Does Permanence imply Reality? Let’s ask Shankara

We shall be here walking on epistemological ground. The last post made use of two verses from the Atmabodha to discuss the distinction between action and knowledge, and to decide which of the two is directly conducive to liberation. In any discussion of the various themes of Advaita Vedanta two primal realities constantly come to surface – the reality of Consciousness and the reality of Being. The sum total of an Advaitin’s spiritual and intellectual endeavours involves an understanding and recognition of these realities. What is meant by these is not, of course, this or that instance of conscious awareness or existence, but instead the whole of Consciousness and Being.

Why is that so? Or – why these? Why are they situated at the very foundation of whatever there is? Or – why are they met with in an analytical attempt at plumbing the very depths of experience? A simple answer (one that is not so simple) is that they are permanent, everlasting, undying, immortal. These two (they aren’t really two, and that is the whole point of Advaita) do not have the quality of bubbles Shankara ascribes to the phenomenal world in the Atmabodha. Let’s quote him –

Like bubbles in the water, the worlds rise, exist and dissolve in the supreme Self (verse 8)

Brahman, who is of the very nature of Consciousness and Being, is not of the nature of bubbles. Brahman instead is like the water on which the bubbles take birth and death constantly. Or – of which bubbles are but ephemeral manifestations. Brahman itself does not take birth or death and is timeless and permanent. And it is this that makes Brahman the only reality, while the rest of manifest creation is but contingent upon this reality. Yet, a question that used to plague me often in my wrestling with the basic truths of Vedanta was of the relation between reality and permanence. Why is permanence considered the mark of the real? What ground do we have to suppose that? Why is it not that truth and reality are ephemeral and short-lasting? Heraclitus, as opposed to Parmenides, held the view that permanence was a delusion and that everything in reality is a never-ending flux (a never-ending flux! Paradoxical!). But if Heraclitus is right then there should be no reason whatsoever to consider, say, a dream experience as false. Except for its ephemerality (it’s bubble-ness) there is nothing to suggest that a dream is untrue. In fact, a dream is not untrue at all except if one defines truth as permanence. What is untrue in a dream? What we experience in a dream contradicts, say, the laws of nature we usually experience in the waking state. But that too is an appeal to permanence, is it not? What is law but a repeated (and therefore permanent) behaviour. When we call a dream untrue, we mean to say that it doesn’t behave the same way every time. We say that its behaviour is not permanent, it lasts only eight hours! When faced with the option of choosing what lasts consistently for eight hours and what lasts and has lasted in the rest of one’s life experience, one is sure, like Nachiketa rejecting the wealth offered him by Yama in the Katha Upanishad, to choose the latter. The snake that exists for a moment doesn’t have the same epistemic value as the rope that is permanently available to one’s inspection. Mere flux without an underlying permanence makes the acquisition of knowledge and concern for truth meaningless. However, even if one were to assign equal value, in a phenomenological sense, to dreams and waking states and hallucinations and so on – even that, in a broader sense, is welcome to the Advaitin. All being Brahman, the misperceived world too is Brahman, just as the misperceived snake is nothing different from or other than the rope!

In Science too (and we just referred to natural law) what is thought of as real is what has been constant and permanent in the natural order. If we have inherited, say, a working biological mechanism since the time we parted company with our amphibian ancestors, then this mechanism is considered a truer factor in the description and understanding of the reality of man than, say, some newly acquired social trait which hasn’t proved its mettle through biological time. Thus is it that permanence is accorded not only a greater epistemic value but is itself just another name for truth. Something that is eternal is by definition truer than that which is merely passing. Indeed, not only that but that which is passing and ephemeral is most likely embedded in the eternal just as the bubbles are in the substratum that is water.

The Advaitin’s intellectual task then is more the philosophical study of permanence than even the investigation of Consciousness and Being. For, through analysis, the Advaitin finds that permanence is but another name for Consciousness and Being. And to this analysis I hope to turn in my coming posts.

Conversation with ‘H’ – 5

M. … Of course, we know ‘we’ are primarily awareness where no distinctions whatsoever are valid, such as male/female. But something occurs to me just now, and is that prior even to the apparent multiplicity I mentioned above, and perhaps even more significant if not more real, is the presentation or exhibition in nature – amounting to a cosmological law – of the dichotomy or binary positive-negative, active-passive, static-dynamic, yang-yin, potentiality-actuality (this one an Aristotelian distinction). And, of course, male-female.

