Why Advaita Works

To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual

Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:

And always will be, some of them especially

When there is distress of nations and perplexity

Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road. (T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets, 3.5)

If you are reading this magazine*, I suggest that there is a high probability that you are not happy! It is an undeniable fact that the majority of people today are dissatisfied with what they perceive as being a mediocre existence. They may feel that they are limited by an unattractive and illness-prone body or by a mind that is imperfectly educated and unable to make intellectual leaps of understanding. There are very many things that we want – objects, partners, lifestyle, jobs etc – but few that we seem to be able to obtain. (And, even when we do obtain them, their rewards are invariably ephemeral.) Western society relies upon the media advertising all of these things, and thereby continually reinforcing the desires. Being repeatedly frustrated by this materialistic lifestyle, it should be hardly surprising that many turn towards the spiritual in the hope that this might bring about peace and a durable happiness.

The problem is that all ‘paths’ and ‘systems’ can only promise you a future happiness, so that we need to have some sort of reassurance that the commitment of our time and effort will prove worthwhile. Unfortunately, the majority of the ‘new age’ techniques bring with them no reassurance at all. Frequently, these systems are quite contrary to reason and often rely upon putting one’s belief into something that is totally unbelievable. Cynically, one might think that the only reason that there are several books upon a particular topic is that the later authors realised after the first book that there was money to be made out of a gullible public.

A ‘spiritual seeker’ might be defined as the person who has realised that the attaining of ‘things’ does not, in fact, bring about lasting happiness. All it does is trigger the beginning of the next desire. This is what leads people to seek the magical, the fantastical that will shatter our mundane existence once and for all. Whether this be foretelling our future through tea leaves or crystals, or communicating with aliens or angels hardly matters; our minds make the leap from the worldly to the unknowable, other world where we are promised something that will truly satisfy.

But of course it doesn’t, because such worlds are not only unknowable but also imaginary. The fact that this cannot be proven to be so allows such ideas to exist but makes no difference to the outcome. Desiring the illusory is ultimately no more satisfying than obtaining the desirable.

We need to think about what it is that we really want and then refine our desires; evolving from wanting mere gross objects to the desire to discover our own nature and that of reality itself. It is discovered that our desires develop from the gross to the more refined. There is a natural and a necessary progression involved here. We begin with wanting simply things in the outside world (of course these may be people or situations etc). Then we realise that it is not the things themselves that we want but the happiness that we believe they will bring. The objects are many but the happiness is actually only one. Moreover, there usually comes a time when the object ceases to give happiness and you want to get rid of it!

The next step follows logically from the previous. The fact that things do not always give happiness means that the happiness is not actually in the object but in our self. It is never anywhere else! And it is this fact that deserves serious investigation. The suggestion is that happiness is our natural state and that this is revealed whenever a desire is removed (e.g. when we obtain something that we want and the desire for it goes away). Clearly, since we do not experience happiness all the time, this natural state must somehow be covered over. So the next startling realisation is that nothing I can do could ever obtain happiness for me (since I cannot choose whether or not to have desires). Indeed, it seems that most of the things that I do bring unhappiness! Instead, what has to happen is that I must come to know this natural state, i.e. my true self. This true self is not something to be obtained but something I have to know. Accordingly, the penultimate refinement of my desires is from wanting to find my Self to wanting Self-knowledge.

And thus we come to Advaita. Advaita is a proven teaching methodology to give me knowledge of my Self. The knowledge is contained in the scriptures called the Upanishads, which were written down thousands of years ago, having previously been passed down by word of mouth from the ancient rishis. Since they were necessarily in fairly dense form, and written in Sanskrit, they need to be interpreted and explained by someone who both knows the Self and is familiar with the techniques, stories and metaphors used to unfold these scriptures. These techniques have themselves been passed down from guru to disciple in a structured manner. Accordingly, the last refinement is from wanting knowledge, to wanting to hear these scriptures explained by a qualified teacher.

…But to apprehend

The point of intersection of the timeless

With time, is an occupation for the saint… (T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets, 3.5)

So, what does Advaita actually say? Very briefly, we presently experience ourselves as separate persons in a universe of objects. Despite this seeming duality, according to Advaita, reality is actually non-dual. This non-dual reality is called Brahman.  As a matter of fact we do feel ourselves to be other than our body or mind. Advaita calls our essential self, which is beyond body and mind, the Atman. And the fundamental message of the Upanishads is that this Atman is Brahman.

