Apparent contradictions in Advaita (Q. 319)

Q: I read some serious critique of Advaita by a philosophy professor in a web page. If you have time, I`d like to know your thoughts about it.
Here it is:
. The View is Self-Contradictory: The first problem with the core of Sankara’s philosophy is that it seems to be self-contradictory. As advocates of the other Hindu schools of thought have pointed out, if the only reality is Brahman, and Brahman is pure, distinctionless consciousness, then there cannot exist any real distinctions in reality. But the claim that this world is an illusion already presupposes that there is an actual distinction between illusion and reality, just as the claim that something is a dream already presupposes the distinction between waking consciousness and dream consciousness. Moreover, Sankara’s idea of salvation–that is, enlightenment through recognition that all is Brahman–already presupposes a distinction between living in a state of unenlightenment (ignorance) and living in a state of enlightenment. So this view contradicts itself by, on the one hand, saying that reality (Brahman) is distinctionless, while on the other hand distinguishing between maya and the truth of Brahman, and by distinguishing between being enlightened and unenlightened.
b. The Impossibility of Maya: A second and related problem is that ignorance, which Sankara and his followers claim is the source of maya, could not exist. According to the Sankara school, Brahman is perfect, pure, and complete Knowledge, the opposite of ignorance. Hence, ignorance cannot exist in Brahman. But, since nothing exists apart from Brahman, ignorance cannot exist apart from Brahman either. Thus, it follows that ignorance could not exist, contrary to their assertion that our perception of a world of distinct things is a result of ignorance.

c. The Lack of Evidence: A final problem is that it seems that one could never have any satisfactory experiential basis for believing in Sankara’s philosophy. Certainly, everyday experience and observation are completely in conflict with his claim, since they overwhelmingly testify to the existence of a real world of distinct things and properties. Indeed, even if we assume that the entire material world does not exist, but is merely a dream, experience would still overwhelmingly testify against Sankara’s claim: for, within our dream itself there are innumerable distinct experiences, from the experience of feeling sad to that of seeing what looks like a rainbow. Thus Sankara’s philosophy cannot even explain the world we experience as being an illusion or dream. As a result, it ends up providing close to the worse possible explanation of our experiences.

This last problem should put to rest the common assertion that aspects of modern physics, particularly quantum mechanics, supports this, or similar systems of Eastern thought such as Zen Buddhism (see below). The scientific method consists of performing various observations of the world, and then trying to construct hypotheses that explain these observations. We then choose the hypothesis that makes the best sense of these observations, and reject those hypotheses that significantly conflict with observation. Because Sankara’s philosophy is in conflict with almost all of our observations, science by its very methodology could never give us good reason to believe it, but rather every reason to reject it.

 A (Ramesam):  Thank you for the mail and for copying the arguments presented in the paper by Collins.

 I went through the link given at the end of your mail quickly (I read only the part concerned with Advaita).

 More than the arguments and questions, I am appalled by the fact that Advaita is presented as if it was a brainchild of Sankara and as if he owns the IPR -s or has a monopoly as the original propounder of the Advaita siddhanta.

 Robins should first know that Sankara did not originate the philosophy of Advaita – he only promoted it and perhaps established a more successful organizational and  social structure that could uphold its values for posterity.

 As such the nub of the basic tenets of Advaita do not begin and end with the way Sankara happened to present them to an antagonistic society of his time in the idiom and force of argument that was the need of the day  (as per his thought). We don’t have to be hung up by that to know Advaita.

 Next, I cannot seriously believe that you really consider the arguments at a,b, and c are truly a “serious critique of Advaita” as claimed by him.

 All these arguments are pretty naive,  have been repeatedly raised by every novice  student of Advaita (perchance including me in my nascent days !) and have been well responded too in literature.

 More than all this, a man like Peter Dziuban who never had any exposure to Advaita (or any Eastern Philosophy) who was brought up as a Christian and who studied someone like Aikens arrived at the same sort of worldview as explained by Advaita. So the ability to arrive at this worldview does not require any training or belief in Sankara or his logic, leave alone concepts of maya and rebirth. What more proof is required that “logic” alone can lead to the Non-dual conclusions?

 Now the short answers for the three points raised (I am sure you know it all):

 a) Yes, there are NO real distinctions in reality.  The fragmented perception and the consequent  assumption that the unitary reality is divided is an illusion. The word “illusion” is just a pointer to say that you are missing the True view — missing the forest for the trees.

 b) Yes, Ignorance IS Brahman. It is not different from Brahman. The assumption made that “According to the Sankara school, Brahman is perfect, pure, and complete Knowledge, the opposite of ignorance” is incorrect. It is NOT an opposite. Ignorance also arises because of ignorance.

 c)  Rupert Spira and Francis Lucille present a powerful counter for this.

 It is also an assumption only to say that the experiencing shows ” the existence of a real world of distinct things and properties”. We do not have any evidence.  We just take it for granted without verification because  of our force of habit. Train your mind to perceive the experience ‘as one whole’ and  not fragmented into distinct entities or sensory inputs. You will then begin to see the world as One experience.  (Experimental procedures were developed b to verify this by one’s own self).

