There are numerous and widespread misconceptions about Advaita Vedānta at present. Most people in the West dismiss it as Solipsism or Idealism in which the external world doesn’t exist when Advaita clearly states that the world does exist as a myth, a false story, a sort of TV imagery, or a fantasy movie. They neither understand what truth there is in Advaita (that most of the world is indeed a false story, TV imagery, or a fantasy movie) nor do they know why it is true (i.e., the world is text representing false meanings). They also cannot provide a counter to the problem posed by temporality, namely that if the world was true then it should not change—after all, truth is eternal and never-changing.
The Realists also cannot reconcile their opposition to Idealism or Solipsism with Vedic statements pervaded by notions of the material world being māyā, or “that which is not [true]”. They uncritically reject Advaita carrying forward their Abrahamic or monotheistic ideas of matter as “real stuff” even though realism itself has never been established in the West nor has any Western epistemology ever shown how we can know the reality behind the phenomenal appearances. Their uncritical rejection of Advaita is tantamount to continued Abrahamic and monotheistic thinking.
Most people in India are baffled by multiple Vedānta commentaries and at least six distinct Vedānta interpretations called Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, Śuddhādvaita, Dvaita, Bhedābheda, and Achintya Bhedābheda. They don’t understand why and how Vedānta evolution has occurred and because all interpretations after Advaita are considerably more difficult than Advaita, everyone falls back to the simplest one they can understand. But the thing that we can understand also says that the world is false in some sense, therefore, all duty, hardship, and responsibility are false along with all rituals, practices, and texts. By this simplistic conclusion, the rejection of everything becomes a virtue and not a vice, justifying the absence of deep study and critical thinking.
To both groups I will offer an alternative—(a) your idea of Advaita is wrong, (b) there is a lot of truth in Advaita, but it is not the exclusive truth, (c) Advaita is infinitely superior to Abrahamic monotheism, (d) numerous prevalent claims about Advaita are themselves incompatible with Shankaracharya’s statements, and (d) some of Shankaracharya’s claims are incompatible with the rest of the Vedic system. To understand all these topics, deep study, inquiry, investigation, and critical thinking are needed. Otherwise, peddling false ideas without understanding a subject is a disservice to everyone.
Since after Advaita, five interpretations of Vedānta had to be done, there is no reason to assume that the issue is so simple. People were not so ignorant or self-important to just produce something for no reason. There is enormous complexity but to the naïve, all that complexity seems unnecessary. To begin with, one should properly understand Advaita if one wants to understand anything else. The later interpretations will make sense only when we know the previous ones in greater detail. In this post, I have collected three responses on Advaita to help the eager get a jumpstart.
What is the View of Advaita Followers Regarding Duality?
Advaita followers have an almost Buddhist conception regarding duality.
The Buddhist concept is called Pratītyasamutpāda. Pratīta means appearance. Samutpāda means produced simultaneously. The world is opposites like hot and cold, black and white, heavy and light, rough and smooth, bitter and sweet, etc. All these opposites are co-dependent in the sense that we cannot define cold without hot or vice versa.
Hot weather for one person may be cold for another person and vice versa. So, each person is carrying their personal reference frame of word-meaning mapping. If one word is given a meaning, then the opposite word is also given a meaning. Hence, both words are co-dependently arising. The Buddhist idea is that the whole world is simply these co-dependent opposites.
Now comes a big claim that opposites are always in conflict with each other. For example, the proponent of such opposites might say that hot and cold are always in contradiction. This is not necessarily true. Opposites can also be attracted to each other because each opposite is incomplete. To complete it, we need the other opposite. For example, a serious person may be attracted to a jovial person. But that attraction in the material world is temporary. After some time, the serious person will say to the jovial person: Be serious! Then there will be a conflict between the two. But when there is an attraction, the opposites form a relationship, stay distinct, and overcome incompleteness. Therefore,
- Opposites can attract
- Opposites can merge
- Opposites can separate
- Opposites can clash
According to Buddhism, opposites are always in a clash and when they merge then the clash ends and the world dissolves. The world is created when the opposites separate from each other. Advaita has almost the same idea as Buddhism. Hence, it is called Chadma-Bauddha or covered Buddhism. This is because they have disregarded the first state in which opposites attract.
