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.


Chris said…
Hi William,

How are you? I was just re-visiting the writings of a prominent Perennialist, James Cutsinger, and I came across these paragraphs describing the fundamentals of the Advaita-Perennialist position. I would be curious to get your reaction.

"....the principal distinction is between the Absolute and the Relative, or Atma and Maya. On the one hand there is That which cannot not be, the necessary, but on the other hand there is also that which need not be, the contingent or possible. All other distinctions and valuations derive from this fundamental distinction. This is a distinction which gives rise above all to the polarity of transcendence and immanence. To know that there is an Absolute, and to understand what It is, is to know that It is the only Reality. Only the Absolute is absolute, and Its utter transcendence It completely eclipses the Relative, which in comparison is but an illusory nothingness. And yet to know that this Absolute is the only Reality is to know also that everything else is in some fashion It, for in Its independence and freedom from limits, It is equally infinite, and by virtue of this Infinitude It cannot but give rise to the Relative, in which It is immanent. Only Atma truly is, but Maya is the deployment and manifestation of Atma. Nothing truly exists except God, and yet whatever exists truly is God.

According to Frithjof Schuon, a full grasp of this teaching will oblige us to recognize that Relativity actually begins within the Divine Principle Itself: hence what he calls 'the key notion of Maya in divinis'. This, in fact, is one of the most important and characteristic features of his message. The Principle is not a monolithic Reality, but comprises instead an inward or intrinsic differentiation between two distinct degrees. There is on the one hand the Absolute as such, the Supreme Reality or 'pure Ipseity'; but there is also a second level of Divinity, wherein the pure Absolute, while transcending all determinations and categories, makes Itself known in a determinate way, thus anticipating or prefiguring the world. By virtue of this determination, metaphysically necessary, the Absolute becomes subject in that measure to Maya; it is precisely this Divine self-subjection to Relativity which gives rise to the difference, in Hindu teaching, between Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman, or in Eckhart's doctrine between Gottheit and Gott. In Schuon's vocabulary it is the difference between Beyond-Being and Being, or again between the Divine Essence and the Divine Person. But whatever language we use, the distinction itself is universal and inescapable. On the one hand, there must be an Absolute, utterly independent and sovereign, conditioned by nothing, not even by Itself; and yet, given the very nature of this Absolute, which cannot but be Infinite, there must also arise a determinate and subordinate, dimension within the Divine Principle, which, though absolute with respect to the world, is nonetheless relative with respect to Its Essence. However paradoxical the formulation may seem, there must also be a 'relative Absolute'.

Phew, that's long-winded! It basically means God acts, doesn't it? You see, Chris, I think the problem with the Traditionalists is twofold. One, they took advaita as the core of their philosophy and this gets them caught up in what I regard as a fallacy, namely that absolute oneness alone is real and anything else is basically unreal. Now this is true up to a point but it's not the whole truth. I see the whole truth as something closer to the Trinity, an absolute in which there already is differentiation. So creation is real, and really real at that.

The passage above is trying to find a way out of that and I would commend it on that account but it's only having to do that because it's adopted a false idea of ultimate reality to begin with. That's my view anyway.

The second problem with the Traditionalists is that they are too academic and Schuon especially, who I find unreadable, thinks of himself as a great sage and then tries to live up to that. They are completely sold on knowledge and have little room for love except as an add on because they know they can't leave it out of the reckoning.

This passage is talking about the God of the philosophers and scholars but I prefer the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Pascal astutely put it.

So I would say that this passage is correct but it's a very laborious way of saying God is the Creator. I sometimes wonder if the Absolute in the philosophical sense really exists or is a figment of the imagination of those who approach God through the mind rather than the heart and don't realise the full implication of the fact that God is a Person not impersonal being.

