Does anything exist according to Advaita Vedānta?

Not substances, not qualities, perhaps not even the brahman?

The authors of Advaita Vedānta maintain that God, the impersonal brahman, is the only reality and that each hint of dualism or pluralism is due to māyā ‘illusion’. In other words, the absolute, the brahman, is the only reality and everything else (including the material world and the conscious beings within it) only seems to exist, due to māyā, but is not ultimately real. Due to the the Advaita Vedānta’s absolute monism, the brahman cannot have any quality, as any quality would introduce a duality in the singular nature of the brahman. Thus, given that the brahman is the only reality and that it is absolutely simple (since any complexity would entail plurality) it cannot contain any intentional knowledge*, since any such knowledge would be necessary articulated according to the distinction between a knowing subject and the objects it knows and exactly such distinction is considered illusory by Advaita Vedānta authors.

In contrast, these authors contend that the brahman, being the only reality, does not have knowledge as its quality. However, they would also not be content with a brahman conceived as just the material and unconscious cause of the world. Accordingly, the brahman is for them nothing but pure knowledge. Knowledge is therefore conceived as a substance and no longer as a quality. What is this consciousness about? Nothing. It cannot have any content, since any content would alter the pure monism mentioned above. Thus, it is nothing but pure consciousness, cit, without any content.

In summary, Advaita Vedānta authors uphold an absolute monism, where only a single and simple substance exists. Due to the absoluteness of this monism, it is even difficult to speak of ‘existence’ in the case of the brahman, which is in a possibly non-existential way, since it is the only reality, outside of time and space, being also illusory.
All that seems to exist to common beings, by contrast, strictly speaking does not exist at all. Its ontological status is compared by Advaita Vedānta authors to that of the reflection of the moon on the water, insofar as it is only superimposed on the real brahman. The whole world as common beings know it, therefore, has an ambiguous ontological status, insofar as it is neither a substance nor a quality or an action, but only pure illusion which happens to be superimposed on something real, the brahman, upon which it thus depends. The world as common beings know it, therefore, exists only as a superimposition relating to the brahman. This superimposition is, in turn, only illusory, since it cannot be considered to be a different reality, due to the absolute monism of Advaita Vedānta.

Can we speak of a substance ontology at all in the case of Advaita Vedānta?

* ”Intentional” is here used in Franz Brentano’s sense, according to which knowledge can only be knowledge of something.

(cross-posted on the Indian Philosophy blog, where you can read further interesting comments)

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

15 thoughts on “Does anything exist according to Advaita Vedānta?

  1. According to Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is the only substance. It is absolutely real (sat), that is, atemporal (nitya). Isvara (God), the jiva (individual soul) and jagat (the material world) are only relatively real; they are transient (anitya) and “false” (mithya), that is, indescribable as real or unreal (sadasadanirvacaniya), like “the snake in the rope”. They are not absolutely unreal (asat).
    These are the two levels of truth or reality: absolute (paramarthika) and conventional (vyavaharika). But in fact there are not two realities, only one: Brahman. And what about God-the soul-the world? “Sarvan khalvidam Brahma”: “All this is verily Brahman”. Brahman is the water and the names and forms (namarupa) are the waves; Brahman is the gold and the namarupas are the ornaments made of gold. There is only Brahman.

    • > According to Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is the only substance. It is absolutely real (sat), that is, atemporal (nitya). Isvara (God), the jiva (individual soul) and jagat (the material world) are only relatively real; […] They are not absolutely unreal (asat).

      That is indeed the standard sort of thing that Advaitins say. The real question which Elisa asked is, however: what should we do with this? We can choose to play along in the Advaitin word game and nod ‘yes’ to whatever they say; or we can critically investigate their claims and form our own opinions (as already many centuries ago the Jainas, Dvaitins and other Indian critics did).

      > Brahman is the gold and the namarupas are the ornaments made of gold.

