Q.443 A ‘simple summary of advaita’

Q: Based on your own search and discoveries over all of these years, and the writing of all of the books and blogs, if you had to summarize all of this, the truth of life, what would you say? 

A: Not sure what you are looking for here. My ‘personal’ view is surely not important and I could scarcely find any better summary than Shankara’s. Anyway, I spent an hour thinking about it (while washing up and vacuuming) and here is my one line summary:

The form does not matter – it is the substance that is important.

Q: How do we know that energy/matter is Consciousness and not just what it is as energy/matter? And why does it matter? Can’t Consciousness just be what it is by itself and simply aware?

A: Energy and matter are both objects of experience. They are transient and finite, changing one into the other and ultimately ending in Absolute zero. Consciousness is the non-dual, unchanging, eternal and infinite reality.

It does not matter from the standpoint of absolute reality. It does not even matter to most jIva-s, since they just get on with the usual pleasure-seeking aims. It matters to one who is seeking Self-knowledge.

Consciousness DOES just be what it is (there is nothing else) but is not ‘aware’ in the usual meaning of the word, since there is nothing else of which to be aware.

Q: I completely stopped reading and listening to stuff about all of this a few days ago, and my mind basically ‘forgot’, if you will, the teachings and all of the ‘knowledge’. So there’s no doubt it was/is in the mind as knowledge or information. But, the one and only thing that was very firm and clear, was simply the fact of Consciousness or Existence, all by itself with no ‘knowledge’ or information and pointers, etc; so it seems that being it is completely different from just knowing about it or having info/knowledge.

And as Consciousness, it’s not important to know about anything or have knowledge of the way everything works or is, in the body and universe. So I guess what I’m saying and asking for your thoughts on, is that all of the knowledge in the mind effectively went, and left  what I would say is ‘really real’. It reminded me of a quote by Nisargadatta Maharaj when he said that anything you can remember or forget is not it. And this seems to be what I’m realizing and really seeing as the case here…

A: A couple of points arise in response to what you say here:

1) Not reading/listening/thinking about something does not equate to not having the knowledge. You know tons of stuff that you never think about; it comes to mind only when relevant but that does not mean it is not there.

2) Existence/Consciousness has always been the case and always will be (sat, chit and anantam). You have always been brahman. Brahman is all there ever is. So what is different? Why do you say that this is now ‘firm and clear’?

3) All ‘knowledge’ that can be spoken/thought about is ultimately mithyA. But, the reason that we fail to recognize the fact of sat-chit is that we are ignorant. We are immersed in duality and never question its seeming reality. No amount of experiencing the world will bring about understanding of the truth. Only knowledge about self and world, transmitted by someone who already knows, can bring this about. Only knowledge can remove ignorance.

4) Maybe what you are really concerned about here is the meaning of speaking about brahman as ‘knowledge’. This stems from the statement ‘satyam j~nAnam anantam brahma’ in the Taittiriya Upanishad (2.1.1). And there is a huge ‘discussion’ following this in Shankara’s bhAShya. I have been reading some of this myself but I would not want to attempt to summarize. Do you have AJ Alston’s ‘Shankara Source Books’? If not, they are brilliant and well-worth buying. Volume 1, ‘Shankara on the Absolute’ contains a whole section on “Texts on the Absolute as ‘Reality, Knowledge, Infinity’” And this could well answer your concerns. Alternatively, Swami Dayananda’s commentary on the Taittiriya has many pages on this single phrase, but it is very ‘Sanskrit-heavy’ and would require quite a lot of effort to read (and more to follow!).

Q: Great responses, very clear. I think that my problem is with the whole ‘knowledge’ thing. I always felt or sensed that Consciousness was and is something other than the mind and intellect, and therefore has nothing to do with the mind-intellect or knowledge. Also, that the mind is the problem, so ‘getting out of it’ is the whole key!

So it seems that knowledge is of the mind, yet the mind is the problem, and Consciousness has nothing to do with the mind or knowledge, and is apart from it entirely. So then why knowledge?