 Lastly, it is not any more valid to hold  in these days that high energy and theoretical physics on one hand and Neuroscience (with its sophisticated tools) on the other hand  cannot establish the illusory nature of our perception of the world some time in the future.  Progress is already being made in this direction by science.

 (P.S. I know I made just statements.   Backing up with references and quotes for what I wrote is a big job — requires lot of time and patience.  Is it worth the while at this stage?) 

A (Shuka): Namaste – here is my attempt at answering the query. 

 There were 2 friends who went to a shop to buy pens. They selected a pen which costs $25 each. They claimed 10% discount, which they normally get as their loyalty discount, but the boy in the shop said he cannot give the discount since the owner of the shop was away; consequently they paid $50 for both pens and went back to their homes. When the shop owner returned, the boy informed him about the sale of 2 pens and the customers claim for loyalty discount; the owner gave the boy $5, (10% of $50) and told him to return it to customers, who were staying in the neighborhood. The boy got smart and pocketed $3 for himself, and returned $1 each to the 2 loyal customers. The effective cost of the pen to the customers becomes $24 each ($25 minus $1 returned), making the total cost $48. Add the $3 that the boy pocketed for himself, we get a total of $51. Where did the extra dollar come from? I shall answer this question at the end of my reply.

 Mud is the substantial reality of Pot. Take the mud away and pot ceases to exist. Pot does not have an existence independent of the mud. In fact, it is only mud that truly exists at all 3 times, before the birth of the pot, during the existence of the pot and after the death of the pot. Pot’s existence as it were, is really borrowed from the mud. Pot’s reality belongs to only the Mud. It is only mud that exists. This reality is called pāramārthika. This is the only and true reality.

 “Therefore, can I say Pot does not exist”; no, that statement does not hold water, for, Pot does hold water. Pot, which is a name given to a form which renders a certain function, does exist experientially; however, on analysis, we arrive at Mud as the only reality. So Pot’s existence, which is experienced, does not stand analysis. This kind of reality is called vyāvahārika – when I say reality, it is only a name given for the sake of effective communication and does not signify an independent existence. This borrowed “as it were” existence is to be understood as Māya.

 Just to complete the understanding, there is a 3rd type of “reality” called prātibhāsika – it means a temporary reality arising out of mistaken cognition. Like seeing a snake on a rope. Until the individual realizes his mistake, it appears there is indeed a snake, as far as he is concerned, and all his reactions are true to the mistaken cognition. We have to admit this transitory illusive reality, during its tenancy. However, again, this reality truly does not exist and owes its existence to the mistaken cognition of the individual.

 Now comes the refutation of all the objections.

 Refutation to View is self-contradictory – firstly, śankarācārya does not say that the world is illusory so it is wrong understanding on the part of the objectionist. World’s reality is vyāvahārika and has to be understood on the same basis as “Pot” above. If anyone counts Mud and Pot as 2 different things, it will be as stupid as counting Mr. Robin Collins as different people, merely because of the different ways in which he is addressed as “Robin, Mr. Collins, Dad, Son, Hubby, Friend etc.”. There is no distinction in reality and there is only one reality.

 Refutation to The impossibility of Māya – again, this question arises out of wrong understanding of māya. Māya has to be understood as the source of vyāvakārika sattā. The ignorance that is spoken of, relates to non-understanding of Mud as the ultimate reality, and the consequent ignorant conclusion that Pot is absolute reality. The mistake the objector has made is in his understanding that knowledge and ignorance are 2 opposite ends of the same spectrum. The correct understanding is “knowledge alone exists without an opposite”.

 Refutation of Lack of Evidence – The fact is that there have been so many wise men and saints, who have lived their lives without being subjected to extreme opposite ends of happiness and sadness, in India and abroad. If anything, it is only śankarācāryā’s advaita which offers jīvanmukti (liberation here and now) as a solution; every other philosophy talks only of the illogical faith-laden liberation after death. And as regards the query on experience, how can the experiencer ever be experienced, for, if experienced, he will not be the experiencer anymore.

 Lastly, the objector has to understand that Science is all about the objective world and never about the subject. The basis of science is the duality that exists between the knower and known – non-duality is out of its scope and so trying to look for answers about non-duality in science is like trying to drink water from a mirage. The reality of the non-dual-self can be understood only from Vedas, which is the pramāṇa, the means of knowledge, for knowing the self.

 Understanding all this calls for intellectual infrastructure which the objector so obviously lacks; neither does it appear that he has the intellectual honesty to spend sufficient time in studying. He thinks he can hoodwink people by conveniently misquoting śankarācārya, and then raising an objection which counters it. The objector reminds me of an atheist called EVR, who lived in the south of India. EVR used to hold rallies on atheism, and during his rally he used to throw a challenge “I shall count up to 10, if God is really there he should appear in front of us right now, otherwise it is proven that he is not there. He used to count up to 10 and sure enough, God does not appear – EVR then goes to harangue “I have proved God does not exist”. We say to EVR, please tell us what is your understanding of God, and we will tell you, much before you do, that such a God indeed does not exist.

