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LOGIC OF ADVAITA - Part 1
Of the three paths to perfection, namely, Karma (Action), Bhakti (Devotion) and JnAna (Knowledge), the third one, jnAna yoga, is the most difficult, even to explain. It is prescribed particularly for highly evolved intellects. In fact, people who can practise jnAna yoga form such a small group that it is not practicable to draw analogies and examples from everyday experiences to help describe and understand it. When one reaches this stage of enlightenment one is far from the general run of humanity. The multiplicity of everyday human experience is left far behind. What happens at that stage is open to debate and has in fact been described in not necessarily identical ways by great scholars who are known to have first-hand experience of it.
To understand Hinduism in its totality, some understanding, vague though it may turn out to be, of at least one major school of Hindu religious philosophy is essential. The common Hindu masses, who have carried forward the torch of the religion from time immemorial might not be able either to understand fully or communicate even partly the principles of Hindu philosophy, but any knowledgeable and careful observer will recognise that their beliefs and attitudes can be traced back to one or other of the great schools of Hindu philosophy. It is as if there were a multidimensional perspective in which the nature of totality must be viewed, but individuals are each one-dimensional in their intellectual perspective and each sees only what is projected in his dimension. He would never understand where the visual impression, as is reflected in his one-dimensional experience, comes from. When Hindu philosophers tell him that it is such and such a spiritual context that brings about what he experiences, he thinks they are bringing in spirituality unnecessarily. Actually, what is happening is that he lives in the one-dimensional projection of the totality that is not revealed to him in his physical experience. If he is sufficiently intelligent and motivated he can mentally rise from his one-dimensional limitation and comprehend the Universe in its totality. This is the purpose of studying and learning about jnAna Yoga. The practice of it is then the next step in one’s spiritual ascent.
Different masters give seemingly different accounts of what totality is. Any attempt by us to debate which of them is right would be futile, for, while the discussion is carried on in terms of intellectual analysis, it does not end there. The conclusions drawn from this analysis have to be corroborated by actual personal experience. Not many return from that experience to tell us what they realized. It is given only to a Buddha, a Shankara, a Ramanuja, a Ramakrishna or an Aurobindo to be able to tell us what they ‘saw’. Even though these explanations and interpretations differ in their details, what each of them means to us when they are projected to the one-dimensional phenomenality of our worldly experience is identical. That is why Hinduism is one religion in spite of the so-called plurality of interpretations of the Vedas and Upanishads. As such, it does not matter which of the schools of philosophy one follows or is convinced about – it is only a matter of outlook and taste. So far as the layman is concerned, the scholarliness of the debate about the correctness or otherwise of any of the schools of philosophy is not relevant. What matters is the attempt to get a glimpse of the beauty and profundity of ideas that constitute these philosophies. Keeping this background in mind, we shall take up Shankara’s way of looking at jnAna yoga, what may be called advaita yoga – the Yoga of Non-duality. We shall also touch upon the credibility aspect in order to stabilise one’s shraddhA (faith).
Morality, fair play, ethics, justice, and duty are the basis of karma yoga. Faith, conviction and an attitude of surrender are the basis of bhakti yoga. But just as morality is not the end aim of religion, ecstatic yearning for the Grace of God is only a means, not an end. However close a devotee may feel to communion with God, there is always a distance that persists between God and Man, and so long as this distance exists, says Shankara, you have not reached the goal. Karma Yoga may be termed an attempt at ethical ascent towards this goal, towards the ideal from the actual. Bhakti yoga, may, in similar terms, be described as a religious ascent towards the perfect God by an imperfect Soul. In jnAna yoga, however, there is no such duality between the ideal and the actual or between the perfect and the imperfect. In the ascent of bhakti we experience only a fragment of the grandeur of God, but in jnAna, when the eyes of wisdom are opened, He is seen as He really is and not as what He is in relation to the universe. The grandeur that is God is revealed in all its totality of magnificence, and realization dawns that all our boasted knowledge of Him so far was only ignorance.
This does not mean that God is really unknowable. One of the beauties of Hinduism is that it teaches us that, while God is infinitely higher than ourselves, He is also infinitely near to us. He is nearer to us than our hands and feet. He is the Soul of our souls. He is the one that survives in us from childhood to adulthood and through old age, from birth, as the I that we talk of when we refer to ourselves (7th shloka of Dakshinamurthi ashtakam of Shankara). He is neither the body nor the senses, nor the mind nor the ego, nor the intellect; He is the I that is none of these, but is far distant from anything that we can call ours in a related manner like spouse, issue, wealth, possessions and so forth (1st shloka of Advaita-pancharatnam of Shankara). He is the ever-present witness to all our experiences. He is really our Atman. He is Brahman. He is the One Reality beyond which there is none. Brahman and Atman differ, if at all, only in our approach. Atman is the name given to the highest Reality if we seek one such within ourselves. Brahman is the name given to the highest Reality if we seek one such in the universe. The greatest revelation of the Upanishads is the essential identity between Brahman (also denoted by the word paramAtman) and Atman (also known by the word jIvAtman, or the soul) as revealed by the grand mystic pronouncements called the mahAvAkyas of the four Vedas. Once the identity is established, the two terms become interchangeable and it makes no difference whether we speak of the Absolute of the Upanishads as Brahman or Atman.
But even though Godhead is so near to all of us, it is very difficult to realise Him. This is because we have to cease to be ourselves before we can know Him as He is. The difficulty in this concept is the fact that God is both transcendent and immanent. The immanence aspect is inbuilt into the concept of Atman and the transcendence aspect in the concept of Brahman. The scriptures, particularly the Upanishads and the Gita share with us their dilemma in having to describe both these aspects simultaneously. They adopt one of two alternatives. On the one hand they use the superlatives of all the qualities they can think of:
it is smaller than the smallest, bigger than the biggest, it is that which is supreme, than which there is nothing higher, than which there is nothing more minute, than which there is nothing more comprehensive (Mahanarayanopanishad).
He strides the entire universe, He is the purest of the pure, most auspicious of all that is auspicious, the God of Gods, the Imperishable Father of all Beings. (Preliminary shlokas to Vishnu Sahasranama).
On the other hand they use negation of all the finite things that we are capable of expressing:
whatever cannot be indicated by speech but that motivates all speech, that is Brahman; whatever cannot be seen by the eyes, but by which the eye sees, that is Brahman; not that which is worshipped (Kenopanishad);
neither internal consciousness nor external consciousness nor both; not a bundle of consciousness either; not the conscious One nor the non-conscious One; cannot be perceived, cannot be related, cannot be handled, cannot be attributed, cannot be indicated, nor can it be an object of thought (Mandukyopanishad)
When the scriptures use negatives like these we should not take them to mean that Brahman is just a complete negation. It only means that our finite expressions can never do full justice to the infinite grandeur that is God, that God is wholly other than what we know in the world. He is the unifying principle behind all creatures. He is the canvas on which we shine as painted pictures.