Sri Rajiv Malhotra
Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of Prabuddha Bharata .
In Computer Science, the binary system with only two values (0 and 1) is sufficient to represent immense complexity : including pictures, videos, multimedia, and in fact, everything we can sense or conceptualize. There fore, the expansion Two Many is easy for us to understand: If two entities exist, we can under stand how an infinite set of entities can be constructed out of them. Such is the power of two. However, suppose we start with one entity, then how do we get two entities out of it ? In Vedanta terms, the issue is to understand how Advaita –> Dvaita comes about. In other words, how does multiplicity arise if the fundamental reality is One, and what is their relationship with each other? This has been the central debate in Vedanta among its various schools, the main ones being organized as Advaita, Vishishtadvaita, and Dvaita.
The Vedas say that reality consists of paramArthika-satt and vyAvaharika-satt, the absolute and the relative realms, respectively. The key issue has been the relationship between them. If paramArthika is the absolute reality, then what is vyAvahArika ; how does it relate to paramArthika, and why does vyAvahArika exist at all?
Confusion about vyAvahArika
There are popular interpretations of Advaita claiming that only paramArthika is real and vyAvahArika is an illusion; they translate Acharya Shankara’s word mithyA to describe vyAvahArika, as illusion, or falsehood. The proponents of this interpretation commonly say things like: The world is an illusion. Two-ness is an illusion in this view, because paramArthika alone is real while vyAvahArika is false. On the other hand, the Vishishtadvaita school maintains that the one absolute Brahman includes multiplicity; this is also called qualified non-dualism. The Dvaita school holds that there are two realities with their own respective essences, but that one is absolute, and the other is dependent on it. Being dependent makes it relative but does not negate its existence. In other words, both are real, though one has a higher status as independent of the other.
The smile on a face is real but cannot exist in dependently of the face. However, the face exists even without the smile. One cannot say the smile is an illusion just because it is temporary and dependent on the face for its existence. Another analogy used is of the blue lotus: its blueness is a property of the lotus and depends on the lotus’ existence, while the lotus can exist without necessarily being blue.
This discussion on the nature of ‘two-ness’ has been the centre-stage in Indian philosophical discourse for many centuries. My intention here is not to try to resolve this old debate. Rather, as an Advaitin, I find far too many confused and muddled teachers professing the illusory nature of vyAvaharika because they are unable to ex plain mithyA any other way and because this gives them a convenient escape from having to address the hard questions of our empirical world.
I will divert briefly to cell a story that led me to investigate what I have called the sameness syndrome and its confusion among many of our spiritual teachers. This investigation led me to write the book, Being Different.
It was sometime in the early 90s that in a visit to Bangalore I was introduced to a young scholar. I was told chat as an IIT graduate who had recently joined a famous ashrama as an acharya, he would be the type of intelligent, scientific, and logical person who would understand the issues I was working on and that we ought to collaborate. I was hopeful for a productive meeting at the hotel I was staying at. When he arrived, we had barely introduced ourselves, and he started pointing out at a sign in the hotel and said: ‘See that sign Om there, I don’t believe in the Om sign because there should also be a Cross and a Crescent since they are all same: I explained that difference is a key attribute of the cosmos, and that collapsing it into homogeneity was not only fake but also disrespectful of others.
We thus started on a wrong foot and the more I discussed with him, the more I realized chat he was confused with the common misconception that everything is the same and that anything that shows the difference is a problem. So, I decided to respond to him in a kind manner and I asked him why he wanted to wear a particular robe and why not any other cloches. Also, I asked him why he follows a certain diet and lifestyle if everything is the same, or everything is illusory. I find the kind of arguments he offered to be escapist because they are unable to distinguish between vyAvahArika and paramArthika. Such proponents chant shlokas of the paramArthika, but do it in the vyAvahArika context, which shows chat they do not understand the relationship. I started telling the scholar that the shastras and the Vedic lifestyle require understanding the importance of differences in the vyAvahArika realm, which is where we are situated. I offered the following examples:
- The theory of the gunas-sattva, rajas and tamas is applicable in the vyAvahArika realm; the paramArthika realm is beyond the gunas. One must become knowledgeable of chis and live accordingly, and not negate the very basic teachings of our tradition.
