Q. 432 ‘Definition’ of brahman

Q: So brahman is, ‘by definition’, that which is beyond mind, conceptualization, understanding etc. If one takes this seriously, not just metaphorically/allegorically, how can one validly say anything at all about brahman? E.g. Brahman is: unchanging, timeless, attribute-less.

If it’s unknowable, how can we know these attribute-less attributes about it? We are told that Brahman is real; we are Brahman. But if we can’t know Brahman, how can we know it is real or that we are it? Does it ultimately all come down to believing the conclusions and insights of the scriptures?

A: Brahman is not anything ‘by definition’, because we cannot define it.

It is true that you cannot, strictly speaking, say anything at all about it. All of these statements from the scriptures are simply pointers. You know what those words mean so that your mind can gain some insight. Ultimately, the accumulation of insights enables the mind to make that catastrophic (in mathematical terms) ‘rearrangement’ that we call enlightenment. The problem is simply that all concepts and objects are ‘known’ so cannot be Atman-brahman. Atman is the ‘knower’ and there would have to be another knower to know it. Since there is only brahman in reality, there cannot be anything else to know it.

But Atman is not something that is not known. Indeed it is known more intimately than any concept-object because we are the Atman. And the Atman is neither an object nor a concept. Here is what Sureshvara says (naiShkarmya siddhi III.47 – 48):

“Because the Self is of the form of constant awareness, it requires no second means of knowledge to reveal it; because it is without sound or other attributes it is beyond the sphere of doubt. The Self cannot be known through the empirical means of knowledge such as perception, etc, which are but phlegm coughed up by the thirst for life. Indeed, it is not a possible object of empirical cognition, since it is the innermost Self and since it exists for its own sake.”

Another reason is that all forms of perception are directed outwards, so that we could never ‘perceive’ the Self. And, since inference is itself based upon perception, we cannot infer the Self either.

So, yes, you are effectively right that, when it comes down to topics such as this, the scriptures are the final, indeed the only, authority. But it is not exactly ‘faith’ as this word is normally understood. The scriptures do not ask us to believe in anything that is unbelievable. That we are the Atman is effectively self-evident. What the scriptures tell us is that this Atman is Brahman.

* Note that I have posted a series of four articles, entitled ‘What is brahman?’ that discusses this whole subject and explains the two ways in which we can talk about brahman – svarUpa and taTastha lakShaNa-s, intrinsic and incidental definitions. The articles begins here: https://www.advaita-vision.org/what-is-brahman-part-1/.

 

Q. 427 pramANa and reason

Q: Regarding the relationship between scripture, logic, and experience in the context of Vedanta being a pramANa:   It seems like the ‘rule’ is that for scripture to be considered valid it must be both supportable by reason and non-negatable by reason. But what exactly does that mean?

A (Dennis): Basically, according to Advaita, THE pramANa is scripture (shruti). In practice, this should be unfolded by a qualified teacher, who you trust not to mislead you. You make the conscious decision to take what is said ‘on trust’ until such time as you realize its truth for yourself. Shankara said that you should not accept any scripture that is contrary to reason. But ‘unreasonable’ scriptural statements usually turn out to be gauNa, which effectively means ‘figurative’, and are explained (reasonably!) somewhere close by in the text in which they occur.

Litmus Tests for Self-realization – 1:

The deceptively simple looking Advaitic message “tat tvaM asi” (You are That) hides behind its elegance an enormous depth and profundity of philosophical contemplation. Either being unaware of or grossly ignoring the rigorous bodily and mental discipline that goes into prior preparation before one can appreciate fully the meaning of these significant Vedantic sentences (mahA vAkya-s) in this Internet age, one may believe that by mere hearing of that inimitable statement one is entitled to claim “ahaM brahma asmi” (I am brahman). S/he may even buttress that claim saying that “Nothing needs to be done and after Self-realization also it is all business as usual” because Shankara said that “I am already by my very nature forever blissful That” (nitya suddha buddha mukti svabhAvaH).

Fortunately for us, our ancient Advaita scriptures shine with ever-shimmering bright nuggets of ‘indicators’ sprinkled all over them. These nuggets are like the twinkling stars in the vast depths of space which help a seeker to test for himself/herself whether we truly grokked or not the message of the jIva-brahma ekatva (Oneness of the individual ‘me’ and the eternal, immutable, infinite Self). Continue reading

The Fires of Reincarnation

 

 

(Continued from – ‘Between Lives’)

To summarize then, the stages through which the jIva is said to go after death, and leading up to the next birth are as follows:

 

Location or ‘Fire’ (agni) Offering in the metaphorical sacrifice Result or phalam of the ‘cooking’
1. Heaven (svarga) water (jala) moon (soma)
2. Cloud (megha) moon (soma) rain (vRRiShTi)
3. Earth (bhUmi) rain (vRRiShTi) food (anna)
4. Male (puruSha) food (anna) seed in the male body (bIja)
5. Female (nArI) seed in the male body (bIja) the new baby (puruSha, sthUla sharIra)

Continue reading

Between Lives

I occasionally get asked questions about reincarnation, in respect of advaita. And the sort of answer that I usually give is along the lines of saying that who-we-really-are was not born and neither will it die. Accordingly, it is really a waste of time to worry about if, why and how, the unenlightened jIva navigates through saMsAra.

