We haven’t discussed this favorite topic in Advaita for some time! This is an article I wrote for Yoga International over 12 years ago but it only appeared on-line for a short time at Advaita Academy.
Why do you act the way that you do? If it is because you feel you ought to do something, you probably recognize there is little free will involved. You are being ‘coerced‘ by society or family, or influenced by concerns over what might happen if you don’t act in that way. On the other hand, if you do something because you want to, then perhaps you believe you are exercising free will. But is this true even when you trace the source of your desire? For example, you see a cream cake in the window of a shop, and the thought arises, ‘I would like some cake.‘ Did you freely choose to have that thought? Indeed, can you choose to have any thought? Do they not simply ‘arise‘?
Anyone who has thought deeply about spiritual matters knows that one of the fundamental problems is how to reconcile our day-to-day experience with claims about God or a nondual reality. The first level seems concrete and demonstrable while the second is speculative, to say the least. Among the Indian philosophies, advaitaVedānta is the only one that speaks of ‘orders‘ of reality. There is the absolute nondual reality (paramārtha); the empirical level (vyavahāra); and the illusory level of dreams (pratibhāsa). Correctly differentiating among these levels is essential if we are to understand the subtleties involved in the question of free will.
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.
hariH OM | OM ityetadakSharamidaM sarvaM tasyopavyAkhyAnaM bhUtaM bhavadH bhaviShyaditi sarvamoMkAra eva | yachchaanyatH trikAlAtItaM tadapyoMkAra eva || 1 ||
OM iti etad akSharam – Thus, this syllable OM idam sarvaM – (is) all this. tasya upavyAkhyAna – The explanation begins with this: oMkAra – the syllable OM (is) itieva – thus truly sarvaM – everything – bhUta – past, bhavat – present bhaviShyat – (and) future. yat cha anya – and what is other than atIta – transcending these trikAla – three time periods tat eva – even is that only oMkAra – OM api – as well.
The syllable OM is everything. The explanation follows (with this Upanishad). All that is past, present and future is OM. And, whatever is beyond the three periods of time, that too is only OM.
Reality is non-dual. All Advaitins know that this is the teaching, even if they have not yet succeeded in reconciling this with the appearance of the world and their own apparent individuality.
The Self does not act. The jñānī knows this. The well-known statement in Bhagavad Gita 5.8-9 tells us that: The balanced person who knows the truth thinks: ‘I do nothing at all; it is only the senses relating to their sense objects,’ even whilst seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, excreting or grasping; even just opening or closing the eyes. It is all simply the ‘play of the guṇa-s’, name and changing form, like the movement of waves on the surface of the ocean – all is always only water.
Q: Do objects exist independently? For example, if one is not seeing the moon then does moon exist or not?
A: From the perspective of absolute reality (paramArtha), of course there is no problem; no question or answer! There is only Brahman; no creation and no objects. But I assume that your question relates to empirical reality (vyavahAra). Here, Advaita teaches that Ishvara governs the ‘creation’, setting and maintaining the physical laws that apply to the universe and the karmic laws that apply to the jIva-s. It is only some post-Shankara philosophers who try to make out that there is only one jIva so that, as soon as this jIva is enlightened, the apparent creation comes to an end. You can read all about the ‘world disappearing on enlightenment’ in the seemingly endless discussions we had on that topic beginning in 2020 (I think).
So, as regards your specific question, objects continue to exist when you go out of the room (for example). Otherwise, other jIva-s would not be able to enjoy them! Suppose that you go outside at night with a friend and both look at the moon. And suppose that you turn away but your friend doesn’t. If the moon ceased to exist, so would your friend (who is also an object at the gross level).
Advaita is not subjective idealism. Objects are not ‘in the mind’ (although the names and forms that we give them ARE in the mind – hence we can see a rope as a snake). But the moon is not ‘real’ in an Advaitic sense; it is mithyA. The story of the sage and the wild elephant is relevant here. A seeker saw his guru run away when a rogue elephant charged. Afterwards he asked why his teacher had run when he would say that the elephant is mithyA. The teacher replied that the ‘running away’ was also mithyA. (At least, that is how I recall the story.)
Q: Are true and false relative opposites, like fast and slow?
A: Wow – a difficult one!
To some extent, I think both depend upon context (so would have to be ‘relative’). Fast and slow are a good analogy. These still have an ‘absolute’ sense: ‘Fast’ (with capital letter) must be speed of light; ‘Slow’ must be stationary. Similarly, most statements can be construed as true or false ‘to a degree’, can’t they?
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 been studying Advaita for the last 20 years. I have read multiple books on the subject and I am presently reading your book “Answers…” but have only read 213 pages so far.
The dilemma I have concerns praying or addressing myself to what I call ‘Infinite Consciousness’.
I start by asking that the veil of ignorance be lifted from the mind so that ‘what is’ may be revealed. Next, I give thanks for the day, for all things done, for animals and vegetables eaten and meaningful words read. But, in so doing, 3 questions have occurred:
Adhering to the teachings of Advaita, I find myself asking: “Who am I praying to?” and
“Who is praying?”.
If I am simply an expression of ‘God’, am I addressing myself in these prayers (because if so, I have a huge issue with an ego inflating itself)?
Q: Knowledge, which is in or of the mind or intellect, must ultimately be given up. So really, is it knowledge or just ‘pointers’ to the truth of things? Like the pole vaulter letting go of the pole to get over the bar, the mind must be given up or let go of, which includes the knowledge. So really, knowledge isn’t the key or final secret. Simply abiding as Consciousness (what we really are), is the real point of all of this.
And, witnessing seems to be of two ‘kinds’: . Subject-object witnessing the normal person does all day . The non-experiencing witness, which is the pure Consciousness that sees all within itself. I.e. like the analogy of the movie screen and movie.
Really, it can be summed up by the fact that knowledge is not the key but only a pointer to ‘what really is’, which is the non-experiencing Witness.
Q: After reading and listening to non-duality teachers I got to know that there is nothing that can be done; there is nothing to attain and nothing to achieve. Whatever ‘is’, simply is.
So what should we do actually? After knowing this truth how should we live our life? Earlier I wanted to do sAdhana to attain self-realization and enlightenment. Now I have understood that it is the ego which is asking that.
Now in my life I have a feeling that, whatever activity I undertake, it’s just about keeping my mind and body engaged. Be it any activity – reading a book, doing meditation, working at the office – I feel that there is a separation between ‘I’ and the ‘mind’. When an activity or any kind of work starts, then the Mind and body are involved in it but I am separate from all of them. When the activity finishes, I again have my body and mind available to be engaged in another activity.
A: You seem not to be differentiating between absolute and empirical reality (paramArtha and vyavahAra). From the absolute viewpoint, there is only Brahman so that doing, enjoying, knowing etc. have no meaning – there is no one, no thing. But from the empirical perspective – from your personal viewpoint – there is a world and people. And there are j~nAnI-s and aj~nAnI-s (people who know the truth and those who do not). If you do not know the truth, you will suffer in life, so what can (and should!) be done is to find out the truth: that who-you-really-are is Brahman. Of course it is the ego that wants to do this but this desire is the one desire that is not only permissible, it should be encouraged!
Once your mind truly and irrevocably knows the truth (this is the meaning of being ‘enlightened’), you can then do whatever happens to be your svadharma or ‘calling’. This may just be carrying on doing your everyday job, living a family life, or whatever. But you may need to continue nididhyAsana in the form of study, reading, teaching, discussing Advaita so that the Self-knowledge is consolidated and you benefit from peace and happiness etc. for the remainder of the jIva’s life.