Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

A Realist view of Advaita
Part VI
Chittaranjan Naik

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Part VI - Prelude to Ontology

Om Gurubhyo Namah


In his seminal book, the 'Critique of Pure Reason', Kant examines the term 'existence' and concludes as follows: "If the question regarded an object of sense merely, it would be impossible for me to confound the conception with the existence of the thing. For the conception merely enables me to cogitate an object as according with the general conditions of experience; while the existence of the object permits me to cogitate it as contained in the sphere of actual experience." Thus Kant places the meaning of existence in the fact of a posteriori experience rather that in the conceptual cogitation of a thing. It is this same distinction that was formalised later by Gottlieb Frege through his symbolic framework, which later went on to become the foundation for analytical philosophy and modern logic. Frege was trying to counter the manner in which idealist philosophers employed language whereby they said that objects don't exist because they are ideas in the mind. Frege reasoned that in the realm of language we apply the word 'existence' to objects only when these objects are concrete facts in the world and not when they are mere ideas. He thus made a distinction between pure thought (propositions) and the assertion of existence (existential judgement) to what is thought about. Accordingly, the thing that is thought about is a concept or an abstract class, and its existence is the concept instantiated as a fact in the world. In a sense, both Kant and Frege were reinforcing the ontology of presence by restricting the meaning of existence to experienced facts of the concrete world.

Another variant of the ontology of presence is found in the philosophies of existentialism, which may be summarised as follows: All things are nothing but their presence to consciousness. But the term 'existence' does not properly belong to consciousness because consciousness is always consciousness of something, i.e., consciousness is intentional. Thus, in Heideggerian terms, existence translates into what may be called 'being-at-hand'. But existentialism does not stop at merely positing such an ephemeral 'existence', but goes further to state that 'existence precedes essence'. What this means is that there no such thing as essence can persist in an un-intentional state. Thus, the doctrine of 'existence is prior to essence' dissolves everything into 'a nothing' that lies behind the nature of things. The main problem with such an hypothesis is that it cannot account for the recognition of sameness, as such recognition needs the persistence of the notion of things by which sameness is seen, as say when we experience: 'This is the same tree that I saw yesterday'. If the tree has no essence, then there is no persistence of the notion of the tree, and the next instance of a tree that I see can have no likeness to the prior instance of the tree. Indeed, without universals, it would be impossible for anything to have a presence in as much as the world would dissolve into an amorphous void. It is because of the metaphysical need to account for sameness that scholastic philosophers had postulated essences, for in scholastic philosophy a thing may cease to exist but its essence remains forever. Recognition of sameness is possible only if universals are admitted, but then this would negate the doctrine that 'existence precedes essence'. Unfortunately, many modern philosophers have discounted scholastic philosophy without a deeper understanding of its metaphysics. It would seem that there was much more light in the 'dark ages' than most modern philosophers are willing to admit.

By saying that the world is unreal, Advaita seems to negate the ontology of presence. But it is our contention that Advaita affirms both the ontology of presence as well as the ontology of absence in an overarching ontology of Existence. Before we move on to a deeper examination of ontology, we must segregate the question of existence from the other related questions that rise up in its guise to confound us, and this necessitates making certain metaphysical distinctions.


What does it mean to say that an object exists? The first thing that is to be distinguished in this question is that there are two terms employed in it: the 'object' and the 'existence' that is predicated of the object. These two terms are so interleaved in everyday language that we are wont to disqualify an object as an object unless it is also such as to be qualified as existent - for otherwise we say that it is a mere 'idea' or 'concept'. Thus there is already an a priori notion of existence due to which we deny existence to 'objects in the mind' and affirm it to 'objects in the world'. We say that the one is insubstantial and the other is substantial. It would seem that the word 'substance' is grounded in the idea of existence. All these words - object, idea, concept, mind, substance - are so inextricably linked with one another that it is easy to be trapped in the mire of words if we do not discriminate between them through a study of the tattwas.


