Sri Shankaracharya denies the existence of any real duality of matter and spirit12 min read

In the Vedantic philosophy, the whole creation is regarded as an experience. There is no question of any object existing without a subjective consciousness to perceive it. This fundamental duality of experience is expressed in the Sankhyan 1 conception of the eternally existing Purusha and Prakriti—the conscious but actionless Spirit and the unconscious but moving Matter. From the conjunction of these two all creation is achieved.

The Sankhya regards these two aspects of experience as quite distinct. In the Gita, however, they are spoken of as two aspects of the Creator, who is thus both the material and the efficient cause of the Universe. 2 Prakriti (or Maya) is called His lower nature—inferior, explains Sri Shankara in his commentary, because it is the power which constitutes the bondage of sansara 3, and is thus productive of evil. Purusha is His superior nature—“ the very life by which this Universe is upheld ”.

“ Know that all beings have their birth in these two. So I am the source and dissolution of the whole Universe ”.

This is in accordance with the Advaita Vedanta, as expounded by Sri Shankaracharya and others, which denies the existence of any real duality of matter and spirit. Isvara, the Creator, merely has two aspects of His being : Prakriti (or Maya) and Purusha. The former represents his power of activity (kriya-sakti) and the latter his power of knowledge (Jnana-saktt).

In Chapter XIV of the Gita, the Lord says:
“ Great Maya is my womb ; in it I cast my seed ; thence is the birth of all beings. Whatever forms are produced, I am their father, who cast my seed in Maya.” 4

In that aspect of His, called Prakriti or substance, the Lord “ casts his seed ”, that is to say, confers upon it His creative energy. Though no illustration is perfect, this might be likened to the way in which a writer confers on the pen he is using the power of expressing his thoughts in writing’. The ‘ seed ’ of light and creativity which the Lord confers on the stuff called Maya is “ the very life ” of the Universe. In fact, this seed, which is His creative, evolving thought, is a conception very similar to the elan vital of Bergson.

According to the Sankhyan conception, objective matter (.Prakritt), unconscious in itself, is permeated and energised by the subjective consciousness, which confers upon it the characteristics which are generally associated with life, e.g. all conscious or purposeful activities. Purusha cognises Prakriti, and by the mere attention of the Purusha it is activated and undergoes endless mutations, breaking itself into countless modes. Both subjective and objective elements are present in all activities whether of mind-stuff or matter, but one sometimes dominates and appears to exclude the other., Mind, usually regarded in the West as subjective, is composed of matter in a subtle form. Conversely, the quality of consciousness is latent and not manifest in inorganic matter.

An illustration of the interdependence of Purusha and Prakriti is given in a story. A blind man meets a lame man who can see. Neither of them alone can achieve anything, and they make a pact. The man who can see, sits on the shoulders of the blind man, and directs him. In this way, they are both able to achieve their purposes. The Purusha is the pure light of consciousness but has no other property ; Prakriti has all other properties except this light. Their combination produces the world.

These two categories are again and again spoken of in the Gita, and the whole subject is expounded at length in the thirteenth chapter, where the two aspects, in the case of the individual jiva5, are called Kshetra and Kshetrajna— “ the Field ” and “ the knower of the Field ”.

Prakriti evolves all matter, both subtle (including the mind-stuff) and gross, or physical. The mind is thus regarded as an object of experience and not the subject. The real Self of the individual is the Atman, which is the conscious Spirit, Purusha. But it has become wrongly identified with the body and mind through Nescience (Avidya). Mental states and physical changes are merely objects of its experience, of which the Self is entirely independent, but its identification with them constitutes the bondage of sansara. This false identification is the basis of his narrow selfishness (the sense of individuality—- Ahankara) and leads to the experience of the alternating joys and sufferings, and all the other “ pairs of opposites

Prakriti (or Maya) is the veiling power of the Lord, for it veils the true nature of the Self 6, which is ever free and intrinsically pure and motionless. It also projects (so to speak) the whole objective Universe by evolving forms (yikaras) and qualities (gunas) 7. First of all, it produces the Antahkarana, the psychological unit which makes up the ‘experiencing organ ‘ of the individual and includes the lower mind and intellect together with the sense of im dividuality or egoism (Manas, Buddhi and Ahankara). From this inner organ, evolve the five subtle elements (tanmatras) which represent the canalisation ’ of experience into forms characteristic of the senses ; these elements represent the grouping of all qualities as hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell. Within these sense universals, Prakriti forms both the particular objects of sensation and the instruments or sense organs by which they are cognised.8 The gross elements (and hence the physical universe) are evolved from these subtle elements, and physical matter therefore exists as such in virtue of its being an object of sensation, the classification still consistently regarding the objective world as an experience.