 Now, the answer to the question which I raised first. The answer is, “there is really no answer to the question”. Why? because the question is wrong (since we are adding apples and oranges, cost of the pens and money with the boy). Wrong questions will lead to wrong answers only, much like the objector’s queries. All we can do it to pray for him. 

A (Peter): This is a response to the first of Robert Collins’s critiques of Śaṅkara whose vision is encapsulated in the statement: Brahma satyam, jaganmithyā; jīvo-brahmaiva nāpara. (Brahman is Absolute Reality, satyam; the cosmos is dependently reality, mithyā; the individual, jīva, is none other than Brahman itself). Collins’s view here is that Śaṅkara is self-contradictory and it rests primarily on 2 fundamental gaps of understanding, 1 mistaken interpretation and 1 mistaken conclusion as a consequence.

Understanding Gap 1: Mithyā
The first gap results from no apparent understanding about the meaning of ‘mithyā’. Śaṅkara means mithyā to be: that which is not absolutely real (i.e. unchanging in all three periods of time and not limited timewise, spacewise or objectwise) nor can it be said to be absolutely unreal (e.g. mirage water or a square circle). As a consequence of this gap in understanding Collins adopts a black and white polarity between real and unreal: there is no in-between concept of ‘as-though’ real. Mithyā is ‘as though’. A correct understanding of mithyā allows one to see that it is possible to have the experience and enjoyment of a wave, for example, and at the very same time know it to be nothing but water. There is ultimately no difference between mithyā and the Reality on which it is totally dependent, just as wave is totally dependent for its existence on water.

Śaṅkara never claims that the world is an illusion – this is a mis-translation of mithyā in Collin’s statement from which he concludes: the claim that this world is an illusion already presupposes that there is an actual distinction between illusion and reality. If we replace the word ‘illusion’ in this statement by the word ‘mithyā’ – and knowing what we know of mithyā – this statement does not hold up. Through a proper understanding of mithyā as ‘dependent, as-though reality’, we transcend the apparent polarity between ‘illusion’ and reality: the existence of illusion does not deny the Reality.

The ‘as-though’ can co-exist with the ‘real’, the former superimposed on the latter as a snake is upon the rope in the semi dark or the dream ‘I’ upon the waking ‘I’. The error is compounded by taking the attributes of the ‘as-though’ as though they are the attributes of the ‘real’. This is only an error of understanding and can thus be corrected by right knowledge.

Understanding Gap 2: Māyā
The second vague understanding is of what māyā is. Māyā, commonly described as illusion, delusion, magician, etc, is nothing but Brahman’s inherent potential for manifestation. Here is an analogy: unmanifest and undifferentiated in the stillness of water is every wave, ripple, breaker, swell. The stillness is water’s inherent potential to form waves. Similarly, undifferentiated and unmanifest in māyā lies everything that will ever exist. When the stillness of water is disturbed it manifests in the form of ripples, waves, etc: water remains untouched through all these changing states. When the state of equipoise of māyā is disturbed the universe emerges: Brahman remains untouched as that which lends a sense of reality to what we see. Water, the substratum of the stillness and the substratum of ripple, wave, etc, remains the same in all these states.

As in the stillness of water there lies every wave and ripple in unmanifest potential, so too in māyā there exists every single thing in the universe in the form of māyā’s three undifferentiated and unmanifest powers: of knowledge, action and materialisation. This is similar to the way branches, leaves, trunk, bark, fruits, the powers of photosynthesis etc of a tree lie undifferentiated and unmanifest in a seed.

The mistaken interpretation
The term ‘nirguṇa’ is wrongly interpreted in Collin’s critique as ‘distinctionless’ when the more accurate translation is ‘without (nir) attributes (guṇa)’. The absence of distinguishing attributes renders Brahman incapable of being discussed. And, anyway, it would require a mind as the medium of discussion and tongue as the medium of communication and another as the participant in the discussion. But these three requirements will need to have separate existence outside Brahman and thus Brahman would not be without distinguishing attributes. Nirguṇa Brahman is a cognitive concept.

How does vedanta square the circle?

It enquires into the relationship between the universe and Brahman. If the universe is taken to be distinct from Brahman, and thus a second reality, where did it come from and how? That is why advaita presents māyā as Brahman’s intrinsic, inseparable potential for manifestation. The relation of māyā to Brahman is like that of the sun’s intrinsic power to illumine and the sun. From the point of view of the illumined objects, the cause of illumination is the sun: we say sun is the illuminator. But from the point of view of the sun, it is not an illuminator, in that it does not decide to illumine – by its mere presence opaque objects become lit. ‘Illumination’ is the intrinsic power of the sun to bring opaque objects to light. But if we wish to speak of the sun without its power to illumine (something not possible in reality) we would call it ‘nirguṇa sun’ – sun without its illumining attribute.

