How to Charm a Rope

Continuing with our musings on the relationship between illusion and reality, I concluded my last blog entry with a couple of questions: how does Shankara, the founder of the school of absolute non-dualism, explain our experience of a dualistic world if, as he insists, we are, in reality, identical with Brahman – the highest truth – and Brahman is not subject to illusion nor in possession of energies that may be subject to illusion? Has the supreme reality of undifferentiated oneness somehow been subdued by an inferior illusion of differentiated many-ness?

Shankara’s explanation is that any appearance of differentiated energies, such as the phenomenal world, is not just illusory but is altogether false: completely non-existent however much it may seem otherwise. The Sanskrit term for this concept is vivarta vada: the doctrine of illusory transformation. Simply put, vivarta vada says that although it appears as if the undifferentiated unity that is Brahman has been transformed into the world of our experience, it hasn’t: the world of our experience doesn’t actually exist; the appearance of illusion is… an illusion!

A classic example used to illustrate the concept of vivarta vada is the experience of mistaking a rope for a snake: you walk into a dark room and you see a long and sinuous cylindrical object coiled across the floor. The object is a rope but you can’t see it clearly due to the absence of light and therefore mistake the rope for a snake. In fact, you actually see a snake because your mind is convinced that it’s a snake and sends that information to your brain. Then someone (your guru, perhaps) turns on the light and you realize that, under the influence of illusion due to darkness, the rope appeared to be something that it’s not. By virtue of illumination your illusion is now dispelled: you understand that the object is really a rope and that there is no snake.

This example does a nice job of explaining how we can be influenced by illusion and how illumination dispels ignorance, but does it illustrate that the world doesn’t actually exist or that our experience of the world is itself unreal? I don’t think so. For the analogy to hold up it would have to illustrate how ropes exist and snakes don’t. It doesn’t do that: in order to mistake a rope for a snake one must first have the experience of a snake so snakes must exist! And there must be some similarity between the snake and the rope; if the rope doesn’t resemble the snake then we wouldn’t mistake one for the other.

If anything, the rope and snake scenario illustrates how illusion must have some resemblance to reality, like a reflection or a doppelganger. To put it another way, the multiplicity of beings and diversity of phenomena that we experience in the condition of illusion must have legitimate counterparts in the condition of reality. Otherwise there would be no reference, no possibility that we could mistake the illusory world for the real world, maya for Brahman, a rope for a snake.

If we accept that illusion is a reflection of reality we’re still left with the question of how we come to mistake the reflection for reality. After all, if we’re identical to Brahman and Brahman is not subject to illusion then who’s mistaking the reflection for reality: who’s illusion is it?

Not mine. Not yours, either. At least not according to Shankara. Why not? Because according to Shankara you and I don’t exist! The very idea, to say nothing of the experience, of a ‘me’ and a ‘you’ is a product of illusion and the product of illusion can’t be the source of illusion; the effect cannot produce the cause!

So who’s left? Well, the only thing that really exists according to absolute non-dualism is Brahman so that must be the answer: the absolute, eternal, undifferentiated, and ultimate reality experiences itself as a multiplicity of beings living in a temporal relative world due to the influence of illusion. And that means that, according to this philosophy, illusion is greater than reality!

But wait: by definition Brahman is not subject to illusion! How can the ultimate reality, which, by nature, is eternal, self-aware, and blissful, be subject to a temporal, bewildering, and often miserable illusion filled with innumerable varieties of people, places, and things all undergoing perpetual transformations?

If you can offer an explanation of how the philosophy of absolute non-dualism satisfactorily answers this question without chasing it’s own tail I’d like to hear it.


  1. Tulasi-Priya
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:25 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I’m sure there’s an “explanation” out there, but I think it’s more a question of how far one will go to avoid the necessity for accountability that’s implicit in a personalistic, dualistic philosophy. People don’t adopt philosophies because they’re “right,” but because of what they get out of them. We’re always self-justifying, but some of us reach the end of the line, finally forced to surrender. We have no choice. We don’t choose truth, it chooses us.

  2. Tulasi-Priya
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:26 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Enjoyed the essay, btw.

    • Posted March 24, 2012 at 10:45 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for your insightful comment, Tulasi-Priya. I wholeheartedly agree with you: our criteria for a philosophy is not always that it must make sense, but that it fulfills an emotional or psychological need; that it works for us on some level, conscious or otherwise, and we stick with it until or unless something changes and it doesn’t work for us in the way that it used to. And yes, the truth chooses us (“Hello, Neo.”) and when we understand it we are faced with the choice of whether or not to agree to its implications and respond accordingly, to take the red pill or the blue pill.

      In some cases we may accept a particular way of looking at things because it doesn’t occur to us that it could be any other way. Or, in the absence of an alternative, we may accept an angle of vision despite a feeling that something is wrong with this picture and if we can just put our finger on what it is then we would gratefully acknowledge the revelation. My hope is that a dissection of the problems with vivarta vada in juxtaposition with what may be the more satisfactory explanation of sakti parinama vada may provide just such a revelation for anyone who feels frustrated by the internal contradictions inherent in absolute non-dualism.

      • Posted March 24, 2012 at 10:47 PM | Permalink

        I forgot to mention: a look at sakti parinama vada is coming up in the next post.

  3. D.
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 8:44 AM | Permalink | Reply

    This is a complicated subject to explain in words, but to my understanding, we (the jivas) experience illusion because we are not yet karmically purified to realize Brahman, hence the need for yoga practices. Brahman’s power of maya projects what we perceive as names and forms. Maya is Brahman’s power, but Brahman is not bound by maya. Jivas don’t know why Brahman has created this scenario, it is simply Brahman’s nature, inherent to what Brahman is. The jivas and everything contained in the universe are empirically real, but only relative to Brahman, because they undergo change. Brahman alone is eternal and changeless. Jivamukti, liberated souls, understand this in a way that is not bound by the senses or rational thinking. The experience of Brahman can’t be put into words, hence the explanations seem like they chase the tail, which may in fact be the point, similar to a Buddhist koan. Ultimately, we must transcend language and the mind to experience Brahman as it is, and see Brahman manifested in all names and forms, the light within them, within us. We are Brahman as waves are to the ocean: you can discern the waves as appearances in time, but ultimately they are the ocean, eternally.

    To a jiva, the rope really does appear to be a snake. Without the light to dispel the darkness, with the jiva’s limited perception, it is absolutely a snake, absolutely real. But in the light, we see things in their fundamental nature, pervaded by Brahman.

