Two philosophical objections to Non-Duality

The philosophy called Advaita, which means “ the theory of non-duality ” found its most complete and systematic exposition in the writings of the great Indian philosopher and yogi, Shri Shankaracharya. It holds that there is a single spiritual reality underlying the Universe. This principle is called Advaita—“ non-dual ”—rather than “ One ”, because it is held that It cannot be described by any positive term. All finite terms are necessarily limited, and no limitation can be postulated of the Absolute {Brahman).

According to the Advaita philosophy which is based not on speculation, but on the intuitive perception of truth by the Master of Yoga, the Universe has only a phenomenal existence superimposed on the spiritual reality ; it is the product of spiritual ignorance, avidya, an effect of Maya, the delusive power of the Lord. It is like a mirage which seems to have a reality of its own until the truth is known, when it is found to have been unreal.

So long as the soul remains without a knowledge of the spiritual reality (a knowledge possible only in the state of God-realization achieved by the saints and yogis) it is bound by its own ignorance, and the delusiveness of appearances. Only when it knows truth, can the soul be called free.

Certain objections have been raised to the central tenet of the philosophy that “ God alone is real, all else unreal ”. In fact Shri Shankaracharya himself has expended many volumes in considering and disposing of the views of other thinkers and opponents.

Two such objections are taken here because they are mentioned contemporarily by Professor Ernest Hocking of Harvard in his admirable book “ Living Religions and the World Faith.”

The objections are quoted and the reply follows :—

Objection 1. If the One is the only real, this world with which our experience starts cannot be real, and we who start with it cannot be real. We ascend to the real by a path of negation :

“ This is not real, that is not real ”.

But if Advaita is to be taken literally, this path is not real and our reasonings are not real, and the result, the negation of non-reals, is mere emptiness.

Reply. The fallacy underlying this objection is a belief in causation, which is itself unreal, and a sub-detail of the magic show of avidya. The objector holds that we “ ascend ” to the Real and that the “ result ” is mere emptiness, as if the Advaita were a goal to be attained or an effect to be produced. He is saying that as the Advaitin admits the causes as unreal therefore the effect must be also unreal. Bondage and liberation are only terms which are used by those people still in the grip of avidya.

In fact neither bondage nor liberation is real. Nothing is real except the one advaita. The world is an illusion superimposed on Brahman. We agree that the world of experience is not real, that the path is not real, and that our reasonings are not real ; these are all illusions superimposed on the real substratum Brahman, but it is the peculiar property of certain brands of illusion to help us to wake up to the reality of the substratum.

A frightening nightmare, itself an illusion, can cause us to wake up ; it does not however cause the dreamer ! In the same way the holy metaphysics help us to wake up to the Reality of Advaita which has always been and is our real nature.

Objection 2. The Absolute Being (Brahman) is the sole and self-sufficient real, undisturbed, eternal, beyond time. He is aloof, unrelated and unconcerned with the miseries and struggles of humanity which has been brought into existence by his powerful caprice.

Reply. This objection can be answered from two standpoints, each of which has validity. It may be considered from a relative and an absolute standpoint.

From the empirical point of view, i.e. for the soul which is bound in relative experience, the objection, as stated, is a misconception.

According to the holy philosophy, Ishvara (the Personal God, Lord of the Universe), presides over the workings of Maya, and shows great love and compassion for humanity.

He manifests Himself as the Avatars—Christ, Krishna, Buddha, Rama, out of love for humanity, to help them. At all times he is the Friend of the friendless. The objection is based on the assumption that Brahman is transcendent only, and is not also immanent in creation.

But the Gita says He is both immanent and transcendent :

“ He who sees Me in everything and everything in Me ”

“ I support the whole Universe by one fragment of my Being ”.

The “ fragment of my Being ” metaphorically referred to is Ishvara, the name for Brahman thought of in relation to the illusion of Maya. Those devotees who turn to Him in faith, as He promises in the Gita, never perish.

Brahman cannot be said to be aloof, because He is all, and nothing exists apart from Him. Nor can He, who is called Ishvara in relation to the illusion which He creates, be said to be indifferent to the sufferings of His devotees : the evidence of Shri Narada, Goswami Tulsidas and others belies this.

From the point of view of the Absolute, the objection is equally invalid. It assumes for its force that the individuals and their sufferings are real. It is absurd to attack a dramatist on the ground of the sufferings of the characters in a tragedy. If one of the actors momentarily loses himself in the part, he may think he suffers, but in fact there is no cause for real suffering. He soon remembers, and then the whole performance is known as bliss.

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