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. 542 ‘Doership’ and Osho

A: Osho is not a reliable source of teaching according to Advaita. I have read a few of his books and was most impressed by his breadth of knowledge. But his sources are many and he does not always differentiate. There are several non-dual teachings and any may take you to the final understanding. But my own knowledge is now strictly oriented towards traditional Advaita (Gaudapada-Ṥaṅkara-Sureshvara).

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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.

The Paradox of Free Will (Feb 2011)

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, advaita Vedānta 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.

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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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bAdha versus nAsha

The following was posted to the Advaitin List by Satyan Chidambaran, who has agreed for me to record it here.

There is a distinction between bAdha (sublation) and nAsha (destruction) that the tradition makes.

To know that a Pot is not real, and only clay alone is real, one shouldn’t need to destroy (engage in nAsha of) the Pot appearance. One just needs to know clearly that the Pot is just a name and form and Clay alone really exists. Therefore, even when seeing a Pot, a “Clay j~nAnI” knows clearly that the Pot is mithyA nAma rUpa and Clay alone is satyam. This is bAdha of the Pot.

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Plato and Opinions

Is everything said just an opinion? 

Mostly yes, except for mathematics, which is not theory-dependent. If you are appalled at reading this, wait a second. 1) All scientific statements are theory-dependent and subject to further developments in the empirical sciences. 2) In ordinary life what is considered true, objective, common-sense statements (e.g. London is the capital of England) are true within the parameters of empirical life.

From the metaphysical perspective, however – for instance, that of Plato – things are quite different, e.g. what is a physical object, whether natural or man-made? What is ‘true opinion’? What do the senses tell us and how to relate them to the Intellect (nous)? In this higher, metaphysical, order there is, following Plato, only one (ultimate) truth: that arrived at through contemplation of ‘Ideas’ or archetypes, themselves reducible to the one supreme Idea, ‘the Good’. This is the only thing that merits the name of real knowledge according to Plato and is not transferable from person to person.

All interactions between people can be considered at most ‘true opinion’ (except, as said, consensual, empirical truths for the most part). Plato found ‘true opinion’ to be lacking in epistemic support; in the end, he even made a joke about it, rather than ending with the usual ‘aporia’ (indeterminable). A similar account of truth v. belief or opinion can be found in Eastern metaphysics.

 Enlightenment, for Plato, can only be effected through the contemplation of the highest Idea, the Idea of the ‘Good’, which involves having led a life in accord with that supreme end.

If one has in view Advaita Vedanta in that respect – opinion (or ’true opinion’) – the ready answer lies in vyavahara/vyavaharika, which refers to the empirical life as a whole, where everything is relative. In this realm can we not say that everything in human interactions is just an opinion, except, say, for the words of a real jñani?

The Final Paradox – ahaṃ brahmāsmi

Shankara’s explanation in Bhagavad Gita bhāṣya 2.21

[Note that this is a ‘stand-alone’ article which nevertheless supplements the material asking ‘Who am I?’ in the pratibandha posts beginning https://www.advaita-vision.org/pratibandha-s-part-5-of-7/. It provides a response to Venkat’s challenge at https://www.advaita-vision.org/verse1-of-drg-drsya-vivek-an-analysis-of/#comment-9797]

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.

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Q.521 External Objects

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.)