The Advaita Illusion

Buddhism is not the only philosophy to have influenced modern Western spirituality.  I have mentioned another occasionally in passing but in this chapter I would like to look at it a little more closely. By the way, I should say that I regard both influences as positive because they round out and develop aspects of the whole that may not have been emphasised in Christianity. I think Christianity holds the greater truth but it does not have a monopoly on truth and, though it is by no means essential, it can be helpful to explore other approaches.

Advaita Vedanta is often regarded as the ne plus ultra of religion and metaphysics, the spiritual philosophy to which all others tend and for which they are only preparatory. This is because it uncompromisingly boils everything down to the One, and the One alone. Consciousness is not regarded as a property of the Absolute but its very nature. It is all there is and everything else, the world, the soul, even God, is reduced to an ultimately unreal manifestation of that. To some this idea seems a logical progression from the initial sense of multiplicity, and its radical purity and simplicity no doubt increases its attraction. At one time I assumed it was correct, and that it was just another, albeit slightly extreme, philosophy that identified Man’s origin and end as in God, but that was before I examined it properly and realised that its denial of self did not just mean that self (or identification with it) had to be transcended by the spiritual person but that it did not even truly exist in the first place. I now believe that it is based on a one-sided misinterpretation of reality and a desire to force all experience into a pre-determined box. There is no doubt that its position has a good deal of metaphysical justification, but it leaves too much out to be accepted unreservedly, and, in the final analysis, it must be considered a reductive view of how things are.

Perhaps the first thing to appreciate when trying to understand advaita is that it came out of Sankara's attempt to save Hinduism from the increasing spread in India of Buddhism. So rather than a natural thing in itself, arising out of pure spontaneous insight, it is better thought of as developing in reaction to something. It might even be considered, in part at least, as a compromise; and, indeed, later thinkers did accuse advaitins of giving up too much in their efforts to rescue the religion of the Vedas and the Upanishads from the onslaught of Buddhism with its perceived atheism. Specifically what they gave up was the idea of God and the reality of individual souls. This may seem academic in terms of attaining to an absolute consciousness but actually a proper understanding of the true metaphysical nature of things is all-important for determining correct spiritual practice.

Advaita is usually perceived in the West as the essence of Hinduism and the point up to which the entire religion leads, but that is not in fact the case. There are competing points of view within Vedanta itself, in particular that of Ramanuja who, while affirming fundamental unity, also taught the reality of individual souls, thereby rejecting Sankara's interpretation (and it was an interpretation) of the Upanishads. And then there is Tantra which describes existence as Siva-Sakti, roughly translating as Consciousness-Light Energy (or, simply put, spirit-matter), and so confirms the reality of the two poles or facets of existence which are different but not separate, and which need consciously uniting or integrating in the disciple for enlightenment to take place.

Advaita, like Buddhism, reduces the individual to the ego or separate self, but there are no valid grounds for assuming that the self-reflective principle in a human being amounts to nothing more than a veil on pure unlimited consciousness, and is an illusion of ignorance. Just because the soul can transcend identification with itself and know its uncreated origin in God does not mean it does not exist. It is a failure of imagination on the part of non-dualists not to be able to see that the individual can co-exist with the universal. Indeed, that these two should co-exist is the whole point of creation as I hope to have made clear in previous pages. Of course, advaitins do not believe in creation as such, seeing the world as little more than an illusion caused by ignorance of the real nature of things, but then they have no explanation as to why there should be something rather than nothing in the first place.

It is important to differentiate between ontological identity, which is above the world of sense-perception, and the notion of a separate self. That is to say, between the individual and unique 'I' on the one hand, and the sense of 'me, my and mine' on the other. Neither advaita nor Buddhism do this, and part of the reason they fail to discriminate between the individual soul and the ego, its separated component, is that they have no understanding of the Fall as taught in Judaeo-Christian religions. (The closest they come to it is the Buddhist view that all life is suffering). So they see the self as fundamentally bad instead of understanding that it has gone bad, or been corrupted, but can be redeemed. Truly, a perfect example of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Or, perhaps more pertinently, rejecting the whole grain just because of the husk.

It might be countered to the above remarks that many non-dualistic teachers have obviously had some experience which proves the truth of their doctrine, and any intellectual arguments against it are irrelevant in the face of this higher knowledge. Granted, they may no doubt have experienced some kind of mystical at-one-ment. This is actually not uncommon. In the great majority of cases it will be a contact with the soul which is the spiritual level of consciousness existing above the passing movement of time and the phenomenal world. However this is then interpreted according to the pre-existing mindset of the experiencer, and often in the context of advaita or Zen or some similar belief system which seems to offer ultimate truth. To an up-until-now materialistic mind any contact with the spiritual soul can seem so extraordinary that it might see it as obliterating the self, despite the fact that there has only been a temporary melting of the boundaries of the ego. But what matters with an experience is how you react to it, what you do with it, and to treat it as a reason to deny God and the individual self is to misinterpret it and could well arrest any further future spiritual development. In effect, the supposedly denied and non-existent ego is taking the experience to itself, adapting itself to the experience and possibly even subtly strengthening itself in the process which is why false interpretations of spiritual states must be corrected. The disciple may end up worse off than when he started, spiritually speaking. 

