Q. 434 Modern debates about Advaita principles

Q: As I work through the Brahma Sutras, and having read Alston’s ‘Shankara on Rival Views’, I have a nagging concern that all of the refutation of alternate theories is too self-contained. What I mean is that much of it seems like a straw-man setup, where Shankara defines his opponent’s views for them and then shreds those views. The objections are being written by the same author that is refuting those objections. I would like to find texts that carry the debate outside of the closed circle, so to speak. Say, for example, a Buddhist took exception to those refutations and wrote a compelling argument against them, and then a traditional Swami responded in kind. Are you aware of any more modern works along these lines? In particular, I would like to see Shankara’s logic analyzed by a scholar and compared to our modern updated view of logical argumentation, etc.

A: Are you sufficiently certain of the Advaita stance on all issues that you would want to look at critical appraisals? I haven’t come across any easy work that deals with these. If you are studying Brahmasutras now, there is a version which is fairly readable and actually occasionally funny (in a superior, knowing sort of way), which looks at the other commentaries and interpretations. It’s called ‘The Brahmasutras and their Principal Commentaries: A Critical Exposition’ by B. N. K. Sharma. It’s in 3 volumes and almost certainly very expensive in the west. You can probably get it cheaper from India, though. Another book which I haven’t looked at is ‘A Critique of Vedanta’ by L. V. Rajagopal. It looks at the three Vedantic schools and applies Whitehead’s approach to philosophy to critically analyze them (so says the book cover!) It looks like a very serious read to me! The other book which might interest you is SSS’s (Satchidanandendra) book ‘The Method of the Vedanta: A Critical Account of the Advaita Tradition’. It looks at pre and post Shankara authors and endeavors to establish Shankara’s views as the correct ones. But it is a huge book of nearly 1000 pages and really not terribly readable. It is, however, translated by A. J. Alston so is at least understandable with some effort. But I can’t honestly actually recommend any of these. It’s up to you if you want to give any a try. From what you say, maybe the Rajagopal would serve your needs.

P.S. I have just checked, and the Sharma 3-volume work is available from Amazon.com for US$79.40. (Ridiculously, it is £89.99 in the UK but it is out of stock anyway.) ‘Method of the Vedanta’ is even more expensive (it is a big book!) – US$170.36 from Amazon.com but you can buy for only £20, new, in the UK from Shanti Sadan.
‘A Critique of Vedanta’ is only US$10.33 from Amazon.com.

12 thoughts on “Q. 434 Modern debates about Advaita principles

  1. Dennis

    I too often find myself buying from Amazon, but can I encourage everyone to find alternatives. We all know that Amazon has far too much monopolistic power, and is continuing to drive that. We all know how Amazon treats its workers, whilst its owner is outlandishly rich. We must surely all be able to roll this forward to forsee what this means for society in the future.

    Regardless of maya, we all live in this relative reality. So we need to take a hard look at how our daily choices shape the world around us, and the direction in which it is heading. Otherwise what is the point of jnana, wisdom?

    To paraphrase Krishnamurti, you can see the danger of how you are living, so why don’t you change?

  2. Hi Ven,

    I don’t entirely disagree with what you say but three points come to mind:
    1. Other companies could learn an awful lot from the quality of customer service at Amazon – I have had dealings with them on a number of issues and they are excellent.
    2. There is a ‘donation’ button at the bottom, the idea being that visitors can help pay for the web hosting, domain renewal and internet costs – but the number of donations is currently less than one per year! On the other hand, I do earn a little from people buying books from Amazon by using the links.
    3. This is not really the right forum for discussing this…


  3. Dennis

    On right forum point, that is just fragmenting, compartmentalising life. I can talk spirituality here . . . and behave totally differently over there. It is meaningless. Anyhow, I won’t pursue.