In the material world, all the above four statements are true, namely, opposites attract, opposites clash, opposites merge, and opposites separate. In Buddhist liberation, the opposites merge and the world ends. In Advaita liberation, the opposites merge, and the experienced world also ends, but a self still remains. There is no opposite to the self or something that it not-self. Hence, they say that every individual is merged. That is not true. In BG 2.12, Lord Kṛṣṇa clearly states: “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings, and never will there be a time when we shall cease to be.” The Sanskrit verse uses aham in the first person (for Kṛṣṇa), tvaṁ in the second person (for Arjuna), and sarve vayam in the third person (for the kings). Since all these distinctions are used, therefore, all of them are eternally individual. However, each person can withdraw their consciousness and become unaware of other persons. The Brahman realization cannot abrogate the individuality of persons. Any claim that it does is contrary to Bhagavad-Gita’s first important philosophical statement.
Finally, beyond Brahman is Vaikuṇṭha in which opposites attract. There is no clash between opposites and the opposites do not merge. There is just attraction between the opposites. So, one person may be always serious and the other person may be always jovial, and they are attracted to each other. The serious person doesn’t say to the jovial person: Be serious! Likewise, the jovial person doesn’t say to a serious person: Be jovial! They just enjoy each other’s company without forcing their nature on others.
This is because even when the jovial person makes a joke, it is not a silly joke. It is also talking about the truth in a funny way. The serious person is also talking about the truth in a serious way. So, there is no conflict between them. The jovial person listens to the serious truth and then says the same thing in a funny way. Then both laugh together. There is no clash.
Since this relationship is eternal, therefore, even those who are incomplete don’t feel incomplete because their opposite is with them always. The serious person doesn’t feel incomplete because the jovial person is telling jokes. The jovial person doesn’t feel incomplete because the serious person is giving novel insights. They complement and complete each other without any conflict.
Advaita universalized the Buddhist idea of duality as opposites clash, opposites separate, and opposites merge. It derecognized the first state in which opposites attract and rejected a world in which opposites can exist attractively and harmoniously. So, Advaita is essentially Buddhism with one additional thing, namely, that after the opposites merge, the self remains unaware of other persons.
What is the Definition of Illusory According to Vedānta?
There are two separate contrasts involved in this topic:
- Reality vs. Illusion
- Truth vs. Myth
An illusion is that which has no external existence. It may be true or false.
A myth is that which is false. It may or may not exist externally.
Here are the combinations:
- Truthful illusion – e.g., a dream that correctly forewarns you about the future.
- Mythical illusion – e.g., a dream that shows you a horse running on paper.
- Mythical reality – e.g., seeing a rope as a snake.
- Truthful reality – e.g., seeing a rope as a rope.
Even in Shankaracharya’s Vedānta (called Advaita), the reference is to satya and mithya, which means truth and myth, not reality and illusion. The world is a mythical reality (e.g., seeing a rope as a snake).
For instance, someone says “I love you”, but they are lying. They have indeed said it. But it is a false statement because they don’t love you. However, you believe that the person who said “I love you” is speaking the truth. By that belief or trust, “I love you” becomes a myth. It is your myth. But someone really said it.
To understand the truth-myth distinction, we have to conceive the world as sentences. The sentence exists. It is also meaningful. But it makes false claims.
When Shankaracharya said brahma satyam jagat mithya, the statement factually applies to almost everything because what people say they don’t mean and what they mean they don’t say. Likewise, due to our mental and sense conditioning, we misperceive, misinterpret, and misjudge even those things that really exist. It doesn’t mean that the world doesn’t exist. It is a rope that we see as a snake.
The word “jagat” is actually a world in our perception. It is not identical to the external world. Our senses and minds are conditioned by triguna due to which all sense perceptions and mental thoughts are distorted. Thereby, the jagat (the world in our perception) starts varying from the external reality. There is no way to overcome this problem unless one is purified of the triguna contamination.
However, when a person is purified of the material contamination of triguna, then the jagat becomes truth and corresponds to the external reality. Then the world is seen just as it is. Then we see the rope as a rope rather than as a snake. Thereby, the “jagat”, which is the world in our perception, changes and it stops being a myth.
Isopanishad states: īśā vāsyamidaṁ sarvaṁ yatkiñca jagatyāṁ jagat, which means “The Ishvara is residing in everything in the world we perceive.” If Ishvara is residing in everything, then how can everything be false? That is a contradiction with Shankaracharya’s statement if that statement is universalized. But if it is not universalized, then we can know that if one thing exists in everything, then those things cannot be separate things. It is like a puppeteer has his hands controlling two puppets, so both puppets are controlled in a coordinated manner by the same person. The puppets cannot be called independent things because one puppeteer is controlling both puppets. And yet, the puppets haven’t merged into one thing to be called inseparable. Factually, the Paramātma is in everything controlling it to create order in the world.
