The question of the relationship between the ultimate reality of the universe, and its proximate reality as experienced by us, is apt to boggle the mind, given the vastness of the dimensions involved. The distinction between it and us is like the difference between an avalanche and a snowflake. Nevertheless, the Hindu school of philosophy, known as Advaita Vedanta, tries to render it comprehensible at the level of the individual by pressing everyday analogies into service. One such analogy is suggested by our experience in life when we momentarily mistake a piece of seashell for a piece of silver. Advaita Vedanta then proceeds to employ this pivotal analogy to explore the various dimensions of the relationship of the individual to the world, to the ultimate reality, and of the ultimate reality to the world.
This book uses this metaphor as a window which opens out into the world of Advaita Vedanta.
About the author
Arvind Sharma, formerly of the I.A.S, is a Birks Professor of Comparative religion in the faculty of religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and currently engaged in promoting the adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human rights by the world's religions.
Religious philosophies often resort to metaphors, allegories or examples to render their ideas credible. This seems to hold good not only for transtheistic system of thought such as Advaita Vedanta but even for such theistic systems of thought as Christian theology. The doctrine of the trinity has enjoyed a special reputation within Christianity for abstruseness but its proponents helpfully point to the fact that if H2O can exist in three states: as solid, liquid and gas in the form of ice, plain water and gas, without compromising its status as "water," then surely three persons of the trinity need not compromise the oneness of God.
It is not only items within a tradition which we might find incomprehensible, sometimes even the tradition as a whole might invite this reaction. Thus people talk about the "scandal" of Christianity, namely, that God could become incarnate as a human being. Some have even urged that the claim may have to be believed simply because it is so extraordinary and that it is through faith that one accomplishes this. On the face of it, the Advaitin claim, that there is one undivided reality underlying this phenomenon of objects and other beings which we call the universe, is no less scandalous. The claim that all this diversity, which we see before our eyes and which is fundamental to our experience of the universe, is ultimately false is, in its own way, no less incredible than the Christian claim that God became man.
Advaita Vedanta tries to render these, and other propositions central to it, accessible by resorting to illustrations. One such example is provided by its use of the perceptual error, which makes us mistake a seashell for a piece of silver, as an illustration for enhancing the plausibility of several Advaitic ideas. This book is devoted to an exploration of the use of this illustration in Advaita Vedanta.
One must begin by restating the basic premises of the system of thought known as Advaita Vedanta in order to fully understand the shell-silver metaphor in the context of that system. These premises are famously contained in the following verse: Slokardhena pravaksyami
Brahma satyam jaganmithya
Jivo brahmaiva naparah
T.M.P. Mahadevan paraphrases this verse as follows:
Sankara puts the entire philosophy of Advaita in half a verse where he says: Brahman is real: the world is an illusory appearance; the individual soul (jiva) is Brahman alone, not other. The non-duality of Brahman, the non-reality of the world, and the non-difference of the soul from Brahman- these constitute the teachings of Advaita.
Students of Advaita will be quick to realize, however, that although this verse and the paraphrase summarize the basic tenets of the Advaita Vedanta succinctly, these tenets need to be understood rigorously, and more rigorously than might be apparent at first sight.
This point applies particularly to the statement that the world is mithya and the jiva is no other than Brahman. One must begin by recognizing what has been left unsaid in both the statements, for falsehood is often said to consist in the things not said. Thus when it is said that the world or jagat is mithya, what has been left unsaid is that it is so in relation to Brahman, or to be more precise, that it is not asat but mithya in relation to Brahman. The significance of this clarification becomes apparent when understood in the light of the following statement of M. Hiriyanna:
Sankara regards all diversity as being an illusion (mithya). But it is very important to grasp correctly the significance of so describing it. Sankara's conception of the real (sat) is that of eternal being, and Brahman is the sole reality of that type. Similarly, his conception of the unreal (asat) is that of absolute nothing. The world, in all its variety, is neither of the one type nor of the other. It is not real in this sense, for it is anything but eternal. Nor is it unreal in the sense defined, for it clearly appears to us as no non-entity can. Nobody, as it is stated in advaitic works, has ever seen or is ever going to see a hare's horn or barren woman's son. They are totally non- existent. Further it possesses, unlike non- entity, practical efficiency or has value, being serviceable in life. This is the reason why the world is described in Advaita as other than real and the unreal (sadasadvilaksana) or as illusory appearance. The serpent that appears where there was only a rope is neither existence nor non-existent. It is psychologically given (prasiddha), but cannot be logically established (siddha). In other words, the things of the world, though not ultimately real, are yet of a certain order of reality. They are appearances, in the sense that they depend for their being upon some higher reality. The "serpent", for example, points to the existence of the rope; and the dependence is one-sided, for while the disappearance of the rope necessarily means the disappearance of the serpent, the reverse does not hold good.
