Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Advaita Theory: Chapter 6 — excerpts



Advaita is the Sanskrit term for non-duality (from dvaita, meaning duality). The philosophy of Advaita declares that there is only one reality. There is no second. All that exists is one. Advaitism is derived from the writings of the Upanishads (also known as Vedanta), and it is the most rigorous of the three Vedantic schools (dualistic, qualified monistic, and monistic). An Advaitic inquiry into the nature of things begins with two basic questions concerning two kinds of knowledge: knowledge about the self –that is, ourselves – and knowledge about the world. It is these questions that are defined and their answers that are sought in the Upanishads.

The Katha Upanishad tells the story of a young prince named Nachiketas who seeks to increase his knowledge about the self. At the tale’s outset, Nachiketas has been banished by his father in a fit of rage, and is sent to wait on Yama, the Hindu god of death. When he arrives at Yama’s palace, the gate is locked and he must wait outside for three days and three nights. On the fourth day, Yama finally appears and grants Nachiketas three boons, one for each day he waited.

For his third, final, and most important boon, Nachiketas asks Yama a question. "Consequent on the death of a person, a doubt arises when some say ‘it exists’ while some say ‘it does not exist,’" he says. "What is the reality?" This is the question about a person’s inner awareness and knowledge of the self.

Yama’s answer symbolizes the transfer of knowledge about the self from the gods to mankind. Yama tells Nachiketas that only those things that are unreal and are compounds can die. For that which is true, there can be no death. As Yama rules death, he alone can distinguish that which is undying from that which is mortal. The remainder of the Katha Upanishad records the rest of Yama’s answer to this question.

The Mundaka Upanishad addresses the second question, regarding our knowledge of the external environment and objects that surround us. In the Mundaka Upanishad, it is asked, "Which is that thing, which having been known, all this becomes known?" Here, the effort is to go from the particular to the general. To know the composition of the earth, for example, we need not study the whole of the earth. By collecting and studying a lump of the earth, we can get to know about the whole. This, of course, implicitly states that knowledge can be generalized &ndas; that is, that by studying a lump, we can generalize our findings and apply them to the earth as a whole. The Upanishad asks whether or not this is true. In other words, "Is there something by knowing which all this can be known?"






The seers or Rishis of the Upanishads were guided by a desire to know and understand the world. They sought to know both the outer world, the world of phenomena, and the inner world, the world of our ‘self’. In trying to understand this, however, the seers were guided not by an experimental science, but relied on two factors, logic and the intuition gathered by meditation. That gathered by meditation was given primacy, but such findings became acceptable only when they rested on a bedrock of correct logic.

The Upanishadic seers were dissatisfied with the initial view of the world, our common sense view, in which we take our first impressions of the world as the truth. But the sages saw that this phenomenal world was not a sufficient explanation in itself and did not hold up when probed more thoroughly. They declared that this phenomenal world around us was not the sole truth and that existence had two levels, the phenomenal plane or the plane of our everyday worldly existence, and the absolute plane, the plane of Brahman, the God of the Upanishads. This declaration of the Absolute in the Upanishads was interpreted by the three Upanishadic schools in various ways, based on their interpretation of the true nature of the world and God. The dualistic school said that both the world and Brahman were equally real, and the two were fundamentally different from each other. The qualified monoists also accepted that both the world and Brahman were equally real, but they said that the world was a form of God, created by God out of His own substance so that the world too was of a divine nature. The most far-reaching interpretation was that of the Advaitists, who declared that the only true existence was that of Brahman, the world was untrue and only a relative existence.

The Advaitic interpretation, although the most esoteric, was also the most logical and was accepted as such by the other schools. Their argument against Advaita was that it appealed only to the mind, and not to the heart, being based on reason but not having a loving and supportive God over us.