A: Everything is Consciousness. So, although Consciousness is not mind/intellect, mind/intellect is Consciousness. Just like saying that the ring and bangle are gold but gold is neither ring nor bangle.

The mind is the problem; you are right. But it is also the solution. The reason that we believe that we are not already ‘free’, perfect and complete is not that this is untrue. Since there is only brahman, we must already be brahman. The reason is that we do not know this. So the only solution is to gain that knowledge and remove the ignorance of the already-existent fact.

I had a further thought on the ‘brahman being knowledge’ question. I mention in my books, several times I think, that I always had a problem with Ishvara in the teaching of Advaita. But, if you think rather in terms of paramArtha-vyavahAra or, more appropriately when it comes to this topic, in terms of nirguNa-saguNa, then it becomes rather obvious. Just think of the complexity and wonder of this apparent creation. Think of the science, from general physics and chemistry down to detailed specialties. The vast, incomprehensible intricacy of interacting laws, known and unknown. How does this all operate? There are clearly areas that we are not yet even aware of, where interactions take place according to principles not yet understood. Where ‘is’ all of the ‘knowledge’ that enables this universe to exist? Even though it is all, ultimately, mithyA, the appearance is consistent at the gross empirical level. Just as the dream IS the mind in the final analysis, so the universe has to be brahman. Of course, this way of looking at it might lead one to conclude that brahman has the knowledge rather than is the knowledge. But if you already accept that there is only brahman…

Q: It comes back to the simplicity of it all being only one ‘thing’ – Consciousness!

So to keep the analogy, it’s like the ring thinking it’s a separate thing or self.  And then simply realizing that it’s not what it thinks, that it’s really gold?

At that point, there is no separate self or thing, so therefore, there’s really no free will and choice, and that’s where Ishvara comes in as the doer and creator, and all that can happen at the ‘ring’ level is watching or seeing what happens moment by moment. Which would make it quite fun and exciting actually, as well as meaning that there is no suffering or misery…

A: What you say is ok up to a point. ‘Enlightenment’ is analogous to the ring realizing that it is actually gold. But there is no ‘at that point’. The ‘ring’ has always only been gold. There never has been a separate self. So there never is any ‘free will’ in reality.

But the realization of all this does not alter the appearance; what changes is our understanding. It still seems as though there is a separate world out there, that we perceive, think, act and enjoy. But we now know that this is all just an appearance. There still appears to be a body, and it still gets old, pains develop and it eventually stops working and returns to dust. But it is now known that all of that is inert matter only. I-brahman ‘animate’ it for a while. I perceive it but am not affected by all of those changes. So, although I ‘feel’ the pain through the brain’s equipment, there is no ‘suffering’ because I know that it is not happening to who-I-really-am.

Q: Ahhhhh!! I see, yes!

So every bit of stress, fear, worry, anxiety, hate, violence, depression, wars, misery and suffering that we see every day is simply and only because people think in their minds that they’re a ‘ring’?

And enlightenment is like going behind the scenes of a magic show and seeing how the trick really works?

A:  It is pretty much like that, although that does not reduce the suffering of those who are still unenlightened.

I like the story of Swami Paramarthananda that I quoted in Book of One:

Of course, once this awakening has taken place, it is realized that the seeming person, mind and knowledge were all part of the mistaken view and that before, during and after, there was only the Self and no actual person to ‘become enlightened’.

Swami Paramarthananda tells a story about a game he used to play as a child. They would take a child into a room that was entirely empty and then would place pillows about the room and stand the child up against one wall. He was told to memorize the positions of the pillows and then they blindfolded him. He was then told that he had to cross the room to the other wall without touching any of the pillows. The other children then watched as he very carefully edged  his way forward. Whenever they laughed, he would retreat and move sideways before trying again. Eventually he reached the other wall and was allowed to remove the blindfold. He then discovered that all of the pillows had been removed before he began and that he had been moving across an empty floor trying to avoid non-existent objects.

And he says that mokSha is like this. As seekers, we make our way through life trying to avoid all the pitfalls of self-ignorance and arrive at the other wall of self-knowledge and enlightenment. But when we attain enlightenment, we realize that there never were any obstacles to begin with. In a sense, the ignorance was non-existent – tat tvam asi already.