So, whilst it is true that Brahman is ‘pure consciousness’ without attributes, from the point of view of the manifest universe it is always seen together with māyā, its intrinsic, inseparable potential to manifest. Brahman ‘together with’ māyā is called saguṇa Brahma (Brahman with attributes) or Íśvara, the Lord.

The mistaken assumption
A consequence of interpreting the term ‘nirguṇa’ as ‘distinctionless’ is that any evidence of distinctiveness is seized upon by Collins as evidence that Brahman isn’t the only single non-dual Realty, one without a second. If Śaṅkara claims that Brahman is all there is and Brahman is ‘distinctionless’, Collins argues, then any of Śaṅkara’s statements that distinguishing between things is evidence that Brahman is not all there is!

This logical error can easily be resolved by the correct understanding of mithyā and by appreciating that, despite appearances, there never was a snake in the half-light, there was always only a rope taken to be a snake. The perception of snake due to partial knowledge does not affect the nature of the rope in the slightest: the perception of mithyā difference does not affect Brahman in the slightest.

In Brahman there are no divisions or distinctions. But at the ‘as-though’ mithyā level of transactional reality (called the universe) there appear to be ‘as though’ divisions and distinctions galore. But none of these touch Brahman or change Brahman one iota, just as the distinction of countless waves makes not the slightest impact on water’s nature as H2O or the appearance of a snake does not touch the rope.

By not appreciating the import of the concept of mithyā, the mind takes the word ‘reality’ to stand for anything that appears to exist, whereas in Śaṅkara’s terminology, it refers to the only independent Reality, Brahman. Everything else fails the definition of Reality – i.e. unchanging in all three periods of time and not limited timewise, spacewise or objectwise – and ‘borrows’ its existence from Brahman even though the individual appears to have consciousness and sentience of its own.

The analogy to explain how this is so is the cold, black, iron ball that, by its association with the fire, gains heat, brilliance and the properties of fire to burn. Is it the iron ball that burns, or is that red hot glowing sphere that can set the wood alight? It is by association with fire that the cold, black, iron ball takes on the properties of fire. By borrowing the properties of fire the iron ball burns, as it were, when in truth it is always fire that burns. Similarly the insentient lifeless universe takes on the properties of Brahman to appear conscious, sentient and existent.

So despite appearing to be real and with attributes, the universe is a different order of reality and is only ‘as though’ real and thus can appear to have attributes as it were.

In conclusion
The advaita world view as presented by Śaṅkara is the only vision of the individual and his or her relation to the universe and the Lord that doesn’t require a belief that contradicts science or reason. Most conventional religions give us no option but to either accept or reject a picture of a God sitting in a place that hasn’t yet been created, creating the universe using nothing as his material and then intervening directly in the running of the universe through preference and judgment. The reward for living according to God’s laws is that, after death, one lives for ever with God in heaven. This is how Collins would account for the universe. Vedanta can accepts the validity of other religions to operate through the beliefs they hold to be true because, having enquired deeply into the relation between god, the universe and the individual, vedanta understand that it plays out at various levels. Self-study of vedanta can lead to the errors in interpretation made by Collins. Śaṅkara’s vision, on the other hand does not require belief, it requires the removal of mistaken understanding about who one is. This understanding of the wisdom of advaita vedanta doesn’t offer ‘salvation’, it offers the means for achieving limitless happiness through right understanding. Right here, on earth; right now, while living.

A (Dennis): Shankara and Advaita do not claim that ‘the world is an illusion’. On the contrary, the world is real – but not real ‘in itself’. The world is ‘name and form’ of Brahman, which is the non-dual reality. The problem arises when the world is taken as actual (i.e. dualistic) reality. Shankara’s word to describe the world is ‘mithyA’. The apparent contradiction arises from mistranslating this word. Advaita does not deny the seeming reality of the world and its teaching, which as is noted incorporates dualistic concepts. It provides interim explanations which are rescinded once enlightenment takes place, since those (ultimately erroneous) concepts are no longer needed.


Following enlightenment, the world is still seen as separate but is known not to be. Science can never be a source of knowledge for the truth of Advaita. It is necessarily dualistic, (as is pointed out) relying on an observer and observed phenomena. This is entirely within the realm of mithyA so no ‘absolute’ reality could ever be evidenced. Scriptures provide the pointers to the truth, which is finally ‘realized’ in the mind of the seeker. This is not an experience.

24 thoughts on “Apparent contradictions in Advaita (Q. 319)

  1. “The world is not illusion”.

    Yet I constantly confirm in my own little life how my interpretations of
    “the world” are illusory.

    A waiter doesn’t behave as I expect him to, goes away and leaves me
    without having placed my order and I think he SHOULD have been back to
    me sooner than he was. Illusion. My projection on the “world” and how it
    SHOULD be.

    A house. I see a “house”. But if I really start to look I see bricks, wood, mortar,
    rock, all sorts of “things” which go to make this house. Illusion. Where I see something called a house, there are a myriad of things that make the “house” and myriads of things that make those things!