The vision of the purified soul is not false. He can see the truth correctly. One basic thing he sees is that the Paramātma is in everything due to which nothing is working randomly even if it seems random to us. Everything is rather controlled like a puppeteer controls many puppets. However, each puppet is not an inert thing. Rather, each puppet is a person with free will. Due to that free will, each puppet does things within the limited freedom afforded to it by the Paramātma. If the soul surrenders to the Paramātma and does precisely what He wants, then there is no problem. Otherwise, if each puppet tries to misuse its free will, then its actions are its own responsibility.
This responsibility constrains a person’s freedom. Therefore, nobody is supremely free. They are freer if they act according to the guidance of Paramātma. They are less free if they ignore that advice. The vision of the impure soul doesn’t understand all these things. It thinks that it is a free individual. This perceived individualistic freedom is an illusion. Since most people are suffering from that illusion, therefore, brahma satyam jagat mithya applies to most people, but not to everyone. Here, the soul is Brahman and the Paramātma is the Param-Brahman. The Brahman is not independent of Param-Brahman. When it thinks so, it ceases to be Brahman and becomes a myth. The myth is that I am free. The truth is that I am dependent on the Param-Brahman.
There are many more counterexamples of universalization of brahma satyam jagat mithya. If this is universally true, then all Vedic texts must also be myths and not truths. Then, what is the point of Shankaracharya writing a commentary on Vedānta Sūtra, trying to explain it, when even that text is a myth? Advaita becomes a self-contradiction when this claim is universalized.
Advaita is used by some academics to undermine the Vedic tradition by claiming that if all the world is a myth, then all books are myths, all deities and forms of God are myths, and all rituals and practices are myths. Nothing is true. The whole Vedic system is mythology. We can study that myth as history and literature. But there is no point in practicing it. We must stop doing all of those things because they are myths. This is the problem of trying to universalize the ideology of myth. It ultimately undercuts not just other Vedic texts but ultimately itself.
Due to this universalization of myth ideology India went down because everyone claimed that all books, deities, rituals, and practices are just myths. Even fighting a war is a waste of time because both I and the enemy are a myth. Later on, the West started calling the entire Vedic system mythology. It is because Advaita universalized the myth-ideology to the whole world. Now you can say that the West is also a myth, but they will reject it because according to them the world is real. Thereby, it is a myth for those who thought they were creating myths but it is real for those who thought they were creating truth. Ultimately, the Vedic system suffers alone.
The myth-ideology should not be universalized. The world is mostly a myth because people lie, cheat, deceive, and we cannot perceive and understand anything correctly. But it is not universally a myth because some people can see the truth and tell the truth. Those are the self-realized souls, the incarnations of the Lord, and their honest and devoted servants.
What is the Difference Between Real and Fake Vedānta?
The difference lies in the understanding of the word Advaita.
Dvaya means duality. It is described through opposites such as hot and cold, rich and poor, healthy and sick, happy and miserable, rough and smooth, heavy and light, etc. Whenever there are opposites, a natural conclusion is that they are mutually opposed. This is not totally false.
However, there are different kinds of logic under which opposites are treated differently. In binary logic, used by the West since Aristotle, if X is true then not-X is false, and whatever is false must not exist. This logic should never be used in the discussion of Advaya because duality is defined by the simultaneous existence of opposites. Both hot and cold exist. Both rich and poor exist. Both heavy and light exist. In fact, they must exist simultaneously for the other to exist because they are mutually defined. We cannot define richness without poverty and vice versa. Each person chooses an arbitrary definition of richness (say $1 million or $10 million) and then defines poverty relative to that. If one definition is changed then both are changed at once. Hence, opposites are mutually defined and co-dependent.
Advaita also accepts that opposites are mutually defined and co-dependent, just like Buddhism. However, it says that the self is not defined by opposites. Then how can it be defined? The answer in Advaita is that the self is known only by removing all the opposites. It has no intrinsic definition. This came to be known as neti-neti or “not this and not that.”
