Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

A Realist view of Advaita
Part II
Chittaranjan Naik

flower picture

Part II – The Reality Divide

Om Gurubhyo Namah


What is it that governs the sense of reality given to a thing? To be a realist in the modern sense, one has to assert the existence of the world independently of the perceiver. What divides the modern idealist from the modern realist is a certain dichotomy associated with the meaning of the word "reality": the dichotomy of the "outside world" and the "observed world". Today, anybody who claims that the seen world is the real world is liable to be termed a naïve realist. It is not surprising therefore that contemporary cognitive science talks about two worlds, the world of qualia-filled consciousness, and the world of independently subsisting entities. In contrast to this duality, there is of course the duality, or plurality, that is seen in the observed world itself. What is in focus here is not this observed duality, but the more vexed duality that has its dividing line on the horizons of our perceptual ability. It is this duality, or reality-divide, that seems to compel most Advaitins to call the experiential world an illusion because the experienced world is only "a product" of consciousness like a dream, in contrast to the other conceived reality of an "outside world" that cannot possibly exist. But such notions of duality did not trouble the ancients. Reality was then natural; it was the world they saw and experienced and lived in. Today when we look at the past through the nets of modern theoretical constructs, this unquestioning simplicity is often taken to be a sign of their nascent bicameral mind.

The theme of this post is the reality-divide. It is an attempt to recover the meaning of reality by tracing the origins of the reality- divide and following the locus of its movement through the history of human thought. This is not meant to be an ontological quest for the meaning of Being, nor is it an attempt to uncover the meaning of reality as used in Advaita, but is rather a historical hermeneutic that attempts to uncover the roots of a certain conception of reality that comes to us through modern schooling.

In a certain sense, the first signs of the reality-divide arose in the idealism of Buddhist philosophy, a doctrine that first creates the duality of the "outside world" and "inside world" only to negate the "outside world" as being an impossibility, and then adopts the one remaining world, that of idealism. Thus the duality rose and fell, but it left its impact on the Buddhist philosopher in a peculiar manner. The remaining world was not the same world anymore that he had perceived earlier. It remained abstracted of the physicality of the everyday world: metaphorically speaking, it had the character of a transparent nothingness, of forms suspended in the void. It was the remaining pole of an artefacted duality after the discarding of the other pole. Logically, when one of the poles of an artificially constructed duality falls, the entire duality collapses, including both the opposing poles of the duality. The conception of the world should have returned to the pre-meditated natural world without the taint of the artificial construct. But the Buddhists adhered to the abstracted world of idealism. It was, I think, the Mimamsa Philosophers that dissolved the sophistry of this artificial duality and reverted back to the only world that is logically meaningful and possible - the world that we see and experience. The Mimamsa Philosophies did not negate the abstractly conceived "outside world", but dissolved the duality in the resolution of the knots of the fallacy. This dualism, or reality-divide, has never occurred again as a thematic in Indian Philosophy, not even in the dualistic Nyaya-Vaisesika and the Dwaita Philosophies. The dualism that exists in Indian Philosophy is dualism of another kind, not of the uncognisable "outside world" and the "seen world". There are no inconceivable objects in all the six schools.

If we move to the Western theatre, we see a somewhat different story unfold itself. The seeds of the reality-sundering may be detected in Descartes' famous doubt about the existence of the world. The world almost divides into two, but stops short of the split as Descartes reverts back to the comfort of medieval scholasticism. It was the philosophical knife of John Locke that divided the world into two realities - the world of secondary qualities that we perceive, and the world of primary qualities that lie beyond our senses in self- subsisting objects. But Locke's division was incoherent and ambivalent. Locke assumed that primary qualities comprised properties such as density and extension; he was unable to see that these were nothing more than categories like those of the primary qualities. But where Locke was ambivalent, Bishop Berkeley was ruthless. He demolished, as it were, the world of independently existing objects. Western Philosophy had arrived on the stage of idealism. Ever since then, it has been unable to cast off the yoke of this reality- severance even in its most idealistic non-dualistic philosophies. It is necessary to emphasise here that even in the conception of idealism, there is the notion of the independent world - a world that it goes about to deny. This is the schism. As long as this notion remains, the world has lost something of its intrinsic character and remains as one pole of a tensional duality that it has artificially constructed. In the mind of the philosopher, the world of idealism remains an ideated island sequestered from the imaged "outside world". It is this that modern and contemporary Philosophy has not been able to resolve satisfactorily and which has prevented it from reverting back to the only natural world that we see and experience and live in. The rubric of this divide has continued through British Empiricism, German Idealism, American Pragmatism, Continental Existentialism, and it continues today to colour the speculations of contemporary science.