All qualities are in one sense purely the outcome of Prakriti, and exist only in Prakriti ; but, in another sense, they are Purusha seen through different veils. In so far as they are many and varied, they are born of Prakriti, but as experiences, they are Purusha cognising Himself veiled by Maya. As a colourless crystal reflects the colours of any objects placed near it, so the pure Purusha reflects in Himself the attributes born of Prakriti. Purusha forgets His independence—-forgets that Prakriti receives its light from Him—and begins to dance, as it were, with Prakriti. Thinking of Himself as an individual—to be, in fact, the localised mind and body with which He is identified— Purusha becomes caught up in the qualities manifested by Prakriti. He desires a certain quality for Himself, and is envious of those who seem to possess it. In this way, desire and aversion are engendered, and He generates His own future Karma.9

Desire and its opposite, aversion (Raga and Dvesha) can only arise from a feeling of want or insufficiency. Hence the Veiling of the complete self-sufficiency of Purusha is logically necessary before desire and aversion can arise. From nescience He refers to, Himself the qualities born of Prakriti. Prakriti clings to Him and binds Him, and He suffers and enjoys.

The problem of life, according to the Sankhya philosophy, is the return of the Purusha to His own pure nature. When He knows that He is Purusha, entirely different in attributes from Prakriti, He is released. This state is called Kaivalya—“ absolute singleness ”. Yoga is the method whereby the Purusha realises His absolute singleness.

Purusha must recognise Prakriti for what it is. This has been illustrated by a story. A young princess is secretly looking from her window at a passing procession. Custom does not allow her to be seen publicly, and she looks at the procession only as long as she is sure or being unobserved. As soon as sjie knows that somebody has seen her, she closes the window and disappears. Such is Prakriti. As soon as it knows that Purusha recognises it as it is, it leaves him, and Purusha attains the state of Kaivalya.

Prakriti, which is also spoken of as Maya and Avidya, is composed of the Gunas. The word Guna usually means an attribute, or quality, but Sri Shankara maintains that here the Gunas are not to be understood as something quite distinct from the object (gunin) in which they inhere (as attributes ordinarily are). The gunas have no independent existence ; they are, so to speak, modes of Prakriti. Even Prakriti itself is not an independent entity, according to the Advaita ; nor is it self-created, as the- Sankhya holds.

All the qualities reside in Prakriti (whether as matter or mind) and hence, like all things in the realm of objectivity, thejr are relative. Careful investigation of any quality will lead one to this conclusion. For instance, a thing may be “ harder ” or “ softer ”, but not “ hard ” or “ soft ”. Even such apparently rigid qualities as “ redness ” and “ blueness ” are found, on examination of the spectrum, to be not completely distinct colours but shades of a series which ranges between “more blue” and “more red”. This is just as true of abstract qualities. All “ pigeonholing ”, all division of things into categories, is really false. As Hegel has pointed out, the philosophical idea that “ A is A and not B ” is a mental abstraction, and is not true of the facts of experience.

This is one of the fundamental criticisms that must be levelled at the dualistic Sankhyan position as a statement of the Ultimate Truth, and the Advaitins maintain that the final synthesis of experience is revealed in terms of absolute non-duality. The division into Purusha and Prakriti—- subject and object—is itself a mental abstraction, and while the polarity of experience is logically sound enough, the fact of experience is really alogical. Truth itself transcends both subject and object, and is inaccessible to the mind. The mind, being itself an object of experience, can never transcend the relativity inherent in all objective conceptions and activities.                             ,

