Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Personal God and Nondual Awareness
by Dhanya

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Questions and Answers

Q. From what you've written previously, it is apparent that Vedanta regards the world itself as a manifestation of Ishvara, or God himself.

At the same time, from what I understand, the key teaching of Vedanta can be summarized by the mahavakya, 'Tat Tvam Asi' or Thou Art That (wherein That signifies the indefinable, indescribable 'suchness' or pure Consciousness or fundamental ground of being).

My question is, how are these two concepts reconciled, i.e., the notion of a personal God and an all pervading impersonal Awareness.

A. That's a great question, and one which I had myself for a very long time. In fact, it's taken me a very long time to feel comfortable with and understand the seeming paradox your question brings up.

Many of us, who were raised in the West, were raised within a culture whose values reflect Judeo/Christian beliefs and concepts. Even if our families practiced no religion at all, the thinking of the culture reflects those beliefs.

And how is God seen in those cultures? How are we as individuals seen? Generally God is presented in a way that some might term as, 'God the Godfather.' God the Godfather who makes you an offer you can't refuse, 'Believe in me, or go to hell.'

So, that's not a very nice type of God figure. And many of us, quite healthily, as we start to think critically, will reject that concept of God.

In line with the understanding of the God we may have grown up with is the notion that we are bad from the get go, 'born with original sin,' etc. So a lot of people also have very low self-esteem issues and negative self-images, which they are constantly trying to alleviate by getting approval from others.

Unhealthy God concepts. Unhealthy concepts of myself as an individual. This type of thinking is not very healthy, but it seems to be pretty much a given in our culture.

Then some people, who have the ability to see into things more deeply, and perhaps on the basis of some experience which they've had in their lives, may intuitively feel that there is some truth to be known about the nature of themselves and the world which they see around them.

Perhaps these same people hear about nonduality, and they may partially be drawn to teachings of nonduality, because they understand that the truth of those teachings is that there is only one nondual reality, and therefore that would naturally exclude any type of God concept.

So, let's just use that as a working hypothesis for discussion.

For myself, after many years of exposure to modern teachings of advaita from satsang teachers and others, I acquired the notion that any type of God concept was useless, and certainly not nondual. Thus I took it for granted that any good teaching of nonduality would not include an understanding of God.

Initially, when I first heard my Vedanta teacher speak about Ishvara, I really had no idea what was meant. It was a part of the teachings which I at first rejected, and then tried without success to understand.

It was only when I attended a course with Swami Dayananda and heard him say, 'If you want to see Ishvara in action, just look around you,' that a glimmer of understanding of what the word Ishvara meant appeared in my mind. I looked outside the window at the bright yellow autumn leaves swaying in the wind, and I thought, 'Oh, Ishvara must include everything.'

So how do we reconcile these two understandings? Ishvara and brahman, or duality and nonduality? In a sense that is the whole purpose of the teaching, and it would take a lot more than one brief answer to address the topic.

Swami Dayananda translates the mahavakya (the great statement), 'Tat Tvam Asi,' as 'You are Ishvara.'

The recognition of the truth of this statement is called the �jiva Ishvara aikyam,� the recognition of the oneness of the identity of the jiva (the individual) and Ishvara (God). It is the recognition that the actual identity of the individual and God is the same.

In the beginning of the teachings, we point out to the student that that which you take to be your individual base-line self, which we call atma, is in fact brahman, the nondual reality of all that is.

We do this by dismissing from the individual all those things which change, and which appear to condition the individual. This includes anything to do with the body/mind and sense organs. What is left after that process is complete is atma, the Self.

Then we point out that this atma is not bound in any way. This is recognized directly to be true.

This atma is then pointed out to be brahman, the nondual reality, the ground of being of all that is.

This can be seen when we go back out into the world of duality and analyze all that appears to be dual. Through a process of analysis we discover that we cannot find a thing which actually exists in and of itself as a separate object. All objects are infinitely divisible, as are all units of time. And yet each object is. And each object is known. This isness is knowness, is the only one common denominator of all apparently separately existing objects. What is this isness/is knowness which all objects share? It is my Self, the nondual brahman. The truth of all that which appears to be dual is in fact, nondual. And that nondual I am.

And all of this is direct recognition. It isn't hypothetical or conceptual. The truth, that all apparently separately existing objects have for their reality brahman, is a direct cognition.

But then, even from the place of having gained the recognition that all that is here, all that really exists, is brahman, the nondual alone, we still see, perceive, and experience the world of duality.

So how do we account for that? What is it? How do we relate to it?

If we continue an analytical process, we can observe that duality seems to be intelligently put together. Everything seems to operate along the lines of a certain order.

So what is that order? What do we call it? How do we understand it?