But there is a whole section in the Brahma Sutra  dealing with this somewhat abstruse, and seemingly ultimately irrelevant topic. It has some interest, and raises a few questions. So, for those who feel that they are doomed to return for at least another lifetime, here are some details about what the scriptures say is involved.

In the past, I had always assumed that the nature of the body into which a jIva is born in any given life is determined sometime between the events of procreation and birth. Not so! A rudimentary, ‘minute body’ is actually allocated at the time of the death of the previous body (according to the scriptures). This new gross body, along with the subtle and causal bodies, life forces (prANa-s), mind, sense organs and organs of action (j~nAnendriya-s and karmendriya-s), together with the accumulated saMskAra, then ‘travel’ (gati) to the next birth. Consciousness or chit does not travel, of course, since it already exists everywhere! Continue reading

Q.404 Practising Advaita

Q: I need some practical guidance on practising advaita in daily life. Please advise me of the best course of action.

A (Dennis): You cannot ‘practise’ Advaita. Advaita is a teaching/philosophy. Its aim is to bring you to the total understanding that reality is non-dual; that all-there-is is brahman or Consciousness, and that who-you-really-are is that brahman. Only the body-mind can ‘practise’ or ‘live a life’ and you are not that. The body-mind and the world are mithyA, which means that they are not real in themselves; their real substratum is brahman.

Q: Many thanks for the response. I have a question though. I understand that Advaita is a philosophy.  But what does one do with a philosophy? Try to understand? Try to live it? What is my next course of action? I know that action should be ruled out. But what is the next step for me? What do I do or where do I go from here. I hope I am able to explain my point. I look forward to hear from you.

A: Advaita is a teaching methodology. It provides a step by step ‘education’ for the seeker to bring him or her Self-knowledge. Ideally, this teaching is given by a qualified teacher. This is someone who already has Self-knowledge and also has the skills to teach it to someone else. Since the original teaching derives from the scriptures, a deep understanding of these and a knowledge of Sanskrit is also deemed by many to be a necessary qualification for a teacher.

Accordingly, the next step would ideally be to find such a teacher and study with them for as long as necessary – usually at least a few years. Failing that, you have to read widely (but only those books that do not confuse!) and ask lots of questions (of someone who can answer them!).

Q.397 – Why are scriptures needed?

Q: From the blogs and articles on Advaita, it seems like Scriptures are the basis from which everything is derived. If Scriptures were also written by humans, why is it considered sacred? Why can’t we independently come to same conclusions completely discarding scriptures?

e.g. Why couildn’t Vivekananda or Ramana Maharishi state something original about Self without reference to scriptures? All we see is a definition of Self without knowing the process by which it has been arrived at. I feel I am no different from the guy who slaughters innocent people because something is stated in a Book.

A (Dennis): Upanishadic material was passed down by word of mouth long before it was written down. From teacher to disciple; from those who knew to those who did not. The disciple trusts that the teacher will explain things until such time as the disciple realizes the truth. The seeker is specifically asked to use reason and own experience to validate what is said. If what is initially taken on trust is found to be invalid, it is rejected. If it is contrary to reason, it is rejected.

How does this process differ from science? Should you re-prove/re-derive all of the scientific laws from first principle and own experiments before you accept them? And if something is true, and fully understood by those who have gone before, how can one state something ‘original’? Moreover, why should one try? If teacher-seeker tradition over thousands of years have established an optimal way of passing on knowledge, isn’t it the height of arrogance to think one could do better?

Knowledge and Enlightenment

Over the past few months, we have had several posts following which there were discussions in which some participants attempted to argue that knowledge was not the direct cause of enlightenment. Alternative suggestions have been that enlightenment comes with nirvikalpa samAdhi or that one has to pursue some course of action, such as asking ‘Who am I?’.

I argued that neither of these were the case; that ONLY Self-knowledge could give enltightenment. This is primarily because ignorance is the cause of saMsAra and knowledge, not action, is opposed to ignorance. And I said that I would endeavor to find quotations from scripture or from Shankara to support this contention (since some participants were not prepared to accept arguments from such as Swami Dayananda).

Below, I have compiled a brief list of some of those quotations and hope these should be adequate to convice readers that the above is the stance of traditional Advaita and it is supported by clear, reasoned argument. Continue reading

Creation According to Reason

small_A-U-MAlthough not scheduled for publication until the 25th of this month, both Amazon UK and Amazon US claim to have only a few copies left! So, to remind you of the sort of content you can expect, here is another extract from the book on the topic of ‘Creation according to Reason’.

Having spent some time showing how key passages from the scriptures claim that there is no creation (and explaining how there can be apparently contradictory passages elesewhere), Gaudapada turns to reason – his principal tool in this work.

Read the extract here.