The truth is described in the Gita as the greatest secret. In fact, it is the greatest open secret. One person may read a number of books and hear hours of lectures on Advaita and still not understand it. Another person may get it easily. It mainly depends on the preparedness of the mind. In the Mandukya Karika, Gaudapadacharya says that if a person is not able to accept Advaita, it just because the mind is clouded by attachment. Vairagya (dispassion) is the only prerequisite to accept Advaita.
Advaita is very simple. Difficulties can arise in accepting it, though. I am trying to explain Advaita in as simple terms as possible here.
Limitation of the senses and mind
The sense organs and mind are designed only to perceive and judge the finite properties of objects.
The senses cannot perceive the infinite. We all know how quickly our sense of smell and sound get used to the background smell and sound. Only a person entering the place anew will be able to perceive the smell and sound. And, soon the person would get accustomed to it and will no longer be able to perceive it. The senses and mind only detect changes. They cannot detect something which exists always without changing.
Similarly, the senses and the mind operate only of properties. Whatever we know about anything are only its properties. We cannot know the substance behind the properties. In fact, we cannot even know if there any substance behind the properties.
Also, the senses and the mind can only know objects. They are outgoing by nature. They cannot know the knower. The knower is always different from the known object and the instrument of knowledge.
Questions of philosophy
In the Indian tradition, any system trying to explain the nature of reality should answer six questions:
- Jiva-svarupam – What is the nature of the subject behind all objects?
- Jagat-svarupam – What is the nature of the substance behind the properties of all objects?
- Ishvara-svarupam – What is the nature of the whole (infinite)?
- Banda-kaaranam – What is the cause of human sorrow?
- Moksha-svarupam – What is the nature of the state beyond all sorrow?
- Moksha-kaaranam – What is the means to the state beyond all sorrow?
As you can see, the first three are about theory and the last three are about the practical implications.
Let us first try to answer these questions from the point of view of materialism (on which today’s science is based).
- Jiva-svarupam – The perception of the self is an illusion. It is a product of thought, this is a product of the chemical and electrical activity in the physical brain. In reality, there is no individual.
- Jagat-svarupam – Matter (including energy) is the fundamental entity. Though science has not yet discovered the fundamental entity out of which everything else is made of, it proceeds with the assumption that the entity would be material in nature.
- Ishvara-svarupam – All that exists is matter. Everything started with the Big Bang. The boundary of the Universe is defined by the speed of light multiplied by the time elapsed since the Big Bang.
- Banda-kaaranam – As everything is a product of matter, there is no scope for any individuality. There is no scope for freewill, responsibility and any meaning to the existence. So the question of sorrow does not arise at all. Happiness and sorrow are merely illusions. All that happens are chemical and electrical activity in the brain.
- Moksha-svarupam – For the same reason as above, this question is not applicable.
- Moksha-kaaranam – For the same reason as above, this question is not applicable.
These are the answers to the questions by materialism. Whether they are acceptable or useful to solve the problems of individuals or the society is left to the reader.
Can it be proved or disproved?
As we have already mentioned, the senses and mind have access only to the finite properties of objects. So it is not possible to prove any proposition on the answers to what is the nature of the infinite, substance and subject. There are only two choices: accept or reject. It cannot be judged. No experiments or logic will work here.
Thus, the first three questions are beyond the limits of knowledge. We can only make assumptions. We have no other choice. Once the answers to the first three questions are assumed, the other three can be logically answered based on them.
Advaita Vedanta’s answers
- Jiva-svarupam – The real nature of the individual is pure Consciousness. The name used for this is Atman.
- Jagat-svarupam – The substance behind the properties of all objects is Consciousness.
- Ishvara-svarupam – The whole of existence is nothing but Consciousness. The name used for this is Brahman.
- Banda-kaaranam – The cause of sorrow is because of wrong identification with the body and mind.
- Moksha-svarupam – In reality, I am always free from sorrow.
- Moksha-kaaranam – The knowledge that I am not the body and mind, but in reality I am pure Consciousness that is the basis for everything, is the means.
This is mentioned in the Upanishads in various statements. Here are some samples:
- satyam jnaanam anantam brahma – The substance, Consciousness (knower), infinite is Brahman.
- prajnaanam brahma – Consciousness (knower) is Brahman.
- sarvam khalu idam brahma – Everything here (infinite or substance) is indeed Brahman.
- aitat aatmyam idam sarvam; tat satyam; sa aatmaa; tat tvam asi – Everything here is this Atman. That is the substance. He is the subject. That is you.
- aham brahma asmi – I (the subject) am Brahman.
As mentioned earlier, these statements cannot be proved or judged. So, the Upanishads are considered as the authority on this, just as how we consider the eyes as the final authority on colours and ears as the final authority on sound. The Upanishads are the final source of the knowledge of Advaita.
Now, we need to understand the real meaning of the word “Consciousness”. As we have mentioned, this is beyond the reach of senses and mind. So, a unique method called adyaaropa-apavaada is used. For example, if I ask for water, because water is a liquid and cannot be given directly, you give me water in a glass. I take the water and return back the glass. This is also called neti-neti method. The container is rejected by saying, “not this”.
I need to start with whatever I consider as myself, and reject anything that can be perceived or thought of, because that is an object. I am the subject. By this process, I will not be able to think of the real subject. But, by eliminating the objects, I will be able to get closer and closer to my subtle indirect understanding of the real subject. That is the pure Consciousness. What this Consciousness is cannot be experience or explained directly. I have to discover it for myself by this process. That is why it called the greatest open secret.
When I have had this intuitive correct understanding of myself, then I need to understand the other two aspects.
