Advaita - The Message of One-ness
By Prof. V. Krishnamurthy

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The scriptures are innumerable; the things to be known are many; the time at our disposal is short; the obstacles are too many. It is therefore important to grasp the essence and essence only. It is in this sense that we should approach the message of one-ness taught by the Advaita school led by Sankara.

The philosophy that Sankara propagated was not his own. It was already in the Upanishads. What he did was to focus his searchlight on it and prove to us that it was the central and only teaching of the Upanishads as well as their collective last word. But the ordinary layman who remembers Sankara now does not know enough about him or his philosophy to understand him well. The only thing he can say is that Sankara taught about mAyA or illusion. ‘Illusion’ is a wrong translation of mAyA. By translating mAyA as illusion we have done the greatest disservice to Sankara. It is not being said that the world does not exist. It is only being said that the world is an appearance, not totally real.

Sankara distinguishes three orders of reality. The Absolute Reality, that is brahman and brahman alone. The complete unreality, like the horns of a hare, or like squaring the circle if one wants to use the modern scientific language. In between these two extremes there is a phenomenal reality which is like the apparent reality of the dream world. A dream is neither real nor unreal. It is real to the person who dreams. It is unreal to the same person after he wakes up from the dream. This is the most important point. A dream is not a dream or illusion to the dreamer. So long as we dream, so long as we are seeing only the plurality of this mundane world, it is as real to us as the dream is to the dreamer. The world is unreal only to the seer who has waken up to the reality of the Absolute -- like a Ramana Maharishi or a SadaSiva Brahmendra. For them the only real thing is the Absolute brahman. What they see before them is also brahman. They see brahman everywhere. So the world has not vanished absolutely. The world has vanished from their point of view. So if they keep on telling you that the world is an illusion or mithyA, it is like someone appearing in your dream and telling you, you better wake up from the dream and wake up to the reality. We are so much engrossed in our dream that we are not prepared to listen to the advice of the guru or the Upanishads or to Sankara. Thus between the formless and nameless Absolute which is the Ultimate Reality and the total unreality of non-existence, there is the intermediary apparent reality of this phenomenal world -- which appears to be real but is not absolutely real. This appearance of the world as a reality has been given several analogies by philosophers.

The most telling example of this is that of a rope appearing in twilight as a snake. The snake was never there. Even when the snake was being seen there was only the rope. The rope appeared as the snake. So also brahman appears to us as the world. Even when the world is being seen it is brahman that is being seen as the world. This the seers do know and so what they see is not the world but brahman. One may object to this analogy as follows. I realise that there was no snake. So the rope no more appears to me., So also I realise that there is only brahman and there is no reality of the world. But still the world is appearing to me. For this Ramana Maharishi asks you to go the example of the mirage. The water in the mirage is only an illusion. I see the water in the mirage. I go near it and realise that there is no water. But once I come back I see there is again the appearance of the water. This analogy is to tell you that how even after realisation, the illusion may still appear as real.

Let us accept that any analogy has its own limitation. The analogies have to be taken only to that extent where we do not overdo it. Once the point of the analogy is made, there is no use in continuing the analogy. Thus here the objection is raised as follows. The water of the mirage does not quench my thirst, but in this supposedly unreal world, I have my thirst, hunger etc. and all these are quenched by the happenings in this world. For this Ramana asks you to look at the analogy of the dream. Within the dream you may have thirst, and it may be quenched by the water in the dream; so also hunger. Dream analogy is a great blessing. What else is a dream for? Nobody knows. In God’s creation, the value of a dream seems to be only this. To tell you how unreal is the world. Without the dream analogy it is impossible even to mentally conceive of the possible unreality of the phenomenal world from a different point of view, namely the absolute point of view. A dreamer wakes up usually only when something unpleasant happens within his dream. No dreamer ends up his dream while still in the happy state, except when an external force acts. This is because man’s natural state is happiness. Realising one’s natural state of happiness is moksha, according to Sankara. By a complete absorption of the body, mind and intellect in this eternal state of knowledge and happiness is what is called realisation of one’s self. In order to do this one has not to chase it or do anything else, says Sankara. The removal of Ignorance is the only thing to be done. Automatically our natural state will be realised.

