Advaita Vision


Advaita for the 21st Century

Questions and Answers
Dennis Waite

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How to Meet Yourself cover   The Book of One cover  Back to the Truth cover  Enlightenment: the path through the jungle

Read extracts from and purchase my books: For beginners to Advaita - 'How to Meet Yourself (and find true happiness);
For intermediate Advaita students - 'The Book of One';
For advanced students - 'Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita'.
For a comparison of teaching methods in advaita - 'Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle' .

Karma and reincarnation

Q. Researching into sharira trayam, I realized there is some mix up in my mind, especially:

  • concerning what happens with the shariras after physical death
  • concerning the nature of kAraNa sharira as such
  • concerning pralayam

First, allow me to outline my understanding so far:

  • for the jIva as well as jIvanmukti, stoohla sharira dies with physical death
  • for the jIva, sUkShma sharira survives death and then travels to 'find' another physical body
  • for the jIvanmukti, sUkShma sharira dies with physical death
  • for the jIvanmukti, karaNa sharira dies with liberation

If this so far is correct:

  1. From Swami Paramarthanandaji, I have learned that karaNa sharira dies with liberation. I understand this to mean that as the jIvanmukti has stopped taking mAyA for real, karaNa sharira 'dissolves'. Right or not?

  2. karaNa sharira being mAyA seems to be entirely collective - but as it is part of sharira trayam I would think that it must also have an individual aspect. If this is so, in what way is it 'attached' to the individual jIva? Is it attached entirely through belief in its reality? Or is there another concept regarding this question?

  3. As far as I understand, only sUkShma sharira travels after physical death. karaNa sharira does not travel. It is the 'pool' into which stoohla and sUkShma sharira merge in physical death and (for the jIva) out of which they emerge again. Right or not?

  4. In pralayam, do all the sUkShma shariras of the jIva-s merge into karaNa sharira? Does karaNa sharira being mAyA survive pralayam in dormant form?

A. If you try to reason out the fine detail of this, you are bound to become unstuck (i.e. fail completely). In the alAta shAnti prakaraNa (4th chapter of the mANDUkya kArikA-s), Gaudapada systematically refutes the theory of karma on the grounds that, however you try to relate karma and sharIra, you are bound to run into logical inconsistencies and fallacies. You are eventually forced to accept that there has never been any creation of world or jIva (ajAtivAda). You should just stick with the simple idea that the attitude to our actions brings inevitable consequences that, in turn, affect our future behavior. This interim belief persuades us to cultivate 'right' action, which then helps to discipline the mind, direct attention, increase discrimination etc, all of which help prepare for receiving the Self-knowledge that can bring about realization.

In the final analysis, this is tantamount to discussing whether or not the snake is poisonous, what the antidote might be, how far it is to the nearest hospital etc., when all the time what we have in front of us is actually a rope. Obviously I appreciate that the theory of karma exists for those who are still in thrall to the world-delusion, which is why I suggested that simply accepting the basic ideas is sufficient, without trying to pin everything down to the finer detail. This will never be possible.

Can I recommend the following book as particularly valuable on this subject (in fact I am not aware of any other that specifically addresses it): Karma and Reincarnation, Swami Muni Narayana Prasad (DK Print World, 1999) [ISBN-10: 8124600228, ISBN-13: 978-8124600221].

It is very readable!


Q. What do you understand by the concept of apauruSheya - the idea that the Vedas were �unauthored� (passed down from God).

I have to say that my preferred (reasonable) interpretation of the adjective �unauthored� is that the words were �originated� by self-realized sages and subsequently passed on by word of mouth until such time as written materials became common. These sages, being self-realized, no longer identified themselves as body-minds, as named individuals, so they had no wish whatsoever to have their bodily-assigned names associated with them. They knew that what they were conveying was non-personal, eternal truth that had nothing to do with personality. The sole purpose was to pass on this knowledge so that other minds, believing in separation, might be enlightened. Such absolute truth is beyond authorship and hence is reasonably construed as �unauthored�. But, obviously, the words chosen are bound to be those current at the time and place in which they were originally spoken. And the method of presentation will be as learned by the speaker from parents and teachers in that then-current society.

The mythology of such words being literally passed down by Ishvara, Narayana or whoever is no different from the creation myths propounded in the various upaniShads. It is a ploy to make the ideas readily acceptable to minds more inclined to bhakti than j~nAna; i.e. part of the adhyAropa-apavAda method. The absolute truth is non-dual and therefore cannot be expressed in words (also there is no one to express it and no one to whom it might be expressed).

