MBP, pp 825, 2006.
    At p: 73-74 of the book the summary of Chapter 7 appears. The chapter discusses ‘whether there is one jIva or many.’ It demolishes the arguments of materialists, pluralists (like nyAya), identity-in-difference (bhedAbheda) etc. “The conclusion reached is that there is only one jIva, which is no other than brahman Itself associated with mAyA.”

    Vimuktatman’s iShThasiddhi, though the date cannot be definitely assigned, is placed towards the end of 10th cent or early 11th. That is to say within about a couple of centuries after Shankara and almost 600 years earlier than Prakasananda.

    Thus you can see that “eka jIva” is a concept which was already present in very early times of Advaita and carving it as a formal doctrine took place later.

    A further piece of research showed to me that it is the dualists and the visishtadvaitins who have opposed the eka jIva concept of Advaita. So some people who migrated to Advaita after having been initially exposed to (highly devotion oriented) duality or visishtadvaita usually find it hard to digest eka jIva vAda.
    For example, one may see the sites like those of ISKCON etc.
    They object to the iShThasiddhi verse:

    brahmaiva avidyayA ekam ced
    badhyate mucyate dhiyA
    eka muktau jagan mukteH
    na mukta anya vyavasthitiH

    “Brahman alone gets entangled in one avidyA and is liberated through knowledge. When a single person gets liberated, the world itself is liberated. There is no other explanation of mukti and baddha.”


  8. Dear Ramesam,

    I wasn’t objecting to the Prakasananda formulation on the grounds that it was only 500 years old. So I do not find any persuasion by the reference to Vimuktatman 500 years earlier than this. (I think I found this before but I will read it again, because I do find it interesting.)

    It is clear that, post Shankara, concepts began to diverge and interpretations to proliferate. Your reference to the Bhamati and Vivarana schools is a prime example. Vivekananda is a much more recent one and shows how radically divergent understanding can become. An even clearer example, of course, is Buddhism. Because he did not write anything down, we end up with a number of effectively completely different philosophies, each claiming to represent Buddha’s thought.

    The teaching of Shankara (and Gaudapada) does make use of logic and reason, but their conclusions never contravene scripture. It is always stressed that the source of the ‘message’ always stems from the scriptures. New words may be introduced (akhaNDAkAra vRRitti may be one such term) but the concepts are always expounded in the shruti.

    Are you able to give a scriptural reference for EJV?

    Best wishes,

    • A response to the Question on ‘shruti‘ support to EJV is posted as a separate Post because of the length of the reply and also to draw the reader’s attention to the topic as an independent thread. Please see the reply here.


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