    I could go on and on with this but the point is that I don’t think that what I see is the “world”, exactly, but rather what I project onto it. So, in one sense, the world is illusion in that what I call the world can be seen from different viewpoints and perspectives. (I’m always doing this, questioning what I see and take as “reality”.
    And this is okay, I think, because I’m working here within the frame work of culture and shared hallucination! of what the world is. Still, that house or car or
    shirt I may buy is not exactly what it appears to be! Or, rather, it’s more than it appears to be or less than it appears to be….Ultimately, all Brahman….I guess!”

    Best wishes,

  2. Dear Steve, beautifully put … this is exactly what is meant by mithya. For clarification have a look at Peters blog on mithya (if you did not already) and mine on ‘death and deathlessness’. Mithya is the ingenious Vedantic concept describing this in-between reality that you can neither dismiss as ‘not there’ or pure illusion (which would be tuccha) nor, the way it presents itself to your mind, can you accept it as ultimately real (sat).

    • Sitara,
      Thanks for the info. I had not looked at those yet. I actually
      came upon this early in life, as a teenager, and have never gotten away from it. Not for long, anyway. I did find this similar mode of seeing in Roman Stoicism. Epictetus and Seneca, et al, have much to say about relative/absolute, appearance/real…

      I won’t dare say that Advaita and Stoicism are the same. No need to do that and probably, ultimately they are not (relatively speaking!) the same.

      I will read those articles you pointed out.

      Best wishes,

  3. And all this is NOT conceptual? When I read all of this, what does it have to do with what is really in front of you? You can only agree or disagree but your minds go on and on, trying to fit this all into a ‘place’ in your image of reality. The professor sees one view, the Advaitins, another, and so on. Doesn’t this tell you something about all views?

    • Visitors come to this site in order to clarify the Advaita ‘view’ on things. The professor’s ‘view’ challenged this and the questioner wished to have the Advaita ‘view’ on these subjects explained. Of course these are all ‘views’ and you are entitled to hold the view that ‘all views are equally worthless’. I think it is called ‘nihilism’. But, without wishing to appear rude, if you are not interested in the Advaita view, perhaps you should go elsewhere?

      • Dear Dennis,

        Not quite sure how you equate my view with nihilism. I have already mentioned here that I am interested in a living truth, not an interpretation of truth. If I am not mistaken, an experiential view is not limited to a philosophical view. A philosophical view attempts to encapsulate the experiential. To debate the qualities of Brahman, God, or the Divine, is really a deduction for most people not an experiential reality. Why assume anything that one cannot know? Without real questioning and observation, how can truth be discovered? I think questioning your own beliefs, no matter what you believe in, is essential. This is not nihilism. What I find interesting about many of the posters here is somehow, they’ve made a leap of belief, or faith, that somehow having this conceptual view of life and its ultimate realization of Brahman can be talked about as if it’s their own living reality when it is clearly philosophical and they suffer the very thing that Advaita points out. I am not against philosophical points of view, but like many advocates of various schools of religion and philosophies, they make them into a doctrine of conformity rather than their own experience of life and stay that way. If you want to create a forum for only Advaita believers, then you should moderate out anyone like myself that may hold a different view. I am happy not to interfere with your discussions if that is what you think I am doing. Do I really appear as some joker here that wants to debate my superior point of view?

        • You are right; I could have deleted your responses and stopped further comments. I specifically did not want to do this because I want there to be freedom to make any reasonable and sincere observations and I accept that yours fall into this category. But I do not feel that they are at all helpful to the majority of visitors to the site, who are already struggling to understand the teaching of Advaita. They do not want to read comments which question ALL viewpoints.

          It has been explained that the realization of the truth of what is taught by Advaita is not an experience. Nor is it faith (although faith is necessary before the realization occurs). And, although Advaita teaching may be an ‘interpretation’ of truth, self-realization itself is not an interpretation; it is direct and irrefutable.

          During the teaching phase, ‘real questioning and observation’ certainly do take place. The ‘faith’ only has the status of being prepared temporarily to trust someone in whose sincerity one has reason to believe, until such time as there is direct realization of the truth for oneself. Certainly, up to that point, it all remains in the realm of philosophical theory if you like.

          But the point is that one DOES initially have to take this stance (of provisional trust). There is absolutely no point at all in taking the position that you seem to be taking – namely the certainty that such trust is negative and a denial of one’s experience. It will not help you and it will not help anyone else. And, yes, I’m afraid it does come across as your believing that you hold a ‘superior point of view’. (Although I wouldn’t call you a joker!)

          Best wishes,

  4. “I am interested in a living truth, not an interpretation of truth.”
    What would be a ‘living truth’? ‘Life’, ‘living’ are concepts, and so is ‘truth’. Concepts, which are part of reality, do not need interpretation, they need to be understood; it is their referents (“external” or “internal”) that have to be looked at, and then interpreted… by concepts, precisely. Concepts, being part of human reality, clearly point at ‘something’ (empirical or metaphysical, to repeat). Philosophy, metaphysics are not a bane; bad philosophy is. Experience is nothing without thought (or ‘insight’, if you will, which is of the mind). What can be said is that “understanding is all” – and it is itself an experience.