The English word 'object' comes from the Latin 'objectum' which means 'a thing put before the mind'. The current usage - and this includes scientific usage - is that an object is something 'concrete' that is perceptible to the senses. The first thing that strikes one here is the restrictive sense of the modern usage of the term. But if we trace back to the etymology of the word, we find that the original meaning is more encompassing - an object is the goal to which the mind is directed. In other words, it is the object of the directedness of the mind. Thus, in the original sense of the word, there is no difference between an object that is thought and an object that is perceived in so far as they are objects. Again, a particular object when ideated and when seen are the same object, for if they were not, it would lead to a contradiction to say that the SAME object that is seen is thought. For then, the tree in the yard that I think about would not be the same tree that is in the yard and hence the object of my thought would be contrary to the object in the yard which would make the tree in the yard that I think about not conform to the tree in the yard and hence I would not have thought about the tree in the yard, which is self-contradictory. Therefore there are no two disjunct realities, one in the mind and the other in the world. There is no difference between the object of thought and the object of perception, in respect of them being objects, but the difference lies in the modes of cognition, the one being a conception and the other being a perception. The same object when it is conceived is called a concept and when it is perceived is called a percept.

The taxonomy of objects includes all that is known. It is not restricted to sense objects only - it is whatever is perceived as well as thought. It is an object irrespective of the predication of existence that is given to it. That which I think about is not a mere 'concept' whereby it loses its dignity of being an object. Joy and sorrow, motion and rest, doubt and certitude, are also objects - because they are objects of the mind. Modern philosophers have been foxed by the padarthas of Nyaya, which includes in its repertoire such entities as object of cognition, instrument of cognition, discussion, disputation, etc. This perplexity is primarily because they translate padartha as 'ontological category'. The words 'tattwa' and 'padartha' have no exact English equivalent, but I believe that the term 'logos' is as good a translation as is possible.

In considering an object, it is important to realise that the relation between words and objects are not mediated through an intermediate entity called the 'sense', but that an object is the immediate object of the word. It is therefore called 'artha' which means both 'meaning' as well as 'object'. The modern sense-reference theory (due to Frege), which states that words have an intermediate sense and that this sense points to objects in the world, is not logically sustainable. Firstly, the sense of a word can have no meaning unless the 'objectness' is contained in the sense, and if the objectness is contained in the sense it would need no separate object as a reference, for if it did, the object would have to contain something more than the objectness and hence objectness would not define the object, which is absurd (because objectness is the essence of the object). The positing of the duality of sense and object is therefore superfluous, and going by the principle of parsimony it would obviate the need for a separate sense. Again, an intermediate 'sense' necessitates a binding between the word and sense, and between the sense and object, which in turn would need four more binding relationships, and so on ad infinitum. Therefore, the sense-reference theory is superfluous.

The marriage between a word and its object is sacred and mystical. They are united together as elucidated by Shankara in the Agama- Prakarana of Gaudapada Karika (I.1):

"Though the word and the thing signified are the same, still the presentation in the text, 'This letter that is OM is all this' was made by giving greater prominence to the word. The very same thing that was presented through an emphasis on the word is being indicated over again with a stress on the thing signified, so that the unity of the name and the nameable may be comprehended."


The mind is a sea of objects. There is no separate thing called the mind. For it is not possible that there be a perturbation in consciousness without there being objects as modes of that perturbation. Yet, the word 'mind' has a sense of being internal and as being associated with the subject. Therefore it is called an internal tattwa - antahkarana - which apart from the objects cogitated, is inferred as the internal instrument of cognition. This is perhaps due to the subliminal sense of 'vrittis' in consciousness from which all objects arise. Yet the mind itself is an object because it can be thought of as the reference of the word 'mind'. In other words, whatever is thought is an object, and because the mind itself can be thought about, it too is an object. But in every thought, the mind is inferred to be the subjective instrument of thinking. Thus there is a dual aspect of mind - as an object and as an inferred internal entity. It is this dual aspect of mind - as the manifold of objects and as the internal cognising instrument - that generates a kind of false duality. For objects that are cogitated are not called 'objects' but 'ideas', and objects that are perceived are distinguished from 'ideas' and called 'objects'. But there is no duality between mind and objects. The object is the target of the mind, and the mind as the internal instrument is the obverse side of the target. They are the object and its vritti. They are like the concave and the convex. And when the mind itself is thought about, it is both an object and the internal instrument inferred as operating in the thinking. In the pages of Western Philosophy, we find this kind of conception about the unity of mind and body in the philosophy of Spinoza:

From the 'Ethics', Part II - Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind:

Proposition 7: The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.

Proposition 11: That which constitutes the actual being of the human mind is basically nothing else but the idea of an individual actually existing thing.

Proposition 12: Whatever happens in the object of the idea constituting the human mind is bound to be perceived by the human mind i.e. the idea of that thing will necessarily be in the human mind. That is to say, if the object of the idea constituting the human mind is a body, nothing can happen in that body without its being perceived by the mind.

