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.
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.