Q.534 Purpose and Meaning

Q: Advaita Vedanta has caused me two persistent difficulties. Firstly its argument that we are dependent upon Brahman, yet Brahman has no dependence; secondly that since we cannot know Brahman, only be It.

The questions concerning the meaning of life and why we are here will find no answer, beyond the speculative in vyavahAra. It’s just that statements such as these come across as rather negative, divisive and, particularly, dismissive. This is not what I expected from ‘not two’!

But, undeterred, and mindful that Advaita advises that its own teachings must eventually be left behind, I’ve moved towards a more all-inclusive perspective…. (I hope). You, Sir, seem perfectly at ease with the notion of ‘no choice’; and you present a flawless case for its validity, with which I can only concur. However, actually facing it is terrifying. Fortunately, familiarity offers a happier and unshakable strength in the ‘surrender’, although this is not an on/off situation – more a ‘work in progress’ lasting a lifetime.

So my question (if you’re still awake) is: where is ‘enjoying the journey’; joie de vivre; ‘experience’ as the key to unlock the understanding we seek? If living it can assist so well in making sense of it, why does Shankara always want to go the long way round?

A: I will endeavor to extract (and hopefully resolve) your problems.

<< we are dependent upon Brahman yet Brahman has no dependence>>

There seems to be misunderstanding here. We are not ‘dependent upon’ Brahman – we are Brahman. Brahman is not ‘dependent upon anything’ because there is nothing else. You have to be careful to differentiate absolute and empirical reality here. In the world everything is just name and form of Brahman but appears to be separate. (Table and chair are separate entities but are both only wood; they are not real ‘in themselves’.)

This second aspect may also address your concern about ‘meaning’. Why are there tables and chairs? Well, there aren’t actually – there is only wood. See what I mean? You dismiss the question of the ‘purpose’ of life because there are not actually any independently existing entities, whether living or inert. There is only Brahman.

Not sure where your idea of ‘not enjoying the journey’ comes from. The teaching of Advaita is certainly all about bringing you to the realization of nonduality. Everything and everyone is mithyā; their real substrate is Brahman, which is perfect and infinite. But that does not mean that you cannot enjoy and wonder at the beauty of all these forms, and even pursue related worldly activities. (I spend a lot of my time on photography, both taking and editing them – https://500px.com/p/dwaite1?view=photos.)

But you go on to say: “…experience as key to unlock the understanding we seek ? If living it can assist so well in making sense of it…”. This implies that you think that our ‘experience’ and ‘worldly pursuits’ are relevant to gaining enlightenment. The belief that actions, behavior etc. contribute or lead to enlightenment belongs to the karmakāṇḍa and Pūrvamīmāṃsā-s. The main parts of the Vedas carry instructions about how we should behave, injunctions, prohibitions and rituals. None of this is relevant to Advaita. The relevance of action is limited to sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti – those actions that prepare the mind for listening to the guru explain the scriptures. Give attention to the task in hand, without concern for benefiting from the result. Avoid unnecessary thinking and so on. If you give something your full attention, you will find that you enjoy it more, in any case!  

4 thoughts on “Q.534 Purpose and Meaning

  1. [Dennis says] “The belief that actions, behavior etc. contribute or lead to enlightenment belongs to the karmakāṇḍa and Pūrvamīmāṃsā-s. The main parts of the Vedas carry instructions about how we should behave, injunctions, prohibitions and rituals. None of this is relevant to Advaita. The relevance of action is limited to sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti – those actions that prepare the mind for listening to the guru explain the scriptures.”

    When I first started reading Advaita texts back when the world was young, the idea expressed by Dennis, viz. that actions are irrelevant to enlightenment and yet somehow indispensable got me to thinking. According to Shankara no action can produce enlightenment, so why, I asked myself, are some actions prescribed? Why are some proscribed? Indeed, if actions cannot produce knowledge, why do any actions matter? It doesn’t help to invoke the “two realms” or “two levels of truth” argument that until one awakens the dream seems real and so some acts are better than others (BSB 2.1.14).

    Shankara’s only response is rather weak: worldly activity should be regarded as real prior to the realization of enlightenment, just as dream activity is taken as real as long as the dream continues. But as he stressed, the enlightenment insight is of an entirely different order from any action in the unenlightened state-what we need to do is wake up, and no actions within the dream will cause that. Thus there’s a total discontinuity of the realm of action and the realm of knowledge. So why are some actions “better” or “more helpful” or “more useful” than others? If all are only part of the dream, why are some preparation for the insight and not others? If the insight is distinct from the dream-realm, why are any virtues or character development within the dream of value? That is, if waking up is just an insight, why do we have to change the character in the dream at all?

    Shankara argued that actions, which are unreal, can nevertheless assist in liberation, which is real, just as “unreal” events can have “real” effects (e.g., dreaming of being attacked by a tiger can cause the dreamer to sweat) Thus, not all unreal acts are equal—some unreal actions are better than others for preparing the mind. Within the dream, even unreal actions have (equally unreal) effects, as defined by the law of karma. Seeking enlightenment is one activity, and actions that tend to calm the mind (e.g., meditation or automatically adhering to the social code of the culture) thus help prepare the mind for the insight event, even though they cannot individually or cumulatively force the necessary insight. Complete actionlessness (naiskarmya)—abstaining from all proper (dharma) and improper (adharma) action—may be a stage on the path (see BGB 18.55, 18.66), but even renouncing all actions and no longer acting at all is itself an action and will not produce enlightenment.

