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April 10, 1999   VNN3560  

Advaita & The Bhagavad Gita


EDITORIAL, Apr 10 (VNN) — Popular understanding of the Upanisads reveals a formless impersonal Absolute, approached through the wisdom of introspection, as opposed to religious ritual. Although devotion can be employed, it is ultimately dispensed with. Here I am referring to the adavita Vedanta of Sankara, and the neo advaitin following. In a world were egos compete for attention, popular identification with Advaita Vedanta is not hampered by Sankara's statement regarding devotion: "No one who has definitely known the Lord as the Self would desire subordination to anything, for that would be contradictory." Sankara's basic understanding of the entire corpus of the Hindu's sacred literature is so widespread that many believe it is Vedanta, unaware of the fact that Advaita Vedanta is only one strand of Vedanta philosophy, one that differs radically from the other five principle schools.

At the risk of losing some readers in the abyss of Sankara's Brahman, a short detour form the Gita's direction through the maya of Sankara may be indirectly helpful in understanding what the Gita is all about. Sankara differs principally from the other schools of Vedanta in that he does not acknowledge the ultimacy of the personhood of Godhead. For Sankara, all is one, and there is no difference. The individual soul is illusory, as is the appearance of God, and the world. Although speaking of a personal God (isvara) and soul (jivatma), Advaita Vedanta in the final analysis denies the existence of both of these truths at the 'paramarthik' (ultimate) level of reality. According to advaita, the material world is also unreal. It exists only as a dream of the imaginary jiva, who can realize that he himself does not exist as an individual or as anything definable (neti neti) by meditating on the illusion of a personal God (isvara, Krsna). As silly as this sounds, Sankara has amassed considerable logic and scriptural references to support his conception. However, unless one has heard at least his basic logic and scriptural twist before hand, it is impossible to arrive at his conclusion from straight forward reading of the Bhagavad Gita. An unbiased reading of the Gita leaves one with God, soul, and real material world, with devotion as the means to liberated life, and the liberated expression of that life.

The genius of Sankara as a philosopher is surpassed only by his ability to play with words. Thus the glaring shortcomings of his doctrine remain hidden to the common reader, who readily embraces his conception of a formless Absolute. These shortcomings include the difficulty of explaining our perception of multiplicity, if such difference does not even exist in the first place. If reality is one, or more accurately "no other" (adviata) how is it that we perceive difference, or perceive at all without the duality of perceiver and perceived?

Sankara's attempt to solve his foremost philosophical dilemma involves his own particular doctrine of maya (illusion), mayavada. Although this doctrine offers an explanation of the perception of multiplicity, it does so at the expense of introducing other dilemmas. Sankara, in attempting to identify the precise ontological status of maya, introduces his own term, mithya, weaving it into the scripture through his commentary as though it originated therein. He says that his maya is neither real nor unreal. It is 'mithya' (false). Were it real, it would compromise Sankara's insistence on there being no other reality than that of Brahman. If maya is considered unreal, it could have no impact on reality, such as creating the perception of multiplicity. Thibaut has explained it thus: "The undefinable cause owing to which there seems to exist a material world comprehending distinct individual existences." At times Sankara associates maya with a power of Brahman, by which he makes the rope of the undivided reality appear as the snake of the manifold world. Brahman is said to engage is this magical act for the purpose of creation, thereby making himself available for the salvation of his devotees.

It should be obvious that Sankara's explanation of maya creates further problems. To whom or what does Brahman present the illusion of maya? Furthermore, if Brahman is simplisticly one, as defined by Sankara, how can an illusion which is by definition different from Brahman in nature exist at all? If there is no other, as per Sankara, how can Vedic revelation such as the Gita have any meaning, when it presupposes a difference between seeker and that which is sought?

In order to salvage his theory in the face of obvious doctrinal problems Sankara posits two levels of truth, along with two accompanying aspects of Brahman. He says that the innumerable sacred writings on devotion that posit a distinction between individual soul and God, are relative to what he calls practical reality (vyavaharika), and designed for persons not yet capable of understanding the higher ultimate (paramarthika) truth of his non duality. In Sankara's pramarthika reality, all difference between God and souls vanishes, as does the world. There is no God, no individual soul, no devotion, and no material or spiritual world, only undiffernetiated consciousness. In this scenario, we have a very different Krsna than he who speaks the Gita to Arjuna.

The Gita's many verses as to the eternality of Krsna, his form, lilas, devotees, and so on, as well as Krsna's statements asserting his ultimacy even over the Brahman feature of the Absolute, are all dealt with expertly by Sankara through invoking his two levels of reality and corresponding aspects of Brahman. For Sankara, Krsna is Brahman with material qualities (saguna). The qualityless (nirguna) ultimate Brahman, appears with material adjuncts (saguna) in order to serve as an object of devotion for those requiring such. Thus when the Krsna of Sankara speaks about his ultimacy, eternality, etc. it is the nirguna Brahman speaking in the form of saguna Brahman. While all of this sounds interesting, it is important to note that the two levels of Brahman concept is itself an addition to the sacred literature on the part of Sankara. It has no scriputral basis, and in terms of logic it is merely a conjecture in an effort to save the entire edifice of advaita Vedanta from caving in.

In his commentary on Vedanta sutra, Sankara introduces the concept of 'paramarthika' and 'vyavaharika' reality along with the unaffected and affected Brahman in reference to Vedanta sutas' seventeenth aphorism of its first book and chapter (Vs.1.1.17). Ironically this sutra explicitly points out the difference between the individual soul and Brahman, 'bhedavyapadesacca'. Sankara's explanation of this sutra is his own invention and it departs radically from the text of Badarayana's, in which there is absolutely no mention of anything remotely resembling the notion of a two tier Brahman in the entire treatise. Here Sankara is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt of attaching his own doctrine to the Vedanta Sutra in order to make the sutras themselves, Vedanta, appear compatible with his own doctrine of advaita! To this, Sri Caitanya, through the pen of Krsnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, has accused the respected Sankara of saying 'vyasa bhranta', "Vyasa is did not know what he wanted to say" in the name of a commentary on Badarayana's work.

An excerpt from the forthcoming book by Swami B.V. Tripurari, 'The Bhagavad Gita, It's Feeling and Philosophy', scheduled for publication, Spring, 2000.

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