Advaita – The Partial Truth
Many people who look at Vedic philosophy in current times, understand it as Advaita, which is an interpretation of Vedanta, that claims that the ultimately reality is a singular, unified existence called Brahman, from which the world is produced as māyā or illusion. The Brahman is equated with consciousness, although how consciousness comes under illusion has been a contentious issue since the time of Śaṅkarācārya who first propounded Advaita but did not provide a clear explanation of the fall into illusion. Subsequent interpretations of Vedanta have tried to address these problems, but they are generally ignored by Advaita philosophers. This post discusses the problems in Advaita, how they have been addressed by subsequent interpretations of Vedanta and what these interpretations mean for the understanding of Vedanta itself. Finally, the post discusses how a proper understanding of Vedanta changes the nature of science.
Table of Contents
Understanding the Meaning of Existence
Pervasive across Vedic philosophy is the discussion of the three aspects of reality—called sat, chit, and ānanda. The term sat has multiple distinct meanings—truth, eternity, and existence. In this world, there are things that exist, but they are untrue; for example, we all have illusions, hallucinations, dreams, and mistaken ideas. All these exist, but they are not true. Both reality and the material world are therefore existent, but one is true, and the other is false. This distinction between the true and false existence is clearly described in the Bhagavad-Gita 2.16, and connected to the nature of change as follows:
nāsato vidyate bhāvo
nābhāvo vidyate sataḥ
ubhayor api dṛṣṭo ’ntas
tv anayos tattva-darśibhiḥ
Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent [the material body] there is no endurance and of the eternal [the soul] there is no change. This they have concluded by studying the nature of both.
The term asat denotes that which exists and is false. The term bhava means manifestation; similarly abhava means disappearance. So, essentially, the false existence appears and disappears, while the true existence persists permanently. Therefore, if something appears and disappears, it should automatically be considered false: change equals false, and unchanging equals truth. The material world is existent, but because it changes, it is considered false. Similarly, reality is that which remains unchanged, and therefore it is true. Time destroys and creates false things; but time does not create and destroy the truth. Truth is eternal, false ideas are temporary.
Understanding the Advaita Philosophy
Advaita also recognizes the two meanings of sat—namely existence and truth—and calls the reality which is both existent and true (because it doesn’t change with time) Brahman. The material world which is existent and false (and therefore changes with time) is called māyā. Some recent descriptions of Advaita have, however, gone so far to misrepresent the word māyā to mean non-existent. Under such an interpretation, the world doesn’t exist; it is simply a hallucination of consciousness.
There is a significant difference between calling the world false (because it is temporary) and calling it a hallucination. Quite specifically, there is no problem in calling the world false. However, if we call this world false, then a natural conclusion is that there must be another world that is true. Such a world now becomes a transcendent reality with meanings, pleasures, and choices, quite like in the present world.
The original Advaita philosophers such as Śaṅkarācārya did not have a problem with this idea. Indeed, Śaṅkarācārya composed classics such as Bhaja Govindam and Śrī Jagannāthāṣṭakam as descriptions of a transcendent reality. There is hence a significant difference between the Advaita of Śaṅkarācārya and the Advaita conceived today.
The Problem of Deciding the Truth
In classical Western epistemology, the truth of our knowledge depends on the world, which exists even when we don’t exist. Advaita and other schools of Vedanta reject this epistemology because matter is temporary and therefore cannot be the arbitrator of the truth. Now, we are left with consciousness that decides the truth. But if we simply relegate the truth to our conscious choices then there can never be false ideas. After all, they are simply our choices, and there is nothing beyond what we choose, and how we choose it. Everything I choose, therefore, must be true, as far as I am concerned. And there is nothing other than this choice that can in turn constitute the judgment of choice.
This problem exists in in the modern misrepresentation of Advaita as well. If consciousness is the ultimate reality, and it produces some ideas through choices, then who is to say that this choice is false? That position leads to the collapse of epistemology, and eventually of Advaita itself: if we cannot say that something is true or false, then how can there be a distinction between Brahman and māyā? If consciousness is the ultimately reality, then its choices cannot be subjected to questions such as truth or false. It is just a choice.
If all choices are equally good, because there is nothing outside the individual observer which can judge the nature of true and false choices, then there simply cannot be knowledge or reality. Neither can we claim to know the universal laws of nature, not can we say that material world “entangles” consciousness. There can therefore be no questions about getting out of material entanglement, because the entanglement and freedom are simply two choices, neither of which is truer or better in any sense.
The Necessity of God
In modern Advaita everyone is their own final arbiter of choosing, which is sometimes stated as the idea that we can all choose our path. This begs the question of how we ever made a “wrong” choice such that it has to be corrected by “getting out” of such wrong choices. If you are the final judge of the choices you make, then how could you have ever made a choice that is subsequently called “wrong”? In other words, if you are indeed Brahman and transcendent to matter, then how did you fall into matter? If this fall amounts to a “mistake”, then there is a judgment that is outside you. And if there is indeed an external judgment, then you could not be the final arbiter of all your choices.
