Reality, Illusion, and Vedanta

In my last post I offered reasons to believe that reality was greater than illusion and suggested that there’s a popular brand of yoga philosophy that asserts just the opposite: that illusion is greater than reality. In order to identify this philosophy we’ll have to venture outside the confines of ‘Yoga’ proper and into the realm of Vedanta.

Like Yoga, Vedanta is one of the six darshans, or schools of Indian philosophy. Veda means ‘knowledge’ and anta means ‘end’, so vedanta means ‘the end of knowledge’ and refers to a summary understanding of the Upanishads, which are the grand finale of the ancient collection of knowledge texts known as the Vedas. Yoga makes its first historical appearance in the Vedas and there is an important relationship between Yoga and Vedanta.

The essence of Vedanta philosophy is expressed in the Vedanta Sutras; a collection of terse aphorisms that, like a coded data file, needs to be de-coded by informed interpretation and commentary in order to be comprehensible. Also known as the Brahma Sutras, the Vedanta Sutras begin with a declaration that the great imperative for those gifted with a human birth is to pursue knowledge of the ultimate reality, which is subsequently defined as the source of everything. In Sanskrit the first two sutras read: 

athatho brahma jijnasa / janmady asya yatah

 atha – thus; for this reason; now, atho – therefore, brahma – the Absolute Truth; transcendence, jijnasa – of inquiry  /  janma – appearance, birth, creation, adi – 1) original; 2) and so on, or etc., asya – of this, yatah – from whom; from which

A literal word-for-word translation might read like this: “Thus, therefore, inquiry of transcendence, birth, etc., of this from whom.” Clear as mud, right? With the help of additional insights from Sanskrit scholars who walk this kind of talk we can divine a more eloquent rendition: “Now (that you have acquired a human form of life) you can (and should expeditiously) inquire into the nature of the Absolute Truth, from which (or from whom) the creation, maintenance, and destruction of the world proceeds.”

According to this translation it seems clear that, as far as the Vedanta Sutras are concerned, everything, including this temporal, relative (and thus illusory) world of our experience is an effect of which Brahman is the cause. In other words, the Vedanta Sutras define Brahman as an independent reality from which a dependent illusion arises.

So it may surprise you to hear that the most famous of Vedanta philosophers, Shankara, indirectly contradicts this definition of Brahman in his commentary on the Vedanta Sutras, known as Sharirakha Bhasya. Most modern yogis haven’t read this commentary – it’s usually the province of hardcore jnana yogis (yogis who pursue self-realization by means of intellectual insight) and ivory tower academics – but many yogis have been influenced by it: Shankara’s commentary forms the basis for the philosophy of absolute non-dualism, otherwise known as advaita vedanta or, in colloquial parlance, the popular notion that “it’s all one!”

In a nutshell, Shankara proposes that Brahman, the Absolute Truth, is an undifferentiated unity of pure consciousness that is impervious to illusion, cannot be transformed, and, perhaps most importantly, has no energies that are subject either to illusion or transformation. Shankara reasons that Brahman is inherently non-dual and that nothing exists separately from Brahman. If Brahman emitted energies then that would set up a duality – energy and the source of the energy – therefore Brahman cannot have energies.

He further proposes that atman, the conscious living being, is identical with Brahman and that self-realization is therefore the act of atman becoming aware of its true identity: Brahman. And that’s the kicker because now we have an obvious question: if we are atman and atman is identical to Brahman and Brahman is an undifferentiated unity of pure consciousness that’s beyond the influence of illusion, then how do you explain our experience of a world filled with a multiplicity of people, places, and things that are all perpetually changing? Has Brahman, the ultimate reality, been subdued by illusion?

Next entry: Shankara’s answer. Stay tuned.

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