What do you say?
Chris said…
Hi William,

First, I will say that I much prefer your prose to Schuon's- your style is a pleasure to read. I think that the Perennialist claim that unqualified nondualism can be found at the heart of Christianity (and all "true" Revelations) is definitely questionable. Beyond that, I might agree with you that the metaphysics of Advaita Vedanta has some issues- after all, that's why Advaita isn't the only school of Vedanta. It seems to me that the non-theistic traditions stand or fall on the doctrine of the degrees of reality in which each higher "level" transcends but includes the lower ones. On this metaphysical scheme there is one integrated whole, yet there a different degrees that interpenetrate one another. I think perhaps, this model isn't that different from the teaching of the Trinity Itself, in which unity and differentiation are both affirmed.

I think that when the Advaitan says that the world is not real, what they are actually saying is that the world is not real in comparison to God or that the world doesn't have Being of its own. The problem comes in when we address the metaphysical status of God and creation. For the traditional Christian and all classical theists, Divine transcendence entails absolutely no ontological mixing of the Creator and the created. The relationship between the two is one of dependence, not identity, so even a theistic qualified non-dualism in which the world is understood as the "body of God" would still be unacceptable.

The classical theist must ask why does the Absolute, in order to be the Absolute, have to "be" everything? It's one thing to say that the relative has no Being of its own and must be sustained by God, but to say that the Relative IS the Absolute, in truth, seems like a non sequitur. Moreover, there seems to be a contradiction when it is said that God is not conditioned even by Himself- if that were so, why does there need to be the Relative. And if the Relative is necessary, then the world and creation would also be necessary as well, making the world, indeed, something like the "body of God'".

When giving consideration to these lofty matters, I think an important question is what comes first, the spiritual experience or the metaphysical framework? How could we possibly answer that? What is "higher", the path of knowledge or the path of love?

Consider the core teachings of Christianity, that of the Incarnation and the Trinity. As you know, some revisionists claim that Christianity was basically misinterpreted; Christ was actually a Buddha like figure who's claim of Divinity was actually a claim of the Supreme Identity that was then run through the matrix of dualisitc theism. Now, we don't need to go through the numerous problems with that thesis, but I think it demonstrates that there is always the question of interpretation.

Oh, are you familiar with the essay "Were Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon Biased Against Love?" by Charles Upton. If not, it's an interesting read.
As far as I am concerned the problem with advaita is that it is clearly an attempt to marry Buddhism with Vedic scriptures which means that it doesn't know what to do with God. It can't get rid of him but it can't really include him either. I think that if it was understood as a reaction to something rather than an original inspiration then its flaws would be better appreciated. Flaw number one is that it basically denies the reality of the individual. This 'neither real nor unreal' stance is just a bit of wordplay, trying to have its cake and eat it too. Obviously individuals are created by God but what God creates is real.

Advaita is correct I think insofar as there is an aspect of our being that is uncreated, what I would call spirit. But that doesn't preclude the God given reality of the individual soul and indeed without that we could not know spirit. We are not one or the other but both together.

I see the spiritual path as requiring us to integrate soul and spirit and keep the essence of both. So advaita is correct about the spirit aspect but wrong that this means the soul aspect then becomes superfluous. It is essential for the union between absolute and relative which is more than just the absolute alone. And Christianity needs to remember that we do have the true spark of the divine within us. God is not just transcendent but immanent too.

As for knowledge and love and which is higher I'm going to say it's love because love includes knowledge when it is proper spiritual love but the converse is not necessarily true as I think we see with advaita.

I have read a couple of Charles Upton's books. I think he's very good but I don't know that essay.
Chris said…
Hi William,

I think there's no doubt that Advaita was an attempt to reconcile the religion of the Vedas to Buddhism. Both of these traditions are fundamentally non-theistic and share the common ground of relegating relativity to appearance. Nevertheless, a case could still be made that Advaita and even Buddhism are theistic in a "transpersonal" sense because "Buddhist Emptiness is coterminous with the Supra-Personal Godhead of Dionysius the Aeropagite, which is logically prior to all actual manifestation including the Trinity."

