Advaita-Vedanta in Indian philosophy: Diving Deeper into the Concepts
Introduction about Advaita-Vedanta
The ancient Vedanta school of Indian philosophy exists as both Theistic and Absolutistic. Advaita-Vedanta is the reference made to the Absolutistic school of the Vedanta ideology. The Vedanta is a result of several of the deliberations and modifications made in the Upanishadic doctrine of the Vedas. The term Vedanta largely refers to “the final portion of the Vedas” but it actually signifies entirely the settled conclusions of the Vedas as a whole in its teachings. Therefore, the Vedanta in its later parts also includes teachings of legendary works such as the Bhagavadgita and the Visnu Purana which constantly reiterate and signify the importance of the Upanishadic doctrine.
Therefore, the Vedanta is considered as one of the most perfect expressions of Indian thought as it combines the most important teachings of the previous orthodox schools of thought in Indian philosophy without making one thought take over the another or put down or stigmatize the teachings of a particular school and glorify another school in relation to the former one. It presents to its audience a systematic and harmonious expression of each school of thought quite transparently. The Vedantas as existing in the present period consist of four chapters, each divided into four quarters (padas) or sections. They are found in the Sutra of Badarayana or the Vedanta Sutra as it is commonly called. The absolutistic schools of the Vedanta including the Advaita represent the Brahman as the Ultimate Reality and as an impersonal principle. The Advaita school is associated with the name of Samkara.
Major philosophical doctrines provided in the Advaita-Vedanta
The Upanishadic teachings in their earliest formulations have presented a lot of dilemmic representations for the understanding of Brahman. For instance, if the Brahman is considered as an individual soul, then it doesn’t sustain and retain its identity as an individual soul but it expands itself to becoming the creator of the Universe. In order to solve this dilemmic representation, one must understand both the given statements separately in their essence at first and then attempt to bring forth a harmonious combination of both of them. This was one of the methods adopted by Bhartrprapanca prior to the formulation of Advaita as a school of thought by Samkara. According to Bhartprapanca, Brahman is one but its unity is such that it includes variety and so its conception is thus of more than one and is manifold. With the advent of Samkara, he proposed a completely different view to the conception of Brahman and he stated a solution to the dilemma of the Brahman as the Universe or the individual soul and states that creation of an object only signifies the potential becoming the actual. But, however creative and original might this proposition might seem like it is only as good as it stays verbal as such propositions do not really lead to understanding the effects of the causation.
The Advaita-Vedanta school puts forth the view that sameness (abheda) and difference (bheda) are intelligible only if they are taken together and since they are mutually contradictory in their beliefs, they cannot be presented of the same one thing. This self-contradictory nature of the set of beliefs leads to a sense of falseness in one’s understanding of the true nature of Brahman. In other words, the Advaita theory is attempting to make people understand about the fact that reality should be something which transcends the actual and the potential, the real and the unreal and the individual and the absolute. According to Samkara, there are two streams of thought in the Upanishads and he thinks that what presents the reality to the diversity is in turn only a concession to the empirical modes of thought. The views of Samkara present to his audience an understanding of non-dualism (advaita). So, it is wrong to state that reality is merely in unity. He regards all of diversity as being an illusion (mithya) since he perceives Brahman as an eternal being to be real (sat) and something which is unreal (asat) is absolutely into nothingness. The world in the Advaita is described in an illusory sense. In the example of a pictorial representation of a serpent and a rope, the serpent that appears to be present within the rope is neither existent nor non-existent. It is only psychologically present (prasiddha) but it cannot be logically deduced (siddha) as present in the representation. The rope-serpent illusion is only an iteration of the proposition that the presence of the serpent in one’s perception is a symbolism to “higher reality” and once the rope disappears, the serpent would disappear as well.
There are two types of common illusions in which a layperson is conceived to be lost in. One conception is that of perceiving a rope from a large distance to be a serpent and then realizing after coming in proximity to it that it is a rope resembling the segmental and straight symmetry of a serpent. Another type of illusion is that of misinterpreting the color or hue or shade of an object due to the reflection of light and its position near some transparent background and when comes into proximity with it, he realizes that it was due to the reflection of the light and the angle of watching it. These illusions illustrate the difference between the Brahman as an individual soul and as the substantial Universe, according to Samkara. Therefore, it also emphasizes the importance of Brahman as the ultimate reality and everything else as trivial and non-existent.
There are four important concepts that are explained in the Advaita-Vedanta schools, they are as follows:
- Maya: Maya refers to the illusion of objects in the world of the mortals and they attempt to signify the spatial, temporal and causal order. The world is constantly undergoing change but the change doesn’t occur in totality, it occurs with some level of persistence in it. It states that diversity is latent and that it manifests in the other. The Advaita denies the relation between spirit and matter as separate entities. Spirit and matter are understood as implying each other. But, if one must ponder over the given statement again and again, then they would realize that the relation between them is not true in reality but it is only false. Therefore, after posing all these propositions and deliberating over the question again and again, that the physical world is only an appearance and otherwise it really doesn’t imply anything else. Reality is maya and therefore it is neither real nor independent of spirit.
- Brahman: Advaita-Vedanta emphasizes the importance of the spirit and considers it as the ultimate basis of everything. Therefore, by negating the world, one is only denying it of its existence apart from or out of independence from Brahman. While Maya is conceived is persistently undergoing change, although with some level of sustenance within it, Brahman is constantly considered as changeless and always retaining its origin. Therefore, one can state that the Brahman is the cause of the Universe, but only in the sense that it gives rise to some other entity even if it is an illusionary appearance. Therefore, Brahman in itself doesn’t possess unity in diversity and so it is featureless as it doesn’t possess any specific attributes or qualities.
- Saguna-brahman: The blend or combination of the Brahman and Maya is termed as saguna (qualified) Brahman explaining and reflecting the diversity of experience, including the self that is experiencing everything. Therefore, just like Maya, Brahman too can be explained in terms of cause and effect. There are several distinctions made also within Brahman such as the higher Brahman (para) and the lower Brahman (apara). Therefore, there is parallelism observed within the individual self and the ego.
- Jiva: The ego of an individual just like the Brahman and Maya is complex and is a blend of self and not-self. The not-self in this context refers to avidya which relates to Maya in the case of the qualified Brahman. It can also be understood as Maya in miniature. In the state of a sleep with dreams, avidya doesn’t hold any proper association with jiva as such but it hold association with its internal organs (antah-karana). While in the state of a sleep devoid of any dreams or that of wakefulness, avidya is associated with the physical body. The jiva and the Brahman might be similar in their complexity but they aren’t the same and quite distinct from each other. The self as a complex entity presupposes avidya or ignorance which transmigrates and it is a fact which implies that liberation depends upon the overcoming of ignorance and is transcending the notion of ego. This leads us to the conception of saksin or the witness which resembles Purusa in the Sankhya-Yoga. The jiva is viewed in its most truthful form and not as a singular entity or something related to any of its adjuncts.
Distinction between Saguna and Nirguna Brahman in Advaita-Vedanta
The saguna brahman in the Advaita-Vedanta tradition is the brahman which is conceived as possessing all attributes and qualities and can be worshipped in the form of observable idols, sculptures and photo frames.
On the other hand, the nirguna brahman in the Advaita-Vedanta tradition is a brahman which cannot be perceived as a substantial whole as it is devoid of any physical attributes which might possibly provide it with a figure which can be observed, but instead he can only be worshipped only as an abstract form of reality through hymns, verses and poetry composed as a symbol of uniting with the Brahman as his beloved and expressing the most strong feelings. Sufism and Sufi poetry are examples of nirguna Brahmanism.