    • Venkat,
      Seriously, no personal criticism intended! We (OK, I…) don’t even allow discussion of Buddhism or Taoism here, for example – the site is for Advaita. I presume there are other sites for discussing what is perceived as being wrong with the world. I’m sure you understand and agree.
      Best wishes,

  4. u=https%3A%2F%2Fyoutu.be%2Fiu8i7blDUTs%3Ft%3D1h2s&h=ATOnq_ZN4D4vnsKv3XGnQ9ChOFntAu_zA5XPSbvfcAk4POyRem9TY24U0q9q0DSoZnUsGeIAC9ASGW4kWeOOdlzNt2umuQAIYyCY-6Jh2bPpVvxbYXNs

    An attempt by Whiteheadean-Hartshornites to “imperialize” and change all other religious traditions (?)

    One reviewer of the book: ‘My, perhaps unkind, summary of Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” is that it’s an evolutionary panpsychism with some kind of god tacked on. Since Whitehead wasn’t an explicit Christian, his ideas can appeal to religious believers from several different traditions.’

    I commented (yesterday): I tend to agree with your position and conclusions (on ‘deep pluralism’), having been a perennialist and now a follower of Advaita Vedanta. The following is a short excerpt from an essay I wrote (published by ‘Sacred Web’ in 1910): ‘… is the summit of the mystical quest one and the same, or are there as many summits as there are religions? The overriding conclusion is that… one can justifiably speak of a single, transcendent essence of spiritual realization, whatever be the religious starting-point. The stress here is on the word ‘transcendent’; anything short of this level inescapably entails multiplicity and hence differences as well as similarities, but not unity: unity in an absolute sense is only to be found at the level of the Absolute, that is, at the transcendent level, precisely. ’

  5. ‘Religious pluralism’ – this is the title of the book, and can be found in Amazon (in case the above link doesn’t work – it doesn’t do for me).

  6. In addition to the above titles mentioned by Dennis, there is also the work, Advaita: A Contemporary Critique (Srinivasa Rao, Oxford, 2011), which purports to bring a modern analytical toolkit to its critique of Advaita. The book is well written and argued, but utterly wrong in its base assumptions and therefore its conclusions as well, but it can be a useful exercise trying to determine the flaws in the author’s approach!

  7. The Question # 434 strikes odd to me from any angle, particularly considering the fact that it is posed at a Web site which is avowedly dedicated to promote Shankara Advaita.

    An intelligent and intelligible reply to the Question will depend, IMHO, on the context and motive of the Questioner who is raising the issue here about the comparative position of Buddhist view vis a vis the Advaita stance.

    I conceive of three situations:
    1. The Questioner is motivated purely from an academic purpose of researching to assess the hermeneutics, the rigor in logic, application of probability theory, linguistics etc. in the exegesis of their relative positions in the two fields by their leaders;
    2. The Questioner would like to critically examine the statements and theories in both the systems and moderate the final conclusion in order to be able to distill the real essence of what could possibly be the undeniable Truth (with a Capital “T”);
    3. The Questioner studied and learnt Advaita and has now graduated to take up brahma sUtra-s in order to be sure of clearing up his own doubts that may arise in his mind from every possible corner.

    If one is driven by research interests (# 1), the only possible environment to approach the problem will be an academic one where experts from different fields and also modern tools (a good database, library resources, statistical processing facilities etc) are available.

    The main objective of such a study may not be strictly concerned with or oriented towards Nirvana (one’s own Liberation). Several Ph.D.s may be the resulting outcome, and as it usually happens in all research work, at the end more questions for a future research could pop up than any definitive answer and a plausible conclusion.

    After all, we do see such debates being periodically held even to date and the parties depart “agreeing to disagree.”

    In the case that one would like to impartially assess both the systems based on one’s own knowledge and abilities (# 2), yes, it will have the advantage of being free from the “influences” due to the drawbacks or limitations of any other prejudicial conclusions. But to be able to do so, one has to be a thorough expert in both the systems, having read and fully understood each system from beginning to the end. IOW, one has to be a Shankara and Buddha rolled into one. Otherwise, any conclusion reached will be infirm and inadequate.

