The Non-Duality of Shri Shankara

An extract from H P Shastri’s Outline of the Advaita of Shri Shankara

Limitations are a darkness and obstruct the vision of Truth. They make Reality appear what it is not; where there is bliss they paint a picture of distress, pain, sorrow and disappointment. Our mind is a limitation and so are the senses and their objects. In the language of Vedanta, the aggregate of limitations is called Maya or avidya (nescience). It is not a self-controlling force. The Ruler and Governor of Maya is Ishvara, the Lord of the universe.

It is the highest duty of each and everyone to realize the identity of the inner Self with the Self of Ishvara and to realise the light of Truth under which limitations are seen as phenomenal and not real. There is no other way to freedom, independence and bliss for which the soul is searching. Like the deer in a desert, which runs after the mirage river to quench its thirst and eventually falls fatigued and unsatisfied, our soul looks for inner peace in education, in love-affairs, in military glory, in self-distinction of one kind or another, but eventually falls fatigued and suffers from neurosis as a result of which life appears bitter in so many respects.

The supreme authority on the great spiritual Truth called Advaita is the holy Shruti (The revealed teachings on non-duality, as conveyed by inspiration of the heart, and indicated by words in the Upanishads, regarded as sacred scriptures.) It is revealed by Ishvara Himself but it is written in an archaic language and is subject to many interpretations. It is not a keen intellect or a scholarly mind that can know of itself the truth of the innermost Self; it is one who has freed the mind from self-centred desires and actions, who has acquired tranquillity and equimindedness, who is magnanimous and infinite in compassion and forgiveness. Such an enquirer can ‘see’ the truth revealed in the holy Shruti.

One authority only has interpreted the Upanishads in a convincing way in the light of his own personal experience and with a dialectical skill surpassing that of any other philosopher: Shri Bhagavadpada Shankaracharya. His language is a model of beauty and simplicity and his thoughts are as spacious as the blue sky. Many scholars who claim to be followers of Vedanta have failed to understand the real meaning of the Shruti as interpreted by Shankara. Many personal opinions and interpretations are to be found in their writings—for instance, one writer defines Maya as ‘a description of facts’, while another interprets Brahman in terms of quasi-materialism.

This essay attempts to explain the spiritual truth of the world, the jiva (the individual), Maya, Ishvara, Brahman, the state of Jivan-Mukti (liberation in life), the ethical responsibility of a Jivan-Mukta and other fundamental doctrines of Vedanta. We have no private theories to advocate, nor do we claim to have fully grasped the meaning of Shankara’s dialectical philosophy. Notwithstanding these limitations, here is an attempt to interpret the Advaita Vedanta in simple language in the light of his writings.

We hope this introductory essay will help all true aspirants to understand the meaning of the Shruti about the nature of the Self.

The Sanskrit word for philosophy is ‘Darshana’ which literally means ‘sight’. It means the search after the ultimate truth of life in the world. Its main field is human nature, and its promptings are the secrets of the world. When human beings began to think, they began to philosophize. Our history is the history of the development of philosophical thought searching after ultimate reality.

At first, human beings began to think of nature in terms of aesthetics and we produced poetry and the rudiments of art; then slowly, as our thoughts went deeper and deeper, philosophy arose and occupied our serious attention. It was the beginning of the age of reflection. The beautiful songs of the Rig Veda containing descriptions of nature gave way to the metaphysical reflections of the Upanishads, and the Upanishads ultimately gave rise to the philosophy which is called Vedanta.

Shankara is the real architect of Vedanta. The brilliance of his intellect has dazzled the world. Some who do not understand the real depth of his philosophy, which proclaims the unreality of the phenomenal world and the reality of its substratum, the Spirit, or supreme Self, imagine that it implies negation of morality, benevolence, and active participation in the good of the world, and that it dampens the enthusiasm of the pure philanthropist. This is an erroneous conception. The life of Shankara, though short, was productive of the highest results in the field of social good, moral benevolence and creation of beauty, and it is a standing testimony to the great practical value of Advaita. Hume, Berkeley and Kant would have cause to regret the practical application of their philosophies, but the same cannot be said of Shankara.

It is sometimes objected that the doctrine of Naishkarmya (non-action), so ably demonstrated by Shri Sureshvara, the great disciple of Shankara, is a path of flight from the world. Vedanta is not a philosophy of negation and prohibition only; it is not a flight from reality. Shankara accepts the theory of the practical reality of the world, and emphasizes that life in the world is the only life which can yield the realisation of the spirit within.

