The Non-Duality of Shri Shankara

Continuing H P Shastri’s essay on the Outline of the Advaita of Shri Shankara

The jiva
Like the world, jivahood (individuality) is an ultimate fact of our experience. Shri Shankara, in his descriptions of the genesis of the world, gives no hint as to the birth of the jiva. He says that the jiva is beginningless; it is not something that has come into existence but is an eternal existence which cannot be explained in terms of origin. He adds that we can truly describe the nature of jiva not in an individual sense but in the sense of Ishvara (the cosmic Overlord). According to Vedanta, the jiva is ultimately to be known as Truth; it is Selfhood (Atma-tattva). To realize the true nature of the jiva directly is the highest good of life. The seemingly individual jiva is realised as not different from the all-pervasive Atman; it is a phase of the infinite Self and one awakens to this fact in deep spiritual experience.

Shri Shankara insists on the identity of jiva and Brahman because both are sentient. The conception of two consciousnesses is a philosophical absurdity. Ultimately there can be only one sentience which is infinite and all-pervasive.

The limitations of our physical existence are not related in an intimate way with the infinitude of our spiritual Self. The nature of Self is independence, and independence means infinitude. In consciousness there is an element which is beyond all the objects of consciousness. In the awareness of individuality and limitations abides an infinite, all-pervasive spiritual element which is beyond all limits.

When Shri Shankara speaks of the nature of release (Moksha) he speaks of this fact. He does not call release ‘achievement’ but ‘the realization of Brahmanhood in the Self’. This realization is the knowledge of non-duality as the nature of the Self and from a certain point of view it is a mode (vritti) of the mind. Release is not a special state and it is realizable in this very life and in the life of jagat (the world). The whole discipline of Vedanta points to the fact that release is available to the individual. The assumption that nobody up to now has realized Moksha is without foundation.

In the Vedanta Shastra. the characteristic of the Guru is that he or she abides in Brahman. It means that the individuality has realized Brahman. It is an experience which includes the empirical and mental. It is not totally distinct from the empirical life; this is implicit in the doctrine of loka sangraha, where it is taught that the illumined sage is intent on the welfare of all beings. This is borne out by the comments of Shri Shankara on Brahma Sutras 3.3.32. The very expression ‘I am Brahman’ (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10) shows that the realization of Self is the essence and substance of the individual life and is not opposed to it. The Self is the support of individuality.

Release (Moksha) is not the absorption of our individuality into non-individuality, but it is an expansion of it into the infinitude of the Spirit. The essence of our jivahood is not partnership with the universal Atman but the merging of the individualized form in the all-pervasive, infinite spiritual Principle, because it is the ultimate Truth, the final existential aspect of our spiritual life.

Advaita (Non-Duality)
Let us discuss the nature of Advaita. We say that the expression ‘There is no other existence apart from the existence of Self (Atman)’ (Chandogya Upanishad 7.25.2) shows that there is nothing separate from Atman. In this sense the Self is one without a second. It does not mean that any existence imagined as other than Atman is necessarily non-existent. But it means that any object thus imagined is inseparable from, and the same in essence, as Atman. It is clear therefore that anything other than Atman exists merely in imagination and not in reality.

If we consider the words ‘Atman’ and ‘Brahman’ in this sense, the meaning of Advaita will be clear to us. ‘Atman’ is an eternal principle and the subjective aspect of ultimate Reality. It is an indivisible principle of non-duality and there is no possibility of any difference in it at all. The word ‘Brahman’ denotes the external objective reality of the same principle. In it there is a unity of the inner and the outer, the subjective and the objective. In one sense it is clear that ‘Atman’ also means both the subjective and the objective ultimate Reality.

The conception of the nature of Brahman resembles the European theory of absolutism; yet there is a great difference between the two. Brahman, according to Vedanta, is a spiritual Reality and Truth; the Western absolutism is based on logic and hypothesis. The English philosopher, F H Bradley, in his book Appearance and Reality, postulates only the possibility and not the certainty of the Absolute. Thus for Bradley, the unreality of appearance on the basis of absolutism is arrived at through logic; and the metaphysical reality is the logical whole.

Shri Shankara lays more emphasis on experience than on logic. He shows that the one indivisible Self, free from participation or associationship with the phenomenal world, is yet its underlying support. This partless Self (Atman) is the same as the all- pervasive existence called Brahman. It is not an element abiding in Brahman but it is the very nature of the innermost reality called Brahman.