    Interestingly, approaching this understanding of the inherent sameness of things beyond appearance compels us to moral and ethical accountability, because to cause harm or offense to others, the world, or the Lord (as Ishvara) is to harm ourselves, with attendant karmic consequences. And if we delight in and serve others, our world, and the Lord, we approach the realization of our bliss nature, which is Brahman. Ishvara is how jivas can apprehend Brahman through the projection of maya, according to Advaita Vedanta. Loving service to Ishvara purifies us and keeps us on the course to the final realization of the nirguna (attribute-less) Brahman. The Gaudiya tradition and monotheistic forms of Vedanta, of course, have different visions of how these factors are related to one another.

    Would love your response as I’m still puzzling all of this out! Hari om tat sat

    • Posted April 30, 2012 at 3:56 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks very much for your comment, D. My apologies for taking so long to reply to you. Here are my thoughts:

      You proposed that “Brahman’s power of maya projects what we perceive as names and forms. Maya is Brahman’s power, but Brahman is not bound by maya.” I agree. However, what you’re describing is not Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Sankara’s explanation is that Brahman has no energies, so maya cannot be a power of Brahman in Sankara’s philosophy. If it were, there would be a duality – Brahman and the power of Brahman – or it would mean that Brahman itself has been transformed into maya but Sankara does not allow for the possibility of Brahman undergoing transformations of any kind. This is the point of my series on this topic: Absolute Non-dualism is a doctrine of maya – mayavada philosophy – that denies the existence of the world in spite of our self evident experience of the world. If Brahman is not subject to maya but I am then I must not be Brahman in which case I’d be wasting my time if I tried to realize that I am Brahman because I’m obviously not. And if my experience of myself as a person under the influence of illusion is itself an illusion then who is having the illusion? Not me. Not Brahman. Who’s left?

      A Buddhist might say “no one: congratulations!” But that would only confirm that Advaita Vedanta is crypto-Buddhism: it still doesn’t explain how we come to experience a world of names and forms or how we transcend it. Sankara’s word jugglery ultimately amounts to circular logic: if all names, forms, qualities, activities and relationships are illusion – including the perception of a self who is experiencing the illusion of the world – and the only true reality is Brahman, which is not subject to illusion and therefore not me, then where’s the exit ramp that takes me off the Beltway of maya into realization of Brahman?

      “Jivas don’t know why Brahman has created this scenario, it is simply Brahman’s nature, inherent to what Brahman is. The jivas and everything contained in the universe are empirically real, but only relative to Brahman, because they undergo change.”

      I’m curious to know where you got this idea: I have never heard a coherent explanation as to why it is Brahman’s nature to create anything outside of itself if Brahman’s inherent nature is that of an absolutely undifferentiated oneness of being. And if jivas don’t know why Brahman does something then it’s another indication that jivas aren’t Brahman: if they were, they’d know what Brahman knows. Besides, this, again, presupposes a duality – Brahman and a created scenario: Jivas relative to Brahman – so it’s not really non-dualistic philosophy. In order to have Brahman and a world full of jivas that are real, empirically or otherwise, you have to stipulate a duality. Advaita Vedanta doesn’t do that. I don’t think any of this can be explained without stipulating a duality. Therefore any philosophy that posits an absolute and undifferentiated oneness of being must, at some point, self-destruct.

      I have never been particularly crazy about the waves in the ocean analogy. One wave is not all waves; the energy that makes a wave is manifest and then unmanifest and then manifest again as another wave, which nicely illustrates the transmigration of the jiva from body to body. I think that a better analogy or the purpose of our discussion is that of a water molecule and the ocean: one water molecule is qualitatively the same as all other water molecules, but one molecule is not the entire ocean of all molecules; there is a quantitative difference.

      Another way to look at the ocean analogy is that, from high above, the ocean looks like an undifferentiated unity. When we get close to the surface we see that there are features to the ocean in the form of waves; energetic expansions manifesting throughout the point of contact between the ocean and the air. And if we dive into the ocean we find all manner of living beings; a multiplicity of forms, names, activities, etc. The Gaudiya Vaishnava vedantist sees this as analogous to progressive realizations of the three features of the Absolute truth: Brahman (the surface from afar), Paramatma (the surface up close), and Bhagavan (the internal world of spiritual forms). Why do we assume that all form is material? Is it not possible that there are spiritual forms?

      “And if we delight in and serve others, our world, and the Lord, we approach the realization of our bliss nature, which is Brahman. Ishvara is how jivas can apprehend Brahman through the projection of maya, according to Advaita Vedanta. Loving service to Ishvara purifies us and keeps us on the course to the final realization of the nirguna (attribute-less) Brahman.”

      This is mayavada philosophy: everything, including the form of the Lord – Ishvara – is maya: illusion. If Ishvara, the devotee of Ishvara, and loving service to Ishvara are all in the category of illusion then how can loving service to an illusion produce the apprehension of reality?

      Thanks again for your reply to my post. If you would care to give my queries some thought I’d be curious to hear your further explanations for what appear to me to be irreconcilable internal contradictions.

      – Hkd

  4. D
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 8:07 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Hi, Hkd, thanks for your reply.

    I’m a neophyte student of Advaita Vedanta with a swami in the Ramakrishna tradition. (Advaita vedantists consider the term mayavada to be derogatory because the word misrepresents their understanding and, in their view, implies an oversimplification of the meaning of the term maya, which is not simply illusion.)

    It’s tricky because Advaita can only use language, which is inherently dualistic, to describe a non-dualistic consciousness. All of the metaphors used are illustrative but can’t completely capture the non-dual reality. But here goes:

    Advaita doesn’t deny the existence of the world or universe for the jiva; however, it maintains that the jiva’s understanding of the universe is only relatively real, because it is conceived of through the senses, in dualistic terms. Things appear self-evident through the senses, but we know they’re limited. Only Brahman is ultimately real, because it is non-dual, eternal, and unchanging. The jivanmukta has an enlightened non-dual understanding; for him or her, the universe, the jiva, and Ishvara (Brahman with attributes) disappear and only Brahman remains.

    As it has been explained to me, maya is not simply illusion per se, but is Brahman’s shakti, or creative power, which also happens to occlude the non-dual reality; thus our everyday perception of names and forms. Our perception of names and forms is due to ignorance, or avidya. Advaita vedantists believe that Brahman is the material and the instrumental cause of the universe, whereas the dvaita school does not. For the Advaita vedantists, creation proceeds from Brahman, but Brahman remains unchanged. Our everyday perception of change is only in name and form. The example given is that you can form gold into many various forms of jewelry, and give the various forms of jewelry different names. However, in their fundamental essence, they are and remain gold.

