Advaita Gurus and Critics – part 8

by Prof. Phillip Charles Lucas

<Read Part 7>

Theme Five: Pre-transcendence, Depersonalization and Level Confusion

A fifth and final theme of the critics is that NTMAs make no allowance for the Advaita distinction between absolute and relative levels of awareness. As a result, these teachers allegedly tend to devalue a life of engaged spiritual practice and the balanced development of physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the self. By placing all their emphasis on the most advanced state of spiritual realization, NTMA teachers and students are seen as being prone to “pre-transcendence,” a premature assumption of ultimate spiritual liberation that leads to de-personalization and disengagement from ordinary life. California-based NTMA teacher John Wheeler articulates this radically depersonalized position:

The real clarity comes from seeing the absence of the person. It is the person that gums up the works and creates all the problems and supposed solutions. Just keep coming back to the fundamentals. Your nature is luminous, ever-present, radiant, perfect, being-awareness. This is fully realized and complete right now…. With the emphasis off of the mind and the [personal] conceptual story, you will be much more present, because there is no filter. There is no person with all of its preferences and partialities trying to negotiate every experience.

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Q.539 Māyā and Brahman

A (Martin): 1) Māyā is not an attribute of Brahman which, as you say, is attributeless. Māyā is a diffuse, or polyvalent, concept which gives rise to much confusion, particularly by translating it as ‘illusion’ (see below). This concept can be viewed from the psychological, epistemological, and ontological perspectives.

Purely from the standpoint of Ṥaṅkara’s Advaita Vedanta, māyā is tied in with the concept of ‘ignorance’ (avidyā), which is prior to it; that is, avidyā is the necessary condition for māyā. Once ignorance has been annihilated by knowledge, māyā disappears. That means that from the higher (of two) point of view māyā does not exist. This is contrary to most post-Ṥaṅkara authors, with the exception of Sureśvara, who taught that māyā is a positive entity or force. If that were the case, how could a positive entity be removed by knowledge? Swami Satchidanandendra, practically alone in the 20th Cent. has defended the former Ṥaṅkarian position.

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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?

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Q. 532 Brahman, name and form

Q: To speak of levels or to even say ‘name and form’, isn’t technically correct, is it? There’s only Brahman – period. I ask or say this because it does make a big difference between understanding and ‘living it’.

A: You are right. Pedantically there is only Brahman and even that is saying too much. But all transactions take place in vyavahAra (often referred to as ‘transactional reality’) and that obviously includes the teaching itself. That is why we have words like ‘mithyA’, so we can acknowledge the appearance of duality. We undeniably perceive form and refer to it by name, but acknowledge that it is mithyA – owing its substantial existence to Brahman.

Q: Having this final understanding, does the Mithya go on as:
1. As Ashtavakra Gita says… “a dry leaf being blown in the wind”? 
Or
2. An actor knowing he’s an actor and playing roles like a movie?

A: The reasoning behind metaphors is to nudge the mind into appreciating the teaching of something that is counter-intuitive. Once you have ‘got it’, the metaphor should be dropped. The nature of the remainder of the life of a j~nAnI will be dictated by their individual prArabdha karma so will be different for everyone.

mAyA an attribute of Brahman

Q: Can Advaitins explain how Maya can be an attribute of the supposedly attributeless Brahman? Why was the creation needed if Brahman alone existed? What is Ishwara?

A (Martin):

 1) Maya is not an attribute of Brahman which, as you say, is attributeless. Maya is a diffuse, or polyvalent, concept that gives rise to much confusion, particularly by translating it as ‘illusion’ (see below). This concept can be viewed from psychological, epistemological, and ontological perspectives. Purely from the standpoint of Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, Maya is tied in with the concept of ‘ignorance’ (avidya), which is prior to it; that is, avidya is the necessary condition for Maya. Once ignorance has been annihilated by knowledge, Maya disappears. That means that from the higher (of two) point of view, Maya does not exist. This is contrary to most post-Shankara authors, with the exception of Suresvara, who taught that Maya is a positive entity or force. If that were the case, how could a positive entity be removed by knowledge? Swami Satchidanandendra, practically alone in the 20th Cent. has defended the former, Shankarian position.