There is an oft-quoted sentence which is said to summarize Advaita. This is:

brahma satyam, jaganmithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah (this is the Romanized equivalent of that Sanskrit sentence.) Translated, it means: “Brahman is the reality; the world is not in itself real; the individual self is not different from Brahman.” And the purpose of the teaching is simply to bring about this realization.

Unlike religions and most other spiritual systems, you are not asked to set aside reason and accept the unprovable as truth. On the contrary, you are encouraged to question everything until all doubts are satisfied. The only ‘practices’ you are expected to follow are those which promote self-control of mind and senses so that discrimination may operate in a still mind. Thereafter, it is simply a matter of listening or reading, clarifying confusion and reflecting until there is ‘enlightenment’.

For further reading on the subject:

. Short book for complete beginners – ‘Advaita Made Easy’ (2012)
. For those who already know a little – ‘The Book of One’ (2003), extensively revised in 2010
. The advanced, encyclopedic book – ‘Back to the Truth‘ (2007)
. Why traditional teaching is best – ‘Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle‘ (2008).

* This article was published in the Autumn, 2013 edition of the magazine ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’, produced by Watkins Books in London.watkinsmbs35_cover_s

1 thought on “Why Advaita Works

  1. T.S. Eliot had pointed ears. This physiological trait, one clue among others, often indicates a demonic nature hidden deep within. A small incarnation of Siva. The fundamental aim of this type of hidden inner being is always destructive, although this may not be obvious since their influence can be very subtle. Sivas, dominated by thoughts of truth and justice, always change the teaching slightly, characteristically making it more dramatic and exciting, which if believed and acted upon will lead the hearer eventually to nothing except their own self-destruction. In the passage quoted, tombs, drugs, distress and perplexity are subjects which are of interest to Siva and Eliot alike. Siva’s function seems to be associated with increasing misery and suffering in the world. Despite his immense fame, and attractive literary skill, it may be wise to be careful when reading Eliot.

    People are allegedly unhappy because nobody can bear being themselves, although we generally make an effort to conceal this from others, not realizing they cannot bear being themselves either. This is because we cannot endure being a limited jiva. A jiva is a nature, projected by the intellect, buddhi, which the Atman, our pure consciousness, has incorrectly identified with, and believes to be himself. The Atman is associated with ‘I am’ and its further extrapolation.. ‘I am everything’. The Atman convinces itself that because ‘I am everything’, ‘I am this jiva’. There is a deep error, difficult to untangle, in this assumption. The bond, an aspect of the subtle element of water, sneha, existing between the jiva and the Atman, is enormously strong and cannot be dissolved easily. It endures through transmigratory existence. But the buddhi, ‘our’ intellect, responsible for producing the jiva, perhaps surprisingly, is not our own. The intellect is actually part of the universal intelligence of Brahma (ie Saguna Brahman) who, as a type of light, projects itself into the mind, where reflecting upon the screen of the mind it produces the illusion of the universe. The source of this idea is to be found in the Yoga-Vasishta, a philosophical text originally written by Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, later expanded and edited by unknown advaitins.

    It is not so much the gross material body and the reflective mind, manas, which are the source of desire, as the intellect, buddhi, which, when touched by Ahamkara (the I-am maker), projects (vikshepa) and creates the illusory jiva, our assumed nature. The buddhi projects the jiva exactly in the manner of an actor projecting his part in a drama. Despite the separate illusion, the actor and his part are essentially one and the same entity, and so metaphysically they can be said to be each other. This has a surprising twist, because the buddhi is spiritual whereas the jiva is entirely natural, two very different levels of being. It is the jiva, or more correctly the jivatman, the combination of a nature with consciousness, which seeks the spiritual. The jivatman, cannot endure being confined to being merely natural and severely limited, and yearns to make contact with the spiritual, even to become spiritual himself. But the jiva doesn’t know that his own spiritual self, the buddhi, is standing behind him, unseen, urging him to find and become himself, a spiritual being. So, the buddhi is cruelly playing with the desires and yearning of the jiva. And this is the state most people find themselves in, desirous to be spiritual, to evolve to a higher level of consciousness, knowledge and power, not realizing that the very thing they seek is within themselves, closely and intimately behind themselves, all the time and is the very instigator of the search. The spiritual buddhi is calling the natural jiva to find him. Because the jiva is an inert entity, an illusory projection in the mind, some jnanis say that all desire for the spiritual actually comes from the consciousness that is the Atman. The jiva does nothing, because his every word spoken, his every impulse to action, is placed into him by the buddhi. The part in a play can do nothing of his own volition, because he has none; he has no genuine will or consciousness of his own; he has to do what the actor makes him appear to do. The part does not even realize it is a part in a play. The desires exhibited by the jiva are in fact placed into the arena of the mind by the buddhi, which in turn is a mechanical entity, part of the light of Brahma, an ineffable light, which is projected into the mind by the Divine Intellect. Thus, in this extended manner, through intermediaries, Brahma plays all the parts in his creation.