Yet, there have been occasions when modern philosophy seemed on the verge of collapsing the divide. Edmund Husserl was perhaps the genius that almost succeeded in resolving this riddle where others had failed. He begins his philosophy on the note that it is fruitless to philosophise about the "outside world". As the first step to fruitful philosophy, he calls for a suspension of judgement about the outside world. He calls this suspension of judgement the "transcendental epoch" or the "transcendental reduction". The world and its objects are primarily the forms of consciousness, and we must investigate it through an eidetic investigation of objects as objects of consciousness. In Husserl's Phenomenology, consciousness is an intentional consciousness and objects are objects of the intending consciousness. Thus arose the call of "back to the objects themselves". If we must understand objects, then we must find fulfilment of the meanings invested in those objects by the meaning- conferring acts of the intending consciousness. It is this ground prepared by Husserlian phenomenology that has influenced most of existentialism, from Martin Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, to Jean Paul Sartre and others. Husserl's epoch is brilliant, but I am not sure if the reality-divide was satisfactorily effaced - the suspension of judgement in phenomenology fails to quell the tides of unrest within the rational man. Yet Husserl was a beacon of light in the dark abyss of the reality-divide. It was his intention to develop a scientific method to ground philosophy and science in a transcendental reason. But the Husserlian method was too abstruse for a scientific community where pragmatic compulsions to postulate "theories that work" more often than not overruled adventures into transcendental methods.

In some respects, it was Wittgenstein that came closest to resolving the reality-divide. Wittgenstein was nurtured in the field sown by Gottlieb Frege, the philosopher who had sought to develop an ideal language to avoid the pitfalls of language-misuse. Frege had said that idealist philosophers do not use language the way it should be used when they say that the world doesn't exist. Frege differentiated thinking from the truth-assertion of what is thought. Thus sentences become propositions, and the assertions of their truth, the truth judgements. He developed a framework of symbolic logic in which proper nouns are the referents that point to objects in the world, and where abstract nouns are classes under which objects fall. Frege's system was the formal system of a new modern logic. The germ of this idea grew, in Wittgenstein, into a full-bodied philosophy of language in which language and the world are intimately connected to each other. The limits of the world are the limits of language. Language speaks the world, as it were. The reality-divide seemed to have collapsed. Wittgenstein said that language cannot point to its own internal structure; that the structure is mirrored in language. Therefore, metaphysics, which purports to speak about structures, begins when "language goes on holiday". The last pages of his Tractatus contain the following words: "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical". Few understood Wittgenstein and fewer still understood the ramifications of his philosophy. The shadow of the reality-divide continued to haunt the fertile fields of philosophy.

Why does this reality-divide not appear as a theme in Indian Philosophy? I think the answer lies in the philosophical method of Nyaya, which was the common platform for philosophical debate in India. At its foundations, Nyaya is a philosophy of logos; it is tuned to the way language operates. The "outside world" cannot appear in its vocabulary because the other side of the reality-divide reduces to an absence of a referent. It does not remain a denotative symbol, but reduces to a meaningless warp in the use of language. Thus, reality remains as the world that we see and experience. Yet, idealism did arise in later Advaita. The reality-divide may have been absent as a theme, but an unarticulated "parallel universe" lurked behind the language of the illusory world. Shankaracharya had already demonstrated the fallacy of "objects that only appeared to be objects" in his arguments against the Vijnanavadins, but somehow the illusory-world seems to have made a re-appearance. I believe it has something to do with the conflation between the descriptive and the prescriptive aspects of Advaita.

What comes to us today is not so much from the conceptions of philosophy, but predominantly from those of science. Science has borrowed many of its concepts from philosophy: the atomic theory came from the speculations of the Epicureans; the belief that all phenomena can be explained through natural causes can be traced to Lucretius and Bacon and to the further impetus it received through the demise of Scholastic philosophy after Descartes; the conception of space as a relation between mass-points (special theory of relativity) had its origins in Leibniz. All these conceptions, and many more, have come from philosophy. Yet, science is not metaphysics, it is physics, and it has never examined its own conceptions with philosophical clarity. Its approach is positivist and is articulated in the positivism of August Comte, who said that human progress is governed by three stages of development: the intuitive stage of religion, the speculative stage of philosophy, and the rational empirical stage of science. Ironically, it was a brand of positivists called the Logical Positivists that tried to bring to science, in the early years of the twentieth-century, the analytical methods of philosophy. The story of Logical Positivism is too long to be told here, but its attempt to establish a "verifiability criteria" for the propositions of science turned out to be a failure, and with this setback the movement slowly came to an end. As a result, the gulf between science and philosophy remains to be bridged. The reality-divide is present in the theoretical formulations of science as an unarticulated implicit premise. Science does not have a clearly formulated conception of reality, but operates in a loose framework of a kind of Lockean duality. The reality-divide continues to lurk beneath our educational and pedagogical systems, and we are unconsciously schooled in its ways of thinking.

The metaphysics of illusion is fraught with danger. Yet we must admit that "illusion" has its use. The vision of the world as illusion brings home the truth that the world is not independent of the perceiving consciousness. It is the insight of an epiphany, a point of spiralling into the numinous ground of Self. But as a metaphysical description, I believe there is a need to recover the meaning of reality from the modern phantom of the reality-divide. If the world is real, it does not mean that the world is independent of consciousness. It merely means that we employ the natural locution that language has given us. The reality-divide makes two realities out of one: one harder than it can possibly be, and the other softer than the ether of vacuity. It is time we went back to the reality that we see and experience, the healthy and lusty reality that is joyful and painful, that stretches from the abyss of darkness in the hidden recesses of the mind to the exuberance of life bursting forth from the virgin fields of earth. She is the Reality encompassing the world of the mortals and the worlds of the immortals. She is the Great Mother, the eternal consort of the Lord.

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