Maya can also be viewed as the power or energy of Brahman to create the world, and etymologically the word comes from ‘magic/magician’.

But note that the (phenomenal) world is not pure illusion, as stated above, but mithya (relatively real)

2) ‘Brahman alone is real. The world is appearance. The world is not other than Brahman’ (one of the ‘great sayings’ – mahavakya).

3) Ishvara is Brahman considered as creator and ‘personal’ by those who need or are proclive to a devotional relationship (creator/creature). It is also known as ‘saguna brahman’ (Brahman with attributes), as (apparently) different from ‘nirguna Brahman’.

mANDUkya upaniShad Part 8

*** Read Part 7 ***

Mantra 7

नान्तःप्रज्ञं न बहिष्प्रज्ञं नोभयतःप्रज्ञं न प्रज्ञानघनं न प्रज्ञं नाप्रज्ञम् ।अदृष्टमव्यवहार्यमग्राह्यमलक्षणमचिन्त्यमव्यपदेश्यमेकात्मप्रत्ययसारं प्रपञ्चोपशमं शान्तं शिवमाद्वैतं चतुर्थं मन्यन्ते स आत्मा स विज्ञेयः  ॥ ७ ॥

nAntaHpraj~naM na bahiShpraj~naM nobhayataHpraj~naM na praj~nAnaghanaM na praj~naM nApraj~nam |adRRiShTamavyavahAryamagrAhyamalakShaNamachintyamavyapadeshyamekAtmapratyayasAraM prapa~nchopashamaM shAntaM shivamAdvaitaM chaturthaM manyante sa AtmA sa vij~neyaH  || 7 ||

This (consciousness) is known as the ‘fourth’. (It is) neither (the knower of) the internal (world), nor the external. Neither (is it the knower of) both. (And it is) not (just) a ‘mass’ of consciousness. (It is) not consciousness (in the empirical sense of conscious ‘of’) nor (is it) unconsciousness. (It is) imperceptible, transaction-less, not ‘graspable’, un-inferable, unthinkable, and indescribable. (It is) the essential ‘I’-experience. (It is) the negation of the experience of all plurality of the universe. (It is) pure, tranquility, and non-dual. This is the Self. This is to be understood.

This 7th mantra is possibly the single most important mantra in the whole of the Vedic scriptures; it attempts to ‘describe’ the nature of absolute reality, knowing that such description is intrinsically impossible.

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mANDUkya upaniShad Part 7

Mantra 6

*** Read Part 6 ***

एष सर्वेश्वरः एष सर्वज्ञ एषोऽन्तर्याम्येष योनिः सर्वस्य
प्रभवाप्ययौ हि भूतानाम् ॥ ६ ॥

eSha sarveshvaraH eSha sarvaj~na eSho.antaryAmyeSha yoniH sarvasya
prabhavApyayau hi bhUtAnAm || 6 ||

eSha – This (i.e. the universal deep-sleep state)
sarva Ishvara – (is) the Lord of everything;
eSha – This
sarvaj~na – (is) omniscient,
antaryAmin – the ‘inner controller’.
eSha – This
yoniH sarvasya – (is) the source of everything;
hi – (is) assuredly
prabhava apayayau – the place of the arising and dissolution 
bhUtAnAm – of all beings.

The macrocosmic deep-sleep state is the Lord of everything, omniscient; Ishvara, the source of everything; indeed the source and final resting place of all beings.

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Q.530 Maya, Brahman and Ishvara

Q: Can Advaitins explain how Maya can be an attribute of the supposedly attributeless Brahman? (Quora)

A (Martin): Maya is not an attribute of Brahman which, as you say, is attributeless. Maya is a diffuse, or polyvalent, concept that gives rise to much confusion, particularly when translating it as ‘illusion’

This concept can be viewed from psychological, epistemological, and ontological perspectives. Purely from the standpoint of Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, Maya is tied in with the concept of ‘ignorance’ (avidya), which is prior to it; that is, avidya is the necessary condition for Maya. Once ignorance is annihilated by knowledge, Maya disappears. That means that from the higher (of two) points of view, Maya does not exist. This is contrary to most post-Shankara authors, with the exception of Suresvara, who taught that Maya is a positive entity or force. If that were the case, how could a positive entity be removed by knowledge? Swami Satchidanandendra, practically alone in the 20th Cent., has defended the former, Shankarian position.

