The Advaita Vedanta - Non Duality

Advaita and Sunyavada

by Todd F. Reinhard

"Ontology", a familiar word in philosophy circles, refers to the study of existence. Indeed, Ontology, along with its kindred disciplines, Epistemology and Axiology-the study of knowledge and the study of ethics, respectively-comprise the very fabric of Philosophy. Ontology, the topic of the current discussion, is that discipline that demands an answer to the questions "What does it mean for something to Exist…for something to Be?" The philosophically indifferent responds with a question of his own: "Why should I bother with such a ridiculous question? Existence is self-evident." In turn, the Advaitin Vedantin replies resoundingly, "Well, yes…and no…."

The Indian philosophy of Advaita Vedanta is that branch of Vedanta that posits "non-duality" as the basis of reality and was popularized and expounded by Shamkara (ca. 788-820). (To be sure, there have been many Advaitists since Shamkara who have made significant contributions and amendments to Advaita Vedanta, and Shamkara himself was not the first to suggest the notion of "non-duality"; however, his teachings are usually regarded as the most clear and thorough.) Hence, the present essay is centered on Shamkara's teachings.

So, introduction aside, let us return to the question of interest "What does it mean for something to exist?" Another way of phrasing the question-perhaps a more riveting way-is "What is Real? What is True?" In order to do full justice to these questions, the Advaitist considers three "Levels of Being" **, namely, 1) Reality (Paramarthika), 2) Appearance, and 3) Unreality. To distinguish the three levels, it is necessary to understand the notion of "badha", which is usually translated as "contradiction", "cancellation", or "sublation". In short, "badha", or "sublation", refers to a radical change in the value one mentally assigns to a content of consciousness because a new experience has contradicted her previously held beliefs about that content.

It is a psychological process whereby one rectifies erroneous judgments in light of new experience and attaches belief to that new experience. Although the change in belief is radical, it must be emphasized that intellectual and ethical reasons accompany the rejection-replacement action. According to Shamkara, this process of sublation serves as a criterion for distinguishing between the various levels and sublevels of being. In effect, the more something can be sublated or contradicted, the less "reality" or "being" it possesses. Likewise, the more "reality" something possesses, the less it is susceptible to contradiction or sublation.

So, what is Ultimately Real for the Advaitist? The answer is that only that experience is Ultimately Real, which can never be contradicted by other experience, and that experience is none other than Brahman-the experience of complete transcendental identity. Brahman is an experience that is utterly indescribable and boundless, for it exists beyond the limitations of mind, word, and concept. Nevertheless, many make efforts (no matter how futile they may be) to describe Brahman and refer to It with such expressions as "Sat-Chit-Ananda", meaning roughly "Infinite Existence, Infinite Knowledge, Infinite Bliss", or they say things to the effect that "All is One". Still others describe Brahman via negativa as "neti neti", "not this, not this". THIS is Brahman, and THIS ALONE is REAL for the Advaitist. Shamkara refers to this Ultimate Reality as "Paramarthika".

The second Level of Being is called "Appearance", which can be usefully broken down into three sublevels, namely, 1) the "Real Existent", 2) the "Existent", and 3) the "Illusory Existent". The "Real Existent" and the "Existent" are broken down still further among "existential relations", among "particular objects", and among "concepts". "Existential relations" within the domain of the Real Existent refer to those relationships that involve love and theistic religious experiences. These experiences are infused with feelings of high devotion and selflessness. Nevertheless, since they involve consciousness of separation, they can be sublated by the overarching Reality of Brahman. "Particular objects" as a sublevel of the "Real Existent" refers to those objects which participate in Reality yet retain an individuality of their own. Works of art, music, poetry and other creative expressions find themselves in this category. These contents of consciousness can only be subordinated by Ultimate Reality. "Concepts" that occupy the "Real Existent" refer to logical relationships, such as the law of contradiction, that are necessary in organizing propositional truths and statements of fact. Such concepts can only be sublated by the Ultimate Reality, which transcends the very mind that relies upon these concepts.