So what are we supposed to do at all? Sankara says: Do an introspection and investigate about your self starting the probing from a ruthless analysis of your own mind and its vagaries. Try to get away from its external occupations and make it preoccupied with questions like; What is making the mind think? What is really behind it? Who is the thinker? Why are you not able to control the mind? What is more permanent than the mind? Wherefrom does the mind derive its strength? Besides the physical brain where the external hardware processes the thoughts of the mind, what is the software that forms the source for all the vibrations of the mind? Whence does it spring forth? Who is operating this software? If the answer comes up saying that it is you who are operating the software, then is that ‘you’ different from the ‘you’ which stands behind, watching the mind? Can you watch the mind unperturbed by any of its goings-on? In that sense can you still the mind? Now who is this 'you’? Sankara and all the other exponents of advaita plead with us to keep on asking these questions and try to get convincing answers within oneself from oneself. Certainly they also ask us to go to a teacher. But a teacher can only point the way. The final analysis has to be done by oneself on oneself. Seers have declared emphatically that the quality and intensity of the internal struggle to get at these answers differ from person to person and it depends upon one’s stage of spiritual evolution and the struggle he has already put in through all his various lives.

The person who is already spiritually ripe because of his earlier vAsanA, will probably get the enlightenment just by one listening to the teaching from the guru. But for the rest of us who are still far below this stage, Sankara says: Occupy your mind with God rather than with such secular pursuits as learning the gymnastics of rules of grammar :

bhaja govindaM bhaja govindaM govindaM bhaja mUDhamate /
saMprApte sannihite kAle na hi na hi rakshati dukRngkaraNe //

Seek the company of the good. Through the company of the good, there arises non-attachment; through non-attachment, there arises freedom from delusion; through delusionlessness, there arises steadfastness; through steadfastness, there arises liberation in life:

satsangatve nissangatvaM nissangatve nirmohatvaM /
nirmohatve nizcalatatvaM nizcalitatve jIvanmuktiH //

Do not be proud of wealth, kith and kin, and youth; Time takes away all these in a jiffy. Leaving aside this entire world which is transitory, and knowing the state of brahmn, enter into it.

mA kuru dhana-jana-yauvana-garvaM harati nimeSAt-kAlas-sarvaM /
mAyA-mayam-idam-akhilaM hitvA Brahma-padaM tvam praviza viditvA //

Sing the song of the Gita. Recite and revel in the one thousand names of Vishnu. Meditate on the form of the Goddess. Take the mind into the company of the good. Distribute wealth among the needy. Be devoted completed to the lotus-feet of the Master. Then, through the discipline of the mind and the control of the senses you can behold the Absolute who resides in your heart. Make no difference between the God Absolute and the Master to whom you have surrendered. Even matters that have not been explicitly declared in the scriptures will become manifest to such a seeker.

So it all comes down to Devotion to the Absolute, or devotion to the guru who is nothing but the Absolute. In such a devotion, there is to be no distinction between God and God. The usual talk among the masses about the worship of Siva or Vishnu (the two major Gods of the Hindu trinity) being two contrary disciplines does not make sense to Sankara. There is not only no difference; they are one and the same. The Absolute in two garbs, that is all. Sankara is so convinced about the importance of this non-difference that he prays to God in one of his stotras, as if he were afraid that he himself might get lost and lose his conviction in this maze of confusion prevalent in this world!: Oh Goddess Ganga! When it is time to lay off my body on the banks of your sacred waters, happily meditating on the lotus-feet of nArAyaNa, may the unqualified devotion to the everlasting one-ness of hari and hara, the non-dual Supreme, become the blessed festivity in me of bidding good-bye to this life.! Here and elsewhere, hari and hara are alternate names for Vishnu and Siva respectively. The first step in understanding the non-dual philsophy of Sankara is this non-difference of Siva and Vishnu. The next step is to realise that this one God is not only transcendent but also immanent in every one of the living beings. This makes Sankara define devotion as nothing but the contemplation of one’s real self.:

svasvarUpA-nusandhAnaM bhaktir-ity-abhidhIyate

As oil dwells in the oil-seed, as curd in milk, as water in a ground-water source or as fire in firewood so does He dwell in the Universe:

tileSu tailaM dadhinIva sarpiH Apah Srotas-varaNIshu cAgniH …

– says SvetASvatara-upanishad. This Absolute is everywhere, in front of us, behind us, above us, below us, to the right of us, to the left of us – the scriptures do not tire of repeating this kind of refrain. And all this is in oneself, i.e., one’s Self. This Self is everywhere. That is why the ISa-Upanishad says: It is already there before even the fastest mind goes there. In the entire philosophical thought process of the world this thought that the whole universe is immanent in oneself is a giant leap for mankind. When the universe dissolves in the Ultimate, it is a stepwise dissolution. From earth to water, from water to fire, from fire to air, from air to space – these are the stages of dissolution. Finally what remains is Space. Even that space finally will dissolve in the Atman, says the scripture. Can we imagine this situation when there is nothing, not even space? It is to help us attempt the mental gymnastics of comprehending this that all the scriptures cry hoarse on this topic.

Great devotees and exponents of the Advaitic school (of Sankara) have extolled the qualities and pleasures of bhakti so eloquently that for the ordinary man there should be no doubt about the fundamental role of bhakti in advaita. But critics of advaita as well as laymen who have not cared to take the effort to understand what advaita is, do sometimes declare that bhakti is not concordant with the concept of advaita and to be a devotee is not the forte of an Advaitin. Their question is: how can bhakti coexist with advaita? According to them, the teaching (of advaita) that the Self of each individual is the same as the Supreme Self is contradictory to the duality implied in the concept of bhakti. In the process of devotion there is always a duality involved - namely, the worshipper and the worshipped. If God or the Supreme Reality does not have a separate status other than our Selves, then who is to worship whom? advaita means non-duality. There is no second object in existence other than the Supreme Godhead. So where is the leeway for any worship or devotion? Says Sankara in his Sivananda-Lahari (Verse No.81): Sometime in worshipping the lotus-feet of God, sometime in meditation and concentration, sometime in offering obeisance, sometime in listening to His stories, sometime in looking at His form, sometime in singing His praise, he who gains such a state in exhultation, having surrendered his mind to God, is verily a Jivan-mukta , the highest state of Spiritual Love. It is the same Sankara who declares through all his commentaries and prakarana-granthas that Knowledge alone -- neither an integration of Knowledge and Works nor an integration of Knowledge and Devotion -- that leads to moksha. But to get to that state of Knowledge where one perceives nothing else, because there is only the Perceiver, he strongly recommends the doing of Works in a desireless unattached way and with a one-pointed devotion to the Ultimate. In order to impress upon us laymen that this is the only way to ascend to spiritual heights, he tours the whole country more than once, visits almost every important temple and place of pilgrimage and sings his compositions in praise of the revered deities of that place in the most eloquent poetry. He it is who has established the tradition of ritually worshipping together all the five divinities – sUrya, the Sun-God; Sakti, the Mother; Vishnu, gaNeSa and Siva -- of the Hindu tradition through a sophisticated ritual called the panchAyatana pUja, meaning worship at five altars. Here the divinities are worshipped not in their human-like forms but in certain symbols in the form of stones, which are nothing but certain rock formations available in specified locations in the country. This tradition may be taken as an intermediate stage between the worship of Godhead with form and the worship of the formless, because the symbols of worship as rock formations have certainly a form but they are also formless in that they have no parts like face, eyes, body, hands or feet. It is as though the devotee trains himself to take the mind from the forms to the formless while at the same time allowing full scope for his emotional feelings of devotion and surrender. It is because of this that invocation mantras in the advaitic tradition contain effectively the following idea as the core of the mantra. Oh God! I know you are omnipresent. But, for the purpose of my concentration and worship please condescend to make your presence felt here in this idol (image, picture or stone or whatever) for the period of the pUjA; maybe I am insulting your omnipresence by requesting you to confine yourself to this form and space, but please pardon me; I know no other way’.