The Advaita bases its teachings on the findings of the Upanishadic sages during meditation, and follows up their findings through a rigid application of logic and reason, which allows no weakness or falsity. In this way they built up a world view which does not depend on any doctrine for support, and which is able to explain the facts of the world in a logical and self contained, if somewhat astounding, form.

The Upanishads, and Advaitism, analyse the world from a realistic metaphysical viewpoint. Prior to any metaphysical speculation, it accepts as existing on the same plane of reality the trio of thinker, thought and the thing thought of. Thus both the thinker, the subject, and the thing thought of, the object, lie on the same plane of existence and have equally and antecedently the same level of reality. Starting from this realistic viewpoint, the rishis then set about to understand the ‘reality’ of both the outside world and the inner one.


When we examine the phenomena of the world logically, each phenomenon is eventually found to be contradictory to logic and no basis for its real existence can be found. There is no universal or absolute reality in anything that we see around us. The old paradox of determining whether time and space is finite or infinite is well known. Again, space is meaningless unless an object is present in it. But an object also cannot exist without space. Hence both are untrue in themselves, they can only exist together. But if they are two different things, then they should be able to exist separately. On the other hand, they cannot be the same thing either, being of contrary nature.

Similarly with time, we cannot determine what that moment is which we call the present. We find if we look closely that there is not a single moment which is standing unmoving which we can call the present. On the other hand, if we assume that the present is just the interface where the future is changing into the past, then we are saying that there are blocks of time like the future time and a past time, which is difficult to understand. Also, at the interface, both the future and the past must exist simultaneously where they touch, which cannot be possible.

Such arguments show that we cannot understand anything of the nature of time or space. Yet these are inherent in the nature of all phenomena, and if they are contradictory, then all phenomena must be contradictory.




If there was not a single base, then this interaction between different objects in the world would not happen. Things can interact with each other only because they have something in common, and it is through this commonality that they react. Two completely different objects would not be able to interact. For example, when two chemicals react, it is because they have the same atomic constituents and energies. If the atoms and energies were of completely different natures they would not relate in any way. There must be something that links cause and effect together.

Again, the Upanishads maintain that things cannot be unreal through and through. Everything we perceive is changing and hence unreal, but Advaita says there must be something real behind this play of unreality. Every object and event in this universe has an ultimate reality behind it.

When objects undergo change, they do not do so in a single jump, but in a fluid process, which remains connected to the object throughout the change. Even though the object’s state at the end of the process is very different from its state at the beginning, the two states are connected and must have some common bond. For example, if we consider a burning candle, it changes in form to ashes and smoke. Because this change is fluid, there must be something in common between the wax candle, the ashes, and the smoke. In this case, the same atoms and energies from the candle are merely transformed into a different state – ashes, smoke, and radiant energy.

Again, if there is a single basis for all the objects in the universe, that Ground itself must remain unchanged if it is to remain common, the changes must occur only in the nature of the objects. If the Ground itself were to change with each object, then it would not remain a common ground, the base of each object would be different. In that case there would be no commonality in the universe and there would have been complete chaos. It is from this single unchanging absolute that all these myriad differentiated objects are manifested. ‘through his lustre all these are variously illumined’. From the same effulgent Brahman, by differentiation, all this myriad universe is created and the basis of this universe is that Brahman itself.

In modern physics, we find that all matter is ultimately constituted of some common subatomic particles, the neutron, proton and electron. These particles are common to all the manifestations of matter, and it is only their different organization that gives rise to different types of matter.In the candle, it was this material substrate that formed the commonality between the candle and the ashes and smoke; the same atoms were once organised into the candle and at the end organised into ashes and smoke. So even though the universe may appear so diverse, it has a common source at its base. Quantum theory has again showed us that even these particles are composed of some smaller, more transitory particles.

