Q.491 Individuality and the world

Q: Does individuality survive enlightenment? In other words, putting aside any genetic differences, age, etc., would 50 realized people act the same in the same environment? Would they have the same preference for food, clothes, etc?

If not, why not? It seems that If the ego is completely destroyed, and a soul does not exist, and a person is in a permanent state of enlightenment, there wouldn’t be any difference between any of them. (My definition of an ego includes all past experiences.)

In addition, people often say something like, “I always wanted to do that,” or “Deep inside I always knew I would be a doctor or a scientist,” etc. What is that? Where does this “knowing” come from? Is it just an ego playing its games? 

Thank you, I appreciate your help. Your books are really great. I’ve enjoyed reading them.

A: Good questions! But, before I answer them, you have to always bear in mind that questions like these refer to the appearance, not the reality; vyavahAra, not paramArtha. In reality, no one has ever been born; there is no ‘creation’; there is only Brahman. (I’m assuming from what you say that you have read ‘A-U-M’, in which case you will be happy with this!) So the answers are academic, in line with traditional Advaita, but are all mithyA in reality. 

Yes, individuality survives enlightenment. When an individual is enlightened, the saMchita karma is destroyed. And, since the ‘person’ now knows that they are not an actor or enjoyer, no AgAmi saMskAra is received. But the prArabdha karma – that which caused the jIva to be born in this body – continues until death of the body-mind. The ego and personality traits continue, albeit probably in an attenuated form. Likes and dislikes will still exist, the difference being that the person is no longer bothered whether or not desires are satisfied. 

Your other question also relates to karma. Actions result in puNya or pApa (merit or demerit) and carry forward to the next life, determining the sort of body and life that will be led. People are naturally musical because of what was done in previous lives. 

I really wouldn’t worry about that sort of thing. I was never happy with teachings about karma and reincarnation. So it was good to read the book by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad – see https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/8124600228/fromtheunreat-20

Q: I really appreciate your reply, thank you. I hope you don’t mind if I ask more questions. I’m just trying to understand, not be argumentative. Here is one of the places where I’m not sure I understand one of the core principles.


While the concept of oneness may be intellectually appealing, it is nevertheless difficult to put into practice. It’s no hardship to feel oneness with great and noble beings or those we already love. It’s also not too much of a stretch to experience a sense of unity with the trees, the ocean, and the sky. But most of us baulk at experiencing oneness with the cockroach or the rat—let alone the obnoxious co-worker whom we barely tolerate. Yet this is precisely where we need to apply Vedanta’s teachings and realize that all these manifold aspects of creation are united in and through divinity. The Self that is within me, the Atman, is the same Self that is within you—no matter whether the “you” in question is a saint, a murderer, a cat, a fly, a tree, or that irritating driver at the four-way stop.

How do I go from not being bothered by things outside of my control to “I’m the same as Hitler, a rat and a stone?” What does one have to do with the other? Why is it necessary to believe that? Yes, on some level, all so-called forms are made of the same stuff; on some level, there is no difference between me and a poisonous mushroom, but if I eat that mushroom and die, why does it matter that we are “made of” the same stuff?

The universe contains all things and all material things are changing in the universe, but why does the fact that things are changing have to mean that they are just an illusion and have never existed in the first place? Why deny what most people would describe as an objective reality? Was World War 2 just an illusion and millions of people have never died because of it? What am I missing?

You said in your reply, “The ego and personality traits continue, albeit probably in an attenuated form. Likes and dislikes will still exist, the difference being that the person is no longer bothered whether or not desires are satisfied.”

Mindfulness/meditation teach exactly what you’ve described, i.e., being detached from desires and not being bothered by outcomes that are outside of my control. It also teaches that our thoughts and ego are not real and the source of the main issues that people struggle with.

That said, while I don’t have any issues accepting that my ego is not real, I’m not my body, and that life or anything for that matter has no meaning or purpose (even if it is true that the Self within me is the same as the Self in a murderer) it seems to be a moot point. Why? Because if I know that somebody is a murderer and I don’t avoid that person and he kills me, I’m dead. And if I’m dead, the conversation about being happy and content is pointless, unless we’re talking about the life after death.

Sure, if life has no purpose, it doesn’t matter if I’m dead or alive, but it is a moot point, because you cannot be conscious of your existence if you don’t have a head and a brain, let alone a body, so who cares that Hitler and Jesus are both Brahman?

Now, sure, there is a huge difference between hating Hitler and what he did versus being compassionate and forgiving, but there is also a big difference between a saint that wants to hide you in a church from Hitler and Hitler that wants to kill you. Why? Because if Hitler kills you, the “story” is over for you, at least the story that makes sense to discuss here, now, in this life.

One can say that he loves gravity and can fly, but if he steps off the roof of a skyscraper, the “love story” is over. Gravity doesn’t care. If you stick your fingers into a high-voltage outlet, the electricity doesn’t care that you love electricity. Again, sure, if one accepts that life has no meaning and or purpose, none of this matters, but then what is the difference between saying that my body doesn’t exist, I was never born, etc and ignoring traffic lights or jumping off a skyscraper without a parachute?

Do you see where I’m coming from? Using mindfulness/meditation to be content is one thing, but Advaita seems to lump together “I’m upset that my girlfriend left me” with “I have never been born,” “I’m the same as a rock,” “I’m God,”and “I know the biggest secret in the universe.”

I have a feeling that I’m “stupid” and missing something major here. What am I missing?

A: The metaphor that is often used to answer this sort of question is that of dream. While you are in the dream, the events are real for the dreamer. You run from the tiger, enjoy the meal, worry about your bank balance etc. All of these things matter because, if you ignore them, you (the dreamer) will starve, die etc. When you wake up and become the waker, you realize that all of those things were creations of your mind and are no longer bothered about them. You will appreciate the analogy.

Of course, the parallel is not quite the same. The dream has essentially disappeared for the waker (although you may stay frightened or worse after a nightmare). When you gain Self-knowledge, become enlightened, or whatever you want to call it, the world does not disappear. But you do now know that it is not absolutely real. (Note the Advaita does NOT say that it is an illusion. The word is mithyA, which means that it ‘borrows’ its existence from Brahman.) You also know that who-you-really-are cannot be harmed or die. The body will grow old and die but you are not that.

Other metaphors are actor and role (actors play good and bad people but they are not the roles) and cinema screen (shows floods and fires etc. but is not affected by them). The world appearance is just that – an appearance. It is name and form of Brahman. But it is the mind that gives form to what we see, and the mind that allocates names. An apple and a dagger are names and forms of Brahman but Brahman is neither an apple nor a dagger.

Regarding the problem of good and evil, see questions 85, 100, 120, 134, 416 at https://www.advaita-vision.org/questions-and-answers/.

Mindfulness and meditation are practices to make this life ‘better’, and they succeed to a large degree if followed seriously. But they do not give Self-knowledge. Only knowledge brings the realization that you are infinite, unlimited, perfect and complete.