Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

On Berkeley and Advaita
Chittaranjan Naik

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Chittarnajan Naik


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The following was posted to the Advaitin Egroup Oct. 2005.

Writing about Berkeley in 'The Story of Philosophy', Will Durant says: "It was a brilliant idea – to refute materialism by the simple expedient of showing that we know of no such thing as matter. In all Europe, only a Gaelic imagination could have conceived this metaphysical magic."

But this magic had already been conceived elsewhere in the world over two thousand years ago. It was a passing show that came to India with the Buddhists and went along with them. And long, long, before Bishop Berkeley arrived on the philosophical scene of the world, the magic had already been dissolved by the great philosophers of the Nyaya and Mimamsa schools.

Despite some similarities between Berkeley and Advaita, the two are vastly different philosophies. Berkeley's philosophy is Idealism. Advaita is not Idealism. Advaita Vedanta is a darshana that explains the entire universe as it naturally is without calling objects mind (as the idealists do) or the mind objects (as scientists are prone to do). In Vedanta, any kind of reduction is a form of avidyA. The world is vRRitti, and the form of one vRRitti is not to be confused with the form of another vRRitti. The tattva of manas (or mind) is not the same as the tattva of the pa~nchabhUta-s. They are brought forth to our consciousness as different things and to call (reduce) one to the other is viparyaya, the mixing up of the nature of one with that of another.

If we are to compare Berkelian Idealism with Advaita Vedanta, then it is proper that we should ask the question: What is the fundamental principle on which Berkeley claims that the world does not exist, and that it is only in the mind? The following words, from his work 'A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge', gives us an insight into his reasoning:

In order to prepare the mind of the reader for the easier conceiving what follows, it is proper to premise somewhat, by way of introduction, concerning the nature and abuse of language. But the unravelling this matter leads me to have had a chief part in rendering speculation intricate and perplexed, and to have occasioned innumerable errors and difficulties in almost all parts of knowledge. And that is the opinion that the mind hath a power of framing ABSTRACT IDEAS or notions of things. He who is not a perfect stranger to the writings and disputes of philosophers must needs acknowledge that no small part of them are spent about abstract ideas. These are in a more especial manner thought to be the object of those sciences which go by the name of logic and metaphysics, and of that which passes under the notion of the most abstracted and sublime learning, in all which one shall scarce find any question handled in such a manner as does not suppose their existence in the mind, and that it is well acquainted with them.

It is agreed on all hands that the qualities or modes of things do never really exist each of them apart by itself, and separated from all others, but are mixed, as it were, and blended together, several in the same objects. But, we are told, the mind being able to consider each quality singly, or abstracted with those other qualities from which it is united, does by that means frame to itself abstract ideas. For example, there is perceived by sight an object extended, coloured, and moved: this mixed or compounded idea the mind resolving into its simple, constituent parts, and viewing each by itself, exclusive of the rest, does frame to itself by abstraction the idea of colour exclusive of extension, and of motion exclusive of both colour and extension.

The constituent parts of the abstract idea of animal are body, life, sense, and spontaneous motion. By body is meant body without any shape or figure, there being no one shape or figure common to all animals, without covering, either of hair, or feathers, or scales, etc., nor yet naked: hair, feathers, scales, and nakedness being the distinguishing properties of particular animals, and for reason left out of the abstract idea. Upon the same account the spontaneous motion must be neither walking, nor flying, nor creeping; it is nevertheless a motion, but what that motion is it is not easy to conceive.

Whether others have this wonderful faculty of abstracting their ideas, they best can tell; for myself, I find indeed I have a faculty of imagining, or representing to myself, the ideas of those particular things I have perceived, and of variously compounding and dividing them. I can imagine a man with two heads, or the upper part of a man joined to the body of a horse. I can consider the hand, the eye, the nose, each by itself abstracted or separated from the rest of the body. But then whatever hand or eye I imagine, it must have some particular shape and colour. Likewise the idea of man that I frame to myself must be either white, or a black, or a tawny, a straight, or a crooked, a tall, or a low, or a middle-sized man. I cannot by any effort of thought conceive the abstract idea above described. And it is equally impossible for me to form the abstract idea of motion distinct from the body moving, and which is neither swift nor slow, curvilinear nor rectangular; and the like may be said of all other abstract general ideas whatsoever…… The generality of men which are simple and illiterate never pretend to abstract notions. It is said they are difficult and not to be attained without pains and study; we may therefore reasonably conclude that, if such there be, they are confined only to the learned.

That neither our thoughts, nor passions, nor ideas formed by the imagination, exist without the mind, is what everybody will allow. And it seems no less evident that the various sensations or ideas imprinted on the sense, however blended or combined together (that is, whatever objects they compose), cannot exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them. I think an intuitive knowledge may be obtained of this by anyone that shall attend to what is meant by the term `exist' when applied to sensible things. The table I write on I say exists – that is, I see and feel it, and if I were out of my study I should say it existed – meaning thereby that if I was in my study I might perceive it, or that some other spirit actually does perceive it. There was an odour, that is, it was smelt; there was a sound, that is, it was heard; a colour or figure, and it was perceived by sight or touch. This is all that I can understand by these and the like expressions. For as to what is said of the absolute existence of unthinking things without any relation to their being perceived, that seems perfectly unintelligible. Their esse is percipi, nor is it possible they should have any existence out of the minds or thinking things which perceive them.