We now come to the sublevel of Being that constitutes our "normal, day-to-day experience". This level was termed by Shankara as "Vyavaharika" and refers to all experiences that can be sublated by "Reality" (Paramarthika) as well as by their own counterparts that exist within the "Real Existent". (For example, among "existential relations", love and religious theistic devotion are "more real" than conventional relations that exist at the level of the "Existent".) Among "existential relations" relegated to the domain of the "Existent" (Vyavaharika) we have those relationships that are strictly formal or conventional-lacking in significant feeling of unity or devotion. Within these relationships, we identify ourselves with our body and mind, completely distinct from others. Among "particular objects", likewise, we perceive them as multiple, differentiated, and separate. We do not experience their participation in reality; they are mere objects of perception. "Concepts", within the "Existent" realm refers to those logical relations that function only in restricted systems, such as mathematics, logic, geometry, etc. Unlike the concepts that belong to the realm of the "Real Existent", such as the law of contradiction, there is no universal necessity attached; the "Existent" concepts function solely as analytic statements.

The final category that falls under the main heading of "Appearance" we will label the "Illusory Existent", which Shamkara called "Pratibhasika". This is the set of experience that contains dreams, hallucinations, fancies, and the like. These experiences in themselves lack empirical truth, but nevertheless point to an empirical reality. For example, one may dream of a snake. Later, she awakens and discovers that there is no empirically real snake. Yet that snake did exist within the context of the dream, and it pointed to something that does have an objective reality in the empirical world-somewhere. The content of the dream or hallucination, by and large, is dependent upon the content of empirical reality. In short, "Reality", the "Real Existent", and the "Existent" can sublate all experience that falls under the heading of the "Illusory Existent".

The third and final Level of Being is labeled "Unreality". "Unreality" is that which cannot manifest as a datum of experience simply because it is a blatant contradiction-a logical impossibility. For example, a "square circle" or a "dark light" cannot possibly exist. The "Unreal" points to nothing and is incapable of emerging into concrete existence. In brief, "Unreality" is "non-being" and therefore, "non-existent"--It neither can nor cannot be sublated.

One thing we notice about these three Levels of Being is that it is impossible to establish causal relations among them; in fact, it is this complete lack of causal relationship that defines them as distinct "levels" in the first place. However, the curious fact remains that, from the level of Ultimate Reality, (Paramarthika), there can be no distinct levels at all, for "levels", as finite concepts, exist only in the mind! Hence, we necessarily arrive at the conclusion that Advaitist philosophy itself exists only in the realm of "Appearance", which is always tainted by Maya, a product of ignorance (avidya) and superimposition (adhyasa). (Maya is a rich topic, which is outside the scope of the current discussion. For now, it suffices to understand Maya as a metaphysical power of Brahman that brings about the world of multiplicity (that is, the Level of Appearance"). Like Brahman, it is beginningless (anadi), unthinkable (acintya), and indescribable (anirvacaniya). Epistemologically, it is the power that veils and perverts Reality).

A final ontological note worth mentioning is that Shamkara, unlike several of his successors in later Vedanta, did not believe in "subjective idealism"-the doctrine that the contents of empirical consciousness can be fully accounted for in terms of consciousness activity. In other words, "subjective idealism" is the belief that the objects of experience can be reduced in toto to the perceptive subject. Hence, Shamkara is a kind of "soft realist". He stated emphatically, "An object is perceived by an act of the subject. The object is one thing, and the subject another." (Those who are familiar with the Buddhist school of Vijnanavada and Prakasanda's doctrine of "Emergence is Perception", which is espoused throughout Valmiki's Yoga Vasistha, should note that these "subjective idealist" systems of thought are incompatible with Shamkara's "realism".)

In closing, it should be underlined that, contrary to what many believe, Advaita Vedanta does not deny the existence of the world. For the Advaitist, the world does exist, for it is a content of experience, and as such, it must exist. The world is neither Real nor Unreal-it is Apparent. Only from the standpoint of the transcendental Absolute can one justifiably refer to the world as "illusion". Before that level has been experienced, however, it is foolhardy to deny the existence of the world…and once that level is reached, all philosophical, empirical, relative, conceptual systems will be transcended.

Suggestions for Further Reading








* For a more thorough discussion on the Levels of Being, please consult Advaita Vedanta, A Philosophical Reconstruction, written by Eliot Deutsch, from which most of the above information was obtained.

** A "Conceptual Spool" for the above discussion:

I Levels of Being - Reality (Paramarthika)- transcendental experience of pure spiritual unity; it cannot be contradicted

II Appearance - "Real Existent"

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