    I doubt if that could be a possibility at all, especially if you realize that our minds are finite and come with some conditioning. Further, there is no real neutral ground for anyone to stand on and be able to weigh both of the systems in total transparency and uncolored brain.

    If one, however, studies brahma sUtra-s more as a follower of Advaita (# 3), we come to take a different attitude in our approach.

    We know brahma sUtra-s are said to be the nyAya prasthAna, the second in the phases of studying Advaita. The seeker who aspires freedom from samsAra first goes through the phase of learning the Advaita message from the Upanishads (the upadesha prasthAna) before proceeding to study the brahma sUtra-s.

    The general scheme of the Advaita methodology is shown in Slide # 66 at :


    (https://www.advaita-vision.org/dhyana-and-samadhi/ )

    Thus, after having understood the Non-dual message, the aspirant goes on to ingest the message such that he will not be left with even an iota of doubt in the core teaching of jIva-brahmaikya, and towards this end uses the nyAya prasthAna. Hence, one should use the sUtra-s and the discussions there on more as a platform for obtaining clarity with regard to alternate views that may come up in one’s own mind because of his possible previous exposure to other schools of thought and interpretation.

    Therefore, brahma sUtra-s may be considered, I submit, as a helpful tool for the spiritual aspirant in firming up one’s own understanding rather than as a means to adjudicate the validity or otherwise of an alternate system.


  8. Hi Ramesam,

    Thanks for posting your response. FYI, this was another of my early questions to Dennis, from around 5+ years ago, as was the recently published Q433. Sorry to hear you thought the question “odd from any angle.” At the time at least, I thought it was a really good question to ask! 🙂 But I was definitely asking from the perspective of your scenario #3, and not #1 or #2. I was trying to resolve some residual doubts, i.e., manana, and wanted some resources that helped frame those doubts in the language of modern philosophy, etc.

    Best Regards,

  9. Dear Charles,

    Sorry, about my post.
    I did not mean any offence.
    The Question sounded to me more like that of a research scholar in an academic Institute when I first read it.

    In the days when the system of replying the questions by a Panel was mooted, I was one of the people who pled with Dennis that he should reveal the identity of the Questioner to the Bloggers who were expected to answer. The interest and attitude of the questioner, as you can well appreciate, do contribute in deciding how a response gets formulated. However, as a true Brit, he gave precedence to his commitment of “confidentiality” and finally chose not to reveal the identity of the questioner. Perhaps, I would have framed my answer altogether in a different way had I known that it was your question, because you have been interacting at this site at that time and therefore, we could have known the relevance and the intention behind the question.

    So sorry again that I was trying to cover some unnecessary ground in my answer. But it was not any attempt on my part to show off. As we are all aware, any question is always tailored to the needs of the situation (though some people do not mind even “doctoring” the answer – after all to be a “doctor” is a more paying trade than that of a “tailor” 🙂 🙂 LOL LOL.

    It also makes the situation a bit funny that Dennis is scooping the Questions of over five years ago from the bottom of the barrel! If there are anymore questions pending from the past from you, I hope he will let you answer them by yourself!


  10. Hi Ramesam,

    At the time of posting, I honestly did not know that it was Charles who had asked the question, although he did subsequently inform me of this! The reason I am ‘scraping the barrel’ is that I have always higlighted Q&As which I thought might interest others but I only posted maybe 1 or 2 per month so the outstanding ones built up. I am now in the process of sorting and consolidating for my next book (‘Answers… to the Difficult Questions’). I Have now processed the backlog so will be posting the intervening ones (Q. 435 – 458) over the next months. If any seems worthy of throwing open to others, I will certainly do so.

    Incidentally, I told Charles that I was looking forward to seeing how he answered his own questions…

    Best wishes,

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