- The science of Ayurveda, with the doshas (physical defects) of vdta, pitta, and kapha, is in the vyAvahArika realm; only in the paramArthika realm there are no doshas and the issues we typically deal with in the world do not apply there. Escaping from difference is tantamount to negating Ayurveda.
- The Varnasrama system-the four varnas and the four ashramas combined into a 4×4 matrix of 16 combinations-that structures our conduct, lifestyle, optimization of dos and don’ts, are all in the vyAvahArika realm. In the paramArthika or transcendent realm, one does not have these contexts and there is no need to follow the Dharma Shastras.
In fact, all the teachings in the Bhagavadgita, everything about karma and dharma, would be avoided if one were to ignore the very existence of differences.
The Blunder of Sameness
The entire Dharmashastras are contextual and based on differences. The whole world of karma is dualistic-there is a difference between right and wrong. There is causation along with freedom of the individual to choose at each moment: we live in the world of causation if we are in the vyAvahArika. There are chose who do not want to deal with the complexity of the vyAvahArika realm and hope to escape out of responsibilities, paradoxes, and challenges rather than facing them. This is escapism and world-negating and not what the Dharma teaches. The entire Mahabharata is about Dharma v/s Adharma. If everything were the same because everyone is Bhagavan, and if everyone’s actions are good and right because it is Bhagavan doing them, then why would Sri Krishna ask Arjuna to fight? Why would Sri Rama have to fight Ravana if everything were the same and Ravana was also ultimately the same essence as Sri Rama, and if in the end it does not matter because everything is mithyA ? There would then be no message in Itihasa (history or epics), and all our teachings would be dismissable as humbug.The purushArthas of kama, artha, and dharma involve living in the world of contextual differ ences that shift from one situation to the next. Yoga’s ethics of yama (self-control) and niyama (discipline) are also dualistic-that is the nature of vyAvahArika. The very idea of tapasya or austerity is vyAvahrika. If everything is the same as everything else, why bother with tapasya and yajna or sacrifice?
The scholar got especially upset when I asked him the pragmatic but profound question: What is the reason to distinguish between eating prasad and any other food? This was a genuine question that an Advaitin should be able to address. After all, there could not be any essentially right or wrong thing to eat since fundamentally everything is the same, made of same elementary particles, and ultimately only consciousness. He angrily walked out of the meeting.That scholar’s way of thinking is a common confusion among a vast majority of Vedantins I have met, including many gurus. This has always been a profoundly serious problem for me. They do not feel comfortable criticising or negating anything or anyone. But such negation is important, for it is not criticism driven by personalities and ego, but by important and em-powering interpretations of our major works for the followers. If negation were not important, there would be no Ramayana or Mahabharata required as all persons and their actions would be considered fine. Our tradition is based on logical arguments and debates. Acharya Shankara himself was so rigorous in negating and falsifying the opponent. If there is no such thing as falsity, that is, no such thing as a false statement, then the whole tradition of purvapaksha , argument of an opponent, would be rendered futile.
The argument for not accepting differences, for not wanting to falsify, is a recipe for Dharmic catastrophe. It would confuse our population about the importance of taking action, leading to further loss of ksatriyata (nature of a warrior). This is what I feel is so wrong with today’s teachings of Vedanta by some teachers.
The Importance of Differences
The cosmos is built on diversity. Every kshana moment in time-is distinct and no two moments are the same because there is a constant flux . Within any species, no two individuals are identical. The entire plant kingdom has immense diversity; be it oak trees or roses, each has multiple varieties and sub-varieties. Diversity is the basis of the cosmos and all manifestation of the ‘One’ is built on this principle. If one proposes that something is wrong with diversity, then one is saying the universe is fundamentally flawed.
