Q. 445 Experience and brahman

Q: What exactly (in Reality – i.e. Brahman is the only reality) is experience?

I know that there is a relative level where there are jIva-s and objects and minds and Ishvara, but if we talk about the absolute reality – Brahman – then I believe that there is no experience possible.

Brahman is the only reality and Brahman does not have experiences of any kind – yes?

So if I realize myself as Brahman, then I have to see all my experience as mithyA, yes?

SO: if you are agreeing to the above, and if I am following correct logic: why do so many teachers of non-duality and even of Advaita Vedanta say that experience is the only means through which we can explore reality?

As jIva-s in the relative realm, the only thing we have to navigate reality, is our experience. So again: what is an experience? Is there no reality to an experience?

Many teachers who are famous and well-respected point to the Presence of God as a palpable experience of peace, fullness, truth, love which comprises the reality of all our experiences. They say Presence is Brahman in manifest form and is eternal.

Is experience comprised of Brahman-as-Presence?

A: You are essentially correct in your analysis here.

The best quote to remember for this sort of question (what is real?) is that of Shankara, often used to summarize the teaching of advaita: “brahma satyam, jaganmithyA, jIvo brahmaiva nAparah” – brahman is the reality; the world is mithyA; the jIva is not other than brahman. So, if you are trying to speak of the ultimate reality, you are obliged to say that there is only brahman. Consequently, brahman does not act or enjoy; there is nothing else. And, crucially, there is no ‘experience’.

You have to be very careful with the words you use when talking about this. You go on to say “then I have to see all my experience as mithyA”. Certainly, you have to realize that this is so. But you (the jIva) will continue to see the world as separate. You cannot ‘see’ brahman, or ‘see’ the world as brahman or Consciousness.

It is certainly true that some teachers claim that ‘experience’ plays some part in enlightenment. E.g. they might say that, having understood the teaching intellectually, you then have to go on to ‘directly experience’ this. This is nonsense. It may be a misunderstanding or possibly a conflation of advaita philosophy with that of yoga. (The neo-Vedantins – Vivekananda and followers do this.) Yoga is a dualistic philosophy and it claims that nirvikalpa samAdhi has to take place in order to realize the truth. Only the particular teacher could explain the reasons behind their statements (perhaps!).

How could one ‘explore’ reality, if it is non-dual? Who would be exploring what? We cannot ‘navigate’ reality. Or rather we must be navigating reality all of the time because that is all there is! It is just that most do not realize the mithyAtva of this.

To return to Shankara’s statement, although the world is mithyA, the substantial aspect of this world is brahman. The world is name and form of brahman, mistakenly seen by the jIva as separate. So, at its heart if you like, the ‘experience’ is ‘real’ in the sense that everything is brahman. It is just that there is no duality in any of it. You cannot even say that brahman is ‘experiencing itself’, since there is only brahman. But putting it like that may help, and some teachers do.

Attempts to ‘explain’ any of this by bringing ‘god’ into the equation do not really help. The best way of looking at Ishvara to my mind is as the ‘laws of nature’ which govern how everything (apparently) takes place in the world. References to peace, stillness, harmony etc are of no help in understanding reality except in so far as a still and peaceful mind is necessary in order successfully to conduct shravaNa.

Q: If there is no experiential basis for self-realization then are you saying it is an intellectual theory that one has to sort of decide on and commit to? Like the sub-atomic field of potentiality in quantum physics maybe? I.e. this makes good sense so I’ll commit to this?

 What other than an experience of the ‘truth of Brahman’ would make an individual mind feel convinced enough to gain self-knowledge that the self is Brahman and Brahman is All?

The truth is true and knows the truth because it is the truth? Isn’t that truth experiential for the jIva?

A: It is not a theory. But it is a fact that it is the mind that has Self-ignorance so that it must also be the mind that eliminates this when it gains Self-knowledge. The best way to appreciate this that I have come across is the idea of bhAga-tyAga-lakShaNA or jahad-ajahal-lakShaNA. Read the explanation of this in ‘Book of One’ or at http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/definitions/bhAga.htm and see if it helps. And knowledge is not experience.

Q: The whole problem we humans are having, as opposed to the problems of animals, plants etc, is that we human jIva-s are suffering because we feel that we are in a dualistic, hostile world with little to no freedom from problems.

So then the reason we are in this predicament is ignorance – yes? The solution comes in the form of knowledge that we are Brahman, the nondual reality of All.

