Q: Advaita often uses certain language and metaphors, and these can often come across as sort of a “subjective idealism plus”. Where subjective idealism argues that the “outside world” is a completely nonexistent illusion produced in a mind, Advaita sometimes seems to say yes, that’s true – only, behind that mind that imagines the world is consciousness witnessing the mind, which is “projected” onto consciousness by the mysterious maya. In other words, Berkeley was right, only he didn’t go far enough. This leaves Advaita sounding like total solipsism, blended with hardline idealism. Consciousness, some sort of unimaginable void incapable of anything, is having a mind and a world “imagined” onto it by maya, which despite the incapability of consciousness to do anything is still a “power” of that consciousness. (Of course, this is very much a conceptualization, taking these metaphors too literally and looking at these terms and concepts through a very Westernized lens. But this is often the way some teachings sound!)
But in addition to the talk of all things being total illusion, I will also hear that Advaita is realist – that the universe is not a hallucination; that it is, in one sense, “actually there”; and that it is in comparison to the changeless paramarthika viewpoint that vyavahara is “unreal”. This position makes much more sense to me than imagining the universe to be some sort of magic trick.
Now, I recognize that these explanations – both of them – are attempts to “point” at truth, and not a tidy description of truth itself. Ultimately, there is only brahman; there are no “illusory things” and no “real things”. But I’m far from truly grasping that yet, so I suppose my question is: which of these descriptions more accurately reflects the nature and relation of vyavahara and paramartha? Or are both illustrations only as useful as what they can communicate to a student? Or am I just getting way too caught up in concepts here?
A (Dennis): Advaita is a ‘flexible’ teaching rather than a hard philosophy, and a good teacher (which means a sampradAya teacher) will aim to explain things at the current level of understanding of the seeker. The scriptures, from which the teaching derives, themselves contain superficially conflicting ideas for the same reason. The mechanism is called adhyAropa-apavAda, which I am sure you will be aware of given your clearly very knowledgeable background.
Thus it is that ALL of the teaching, whatever it may be, is rescinded in the final analysis. This is because it is intrinsically impossible to talk about the ultimate reality. Shankara was notable amongst the main teachers in that he was willing to go further even than the scriptures in providing ‘explanations’ to help get across the message and the concept of mAyA was one such device.
There are certainly parallels between Advaita and Berkeley. You may have come across Greg Goode, a teacher of Direct Path Advaita (amongst other, more Buddhistic leanings). Berkeley was one of his specializations and he believes that a lost book of Berkeley’s actually does go much further towards Advaita.
The solipsism idea is treated in Advaita by the concept of ‘one jIva’ – eka jIva vAda – and there are some (post Shankara) philosophers who advocate this. Dr. Ramesam Vemuri posted a series of articles on this – https://www.advaita-vision.org/eka-jiva-vada-i-am-alone/, https://www.advaita-vision.org/eka-jiva-vada-i-am-alone-part-ii/, https://www.advaita-vision.org/eka-jiva-vada-i-am-alone-part-iii/, https://www.advaita-vision.org/eka-jiva-vada-i-am-alone-part-iv/, https://www.advaita-vision.org/eka-jiva-vada-i-am-alone-part-v/ and https://www.advaita-vision.org/eka-jiva-vada-i-am-alone-part-vi/. And I submitted a further post, which was a question and answer discussion with Dr. K. Sadananda, the AchArya at Washington Chinmaya Mission – https://www.advaita-vision.org/more-on-ekajiva-vada/. Sadananda concludes that neither the ‘one jIva’ nor the ‘many jIva’ notions makes any sense since the very concept of a jIva is mistaken to begin with.
If you want the other side of the story, the series by Chittaranjan Naik on ‘A Realist View of Advaita’ begins at http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/chittaranjan/realist_chittaranjan.htm (ten parts + bibliography).
The ‘bottom line’ has to be that neither view ‘accurately reflects the nature and relation of vyavahAra and paramArtha’. They are merely attempts to point the way towards understanding. As you put it: “both illustrations are only as useful as what they can communicate to a student.” Perhaps the most useful concept is that provided by Gaudapada – the notion of ajAti vAda – there has never been any creation; nothing has ever been born. When you have climbed up, you throw away the ladder, as Wittgenstein put it!