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' .

Qualified guru

Q. I have just found out about advaita and have recently finished, How to Meet Yourself and will start reading The Book of One very soon. I understand that you stress the importance of a guru. My question is can you could recommend one in Sweden, preferably in Stockholm?

A. I'm afraid not. I get quite a few requests like yours and it is surprising and disappointing how few countries are served by a traditional teacher or organization. What I tell people is that, whilst a qualified guru is extremely valuable, I do not believe one is absolutely essential. If you have the commitment and time, and are prepared to read widely without accepting anything as the truth immediately, and if you ask questions of more knowledgeable seekers (such as via the Advaitin Egroup for example), then you can still acquire Self-knowledge eventually. Asking questions when you don't understand or in order to gain clarity is very important. And obviously you cannot do this if you only read books.


This Q&A refers to the latest issue of akhaNDAkAra: Consciousness and the Brain.
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Q. The April issue is very interesting. I believe this issue of Consciousness and the Brain is THE ISSUE for most scientifically-inclined seekers. Three additional thoughts that were not addressed in the article:

  1. Individual consciousness as reflection of the absolute: I recall listening to several lectures by one of Swami Dayananda's students who used the metaphor of the sun reflecting off of buckets of water being like consciousness becoming manifest in living creatures. Once the subtle body has departed (or the bucket no longer has water), consciousness is no longer reflected and the object is inert. From the point of view of a scientist this would likely be interpreted as consciousness only 'appearing' when a body of sufficient complexity is alive. In essence you have the same data satisfying both the materialist and the advaita hypotheses.

  2. Order requires intelligence: This argument is put forward on the Discover Vedanta website. The basic point is that the phenomenal universe is orderly, order requires intelligence, intelligence requires consciousness. Therefore, an orderly nervous system inherently relies on consciousness for its existence as an orderly system.

  3. Non-dual nature of consciousness: I think one can also make the point that since any individual's consciousness has no attribute to distinguish it from any other you can convincingly say that consciousness is non-dual. Once consciousness is taken to be non-dual, does it not then become impossible for consciousness to arise from an individual body?

A. Thanks for the comments. Brief response:

  1. I do actually refer to this near the end: 'The consciousness of a person is better called chidAbhAsa, which literally means "false appearance or reflection (AbhAsa) of consciousness (chit)��. I can see that I should have elaborated on this at the beginning for clarity. And you are right, it does make the scientist�s outlook more reasonable.

  2. Sounds like the �argument from design� for God. And traditional advaita uses this to �prove� Ishvara. But it is not such a good argument.

  3. Don�t quite follow your argument here. Wouldn�t most people claim that their consciousness was different from anyone else�s? How would you define it to their satisfaction such that they would accept that it is the same?

Q. Point 2: I agree that it is not the most satisfying argument. That said, I think the author of the Discover Vedanta uses it as effectively as possible:

Is existence that is invariable in a mountain, the moon, a river, a flower also consciousness? Yes, because there is some intelligence which makes every form what it is and enables this existence to be simultaneously mountain, moon, river, flower, molecules, atoms, particles, etc. That intelligence is in and through all the forms. What is the content of that intelligence? It is consciousness, just like the content of my intelligence is consciousness. That means, what is invariable in all forms, all objects is existence-consciousness which is also invariable in my and all other body-mind-senses. Now, I can understand that consciousness is not confined to an individual but is also in and through all objects in the universe, being their reality.

Point 3: For this argument to work some precise defining is required. I was listening to a Bhagavad Gita lecture from Swami T from Arsha Bodha who defined Consciousness as 'that by which you are aware of your perceptions, thoughts and emotions'. He goes on to say that since Consciousness has no boundary it is, therefore, all pervasive. Since it also has no attributes by which I can distinguish mine from yours, I have cause to conclude that there is only one Consciousness. He also goes into refuting the challenge that if this were true, shouldn't one person be able to view another's thoughts (I know you have been around the block on this one). Anyway, I therefore think that once you have a singular Consciousness established you have done a good job of undermining the argument that an individual brain can 'create' consciousness.