      The problem with all such metaphors is, of course, that none of them can apply from a pāramārthika point of view. As the Jainas, Dvaitins and others have persistently pointed out, Advaita has never satisfactorily explained where the ‘illusory’ nāmarūpas come from. Māyā? Avidyā? Then where do they come from, if only nirguṇabrahman exists? No answer.

      • Drat, I should proofread my mailings before pressing “post comment’. “of only nirguṇabrahman exists?” -> “if only nirguṇabrahman exists?”

  2. For the past many years I have given my main attention in my philosophical studies to the realistic (non-illusonistic and pluralistic) schools of Indian thought: Jainism and Dvaita, which in my opinion have much more to contribute to world philosophy than Advaita, which in essence is really very limited as a system of philosophy precisely because substance ontology plays practically no role in it. Advaita should be placed in a similar category as later schools of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism and Zen, all of which ultimately are a-rational (or perhaps even anti-rational): most of their reasoning is not aimed at a deeper understanding of reality, but at a rejection of rationalization altogether in favour of a psychological conditioning that aims at acceptance of what is a dogmatic assumption about reality. To put it briefly: irrespective of whether one calls the ultimate śūnyatā or nirguṇabrahman, the end result is a form of nihilism.

  3. Elisa:
    You don’t admit the concept of a dvaita, the non-dual as a third category between Monism and Pluralism. Do you think it to be a form of words to which no meaning can be given? In other words that advaita is really a monism whatever its claims.

      • However much any of us would like it to be so, ‘Advaita’ is not an unchanging thing, and in such discussions it sometimes is meaningful to stand still and ask questions like ‘about which person who calls himself an Advaitin are we talking?’

        As I mentioned earlier, classical Advaita is a sort of non-philosophy, comparable with Zen and certain other forms of Buddhism. It was successfully challenged by Viśiṣṭādvaita and Dvaita, and the smārta priesthood that supported it needed new ways to maintain some social credibility (i.e., to maintain priestly income). This led to varying degrees of what we could call ‘bhaktification’ and ‘tantrification’ (and in the wake of this, it was believed that Śaṅkarācārya wrote works like the Saundaryalaharī and Gītāgovinda).

        When I speak with modern-day Advaitin religious teachers and point out that something they say is not truly Advaitin, they typically either reply that (a) everything is Advaita, or (b) they offer a meaningful mix of various types of Vedānta (‘with good parts of Viśiṣṭādvaita and Dvaita mixed in’).

        Therefore, instead of discussing what ‘Advaita’ says, it may be more sensible to discuss what a particular author / thinker says.

  4. Elisa:
    I wrote this on my own blog and it might go some way (or not) to justifying the a-dvaita title:

    Advaita not a Monism:

    I have lately seen Advaita described as a monism even though a-dvaita means non-dual. Clearly the view is that the philosophy is flying under false colours and is in fact a monism. There are then two and two only ontological flavours; Monism and Pluralism. Let me now in this back of an envelope sketch try to limn the advaitins’ justification for their claim and bring to the fore the concept of adhyasa or superimposition.

    I have toddled down the path of the preamble to the Brahma Sutra Bhasya (Commentary on the B.Sutras) by Sankara before. Skipping o’er the puddles:

    1: We have subject/object awareness
    2: But how can that be? How can the inert/unconscious object become an object in my consciousness. Implicit in this is the realist assumption that we are aware of the object as it is, we as it were see through the mental modification to the object. Without straining the analogy there is an element of transparency and instrumentality in this ‘through’.
    3: The famous analogy of the coiled rope that is taken to be a snake comes into play now. We experience a false image superimposed on the mind. (( This has proven to be a dangerous analogy bringing in notions of the argument from illusion. It is not that.))

    Similarly the true object is superimposed on the mind. But how? It can only be that though they seem to be utterly different i.e. dual, they are in fact non-dual. They share the same substantial identity. At this point the theory of upadhi (form of limitation of absolute consciousness) and the vritti (mental modification of personal consciousness) is proffered. The personal mind as much as the object is conceived as a modification of absolute consciousness.