    Also, seeing Brahman as the material and instrumental cause of the universe is only a preliminary view. The universe is a superimposition on the underlying reality of Brahman, just like the various forms of jewelry are a superimposition on the underlying gold. The superimposition of the universe must be sublated into Brahman in order to remove avidya and understand non-duality. Once we realize that our conception of universe and jiva are only superimpositions, they disappear, and only Brahman exists. This experience is beyond language and rational thought. The reason for our avidya is inexplicable and can’t be understood by dualistic thinking. Logical analysis can’t explain it. Also, the advaita vendantist’s experience of moksha can’t be contained by words or logic, as both are dependent on dualism. This experience might be the intentional self-destruction of non-dual philosophy and the exit ramp to which you referred. From the jiva’s vantage point, the realization that the atman (jiva’s true nature) is Brahman is a radical expansion of consciousness beyond categories.

    Brahman is nirguna, without attributes. Ishvara is saguna, with attributes. The universe can be perceived as created by Brahman in its capacity as Ishvara. This is considered a temporary description for creation for those who are seeking one. But when Brahman is understood as nirguna, maya (universe, jiva and Ishvara) disappear; only Brahman remains. This is called turiya, the transcendent consciousness beyond the senses. In this state, the demarcation between creation, creator and the act of creation falls away; and in this sense, no creation has occured.

    Service to the Lord and devotion to an Ishta devata is not illusory: it is the method used by some Advaita vedantists to purify themselves and their perception. You can’t grasp onto Brahman, but you can grasp onto the Lord in name and form, as the representative of Brahman in the world. Through devotion, study and meditation, the Advaita vedantist’s relationship to Brahman is refined, and may ultimately lead from an “I am His” relationship to an “I am Him” consciousness. Relationship to the Lord keeps you oriented in the right direction. (Krishna is my Ishta devata, fyi.) Many Advaita vedantists are quite devout, and this sets them apart from the kinds of Buddhism that dispense with the ideas of atman and Brahman.

    I’m eager to re-state that I’m a newbie to all this! But to date, this is my understanding.

    • Posted May 17, 2012 at 3:10 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Hi D:

      Thanks for continuing this dialog and my apologies for taking so long to offer you a response.

      For a neophyte you have pretty a firm grasp on the tenets of monist philosophy. I’m not familiar with the particulars of the Ramakrishna tradition so you may be able to enlighten me on some points you’ve raised that have me a little confused: in at least one case we agree on something that, by my calculation, we ought to disagree on.

      Regarding the term ‘mayavada’: if my use of the term is a barrier to civil discourse and has offended you or your teachers, I apologize. My understanding of it is as a term describing a school of thought that declares everything to be maya and that would include Advaita Vedanta, at least as far as Sankara’s exposition of it is concerned. Bhakti yogis, particularly Gaudiya Vaisnavas, declare that everything is either Krishna or Krishna’s energies and yet nothing is Krishna save and except for Krishna himself, in his unique, personal, and entirely transcendental form. We therefore consider a philosophy that relegates the form of the Supreme Being to the realm of illusion or demotes the Supreme Person to a material projection that serves the aspirant as a stepping-stone to a presumably higher realization as offensive (mayavadi krsne aparadhi). Hence the term mayavada is imbued with a connotation of opprobrium by Krishna bhaktas by virtue of its diminution of the transcendental person. If the term ‘mayavada’ is misrepresentative of Advaita philosophy you would be contributing to my education by explaining to me how this is so.

      With regard to the limitations of using language to describe a non-dualistic consciousness, in my view this is not so much a problem with language as it is a problem with non-dualistic philosophy. You’ve asserted that the material world is a transformation of the energy of Brahman (a point I’ll return to later). If Brahman is the source of everything then Brahman is the source of language, too. And if it exists in the product then it must also exist in the source of the product; language must be a feature of Brahman in order for language to come from Brahman. Logic demands that one cannot give what one hasn’t got so if it’s present in the world then it must also be present in Brahman and not just an exclusive feature of illusion. And if language is inherent in Brahman then a reason, inclination, and means to use language must also be present in Brahman.

      Modern thinking pre-supposes that language is a human invention, a product of evolution. One would think that all schools of Vedanta must reject this view because the whole idea of biological evolution negates the distinction between a pre-existing conscious being (purusa) and a temporarily manifest body (prakrti), along with the possibility of karma and transmigration of the atma, all of which are essential elements of Vedic thought. If I recall correctly, Vivekenanda declared that there was no conflict between Vedanta and evolutionary science, but I don’t know his rational for this claim; perhaps you can illuminate this for me.

      That digression aside, if language comes from Brahman then logic follows that the proper use of language is in describing and glorifying Brahman. To put it another way, language looses its spiritual character when it is disconnected from Brahman and regains it when it is connected to Brahman. Bhakti yogis therefore make a distinction between mundane language, where language is relative to the object described by language, and transcendental language, where the language is non-different from that which language describes. The word ‘water’ is a conventional term for a particular element which may be called by a different name in another conventional language, but the word ‘Krishna” is Krishna himself; the non-duality of the word and the person is an essential attribute of the person the word describes. Hence we experience the word ‘Om’ as a symbol of Brahman when we are conditioned by illusion and as non-different from Brahman in the state of self-realization.

      Of course, in our conditioned state we may not experience this non-duality. The only way for us to overcome this condition is precisely by using the language of transcendence, such as mantra. If a mantra is a mundane sound vibration then it will have no effect, no inherent potency to transform the chanter no matter how much intention and attention the chanter invests in it: if ‘Om’ is not Brahman then no amount of chanting ‘Om’ will help us to apprehend Brahman.

      As you rightly point out, one can’t use language to describe non-dualistic consciousness. The fact that it’s not possible to describe that which has no qualities is one reason why, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the pursuit of Brahman, the impersonal aspect of himself, as being difficult for the embodied atma. But he makes it equally clear that he is the basis of Brahman, that a symptom of one who is devoted to him is the constant use of language in glorification of him (kirtana), and that one so devoted easily crosses beyond the influence of his illusory energy. The constructive application of language toward spiritual awakening is fully realized when used in connection with saguna Brahman: the Absolute Truth with transcendental qualities. Therefore the limitation of language is not in language itself but in its inapplicability to nirguna Brahman, Brahman altogether devoid of qualities.

      With regard to a complete understanding of maya, you are proposing that maya is Brahman’s creative power. I agree with you: Brahman is the cause of the world and maya is an active and divine energy that either conceals or reveals the Absolute Truth according to the consciousness of the individual being affected. But this does not sound like Advaita Vedanta to me. I’m not familiar with Ramakrishna’s presentation of absolute non-dualism so maybe I’m missing something. It is Sankara’s presentation that I have an argument with: while the Vedanta Sutras clearly indicate that Brahman is the cause of the world, Sankara, the founder of Advaita Vedanta, discreetly contradicts the Sutras by rejecting what you have just described, namely sakti parinama vada, the doctrine of creation by virtue of a transformation of energies that leaves Brahman unchanged. Sankara replaces sakti parinama vada with his doctrine of vivarta vada: the concept that Brahman is not the cause of the world and has no connection with it because Brahman is never transformed and does not posses any energies that undergo transformation. He therefore asserts that the appearance of the world is completely illusory; is not real.