The last problem is addressed in Vedic texts by describing two kinds of observers. The first observer is the living entity like us, whose choices are not final in themselves, because they are can be judged as being true or false. The second observer is a different kind of living entity—who is called Bhagavan or God—whose choices are final, and no separate judgment can be applied to His choices. God emerges as a necessity in a philosophy that aims to solve the problem of epistemology—i.e. true or false choices.
If Brahman is true and māyā is false, then this judgment depends on God, not on us. The things that we taste, touch, smell, see, and hear, are not matter or māyā. Rather, it is their compatibility or dissonance with God which makes them true or false. There is hence truth in this world, if that idea or meaning is compatible with God. This is where Vedanta departs from the modern misrepresentation of Advaita, because Advaita rejects this entire world as being māyā or falsity. In the proper understanding of Vedanta, even things in this world can be symbols of truth, if they are compatible with the Absolute Truth.
The Correct Advaita Position
It is therefore not enough to speak about Brahman and māyā because we don’t know which is which. It is alright to say that something must be true while other things are false. But, how do we know that the eternity of the soul is the truth and the material world is false? As a materialist could argue, the opposite may also be true, and the eternity of the soul may be false, while the evolution of matter may be eternal. Which of these opposing positions represents the truth cannot be decided unless we postulate an idea which constitutes the axioms based on which we judge all choices. My beliefs are not necessarily true, unless I know about the truth against which I’m judged, and which lies outside me.
There is, hence, an internal inconsistency in Advaita because it considers each person as a “god”, and rejects a separate God. The inconsistency is that the so-called “god”—who is the final arbiter of all their choices—sometimes realizes that they made a mistake. Clearly, the criteria of their judgement in the past and the present must have changed for the choice to change. And what is this criteria other than themselves? If you are the final arbiter of choice, then you can never be wrong. If Brahman is the eternal truth, then how can it sometimes make a mistake, which it regrets at a later point in time?
The Incompleteness of Advaita
Advaita is not the whole truth, simply because there can be a mistake, and to judge that mistake, there must be some criterion to judge. This criterion is described in Vedic texts as God or Para-Brahman who is the judge of other claims. If our choices produce numerous ideas, and these ideas can be false, then there must be a set of true ideas against which these ideas have to be judged. This set of true ideas is called Para-Brahman.
The Para-Brahman is both transcendent to Brahman as well as the Supreme Brahman. These are two meanings of para—transcendent and supreme. Some living entities rebel against this arbitration of Para-Brahman. They ask themselves: Why does God have to be the final arbiter? Why can’t we create our own ideas about ourselves? Maybe our ideas are better than those that God has. What’s the harm in trying out other ideas?
The living entity confuses the God’s ability to freely choose and constitute the ultimate truth through His choices, with his own ability for free choices. God’s free choices are ultimate truth because the pleasure of that choice is unlimited. It is the highest choice, because every other choice produces a limited pleasure in comparison. When the resulting pleasure is limited, one eventually gets bored of it, and seeks new ideas. The temporariness of the idea hinges on the fact that one eventually gets bored of it. The premise of Para-Brahman is that there is an idea which no one can ever get bored of.
Vedanta and Science
A proper understanding of Vedanta can invigorate a new kind of science in which matter is described as “false ideas”. To be false, there must be meaning, not merely existence. And for meanings to exist, matter has to be understood as symbols, not objects. If the world is objects, then their knowledge constitutes the truth and the material world can never be rejected as falsities. Only if this world’s existence was understood as “false ideas” would the search for truth would not reject the possibility of transcendence.
Modern science is in quest of laws based on existence, and a science based on a real understanding of Vedanta would be in quest of laws based on truth. If something is true, it never appears or disappears. The material world evolves because it is untrue. Therefore how the material world evolves is premised on how the evolving matter is false ideas. The succession of false ideas depends on their incorrect meanings.
By understanding the evolution of false matter, we can also see that this evolution exists only when matter is false. As the matter becomes truer, the evolution slows down. This means that by understanding the ideas that change slow and fast, we get a direction towards truth. We can see that the ideas that evolve slowly must be truer, and therefore we must pursue the truth in that direction. When truth is pursued in that direction, we can find ideas that change slower and slower. This is an empirical criterion for judging the truth, and estimating if we are headed in the right direction in science. Ultimately, the quest for truth will take us out of the material world of false ideas. But the direction of this search, and progress from current false ideas into truer ideas can be within this world.
Advaita rejects the world of false ideas correctly. But it also incorrectly rejects the world of true ideas, and the existence of truth in this world, which is by and large false, but not completely false. In the proper understanding of Vedanta, there is truth in this world, but everything that we see is not true. Science cannot be done if everything in this world is false, and science becomes the pursuit of falsities if everything in this world is considered true. These problems don’t arise when there is some truth in this world, but everything is not true. The truth therefore can be sought in this world, but it must involve a vigorous rejection of the falsities. That kind of science would be pursuant to Vedic principles.