Advaita Philosophy, or Vedantic Nondualism has become, along with Buddhism, one of the most popular spiritual paths being pursued by those interested in enlightenment today. During the past three decades, Advaita has become more widely recognized in the West through the ever growing popularity of Ramana Maharshi, considered by many to be modern India's greatest spiritual giant.
We, like many Western spiritual practitioners, also first came into contact with Advaita philosophy, the Hindu philosophy of nonduality (oneness, or more precisely not-two-ness
), through the teachings of the great Ramana Maharshi. Endeavoring to acquire a deeper understanding of the background and philosophical context of this profound and ever more influential teaching, we looked back to its source, to the man who is widely recognized as its founder, the eighth century religious philosopher and master teacher Shankara. Advaita Vedanta is considered the crown jewel of Indian philosophy, and Shankara's powerful influence can be felt throughout most modern schools of Indian thought. Originally we had believed that he was the legendary figure that he is often described to be in the traditional literature: the enlightened genius maverick who not only defeated the dominance of Buddhist philosophy and any and all other opposing religious views in medieval India, but also single-handedly reestablished the glory and reign of traditional Vedantic doctrine. But as we probed beneath the popular
interpretation of Shankara's life, we found out that much of what has been proclaimed about him is the stuff that myths are made of—and, in fact, knowledge of the actual circumstances of his life is extremely sketchy at best, to the point that even his reported date of birth varies by a hundred years. What we do know is that Shankara was a master philosopher-sage who put great emphasis on a rigorous interpretation of Vedantic scripture strictly in accord with the doctrine of advaita,
or nonduality. In traditional Advaita philosophy (which can be simply defined as the Upanishadic declaration, Thou Art That Immortal Self Absolute!), spiritual knowledge was sought not through yogic experience as much as it was through the systematic practice of discriminating the Real from the unreal, supported by the study of the scriptures.
Noted scholar Georg Feuerstein summarizes the advaita
realization as follows: "The manifold universe is, in truth, a Single Reality. There is only one Great Being, which the sages call Brahman,
in which all the countless forms of existence reside. That Great Being is utter Consciousness, and It is the very Essence, or Self (Atman)
of all beings." The special glory and liberating power of these extraordinary teachings of nonduality (known to be the most direct path to enlightenment) is not only their potential to enlighten the seeker in the present lifetime, but even more, their potential to liberate the ripe individual instantaneously
from the bondage of conditioned existence. There have been impressive living demonstrations of this profound attainment in recent times, in the example of the saint and sage Ramana Maharshi; the remarkable cigarette-smoking jnani
[Self-realized individual] from Bombay, Nisargadatta Maharaj; the recently deceased renegade master and "lion of Lucknow," H.W.L. Poonja; and the unassuming Ajja, who resides effortlessly in an intensely blissful, unbroken awareness of the Self, introduced to the Western world for the first time in this issue of What Is Enlightenment?
[I am] the nature of Pure Consciousness. I am always the same to beings, one alone; [I am] the highest Brahman, which, like the sky, is all-pervading, imperishable, auspicious, uninterrupted, undivided and devoid of action. I do not belong to anything since I am free from attachment. [I am] the highest Brahman . . . ever-shining, unborn, one alone, imperishable, stainless, all-pervading, and nondual—That am I, and I am forever released.
—Shankara, The Upadesasahasri
While Advaita's profound inspiration and power to liberate is undeniable, its worldview has not been without its critics. Even though "modern" Advaita seems to emphasize the indivisible nature of the world and Brahman, or the Self Absolute, Advaita philosophy has traditionally expressed, as noted religious scholar Lance Nelson points out, a "deep metaphysical bias against
the world. . . . In the end, the Advaita tradition fails to present a true nondualism of world and
Absolute. . . . It is rather an acosmic monism.
It achieves its nonduality not inclusively,
Empirical reality is admitted in a provisional way, but in the end it is cast out of the Absolute, out of existence. From the highest perspective, the world is simply not there
[emphases ours]." Once again, even though modern proponents of Advaita do not appear to exclude the world in their vision of nonduality, in the classical view, the world is clearly recognized as being either completely unreal, or only partially real. And this is what Advaita has been historically criticized for. Precisely because of its emphasis on the ultimate unreality and illusory nature of the world and embodied existence, any teaching of how to live in the world
is entirely absent. More specifically, the nondual teaching does not in any way address the ethical or moral dimension of human life. And even though modern Advaita does not seem to exclude the world in its nondual view, it still is devoid of any teaching that addresses the realities of human life.
Interestingly enough, it appears that historically Advaita did not address ethical or moral questions because, according to Nelson, the highest nondual teachings were "never intended to be a philosophy for the general public." In fact, he states that they were "formulated by and for a narrow spiritual elite of male brahmins
[members of the highest, priestly class],
[renunciates], who alone were believed qualified to fully appropriate its import." This practically would have meant that the individual to whom the absolute teachings were revealed would have already
fulfilled the demanding moral and ethical qualifications for discipleship. And even more than that, Shankara himself states that the qualifications for discipleship also demanded an extraordinary degree of detachment from and transcendence of worldly desires:
The pupil must be dispassionate toward all things noneternal. . . . [Having] abandoned the desire for sons, wealth and worlds, endowed with self-control [and] compassion, he is a brahmin who is internally and externally pure, whose thought is calm, who has reached tranquility. . . . [Thus] let him go to a spiritual teacher who is learned in the scriptures and established in Brahman.
The unusual phenomenon occurring in the postmodern spiritual marketplace is that now, as never before in history, what were once considered the highest esoteric teachings, revealed only to those who were prepared and had proven themselves worthy of their unimaginable depth and subtlety, are available to anyone who wanders into a spiritual bookstore. An important question seems to be: Are most seekers genuinely prepared for the psychological upheaval and world-shattering shift of perception that penetration into the Absolute unleashes? Advaita's emphasis on the illusory nature of embodied existence has the potential to give license to human weakness and self-indulgence if the individual is not already firmly grounded in a fundamentally wholesome relationship to life. The unwholesome tendencies characterized by narcissistic, neurotic and deeply cynical convictions so common today create a dangerously weak foundation for a nondual perspective that transcends all
pairs of opposites, including right and wrong. While Advaita's great strength is its singular, unwavering emphasis on the Absolute dimension of existence, its weakness is revealed in the limited scope of its singularity. And while any truly absolute view must, by definition, transcend all distinctions, the inherent potential of Advaita or non dualism to inspire a worldview that is perilously empty of any value whatsoever
is enormous. Indeed, the potential for escape,
rather than genuine transcendence,
is great in such an absolute teaching. For to be embraced, absorbed and utterly consumed by the Absolute is one thing—but to escape from the inherent complexity of life in order to avoid the overwhelming demand that true surrender requires is another thing altogether.