The other statement: that the jiva is identical with Brahman also stands in need of clarification, as it is the jiva in its true essence, as atman, which is identical with Brahman and not the jiva as is empirically encountered. The significance of this statement becomes fully apparent when it is understood in the light of the following explanation offered by M. Hiriyanna:
This difference in the explanation has a vital bearing on the Advaita doctrine, and Sankara consequently lays particular emphasis on it. It brings out clearly what is meant by identity of the jiva and Brahman which is of fundamental importance to the doctrine. The jiva is not false or illusory as the world is; for, if it were, there would be none to be saved and the whole teachings of the Upanisada would then be nullified. Salvation implies survival. The liberated jiva is not thus lost in Brahman. But, at the same time, it should be remembered that it would not be quite correct to say that it is preserved, for it is only as Brahman that it continues to be losing its limitations which are all false. The limitations, which are really of its empirical adjuncts, appear transferred to it as, in our second example of illusions, the yellowness of the glass appears transferred to the conch. We may thus take the ego as an appearance of Brahman in the second degree, and in not the first as the physical world is. The notion of the ego is accordingly that of a complex (visista), and points not only to an element which is identical with Brahman but also to limiting adjuncts like the internal organ. The last line is the most significant for our purpose. It is not the jiva as visista, or as a complex which is identical with Brahman. As a complex it consists both of the part identical with Brahman as well as the internal organ. But the internal organ component of this complex is not identical with Brahman.
The distinction between this dual relationship of Brahman with the world and with the individual soul or jiva must be probed further to achieve a deeper understanding of the system for hermeneutical as well as philosophical reasons. Such an inquiry is important for hermeneutical reason because of the sublime vagueness of the teachings of the Upanisads, which are more in the nature of inspired utterances than treatises of philosophy.
This vagueness of the Upanisadic teaching is particularly in reference to the relation to Brahman to the individual soul on the one hand, and to the physical universe on the other. Though statements about their identity are more and prominent, those distinguishing them are not altogether wanting. The first problem to solve for anyone attempting to systematize the teachings of the Upanisads is accordingly to harmonize the two sets of statements.
Sankara's resolution on this point may be presented as follows:
Sankara recognize... that there are two streams of thought in the Upanisads; but he thinks that one of them, viz. that which affirms the reality of diversity, is only a concession to empirical nodes of thought. All diversity being thus only conditionally true, the only teaching of the Upanisads, according to him, is that of unity. Since, however, there can be no unity apart from variety, he does not describe his teaching as monism but only as "non-dualism" (advaita). Strictly speaking, it is therefore wrong to say, as it is now too common to do, that Sankara teaches bare unity. If he did, his absolute would be "pure nothing". But as Vacaspati says, he only denies the many but does not affirm the one.
This statement, if not elaborated, leaves room for confusion because the manner in which Sankara identifies the universe with Brahman is different from the manner in which he identifies the Jiva with Brahman. Or to put it another way, the diversity referred to in the passage cited above encompasses two kinds of diversities- the diversity displayed by the various objects of the universe and the diversity displayed by the various individual subjects, who are also part and parcel of the universe. The manner in which the diversity of the objects of the diversity of the individual subjects is negated, although the two negations are not unrelated. Such a realization is crucial for a correct understanding of the scriptural exegesis of the Upanisadic texts carried out by Advaita.
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