To understand the substance as consciousness, two important examples are used.
The first example is of the clay-pot. Clay is the substance. Pot is made of clay. What we call pot is only the form and function. The weight, color, touch, smell, etc of the pot is nothing but that of the clay. Clay was there before the pot came into being and clay will be there even after the pot is made into powder. Pot is only a temporary entity. Also, from the point of view of the clay, all through it has been clay and there has been no change to it. Change is seen only from the point of view of the onlooker. From the point of view of the clay, there has been no change at all. Similarly, the pure Consciousness is the substance, like the clay in this example. Everything in this world is mere form and function like the pot. The substance behind all objects is the pure Consciousness.
The next example is of the rope-snake. In dim light, a rope appears as snake. The shape, colour, texture, size, etc of the snake is that of the rope. The rope is not affected by the appearance of the snake. The snake has appeared because of lack of full knowledge of the onlooker. Unlike in the previous example, here even from the point of view of the onlooker, the rope has not undergone any change. Also, in reality, as Consciousness is free from any property, Consciousness is changeless, partless, homogeneous, isotropic, infinite, whole and without a second entity. So variety is only in the mind of the knower. This is similar to the fact in the example that the snake is purely in the mind of the onlooker. Thus, this example is still closer to reality than the clay-pot example.
Now, to understand the infinite nature of Consciousness, the example of pot-space is used. There is space inside a pot. There is space inside every pot. There is space outside the pot. There is no difference between the space inside the pot and outside the pot. Every pot has the same space inside and outside it. Really speaking, there is no inside-space and outside-space. It the pot which is in space. Space was there before the pot was there. Space will be there after the pot is gone. Space is there when the pot is there. Pot is just another form of space. Pot is made of space only. Space has never been affected by the coming and going of the pot. Consciousness is like the space here. All the objects, including our own body and mind are like the pot here.
Another example used is the dream world. The dream world exists in the dreamer. Everything in the dream world is made of thoughts of the dreamer. The dreamer is the substance that the dream world is made of. This explains both Consciousness as the substance and Consciousness as the whole.
It should be understood that these example are pointers to understand the reality. They should not be taken literally. Also, they are not proofs of Advaita. As mentioned, any answer to the first three questions cannot be proved or disproved.
Hindrances in accepting Advaita
As seen, Advaita is very simple to understand. The problem is in accepting it as the truth. There are three hindrances in accepting Advaita as the truth.
- Doubt about the method: The intellect can have doubts in the fact that any answer to the first three questions cannot be proved or disproved. This has to be resolved by deep analysis.
- Lack of shradda in the words of the Upanishads and the teacher: Once the first hindrance is resolved, the problem is about whom to accept. Here, the character of the teacher plays a major role. When the student is convinced that the teacher or the scripture has no personal materialistic agenda, it is easier to accept Advaita as the truth. Also, the implications of the various assumptions need to be intellectually analyzed.
- Lack of dispassion: Attachment to the objects of the world, and one’s own body and mind create an emotional block in accepting Advaita as the truth. All spiritual disciplines are only to create detachment in the aspirant after the truth, so that this block is removed.
Steps to Advaita
To help people gradually prepare themselves from where they are towards the acceptance of Advaita, two intermediary models of reality are introduced.
The first model is called the Dvaita model. It answers the three questions thus:
- Jiva-svarupam – The individual is characterized by his freedom of choice. He is responsible for his decisions. The entity that hold the freedom and is responsible for the way the freedom is exercised is the individual. For this, the individual has to be necessarily not a part or product or property of matter. The individual has to be an entity independent of matter.
- Jagat-svarupam – The world of matter presents the medium for the individual to express and experience. The world operates by fixed laws of causation and conservation.
- Ishvara-svarupam – The whole is that entity that governs over the implementation of the cause-and-effect laws for both the individuals and the world. Ishvara creates the world, maintains it and recycles it for the benefit of the individuals.
Though the cause of temporary sorrow can be attributed to inappropriate action, there can be no compromise in the ultimate cause of sorrow, the state of the free and means to freedom from sorrow. They can be answered only by the final model that we have seen.
Starting with this model, the seeker of truth can develop detachment by observing the fleeting nature of things.
For a mature seeker, the Vishishtadvaita model is given. The three questions are answered in that model thus:
- Jiva-svarupa – Same as in Dvaita. However, in addition to that, Ishvara is the spark of Consciousness within, that powers the individual. Though the individuals have an apparent independent existence, they are all various expressions of the Ishvara only.
- Jagat-svarupa – Same as in Dvaita. However, in addition to that, Ishvara is the material cause (like clay to pot) and sentient cause (like potter to pot) of the world. Ishvara is the substance of which the world is made.
- Ishvara-svarupa – Same as in Dvaita, with the above mentioned additions.
Thus, in this model, in reality, there is nothing in existence except Ishvara. It is Ishvara alone who has become the world and its living beings. This Ishvara is called Saguna Brahman.
The Advaita and Vishishtadvaita are essentially same. Advaita is from the point of view of the absolute. Vishishtadvaita is from the point of view of the relative. Pot exists from the point of view of the on-looker. However, from the point of view of clay, nothing ever happened at all. It was, is and will ever be clay only. Diversity exists from the point of view of the world. There is no world from the point of view of Consciousness.
The Dvaita and Vishishtadvaita models serve as stepping stones towards accepting the final Advaita model.
When Advaita is understood and accepted as the truth, it establishes the person as free from all sorrow. In modern times, when science has gone a long way to make people understand everything is matter, it just needs a small switch in perspective to understand that everything is Consciousness. The implications are far reaching and liberating.