  5. amartingarcia,

    I agree 100%. My question is simply what happens when you take away the concepts? You are not left with another concept. This is what I mean by direct experience and understanding the limitation of concepts. To understand this intellectually is not the same thing as it is actually operating in your body. If this is the case with you or anyone else, where the understanding is operative on a non-intellectual basis, I salute you. Until then, we must point out how the mind continually entrenches itself in conceptual thinking. This is not to say there is anything ‘wrong with mind or concepts’. It just is the way it is.

  6. When you “take away the concepts”, or, rather, when they vanish on their own, you are left in silent contemplation, which is the silence of the mind and ‘heart’. This is the non-dual experience, if this needs to be said, that of mystics and sages. It has been said, on good authority (in my opinion), that the Upanishads are mystical treatises (or they are nothing, I would add). But still, I think that good concepts, good philosophy, are needed in order to get rid altogether of concepts and of philosophy. In my view, that is the aim (and method) of Advaita Vedanta.

    • This reminds me of the answer I gave to another questioner back in January of this year. Not yet published, it refers to Wittgenstein:

      I think perhaps you have not yet appreciated the extent of mithyAtva (the condition of being mithyA). mithyAtva itself is mithyA. You could say that the teaching of advaita is successively to sublate anything and everything that you might think to be real until you are left with only Consciousness as the ultimate reality. The doing of this, using the scriptures together with a qualified teacher, is perfectly logical and reasonable, requiring no leaps of faith. The ‘faith’ is only in the commitment to follow it through. The end point being the recognition of the non-dual nature of every ‘thing’, there are consequently no questions remaining to be answered. There is no ‘why’, only ‘That’. Your ‘whys’ only have apparent relevance whilst you accept the appearance as real and therefore dualistic.

      Wittgenstein might have been talking about this (though whether he had ever heard of Advaita I don’t know) at the end of his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:

      6.51 Scepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical, when it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked. For doubt can exist only where a question exists, a question only where an answer exists, and an answer only where something can be said.

      6.52 We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.

      6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

      6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

      6.53 The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science–i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy — and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person–he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy–this method would be the only strictly correct one.

      6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

      7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

  7. Quote: “He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.”

    The example usually given in Advaita to illustrate the situation is: You do not carry the boat on your shoulder once you cross to the other bank of the river.

      • “Self or consciousness does not make the passage to the other shore or cross over. Rather, the crossing is the body and senses acclimating to life without any experience of self or consciousness and all that it implies.” Bernadette Roberts

        This is from the mouth of someone who has first hand experience of what she speaks of, not philosophical or conceptual.

  8. First, one would have to know what Ms. Robert’s position (experiential, spiritual) is, which should not be difficult to find out, though you don’t spell it out. Second, she, inevitably, does use concepts to give an account of her findings or experiences, concepts that have to be intelligible (i.e. truth-claims, which will amount to a religious philosophy, like the Upanishads are). Third, If she is a true mystic – like the Upanishadic sages were (and the contemporary non-dualist sages are), then her claims or expressions will be absolute, and will not differ fom those of the latter. Otherwise they will be circumscribed to a categorical (religious) framework, and will not be truly universal and absolute – alone concurred with by the greater mystics.

  9. I am not against concepts as there is no way to communicate without them. What I’m pointing out is the use of concepts to describe an experience or state that most people have only read about and which may or may not be true. To hold up models and scriptures as the test of truth is itself a form of delusion. Only those attached to words and images make comparisons. This is all taking place within the thinking structure. You can only agree or disagree within this structure. No resolution is possible. What you are suggesting is a form of elitism. No two expressions of Truth are ever the same. We are not mold-made. You can’t fit Truth into a structure.

    I used Roberts’ quote to address what Ramesam said. I could have used my own words but what do I know. We know nothing but this is not acceptable to most people. Knowledge is a great burden that must be let go of. There are no real answers in this database.

    • Unk,
      Have you noticed how often you use the words “most people”? Do you really know most people? This sort of language is used by elitists and others who want to set themselves very consciously apart from others. Can you really speak for “most people”? Think about the implications of your use of those words.

      You did state–factually, according to your sentence–that Roberts has first hand experience of what she speaks. How do you know that? Were you with her experiencing what she experienced? The statement that you quoted could have been made by anyone on this site or any where else, for that matter. It could be found in a book. Yet, in this case, you seem to be in full agreement with these concepts within the quotes.

      You then say “We know nothing” but then you go on to say that “Knowledge is a great burden that must be let go of” because you apparently KNOW that…So which is it? Do we all know nothing or do you know that knowledge is a great burden which must be let go of?

      And there are no real answers in this data base? None for whom? You? Or none for “most people”? What’s the definition of a “real” answer? And have you polled most people to find out if they’ve found no real answers on this data base?