Q: LOL… it’s pretty amazing! And thank you, I am getting this clearly!

So like the snake, it’s all just an appearance and once realized and known, the stress-fear-worry-anxiety-etc go away and one is left with ‘what is’ and the sense of self and doership are gone, and a ‘letting go’ happens. Is this where Ishvara comes in as that which is doing it all?

And if this is all the case, it really doesn’t matter what happens or not, it doesn’t affect me in the slightest…

A: That’s right! The fact that the appearance remains is attributed to Ishvara as the efficient/material cause of the world, in the same way that we are the efficient/material cause of our dreams. But of course Ishvara, too, is mithyA in the final analysis.

Q: One final question for now:

Since we are Consciousness and that’s all there is, does that mean we would have free will and choice to do what we want, or the opposite – ‘thy will be done’ and it’s all up to Ishvara?

A: At the level of paramArtha, there are no jIva-s so there is no question of free will. Consciousness is not a doer or enjoyer so there is also no question of free will.

At the level of vyavahAra, karma apparently operates so free will is relevant. Ishvara is responsible for ‘administering’ the laws of the universe (which includes ensuring that karmaphala is received – and villains get their come-uppance in this life or the next)…

Q: So once this is really known and understood, that’s it!? It seems like it’s really an ‘aha’ thing like finding the necklace around your neck…

A: Once this is really known, that is it. But it is not something that anyone could expect to suddenly realize (like finding the necklace). Someone has to tell you – and initially you will probably not believe them!

Q: So to get the words correct here: mithyA or the appearance exists, but it’s not real? Or just not what it seems to appear as? Or is the appearance an illusion entirely like the snake on rope?

A: mithyA does not mean ‘unreal’; it means that its reality is ‘borrowed’. The ring is not real in itself but is clearly not an illusion; it is simply name and form of gold. The world is, if you like, name and form of brahman.

Q: So in the end, consciousness is all there is; is everything. And that’s the simplicity of it!

Could you say this knowledge is the great secret of life? Or is there actually something they call this knowledge in the Scriptures?

A: It is simple; all the mahAvAkya-s (important sayings) in the Upanishads are simple. Problem is they are counter-intuitive and most people will simply reject them.

Some teachers make a careful distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ and I guess that really one ought to use Sanskrit again and call this knowledge ‘j~nAna’. It’s not a text that I’m familiar with but the tripurA rahasya has this to say:

155.Therefore the appearance of a thing and its utility do not determine the reality of a thing or otherwise. All knowledge is secondary and unreliable. There is no doubt about it.

156-159.The greatest of all delusions is the conviction that knowledge is not a delusion. A hallucination holds the field in the interval antecedent to correct knowledge, in the same way as it does when we mistake a shining mother-of-pearl for a piece of silver. So also the mistake of the reality of the universe persists until primary and basic Self-knowledge is realised. This false sense is universal, like the blue colour of the sky, and it will end simultaneously with the realisation of Pure Intelligence.

Q: Reading that made me think that even the saying ‘Consciousness is all there is’ is not true. The word Consciousness is not true. All of it is mithyA. The word Consciousness is not even what it really is… amazing but very strange too that we make all of this up and yet we can still ‘understand’ and ‘get it’!

A: Exactly! You cannot say anything at all about reality. Language only functions with respect to ideas and percepts – which are only forms. And all forms are mithyA. It is not so much that you ‘understand’ it or ‘get’ it. You are it essentially. Hence the term ‘realize’.

Q: satyam and mithyA really explain or point to a lot! The whole thing really…

A: Yes! Hence Shankara’s introduction to his commentary on the brahmasUtra. And the generally accepted ‘summary-in-a-sentence’ of Advaita: brahma satyam, jaganmithyA, jIvo brahmaiva nAparaH.

Q: So then is mithyA or the appearance just ‘play’ as some say, or a ‘passing show’, or a dream?