But, what of the unreality of the individual? I suspect that the non-theist apologist would push back by explaining why the "fiction" of the separate self is neither untrue nor anything to be distressed about. In fact, they would say that the unreality of the empirical ego is cause for great joy and is the source of unlimited love in the realization of the Supreme Identity.

As Ken Wilber said, "There is certainly a type of truth to the notion of transcending ego: it doesn't mean destroy the ego, it means plug into something bigger. The small ego does not evaporate; it remains as the functional center of activity in the conventional realm. To lose that ego is to become a psychotic, not a sage. It is not necessary to get rid of the ego, but simply to live with it in a certain exuberance. When identification spills out of the ego and into the Kosmos at large, the ego discovers that the individual Atman is in fact all of a piece with Brahman."

When put like this, I find more difficult to differentiate the unqualified non-dualism of a Shankara with the theistic non-dualism of a Ramanuja.
"Buddhist Emptiness is coterminous with the Supra-Personal Godhead of Dionysius the Aeropagite, which is logically prior to all actual manifestation including the Trinity." Not according to Dionysus it isn't . In Mystical Theology he calls Trinity higher than being and this is orthodox Christianity which is why it was called a scandal to the Greeks. The Trinity exists as the deepest level of being.

If there was no individual what would realise the Self or the Buddha nature? I think advaita and Buddhism confuse the phenomenal self with the spiritual individual or self-reflective principle.

What Wilber says may be true enough but them it's not what Buddhism and advaita say unless they backtrack and try to avoid the full implication of their doctrine which I think they, especially advaita, often do.

You see once you accept any kind of reality to the individual after enlightenment or whatever it might be called then you must accept the reality of God and them has huge implications for proper spiritual practice and orientation.
Sorry about all the auto correct mistakes!

Was that quote you gave from Schuon?
Chris said…
Hi William,

That particular quote was not Schuon's, but he certainly would agree with it. Actually, perhaps surprisingly, that quote was by Kristor over at Orthosphere. To be fair, he went on to say that,

"The actuality of the Trinity is implicit in the Supra-Personal Godhead. It isn't as though you could get the actual Trinity without the Supra-Personal Godhead, or vice versa. Put yet another way: the actual Trinity *is* the Supra-Personal Godhead actualized.....It's not as though the Supra-Personal Godhead is somehow better or nobler or greater- or even other- than the actual Trinity. So, noticing the distinction between the Godhead and the Trinity does not introduce another degree of divinity. To notice the Supra-Personal Godhead is only to notice as it were that the three mutually perpendicular circumferences of the Persons together describe a sphere. No sphere, no circumferences thereof; but then, eternally, sphere, ergo circumferences, eternally."

It seems to me that Eckhart's God and Godhead corresponds with Eastern Orthodoxy's Essence-Energies distinction. For me, a big question is if this corresponds with Advaita's Nirguna and Saguna Brahman?

I would like to address the question of the individual further, but tell me if I'm wrong....Your fundamental objection is not necessarily to non-duality per se, but to non-theism. By relegating the Personal God to mere appearance, this puts jnana yoga on a higher footing than bhakti, which is clearly a confessional bias? But then again, the other side could say the same thing?
To be honest I think a lot of this is spinning words, dealing with ideas rather than realities. All I would insist on is that God as Person does not have an impersonal pure being behind it at a deeper level. There is nothing deeper or more real than Person. There is no 'Amness' behind I AM.

So I don't think in terms of Nirguna and Saguna or jnana and bhakti? Why confuse the issue with alien concepts which you then have to fit into your own schema? But (immediately contradicting myself!) if you do think in terms of Nirguna and Saguna then they are the same thing in different modes, that's all.

Life is one in essence. That's indisputable and Christians would acknowledge that I think. The dispute arises over whether this oneness ultimately negates difference and I don't think it does or, in fact, even could because perfect oneness would be perfect nothingness.
You see I believe the individual to be the whole point of why there is something rather than nothing. Advaita and Buddhism have no real explanation for that. The only explanation is that God is Love.

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