      If you say “I” rather than “most people” or “you” I would have nothing to say after reading “Knowledge is a great burden and I must let go of it. There are no real answers for me in this data base”, I would simply nod my head because you would be stating an opinion about your values and what is true for you. Not, however, true for me.


      • Steve,

        When I use the term ‘most people’, it is from my own experience in life talking to others about all of this. At the same time, I also include myself in this group. What we are regurgitating every moment in our minds is what has been put into us from our experience. All of it learned and based on past experiences. When I come across someone like Roberts, and I can name others, but let’s stick to her for the time being, it’s because she is talking about all of this in a way that only someone who has gone through a radical transformation can talk about it. Whether we believe it or not is another matter but when you apply it to yourself, which I have, the truth of it becomes apparent or not. Now you can further analyze all of this and make arguments for and against anything that anyone says and this is where my statement that knowledge being a burden comes in. This knowledge base we have is interpreting every moment of our existence. What I am pointing at, and what Roberts points out way better than I do, is that when the knowledge base no longer becomes your point of view, all of this reasoning about your psychological state, your self consciousness, begins to end, shifts into something else which is much more immediate than your reason or any kind of thinking that you can do. The thinking is what is preventing us from being what we are. It’s not a matter of stopping thinking but a shift out of its perspective into a different point of view. What is this point of view? I don’t really know. The movement to find out is not there. The movement to know is located within the thinking structure and its analytical point of view which creates time and the superficial sense of yourself.

        Most people includes me. Roberts is definitely not most people although she seems quite human in the best sense of the word. I would also call Nisargadatta, U.G., JK, and Ramana not most people. All of them, in their own unique way, articulate what is very difficult to articulate. But, if you’ve ever met anyone like these people, it becomes unmistakable that they are living in a way that most of us are not. I am not talking about anything here that is outside of my own experience and I wouldn’t dare put myself in the same group as the people I’ve mentioned.

  10. One may not know “anything”, but, at least, one may (or may not) be able to reason, to think and be able to give ‘reasons’ for what one is saying, and also to express oneself with clarity… ‘The thinking struture’: what do you mean by that? Is thinking valuable or not? To begin with, we have a mind, which is a thinking instrument, purportedly allowing us to find out things about the world and ourselves; our thinking can be correct or incorrect, deep or superficial, well constructed or illogical. Isn’t that so? Without thought/thinking, there is no communication.
    As to truth, what do you mean by “the use of concepts to describe an experience or state that most people have only read about and which may or may not be true”?… Can a state or experience be true or untrue?; in what sense (or do you mean that it is not true in their own case, and is only by hearsay)? Furthermore, if “no two expressions of truth are ever the same”, does it alter Truth itself, which you seem to uphold, structure or no structure? In your view, what is Truth? Is Truth not related to some type of Knowledge – other than the empirical one, or that of philosophy – whereby Truth and Knowledge are one and the same thing? Is there such thing as intuition, which, even if related by others can be confirmed by us, by our own mind?

    • amartingarcia,

      Your name sounds like a specimen of something. 🙂

      The thinking structure is our knowing mind, the brain which takes in all its experiences and creates a so called superficial self which is traveling in time. It is interpreting every moment according to its database of information. This instrument is vital for survival and toasting bread. Thinking is a function of the body. It is not a function to discover what you are, who you are, or anything on that level. Thinking is neither deep nor superficial. It is all the same electrons, impulses, images. It learns to synthesize and create stories, continuity. All concepts are within this function and synthesized out of the past, our memory. To describe a state or experience is not the same as to live it, be it. It is an interpretation of what happened. For communication, that is okay. What I mean by ‘true in their case’ is people who speak about either realizations, states of experience, or points of view, that are not really their own experience but taken from others as being true because they believe that this is the case. In other words, discussions about what Truth or Brahman is or isn’t seems impossible if one hasn’t become that. Then, it is only philosophical debate which has little interest for me aside from an ongoing entertainment of sorts. Laying out a model that most religious people use may have a usefulness up to a certain point. It can serve to get your attention. But it has little to do with direct experience of who and what you are. States and experiences are what they are. You are experiencing them. If you’re not experiencing them, then talking about it is not true for yourself. I don’t think anyone can say what Truth is. It seems the best anyone can do is say what it is not. I don’t think it is necessary to postulate any imaginary Goal or Absolute. In fact, it’s downright misleading because we have no way to understand what that would be. Our problems are not Truth or the Absolute. Clearing up what and who we are is of primary importance and we won’t be able to do that within the thinking structure. There are no answers to this there. Intuition and insight are experienced by us. They are useful and necessary but they are not generated within this knowledge base. Something else clicks in and your point of view shifts. There is still thought but you begin to operate with a different point of view, one of wholeness. It is felt with your whole body. It’s as if your whole body is now connecting with everything instead of being separated from everything. I don’t know how to say it better. It is something so simple and natural. It is immediate. We don’t need to describe it. Knowledge is what prevents this from functioning. Some people have described this as having no head. I think it’s just a shift from the knower to the body where a different kind of perception takes place. It is definitely not enlightenment. 🙂