    Still, the basic inconsistency remains. Action cannot “cause” enlightenment, both because actions are caused by nescience and because there is no real cause/effect relation connected to vidya —it is eternal and therefore cannot be the result of an action. If no action in the dream will produce enlightenment, then all actions remain valueless no matter what we think while we are still in the realm of nescience. Only if the realm of nescience is in some final sense real would any action be “better” than another. Only then can some act be valuable for the effect it produces. All the yogic preparation, the conformity to dharmic practices, listening repeatedly to Vedic utterances, and contemplating the analogies advanced to explain the identity of brahman and atman until we grasp it would make sense only if that were so. Only by accepting this realm as real could we talk about acts causing or preparing for the enlightenment event, like doing something to pinch the character in the dream to cause the dreamer to wake up. But that would require accepting the enlightening insight to be an event in the dream, which Shankara rejected. Waking up is not something the character in the dream does, and thus no actions within the dream can effect the insight and therefore none are of value. As things stand, Shankara’s metaphysics and his theory of action on the path are inconsistent.

  2. Hi Rick,

    What a brilliant post! And a thought-provoking one. It seems it could trigger lots of arguments (oops! Sorry, I mean discussion). I have spent a little time thinking about what you say but could easily spend much more. (As usual, I am in the middle of writing another book!) I have noted the things that occurred to me below and hope that maybe some others will join in.

    I think the bottom line has to be that there is only Brahman. There is no causality, no world and no jIva-s. So the entire discussion is irrelevant from an as-if absolute standpoint. Advaita is just as much mithyA as is the world. But it functions to the extent that the mithyA jIva believes in duality. Can a mithyA being have a belief? Apparently so!

    Irrespective of the reality of the situation, we are obliged to believe we exist as body-minds at present with a possible future state in which we believe we are Brahman. Advaita functions to persuade us to make that change in belief.

    The comparison with dream is useful up to a point. You mention the dream tiger causing the dreamer to sweat but you didn’t mention it also sometimes causing the dreamer to wake up. I understand that nightmares frequently cause this. So actions in the dream may trigger an awakening. By extension, something happening in the waking state might trigger enlightenment. (I.e. Self-knowledge; not any action or experience.)

    I have always though the lucid dream is a better metaphor, although I have never come across anyone else using it. When one realizes, in a dream, that one is dreaming, one can choose to dictate the content of the subsequent dream. I have only experienced this a few times but it is possible to train oneself to do it frequently. I dare say one can choose to wake up, but why would you want to? You are in bed to sleep and now you can choose what to dream! (I chose to experience unaided flying once, since that seemed to be a recommended one.)

    It seems that enlightenment is a bit like this. You realize that the world and body-mind are mithyA but continue to live out the prArabdha life in this knowledge. Of course, the analogy breaks down here – you cannot choose to ‘wake up to nonduality’.

    It is possible to increase the chance of entering a lucid dream by certain ‘practices’. For example, if you know that you often have dreams which feature a particular situation, you can keep repeating to yourself during waking hours that, when you next encounter this situation in a dream, you will realize that it is a dream and become lucid.

    This is sort of like the idea that meditating will help you to inculcate a still and attentive mind so that, the next time you are listening to your guru, you are able to attend without the interference of manas, and therefore improve your chance of realizing the truth.

    You say: “Only if the realm of nescience is in some final sense real would any action be ‘better’ than another.” The ‘division’ into paramArtha and vyavahAra is not a division into real and unreal; it is a division into satyam and mithyA. The world is ‘permanently’ mithyA, in both manifest and unmanifest condition. This gets around the fact that Brahman cannot and does not ‘create’ anything. Despite the cup having no reality of its own, it is still quite useful when you want a drink. I.e. empirical actions have value in vyavahAra. The practice of sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti therefore quite reasonably can contribute to readiness for enlightenment.

    You ask: “if actions cannot produce knowledge, why do any actions matter?” Well, the process of listening to a teacher and asking questions are actions. Indeed, making the decision to do that is also an action. You are not going to hear the words that trigger enlightenment unless you ‘perform’ all of those actions! But now we are getting closer to the analogy of the dream tiger triggering the waking from a dream.

    Best wishes,

  3. Hi Dennis,

    Thanks for your kind words. If one’s conceptual maneuvering is clever enough and various metaphors and analogies convince, there may well be a way around Shankara’s inconsistency. As you know, Shankara himself was brilliant at such exercises. Where there’s a will there’s a way, even though not everyone follows that way. In any event, perhaps my post will stimulate others to think about this subject, as Shankara did me.


  4. Hi Rick,

    Which BSB are you using for your criticism? I have just read through Swami P’s analysis (transcription of around 4 hours worth of talks) and didn’t come across anything relating to ‘unreal actions assisting in liberation’ or ‘rejecting enlightenment as an event in the dream’.

    The entire sutra seems to be Shankara arguing points from shruti with a bhedAbheda vAda pUrvapakShin. Are you using other sources for your assertions?

    Best wishes,

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