The central idea should not be that homogeneity creates harmony but, harmony exists only with diversity. Harmony with diversity also means the need for mutual respect; one does not have to agree with everything the other person says. People say that truth is one, hence we must accept whatever someone says. This is nonsense: There is a difference between truth and truth claims. For the same patient (whose condition is the one truth) , different doctors could have different truth-claims about the diagnosis. Likewise, different religions assert different truth-claims about the nature of fundamental reality. Any religious tradition, including our own, any ideological position, makes truth-claims. Such claims are subject to falsification and that has always been an important pursuit by intellectuals. We debate each other’s truth-claims. This is seen all the time among scientists, mathematicians, doctors they look at the evidence, test them, and propose counter positions. Acharya Shankara and others after him, were vociferous debaters about the truth-claims of other schools of thought, even though the truth of ultimate reality is one. But I find many Advaitins, unfortunately, backing out of such engagements by using escapist arguments when faced with religious differences making conflicting truth-claims.
Strangely, many acharyas find it easy to disagree with rival Vedanta schools but are uncomfortable disagreeing with other non-Vedic religious claims such as those in Christianity and Islam. My sense is that as bookworms they have learned the old debates from Acharya Shankara’s time, hence able to parrot them, but have not done enough purva-paksha of Abrahamic religions and cannot debate them well.
We are born in vyAvaharika-satt and the path is lived here. The importance given to this realm as our ground for action is seen in the Upanishads-Brahman is embodied in the vyAvahArika-satt. This profound life-affirming outlook requires us to understand the nature of multiplicity, complexity, and diversity.
The manifested world consists of the principle of causation. Every action is a karma that pro duces some effect, and no effect happens by itself without a corresponding cause. Understanding this karmic principle of causation is needed to be able to live a Dharmic life. The way to transcend from the vyAvahArika into the paramArthika realm is not achieved by pretending that the former is an illusion; the path requires one to go through vyAvahArika and not escape from it by running away.
The frequent advice given by Advaitins to Kill the Mind as the way to achieve moksha is commonly misunderstood because it suggests one could use anaesthesia to become unconscious and achieve moksha. This is ridiculous because the real meaning of such teachings is to achieve a state of conscious existence beyond causation. The ordinary mental state is imprisoned in causation, and this must be transcended. One’s thoughts are usually being caused by previous thoughts; hence, there is a thought parade. The ego claims ownership of all activities including mental action, which creates karma and causes a reaction; this is the realm of causation.
Transcendence is a state beyond mental discursiveness. There are many techniques taught by our sages, where one can live within the and become less and less subject to causation until one is functioning bodily but not causing any karmic reactions; only the effects of previous causes continue. There are prescribed paths which do not involve denying the vyAvahArika circumstances one is born into.
Differentiating between Bipolar and Bifocal
Most students of Vedanta I know slip down the slope of what I consider two contradictory modes of living-the ashrama mode and mundane life mode. When these individuals are in the ashrama, they speak of lofty paramArthika concepts but the moment they drive out of the ashrama, they switch to the pragmatic mode dealing with the daily issues of the ego-centred world. I see this duplicity in many who claim to be following the path of Advaita. This leads to my differentiation between the bipolar and bifocal modes of cognition.
Bipolar is when one is fluctuating between two modes alternatively: from mode A to mode B and back to A and then again B. Mode A is one’s dualistic life and mode B is the brief mo ments of meditation or in an ashrama immersed in talks of non-dualism. Switching between A and B is what I call as bipolar; it is a type of time-division multiplexing, where one is shifting back and forth between the two. Unfortunately, this does not solve the Advaitin’s predicament. When the going gets tough in the vyAvahArika realm-that is, in mode A-one escapes into the paramArthika realm, mode B, and once the problem is solved, one is back to ‘enjoy life’ in mode A.