Again, in the quantum theory, not just matter but energy also is also a part of this commonality. Matter and energy are found to be basically the same and interchangeable. All matter and energy in the universe is part of a spectrum, at one end of which it appears as matter and at the other end, as energy. If everything is part of a common spectrum and can be changed into each other, then there must be something in common to the entire spectrum. Mass and energy are by themselves two entirely different entities with contradictory properties, but if they can be changed into each other, then they must have something in common, something of which both are a part.

Again, that something must be something which is not just matter nor just energy, since both have different properties, but something which is apart and equidistant from both and from which both can be derived. When we find that the entire mass–energy present in the universe is part of a spectrum, we are led to the conclusion that there is one source from which it all originates. All the different parts of the spectrum must ultimately be derived from this common base. Again, since all phenomena are themselves found to be ill defined and nebulous, this continuity must be something beyond it, and from which all phenomena are only manifestations. Since quantum physics does not talk anymore of individual particles but of a spectrum of existence, the common base must also not be atomic but a ‘field’ of existence.

This base must remain equidistant from all parts of the spectrum as all parts are equivalent. It is the changes in the effects which lead to different manifestations, not changes in the cause. The absolute cannot be a part of the universe itself, or it too would be unreal, and hence could not be a common base. To be common to all phenomena, it must remain untouched by any changes in the phenomenal existence itself, whether it is in the form of a particle or energy. Hence this common entity must be changeless. Similarly, to remain unchanged, it must also be beyond time and space, and thus be an absolute. This ‘common base’ cannot be something which is bound by time and space and so it is a common ‘Field’, a common Ground which is continuous and not divided by space and time. Hence such an absolute basis of the universe is indicated by the nature of the universe itself. The common basis is indicated by the ever-changing reality, and that this basis must be the absolute beyond the universe is indicated by the fact that the universe itself is unreal and ill defined, having only relative reality.

This common base is called Brahman in Advaita. It is the same Brahman which lies beyond all these changes, and according to the properties being manifested, we experience different forms of existence. The Chandogya Upanishads says, ‘In the beginning, all this was Existence. One only, without a second’. This existence, that which is beyond time and space, that which is the base of all that exists in the universe, is called the Brahman in Upanishads. Thus the theory of a single absolute beyond all this existence can be well supported both in terms of logic and also inferred from modern science. Of course, the Upanishads goes much further than physics because it says that not just the matter and energy but consciousness also is derived from Brahman.






One analogy used to describe the relation of Brahman and the world is that of the sea and the wave. All forms of matter and energy that exist in the universe are like the waves. The ground of all this existence, Brahman, is like the sea. The waves arise from the sea, but they are not separate from the sea, nor are they composed of anything that is not the sea. The waves are only points in the sea that have acquired a form. That form is recognized in our consciousness where it acquires a name.

Once we see the wave, we do not see the sea. But if we can see the wave apart from its name and form, we understand that it was only ever and still is the sea. Moreover, the waves are only temporary; they arise, interact with each other, and again merge into the ground. They have only a relative existence in relation to the sea. The recognition of their existence as a separate entity relies on an observer who sees only name and form, and who cannot distinguish the waves from the sea.






The concept of individual consciousness or soul having only temporary reality gives us the fundamental purpose of Advaita, which is to realize the true nature of our selves. In Advaita, what we consider to be our individual identity is merely a relative manifestation from Brahman. Our true identity is Brahman itself. We are never different from Brahman, the difference is only apparent. If we can break out of this shell of relativity, we would find that we are in fact Brahman. "Tat tvam asi– Thou art That," says the famous sutra of the Chandogya Upanishad. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says, "Aham Brahmasvi–I am Brahman."

The absolute toward which all metaphysical speculation is directed, that which is beyond all this illusion, is not outside us but within us. We are already that absolute. Brahman is not something that we need to search for, but rather it is our own selves. It is our true identity. Here in Advaita is the highest point of all philosophy: that the absolute, which lies at the basis of all the external world, is also the basis of our internal world. There is no external or internal world; there is only one truth, and I myself am that absolute truth.







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Index / Introduction / Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Biblio


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