Dharma (righteousness) is one of the chief pivots of the ethics of Vedanta. It is evident that truthful living, benevolent action, deep compassion, a balanced mind and search after the divine principle are included in the conception of right action. How can it be said that Vedanta negates morality and interest in the world? A good life is impossible without spiritual living and a moral and spiritual purpose. Without truth and a higher idealism, we cannot distinguish between right and wrong. The Advaita of Shankara is not opposed to good living on the basis of Truth, compassion and universal benevolence. It is discrimination between right and wrong living which leads us to the life of transcendence.

Another fallacy, which every deep student of Vedanta will recognize as such, but which has gained currency as a result of the writings of those who have misunderstood Shankara’s position, is that the Advaita doctrine is pantheism. The Advaita of Shankara makes it clear that the world is not Brahman but a modification of Maya superimposed on Brahman like a mirage superimposed on the desert. Vedanta is not an ‘ism’. It is the climax of truth and right experience. It is the highest limit of the search after spiritual truth. It is ‘the last word of the Upanishads’ and not the name of a philosophical creed. If it is to be given any name at all, it can be called the Adhyatma philosophy (the philosophy relating to the Self). The terms ‘pantheism’ and ‘monism’ do not apply to it.

Brahman as the cause of the world
According to Vedanta, Brahman is the highest truth. In the Taittiriya Upanishad (3:1), Brahman is described as that fundamental Truth from which the world of being is born, by which it is supported and in which it is finally dissolved. There are long descriptions in the Upanishads to explain the genesis of the world (e.g. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4). A complete negation of the world from the point of view of experience cannot be attributed to Shankara. Over and over again in his commentary on the Vedanta Sutras, Shankara calls the Overlord of the universe the creator of the whole world.

In the Vedanta body of teachings, Brahman is the cause of the world. The orthodox view of Vedanta about the world is that the cause alone is real and the effect, being included in the cause, has no independent reality. Some of the classical philosophers differ slightly from this view and hold that when Brahman is said to be the cause of the universe, what is really meant is that the cause is the root and support of the effect and the effect can have no existence without the cause. According to their view, the relationship between cause and effect is one of inseparable identity.

Shankara rejects the theory of the independence of cause and effect. The world is not separate but is one with Brahman, its cause. As the effect does not exist before the cause, so the world has no existence separate from Brahman. According to this view, the unreality of the world is not postulated, as it is by the later philosophers of Vedanta. In that part of his commentary which illustrates the doctrine of the world and its connection with the Spirit, Shankara says that the objective world is not different from Atman (the Self) but is in fact the same as Atman. The existence of Atman makes the existence of objects possible and in the event of the non-existence of Atman, the objects too would all pass into non-existence. So it is clear that the world can have no existence without Atman.

It is unnecessary for a philosophical explanation of the world to treat it as an independent or separate entity. Shankara holds that Brahman is the cause of the world and the world is the effect of Brahman in the sense that, as an effect cannot exist without its cause, so the world cannot exist without Brahman.

Shankara’s statements throw doubt on the validity of the view that the world is unreal. The distinction is most subtle. The world does exist, but its existence is not different from Brahman. The relationship between Brahman and jagat (the world) consists in the inseparable sameness in essence of the two. It cannot even be called a relationship. One cannot imagine two infinities, let alone the relationship between the two. In the same way the separation of Brahman from jagat is illogical, and it may therefore be concluded that Brahman and the world are not two separable terms, for there is no relationship between them. It is for these reasons that the leaders of Vedanta have called this philosophy neither dualism nor monism. The best expression for it is Advaita, which is a unique word in philosophy.

The doctrine known as pantheism has two alternative forms. Either the Divine existence is reduced to the level of ordinary empirical existence, or else nature is deified and assigned the same position as God. It will be clear from the foregoing that to call Vedanta pantheism in either sense is a great error.

In all systems of Indian philosophy, not only in the Vedanta of Shankara, Ishvara (the cosmic Overlord) is placed above the world. The expression ‘neti, neti’ (‘not this, not this’) used in the Upanishad (e.g. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:5:15) is indicative of this. Brahman is often said to be above speech, mind, name and form (e.g. Kena Upanishad 1:3-8, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:1:1-7). In the Katha Upanishad is the verse: ‘The sense objects are above the senses, the mind is above the sense objects; the intellect (Buddhi) is above the mind, and that which is above Buddhi is the great Self’. (1:3:10) The Bhagavad Gita (10:42) says: ‘This world exists only as a part of Myself, O Arjuna’.

To be continued

This article is from the Spring 2023 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.