      Changing your example from gold to clay, if we know the substance of clay then we know the material cause of all clay pots. But in order to make a clay pot there has to be an efficient cause, a potter, to go with the material cause. The clay undergoes transformations while remaining essentially clay, but the potter is never transformed into either clay or a clay pot. Similarly, Brahman may appear to transformed into the world of our experience by the energy of the person who is orchestrating the transformation of his own energies but who remains transcendental to the act of transformation and the result of transformation. It doesn’t make any sense to me that undifferentiated Brahman, bereft of personal qualities, would have any reason to emit an energy and then transform that energy into a world that Brahman would then experience in differentiated forms only to endeavor by study and meditation to transcend. Why would Brahman do that and how would an undifferentiated oneness have any agency to do anything in the first place? There has to be a better explanation than that our avidya is inexplicable. And I think that there is.

      The cause of our ignorance is only inexplicable if we constrain our reasoning to an a priori assumption of absolute non-dualism. If, on the other hand, we accept a direct interpretation of yoga scripture and posit a transcendental duality, which is entirely different from a conventional duality because it operates on the basis of a qualitative oneness of the atma with Brahman but a quantitative difference that establishes a spiritual relationship between the part and the whole, then the reason for our avidya becomes self-evident: we are in denial of reality, namely, that we have an eternal and subordinate relationship with the complete whole. The symptom of our denial of reality is our desire to assume the position of God and our expression of defiance of reality is our attempt to organize the universe around our selfish desires for the sake of fulfilling them. When we begin to re-acquaint ourselves with reality we understand that are clearly not qualified for the position we covet, that we are plagued by envy of the one person who is qualified to hold the position, and that, in response to our desire for the impossible, we have been given an illusory environment that serves the dual purpose of allowing us to pursue our delusional ‘God Project’ while concealing the object of our envy and resentment, the omnipresent Supreme Person, from our view. The pursuit of the fulfillment of our material desires is therefore the essential act of alienation from the personal form of the Absolute Truth that disqualifies us for the experience of the exchange of love between ourselves – the infinitesimal parts – and the Supreme Person – the infinite whole. The process of devotional yoga is reformatory, a re-orientation of the atma back to reality.

      Devotion to an Ishta Devata is only devotion when we want to love and serve the object of our devotion. If, in the back of our minds, we are thinking that we are the object of our devotion then devotion itself looses its meaning and we risk being trapped once again by the last snare of maya, the illusion that we are God. It is possible to merge into the oneness of being, but one whose heart is genuinely filled with love for their beloved would never wish for such a thing, preferring to loose all sense of themselves in their love of the other.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. – Hkd

      • D
        Posted May 23, 2012 at 2:52 AM | Permalink

        Hi Hkd,

        I appreciate our dialog! I will try to address your comments in brief:

        Mayavada means “maya doctrine” and is considered derogatory because the term itself is an oversimplification of the whole of advaita vedanta and of the nuances it articulates regarding the nature of maya. Advaita vedantists prefer the term advaita vedanta. Mayavada implies the opprobrium you mention and is therefore considered pejorative. The term is mainly used to cast Shankara in a negative light. While Shankara is one of the bright lights of Vedanta, there are other important commentators in the school. And it may surprise you to know that Shankara, like other vedantists, practiced bhakti; he was a devotee of Shiva and wrote volumes of bhakti poetry for Shiva.

        Purusha, prakriti, karma, atma and transmigration are, you guessed it, only relatively real from the standpoint of advaita. As long as the jiva is without the realization that atman is Brahman, all of these dualistic concepts, as well as all other dualistic concepts like jagat (universe) and Ishvara remain in force. For the jivamukti, they all fall away and Brahman alone remains. In evolution, the demarcations between species are very fuzzy and various (i.e. maya), which for advaita vedantists (as opposed to Buddhists) implies a coherent, singular field on which they are evolving: Brahman. Maya always implies Brahman as the field on which it is at play, from the perspective of the jiva. The jivamukti has a clear view of the field, and all names and forms appear only as shadows in relation to it.

        In advaita vedanta, Brahman is the material and instrumental cause. It is only an appearance through the veil of maya that the universe has proceeded from an unchanging Brahman. In that sense, the universe is not real. A metaphor that is used is the sun. From our limited perspective, there are sunny days, cloudy days, and relative positions in which the sun is blocked or partially obscured from our view by mountains, etc. These are all relativistic, maya-induced perspectives. From the perspective of the sun itself, the sun is always shining and complete. Advaita vedantists reserve the word “real” only for satchitananda, that which is ever existing, ever conscious, and ever blissful. All conditional manifestations are, relative to That, unreal. Here some of the nuances of the term maya begin to become evident. And this is also where a Krishna bhakta along ISKCON lines might take issue, because this does indeed ultimately apply to any conception of the Supreme relative to a personality, as well. For an advaita vedantist, any conception of Ishvara holds from within the scope of jiva and jagat, and the advaita vedantist’s conception of the Supreme is not contained by these categories. The advaita vedantist practices bhakti and mantra in order to realize his or her non-dual relationship with the ishta devata, and ultimately oneness with Brahman itself, beyond names and forms. Devotion to Ishwara is our highest relationship to the Supreme prior and leading to realization. As you said, it is re-forming and re-orienting, but with a different conception of reality in mind.

        In advaita vedanta, we are not subordinate to the whole, we are the whole itself. Unlike any conception of God bound by names and forms, with regard to Brahman there is no coveting for position, no God-like role to pretend to assume, or anything to envy, resent, or defy, as you indicate above. (This is presuming that you have attained the four-fold qualification of the aspirant of advaita vedanta, which include dispassion for material desires, seeing them as illusory and unsatisfying delays from the realization of the Supreme.)

        It’s all Brahman. The Mahavakyas (great sayings) of vedanta, taken from the four Vedas, are:

        Consciousness is Brahman
        Atman is Brahman
        Thou Art That
        I am Brahman

        As you point out, for some bhaktas, the goal is to stay in the position of loving service, as opposed to the full merging, which is possible. For the advaita vedantist, the sense of merging leads to a realization of oneness. Interestingly, from the perspective of some of the traditional advaita vedantist writings, bhaktas and jnanis all reach the same destination, as Brahman. In their view, after death, true bhaktas leave off from transmigration and exist in a higher sphere of consciousness with their Ishta devata until the dissolution of the universe, at which time everything merges into oneness as Brahman. The jivanmukti, upon death, immediately assumes this oneness, having experienced its reality even while living.

