Q: I’ve just started reading about advaita and Hinduism and wondered about the concept of loka-s. Are these physical or mental places or do they not really exist at all? What do Advaitins believe now, after 2000+ years of advancement of scientific knowledge?
A (Dennis): Advaita is a ‘gauged’ teaching – the teacher aims to address the present level of understanding of the student. This is why the seeker should always try to find a traditional teacher and should not merely attend random satsangs given by non-traditional teachers travelling around the world and probably staying in one location for no more than a week or two. A ‘course’ of traditional teaching may take a lifetime and would certainly be expected to continue for a number of years.
The way that it works is that the teacher provides an explanation that is suitable for the seeker at that time, and advances the latter’s understanding. Later, that explanation will be taken back and a more sophisticated one provided in its place. The methodology is called adhyAropa-apavAda. The teaching of loka-s etc is an ‘early’ one, and was aimed at Hindus who were used to worshipping gods, believing firmly in reincarnation and so on.
If you are interested in reading about it from an academic point of view, the Chandogya Upanishad (around 6.2.9 onwards) tells you all about what happens ‘between lives’ – pa~nchAgni vidyA. I have written an article about this at https://www.advaita-vision.org/between-lives/. But what matters is the understanding that supersedes this: the world and the jIva are mithyA; there is no birth, creation or reincarnation in reality; no gods or loka-s. There is only brahman and you are (already) That.
Q: I guess the main issue when I first posed this question to you was that if karma, reincarnation etc are all illusion, due to our ignorance of who we really are, what purpose do they serve? I mean once we realize we are not the jIva, then karma and reincarnation are irrelevant or better yet don’t exist (and never have because we were always brahman). So they seem to serve no purpose since, although they seem to exist on that level, they are not true.
A: The world seems to be real until you know that it isn’t. This includes all of the ‘laws’ that go along with this from gravity to cause-effect relationship. And who-you-currently-think-you-are will continue to be subject to all those laws, one of which is the law of karma. You are obliged to be aware of, and abide by the laws as long as you believe you are a separate entity in an alien world.
Q: So how does reincarnation fit into this? I mean it isn’t really a ‘law’ is it? So who I think I am reincarnates into a next life based on my karma? But if it’s not actually me that’s reincarnating (since I am Brahman), then what is it that reincarnates on the empirical level?
A: The subtle-causal bodies (essentially mind). Since you presently identify with your mind-ego, you naturally believe that who-you-really-are reincarnates. In fact, you were never born in the first place. karma is a ‘law’ just as much as Newton’s laws of motion, as far as the Upanishads are concerned.