The ascent from our physical, vital, emotional and intellectual being into the supermind of spiritual being is spiritual evolution. The technology of this ascent is Spiritual Love. There are at least three stages through which one has to rise. The first is bAhya bhakti or external bhakti. This is adoration of something outside ourselves. It is based on the unenlightened tAmasik feeling that God is external to us and that He dwells in a particular locality – a temple, a shrine or a holy place or bathing ghAT. Popular religion does not usually rise above this level. The second stage of bhakti is ananya bhakti, the exclusive and passionate (rAjasik) worship of one’s favourite deity . It is in fact an intense monotheism. The entire Ram-charit-manas of Tulsidas is a monumental example of the purity and majesty of ananya-bhakti.The third stage of bhakti is ekAnta bhakti, the purest (sAtvik) form. Here the worshipper loves God for His own sake and not for His gifts, not even for moksha. It is free from the feeling for any other object. It is the service of the Lord – an adoring service that implies centering of the mind on Him , expecting no gain either here or hereafter. It is a constant flow of mind, brimming with love towards the Lord and His creation, without any selfish desire. All his activities are sublimated into worship of the Divine. Whatever he does, whatever he eats, whatever he offers, is all a dedication to the Divine, not just as a formality, as ordinary virtuous people profess to be doing, but in total reality. Such a devotee appears to be doing external activities but since his ego is in total sublimation to the Divine he is not doing anything for himself. Even the distinction between sacred and secular activity disappears in such a soul. Every work is sacred to him inasmuch as it is an expression of his love of God. This supreme love of God was expressed by the cowherdesses of Brindavan. Their love can be understood by us only if, in the words of Swami Vivekananda ‘we can forget our love of gold, name and fame and this little material world of ours’. Their love, even though it originated in a kind of physical desire, rose up to the highest plane of self-effacing love of God, because of the holy association of the Divine, and thus in its final stages became the pinnacle of perfection of bhakti.

The artistic manifestation of this bhakti can take place in one or more of nine ways – says Prahlad, the Devotee par excellence. This statement of his occurs as a spirited reply of a boy of five years old to the arrogant father’s seemingly innocent query about the former’s progress in his study-in-residence with the guru. It is one of the grandest pronouncements of the Hindu religion, that has since been quoted across the world billions of times. And it says:

That action is the greatest lesson one learns which expresses itself in terms of the nine manifestations of devotion to Lord Vishnu, namely, Listening to recitals of the names and glories of God (SravaNa) , Oneself reciting the names of God (nAma-sankIrtana), Recalling Him and His deeds (smaraNa), Waiting on Him (pAdasevana) , Worshipping Him (arcana), Saluting Him (vandana), Serving Him (dAsya), Befriending Him (sakhya) and Dedicating oneself to Him (Atma-nivedana).