    For us, the immediate apparent source of desire is the jiva, the natural body which, very revealingly, is sometimes actually named as the desire body. It can be inferred that all desire, all our desires, arise from Brahma via the nature of the jiva and are not our own desires at all. It is simply because ‘our’ Atman, pure consciousness, has identified with ‘our’ jiva, a limited nature, that we believe the jiva’s desires are ‘our’ own. And, of course, once that misidentification occurs we observe ourselves energetically trying to satisfy all those desires, which we do not realize are actually someone else’s desires. They are Brahma’s, which is the name Valmiki-Vasishta gives to Saguna Brahman. Struggling to fulfil desires, we perhaps resemble a reed warbler frantically trying to raise the chick that has emerged from the surrogate cuckoo’s egg.

    “The infinite intelligence of God, filling all space and spacelessness, by its own will, takes a subtle and minute form, which is comprehensible by the name of ‘intellect’. It is this which is expressed by the concept ‘jiva’ or living soul. The jiva is the pure intellect with consciousness of itself. It is nothing at all. It is identical with the nature, the property, and the quality of any object whatever that exists anywhere. Whatever this jiva thinks of anything, in any manner, in any place or time, it immediately becomes the same thing, by its idea of it. The jiva is misled to think of its individuality as the ego, the I am, by the dullness of its intellect, and it supposes itself to be confined within a limited place of space and time, and with limited powers of action and understanding. It assumes to itself an unreal form, or body, and believes it is real.” [Yoga-Vasishta].

    Vasishta says we have nothing of our own. If we engage in a metaphysical examination of ourselves we will soon discover what Vasistha means: our physical body is not our own, since it consists of colonies of myriad atoms bound upon their own journey of evolution; our individual mind, whether manas, buddhi or chitta, is also not our own, because individual mind is merely a branch of universal mind, the divine intelligence of Brahma; our thoughts are not our own, they are ascending and descending movements in prana, subtle air; the emotions are not our own, because they are simply powerful hormones, fine substances, pouring into the blood stream affecting the state of bodily cells; our actions are not our own, they are merely the three gunas acting and interacting with each other; our consciousness is not our own, it is merely light originating from Isvara, which Advaita locates in the Sun, sending a strong awakening impulse between heart and head, then reticulating between the brain cells, thus awakening consciousness; our knowledge is not our own because there is no knowledge; knowledge can only occur in the mind and the mind is merely akasha, subtle inner space, directly connected to Brahma’s universal akasha, which is subtle outer space, or universal mind; and if space and time are illusory then mind is probably one of the greatest of all illusions; happiness is not our own because happiness and unhappiness is a duality, which can be neither a state nor a possession of the genuine Self. So, what are we, what is left? Not much, perhaps nothing? The genuine Self has no internal and no external characteristics. Ah.. how awesome to be entirely free.

    “It is Brahma who abides in his self, in the form of creation, at the beginning of the world. This creation is as formless as the creator himself, and there is no relation of cause and effect between them. There neither is, nor was, nor ever will be, a separate world in existence. It is the one intelligence of the Divinity that displays the creation in itself. Brahma himself is all and everything. The appearance of the visible world is a mere conception of the mind. The ineffable light, which is projected into the mind by the Divine Intellect, shows itself as the baseless fabric of the creation. The creation of the world, and all created things, are located in the mind of Brahma, and make their repeated appearance, as phantoms, before him. In reality, there exists no I, nor you, nor visible world, nor anything else, but all these merge, upon right reasoning, in the One, which remains and subsists after all other existences.” [Yoga-Vasishta].

    Therefore the wise man watches the movements of the mind, like looking at drama being played out by light upon the screen in a cinema.

    On Liberation, Vasishta reveals: “there exists but one Brahma, unlimited by space and time, and he is the world himself. He is tranquil and shines with equal effulgence upon all bodies. Because of his nature of universality, he cannot be any particular thing. Knowing the nature of Brahma you will become free from your egoism, knowing yourself as the same with him, knowing yourself as bodiless and as great as he. There is no mind, nor ignorance, nor any life principle, prana… they are all fictitious concepts. It is the same beginningless and endless Brahma who spreads himself like a boundless and unfathomable ocean, supporting all bodies and things, and present in whatever we consider as favourable or unfavourable to ourselves, as our friends and our enemies.”