Proposition 13: The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body - i.e. a definite mode of extension actually existing, and nothing else.

Scholium to Proposition 7 (Part II): Consequently, thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same substance, comprehended now under this attribute, now under that. So too, a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, expressed in two ways. This truth seems to have been glimpsed by some of the Hebrews, who hold that God, God's intellect and the things understood by God are one and the same. For example, a circle existing in nature, and the idea of the existing circle - which is also in God - are one and the same thing, explicated through different attributes.

There has been much confusion in modern philosophy because of the inability to bridge the seeming divide between mind and body leading to problems such as 'the ghost in the machine' and the 'hard problem of consciousness'. Much of the problem has its roots in the stimulus- response theory of cognition, for this theory divides reality into the 'outside world of objects' and 'the internal world of sensations' - the world of bodies and the world of mind. We have already seen how the reality-divide is false, but we must now treat the subject logically.


The stimulus-response theory of perception is one of the most persistent dogmas in the history of human thought, and one that continues to persist even in the pages of modern science; it is the dogma that the human sensorium is a tabula rasa, a passive thing that is invoked into response by the sensory signals that impinge upon it. This is an old Epicurean doctrine, and surprisingly, it has not been subjected to a serious examination in since its emergence on the philosophical-scientific scene - except perhaps indirectly through the brilliant phenomenology of Edmund Husserl who showed that we reach objects directly without mediation. Yet Husserl did not make an attempt to dislodge the dogmatic theory of cognition. I had, in an earlier post titled 'Advaita and the Brain' (Msg.#20931), provided the reasons why the stimulus-theory of cognition is illogical, and I reproduce here below some extracts from that article with some minor modification:

"The brain-centric model of perception postulates the brain as the cause of perception and ideation -- as the 'intelligent' centre where the various input signals from the environment are processed and 'displayed' as the manifold phenomena of the world. Thus, logically, it follows that all the things I perceive, and have ever perceived, are only forms 'displayed' by the brain, for it is no more possible for me to perceive anything except through the machinations of the brain. For whatever be the entity that I may point to, or think about, it would necessarily be part of the manifold that is presented to me, including the thing pointed to, the act of pointing, and the comprehending of the thing. But this leads to a logical circularity because the brain, which is supposed to be presenting this manifold 'from behind' phenomena, is also a perceived or ideated thing that is part of the self-same phenomena, as are other objects of the world. Thus, the brain that we know, in so far as it is a perceived or ideated thing, would necessarily be a product of the machinations of whatever 'processing mechanism' is presenting it. If we are to avoid this circularity, the presenter of the manifold of phenomena must lie outside the manifold. Therefore the brain is not the transforming mechanism that we conceived it to be - it is the output, so to say, and not the transforming mechanism that presents the output. Thus the notion of the brain as the `central processing mechanism' collapses. When logic forces circularity it becomes imperative to look at the premises of the theory. Here it becomes necessary to dispense with the stimulus-response model of the brain altogether and say that we reach objects directly without mediation."

"Everything appears quite logical in this hypothesis except for one source of discomfort. The discomfort arises from the fact that the brain has an observed correlation to perception. That is, the manner of perception can be modified by human intervention in the workings of the brain - by the administration of drugs, or the injection of certain electrical signals. Experiments conducted on the brain show that the electro-chemical-neural mechanism of the brain has a correspondence to the manner in which we perceive. We are therefore presented with an enigmatic problem. On the one hand, placing the cause of perception in the brain creates a logical conundrum and demands that the cause of perception be placed outside phenomena. On the other hand, there is a definite causal relationship between the brain and our perception of the world."

"A valid theory of cognition must ensure that the logical circularity deriving out the stimulus-response model is avoided while at the same time accounting for the causal relationships that are seen to exist. The refutation of the brain model demonstrates that there is no transforming mechanism between the perceiver and the perceived world. Thus there is the seer and the seen, and the seer sees the seen intimately and directly. The seen - the world and its objects - are empty in themselves without the ground of consciousness. That is, objects in themselves (without the consciousness that ensouls them) are 'nothingness'; they derive their being and meanings only by virtue of consciousness. These `empty' objects cannot influence one another. To assign causality to objects of the world would be as naïve as assigning causes to the things we see on the screen when we watch a cinema. The causes of events on the screen are not in those events or screen-things, but in the transcending source from where they derive their existence and meaning. Similarly, there are no causes in the world, except by virtue of causality being bestowed upon them by the bestowing consciousness. Thus, it would be true to say that something in the world is a cause of another only in so far as this is the manner of ordering of the world, and not because the cause is something intrinsic in the object. Thus, in the physical world, the brain is the cause of perception, not because of any intrinsic capacity in the brain to influence or be influenced by the world, but because the Transcending Causality that orders phenomena manifests the brain as the seat of a certain causal-nexus within the schema of the world. It is in this wise that the brain becomes a 'cause' of perception - not as a real cause, but as bestowed upon it by the Real Cause."


