Meaning of ‘Advaita’ (Q. 306)

Q: In Sanskrit, a word’s meaning is determined by the meaning of the dhatu at the heart of the word, modified by the meanings of prefixes and suffixes. So according to Monier-Williams:

  • a is a prefix having a negative or privative or contrary sense. This gives us NOT-<whatever follows>, but also indicates the absence of it, or the opposite of it.
  • dva means two or both.

 So Advaita means not two-ness. This is the derivation straight from the Sanskrit – it is what the Sanskrit is actually saying, irrespective of the pronouncements of esteemed Hindu monks. It has a number of consequences.

 This is not the same as Advaita Vedanta, which is a sub-school of Vedanta, which is itself a synonym for the Vedic texts called Upanishads. It seems to me that if we wish to categorize advaita, then the first point of discrimination should be between pure advaita (above) and Advaita Vedanta (thousands of years of various traditions).

 I would be interested in your views. (Oct. 2010)

A: I am not actually aware of any usage of the word ‘advaita’ which does not relate to the non-dual branch of uttara mImAMsA, which is usually called advaita, to differentiate it from vishiShTAdvaita and dvaita. In my view, any non-dual teacher who claims to be teaching advaita but who does not comply with this interpretation is misusing the term. Are you aware of any specific usage other than in the context of Vedanta?

Q: I am afraid I do not know the uttara mImAMsA.

I wasn’t coming from the point of usage, but of meaning. Whilst the balance between a language meaning what the populace use it to mean and what academics define it to mean is dynamic for something like English, for something like Sanskrit which is not a spoken language it cannot be.

For many years I was a member of the School of Economic Science, and there we studied Sanskrit using Monier Williams’ dictionary. The idea of the Sanskrit faculty was that the meaning of the word came from the dhatu and accompanying modifiers, so Advaita has a meaning defined from scratch as it were. The term “non-dual” would then be an English translation determined after the meaning of Advaita was established.

From that point of view pure Advaita would not have any conditions or requirements, and would stand alone as a philosophical system with or without the Vedanta. I could hardly claim that the view of that rather strange organization counts as an established context outside Vedanta, and as wonderful as the Vedanta is/are (and I sincerely mean that), from the point of view of analysis it does seem that Advaita stands before it rather than within it.

A: I’m still not quite sure what you are getting at. According to my understanding, the philosophy (or perhaps, better, ‘teaching methodology’) of Advaita Vedanta, has its genesis in the dim and distant past, long before Shankara. But its message has been transmitted via the Upanishads. Indeed, that Brahman is the reality, that I am Brahman, that the world is mithyA etc could not derive from perception or inference; it has to be ‘taught’ and then validated by reason as not contradicting our experience. On the basis of perception and logic alone, we would have to conclude that reality was dualistic. The word ‘advaita’ is part of vyavahAra and therefore also mithyA. Indeed, language effectively ‘creates’ duality. So I am not saying that your understanding of the meaning of the word is wrong but I don’t see that the concept of pure ‘Advaita’, as opposed to ‘Advaita Vedanta’ has any basis. To my mind it is simply an abbreviation. Of course, there are other non-dual systems of philosophy but, pedantically, they cannot call themselves ‘Advaita’ even though that is the literal meaning of the word.

Also, interestingly, you cannot talk about Advaita ‘standing before’ rather than ‘within’, can you? There is only ever the non-dual reality, before, during and after, inside and out.