Q. What about the fact that the scriptures are in Sanskrit, and refer to India and its customs?

Anyone who has realized this truth and has learned or devised a method for communicating it to others may set this down in any language, and those who understand that language may learn from it. Unquestionably, however, those methods which have been proven time and time again are best communicated verbally by one who is realized and understands them well. It is this proven history and the power of sampradAya that uniquely qualifies shruti. But someone must have authored these words, and someone must have written them down at some point in history. And it could just as well have been someone in another country in another language. It is all relative; all mithyA.

Q. The Vedas are coval with creation - the Shvetashvatara upaniShad (6.18) states this as much when it says:

"yo brahmANam vidadhAti poorvam yovai vedAnsca prahiNoti tasmai"
Seeking Liberation, I take refuge in the Lord, the revealer of Self-Knowledge, who in the beginning created Brahma and delivered the Vedas to Him.

This clearly implies that the eternally existent Vedas were transmitted to Chaturmukha Brahma - and that the Vedas are coval with creation itself.

When you are considering this question, you cannot use statements in the shruti itself to corroborate the contention. This amounts to saying that the shruti are unauthored because they say so. And why should we give more credence to that than to saying that the Ten Commandments are the will of God because the Bible says that God passed them on to Moses via the burning bush etc.?

Q. The absolute truth is nondual and therefore cannot be expressed in words. If so, how do we know that it is so unless somebody/something tells us? In order for somebody/something to tell us, it has to express in words, doesn't it?

The methods of communication of the truth are various but none are direct. Use of stories, metaphor, adhyAropa-apavAda, lakShaNa-s etc. when used skillfully, eventually enable the seeker to make the leap directly to grasp that which is itself indescribable.

Q. 'Because the Vedas say so' is a pramANa in itself, at least to the saMpradAya. Could you comment on this?

Yes, certainly; they are pramANa for those aspects that are not accessible to pratyakSha or anumAna. Where what is said contradicts reason, however, they should not be taken literally. Shankara points out in bhagavadgItA bhAShya (18.66): 'Surely, even a hundred Vedic texts cannot become valid if they assert that fire is cold or non-luminous!' He points out that they 'through the generation of successively newer tendencies by eliminating the successively preceding tendencies, are meant for creating the tendency to turn towards the indwelling Self� Even in the world, when it becomes necessary to make a child or a lunatic drink milk etc., it is said that it will help growth of hair etc.!'

And there are contradictory statements in shruti too, as for example with respect to creation. Gaudapada points out (mANDUkya kArikA (3.23)) that: 'That which is supported by shruti and corroborated by reason, is alone true and not the other.' Shankara says that the creation texts 'serve other purposes' and reiterates Gaudapada�s stance.

Q. I'd be surprised if you can come up with an example wherein shruti contradicts pratyaksha or anumAna pramANa-s.

Choose any of the presentations on creation (including, and especially ajAtivAda). In fact, since the final teaching of advaita is ajAtivAda, is not *any* teaching of a creation contradictory?

Q. There is a omnipotent God - this is a given. He has composed the Vedas. Hence the Vedas are valid. What the Vedas say is the Truth. Why? Because it is the word of God. This is a typically circular argument about scripture. The validity of the scripture rests on the the inferred belief in a Almighty Lord.

However, the Advaita Vedanta position is different. Here theshruti is held both sacrosanct and coeval with creation and hence, like creation, has no discernible beginning.

Ishwara or God communicates the eternal Vedas at the beginning of each creation to the Creator of the next cycle - and this also we know only from the Vedas themselves.

A. How does this position differ from that which you have just agreed is circular? I do agree entirely that one�s belief in shAstra begins with faith. But this is usually belief in the guru, who �translates� and unfolds shAstra according to sampradAya as you have pointed out. This, then, is faith in someone who has proven themselves to be reliable and trustworthy. Initially it is faith, then later it is directly realized knowledge (hopefully!).

In the end, of course, it really does not matter what you take as an interim understanding, does it? If that adhyAropa brings you to direct intuition of the truth, it has served its purpose; it all has to be dropped in the end as having no more reality than the dream. This includes, of course, not only the authorship of the Vedas (or not) but the Vedas themselves. We really should not become hung up on the vyAvahArika.

Incidentally, here is a simple, short and readable account of the refutation of the 'argument from design' for the existence of a god. [This does *not* mean that I am denying the existence of Ishvara from the vyAvahArika standpoint.]

If you want to ask a question, and do not object to its being included in this section, please email me.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012