Conversation with ‘H’ (Knower, Witness) Prelude & Part 1

H. ‘… as regards the somewhat artificial distinction (ontologically speaking) that I make between awareness and consciousness, then this is something I do of my own choosing, accepting that there is an objectless state of mind that cannot correctly be termed ‘consciousness’ as it is not ‘with knowledge’ of any kind. In its stricter, more formal sense, then in the language of Pali this would be one of the Arūpajhāna, as you may well know – i.e. neither perception nor non-perception. I often find myself in dispute with phenomenologists over whether an objectless awareness is possible. Although the (8th) Arūpajhāna itself is of course a very rarified state, the very fact that it is a state gives me – I hope – the liberty to introduce the idea of a Tabula Rasa of mind, and which, again due to the ubiquity of the term, I call ‘awareness’ for the purposes of creating a template for learning only. I do not consider it to be its own ontological category.’ Continue reading

Q. 434 Modern debates about Advaita principles

Q: As I work through the Brahma Sutras, and having read Alston’s ‘Shankara on Rival Views’, I have a nagging concern that all of the refutation of alternate theories is too self-contained. What I mean is that much of it seems like a straw-man setup, where Shankara defines his opponent’s views for them and then shreds those views. The objections are being written by the same author that is refuting those objections. I would like to find texts that carry the debate outside of the closed circle, so to speak. Say, for example, a Buddhist took exception to those refutations and wrote a compelling argument against them, and then a traditional Swami responded in kind. Are you aware of any more modern works along these lines? In particular, I would like to see Shankara’s logic analyzed by a scholar and compared to our modern updated view of logical argumentation, etc.

A: Are you sufficiently certain of the Advaita stance on all issues that you would want to look at critical appraisals? I haven’t come across any easy work that deals with these. If you are studying Brahmasutras now, there is a version which is fairly readable and actually occasionally funny (in a superior, knowing sort of way), which looks at the other commentaries and interpretations. It’s called ‘The Brahmasutras and their Principal Commentaries: A Critical Exposition’ by B. N. K. Sharma. It’s in 3 volumes and almost certainly very expensive in the west. You can probably get it cheaper from India, though. Another book which I haven’t looked at is ‘A Critique of Vedanta’ by L. V. Rajagopal. It looks at the three Vedantic schools and applies Whitehead’s approach to philosophy to critically analyze them (so says the book cover!) It looks like a very serious read to me! The other book which might interest you is SSS’s (Satchidanandendra) book ‘The Method of the Vedanta: A Critical Account of the Advaita Tradition’. It looks at pre and post Shankara authors and endeavors to establish Shankara’s views as the correct ones. But it is a huge book of nearly 1000 pages and really not terribly readable. It is, however, translated by A. J. Alston so is at least understandable with some effort. But I can’t honestly actually recommend any of these. It’s up to you if you want to give any a try. From what you say, maybe the Rajagopal would serve your needs.

P.S. I have just checked, and the Sharma 3-volume work is available from for US$79.40. (Ridiculously, it is £89.99 in the UK but it is out of stock anyway.) ‘Method of the Vedanta’ is even more expensive (it is a big book!) – US$170.36 from but you can buy for only £20, new, in the UK from Shanti Sadan.
‘A Critique of Vedanta’ is only US$10.33 from

Litmus Tests for Self-realization – 2

Abhinava Vidyateertha (standing in front of his Guru)

There is an embarrassing plenitude of teachers of Non-duality (of different shades) accessible both online and offline mushrooming  these days from all corners of the world. Some even  claim without any qualms that they have realized the Ultimate Truth; or leave enough of hints on their web sites to impress the reader that they are Self-realized. This is undoubtedly a happy situation that we have so many gurus in our midst but one is left a bit bewildered because of what Bhagavad-Gita tells us. In the Chapter VII, the third verse says:

 मनुष्याणां सहस्रेषु कश्चिद्यतति सिद्धये

 यततामपि सिद्धानां कश्चिन्मां वेत्ति तत्त्वतः — Verse 3, Ch VII, Bhagavad-Gita. Continue reading

Q. 459 The Unbridgeable Gap

(Question answered by Martin, Ramesam, Charles and Dennis)

Q: I have a few doubts regarding Advaita. I was fascinated by this philosophy when I started perusing different philosophies but, on reflection, I found it to be untenable or a logical travesty at best.

I suspect that ajAtivAda is the ultimate tenet of advaita – creation never happened, ontologically speaking. And yet, inexplicably, this vyAvahArika world with its jIva-s exists. And, to end his purported suffering, the jIva has to realize this ontological oneness or sole existence of unqualified Brahman.

Now, to be a little antagonistic, according to the frame of reference of the jIva, his realization will not have any effect on the pAramArthika Brahman because jIva, world and liberation are all only vyAvahArika truth. As ajAtivAda explicitly states, jIva, world, liberation and bondage do not exist.

I suspect that advaita is also not a realization (mental state) of the jIva as Brahman cannot be an object of knowledge or experience so, at the apparent instant of realization (apparent because of ajAtivAda) nothing really happens from the point of the jIva also. Even for the jIvanmukta, his mind and body exist, yet neither his body nor mind can get liberation because it will turn Brahman into a subject. Continue reading

Science and Consciousness

(This article was originally published in ‘Yoga International’ magazine Aug-2011. I don’t think the magazine exists any longer, which is why no link is provided.)

During the past few years, an increasing number of scientists have claimed insight into the nondual nature of reality. These claims, however, ignore a fundamental truth: Consciousness falls outside the scope of scientific investigation. Therefore, by their very nature, such claims cannot be valid.

