Advaita: failed theory of unity/non-dualism
Posted by robertpriddy on March 13, 2014
Advaita (metaphysical non-dualism) is often regarded as the ‘highest’ form of Indian theology and philosophy. It is considered by those advaitists who deny God as an entity to be non-theistic, but – advaita having arisen out of Vedanta – the religious element is still there. Even they are essentially pan-theistic in outlook in holding all that exists is one unitary ‘being-consciousness-bliss’. This is a monotheistic pantheism of the kind, ‘God is everything, everything is God’ or ‘God is everywhere’ (Omnipresent). Having studied Advaita Vedanta in considerable depth for over 4 decades, both as a philosopher and as an initiate of Indian gurus, and I was impressed by the sophistication of its ideas, but I eventually went full circle and through analytical deconstruction rid myself of those unfounded (otherworldly) beliefs which are essential to all variants of advaita. Many Hindu religionists consider the doctrine to be intellectually the most deep… but in fact, it is most deeply confused!
How and why Advaita came to be what it is
The historical causes of the development of Indian non-dualism has been brilliantly summarised by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstead in their seminal book ‘The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Powers’ (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley). They show to what the idolising of that the master idea ‘oneness’ (first found in the Upanishads in the 1st millennium) has led, using thought to denigrate thought itself. I quote briefly: “Oneness, the pinnacle of religious abstraction, is the aspect of Eastern thought the West is currently the most enamoured of. The early Vedism of the Ayran invaders that superimposed itself on indigenous forms was a combination of polytheism, ancestor worship, and ritual sacrifice similar to Greek and other Indo-European religions.” and “…traditions that made an ideology out of the concept of Oneness created a morality that denigrated or made unreal the individual self with the individual interests” (ibid p.203). “The ideology of Oneness constructs its hidden dualism by making the whole more sacred or more real than its parts. Sacralising unity places it in another realm, “the spiritual.“” (p.318)
They point out how the more sophisticated non-duality of all being (advaitism) came to be after more concrete had to be discarded and the clash of sects caused a need for more universal religious ideas. This resulted in the increase in the level of abstraction towards an ever more abstract monism (i.e. products of thought that refer mostly to thought itself, rather than the deities with form and the particularized doctrines about them). “There is power in being able to incorporate one symbol into another. When the level of abstraction that people operate in is no longer satisfying or credible, for whatever reason (often because of advances in secular knowledge), the tendency is to look for a still higher level.” “The more abstract a symbol, the larger range of events it can include ” (ibid p. 349)
The advaitic experience?
Advaitists argue that only experience of the universal consciousness of satchitananda can validate and convince of the truth of the doctrine. That experiences of oneself having no boundaries, being in eternal peace without animosity or any kind occur is beyond doubt (at least for me and many others). Yet everything points to it being only temporary, as the necessities of life recall one from the intoxicating bliss and awareness. Upon return, the unity is lost and the mind sets about interpreting the experience in terms that were already familiar, some calling it ‘perfection’ and ‘eternal’ (though it no longer pertains for them), others ‘becoming one with God’, and others ‘knowing the ultimate truth’. All this boils down to differing subjective opinion, for yet others refuse to accept any descriptions as adequate. To describe unity in other than the divisive language of words. In short, “The actual experience of underlying unity is different from thought creating an abstract concept of it, and then making that concept more real than individuated existence.” (ibid p.306)
The attempt a making a rational metaphysical ‘spiritual doctrine’, but one which is entirely base on subjective experiences… makes any collective testing or control of the doctrine impossible. It has absolutely no empirical basis or scientific nature, but is a sheer metaphysical abstraction. “Concepts of spirituality became more abstract, moving from individual “spirits” embedded in nature to abstract principles and powers beyond nature. Through manipulating belief in the sacred symbols that represented these new abstractions, greater control over larger areas of human behaviour was made possible. …. The hierarchies within the emerging systems of sacred symbols mirrored and justified the developing hierarchies of secular power.” “The problems with abstracting unity from diversity come when unity is given more value and more reality than individuated life” (ibid p. 354) Abstracting the One from the Many and placing it in a higher realm involves, “…reifying a presumed quality or essence from life, and making that more important than the individual expressions of life itself.“
This shows clearly how that force of religion in society is used to control people. That what it’s all about and has always been about in most societies. In India, the huge variety of forms of deity, worship and sects there is no religious unity to which Hinduism can apply, but advaita would try to supply this lack, which is so strongly felt by Hindus today (witness the case of the pulping of a major scientific work, Wendy Doniger’s ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History” to avoid a tiresome lawsuit filed by right-wing Hindu academics, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee. This case was promoted as part of the coming 2004 Indian election in which the Bharitaya Janata Party tries to assert ‘Hindu Unity’ as a tool to gaining power). See Arundhati Roy criticises Penguin (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/arundhati-roy-criticises-penguin-for-pulping-the-hindus-an-alternative-history-9126247.html).