It is well known that Hindu mystics have visions of Krishna while Christian ones see Jesus, and that in many cases this is because their already existing beliefs colour or even determine their experience. Similarly a non-dualistic belief system will influence the subject's interpretation of his experience which assumes the form his mind imposes on it. That is why wise spiritual teachers do not recommend taking personal experience as the sole basis for comprehending reality. The imperfect nature of the mind receiving the experience is a factor in how it is understood. This is not a rejection of mystical experiences, but points to the truth that an experience and its interpretation are not the same thing.

On one level, advaita seems to teach a pure form of the standard mystical idea of union between man and God, but because it denies the reality of both the individual soul and God (as God), it can lead to a mistaken idea of what spirituality actually is, and this will affect proper practice. Its absorption of everything into the One might make it seem the highest form of spirituality and the one that lies behind all others as their uniting principle, and that is how it has been presented in the past.  And yet it is essentially reductive since it takes no account of any relationship between God and the soul, has no awareness of why the world should have come about in the first place, no real understanding of the many different levels of being and no insight into the fact that the soul is not just the ego.

To misconceive the nature of spiritual reality means that your approach to it might be completely wrong. The doctrine of advaita has gained considerable intellectual respectability over the last hundred years, but it did not go unchallenged in the past in the land of its birth and should not go unchallenged now that it has become popular elsewhere.  It seeks to express the most profound of truths but leaves out something essential which is the reality of creation. I am not disputing that Man is ultimately woven of the same fabric as God and that we can know this in the sense of wholly realise it, but I reject the notion that individuality is an illusion to be seen through. If that is the case then love is also an illusion other than as a sort of rather bland universal benevolence. I don't mean this entirely seriously, but does the married non-dualist love his wife as a person or as a manifestation of Brahman, one amongst countless others? Tell her that on your next anniversary. Of course, if he is true to his doctrine he will not have a wife or, indeed, any kind of personal relationship at all.

I would also suggest that the non-dualist reduction of God to 'the last thought', as I believe the Indian mystic Ramana Maharishi phrased it, is a categorical error. How can you limit God in this way? The Creator of form is surely beyond form. How can God be restricted to thought on any level?  I understand that Ramana refers to your conception of God not God himself but then God is not limited to your conception of him. He is transcendent as well as immanent as expressed so perfectly by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. ‘Having pervaded this whole universe with a fragment of myself, I remain’.

Now I have mentioned Ramana I should address the fact that his espousal of advaita might make it seem unassailable. He is, after all, one the major spiritual figures of the last century, and one about whom nothing but good has ever been said. However two things about him should be borne in mind. First of all, his spiritual awakening was not attained within the context of advaita which he subsequently adopted as the one mystical system available to him that could be said to correspond to his experience. He used advaita as the best framework to give form to his insight. I mean no disrespect to someone whose level of spiritual attainment cannot be doubted to say that his experience of the world, both intellectual and actual, was not particularly extensive, and even the best of us must operate within the constraints of our environment, mental and physical. Ramana, as we all are, was a product of his world and had perforce to express himself within the limitations of that world. I know this might seem heresy to some but we would say that about Christian mystics of the order of St Francis of Assisi so why not about Ramana too? So, although he is taken as a sage epitomising the truth of advaita, it must be recognised that he did not come to his realization through that path, and his utilisation of it, to a certain extent at least, was part of his cultural heritage.

My reflections here are not made in a negative critical spirit because there are many things about advaita that I admire. Its seeing beyond form to the pure reality of Brahman that lies behind all things is an insight of the highest magnitude. However, by dismissing creation as maya and seeing created beings as having no reality other than an ephemeral, illusionary one, it fails to admit a vital truth and I think it does this because it prioritises knowledge over love which is a spiritual mistake. Love is the keynote of the universe and it and it alone perceives the highest truth. When the Masters told me to forget the personal self and merge with the universal self they were not saying that the 'I' they were counselling to do this had no existence, but that it had to go beyond itself. When they told me to see all beings as manifestations of the divine they were not saying that these beings had no reality in themselves, but that God was present in everyone.

If I had to sum up what was missing in advaita, and other non-dualistic systems, I would say that reality encompasses both unity and multiplicity, and if you restrict it to one or the other then you have missed the mark. And that is what I think advaita does. But this does not mean that it cannot be a genuine spiritual path. It is just not the whole truth and it has limitations which should be understood. So, when I say, admittedly somewhat provocatively, that advaita is illusion I am not referring to its essential point that all things are manifestations of Brahman and that what that is, we, in our essence, are too. The only aspect of it that I do not accept is that the oneness of all things precludes the reality of created things. For God created the world and everything in it, principally us, as an expression of his love. Therefore advaitins need to understand that the perfection of being is not in oneness but in relationship. And they should know that when Christ was crucified he was not just seeing through the illusion of self but offering up his self in loving acceptance of his Father’s will, and that is a far higher and more noble thing.


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