There is thus one continuum of Consciousness in which mind and body appear as manifest features of experiential reality. This is the world. These are the objects and these are the thoughts. And these are the causal relationships between the things of the world. They all exist as features of the continuum. The body as the seat of our experience arises in this continuum, marked off from the rest of the world as 'I am this'. The individual soul is a luminous clearing within the world and is circumscribed by the mind and body. This is the manner in which it is bestowed. It is He Himself that has created the body as the abode of the soul and bestowed upon it the causal nexus between the senses and the objects.

He desired: 'May I be many, may I be born. He performed austerities. Having performed austerities, He created all this - whatever there is. Having created all this, He entered into it.

Of all these living beings, there are only three origins: those born from egg, those born from a living being, and those born from a sprout. That Deity thought: 'Let Me now enter into those three deities by means of this living Self and let Me then develop names and forms.

The individual soul's power of determination in the world is limited to the particular mind and body that delimits it and their capacities thereof. The soul can affect the world only in so far as it can act through the body. The individual soul cannot determine the world into being; neither can it directly affect the world except through the body. Its determinations are limited to the capacity it is bestowed with to bring forth objects to the presence of the mind but not to bring forth objects to the presence of the senses. Even in a dream, the dream-objects are not brought forth by the volition of the individual being, but by that same bestowing Cause that operates in the totality of the world.

The individual soul cannot bring forth objects to the senses. In other words, the individual soul cannot create objects; it can only affect the objects that it already finds around it as the furniture of the world. The world is already endowed with objects of sense- perception prior to the individual's determinations, and the individual soul as a limited clearing within the body can only reach out to them with the help of the body. The capacity of the Transcendental Cause to project the world as a sensual manifold of objects is its vikshepa shakti. This is the creation that is held in place for the individual to sense and live in. For according to Shankara, what differentiates Brahman from the individual soul is the difference in characteristics - Brahman is He whose Will is the ineluctable translation of ideas into actuality, and the individual soul is he who is trapped in the mire of avidya.


It is in the context of the divide between the individual soul and the rest of the world that the theory of cognition must be seen. The triputi of knower, known and knowledge is a feature within the continuum of Consciousness. How does this knower - the self within the body - perceive the world? We have seen that it is not reasonable to posit inconceivable 'objects-in-themselves' from which signals arrive to the body because such a hypothesis necessarily leads to a logical circularity.

If we say that the sense of an object is somehow carried from the object to the senses within the continuum itself, then we should be seeing objects within the body and not out there in space where it is actually perceived. The mind cognises it as being out-there because the mind has reached out to the space there and conformed with the form of the object, and the there-ness of the object is a composite part of the cognition. It cannot be said that the object is perceived as-if it is there, for the necessity of bringing in the as-if-ness in the argument itself proves the attribute of spatial location that the mind has conformed to in perceiving the object, and when the mind has conformed to its object, it is illogical to deny the attribute that is perceived of the object.

Moreover, the pseudo-logic of 'as-if-ness' is a self-refuting device because it lays the ground for anything to be stated as anything else by effacing the difference seen in perception by ascribing it to 'as-if-ness'. Therefore, the only logically sustainable thesis is that objects are perceived through contact between the instruments of cognition and the object whereby the mind and senses conform to the form of the object. This is the Advaita theory of perception - objects are perceived by the mind along with the senses reaching out and making contact with the object. (Swami Satprakashananda has treated this subject admirably in his book 'Methods of Knowledge'.) The actual comprehension of the object takes place in the intelligent light of consciousness. Thus, in Advaita, the human sensorium is not a tabula rasa, but comprises the mind and senses as the active instruments of cognition. It is the actually existing object that is perceived - just as it is - and the object is not a 'thing-in-itself' in an inconceivable 'outside world'. The schism between mind and body, and the schism between primary and secondary qualities are dissolved in the metaphysics of Advaita.

Proceed to seventh essay.

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