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevalent amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world, yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question may, if I mistake not, perceive to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the fore-mentioned objects but the things we perceive by sense? And what do we perceive besides our own ideas and sensations? And is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these, or any combination of them, should exist unperceived?

If we thoroughly examine this tenet it will perhaps be found at bottom to depend on the doctrine of abstract ideas. For can there be a nicer strain of abstraction than to distinguish the existence of sensible objects from their being perceived, so as to conceive them existing unperceived? Light and colours, heat and cold, extension and figures – in a word the things we see and feel – what are they but so many sensations, notions, ideas, or impressions on the sense? And is it possible to separate, even in thought, any of these from perception?

Let us take the following three fundamental tenets of Berkeley to demonstrate how Advaita Vedanta is vastly different from Berkelian Idealism.

1. The validity of abstract ideas
2. The ontological status of the external world
3. Esse est percipi - the predication of existence of objects


Berkeley's entire argument for idealism is based on the premise that abstract ideas are unjustified. It is clear that the notion of abstract idea he attacks is the idea of the 'universal' which had been upheld by ancient and medieval philosophers – the notion of colour abstracted from the particular colours that we see around us, or the notion of motion abstracted from the particular motions that we see in bodies. But Berkeley, in my opinion, was a poor philosopher because he failed to raise a philosophical question that is fundamental to recognition – for how indeed do we recognise things, and more especially, how do we recognise that two things are of the same colour or kind, if not by a principle that is same in them?

This important question does not find a place in Berkeley's philosophy, and being led by his blindness as it were, he blithely proceeds to negate a vitally important metaphysical principle. In Advaita, pratyabhij~nA– recognition - is based on universals. It is true that universals are not found by themselves in the world, for they are always manifest as the generic qualifying attributes of things which present themselves to us the thing as being of some kind or another. But then, qualities are those 'things' that are never found by themselves, they are always found in the world as inhering in objects, and it is no justification to say that qualities do not exist merely because they do not exist by themselves but exist in substantial things.

If Berkeley could not conceive universals, it is simply because he employs a method that is incommensurate with the object in question. The method of mental labour employed by Berkeley to conceive universals is misguided, for mental labour can only present a particular and not a universal. Berkeley is trying to find darkness with the help of a lamp, as it were, for any effort to conceptualise a universal particularises it. A universal cannot be conceived. It is the stamp of truth in the Self. The term 'stamp' is of course used metaphorically, for the universal is nothing but sAkShi pramANa, the very knowledge of things that is in the Self.

Just how far removed Berkeley's philosophy is from Advaita Vedanta can be gauged if it is realised that in Advaita, words are eternal, and that they are eternally conjoined with their objects. In Advaita, the denotation of a word is the universal. The doctrine that words only point to universals is unique to Advaita, and it is perfectly coherent with its vision of Reality as nirviseSha (attributeless) Brahman.


In Berkeley, the external world does not exist. In Advaita, both the internal world and the external have the same ontological status. In Advaita, there are twenty-four tattva-s, and these include both the mind as well as the pa~nchabhUta-s. Mind is an antaH-karaNa (internal instrument) because it manifests as residing within the body. The pa~nchabhUta-s are external tattva-s. In Advaita, both the mind and the pa~nchabhUta-s have the same ontological status and it is illogical to say that one exists and the other does not. Except when employed metaphorically, the terms 'internal' and 'external' are marks of space and to say that there is no external world is to assign reality to space and deny reality to the manifold features in space. If objects are false, then why is space also not false? If space is also false, then it makes no sense to say that the external world alone is false for then both the internal and external world, including ideas, would be false. Therefore, it is illogical to say that the external world does not exist while asserting that the mind exists (which is what is implied by saying that objects are only in the mind). It is for this reason that Sri Shankaracharya attacks the Buddhists, and his arguments are equally valid against Berkeley.

Berkeley presents (to the Western world) a momentous philosophical discovery – that objects are not independent from the perceiver – by calling objects 'idea' or 'mind' merely because the mind is known to be that kind of a 'thing' that is not independent of the perceiver. That is, he assigns a place to objects in the mind because the mind is naturally held to be dependent on the perceiver. I think Berkeley conveyed what he wanted to say, but in the process he turned language on its head and launched Europe on its long voyage of Idealism. Vedanta can never fall into the delusion of Idealism (notwithstanding the fact that many think Advaita is idealism) because it is based on three pillars of Vedanta – the shruti as the foremost of the pramaNna-s, the employment of nyAya (which is an upA~Nga [subdivision] of the Vedas) as the tool for logical discourse, and vyAkaraNa (which is a vedA~Nga) as the guiding factor to see that logic does not fly away into the labyrinths of delusion. The insights provided by nyAya and VvyAkaraNa do not allow language to be turned on its head as had been done by the Irish Bishop, George Berkeley.