A: No. Ideas such as lIlA, or anything relating to brahman ‘doing’ something, are just concepts to help the seeker on the way to understanding and have to be dropped later (adhyAropa-apavAda). There is only brahman.

Q: So any idea or explanation is ultimately nonsense really, and Brahman doesn’t do anything.

So does Brahman ‘non-experientially witness’ anything?

A: There is nothing other than brahman. How could brahman ‘witness’? It is a transitive verb and requires an object.

Q: So the methodology takes you to the fact that all there is is Brahman, and with that, the concepts of satyam/mithyA. And then… even that is at the level of mithyA. Is this correct understanding?

A: The ‘message’ of Advaita is that ‘all there is, is brahman’ and ‘I am That’. The rest really follows from these two statements. (Although, of course, the essence of this is repeated many times in different forms throughout the scriptures.)

Q: So there’s no need to ‘abide’ as Consciousness/Awareness, or anything else, since everything already is what it is, as it is, and that would all be a ‘doing’ or ‘experiencing’ of some sort. So the only possibility, if you will, is Knowledge or Understanding?

A: You have no choice but to ‘abide’ as Consciousness, since that is what you are. There is nothing to do or experience. As you say, what is needed to understand or ‘realize’ this and that is where Self-knowledge comes into it, which you gain from the teaching of advaita.

Q: So all of this talk and teaching and scriptures and studying and practices and everything that is done, is to ‘get to’ or ‘finally arrive’ if-you-will at this utter simple fact that all there is is Consciousness or Brahman, and I am that! Why all the volumes of books and all this BS for that simple fact and realization?

The real ‘truth’ or fact, is that there’s absolutely nothing to do, acquire, achieve or understand, only something to realize!

A: What has to be done by the seeker is to remove his/her ignorance so that the truth about the nature of reality is realized : brahma satyam, jaganmithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah. The ‘doing’ of the jIva is whatever is necessary to arrive at this realization. This entails sadhana chatuShTaya sampatti followed by shravaNa and manana. But, yes, in the end it could not be simpler!


6 thoughts on “Q.443 A ‘simple summary of advaita’

  1. Is anyone familiar with the scholarship of Johannes Bronkhorst? Quote below from Language and Reality, On an episode in Indian thought. 2011
    These lectures aim to draw attention to a belief that underlies an important part of Indian thought, one that has not yet received the atten-tion it deserves. In brief, there was a period in classical India when most thinkers were convinced that the words of a sentence correspond rather exactly to the things constituting the situation described by the sentence. This conviction has some parallels in the history of Western philosophy, but it has not played a role of comparable importance.2 I would ask, therefore, that you leave aside comparison, at least for the time being, and instead attempt to discover with me something of the internal logic—that is to say, the raison d’être—of Indian thought.The conviction at stake, which I will refer to as the correspondence principle,3 allows us to understand several aspects of the thought of the period in question, such as, for example, the deconstructive argu-ments of the Buddhist Nāgārjuna, as well as the reason why his argu-ments, after a period of glory, came to be ignored by Indian thinkers. As we shall see, the correspondence principle bears a special relation to Buddhism, though it was never limited to it. For several centuries the problems linked to this principle occupied practically every philo-sophical current in India, to the point that one can say it influenced, even determined, classical expressions of Brahmanical thought.

  2. Never heard of Bronkhorst I’m afraid and the extract sounds very acadamic with little to do with Advaita. As I have commented before, this site is concerned only with Advaita and aspects that enable better understanding of it. There are other sites related to Buddhism.

    The aspect of language that is relevant to Advaita is specifically the fact that, by giving names to forms in the ‘world’, we effectively imbue them with a separate reality that they do not, in fact, possess. If anyone wants to investigate the relevance of language in Advaita, I suggest the excellent book by John Grimes: ‘An Advaita Vedanta Perspective on Language’, ISBN 81-7030-250-1.

  3. After reading Martin’s comment above I re-read the original Q/A carefully and agree that it is “one of the best, clearest and most thorough Qs at this site.”

    Thanks for the Grimes book suggestion.