        The subject is incredibly broad! I hope I’m representing the advaita vedanta perspective clearly and accurately, but I may be making mistakes, as I am just starting out. If you want to learn more, I’d recommend a book called “The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga” by PJ Mazumdar. It’s a fascinating and accessible overview of vedanta, its relationship to other philosophies and the sciences, and its practice. Hari Om Tat Sat

      • Posted June 13, 2012 at 2:02 PM | Permalink

        Thanks for the book recommendation, D, though I must immediately object to the characterization of Hinduism in the book description on Amazon as an atheistic tradition. This is categorically and conspicuously untrue: Vaishanvism, the largest branch of Hinduism, is not just theistic but is intensely personalistic (as in ‘Purusotamma” – the Supreme Person). This mischaracterization casts a considerable shadow of doubt on the book as a whole. The pairing of Hinduism with Buddhism foreshadows a characterization of Hinduism as ultimately being synonymous with Advaita Vedanta, which is a conclusion only found among Advaita Vedantists. And I find the persistant a priori assumption that Advaita Vedanta is “the highest school of philosophy of Hinduism” (says who?) to be a curious habit of monistic Hindus. I plan on taking a look at this book just the same: I suspect I will find it highly motivating.

        A few thoughts on your comments: if the conception of Ishvara only holds within the realm of maya then the personal form of Brahman is conceptual rather than actual and only has value as a meditational prop to be abandoned upon realizing one’s oneness with Brahman. From the standpoint of a Vaisnava, this conceptualization does not ever really reach the level of devotion due selfish motive: the desire for liberation for one’s self rather than selfless love for the object of one’s affection. It’s also a diminution of the personal form of Brahman: Vaisnavas consider the personal form of the Absolute Truth to be fully transcendental and the foundation of the impersonal aspect of Brahman, with which they would never want to merge since undifferentiated oneness eliminates the possibility of loving service.

        Most interesting to me in your last comment was the assertion that “In advaita vedanta, we are not subordinate to the whole, we are the whole itself.” This is, of course, entirely theoretical: in the world of our experience our subordinate position is self-evident. And the theory, as Ramanuja points out, has a conspicuous flaw: if maya is an energy of Brahman and we are subordinate to maya then we are subordinate to Brahman as opposed to identical with Brahman, which is beyond the influence of maya. This has been my point all along and nothing in your presentation of Advaita Vedanta, which I think you are accurately representing (more or less), has dislodged this logical conundrum. Therefore some distinction must be made between the conscious entity that experiences the influence of maya and the conscious entity that is the source of maya. The difference between the two is not a matter of ‘relative reality’ and ‘absolute reality’ so much as it is a difference between ‘marginal’ and ‘contingent’ (can be overcome by ignorance or not) and ‘supreme’ and ‘independent’ (not subject to ignorance under any circumstances). I have found that Caitanya’s doctrine of the infinitesimal conscious entity’s inconceivably simultaneous oneness with yet difference from the infinite conscious entity, realized to its fullest degree through the exchange of love expressed as devotional service that awakens and enlivens the transcendental senses of the devotee, to be the most complete and satisfactory explanation for our illusory temporal experience within the scope of our actual eternal nature.

        We could, as has been done for centuries, continue to argue the fine points of our respective angles of vision without either of us being persuaded by the other. In any event, I think you’ve helped to highlight the distinctions between the Vaisnava and Advaita Vedanta frames of reference very nicely. Thanks again for engaging with me in this conversation. – Hkd

  5. D
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 4:46 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I agree, it’s very goofy to describe Hinduism as atheistic! But I’d give the book a shot because I think you’ll find it a fascinating read. I imagine you furiously scribbling in the margins like I did. I wouldn’t concern yourself too much with the marketing copy. The book itself is a pretty balanced view of science, logic, and vedanta, with a long chapter on bhakti that I found inspiring and that you might relish in some ways. The author’s family has been part of the administration of a temple in Hajo that is dedicated to Narasimha, the lion incarnation of Vishnu.

    My impression as a non-Indian is that, in the Hindu cultural context, advaita vedanta is often considered to be the most sophisticated philosophical school. This is why, for example, you often see monistic commentaries of samkhya and yoga writings like Patanjali’s yoga sutras. It is considered to have gone further than those schools by some, whereas some of the other schools have become relatively static. Advaita vedanta is also considered to be the most thorough-going in its dialog with Buddhism, and some say that because of advaita vedanta’s active engagement with Buddhism, Buddhism’s influence in India began to decline. And of course Caitanya’s revival of bhakti yoga in the 15th century brought yoga to the masses, preceding which yoga practices had become something largely for the brahminical elite.

    Actually, advaita vedantists do not equate vedanta with Hinduism. You could, for example, practice bhakti as an advaita vedantist with Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha as your ishta devata. Brahman, of course, transcends any kind of sectarian divisions.

    Also, for an advaita vedantist, there can be no selfish motive because he or she is utilizing yoga practices to lose identification with the self. One of the established qualifications of the advaita vedanta aspirant is vairagya, the letting go of any attachments, aversions, fears or false identities that appear to cloud Brahman. As you note above, Vaisnavas consider the personal form of the Absolute Truth to be fully transcendental and the foundation of the impersonal aspect of Brahman, whereas for the advaita vedantist, it is the reverse. From this perspective, loving service to Krishna, for example, will ultimately lead to the advaita vedantic realization of Brahman without a second. For the advaita vedantist practicing bhakti, this is the ultimate endpoint: through love for Ishvara, one’s perception becomes so focused, so pure, that the misapprehension of being separate from it is lost completely.

    “We” are not subordinate to maya. Maya is a quality of Brahman, as it is a quality of fire to be hot. However, it is within the jiva’s capacity to experience Brahman through and beyond this veil. The jiva can’t solve the conundrum through logic. In advaita vedanta, logic is taken to its endpoint and ultimately transcended in shradda (devotion to the scriptures) and meditation. Once Brahman is realized, the apparent conundrum is no longer an issue, because the conundrum itself was distorted by formulating it through maya, from a distorted angle of vision.

    It can be argued that devotion can’t be selfless until the sense of self is lost, otherwise there is some selfish motivation for service. Similarly, it can be argued that it is a conundrum to be at one with something and yet different from it, as in your description of Caitanya’s doctrine of the infinitesimal conscious entity’s inconceivably simultaneous oneness with yet difference from the infinite conscious entity. This is, of course, an inconceivable conundrum. But as you went on to say, realization can come through devotional service which purifies and leads to the awakening of the transcendental senses. Advaita vedanta speaks in very similar terms, though the conception of realization is different in the ways we have delineated ad nauseum to anyone except us! :^)

    I won’t go further with this particular dialog for the reasons you expressed above, but I’ve very much enjoyed the thinking that your blog post triggered for me. And I felt it was important to clarify some misperceptions that exist about advaita vedanta and its practice. To me, the Vaishnava tradition is beautiful, and I haunt regularly to learn more about Govinda — a video with you in it on that site is how I found this one! All the best, D

  6. Rohit Kanji
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 7:35 PM | Permalink | Reply

    You said “According to Sankara, you and I do not exist.” Sankara never said anything that lets you infer this. Please explain how you arrive at this rather interesting conclusion.