What I don’t get it is: what is this nondual ‘Brahman reality’ knowledge going to do for the jIva? The jIva will still see duality; it will still have the experience of living in duality which is nothing but pain.

How does the ‘knowledge’ solve the problems of the experienced mithyA-world-jIva situation? What does the jIva get in terms of better experiences after gaining the knowledge of Brahman?

To me it seems like your husband or wife dies suddenly; the agony mows you down; you think all this is only apparently happening in nondual consciousness, which I and my husband both are and always were and will be – but it doesn’t do anything to help the agony!

A: The dream state is a useful one to think of in reference to this question. Have you ever had a lucid dream? Dreams can be wonderful or terrifying experiences but they are manifestations of our own mind and, if this is recognized in the dream itself, then we can modify events according to our inclination and simply enjoy it all.

The waking world is said (in the interim teaching) to be a manifestation of the cosmic mind. Hence, the individual is unable to modify events in the same way as in dream. Nevertheless, knowing that none of it is real inevitably ameliorates any suffering. E.g. the child may initially be terrified of visiting the dentist, worrying about imagined pain and discomfort. Once it is discovered that the situation is nowhere near so bad as was thought, future visits can be made without that initial level of anxiety. (This may not be such a good example but I’m sure you get the idea.)

Just thought of perhaps a better example. We are moving quite quickly into realistic 3-D computer simulations. Maybe these will eventually replace today’s cinema. You can imagine someone unfamiliar with this technology, say from a hidden Amazonian tribe, being brought to ‘civilization’ and subjected to this experience. They would presumably be terrified, thinking it to be real. Only after much explanation and education would they accept the experience as a computer-generated manifestation and maybe actually enjoy it.

I suggest that you read the answers to questions 24, 32 and 33 for more insight into this.

The point is that ‘experience’ is not just what is happening outside, it is also very much dependent upon how I interpret this. Knowing that everything is Consciousness and that who-I-am cannot be affected by anything makes all the difference.

20 thoughts on “Q. 445 Experience and brahman

  1. “It is certainly true that some teachers claim that ‘experience’ plays some part in enlightenment. E.g. they might say that, having understood the teaching intellectually, you then have to go on to ‘directly experience’ this. This is nonsense. It may be a misunderstanding or possibly a conflation of advaita philosophy with that of yoga.”

    Mere verbal/logical understanding is not enough — that is what is meant by “intellectual understanding” by those teachers.

    Sankara writes this in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya on 1.1.2:

    “Once the scriptures have declared Brahman to be the first Cause, reasoning etc. may be taken advantage of in so far as they do not contradict the scriptures, but rather supplement them, in ascertaining the sense of the Vedanta texts. Such reasoning must be corroborative of the truth inculcated. This kind of reasoning include the hearing of the texts (sravana), thinking about their meaning (manana), and meditation on them (nidhidhyasana). **THIS LEADS TO INTUITION**. [emphasis added] By intuition is meant that mental modification (Vrtti) of the mind (Citta) which destroys our ignorance about Brahman. When the ignorance is destroyed by this mental modification in the form of Brahman (BRAHMAKARA VRTTI [emphasis added]), Brahman, which is self-luminous, reveals Itself.”

    • No problem with this at all. Intuition is not ‘experience’! Of course you have to subject what you have heard to questioning and rationalisation befor you completely accept it. What you do NOT have to do is go away and practice something or go into deep samAdhi for several days or weeks …

      • I guess it depends on what it means to go away and practice something. I certainly agree on the deep samadhi for several days, etc. part

        But what precisely *is* that “understanding”? How exactly does it come about? It can’t come about purely through logical connections of the concepts referred to. One has to actually use those words to look inward and discern within one’s living experience the unchanging from the changing with sufficient intensity to clear away the clouds…

        I’d argue that’s what Ramana Maharshi’s self-inquiry is pointing to. Understanding cannot be about ‘understanding’ the scripture divorced from that looking-inward process… now is that looking-inward concentrated discernment — which for many may take years — a practice?

        • You ‘practice’ in order to acquire a new skill or to improve an existing one. You already ARE the Self – and that cannot be improved.

          • So is Ramana Maharshi’s self-inquiry a practice to you, or not?

            • I prefer to think of it as an injunction to undertake shravaNa-manana. Certainly, asking ‘Who am I?’ repeatedly is not going to get you anywhere!