Non-dualistic Vedanta anti-science and philosophical ‘nonsense’
Firstly, advaita currently appears in many variants as teachings of diverse gurus, maharishis, bhagawans, avatars, swamis etc. (such as Adi Shankara, Ramana Maharshi, Nidsargadatta, Sathya Sai Baba and many more) and has no single unitary doctrine accepted by all exponents. Furhter, it is impossible to express a fully consistent account of advaita, because language rests entirely upon making distinctions between things while advaita holds that such distinctions are all illusory and there is but one reality. Most variants of Advaita nevertheless regard ‘sat-chit-ananda‘ (i.e. truth-being-bliss) as the one and only origin of existence, but state that it cannot be described, it is totally ineffable. That reality is held to be beyond human expression, discoverable only by total immersion of the mind and ego in it (through meditation and other methods). Advaita is proclaimed as the ‘Highest Truth’ only known when experienced in immersion in Unity where no dualism whatever is perceived (i.e. in the highest ecstasy or ‘samadhi‘). Hence it is the ultimate in imagined otherworldliness. Advaitists may deny the truth of anything on their assumption that truth cannot be stated… that’s the beauty of inexpressibility, but this is a snare! They speak of ’emptiness’, like the Buddhist Nagarjuna. Some compare the mind to a radio receiver rather than as the initiator of thoughts and ideas, and yet at the same time advaita declares the mind, the human ego and all other worldly events to be wholly illusory.
In fact, human consciousness does not come into being or exist independently of impressions and perceptions, not even when it has only a representation of itself. It always has a ‘content’ – some corresponding ‘intentional object’, which can be a thing, a perception, a memory, a reflected sense of a previous act of consciousness and so on. (See Brentano’s thesis of intentionality), In a nutshell, a consciousness has no independent existence as a source of anything.
Linguistic analysis is therefore one crux on which advaita break itself. At the outset, words and sentences derive meaning through referents (impressions and perceptions from a physical source). Subsequently the mind learns to interpret its impressions and derives complex perceptions and conceptual ideas. This process alone gives rise to the entire universe of conscious human discourse. These meanings cannot be developed without physical experience. This is backed up by most extensive scientific researches. Their meaning arises in consciousness only through physical experience and learning (but not from any primeval or transcendental inner source).
In short, Advaita is totally subjective and has no objective existence because all objectivity depends on the extension of space-time (‘object’-ivity of physical universe). Advaita is thus ultimately truly circular, being what Wittgenstein defines most accurately as ‘tautological’. That is to say, it is without sense (i.e. having no referential relation to any sense impressions or literally ‘nonsensical’). Advaita is a system of entirely ‘otherworldly’ concepts without corresponding ‘objects’, i.e. lacking any empirical foundation. The various advaitic doctrines amount only to speculation, however imaginative.
Advaitists will argue that only experience of the universal consciousness of satchitananda can validate and convince of the truth of the doctrine. However “The actual experience of underlying unity is different from thought creating an abstract concept of it, and then making tht concept more real than individuated existence.” (ibid p.306)