  4. Took Dennis’ suggestion and decided to read some of John Grimes’ work,,starting with the book below..

    Now, I could say more about this but it may bring a response a la Ramesam –
    “I too can cut and paste from the internet and claim all sorts of things…”

    Because it is well know that he ALWAYS types stuff out and does not like cut and paste….(joke, joke).

    Absolute and complete predetermination is about the only thing I have understood from my shallow understanding of Advaita so I don’t mean to complain….Anyway here goes.

    Problems and Perspectives in Religious Discourse : Advaita Vedanta Implications Author: Grimes, John.
    Special Feature of the Work

    The present work is an attempt to look at the problem(s) connected with religious discourse in a new light. It proposes a new solution to an ancient problem. 1 It delineates a way of bringing together the dilemma found inherent in religious declarations, both Eastern and Western, with one branch of Indian philosophy, that is, Advaita Vedanta*. Its chief concern is to overcome the “gap” which has rendered religious discourse problematic. Religious discourse attempts to point to, describe, and guide one to the “promised land” whether that be God, the Absolute, heaven, happiness, peace, or however one wants to describe the “goal of life.” Such an agenda renders religious statements fraught with paradoxes and self-contradictions. Can what is claimed to be inexpressible ever be expressed? Is it possible to believe in that which appears to be inherently contradictory? What do the words used in religious discourse mean and what function(s) do they have? Are they cognitive, factual, and verifiable, or are they non cognitive, non-factual, and unverifiable? This work posits and depicts two paradigmatic approaches to these questions. Either religious discourse refers to an “other” and the approach to this remote and foreign “other” must be through perception or mediated concepts, or, religious discourse refers to the very constitutive being of anything whatsoever and as such is self-evident, immediate, and certain.2 This is not a false dilemma. Either the Divine is somehow totally different from oneself (dvaita or bheda), different-cum-non-different (visistadvaita* or bhedabheda) or non-different (advaita). And even among those systems who advocate non-duality, except for Advaita Vedanta*, there is “some sort” otherness” posited.
    The former approach postulates a gap between Divinity/God/Reality and the individual while the latter approach emphasizes absolute identity. Most, if not all of the proposed solutions to the problem of religious discourse, both of the West and of the East, fall under the approach to an “other.” Advaita’s solution declares that religious discourse primarily concerns individuals, here and now, and not a God, above and beyond. Methodologically its analysis commences with empirical existence and culminates in (trans-empirical) essence, declaring that in fact the two are not different. It refers to that which is immediately evident and immanently present 3 (Atman/Brahman*unlike the general approaches to an “other,” which, in one degree or another, search “elsewhere. ”

    Johannes Bronkhorst
    What is missing in the cognitive science of religion?
    (paper presented at the XXI IAHR World Congress, Erfurt, 23-29.8.2015)

    During the last twenty years or so, the cognitive science of religion has
    established itself as a recognized branch in religious studies, with its own
    meetings and publications, its own journal, and presentations of its “state-of-the art”
    (e.g., Pyysiäinen 2013). Those who do cognitive science of religion may hold
    different views about various details, but by and large they share a common
    outlook (on some of the differences, see Martin & Pyysiäinen 2013). One of their
    shared features is that probably all of them reject the idea that religion is
    something sui generis, i.e. irreducible to other aspects of human life and only to
    be studied in its own terms.

    This rejection is understandable and justified. The cognitive science of
    religion takes in this way position against the way religion was studied by
    scholars adhering to the so-called “phenomenology of religion”. Scholars like
    Rudolf Otto, Gerardus van der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade exemplify this approach,
    in which terms such as “wholly other” and homo religiosus had their place. The
    cognitive science of religion, to say it once more, fundamentally opposes the view
    that religion is something that cannot be explained by anything else but itself. As
    stated above, one cannot but agree with this….

  5. Sorry, but I am unclear as to what point you are making with the above comment.

    Also, it was the book on language to which I was referring, not the one from which you quote. John Grimes has also written what I consider to be the best ‘dictionary’ of spiritual terms – I refer to it all the time. However, he is also an adherent of Ramana so it may well be that I do not agree with everything he says…

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