differenceVive la difference!

I am still in the process of writing my next book on the Mandukya Upanishad and kArikA-s. I have just written the following section on the concept of ‘difference’. Since I posted a query to the Advaitin group, relating to what Swami Paramarthananda had said on the topic, I concluded by sending the completed section to the group. Accordingly, I am also posting this here.

In his commentary on this kArikA (2.34), Shankara touches on the logic of this concept of ‘difference’ and Swami Paramarthananda expands upon this. What, he asks provocatively, is the color of the difference between red and blue? Clearly, it is potentially a very important topic since, if it could be proven logically that the idea of ‘difference’ is incoherent on examination, it would effectively demonstrate the non-dual nature of reality. Numerous post-Shankara philosophers have looked into this and formulated involved arguments. There is extensive material in the post-Shankara texts of brahmasiddhi, iShTasiddhi, tattvashuddhi, khaNDanakhaNDakhAdya and chitsukhI/tattvadIpikA but, having looked at these, they seem too impenetrable to study in detail. (No references are given for these – you really don’t want to read them!)

One of the arguments claims that, for knowledge to arise, there has to be a pramANa and this certainly sounds reasonable. But it then goes on to claim that, since difference cannot be located in either A or B, there is no pramANa and therefore there cannot be any knowledge of it. But a pramANa is not required. We have pratyakSha pramANa for the knowledge about A and the same for B. The intellect is then able to discriminate and conclude that A is not the same as B. This ‘not the same’ is what we call ‘difference’. I feel that this is one of the sorts of issues that Wittgenstein must have looked at. It is a case of our use of language generating a seeming problem which is really not there at all.

It seems to me that we can happily accept ‘difference’ as being an empirical fact of life without doing injury to the concept of Advaita at all. Words mean whatever we define them to mean – and we all know what is meant by the word ‘difference’. As evidence of this I can truthfully say that, in all the 30+ years that I have lived in this house, I have never tried to enter my neighbour’s house by mistake. And, when I go to sleep at night, I always do so in the bedroom and not the kitchen.

If I go into my living room, I see a brownish shape directly ahead and a greenish one to the right. Then I put on my spectacles and they resolve, respectively, into a table and a plant. The table has a bulge in the middle which, on closer examination, is seen to be a book. If I pick this up and open it, I further discover that there are many different pages, and each is filled with many different words. The plant has leaves which are clearly green. But, if I examine one of these leaves through a powerful microscope, I find that this green is not at all uniform, being constrained to just some of the many different structures within the leaf.

And so on! You might just notice that this sort of analysis bears more than a passing resemblance to the one carried out in the introduction, where the word ‘mithyA’ was introduced. The point is that it becomes impossible to isolate that characteristic that differentiates one ‘object’ from ‘another’. By removing petals and stamens etc, we cannot find in which part the ‘flowerness’ resides (see http://adbhutam.wordpress.com/2009/07/25/attributes-and-substantive/ for an excellent article on this topic). And a flower, reduced to its subatomic particles looks pretty much the same as a paperclip. Every seemingly separate thing is ultimately nothing other than name and form of Consciousness. Basically, all words relate to empirical, not absolute reality!  And apparent ‘difference’ is seen to be nothing more than a practically useful fiction.

Another approach could use the rope-snake metaphor and claim that any (seemingly separate) thing that we see is not what it appears to be. We are making a mistake, as a result of our ignorance. Just as we think the rope is a snake, so we think that there is a book, a table, a room, a house etc. In fact there are not many things here at all. There are no ‘things’ at all; there is only turIya-brahman. This error (superimposing a mistaken or illusory entity onto the actual, real thing) is called adhyAsa.

I expect to complete the book next year sometime so that it should hopefully be published early 2015.

4 thoughts on “Difference

  1. To ask about the ‘color’ of the difference between two colors is either utter naivete or disingenuously clever by half depending on the person asking and the context. Paraphrasing the question in terms of ‘sex’, one may ask about the sex of the difference between male and female or the ‘length’ of the difference between 5 feet and 6 feet.

    Such questions are useful to stop us in our tracks in pointing out on one hand how we take many things for granted without a deep examination for transactional purposes for interaction in daily life through a commonly accepted symbolical terminology and on the other hand the inadequacies of the language we use for communication. Beyond this, howsoever intricate logic one may use or scholarliness one may exhibit, it is, IMHO, foolhardy to expect deep and profound philosophical insight from such questions.

    The very fact that we “perceive” an object is because of difference. Our brain is wired like that. There is no escape. We are helpless in this!

    So we need not talk of difference between two objects and ask about the presumptuous quality of the “difference” because we assumed we have used such a quality to differentiate the two objects in the first instance. In the example under the present context, we perceived something which we called “blue.” We perceived another thing which we named “red.” Now we “imagine” we saw two objects because of “color.” So we think it is legitimate to pose the query what is the “color” of the twoness.

    In actuality, we perceive an object because it is DIFFERENT from the common running background or baseline. That is to say we notice an object when something shows up as ‘different’ from the background. We cannot see a distinct white thing within the same white background. What we can see is like the Geophysicist looking for an “anomaly” in the exploration of resources. There are no two things there – a difference and an object. In other words, the “DIFFERENCE” is the OBJECT.

    So the ‘difference’ between two objects A and B is a second order difference (like acceleration is a second order difference of motion). Hence we cannot find ‘difference’ as a component of an object. That would be, on the face of it, a futile search. Such an analysis appears to be the characteristic of a section of post-Shankara philosophers. Shankara himself desisted from such wasteful indulgence e.g. the locus of ‘ignorance.’

    What Advaita points to is that all objects (which we perceive as separate entities) are in fact the modulations of one and the same nameless “Thing.” Though it is figuratively said ‘maNigaNAdiva‘ sometimes, one cannot find a common sUtra (a commonality or a Universal characteristic) running through all the diverse objects. The object itself is a fluctuation of the Oneness – like the swiggles and spaces in-between here on the screen are only modulations of the one and the same screen at some pixel positions. We may perceive and give a meaning as letters and words, but basically it is all the screen only we are looking at all the time.

    • I do agree with all you say, Ramesam. It seems amazing that so many post-Shankara philosophers spent so much time in such involved thinking about this. But then I suppose we can see analogies in some of the dead-ends of Western philosophy…

  2. A coincidence!

    In some other context, a friend of mine sent a Video conversation of UG in Calif in 1989). I felt that the question of ‘difference’ is discussed there in some way. UG contends that there is no way for us to know that “Universal Thing.” We can talk about, notice or be aware of ‘diffenrence’ only.

    Video Link: You have no way of figuring it out:

  3. Identity and difference (or sameness and otherness) are notions or principles that have a long pedigree in Western philosophy, starting with the Greek philosopher Plato (and appearing mostly in his ‘Timeus’ and ‘Sophist’ dialogues). They have played a fundamental role in the development of Western philosophy right up to Hegel; the latter’s dialectical reasoning is founded on these two concepts or principles.

    Plato distinguished between sameness and difference in the phenomenal realm of physical objects and the non-material, non-spatial realm of intelligible Forms (Ideas or archetypes). He actually postulated his famous theory of Forms on the basis of the differences between things, as they are observed, this difference being also fundamental for the possibility of cognition. Both notions take part also in the composition of the human soul.

    ‘The Sophist’ is a complex, intricate dialogue, difficult to digest; it contains Plato’s final version of his theory of Forms: these are: being, one, same, and other – and their negation, non-being being also a Form. One can find a lot of material on this topic by simply clicking on Google.

    (I’ll check on UG’s views on ‘difference’)

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