Maya can also be viewed as the power or energy of Brahman to create the world, and etymologically the word comes from ‘magic/magician’. But note that the (phenomenal) world is not a pure illusion, as stated above, but mithya (‘provisionally’ real)

Q: Why was the creation needed if Brahman alone existed?

A (Martin): ‘Brahman alone is real. The world is appearance.The world is not other than Brahman’ (one of the ‘great sayings’ or mahavakya).

Q: What is Ishwara?

A (Martin): Ishvara is Brahman considered as creator and ‘personal’ by those who need or are proclive to a devotional relationship (creator/creature). It is also known as ‘saguna brahman’ (Brahman with attributes), as (apparently) different from ‘nirguna Brahman’.

Q.529 Comments on mithyā

Q: Do the Upaniṣads talk about or mention mithyā? If not, why not, when Advaita seems to speak so much about it?

A: The absolute ‘bottom line’ of Advaita is as expressed by Māṇḍūkya Up. and Gauḍapāda’s kārikā-s, namely that there is no creation, no one has ever been born etc. Māṇḍūkya 7 is the final word on the matter:

“This (consciousness) is known as the ‘fourth’. (It is) neither (the knower of) the internal (world), nor the external. Neither (is it the knower of) both. (And it is) not (just) a ‘mass’ of consciousness. (It is) not consciousness (in the empirical sense of conscious ‘of’) nor (is it) unconsciousness. (It is) imperceptible, transaction-less, not ‘graspable’, un-inferable, unthinkable, and indescribable. (It is) the essential ‘I’-experience. (It is) the negation of the experience of all plurality of the universe. (It is) pure, tranquility, and non-dual. This is the Self. This is to be understood.”

Consequently, anything in experience (i.e. dualistic) cannot be real. Yet we DO experience the world. Therefore, it has to be mithyā. No need to specifically talk about it. Gaudapada does, in fact, in Chapter 2, which is called ‘Vaitathya Prakaraṇa’. Vaitathya is essentially a synonym for mithyā. (My book ‘A-U-M’ is all about this – https://www.advaita.org.uk/extracts/a_u_m_unreal.html).

Ṥaṅkara also talks about it in BSB 1.4.19; 2.1.14; bhāṣya on Mand. Up. 7; Gaud.  kārikā 4.9 and Vivekacūḍāmaṇi 194 -5 (ish).

The distinction between paramārtha and vyavahāra is also effectively another way of talking about mithyā. Vyavahāra is ‘appearance’, whose substantive reality is actually Brahman. Every discussion about ‘name and form’ as opposed to reality is about mithyā, whether or not the word is used.

Q.526 MithyA

Q: In your comment on the article by Arun Kumar, I was confused but intrigued that you define Mithya as something that simply explains the fundamental nature of the Brahman in life and its objects. I have not so far found any dictionary that defines mithya as anything other than false or illusory nor discovered any major scholar-philosopher who thought that Shankara viewed this world as a reality – as real as the ornament in your metaphor. You say that Shankara himself by discriminating between the waking and dream states suggests that novel meaning of Mithya. Is this your own interpretation or does Shankara himself link the ability to differentiate between those states to explain mithya?

You raise the example of how jumping into the middle of traffic would help one realize why this world is NOT an illusion… but it is not convincing enough. Potentially, both a person jumping in front of a truck and his consequent “death” could be perceived as illusory events too. The real question I have is whether Shankara himself viewed this world as illusion and used Mithya to convey that or not. And, if it was an illusion for him, what did he think the meaning of life was? If on the other hand life was Not an illusion to him, as you seem to suggest, what was its purpose in that case?

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