              • Well, he doesn’t define it quite as either “sravana-manana” in the “contemplation of scriptural words” sense or in the “just ask it over and over again sense.”

                He writes, for example, in Forty Verses, “The only enquiry leading to Self-realization is seeking the Source of the ‘I’ with in-turned mind and without uttering the word ‘I’. Meditation on ‘I am not this; I am That’ may be an aid to the enquiry but it cannot be the enquiry.”

                In Guru Vachaka Kovai he writes:

                391. “Self, which shines within the five sheaths, should be attended to within the Heart. Instead of doing so, to enquire for It in the scriptures is only scriptural enquiry – how can it be Self-enquiry?” … and then

                396. “One’s unceasing effort to turn the mind – which is always extroverted due to the force of habit – towards Self by the Self-enquiry “Who am I?” is [the significance of] the great war being fought between devas and asuras [which is described in the Puranas].”
                397. “Whenever a thought arises, instead of trying even a little either to follow it up or to fulfil it, it would be better to first enquire, “To whom did this thought arise?”
                398. When one thus inwardly enquires, “Is it not to me that this thought has arisen – then who am I?”, the mind will return to subside in its Source, and the already risen thought will also vanish.
                399. When one daily practices in this manner, since the impurities are being removed from the mind, it will become purer and purer to such an extent that the practice will become so easy that the mind will reach the Heart as soon as the enquiry is commenced.

                401. The thought “Who am I?”, after destroying all other thoughts, will itself finally die just like the stick which is used to stir the funeral pyre, and then the supreme Silence will prevail for ever.

                • We’ve had these discussions a few times before, I think Akilesh, and we are now running out of space for repeating them here! (Even if I had the time and inclination. Sorry!)

  2. Hi Dennis,
    This is my first comment on this excellent blog for seekers! Thanks to all those who maintain and enrich this blog continuously by taking persistent efforts that help seekers like me to dive deeper into this journey.

    Coming back to the post.

    I am a seeker, of course, very naive in this journey. Though I have few things to share.
    1. “although the world is mithyA, the substantial aspect of this world is brahman” :

    My Comments:
    a purist, a true nondualist will never have a space even for a words like mithya or substantial, for everything (not substantial aspect) that’s there, is Brahman.

    2. “they might say that, having understood the teaching intellectually, you then have to go on to ‘directly experience’ this. This is nonsense. It may be a misunderstanding or possibly a conflation of advaita philosophy with that of yoga.” :
    “Attempts to ‘explain’ any of this by bringing ‘god’ into the equation do not really help” :

    My Comments:
    Just by looking at (not even reading) the names of two works written by a Saint, a Yogi called Jnaneshwar (also a non-dualist), namely, Bhavarth Deepika and Anubhavamrut (also known as Amrutanubhav), both contain Bhava and Anubhava.
    Though he is a nondualist, he still has experienced this nonduality and the entire experience is described in Amrutanubhav.
    Just to quote few lines in Amrutanubhav:
    Ch.9:29 – Unity only becomes strengthened, By the expansion of diversity.
    Ch.9:30 – Sweeter even than the bliss of liberation, is the enjoyment of sense objects. To one who has attained wisdom in the house of bhakti (devotional love), That lover and his God “Experience” their sweet union.

    I feel, therefore, that before we call anything as nonsense, we should have an experience to declare that there’s no experience. This is precisely done by Jnaneshwar:
    Ch.7:252 – Here, speech is prohibited; Knowledge is not allowed. Pride of experience can gain no entry.
    Ch.7 :253 – His seeing of Himself is like no one seeing nothing.

    From whatever that I read in the above bolg post, it all seems dry, in a sense, once you realize that Bhrahma Satyam, Jagat Mithya, that’s it! It kind of ends there!
    However, the real “liberation”/”realization” or whatever, is the moistened (by devotion) version of the non-dual truth. And most importantly it is continuous, as revered sage Narada says, in his Bhakti Sutra: “Bhakti begets Bhakti”. It is therefore never ending.


  3. Thanks for your comments, Amod, and welcome to the discussions! Just a couple of things struck me from your post:

    1) No matter how much of a ‘purist’ and ‘true nondualist’ you are, you will still see the world and objects, as you later go on to quote “enjoyment of sense objects”. You can never avoid this paradox if you want to teach/learn about Advaita. The metaphor of sun-rise is often mentioned.