    The fiction of the mind continues as long as we are unacquainted with the knowledge of Brahma, and believe the phenomenal world to be real, and continue selfishly to believe the body and the person and its personality (our nature), as well as a distinct mind, to be our own. The body of a living-liberated man has a mind which is employed in its duties, but free from its desires. Such minds are no longer self-willed free agents, but are acted upon by their paramount duties. They are mindless and unmindful of everything except their duty. They know no duality. Such a mind, purified by reason, is called the Sattva. It does not give rise to error. It is the opposite of the chitta, which is the active mind that has the quality of being born, on account of its desires and actions. The seed of the active mind, the chitta, is burned by the fire of sattva. The truly liberated man is unmoved under all circumstances, and has nothing to gain or lose in his prosperity or adversity, nor anything to elate or depress him in either state.

    “There is nothing in the world that lives of itself, nor dies away to nothingness. Everything equally exists in God at all time. All beings are located in the universal Self, as waves in the vast expanse of the ocean, therefore it is an error to believe that one resides in the spirit and another lives outside it. The spirit of God dwells in the form of the universe, displaying various shapes to awareness by the inner light of the spirit. There is nobody, nor no being, except the being of Brahma, just as all waves, foam and bubbles of the sea are the same water as the waters of the deep. So are all beings productions of spirit in the Infinite Spirit.” [Yoga-Vasishta].

    As subtle space, Virat-Purusha, the original creator of Brahma, is invisible, but becomes visible as the Lord of Life, he causes the body, the nature, the thoughts and actions of all living beings. Nothing whatsoever has its particular nature of itself, unless it is implanted in it by the intelligence of God, by the infusion of the subtle element of water, the moisture of divine intelligence. All our thoughts are agitated by inspiration of prana, the breath of the great intellect. Know your thoughts therefore as proceeding from the void, the nothingness, of the entity of the Supreme Brahma.

    “Virat is collectively the aggregate of all beings, but he is also distributed into the jiva, or soul, of every individual being. The same Virat is manifested in the meanest insect as well as in the highest Rudra, or god, and he even extends into atoms. Being deluded by the illusion of the world, the jiva sees duality instead of its unity. The jiva, converted to the breathing of prana, vital life, has lost sight of the Self which is hidden, underlying it. We thus remain confined to this world of ignorance as long as we enjoy the idea of ego, I am. But as soon as we give up the idea of ego, we are free. Liberation is therefore self extinction.”

    “There is no confinement in this world, no bondage, no liberation, no salvation, no sat (being) and no asat (non-being), and when you know this, then, here and now, you will be truly free. “
    [Yoga-Vasishta].

    If we are able, in experience, to confirm Vasishta’s discourses then there is no seeker and no knowledge to be sought. The Self is not an object and therefore it is not possible to be conscious of the Self, nor to know the Self, nor even to be the Self. The Self is transcendentally illusive and you will never find it, mainly because it has never been lost; it is always present. It is the illusory jivatman who wants to be the Self, therefore the desire to be the Self is also illusory. That desire is perhaps one of the main plots in the drama? Who has placed such a desire into the jiva? Despite the disbelief and protestations of many advaitins, Sat-Cit-Ananda is also part of the illusion, part of the drama, part of the divine Lila; perhaps one of the very highest aspects and spectacles of the play? If you can meet yourself, as presentations of Sat-Cit-Ananda, during your life-time, to whom are they being presented to? Sat-being, Cit-instant seeing and knowing, Ananda-bliss-consciousness, can all be observed, as can the Atman (awesome pure consciousness), and Saguna Brahman (awareness of consciousness), and even Nirguna Brahman (awareness of awareness)… therefore none of these can be the ultimate Self, the transcendental Parabrahman. The ultimate Self is perhaps the ‘Who?’ who is observing but which cannot be observed itself, nor even knows it itself is of the nature of awareness? It is spoken of by jnanis as the impersonal Self, awareness that is unaware of being aware. That can be defined as… ‘who?’

    There are no tombs, no drugs, no distress and no perplexity. It is merely Siva, in the form of T.S. Eliot who, acting the part of someone with a defective intellect, is playfully trying to deceive us. Why? To prolong the misery? To perpetuate unhappiness? To make existence so uncomfortable that we are awakened and moved to transcend it? Maybe. Siva and Eliot are equally part of the illusion. Vasishta says… “The blind see the world as all dark, while those who are conscious find it fully bright and shining.” Misery and unhappiness therefore are also part of the illusion in this already blissful universe.

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