Shankaracharya was asked: Who are you? And he responded: I am not the senses, nor the mind, nor the intellect. I am not aversions and attractions. I am neither birth nor death. And so on. Everyone assumed that it means something formless and indescribable. Paradoxically, Shankaracharya said repeatedly: cidananda rupah sivoham sivoham. Below is the complete version of Shankaracharya’s response, called ātmaṣatkam, or six statements on the self.
manobuddhyahaṃkāra cittāni nāhaṃ
na ca śrotrajihve na ca ghrāṇanetre
na ca vyoma bhūmirna tejo na vāyuḥ
cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham
na ca prāṇasaṃjño na vai paṃcavāyuḥ,
na vā saptadhātuḥ na vā pañcakośaḥ
na vākpāṇipādau na copasthapāyu,
cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham
na me dveṣarāgau na me lobhamohau,
mado naiva me naiva mātsaryabhāvaḥ
na dharmo na cārtho na kāmo na mokṣaḥ,
cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham
na puṇyaṃ na pāpaṃ na saukhyaṃ na duḥkhaṃ,
na mantro na tīrtho na vedā na yajña
ahaṃ bhojanaṃ naiva bhojyaṃ na bhoktā,
cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham
na me mṛtyuśaṃkā na me jātibhedaḥ,
pitā naiva me naiva mātā na janmaḥ
na bandhurna mitraṃ gurūrnaiva śiṣyaḥ,
cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham
ahaṃ nirvikalpo nirākāra rūpo,
vibhutvāca sarvatra sarvendriyāṇām
na cāsaṅgataṃ naiva muktirna meyaḥ,
cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham
It basically says “I am not this and I am not that” and then it says: cidananda rupah sivoham sivoham. There is a rupa or form. It is the form of chit and ananda. There is also an aham or “I” which in the case of Shankaracharya is Siva because he was an incarnation of Lord Shiva who has a rupa or form. Therefore, we cannot say that “I am not this and I am not that” in isolation. We have to say both. Selectively picking one or two words out of a sentence is unacceptable.
All the problems arise from the universalization of two words in the statement: aham nirvikalpo nirākāra rupo. The words nirvikalpa and nirākāra are universalized while the words aham and rupa are ignored to say that there is no form (based on nirvikalpa and nirākāra) when the sentence is actually saying that “I am the form of nirvikalpa and nirākāra”. Both “I” and “form” are used with nirvikalpa and nirakara. So, we have to first declutter this sentence.
The word kara means action. The word akara means non-action. Ordinary action has some consequences called karma which binds us to repeated birth and death. However, akara is that action that doesn’t bind us or it may even liberate us from repeated birth and death. Proper spiritual practice is akara because it does not bind us and it liberates us. Then, akāra is what is produced from such an action, namely liberation of the self. Just uttering the sound “aaaaa” is called akāra because it is liberating, freeing, and relieving. Then, ākāra means what comes after that liberation and is produced from that liberation, namely spiritual activities. Remember it is still a kara so there is activity, but it is activity after one has been liberated. This ākāra is also a form but it is not a temporary form. It is a real and eternal form. Finally, nih-ākāra or nirākāra is something that is not a spiritual activity, however, it is a state of liberation from bondage. Self-absorption is such an activity. It is neither spiritual nor material. But it is also a form.
The word kalpa means thought. The word vikalpa means an alternative thought that is tied to that thought. For example, hot and cold are vikalpa of each other because they are mutually defined opposites. Finally, nirvikalpa is that which is devoid of these alternatives or opposites. Again, self-absorption is such a state. There is no alternative thought about others, namely, not-I. It is just I, without its opposite—the other. Therefore, there is no conflict in saying aham and nirvikalpa as it means “I without the other”. Finally, this is also a rupa or form.
What are these forms? If you can concentrate your consciousness on your ears and not focus on any of the external sounds, you will hear a “sound of silence”. It is not dead silence. There is a sound. That sound cannot be expressed in any Sanskrit letter. It is like an electric buzz. It is very pleasing to hear. If you can hear that, then you will not want to hear ordinary sounds. But you cannot express it through speech. It can just be heard. It cannot be spoken. This “sound of silence” is a form or a rupa. But it has not been produced because someone spoke it. It is always buzzing in the ear but most people cannot hear it. It needs the capacity to remove all other sounds to hear it. Thereby, silence is akāra because it is not caused by an action. It is lower than spiritual sound and it is higher than material sound. It is a state between matter and spirit.