And, by extension or implication we have: angularity-roundness, left brain-right brain, etc. Someone I knew (a traditionalist or perennialist) wrote in one of his books that poetry is masculine and musicality and dance feminine… man is protector and woman nurturer; doctrine male, method female (in Buddhism it is the reverse, i.e. doctrine as prajna). Further, Sophia (wisdom) is female, represented by the goddesses Athena and Saraswati, also Minerva. And so on.

A final point: Is your metaphysical position, rather than pure non-duality, closer to the mitigated non-duality of Ramanuja (a great sage in the Indian philosophical tradition)? If so, who can find fault in that? Continue reading

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. 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

Two questions answered in Quora

Is soul different from consciousness?

I agree with the responders here that equate both concepts – soul and consciousness – which in themselves are just pointers to what is real/reality. Reality can only be one, not multiple; thus, to make a distinction between soul and consciousness, or between spirit and matter, God and the world (or ‘I’), experience and knowledge  – or between Brahman and Atman – is either provisional (an intermediate doctrine or teaching) or confusing and limiting.

Another polarity which is ultimately unreal (only verbal or conceptual) from an unitary or metaphysical perspective is singularity/multiplicity. Language has its rights, but in this rarefied realm I would also equate spirituality with metaphysics, knowing full well the risks or misunderstandings that it can lead to. 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

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.

Q. 425 Truth and reality

Q: As I see/feel it, Truth (with a capital T) is a human concept, and like all concepts, is not real (except in our minds). “What is” is simply “what is” … period, end of story (literally).

Advaita Vedanta seems to say that Truth (Brahman) is real, that it is in fact the only reality.

  1. Are the two assertions above incompatible? (I have the feeling that, ultimately, they’re not, because the Truth I’m talking about is a concept and Brahman is not.)
  2. If they are, is my take that ‘Truth is a human concept and therefore not real’ a deep obstacle (perhaps even a show-stopper) to my studying Advaita?

A: It is not possible to talk about brahman/reality because it is non-dual and without attributes (see Q. 328). You need to accept/appreciate this. But of course, as part of the process of removing self-ignorance from the mind, we do need to ‘as if’ talk about it. And we do this via pointers, negation and so on. All of these are concepts and have to be dropped IN THE END. But, in the interim, we make use of them without worrying about the fact that they are mithyA.

The other point is that words are very slippery things and different people can understand different things. The word ‘sat’ can certainly mean both ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ (as well as ‘existence’). Whether or not you regard these as synonyms may cause you a problem of the sort you describe. But the word ‘reality’ is as much a concept as the word ‘truth’! These are the sort of things that twentieth century Western philosophers argued about. Don’t worry about it! Gain Self-knowledge and you can then happily drop all the concepts, or simply use them as appropriate when you want to talk to someone who doesn’t have Self-knowledge!

Can we step out of Plato’s Cave? (Quora)

X  As I remember, Plato spoke of the few that escaped into the bright light of day, becoming (at least temporarily) blinded. That, by itself, has a metaphorical meaning. But if the question is rhetorical, the answer is a conditional ‘Yes’ – that is, by leading the life of a philosopher (‘lover of wisdom’), i.e. following the path of philosophy. That is a lifelong process or journey, in Plato’s terms.

Y  Plato mistakenly thought we could get a Truth by purely mental means and a priori principles.   Not so.  We have to look at, touch, feel, smell, taste and handle reality.

X  Sorry to disagree. First, we don’t know what were his oral doctrines to selected disciples (the 7th letter says something in that regard, while undervaluing the written word). Second, his ontology was non-dualist rather than a scalar one: all the lower steps or stages being incorporated step-wise in the higher ones, till getting to the Good as a first principle (supreme arché) – each step or degree of being, a reflection of the one above, exactly the same as with the five koshas or sheaths of Advaita Vedanta, except that here each kosha is within the previous one and thus becoming subtler and subtler. This would result in contemplation of a unity or oneness – one reality. When Socrates spoke of Diotima, his mentor, he did so reverently, signifying or suggesting something sacred – a spiritual transmission (one might google: Plato’s secret doctrines).