It is not the name of the deity, Vishnu or Narayana, that is important here. The name is not there to distinguish it from the other names of God. This is the purport of advaita. Whether it is Siva or Vishnu, all the references are only to the One Supreme God – this is the intent of the Vedas. ‘He is Brahma, He is Siva, He is Hari, He is Indra, He is the Imperishable, He is the Transcendental Supreme’ says the Narayanopanishad part of Yajur Veda. This teaching of non-difference is most important for the understanding of Hinduism - says Sankara. It is not even correct to say Sanatana Dharma - says Sankara. It is not even correct to say that Siva and Vishnu are ‘equal’ says the Mahaswami of Kanchi. ‘They are the same; just as the same actor appears in different roles, one is the Paramatma (=Transcendental Supreme) dressed as Vishnu and the other is Paramatma dressed as Siva. Throughout the vedic literature one will find various divinities Varuna, Indra, Soma, Agni and Surya each glorified at one point to the exclusion of everything else. Any attempt to dissect the meanings and find a logical hierarchical explanation in the worldly literary sense of characters in literary fiction, would fail miserably. The entire mythological set-up embedded in the multitude of our purANas, if taken at their story-value without any feeling for the under-current of the oneness of the Almighty, will create nothing but chaos in our intellectual understanding. The different hymns eulogising the different gods and goddesses are couched either in simple language with complex meanings or in complex language which perhaps hide simple ideas. It is very easy to misunderstand their significance and meanings. Western interpreters who have not got into the spirit of the religion have erred in a colossal manner. If you carefully look at the superlatives being used in the Vedic literature in the same manner and language for each Vedic deity and if you look at the exact imitations of these eulogies made by the purANas for the various other manifestations of the Ultimate Divinity, one cannot but conclude that the last words of the Vedas are those passages where each such deity is considered as only one expression of the same many-faceted supreme Almighty. One such passage from the Aitareya Upanishad raises the question: Who is this Self, whom we desire to worship? Is he the self by which we see, hear, etc.? Is he the heart and mind by which we perceive? No, says the Upanishad. These are but adjuncts of the Self. The Self itself is Pure Consciousness. He is brahman. He is God, He is Brahma, He is Indra, He is all Gods; the five elements – earth air space, water fire; all beings, great or small, born of eggs, born from the womb, born from heat, born from soil; horses, cows, men, elephants, birds; everything that breathes, the beings that walk and the beings that walk not, the beings that fly and those that fly not. The reality behind all these is brahman, who is pure Consciousness. Consciousness is brahman.

The natural state of each individual is the state of being brahman, say the scriptures. Sankara therefore defines bhakti in specific terms as contemplative living in one’s natural state, that is, the divine state. This brahma-bhAva, being in brahman, automatically implies an equanimous view of every being in the world as the same self as the one dwells in the seer. This balanced view of everything as One, everything as the Self, is a blissful experience, called brahma-Ananda. It does not come out of studies or scholarship. It is a state to be enjoyed internally, not by the external apparatus. When that experience crystallises, there is no more knowledge, no more ignorance, no perceiver, nothing perceived, no perception. All that is seen by these enlightened souls is the godliness of Infinite Love and the loveliness of the Omnipresent God.

Sankara waxes eloquent about such a state of supreme bhakti, which we call advaita bhakti, in glowing terms. This poetic but precise description of Sankara is very often quoted as the thesis on bhakti. It is verse no.61 of SivAnanda-lahari. It gives five analogies for bhakti or Devotion to Divinity. The first one cites what is called an ankola tree which has the characteristic that when its seeds fall from the tree on the ground and mature, they travel to the base of the tree and join the roots by their own nature. Just as these seeds reach the tree with a one-pointed purpose, so also the devotee should be devoted to his God of devotion – is the theme. The second analogy is that of iron filings that are drawn to a magnet. In these two analogies the duality of the components of the system involved is all but obvious. The next two analogies are that of a chaste wife being devoted and drawn towards her husband and that of a creeper which winds around a parent tree. In these two cases the quality of the relationship is certainly different from that of the first two analogies but still some duality remains. The fifth analogy is that of a river which is irrevocably bound to a path towards the ocean, its ultimate destination. It appears it is this analogy that is closest to the heart of Adi Sankara as far as his definition of bhakti is concerned.

Think of a golden ring. Does gold have the form of a ring? Goldness has nothing to do with the shape of a ring or roundness. The roundness of the ring is extraneous to gold. Do not see the ring, see only the gold, they say. This is why even words fail when the Vedas want to describe the Ultimate. What is not spoken by the tongue but what makes the tongue speak is brahman, not the thing that is before you, says Kenopanishad. It is something which the words cannot describe, eyes cannot see, the ears cannot hear. Even the senses cannot sense it. How can the Seer see himself? How can the Knower know himself? So somehow out of all the multiplicity that is visible to us we have to see and sense the unity which is our own Self.