  7. Rohit Kanji
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 7:39 PM | Permalink | Reply

    You wrote “If you can offer an explanation of how the philosophy of absolute non-dualism satisfactorily answers this question without chasing it’s own tail I’d like to hear it.”

    Simple. Drop your misunderstanding that Mithya means illusion. It is a standard mistake made by many. Here is a hint: Brahman is something that is unchanging and independent – an uncaused cause. Mithya is anything that is dependent on another.

    • Posted December 10, 2012 at 3:52 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Thank you very much for your comments, Rohit. I will be happy to offer you an explanation in accordance with your request and, with it, a reply to your solution regarding ‘mithya’.

      When I say “you and I”, I’m obviously referring to the multiplicity of beings we experience in the world. The question is, if we accept Sankara’s view that Brahman is the only reality or truth (brahma satyam) and Brahman is, by definition, an undifferentiated unity that neither undergoes transformation nor emanates differentiated energies that undergo transformation then how do we account for our experience of a variegated world?

      Referring to George Thibault’s translation of Sankara’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras, in I Adhyaya, 4 Pada, 26 we find that the author, Vyasa or Badarayana, asserts sakti parinama vada – a transformation of energies – as an explanation: “(Brahman is the material cause) on account of (the Self) making itself; (which is possible) owing to modification.” Referring to the example of clay and clay pots, Sankara confirms parinama: “But how can the Self which was in full existence previously to the action be made out to be at the same time that which is effected by the action? Owing to modification, we reply. The Self, although in full existence previously to the action, modifies itself into something special, viz. the Self of the effect. Thus we see that causal substances, such as clay and the like, are, by undergoing the process of modification, changed into their products.”

      This brings us to the first problem: sakti parinama vada – the doctrine of transformation of energies – stipulates that Brahman has energies that undergo modification. That creates a cause and effect duality: energies and the source of energies. The source of the energy is unchanging but the energy undergoes transformations.

      At this point Sankara puts aside the problem of energies creating a duality and proposes two aspects of Brahman within the framework of reality: The causal Self and the Self that is the effect of the cause. If, as you suggest, we define ‘mithya’ as a relative or contingent truth then we end up with two categories of Brahman, which is exactly what Sankara intends: a two-tiered system that interprets the sutras as either talking about Brahman from the standpoint of an absolute, undifferentiated and independent truth (Brahman satyam) or about Brahman as a relative, differentiated, and dependent truth (jagan mithya). From the point of view of the absolute Oneness one cannot speak of a world in which there is found a multiplicity of beings because the experience of Oneness is that of complete unity; there is no other to speak about. From the point of view of the relative truth there is a plethora of people, places, and things and, along with them, an external cause that creates the world, which satisfies the first two sutras (athato brahma jijnasa janma yasya yatha), which makes a distinction between the world and Brahman, that from which the world proceeds.

      So, Sankara has stipulated, in accordance with the Sutras, a duality: a world that has both relativity within its own sphere and a relationship to its cause: Brahman. But if Brahman has a double nature according to whether it’s experienced as an object of knowledge or an object of nescience then we have to acknowledge a relationship of cause to its effect, if only from the standpoint of the effect. If the effect is considered a kind of truth then you have a double theory of truth. If ‘mithya’ or relative truth is just as valid as ‘satya’ on account of the world (jagan) being non-different from Brahman then words loose their meaning: true is false and false is true, a cat is a giraffe and a bowling ball is a butterfly. After all, it’s One anyway, right?

      With language unmoored we can move forward to Sankara’s solution to the problem that he set aside earlier, the problem of energies creating a duality. Obviously we can’t have an undifferentiated Oneness that is relative to anything nor can we have energies that are in any way separated from the energetic cause of energy. If we are to accept that there is nothing other than Brahman we need to eliminate these dualities by eliminating the world, by defining the world as false, the commonly accepted definition of the word ‘mithya’. This is precisely what Sankara does at II Adhyaya, I Pada, 14: the sutra is translated as “The non-difference of them (i.e. of cause and effect) results from such terms as ‘origin’ and the like”. Sankara comments, referring to the distinction between cause and effect: “In reality, however, the distinction does not exist because there is understood to be non-difference (identity), of cause and effect…. the meaning of this passage is that, if there is known a lump of clay which really and truly is nothing but clay, there are known thereby likewise all things made of clay, such as jars, dishes, pails, and so on, all of which agree in having clay for their true nature. For these modifications or effects are names only, exist through or originate from speech only, while in reality there exists no such thing as a modification. Insofar as they are names (individual effects distinguished by names) they are untrue; insofar as they are clay they are true.”

      One could understand this to mean that if you understand the nature of clay then you understand the nature of clay pots. But If you deny the existence of modifications, as Sankara plainly does here, then you deny the existence of clay pots because clay pots can only come into being through the modification of clay! What Sankara is saying is that if you understand the nature of clay then you will understand that there are no such things as clay pots. To say that “the entire body of effects as no existence apart from Brahman” is not the same as saying that the entire body of effects doesn’t really exist, but that’s what Sankara says when he states that the appearance of the entire body of effects is just that; an appearance born of speech, a linguistic apparition without substance. Therefore we can understand that from the standpoint of Brahman as Truth, we don’t exist as a distinct ‘you’ and ‘I’ because the whole idea of a ‘you’ and ‘I’ is false, because “you and I” can only come about by virtue of a modification that Sankara has denied the existence of. At this point, Sankara contradicts Vyasa by replacing sakti parinama vada – the doctrine of the transformation of energies – with vivarta vada: the doctrine of illusory superimposition or the idea that there is only the appearance of modifications where no modifications actually occur.

      To put it another way, if we think in terms of Nirguna Brahman – Brahman without qualities – and Saguna Brahman – Brahman with qualities, then you have to ask ‘what is the relationship between the two’? In Sankara’s system, there is no relationship, no explanation as to how Brahman came to be subject to illusion, how a state of knowledge came to be transformed into a condition of ignorance, how that which has no qualities came to possess qualities. This, of course, presumes that all qualities are necessarily material. But who says? Why is no scope given to the possibility of ‘spiritual’ qualities?

      And so we return to the problem of language: we can only say that we exist from the standpoint of the world of effects, which either doesn’t really exist or, at best, is a position of ignorance. Of course, if false is just another form of truth, if ignorance is non-different from knowledge, then words have lost their meaning, in which case it doesn’t make sense to talk about effects as a product of speech.