The second way of cognising is what I call the bifocal way, that is, one sees both realities at once. One does not escape out of one mode to another but recognises both simultaneously. In other words, one consciously sees Bhagavan in the vyAvahArika scenario, and performs driven by the truth of the paramArthika realm. One consciously recognises all the nAma-rupa (names and forms) as Bhagavan’s manifestation. One knows the Absolute, while dealing with the rela tive world of actions and causation. One sees Bhagavan as the other person performing his role (whether he is self-aware of being Bhagavan or not), while also being fully aware of oneself as Bhagavan’s role in the context. This is being bifocal, that is, there is one part of my cognitive lens that is paramArthika and always fixed on it, and simultaneously superimposed on it. I enact in the vyAvahArika realm as the theatre of action. To understand this, consider the following analogy: Suppose an actor A performs a role as a character B. On stage, he pretends to be B, but all the while he also knows that he is actually A.Similarly, I am fixed in my absolute essence as sat-chit-ananda performing as an individual in this body; I engage and enact in the vyAvahArika realm and simultaneously I am aware that others are also the same paramArthika essence performing different roles in the vyAvahArika realm. This interaction between various roles is what the Bhagavad gita calls the interaction between various gunas, which are manifestations of the same ultimate essence. We must understand dualism in this way and live this kind of bifocal life.
I would like to conclude by discussing Acharya Shankara’s teaching of three stages of practice sravana, manana and nididhydsana:
- Sravana refers to receiving knowledge from the Vedic canon and understanding it with fidelity to the meaning of the concepts. Receptivity with an open mind is sravana.
- Manana refers to the churning, debating, arguing, and deep thinking on the subject and is an important part of our learning tradition. In both these, it is important not to let emotions distort the process of acquir ing knowledge.
- Nididhyasana is the transformation that follows both sravana and manana. Nididhyasana is not something which can be done i.e., there is no effort on the part of individual will because anything one does always produces an effect and keeps one in the world of causation. One cannot perform something to achieve transcendence from causation; one is already inherently transcendent. There is an absence of the I (ego) in focusing upon the object of contemplation. There is no doing of yoga and meditation for this.
Nididhyasana is a doerless mode of spontaneous happening, and the practices are merely preparatory to lead to the non-doing. The paths are necessary but not sufficient because in the final stage, one must let go of all paths. 1
For instance, there are special mantras for re placing the discursiveness of the mind, and then the mantras themselves dissolve. Such a mantra leads to emptiness and pure consciousness with out content. This is a way of doing something to lead to non-doing. Another way I was taught by my guru is to engage with every person with the bifocal lens, that is, to know that the inter action is with Bhagavan manifested as that person: You are Bhagavan, just like I am Bhagavan. This practice, which is an act of doing, wakes up automatically a new cognition, and this trans formation cannot be caused or predicted and is a spontaneous cognitive shift. Nothing changes externally-the vyAvahArika world is very much a part of reality, but one is no longer bound by its causation.
This is why I chose the topic of two-ness for this article rather than one-ness which is so common. I want to discuss what Advaita is not, and not merely parrot what it is.
I do not come across conferences organised on two-ness by Advaitins, because most people are fixated on oneness and this results in the same points being discussed again and again.
In order to progress, it is important for Advaitins to discuss two-ness and the world of karma and dharma, and how this is related to the Absolute one-ness.
Why and how has the One become the Two? Is there a genuine change or is it illusory? Is multiplicity built into the unity or something new brought in from elsewhere?
The junction between the one-ness and the two-ness defines how we function and this needs to become the crux of the conversations of Advaitins. Since two-ness is the platform to realise one-ness, an inquiry by Advaitins into the major yogic paths-karma, jnAna, bhakti-through a focus on two-ness can hold immense value for today’s pursuits.
One-ness is the goal of all these three major paths, but none of them, as seen in their major works, such as the Bhagavadgita for karma yoga, the Upanishads for the jnana yoga, and various stutis (hymns) for bhakti-yoga, call for world negation. Relooking and potentially recasting two-ness and the need for the bifocal lens in today’s context, in each of these paths is important for Advaitins now more than ever. I hope this article provokes the Advaitins to these important conversations instead of discussing only the already known theories of one-ness.
Notes and References
1. Adi Shankara’s Vivekachudamani, verse 364 refers to nididhyasana as being a hundred thousand times superior to manana, and manana it self being a hundred times better than sravana. Current translation used is from Viveka chudamani of Sri Shankaracharya, translated by Swami Madhavananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2005), 138.
Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science. He studied Physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and did his post-graduate education in Physics, View More