We can call that order Ishvara, and we can see that it is infinite, because there is nothing which happens outside of that order. And we can also observe that this order is intelligent, or is a display of intelligence, because everything is functioning in an intelligent way.

So this duality, which has for its being brahman, the nondual, is also a display of infinite order and intelligence, and we call that infinite order and intelligence, Ishvara, the intelligent principle.

We can refer to all of duality as Ishvara, and what is the reality of Ishvara? What is the actual being of Ishvara? The actual being of Ishvara is brahman, the nondual.

What is the reality of the individual? What is the actual being of the individual? The being, the reality of the individual is also brahman.

So Ishvara is the entire manifestation of duality, all form and function. If the truth of the individual is brahman, and the truth of Ishvara is brahman, then in reality, the truth of the individual and the truth of Ishvara are the same.

That is the resolution of Tat Tvam Asi. You are Ishvara. Duality is a display of brahman, which is your very being, and we call that display Ishvara. Thus you and Ishvara have the same identity.

From the point of view of Tat Tvam Asi, you are Ishvara. You and Ishvara are one and the same. From the point of view of a body/mind sense organs individual, you are a part of Ishvara. This understanding and recognition gives us a context from which to operate with comfort within duality.

Because even if one has gained the recognition that all that is here is brahman alone, from the point of view of the body/mind and sense organs, there may still be a lot of things to work out emotionally and intellectually. And even if one is very mature in all ways, still one has to operate in the world of experience.

If we can recognize the intelligent principle, which is operating in the world of experience and which we call Ishvara, then this gives us a point of view from which to resolve all our difficulties, because everything is taking place within a context of perfect order. Everything that happens and has ever happened is taking place within the context of that order. As an individual, we can even dialogue with that order because there is nothing outside it, and we are a part of it.

So we can take a stance that there is nothing but the nondual, and reject the appearance of duality as just 'maya,' or illusion; or we can gain a respect and appreciation for the manifestation of the world of experience as a manifestation of infinite intelligence, of which we are a part, while at the same time, recognizing that the truth of it is all in fact my being alone.

So this type of double appreciation enriches our lives, and helps us to navigate within the world of experience. It gives a point of relating. And in my opinion, it is beautiful.

From the point of view of our limited individual minds, we will never know how the entire manifestation of duality is operating. That the truth of it is nondual, we can know directly and without a shadow of a doubt. That it operates intelligently, we can also observe and appreciate, and this gives us a certain mental ease.

We can recognize that there is order and intelligence in duality. We can see that the body, mind and sense organs are just a minute part of the whole, and that they are sustained by the whole.

So I would say that coming to understand and appreciate Ishvara, the intelligent principle, which is displayed in and manifests duality, is the best way to integrate all aspects of the individual into the total after the gain of Self-knowledge, because all aspects of the individual actually belong to the total, to Ishvara. There is nothing about a person, be it nondual unmanifest brahman, or one�s individual thoughts, or the storehouse of one�s unconscious mind which is not Ishvara.

And then from that point of integration, from the point of integrating the order of the individual into the total order of the whole, we can enjoy the show, because we know it can't harm who we really are, and we also know and trust that it is operating intelligently. Its being in reality is our being, and the way it displays is how it should be. I hope that helps.

This doesn't address the issue of a personal God, which you brought up. But let's just put it this way. If the entirety of the manifestation is God, then any one part of it is also God.

As an individual, even as a jnani (a person whose mind has Self-knowledge) it's nice to have someone to talk to, to appreciate and relate to, so then we can take any aspect of duality, which we see as an ideal, and create that ideal as an altar to pray to, to worship, to talk to, to be a friend, all the while knowing that its being is all my Self alone.

It is said that one continually grows in one's appreciation of Ishvara. The recognition of my being as the being of the whole is just one thing, but the appreciation of the whole as Ishvara is never ending.

Q. No doubt I�ll be grappling with this awhile. The idea of a loving personal God is still a very powerful one, and one that isn't going to disappear any time soon, I can tell. Perhaps we can say, that too, is brahman. In fact, I'm sure it is.

I don't think that the idea of a loving personal God is one which needs to disappear.

I think the idea of a loving personal God and the understanding that everything has for its being nondual brahman can co-exist quite nicely.

I think it's probably even healthy.

For instance, there is a you, and a me, and a tree, and a rock, and a loving personal God. And the truth of their being is brahman alone. Thus within transactional reality, which we call duality, even while knowing and recognizing everything as brahman, one can still relate to and experience things on an individual level as well.

Everything has for its being brahman; the entire intelligent display is Ishvara. My being is the being of the whole. You are the whole. Tat Tvam Asi. You are Ishvara.

For me that is the reconciliation of a seeming paradox.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012