Q: You wrote: We say ‘neti, neti’ not just to all of the presumed objects in the world, and to our body and mind, but also to the ahaMkAra ‘I’ that relates to this body-mind. The ‘I’ that is able to do this is the ‘witness’. It is the ‘negator’ that is left when everything else has been negated.
You also wrote: The ‘witness’ also has to be negated intellectually …(Answer to Q.402)
The first passage seems to imply that the witness cannot be negated, but that contradicts the second quote. Could you please clarify?
A: The point is that the entire teaching of Advaita necessarily takes place in vyavahAra. The ‘neti, neti’ practice is negating all of names and forms with which we identify and saying that it is the ultimate ‘identifier’ that we really are. But an ‘identifier’ is still a vyAvahArika concept. We have to recognize this fact (intellectually) and ‘as if’ negate the idea of witness too. Ultimately, the intellect has to ‘let go’ of everything, including ideas about Brahman and Non-Duality, in order to appreciate the final reality. But we know that this is still an intellectual exercise in vyavahAra, and (in vyAvahArika reality) we cannot negate the witness!
Q: I have a friend who became a born-again Christian as a young man. I knew him before his ‘conversion’ experience, and he became very different afterwards. For decades, he has maintained his rock-solid belief in Jesus and evangelical Christianity. He has that ‘glow’ of certainty and confidence that seems to come with believing in such a system with 110% conviction. His faith is literally unshakeable, and he is dead certain that he is right. I have a back-of-the-mind concern that when someone ‘gets it’ in terms of Advaita after a long period of seeking, that something similar is happening. We cannot think directly about the nondual Brahman, cannot experience non-duality, cannot even really talk about it. How can we be sure that we are not simply hypnotizing ourselves into this conviction after long years of painful seeking?
A (Dennis): How can we be sure? I, too, encountered someone who was a ‘certain’ Christian. We had quite a few discussions and, as you say, the belief was unshakeable. The difference is though, in my experience, that such people are unable to back up their beliefs with reason. They will blithely quote from the bible as though that ends the matter. As you know, in the kArikA-s, Gaudapada uses more reason than he does scriptural citations, although scriptures are traditionally the final authority. Although I included some scriptural quotations in my book ‘A-U-M’, this was principally for completeness and so that the related commentaries might be referenced. The intention was that all that I said was reasoned and hopefully unarguable. I cannot imagine there is any Christian text that can claim that.
The key tool and argument is probably one of the earliest – the ‘neti, neti’ of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Rather than trying to ‘find’ the answer, you keep discarding all attempted explanations when you find that they do not stand up to reason. When everything has been rejected, you are still left with you, the ‘rejecter’. You can use reason to reject those religions/philosophies that rely on scriptural authority alone, because you can always ask: ‘Why should I accept what is written here when it can never be supported by reason or experience?’ Advaita cannot be rejected in this way. It is the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’.
(This article was originally published in ‘Yoga International’ magazine Aug-2011. I don’t think the magazine exists any longer, which is why no link is provided.)
During the past few years, an increasing number of scientists have claimed insight into the nondual nature of reality. These claims, however, ignore a fundamental truth: Consciousness falls outside the scope of scientific investigation. Therefore, by their very nature, such claims cannot be valid.
There has always been a degree of animosity between science and spirituality. The Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo over his insistence that the Earth was not the center of the universe comes to mind, as does the current debate between Creationists and those preferring the more down-to-earth tenets of Darwinian evolution. It is encouraging, therefore, to see the growing number of books and articles written by scientists on the subject of nonduality. There is even an annual conference with the title “Science and Nonduality,” thus making it possible to explore these two avenues of knowledge in the same forum.
Paradoxically, both the power and the ultimate shortcoming of science as a tool for investigating the nature of reality lie in its objectivity. The scientific method of empirical observation and subsequent reasoning is something it shares with Vedanta, along with the acceptance of findings from those who have gone before (providing these findings do not contradict more recent discoveries).
Science has made a significant contribution to persuading people to consider that the world may not be as it initially appears to our limited organs of perception. At one end of the scale, the scanning electron microscope looks into the supposed solidity of the matter beneath our fingertips. At the other extreme, the Hubble telescope peers toward infinity into the swirling clouds of galaxies invisible to the naked eye. ‘Reality’ is far more subtle than everyday experience would have us believe. The hardness of the table on which I write is due to irrevocable laws regarding the spin of electrons and their sharing of orbitals around atoms. Massive energy sources in the universe result from entire galaxies being sucked into black holes. Our own senses are quite inadequate for the job of explaining the behavior of the world around us, whereas science seemingly can. Continue reading →
Q: I’m struggling (a lot) with ‘believing in’ Brahman.
I realize the problems inherent in this struggle: (1) It’s probably futile in my early stage of Advaita studies; (2) Brahman is beyond mind, so any attempt to truly apprehend it is doomed to failure. And yet I persist. 😉
I can walk with Advaita Vedanta through all the Neti-ing – I/Truth am not this, not this – but when Advaita makes the leap to IS THIS … I shake my head and turn away. Brahman seems like an abstraction born of fear/uncertainty, like other similar abstractions such as Heaven, The Ground, The Truth, etc. (I am not saying I know that Brahman IS an abstraction born of fear, rather that it seems to me that it could be.)
So I keep looking for analogies, things I can/do or ‘believe in’ that might be similar enough to Brahman that I could relax into it a bit.
Today I thought: Perhaps Brahman is (quasi-)synonymous with Nature? Nature – ‘everything that is’ – is all-encompassing in a way that suggests Brahman to me. Science’s take on Nature is conceptual, but the essence of Nature is, I think, not conceptual.
So: ‘Everything that is’ + non-conceptual – this sounds Brahman-esque to me. Yes? No?Continue reading →
The ‘negating’ (neti, neti) is actually done by the not-Self (intellect, jIva).
The things negated are not-Self (body, senses, mind/intellect, jIva itself?)
The witness cannot be negated because it precedes the objects of negation and the act of negation.
The witness itself cannot negate but it is because of it that misidentification and negation are possible.
The knowledge that ‘I am That which cannot be negated’ is in the intellect, which is not-Self, and therefore unreal.
Once that knowledge takes place, then there is no further thoughts such as ‘I am an individual, so and so, this/that’. And I know that I never was.
Although the knowledge is in the intellect, it is as if the Self regains knowledge of itself. This individual ‘being’ just became sentient due to my reflection in it?
It is ‘me’ that is reflected in all apparent individuals?
A (Dennis): That is mostly correct. Just a couple of points. The ‘witness’ also has to be negated intellectually, since the act of witnessing has to take place through the body-mind-intellect, which is not who you really are. And the Self-knowledge also takes place in the intellect – it is the jIva who gains Self-knowledge. ‘Self-knowledge’ doesn’t apply to the Self, which is never anything other than the Self. And it does not ‘know’ this in the sense that this word implies – to ‘know’ something requires seeming duality and an intellect.
Q: Advaita says that ‘sarvam khalvidam brahma – all this (including all objects, which have form) is brahman’. Therefore, how can we say that brahman is without any attributes at all (including form)? Surely brahman must be both with and without form? Isn’t this what neti, neti means (not this, not that)?