Sankara’s Selfless Service


“I know that the choices we make, every choice, including the choice not to do something, makes a difference in the world because no choice is made in a vacuum. So can one person make a difference? Duh!  It’s impossible to NOT make a difference so the question we must ask ourselves is not ‘can I make a difference’ but ‘what kind of a difference do I want to make in the world?”

Julia Butterfly Hill

Some time back I pointed out how translations and commentaries on yoga texts like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are often written from a point of view – the philosophy of absolute non-dualism – that’s not inherently part of the text being translated or commented on. And I left you with an unresolved question: why does this matter?

I’ll answer my question with a question: does what we do matter?

I think most of us would say “yes”. In fact, given the predisposition for many yogis to consider seva – service – to be an important part of their ‘off the mat’ yoga practice, I would expect many of us to say “emphatically yes!” So what happens when we put our seva together with a philosophy of absolute non-dualism? We go about our selfless service to all beings on the assumption that the apprehension of a world full of ‘others’ is an illusion and when we’re enlightened we’ll realize that you are me and I am you and we’re all One. We understand selfless service to be part of the process that will help us achieve the realization of the Oneness of being.

If we define ‘Oneness of being’ as the experience of being an infinite, unified, changeless, and absolute reality that constitutes the sum total of all being and that our ‘Oneness’ is beyond form, qualities, language, relationships, or any other limiting attribute then we would also have to agree that our experience of a limited, dualistic, capricious, and relative world populated by a multiplicity of beings including ourselves is, by definition, an illusion; a non-reality.

Admitting any relative duality into the realm of absolute reality would be contradictory, would make the unlimited limited, the absolute relative; a ‘this’ and a ‘not that’. In fact, a genuinely non-dualistic absolute reality can’t have any relationship at all to an illusory world of dualities because relationship means duality. So the absolute reality can’t be the cause of the illusory world either because that would imply a relationship between the world and it’s cause; a duality. It can’t be transformed by illusion into the appearance of a world because absolute non-duality is, by definition, changeless: eternally the same. And it can’t have energies that undergo transformations to create the world because that implies a difference between the energy and the source of the energy: another duality

If we look closely at the seminal school of absolute non-dualism in the classical yoga tradition, Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta philosophy, this is the conception we find: an undifferentiated Oneness called Brahman is the only reality, the world of our experience is not real, the apprehension of the world is a symptom of ignorance, and there is no relationship between Brahman and the world because a relationship would imply a duality. Therefore, since non-dual Brahman is the only thing that exists, the dualistic world of our experience must not exist. Or, to be more accurate, Sankara, argues that you cannot say that it exists nor can you say that it doesn’t exist and when you become enlightened it will all be a moot point. You say ‘tomato’ and I say ‘it’s all one’; let’s call the whole thing off.

Meanwhile, here we are: non-existent beings existing in a world that neither exists nor doesn’t exist! Now what?

Well, we can do whatever we want! If we dismiss all forms, qualities, language, activities, relationships, diversity of experience, and multiplicity of beings as illusory by definition and posit the ultimate and only reality as being the absence of all such things, what difference does it make? It’s all fiction anyway so we can choose whatever fiction we like. If the world and everything in it is unreal then what we do doesn’t really matter; we can be a vegan or eat at Outback Steakhouse – who cares? No one is really enjoying or suffering anyway: it’s all an illusion, including us!

Do yoga texts agree with this proposition? I don’t think so: the first verse of Bhagavad-gita asks a question: ‘how did they act?’ And the Yamas, the ethical imperatives of the Yoga Sutras that tell us how to act in relationship to others, are the first and foremost mandatory prerequisites of yoga according to Patanjali. Why would the quintessential texts of yoga philosophy be so concerned with how we act if how we act doesn’t matter? Can socio/spiritual activism have any meaning if it’s based on a philosophy that relegates all activity to the confines of an illusory world that has no relationship to “reality”? Where’s the connection between saving a world that doesn’t exist and liberation from the illusion of that world? Is seva meant to be a therapeutic exercise to help us realize that what we do actually doesn’t matter?

These are not rhetorical questions: I genuinely want to hear any answers you may have for this conundrum.

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