Now, Berkeley says that an object is an 'idea' or a mental thing. In Advaita Vedanta, an object is an object - it is just what it is seen to be. A rose can never be anything but a rose; it can under no circumstance become a mere 'idea'. It remains always a rose because that true form of the rose is the yathArtha in Brahman. That yathArtha is the formless universal that Berkeley was unable to conceptualise. That formlessness of the yathArtha is what preserves the All in Brahman even though Brahman is nirguNa. It is the resolution of the vishva (waking ego) into taijasa (dreamer ego), and the taijasa into prAj~na (deep sleep ego), and the prAj~na into turIya.


Berkeley is credited with being an Empiricist, of having been the originator of the British Empiricist tradition. In my opinion, Berkeley is a bad empiricist. In fact, he is not an empiricist at all, for he denies and negates the most basic and fundamental fact of the observed world. He says that we see only sensations. Does anyone see only sensations rather than chairs and tables, and trees and flowers? There never is a perception of free qualities floating about in the world; all qualities are always found inhering in things. (It is this fact of perception that finds expression in Spinoza as the unity of substance and attributes, and in this respect, Spinoza's philosophy is a reflection of the Vedanta doctrine). Berkeley does the worst kind of abstraction here by abstracting some features from the things seen in perception as if these abstracted features (sensations) are all that is seen in perception. (What was separated by Berkeley was sealed again by Kant.)

Now, what does Berkeley understand by the predicate `exists' as it is applied to objects? We have his own words to illuminate us on this point - esse est percipi, to exist is to be perceived. So according to Berkeley, the water in a mirage should be real because it is perceived. I'm afraid that there is no philosophical depth here. In Advaita Vedanta, existence is predicated of objects not merely because an object is perceived, but because it has been brought forth in the world as a substantial thing. For substance is the existentiality of a thing. I saw a mountain in my dream yesterday, but that mountain has no substance. It therefore does not exist; it was merely the illusion of a mountain presented by my dream. It is important to realise here that in Advaita the predication of existence of objects is self-referencing to the contextual reflex in our consciousness with which we cognise it. This contextual reflex is not given by my volition, but is presented to me by an inexorable Will and I am simply the hapless victim of this awesome presentation. That is, if an object is presented to my perception as an existing thing, then it exists.

As I key in these words on my computer, I know that the mountain I saw in my dream yesterday is false, and I know that this computer in front of me is real. That reality with which the computer is presented to my senses, a reality that I had no volition to choose, is its substantiality. It is therefore real. In Advaita, no man (or woman, of course) may say that a thing does not exist merely on some inferential ground when the fact of perception presents it to him or her otherwise. The outwardly directed mind saying that the world is unreal is not Advaita. It is a loss of authenticity and an unauthentic mind can never see the truth of Advaita.

In Advaita, Brahman as Consciousness is not circumscribed by the body, not by the senses, not by the mind, not by time, not by anything whatsoever – It is unlimited and extends beyond all horizons. It is outside and inside, and no external object fails to be existent even if it should be outside of the mind, for Consciousness extends beyond the mind to the objects. The mind must go out to reach the object as long as consciousness remains circumscribed by the body. In the triputi of the knower, known and knowledge, the knower is consciousness circumscribed by the body, and that knower is not the praj~nAnam (Consciousness) of the Vedas. Even in deep sleep, the consciousness of the jIva is circumscribed by the causal body. When the jIva uses the word 'consciousness', it has no knowledge of the Consciousness of Brahman because it is still a jIva.

brahma j~nAna is the dissolution of jIva-hood. The jIva is unauthentic when it speaks about Consciousness. When the consciousness of the jIva is circumscribed by the body – that is, for all jIva-s – the external world exists, and the senses of the jIva accompanied by the mind goes out to make contact with the object. When an idealist says that external objects do not exist, he is trying to fit external things into a notion of existential possibility that he can conceive of in his mind, but Brahman is not limited by what the deluded mind thinks is possible or not. Brahman is large enough for objects to be in It without objects having to be reified as things limited to the mind.

It is the knot of the heart – the hRRidaya grantha – that is responsible for the mind of man becoming incapable of seeing the true nature of things, and unless the knot is unravelled by j~nAna, the jIva has no vision of the absolute greatness and grandeur of Brahman. (It is to the credit of Berkeley that he posited objects in the Mind of God rather than in the mind of man.) In Advaita, the mind is jaDa, inert. It cannot know; it is the known. The mind is the flutter of the Heart: how then can it know the Heart? The mind cannot access the Heart just as the shadow cannot come into the presence of the Light. In the brightness of the Light there is no shadow. Only the Heart can know the Heart! I must become nothing so that Brahman may speak through me: "brahmAsmi". Only then are these words true -- they are true when I am still and do not speak them.

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