The Advaita, or non-dualistic philosophy of Shankara, does not regard these two Sankhyan categories as distinct in the ultimate analysis, but it nevertheless accepts the Sankhyan cosmology and psychology as a preliminary approximation to the Ultimate Truth. The Sankhya is an analysis of all relative experience, and holds good within its own sphere, but the Advaita philosophy transcends it in recognising the inadequacy of this dualistic system to explain the whole of experience. This does not mean that the two systems are incompatible ; rather they are complementary, for no one will understand the subtleties of Shankara’s Advaita until he has understood the Sankhya conceptions. It is rather like Einstein and Newton. Newton’s theory still holds good within the sphere of ordinary physics, but Einstein’s transcends it and is a nearer approach to the ultimate truth because it recognises and takes into account the inadequacy of Newton’s theory to explain certain observed facts.

According to the Advaita philosophy, Isvara is immanent in the whole of His creation (as if the painter himself appeared as the picture) but He infinitely transcends it. His, real being is Brahman, the Absolute, in whom both the Creator and creation have their phenomenal existence. He has not really transformed His being into Purusha and Prakriti ; He has only lent them a phenomenal appearance like that of a rope which is mistaken for a snake.

Why ? How ? These questions are not legitimate, because they are asked by the intellect which is itself a part of the creation, and hence cannot understand its own origin. A man cannot experience the birth of his father ; any intellectual enquiry here is futile and barren. But by spiritual revelation the Truth which the intellect cannot grasp can be revealed. In the Gita, the Lord says :

“ On those ever united through meditation with Me and worshipping Me with love, I confer that wisdom through which they attain Me.”

Note 1:  Sankhya—the dualistic school of classical Indian philosophy, as distinct from the Advaita Vedanta, or non-dualistic school. The most illustrious exponent of the latter was Sri Shankaracharya.                                                       .

Note 2: Bhagawad Gita, Chapter VII, verses 4-6:

VII verse 4: The earth, water, fire, air, space (ether), the mind, the intellect (will) egoity (the individualising principle), these constitute My eight-fold primordial substance (Maya).
VII verse 5: Distinct from this gross substance, know My higher (subtle) substance, the higher form of life which sustains the gross universe.

[The lord refers to the knower of the field, His own fragments which enter the gross substance and animate it.]

VII verse 6: All that is born out of the two aspects of Maya. In fact I (the lord) am the cause of the genesis and withdrawal of the whole universe.

Note 3 :Sansara—mundane existence, the eternal circle of birth and death.

Note 4: Bhagawad Gita, Chapter XIV Verses 3-4.

XIV Verse 3:The great Brahman (My divine creative energy) is the womb which impregnate with My seed. From it, O Bharata, spring up all the beings.

[The word “Brahman” here means Prakriti and is used as an adjective. The meaning is that the Lord unites his Superior Prakriti (Kshetrajna) with the inferior Prakriti (Kshetra) consisting of matter and mind.]

XIV Verse 4: Whatever form, such as man, monkeys or devas are produced anywhere, their source is prakriti (primordial substance) and I their Father, the Generator.

Note 5: Jiva—the individual soul.

Note 6: Bhagawad Gita, Chapter VII, verses 13 and 25.
VII verse 13: All the people of the world are deluded into indiscrimination by the influence of the three gunas (such as pleasure desire, aversion, darkness &c.) They know Me not, who am above the gunas, the imperishable.

VII verse 25:  I am enveloped in My creative energy and so unknown to all. The deluded ones do not see Me, who am unborn and unalterable.

Note 7: The veiling aspect of its power is called Avarana-sakti ; the projecting aspect, Vikshepa.

Note 8: Bhagawad Gita, Chapter XIII, verse 20.

XIII verse 20: Prakriti (the primordial substance described above) is the producer of the effect and the instruments; and it is said to be the cause; whereas the Purusha (Jiva) who experiences joy and suffering is said to be the cause of these.

Note 9: Bhagawad Gita, Chapter XIII, verse 21 and Chapter VII, verse 27.

XIII, verse 21: Purusha (Jiva, the individualised spirit) abiding in Prakriti in the form of equalities, sensations etc, Purusha’s attachment to the qualities leads him to be born in good or evil bodies.
VII, verse 27: O Arjuna, they live in the world under a constant delusion which is produced by their desire and hate, the pairs of opposites (in general).