  11. Unknower,

    Your position is now becoming more clear, even though still showing inconsistencies, unsupported statements, and even contradictions, as another commentator, Steve S., has noted: for example, that thinking and knowledge are of no use in this realm of self-knowledge (“who we really are”), yet you are one who *knows* that (and, obviously, you are doing a lot of thinking along the way), whereas the rest of ‘us’, who are debating with you and operating from a “data base of information”, evidently, do not know it. You say that states and axperiences are what they are, and that if you don’t experience them “they are not true for yourself”; but who is to quarrel with that- is that all you have to say? That only having a transforming experience is what counts, so that one’s viewpoint then becomes holistic – again, who is going to disagree with that? But how do you know who has and who has not unergone a transforming experience, whether they began with a ‘knowledge base’ or not (perhaps their previous readings, reflection and meditations have been of help to some degree, as a sort of preparation and maturation, perhaps not?) Is a moment of intuition/deep understanding not a transforming experience? In a broad-line you appear to be separating mankind between the few sages and all the rest. Who, again, is going to disagree with you on that? How can one tell, however, who among ‘us’ has or has not intuition and insight, which you consider a possibility, they being “usefull and necessary”?
    I have read most of the sages you mention, but did not find in them the kind of statements and affirmations that you make. I think that you should consider all these points carefully, because much of what you say is reasonable, well seen (like he role of thinking, intuition, second-hand knowledge, etc.). Respectfully…

  12. Unk,
    Yes, what Amartin said, I say also. There is much reasonable and unarguable in your posts…but then you veer off into unreasonable and arguable byways. Those sages you mentioned…NONE of them, from the ones I’ve read, indicate that thinking is a hindrance to unity conciousness or whatever we may want to call non-duality. Actually, from my reading, none of them really say there are any barriers or hindrances to it.

    Ramana’s recommendation of “Who am I?” questioning, Nisargatta’s “I”, “I am” (which he himself practiced under his teacher)….they never said, at least that I’ve found, that one should eschew, stop, despise, or in any other way try to get rid of rationality, thinking, cognating, assessing, etc. Those practices, upedesha (“tricks”, I believe is the literal translation), seem to be means of disengaging from the machinations of the mind, doing those practices over and over again until one SEES that one is not the mind. That would be what we talk about here-awareness, I think.

    Then one can use the mind but not be identified with it ( or not so much identified with it!)…

    ….Ramana read news papers every day. Nisargatta made cigarettes for a living, had cancer, but refused to quit smoking and drinking coffee…those sages used their minds, did all the things of basic, every day life that you and I do.

    Concepts, the mind, is necessary for all that.

    “It’s not a matter of stopping thinking but a shift out of its perspective into a different point of view. What is this point of view?”

    You said it! Wholeness, by any reasonable definition of that, must include thinking and use of the mind. But does stopping thinking mean to quit thinking FOREVER or does it mean stop thinking/shift out of its perspective/ then
    start thinking, then shift out of its perspective?

    In other words, I’m saying that once we know we are not equal to the mind then
    we may easily use the mind and then drop it, use it, then drop it…

    And I think that is what asking “Who am I?” and other practices like that do. They create a gap in the mechanical flow of the mind and as that gap gets clearer, then there may be an easy shift between thinking/shift out of its perspective…and this could happen hundreds of time “a day”.

    “Knowledge is what prevents this from functioning”. Wholeness would, by
    definition, include knowledge so I don’t believe knowledge is a hindrance.
    It’s not a hindrance to know 2+2=4, my girlfriend is tired of seeing me type,
    I hate sweet potatos, Tensor calculus is obscure, I live in Texas…that’s all
    knowledge but where’s the hindrance? I know this is all conceptual, passing stuff and I’m the knower of it, it’s not the same as me…but I use it all in daily life,
    negotiating this world. Relative and absolute, I think, are in love with one another.

    Ramana said that practice was necessary and well as knowledge but he also said that there were rare individuals who heard “I am that” once and then needed no more than that.

    Anyway, for myself, there must be the inclusion of thinking AND shifting out of it or away from it. At this point I simply cannot see this as either/or and wholeness must include both.

    I hasten to add! All above is opinion, no claim for any authority here!

    Best wishes,

    • “It’s not a matter of stopping thinking but a shift out of its perspective into a different point of view. What is this point of view?”

      You said it! Wholeness, by any reasonable definition of that, must include thinking and use of the mind. But does stopping thinking mean to quit thinking FOREVER or does it mean stop thinking/shift out of its perspective/ then
      start thinking, then shift out of its perspective?

      I thought this was self-evident but I guess it’s not. Did I say anything about stopping thinking forever? You cannot live without thinking. Shifting out of the perspective of thinking doesn’t bring thought to an end. You just stop using thought to understand what and who you are. Thinking is good for changing the TV channel and toasting bread and to communicate something to someone else like let’s meet at 10:00am at Starbucks. Thinking doesn’t cut it for discussing the nature of Truth or any such topic. It only deals in images, not Truth. It’s much simpler than all this analysis. Batteries are included.

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