The world can be called in a certain sense an aspect or a part of Brahman because it is distinguishable from Brahman, but when we consider it in the sense that it is supported on Brahman and is not different from It, we cannot call it a fraction of Brahman. The world is a distinguishable existence but it is not a reality distinct from Brahman. Though by nature it has an existence, nevertheless its reality depends on the indistinguishable inseparable Self aspect of Brahman. The followers of Shri Shankara have commented most learnedly and profoundly on this aspect of the philosophy of Advaita and have explained the real meaning of jagat (the world-appearance) on these lines.

Let us consider the theory of Maya and the reasons for which it is held so important in the Vedanta of Shri Shankara. A Western scholar, Gough, says: ‘The theory of Maya, which enunciates the unreality of jivahood and jagat, is the vital life of the ancient Indian philosophy.’ Shri Shankara has extracted the theory from the Upanishads and it occupies a prominent position in his system. Some people think that Shri Shankara himself is the author of Mayavada. But the fact is that the theory of Maya is found both in the Upanishads and in the writings of the great Shankara. Let us consider the question deeply.

We have already indicated that in the Upanishads the world creation (shrishti) is considered an element or part of Brahman, and attempts are made to explain it in this sense; but it does not mean the rise of the reality of the world. In the unmanifest form, the world abides in Brahman for ever, but when it comes into manifestation it is called the world. Our intellect, which is itself included in the creation of the world, cannot know the secret of its own origin. How can a child know anything about the birth of its parents? The limit of the power of our knowledge is not the limit of Truth. The existence of the world in the non-manifest form of Brahman does not denote the reality of it.

Professor Gough and others have quoted many texts from the Upanishads in support of the doctrine of Maya. They all refer to the creative power of Ishvara and the ignorance which envelops the jiva. In the Isha Upanishad and the Chandogya Upanishad the words ‘tamas’ (darkness) and ‘avidya’ (the veiling power) indicate only the intellectual doctrine of Maya. It is true that Maya is a veiling power which conceals the truth from our sight, but it is located in our own individual condition and our limited state; it does not touch the spiritual Reality. The word asat (unreal), used by Shri Shankaracharya in his commentaries on the Taittiriya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads, means the world as name and form, and does not indicate the unreality of the spiritual principle. The holy Acharya negates duality and does not postulate anything else by the word ‘avidya’. He says that the effect is not different from the cause. The meaning is clear from the writings of the holy Acharya that jagat is not different from Brahman, of which it is the effect.

Shri Shankara in his commentary on the Katha Upanishad (1.2.20) says that Atman (the Self) is said to be the only reality in the sense that, apart from Atman, there is no other existence; everything exists by being inseparably existent with Atman. The holy Acharya uses the word Maya in the sense ‘this Brahman, which appears as sansara (the phenomenal existence)’ which means that in Brahman there is no difference between the existence of jagat and the existence of Self. Commenting on the well-known Shruti: ‘As the spider creates the web out of itself… (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 6.10), the holy Acharya says: ‘As the spider, without depending on any source other than Self, creates the web out of its own body, similarly Ishvara creates the world of name and form out of his own Self and nothing else’. He further says that name and form have no existence other than the existence of Ishvara. This is the real meaning of the word ‘mithya’ or unreal. The word ‘Maya’ is also used in the ethical sense, meaning crookedness of conduct. This is explained in the commentary on the Prashna Upanishad (1.16).

In the Mandukya Karika of Shri Gaudapada, ‘Maya’ means the unreality of the world (Karikas 2.12). In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (4.10), which is in the later group of the classical Upanishads, ‘Maya’ is used as meaning the creative power of Ishvara. Ishvara is called ‘Mayin’ (the Lord of Maya). The theory of Shankara is based mostly on the conception of the Shvetashvatara Upanishad. He stresses not so much the unreality of the world as the immutability of Ishvara. We have shown that the world is inseparable from, and not a mutable effect of, the God-Principle. The theory of Maya is better explained in Shri Shankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads than in the Karikas of Gaudapada. Apart from in the latter, the word ‘Maya’ is nowhere else used in a more or less nihilistic sense.

Theory and Practice
Theory is one thing and practice is another. Vedanta can be learned only by practice. Theories are innumerable but the practice is only one. Who will deny the world of limitations which covers the light of the Self? As all the limitations are illumined or revealed by the light of the Self, they are mere adjuncts to it. It is by practice that we know the real Bliss of Vedanta. What practice shall we follow? Withdrawal of our attachment from the outer objects, conversion of the mind into the light of the spirit by self-control, selfless devotion and benevolence and finally evaporation of the mind into the stream of knowledge through meditation.

To be continued

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