    What then of the ultimate reality of the world? The teaching on this is that the world/creation is real as a manifestation. It does not have a free standing reality. It is contingent. Reality including the creation is non-dual.


    • > though they seem to be utterly different i.e. dual, they are in fact non-dual. They share the same substantial identity.

      Perhaps you could explain what the difference is between non-dualism and monism, when subject and object have the same ‘substantial identity’? (Please bear in mind that Elisa’s question concerns substance ontology, not epistemology. Epistemological attempts to bridge the subject-object divide are also found in Jainism in India and in the thought of Karl Jaspers in Europe – his concept of ‘das Umgreifende’ – without assuming a substantial identity).

      • Robert:
        Thanks for your careful reading. What we have in the subject/object dichotomy is a non-numerical identity. That is the transcendental postulate that resolves the question of how knowledge is possible. I’m calling it a transcendental postulate because it is an account of how things must fundamentally be for things to appear as they do. Unlike in the Western conception of monism things do not ultimately reduce to oneness or indeed are one as with Spinoza. The apparent duality of the manifestation remains even for the enlightened even though it does not bind karmically. That this is a primitive doctrine is clear from the Gita Chap.9:4 pass. ‘You are in me, but I am not in you’ . Absolute consciousness cannot be contained within the personal though it can reflect it. This again strikes the non-dual note.

        The separation of epistemology and ontology is a provisional thing originally devised in the 19th.century by Wolff. It’s not in Plato or Aristotle for instance.

        • Many thanks to Michael and Robert for this very interesting discussion. I do not know whether we can use the BhG without further thoughts as an evidence for an Advaita Vedānta doctrine, since the BhG is not an Advaita Vedānta text in se (though it can be and has been interpreted as such).

  5. Thank you for the discussion. I could not follow it, so let me express a few ideas about what was said (sorry for my poor English, and my not using dyacritics):
    – There are many kinds of advaita, and even many discussions internal to the advaitavedanta (AV) tradition; but there are some common ideas to all AV subschools as well, and we may refer to them.
    – AV asserts that Brahman is Sat; its mode of existence (satta) or of reality (satya) is paramarthika. Brahman is the only tattva accepted by AV. It is the only substance. That is an ontology of substance.
    – Is advaita the same as monism? I think that in general we cannot identify both concepts. Madhyamaka, for example, is advaita, because for it everything is sunya of svabhava (that is: it lacks self-existence); but it is not at all monistic. But AV’s advaita is monistic, for it asserts that only Brahman exists; in other words, that only one thing exists. And it is advaita for it denies the ultimate reality of all kinds of differences, both internal and external (sajatija, vijatiya, svija). Advaita is a negative concept: there are no differences. Monism is a positive one: there is only one reality.
    – This is what AV asserts. Robert says we shoul be critical, and that AV does not explain how plurality comes from the non-dual. For AV Isvara (brahman cum maya) is an initial explanation of the cause of the world; but ultimately the world does not need explanation for it has never come to existence (ajativada). I find it is not possible to refute the logical plausibility (nor to prove the truth) of this doctrine as inference cannot say anything about that.
    – In fact, if we have to be critical, I do not believe in the possibility of transcendent metaphysics of any kind: acosmic, realistic, materialistic, etc. Only of a transcendental metaphysics which describes the structure of experience. There are many plausible (=compatible with common knowledge) metaphysical systems, either naturalistic, theistic or monistic, which may be pragmatically useful and, thus, existentially true for the people who believe in them. (I have developed this idea of a pragmatist and non-metaphysical reinterpretation of AV in Indologica Tauriniense 41-42 (2016))
    – So AV is ultimately arational… like all transcendent metaphyisical systems. Even those which believe they are rationally grounded philosophies.
    – What is attributed to Sankara is not Gitagovinda (of Jayadeva) but Bhajagovinda.
    – Sorry again for my English. Please, forgive me if I seem too assertive. I have tried to summarize briefly a few ideas on what you have expressed so interestingly, and I could not ellaborate more my ideas.
    Thank you and best regards.