The Non-dual Contribution to Psychology, Philosophy and Religion

When we reflect on the non-dual teachings, we may wonder whether they are best described as a philosophy or a religion, or neither, or both. Also, we find that the teachings stress the pivotal role of our mind, and they transmit to us a wealth of psychological insights. So we have at least three fields of human interest that are embraced and elucidated by the non-dual teaching: psychology, philosophy and religion.

We also have a clear sense that to label these teachings is inadequate and misleading. What we can do is to point to a vital dimension that Advaita Vedanta provides that is perhaps lacking in many expressions of psychology, philosophy and religion as ordinarily understood.

Psychology attempts to examine and explain the nature of the human mind and its faculties, functions and qualities. Advaita Vedanta also discusses the range and limitations of the mind. But this is not a matter of merely academic interest or debate. The Vedanta concern with mental states is goal-orientated. It is dynamic and transformative. The only reason for showing an interest in the mind and its workings is to help us to control and purify this organ of experience, with a view to transcending its influence completely. The crucial insight is that the true Self is not the mind, and only seems to be so through error or delusion.

Therefore, when we are encouraged to get to know the mind and its ways, it is always with the aim of going beyond the mind. In the Amrita Bindu Upanishad, for example, we find the clear statement that ‘the mind is the cause of bondage and also the cause of liberation’—if the mind is guided and transformed wisely. Another teaching of psychological acuteness is that of the three gunas. This doctrine is developed purely to encourage us to make inner progress. We are urged to overcome the inertia of tamas and the passion-struggle of rajas, and establish our mind in the benevolent serenity of sattva. But this upgrading of our mental atmosphere is not for its own sake. It is an aid to our deepening self-knowledge, as are all the other insights of a psychological nature found in these teachings.

Philosophical enquiry is encouraged in the non-dual tradition. But it shares the same motivation—to gain, or rather to realise, the ultimate fruit of experience, self-realisation. Without the quest for this fruit, or phala, our interest in philosophy is counted as meaningless. There is no support for the idea that it is better to journey hopefully than to arrive. We are here to realise ultimate truth, to go on and on until that goal is reached.

Speaking more generally, philosophy is an attempt to gain a comprehensive understanding of experience, so that our urge to know finds completeness and satisfaction. The fundamental insight of the non-dual teachings is that the manifold phenomena that register through our senses and impress our mind, are transient and illusory appearances that are made possible through the presence of a deeper reality that is non-dual and all in all. In contrast to the names and forms that usually claim our attention and life energy, the underlying reality is one alone. It is sublime beyond expression, but may be helpfully indicated by the words existence, consciousness and bliss, since these pointers direct us to investigate the existence, consciousness and bliss that we find at the core of our own experience.

What about religion? The non-dual teachings share with religions the belief or acceptance that there is a higher power, non-material and transcendent, that is the cause and ongoing sustainer of the world appearance. The teachings allow for some degree of conceptualisation of this divine principle, for example as the ‘personal’ God to whom we address our prayers. But there is no dogmatic insistence in this matter. Our communion with that higher Power is for the purpose of purifying our mind and preparing it to grasp the underlying truth of identity. Therefore all such religious feeling is regarded as a means to an end, and that end is to realise the supreme in self-identity, and not as separate from it.

One of the Sanskrit words indicating identity is ananya— literally ‘not other’. The word suggests a fusion of devotion and knowledge in self-transcendence. The realisation, in the great sentence of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, is to know oneself as ‘I am Brahman’. The verse goes on to point out: ‘One who thinks: “He is one, I am another”, does not know.’ Such a one is still caught in the web of limitations.

We can therefore see that to regard these great teachings as philosophy, religion or psychology, is to appreciate them only in part, as the people in the pitch dark room judged the elephant according to the part of its body they could feel with their hands. The uncovering of the light of the true Self will reveal the glory of non-duality as a matter of direct experience—but it is experience that can never be adequately explained.


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