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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com but you can buy for only £20, new, in the UK from Shanti Sadan.
‘A Critique of Vedanta’ is only US$10.33 from Amazon.com.

States of Consciousness – 2, 3, 4 and 1/2?

Okay, here is your starter for 10 – your time starts now! (If you’re not familiar with this phrase, it relates to the quiz show ‘University challenge’, which was on British television for many years.)

The question is: how many states of consciousness are there?

I can almost see your mind tripping up and reading that question again. Surely, you will say, there are three states of consciousness – waking, dreaming and deep sleep. What can I possibly mean by querying this? Well, actually, depending upon how you answer this question, the number of states of consciousness could be two, three or five (or 4 ½) or you could argue that the very question is misconceived!

It is true that most of the scriptures refer to 3 states. If you have read my book ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’, you will know that it refers to jAgrat, svapna and suShupti. These three states are mithyA and the reality underlying them is called turIya. In the tattva bodha (attributed to Shankara), the question is asked: avasthAtrayaM kim? – What are the three states? Admittedly, this is a somewhat leading question but the answer is given: jAgratsvapnasuShuptyavasthAH – they are the waking, dream and deep sleep states. And it goes on to explain each in turn. Continue reading

Mulavidya – Real or Unreal? IV


70. Lot has been said so far; false allegations and baseless surmises were brought to light; statements factually incorrect were exposed; citations substantiating certain statements were shown to be out of context and in some cases self-defeating; statements attributed to Swamiji, but not found in the originals were discovered; incomplete and incorrect understanding of not only Śan@kara and Swamiji but also the views of traditionalists were enumerated; quotations made partially and out context were pointed out; issues raised, even though extraneous to the admitted scope were reviewed; withholding of complete facts and resort to partial reporting were singled out; how finding fault in Swamiji amounts to finding fault in Śan@kara was shown; translations not faithful to the original were pointed out; self-contradictory statements were laid bare; most important of all, how not a single ground of Swamiji against the tenability of Mūlāvidyā is controverted, was shown; however, what is yet to be shown is the final outcome of the question – fidelity to Śan@kara, admitted to be the main focus of M’s paper. In this regard attention of readers is drawn to the following statements of M. Continue reading

Ignorance – not so obvious!

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

Mulavidya – Real or Unreal? ll

Claim against Swamiji (SSS)
 Big fuss on whether avidya =mAyA
·           Swamiji does not like tarka or reasoning
·           Swamiji does not admit of avidyA in deep sleep
·           Swamiji does not endorse prakarana works, as he says they are not written by Shankara
·           Swamiji claims no role for bhakti in the advaita tradition
·           Swamiji does not accept that an enlightened soul may still suffer the consequences of past deeds
·           Swamiji advocates learning from books only, and being self taught without a teacher
·           Swamiji overuses the phrase adhyAropa-apavAda giving the impression it his discovery
·           Swamiji is not of the tradition
·           Swamiji claims he is right and everyone else is wrong

Continue reading

Review of article on Shankara – part 6, and final.

RB (Ramakrishna Balasubrahmanian) continues to take  SSS to task in the final two sections of his article: 5) ‘AVIDYA and MAYA’, and 6) ‘“COMPARATIVE BASHYA STUDIES” AND OTHER SUCH DISEASES’.

Under 5) RB sees an inconsistency in SSS, since the latter had previously stated that avidya and maya are not synonyms, while in another context he had stated that “To avoid confusion, we shall restrict the use of words avidy¯a and m¯ay¯a to denote ignorance and name and form respectively”. The author insists in the equivalence of both terms, as they occur in many texts: “… note that even in these passages avidy¯a is not a “subjective” ignorance, but something which transcends subjectiveness and objectiveness. Otherwise we will be placed in the absurd position of claiming that a subjective error, i.e., avidy¯a, is causing an objective reality, i.e., m¯ay¯a (name and form)”.

By ‘objective reality’ one understands, of course, phenomena, and this is nothing else than mithya, even though RB considers maya as both ontic and epistemic, unlike avidya. In this connection, SSS would agree with his statement: “While the terms are used to mean different things in some contexts, they can also mean the exactly same thing in some other contexts”. Continue reading

Revision of ‘Review of article on Shankara’ – Part 5

A tarka (reasoning, argumentation) is required for the analysis of anubhava, as both SSS and RB (the author) agree – consistent with Shankara’s position. That is, language and thought, needless to say, have a role to play, chiefly for exposition and analysis.

However, after two long, dense paragraphs RB contends: “If the tarka required to examine anubhava is itself completely dependent on ´sruti, then by no means is anubhava the ‘kingpin’ of pram¯an.as.”

Prior to this, SSS was quoted as maintaining that “for this unique tarka all universal anubhavas or experiences (intuitive experiences) themselves are the support.” The author states that this affirmation involves circular argumentation, and that to say that Shankara interprets the Vedas as being consistent with anubhava is wrong, the truth being the other way around, anubhava is consistent with the Vedas: “it should be clear that according to Sure´svar¯ac¯arya, the direct realization is directly from just ´sruti itself, thus satisfying the criteria for it to be a pram¯an.a…. The direct realization of the self is from ´sruti alone.” Continue reading

Revision of ‘Critical review of article on Shankara’ – part 2

‘A New Approach to Understanding Advaita as Taught by ´Sa ˙ nkara Bhagavadp¯ada’ – by Ramakrishnan Balasubrahmanian – 2

We saw in the 1st part of this Review the primary or prior, not to say exclusive, importance that the author, RB, gives to the superimposition of a subject, individual mind or jiva, on the self: “the superimposition of an observer is avidy¯a and is prior to the reverse superimposition” – not mentioning that Shankara does not talk of a ‘reverse process’, as if it was something happening through time, but of mutual superimposition of self and non-self. Period.

As we noted in the first part of this Review, RB ‘half’ concedes the point:  “It is not completely incorrect to say that avidy¯a is the mutual superimposition of the real and unreal. ´ San˙ kar¯ac¯arya and Sure´svar¯ac¯arya do mention this … the superimposition of an observer on the inner-self naturally leads to the reverse process of superimposing the inner-self on the inner organ”. His objective in maintaining this priority of the subject in this ‘act’ seems to be to show that SSS is guilty of circularity (petitio principi, in logic). Even so, and rather surprisingly, he claims that avidya is not something subjective (neither is it ontic nor epistemic – see below). Continue reading

Review of article on Shankara by Ramakrisnan Balasubramanian

(This is a slightly modified article published here one year ago, which was improperly and incompletely posted. Ramesam had asked me to review the following article, with which I complied after much hesitation. The article is over 40 p. long and quite dense and complicated in parts – in other words, ‘academic’: for specialists only; one could add: cutting the slices so thin, that the substance is practically lost, or forgotten).

Review of ‘A New Approach to Understanding Advaita as Taught by ´Sa ˙ nkara Bhagavadp¯ada’ – by Ramakrishnan Balasubrahmanian. Continue reading