Likewise, even odorless is an odor. The ordinary air we breathe in is called odorless. But it is not devoid of odor. Similarly, white is called colorless. But it is not devoid of color. Something that is not a specific well-defined shape is called amorphous. But it has a form. One who realizes the sound of silence, the odor of the odorless, the color of the colorless, the shape of the amorphous, etc. also realizes the difference between material form and the so-called formless. Since the formless is also a form, therefore, the concept of formless as something devoid of all properties is false.
Shankaracharya says all these things when he states: aham nirvikalpo nirākāra rupo. There is “I” and there is rupa. And yet, it is the sound of silence, the form of formlessness, the color of colorlessness, etc. Negation of all material qualities leads us to something that is not material and yet it has a form. In contrast to ordinary forms, we can say that it is devoid of these forms and hence “formless”. But it is not factually formless. This so-called “formless” state is in between matter and spirit. It is a non-dual state, but not the only non-dual state. It is anivarchanīya which means it cannot be spoken of because speech cannot express the sound of silence.
Now we can talk about the difference between real and fake Vedānta. Fake Vedānta is that which equates the form of formlessness to just formlessness. Real Vedānta is that which understands that formlessness is also a form. From that, they can understand that non-duality is also a different kind of form, and then they can proceed to the spiritual form. Those who talk about formlessness don’t have any realization because they have not heard the sound of silence, not seen the shape of the amorphous, not seen the color of the bleached, and so on. They are just talking about their fantasy of removing all forms to get something formless without any realization of that formless.
Shankaracharya incarnated in Kali-Yuga to delude people into thinking that all activity, all duty, and all sounds are myths. People abandoned their duties, became lazy and incompetent, and were then conquered by foreigners who gave importance to material forms.
This is confirmed by Lord Kṛṣṇa in Bhagavad-Gita 9.3:
aprāpya māṁ nivartante
Those men who have no trust in the dharma of that [transcendence] do not attain Me and they return to the present material world of death and creation.
The Brahman state is not eternal. It is overwhelmed by material influence, which means that if there is a material allurement the person forgets his Brahman idea and becomes a materialist. Then he starts accumulating money and disciples and starts doing social service and charity, while earlier he had said that it was all a myth. He was calling it a myth when he did not have anything. But when he gets an opportunity to enjoy material success then he falls for it. This is because he has not crossed over to spiritual activity. He had earlier renounced everything and now he embraces everything. His repeated rise and fall pertain to the falsehood of his thinking.
In the same way, those who just talk about Brahman abandon their duties, over time they become lazy and incompetent, and then they are conquered by more powerful people and become their slaves. Then they forget that they are Brahman. They now seek respect and rewards from their masters. Therefore, the destiny of a Brahma-vadi is not good, if we think of the long run.
This is also the current state of India. People don’t have the intellect to understand a statement like aham nirvikalpo nirākāra rupo. They ignore aham and rupa and just talk about nirvikalpa and nirākāra. Out of four words in a sentence, two are accepted and two are rejected.
This is because they previously universalized their mythical idea, stopped doing duty and hard work, became lazy and incompetent, and over time they have lost their intellect because of not using it. Now they cannot analyze four words together. They just take two words and think they know everything. Then when someone else calls the Vedic system a “mythology” they feel very upset when they were the ones saying that it is a myth all along. How can a Westerner calling the Vedic system a myth be bad while the Indian Advaitin saying the same thing is good? They are the same. The West is saying that the Vedic system is a myth because Advaitins were saying that the whole world is a myth, so the Western academic just included Vedic texts within the mythical world.
But those who have lost their intelligence due to not using it, blame others. The problem is internal rather than external. Advaita put no bounds on truth and myth. Therefore, Vedic texts also became myths. Now there is no point in blaming someone else.
We have to use our intelligence to put a limit on myth and truth. Before that, we have to understand what is truth and what is myth. This requires intelligence. It is as simple as using all four words when we are given four words. If we don’t use it, then we lose it. Therefore, if we have lost it, then we have to start using it to get it back.
All those who talk about Advaita without any realization should study everything in detail and try to analyze it. Even if we analyze Shankaracharya’s statements we will come to a different conclusion than what most Advaitins are claiming at present. Then if we study Vedic texts deeply, we will find the places where the Advaita claims contradict the Vedic texts. It is a difficult process because the intellect has been lost by disuse and misuse. It will only be regained by one who starts using it again in the proper way. There is no other way.