“Advaita Vedanta” is Sanskrit, with a- meaning “no” and dvaita meaning “two”. Hence, advaita literally translates to “not two”. Also known as puruṣavāda, it is a school of Hindu thought and philosophy which suggests that all is one, and all is the Brahman. Advaita is one of the six Hindu darśanas but differs from them in asserting the unity of the atman and the Brahman. One of the chief philosophers in Avaita Vedanta was Adi Shankaran, whose philosophy makes an interesting read.
In most religious practices, the idea of convergence between the soul and the Highest Form is resonant, and a highly taxing, often excruciating path between the two is written down. This is where Advaita Vedanta stands out. According to this rather radical path to spiritual realization, the soul (referred to as the atman) and the Highest Form (referred to as Brahman) are one. The Highest Form is the highest metaphysical reality, and through the realization of the aforementioned idea, a true sense of identity can be gained and eventually, liberation can be attained. Drawing parallelism with Buddhism, just as the Buddha (or any mystic) says that the state of nirvana can be achieved through experience, not belief, Advaita Vedanta also involves the essential element of experience or anubhava in order to get to the epiphany of self-realization. In the process, Advaita Vedanta also establishes the perennialism of the Brahman, an ever-changing entity which morphs and transitions into different natural objects over time, but the essence and continuity of which remains intact.
The Brahman is the existential and fundamental instrument in the universe. It morphs into humans, nature and all there is, and plays coy games with us in this world of semi-reality entirely for jollification and playfulness, without concrete reason. The Brahman cannot be bribed or prayed to, and plays lila out of sheer sportive tendencies. Lila, or divine play, is a term that appears quite often in Hinduism, and is common to both dualistic and non-dualistic schools of philosophy. In a non-dualistic world such as Advaita Vedanta, lila is simply the divine play of the Brahman which gives rise to all of cosmos. The Brahman is not a God or a final stage, rather the journey all along.
While I do understand the gist of Advaita Vedanta, its validity in theory evades me still. To think of it, the oddity arises when I think of the layers of detachment between myself and spirituality (or the spiritual world) that the society has made me to believe. Although I do not identify as being religious, Buddhism’s path to spirituality invites much of my curiosity. Preconditioning has led me to create a virtual gap in my head between the incomplete, mistrustful material world and the perfect, beautiful world of the Good, the Ultimate- much similar to Plato’s World of the Forms, which I plan to discuss later in this journal. How can then the atman and the Brahman be one? This is where the concept of maya kicks in- to bridge the gap.
The Advaita Vedantic Concept of Maya
According to Shankaran, we are unable to recognize the fact that we are already one with the Ultimate Reality because of maya, an illusion, which acts like a filter that feeds our ignorance. This makes me take a step back and think about the myriad possibilities that open up once one accepts Shankaran’s premise, and everything starts to fall into place in whole new, incredible ways. I believe the congruity of the world can still be retained.
The advaita vedantic concept of maya can be juxtaposed with Plato’s allegory of the cave, as discussed in class. This lecture particularly riveted my interests, because the two accounts come from two ends of philosophy, one from the East and the other from the West. Yet, the two share common ground, which bolsters the idea that Advaita Vedanta might actually be something much more than an abstract theory. In Plato’s famous allegory, an unshackled prisoner went on to gain access to a world outside the shadows on the walls, which he and the other prisoners had been limited to, in the cave. When he comes back to inform the others of his newfound enlightenment, they simply demur and label him as a madman. However, in the process, the unbound prisoner realizes the difference between the limited reality he had been confined to and the greater reality he was exposed to in the later stage. This difference is maya.
Plato’s allegory of the cave, in my opinion, illustrates the concept of illusion in simple terms, trying to focus primarily on a clear distinction between the earthy world and the World of Forms. The Avaita Vedantic concept of maya is a lot more diverse and encompassing, in the sense that it is not repulsed by the material world. Advaita Vedanta, in my understanding, celebrates the world and looks to create an absolute reality within its limitations, in the form of the Brahman. The physical and the Ultimate are both the same. Hence, the material world is not deficit of any “perfection, contradictory to Plato’s hunch that there were pure mathematical structures or essences laid out in heaven.
My take on Avaita Vedanta is that it is a beautiful concoction of varying Hindu philosophies, with a very strong central motivation. It is the monism that stands out. In my opinion, it allows a better explanation of the world as compared to other philosophies which rely on a Supreme controlling power which accounts for all that exists. Questions of pain and suffering sprout in the latter case, which can be explicated simply in terms of lila and maya in the former. Whether or not the Brahman aims to strike a balance between pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, love and hate is another question. It is the childlike innocence of its play that gives birth to beautiful things, and this ascends above all.