There has always been a degree of animosity between science and spirituality. The Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo over his insistence that the Earth was not the center of the universe comes to mind, as does the current debate between Creationists and those preferring the more down-to-earth tenets of Darwinian evolution. It is encouraging, therefore, to see the growing number of books and articles written by scientists on the subject of nonduality. There is even an annual conference with the title “Science and Nonduality,” thus making it possible to explore these two avenues of knowledge in the same forum.

Paradoxically, both the power and the ultimate shortcoming of science as a tool for investigating the nature of reality lie in its objectivity. The scientific method of empirical observation and subsequent reasoning is something it shares with Vedanta, along with the acceptance of findings from those who have gone before (providing these findings do not contradict more recent discoveries).

Science has made a significant contribution to persuading people to consider that the world may not be as it initially appears to our limited organs of perception. At one end of the scale, the scanning electron microscope looks into the supposed solidity of the matter beneath our fingertips. At the other extreme, the Hubble telescope peers toward infinity into the swirling clouds of galaxies invisible to the naked eye. ‘Reality’ is far more subtle than everyday experience would have us believe. The hardness of the table on which I write is due to irrevocable laws regarding the spin of electrons and their sharing of orbitals around atoms. Massive energy sources in the universe result from entire galaxies being sucked into black holes. Our own senses are quite inadequate for the job of explaining the behavior of the world around us, whereas science seemingly can. Continue reading

Is there Rebirth?

Deep in the remote thick jungles of Dandaka, there was a tribal village called Bhrashtakshi. It is said that two moons appear in the sky of that village. Ask any villager, child or adult and they can easily show the two moons when the sky is clear – one a little right to the other, same size but a little less bright.  All their songs and school books have been singing of the two moons for generations. The moon-pair is worshiped as the Goddesses of the Twins. People pray to these Goddesses to beget children.

Dr. Sulochan, M.D., happened to go as a Health worker to that village. She was surprised to detect everyone had a double vision. Further investigations showed congenital issues and also deficiencies in their nutrition. But the villagers were not convinced. They were sure it was all a play by the powers of the City to take over their ancient properties. Their ancestors always said that there had been two moons in their sky. How can the knowledge coming from their forefathers be wrong? They have their texts to prove the two moons in their sky. They have seen and lived with two moons for centuries. It’s a huge huge conspiracy, resolved the Village elders – the City dwellers want to steal their moons. Continue reading

Advaita Vedanta

A) Advaita Vedanta can be called a mystical path, a spirituality, science of reality, or a combination of both (which I prefer). It can be called nonduality or ‘Monism’ (preferably the first): monism because it takes reality as being One (“without a second”). Nonduality because – though reality is one in essence or ultimately – it presents itself as apparently two: purusha-prakriti, Self- not self, sat-asat, subject-object, Atman-brahman. That apparent dichotomy, as stated, is reducible to the one reality which can be called variously ‘pure consciousness’, ‘the absolute’, ‘sat-chit-ananda’ (being-consciousness-bliss)… the unnamable. Words – language – are secondary, needed to express what is in itself inexpressible. What is inexpressible can be/is a (self) realization of ‘what is’  (anubhava) arrived at by intuition and (Vedantic) reasoning. Continue reading

jIvanmukti – An Illustrative Case

The highly revered Sringeri Pitham in India, as is well-known to all, is the sterling center devoutly upholding, preserving, maintaining and propagating the Shankara Advaita. The unbroken succession of the Pontiffs right from the time Shankara established the Matha to date has many a jIvanmukta in its line embellishing the holy precincts of the Ashram. Their exemplary lives illustrate the way one attains liberation while in life (jIvanmukti) and provide answers to many of the doubts a seeker may have in his/her quest to freedom from the bondage in samsAra. Continue reading

Q. 431 Emergence vs. Consciousness

Q: In Advaita one learns to ‘unravel’ objects: table as wood, wood as cells, cells as molecules, molecules as atoms, atoms as subatomic particles, etc. (neti neti!) all the way down. What Advaita says ‘lies at the bottom’ is Brahman, the oneness from which all apparent objects of form manifest.

What seems just as (if not more) intuitively plausible to me is that what lies at the bottom is: a few primal emergent ‘rules’. Perhaps even just one rule: attraction/repulsion. Electrons are attracted to protons and repelled by other electrons giving way to atoms, atoms are attracted to other atoms giving way to molecules, and so on, all the way up to the forms we know and love.

In this view of reality, there is no top-level overarching ‘organizational’ principle: Consciousness. There is instead a vast web of ‘stuff’ that arises from a few simple low-level emergent rules. As with all emergent systems, the application of these rules, once sufficiently complex, creates a system that seems to have an overarching top-level intelligence/intentionality/organizational principle, but in reality doesn’t.

So, friends: Who wins? Emergence or Consciousness? Or is it a non-zero-sum game: Are emergence and Consciousness not mutually exclusive?

A (Dennis): If you have read my articles about science and its views, you will know that I do not regard it very highly when it comes to consciousness and reality!

The ‘unraveling’ is an explanation of the concept of mithyA and provides an intuitively reasonable explanation as to why all ‘things’ are just name and form of brahman. If you try to turn this around you are then tacitly assuming that the empirical reality has some absolute reality, which it doesn’t (unless you are just accepting that ‘everything is brahman’). Or you are just attempting to use science to ‘explain’ Ishvara. Because Advaita would call your ‘fundamental laws’ or ‘primary emergent rules’ Ishvara. Ishvara is both intelligent and material cause for the (apparent) creation. In reality, of course, there has never been any creation. Both the ocean (universe) and the wave (individual) are always only water.