      This is what I mean when I say that Sankara’s philosophy chases its own tail; we have a differentiated world of our experience that stubbornly insists on being explained and the only way it can be explained within Sankara’s philosophy is by a dualistic system of truth that renders words meaningless and ultimately puts us in a position where we cannot say that the world exists nor can we say that the world does not exist. Either way we end up with an gap between where we are – jagan mithya – and where we want to be – Brahman satyam – and no bridge by which to cross the chasm. Distinction is discursive thought, which is a product of ignorance. Without ignorance (name and form), knowledge (nameless / formless) cannot exist, therefore, in Sankara’s system, Nirguna Brahman (knowledge) is dependant on Saguna Brahman (ignorance) but you can’t reach Nirguna Brahman from Saguna Brahman. After all, if that which I experience as my self doesn’t exist then who is having the illusion of existing in the first place? Brahman? Brahman is jnana svarup; not subject to illusion. Whose left? Nobody! Hence what we really have in Sankara is crypto-Buddhism, a denial of the existence of the atma (or jiva) and not really Vedanta at all.

      There has to be a more elegant theory of cause and effect within the framework of the Vedanta Sutras, which brings us to Ramanuja and, eventually, to Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy: the self of the effect may be substantively or qualitatively the same as the causal Self but there must be some quantitative difference that accounts for the marginal position of the self of the effect. By marginal I mean the potential of the self of the effect to fall under the influence of illusion. Ramanuja points out that if Brahman is not subject to illusion and atman (or jiva) is currently under the influence of illusion then there has to be some difference between Brahman and atman. I think Caitanya’s doctrine of inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference is a more direct and comprehensive understanding of Vedanta; it accounts for a qualitative oneness of atman with Brahman and a quantitative difference; the individual soul or jiva as a real but marginal energy and the world as separated energy that undergoes transformations without transforming the energetic cause: the complete Whole of which all dynamic energies are a part.

      Of course, language, in large part, defines our world views and opposing world views are rarely reconciled. Just the same I hope you find my explanations satisfactory or at least food for thought. Thanks again for your comments.

      • Rohit Kanji
        Posted December 10, 2012 at 8:10 PM | Permalink

        Dear Hari Kirtana Das, thanks for your detailed response.

        First, some clariications on terminology. The word satyam means reality, not truth as in logical sense. Thus, Brahma satyam is ultimate reality. It is the uncaused cause. Mithya is dependent reality.

        In the example of clay pot, pot is a reality dependent on clay. From the same clay, one can make many different pots or objects. They are just Nama-Rupas, names and forms of the clay. Before there was pot, clay was there. After the pot is destroyed clay is still there. In other words, clay is the material cause in which all its material effects are present. Effect is thus in the cause. There is no duality here. You can trace clay back to other constituents (compounds) that are its material cause. Compounds in turn have atoms as their material cause. We go on and end up in the primordial cause that is Brahman.

        Sankara is not saying that only clay is real and clay pots are nonexistent. As explained above, reality of clay pots is relatively temporary compared to the reality of clay. We know this because clay pots are Nama-Rupas, names and forms, of clay.

        Seen this way, you will realize that the ontology of Advaita is offering the ontological argument where Brahman is the uncaused cause. All else is Nama Rupa of Brahman. These Nama Rupas are temporary realities and are called mithya. The only eternal reality is Brahman.

        Point of this is that some dependent realities are fleeting. The tiny waves in an ocean are fleeting, yet dependent realities of the ocean.

      • Posted December 11, 2012 at 2:39 PM | Permalink

        Hi Rohit: Thanks for your follow up reply. I dare say that you have offered as clear and succinct an explanation of Advaita philosophy as I’ve heard in a while.

        With regard to definitions, Sanskrit translations tend to be contextual insofar as a word may have different meanings according to its usage or according to the school of thought that is interpreting a scripture. Hence philosophical arguments may hinge on details of grammatical interpretation.In the case of our conversation, I think ‘ultimate reality’ is a fine definition for Brahman. I was thinking in terms of Absolute Truth or something close to the Latin phrase ‘summum bonum’; the highest good. The Bhagavad Gita describes that which is eternal and changeless as ‘true’ whereas temporal and malleable things are considered to be untrue or illusory. So I was using ‘true and false’ in this sense. However, you are again right in making a distinction between conventional and philosophical usage of such words in that there is an important difference between the idea of ‘false’ and the idea if ‘illusory’: a dream is illusory but not false in that we actually experience a dream, hence the dream is real insofar as it actually took place, but the contents of the dream created the temporary illusion of having happened when, in fact, no such events occurred in our wakeful reality. So, it’s true: we had a dream. But the contents of the dream were false; they didn’t really happen but, just the same, somehow we were affected by the dream.

        And I think that your example of waves in the ocean is a good metaphor. The Upanisads clearly support the exclusivity of Brahman as the substance of the world (Sankara is referencing the Chandogya Upanisad at VS 2.1.14), using the example of clay as the material cause of clay pots. Of course, the modification of clay requires a potter to be the efficient cause: clay is modified by the energy of the potter into a form we call a pot, the clay remains clay, and the potter is not transformed in the process. As you pointed out, the pot will come and go in time but the clay will remain.

        But the pot is not just a name, not just an abstraction: we experience it as an object with a function. It is much easier to carry water in a clay pot than it is to carry water on a lump of clay: there is still a meaningful distinction between the form and the substance that must be taken into account.

        And is our experience of clay pots a dream that actually occurs the contents of which are illusory or is the experience of clay pots itself an illusion that never really occurs?

        And what about the potter? Advaita philosophy places the form of the Absolute – Saguna Brahman – in the category of contingent truth, a product of modification. In such a scenario the potter cannot be the efficient cause of modifications because the effect cannot be the cause. That leaves us without an efficient cause. Nirguna (formless) Brahman cannot be both the material and the efficient cause because that implies energies, intention, qualities, etc., all attributes that Sankara denies the presence of in the ultimate reality.

        Which is why Sankara needs to deny the reality of modifications and that brings us back to the main problem: vivarta vada – the denial of the reality of modifications and their subsequent effects. My issue is not with the idea of Brahman as the ultimate reality but with 1) Sankara’s denial of the transformation of energies by which the dependent truth we call “the world” comes into being and 2) the relegation of the form of the ultimate reality to the realm of non-reality. Sankara is saying that although there appears to be a clay pot (a world), in actuality no modification has taken place. If there’s no modification then there is no clay pot (no world). It’s like a scene from ‘The Matrix’: “There is no spoon.”