    2) You talk about Jnaneshwar having “experienced this nonduality”. That’s the experiencer ‘Jnaneshwar’ on the one hand and ‘this nonduality’ as the experienced on the other hand is it?

    Best wishes,

  4. Hi Akilesh – if you haven’t already, can I suggest you download a copy of a short booklet by SSSS called Adhyatma Yoga. In that, the nidhidhyasana that he describes, is essentially the Atma Vichara that Ramanamaharishi advocated.

    On the semantics of “practice”, I’d suggest it is the repeated remembrance of knowledge (as Sankara talks about in Brhad Up), as and when one acts / thinks from the ego. This is essentially what Ramanamaharishi implies, when he says ‘whenever a thought / desire occurs . . . ask who is it that has this thought’; and thereby you revert to the sakshi of the ego.

    • Thanks for the heads-up Venkat; I’ve been recently interested by SSSS, so this is good to know.

      I would suggest it’s not quite the repeated remembrance of knowledge, but the repeated pointing of attention away from objects (internal and external) and towards the “I” — which is at first the ego… which then eventually *leads to* “brahmakari vrtti” — which would be the real knowledge.

      That is, inquiry first draws the external world more or less back to the “relative pure ego” — i.e. the bliss sheath — and then from there one reflects on what is the “sakshi of that”… and then there may be glimpses (this is the “Heart”), which become prolonged and more frequent and then, eventually, with the sufficient weakening of the vasanas, full knowledge breaks through and burns all the vasanas in a kind of maha-pralaya of the mind.

      • Yes, I’d agree. I was trying to find a ‘middle path’ to keep Dennis on board! 🙂

  5. Knowledge vs experience is a common dilemma of a seeker. The empirical world is full of experiences. And a human being is interested in experience. As Brahman is described as Ananda (bliss) a seeker may fall prey to the allurement to experience of the bliss. Unfortunately any experience is temporary and its search is not the path. On the contrary it is an obstacle. The seeker may refer to Taittiriya Upanishad in which Brahman is described as Ananta (infinite) instead of Ananda and change the track. The way is to remove the ignorance by gaining knowledge. For this, locus and subject of ignorance and knowledge should be same. As ignorance is in the mind and the subject is Brahman, knowledge about Brahman should take place is mind. It means modifications (vritties) in the mind. Unlike the knowledge of empirical objects which is fragmented, the true knowledge of Brahman is not fragmented. It is Akhandakara vritti. It is an effortless state of mind. It is a tall order for it is possible only when the seeker has trained him/herself with the rigours of Sadhana Chatushtyay. I suppose that with Akhandakara vritti the seeker would also be blessed with the (experience) of bliss, as a by-product, so to say. Experience does not guarantee knowledge. It is a trap.

  6. A few years ago the following discussion/debate took place. Both discussants made some good points. In the end, one cannot eliminate the word ‘experience’. ‘Anubhava’ seems a better term when referring to higher knowledge. SSSS uses the term ‘intuition’ instead.

    Swami: as Shankara says in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Brahman is known only when It is experienced as one’s own Self which is recognised at once as infinite and limitless (brahma jnanam atmatvena anubhuyate). In Sanskrit, anubhava means knowledge and experience; only in English which is a relatively poor substitute for understanding Vedanta, all problems of such dichotomy arise. The age-old discussion of knowledge or experience – which itself smacks of a jarring duality, going against the grain of the very Advaitic vision – is unique only to English speaking Vedantins but does not plague the natives or those who go to the shrutipramana directly in Sanskrit… You see, it is again a linguistic problem of epistemological orientation and not a fundamental ontological issue at all… nirvikalpa samadhi gives direct knowledge while savikalpa samadhi gives ‘indirect’ or inferior knowledge.

    Swartz: As long as you are chasing experience…Samadhi or anything else…you are not qualified for Vedanta. Again, this is not to say that experience is not valuable, only that it will not produce moksha because the Self is already free… at the end knowledge and experience are one, but when one is on the path it is important to make the distinction so that one doesn’t end up frustrated and disappointed when one’s Samadhi comes to an end… And many yogis with Samadhi experience pigheadedly cling to the notion that enlightenment is purely experiential and do not get moksa because moksa is freedom from experience and the experiencer. And you also have jnanis who have no Samadhi experience who get moksa through sravanana, manana, and nididhyasana.

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