        If no modification occurs then there is no possibility of a clay pot occurring. Sankara is saying that Nirguna Brahman (the ultimate reality without qualities) does not really emanate the world and that the appearance of a “world” is a product of ignorance, an illusory superimposition on… on what? On the mind? Whose mind? On the jiva’s mind? That can’t be: the ‘jiva’ is a product of illusion, not the subject of illusion. Then whose ignorance is it? Is it Brahman’s ignorance? Well, that can’t be either because Brahman is the ultimate reality from which illusion emanates as an effect of a modification… oh, wait, modifications don’t actually take place. The experience of the effects of modifications that don’t take place are a product of ignorance but there’s no one left to experience this ignorance so… now what?

        So now we either slam into a trans-rational mind-implosion that would make a Zen master smile or we conclude that Sankara has not presented a coherent philosophy. You are calling the world a dependent reality but Sankara, by way of vivarta vada, is calling the world a non-reality. I don’t see where your explanation has taken Sankara’s doctrine of illusory superimposition into account.

        In order to make sense of all this, Vaisnava theology offers a synthesis that posits an independent and transcendentally situated supreme potter as the agent possessing energies that are purposefully modified in order to bring about a dependent reality that we call “the world” or, to be more accurate, the ‘material’ world as distinguished form the purely spiritual atmosphere from which the transcendental potter operates. Once we stipulate Saguna Brahman (the ultimate reality WITH qualities) as the transcendental form of the ultimate reality and the basis for Nirguna Brahman (as described in Bhagavad Gita 14.27) rather than designating the form of the ultimate reality as a product of illusion (itself a contradiction) then we have a much more elegant theory of causality: an energetic source (The Supreme Person) who is non-different from His own energy upon which all existence is based (Brahman), and the modification of energy by Supreme will (sakti parinama) for the purpose of creating a dream-like environment suitable for those infinitesimal individuals (jivas) who, though comprised of the spiritual quality of Brahman, are susceptible to the illusion of an existence separate from Brahman (material consciousness). In this scenario the jivas, as a marginal energy of the ultimate reality, are subject to illusion rather than the product of illusion because we stipulate the reality of jivas as eternally existing individual parts of the complete whole (see Bhagavad Gita 2.12, Katha Upanisad 2.2.13, and Isopanisad, invocation). And Brahman remains all-pervasive although invisible to the affected jivas by virtue of their being afflicted by material rather than spiritual consciousness.

        Rather than positing Oneness as Brahman in reality and multiplicity as Brahman in ignorance, Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy proposes Oneness as an abstraction with respect to quality and difference as numerical distinctions between eternal jivas that constitute infinitesimal parts of the infinite and complete whole. Hence the inconceivable and innumerable energies of the ultimate reality with qualities, the act of modification of those energies, the effect of the modification of energies, the eternal parts of the complete whole residing within and beyond the effect of modification, the limitless atmosphere in which the cause and effect reside, and the ultimate material and efficient cause, being non-different from His energies and yet a distinct and categorically different person from all of His parts and energies, all together constitute the Supreme Absolute Truth. To put it simply, if paradoxically, everything is Krishna yet nothing is Krishna save and except for Krishna himself.

        Actually, I’m convinced that Sankara was really a bhakta in the garb of a jnani:

        bhaja govindam bhaja govindam
        govindam bhaja mudhamate
        samprapte sannihite kale
        nahi nahi rakshati dukrinkarane

        “Worship Govinda, worship Govinda, worship Govinda, Oh fool! Rules of grammar will not save you at the time of your death.”

      • Rohit Kanji
        Posted December 11, 2012 at 8:55 PM | Permalink

        Sankara is a satkaryavadi. Satkaryavada holds that creation of something into existence is not possible; that potter cannot create a pot from something nonexistent. Further, effect is a transformation of material cause. Thus, pot is a form of clay. In that sense, Sankara says in his Bhasya that effect is non-different from cause. Another way this is described is that effect is already in the cause. Satkaryavada is then the general cause-effect theory that effect preexists in cause. Sankara explains this by saying that this is the reason that we get curd from milk and not from clay.

        The conclusion is that the effect must preexist in the cause. Vivartavada is a special form of satkaryavada that holds that effect is a manifestation or appearance (rupa) of the cause. Since effect prexists in the cause, Brahman manifesting as the universe does not constitute a change to Brahman. Universe is merely the Nama-rupa of Brahman.

        Transformation of cause into effect happens, or cause manifests into effect, through the activity of an efficient cause. How about the efficient cause, the potter? Since clay is insentient, our experience suggests that there should be an efficient cause, th potter. With Brahman, there is no other need for an efficient cause.

      • Rohit Kanji
        Posted December 11, 2012 at 9:32 PM | Permalink

        Following Vivartavada, Sankara argues that multiplicity of the universe is a manifestation, an appearance of Brahman. Maya is the perception that multiplicity is ultimate reality. Believing that this perception of multiplicity is ultimate reality is ignorance. It is this perception of multiplicity that is a superimposition on ultimate reality ( Brahman), similar to the perception of a snake superimposed on the reality of rope or perception of silver superimposed on a the reality of a shiny conch shell.

        Understood this way, Sankara’s ontology makes sense.

        On a different topic …

        Bhajagovindam is a wonderful composition. Unfortunately, current scholarship holds that it is unlikely that it was authored by Sankara.

      • Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:20 PM | Permalink

        Well, it would be a shame if he didn’t author it since it’s so nice. But current scholars usually do not accept the authority of the Vedas, either, and that tends to undermine their own authority.

        Be that as it may, I think you have found another area where we are in agreement: Satkaryavada! One cannot give what one does not have: the effect must pre-exist in the cause. We can understand that reality may be divided into two categories: material and spiritual, material reality being temporal and contingent and spiritual reality being eternal and causeless. Just as one must have the prior experience of a real snake to mistake a rope for a snake, so the jiva must have some point of reference in order to mistake the relative reality for the absolute reality. Therefore we can understand that if the effect – the material reality – has the attributes of person-ness with names, forms, qualities, activities, and relationships then the cause – the spiritual reality – must have these same attributes since the qualities of the effect pre-exist in the cause. Hence the name, form, qualities and relationships of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, are situated in the causeless and eternal spiritual environment and the apprehension of the personal form of the ultimate reality constitutes the ultimate experience of the Absolute Truth.

        isvarah paramah krsnah — sac-cid-ananda-vigrahah — anadir adir govindah — sarva-karana-karanam

        “Krsna who is known as Govinda is the Supreme Godhead. He has an eternal blissful spiritual body. He is the origin of all. He has no other origin and He is the prime cause of all causes.” (Bs 5.1)

        Once one adds the element of a purely spiritual Supreme Person as the ultimate causal factor to the conception of the ultimate reality, then Sankara’s ontology makes sense.

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