Point 4: If you claim that a brain gives rise to Consciousness, then Consciousness must have a beginning in time. However, for this to be known there would have had to have been a Consciousness there to establish this fact, which is a contradiction. I found a very interesting free book from D. Krishna Ayyar that makes the point. Here is the relevant passage:

Sastra says that the non-dual, eternal consciousness � brahman-Atman � is without a beginning and end. We can give supporting logic (Saastra-sammata-yukti) for this. To know that consciousness had a beginning at a point of time, the absence of consciousness prior to that point of time has to be known. But, can we talk of prior non-existence (pragabhava), in the case of consciousness? The crucial question is what was it that could know the prior non-existence of consciousness? Is it consciousness itself or is it something other than consciousness? The latter alternative has to be ruled out, because everything other than consciousness or a derivative of consciousness like ahamkara is insentient and what is insentient can never be credited with the knowledge function. The former alternative is also untenable. If consciousness or a derivative of consciousness exists at the time of apprehending the prior non-existence of consciousness, ex hypothesis, consciousness is not non-existent then. Similarly, to know that consciousness ended at a point of time, the absence of consciousness posterior to that point of time (pradhwamsaabhaava) has to be known. For any such knowledge itself, consciousness or a derivative of consciousness is required. Therefore, consciousness is eternal. (Vide Sureswacarya�s Taittiriya Upanishad Bhashysa Vartika, Chapter II, verse 651).

A. I didn�t reply straight away because I wanted to read through your comments again. I have now done so � several times � but I still don�t follow the logic of 3 and 4.

Regarding 3: 'He goes on to say that since Consciousness has no boundary it is therefore all pervasive.' Surely, I can only argue from the standpoint of �my consciousness�. And that clearly does have boundaries. E.g. I am not presently conscious of what you are doing. And 'Since it also has no attributes by which I can distinguish mine from yours I have cause to conclude that there is only one Consciousness.' Not sure what is meant by �attributes� here. I am aware of some things; you are aware of others. These differences may well be an �attribute� of my body-mind being different from your body-mind. But since we are not aware of Consciousness distinct from a body-mind, I don�t see how it is possible to make this further distinction. So it would seem that, as far as makes any difference, my consciousness is different from yours.

Regarding 4, I do not follow how not knowing that consciousness had a beginning in time proves that it didn�t. Someone who had lived away from civilization, for example, might not be aware that the atmosphere was now pervaded by radio waves from all manner of technology. But that would not proved that these technologies did not have a beginning in time.

Q. Thanks for the thoughtful response. Let me try and salvage #3, since I do believe there is some valuable intuition to the point. First, on the point about consciousness being all pervasive, I was referring to a spatial boundary (probably I should have been more clear about this). So for example, if I ask, 'How wide and tall is awareness?', one can understand that it is not spatial dimension and is, therefore, in this sense boundary-less. As for your specific example about not being able to know my thoughts, I must admit that I don't have a very precise answer here and will need to give it some more thought. I think the basic point is that the reason I don't know your thoughts is that we have two separate brains and not that the there are two consciousnesses/awarenesses.

Second, my point about attributes was about name and form. In other words, when I indicated that consciousness has no attributes, I meant that it don't have any dimensions we typically associate with an object (e.g., color, shape, etc., or 'name and form' in the language of traditional Vedanta). This ties to the specific definition I set out for consciousness at the beginning, which establishes it as the witnessing awareness behind all objects (physical or subtle).

If you accept both of these points (all pervasiveness + lack of attributes), then I think it becomes difficult to claim how there could be two. Somehow I imagine that you still may disagree with me here, but it is my best attempt at this moment. Have you found better arguments that validate the advaita position that there are not multiple Atmas? (I.e. multiple consciousnesses?)

Finally, on point 4, I think the argument actually states the hypothesis the other way. It says that to prove consciousness did have a beginning in time, there must have been a consciousness entity there to validate that no consciousness was there. This is of course a contradiction. Whether someone finds this argument convincing will depend on where they think the burden of proof lies. That said, I think most materialists would probably think that the burden of proof should lie with someone trying to claim that consciousness had no beginning which would limit the persuasiveness of this particular argument.

A. I think that the point 3 confusion is a category error (is this the correct terminology?). If you apply the same criteria to, say, a �thought�, you would have to concede that a thought does not have spatial dimensions nor attributes such as color and shape. But would you also claim that a thought is all-pervasive? If it were, you would also have to conclude that I should be aware of your thoughts, wouldn�t you? And wouldn�t you also have to conclude that there could not be two thoughts?

Attributes belong to the appearance and not the reality. Atman-brahman is the substrate upon which the appearance takes place but it is not �affected by� or �touched by� the appearance, just as the rope is not affected by the snake for which it is mistaken. The Atman, as it were, �illumines� the world but is not involved in it or changed by it. All change relates to the world and ego, etc. � the appearance; the reality is unaffected. Hence the idea of �witness�. The Atma is satyam; the body-mind is mithyA. The Atma lends its existence and consciousness to the body-mind but is not affected by them. There are many objects but there is only ever one subject. The waker �I� is not the same as the dreamer �I� and there is no deep-sleeper �I�. The Atman is the witness of all three states.

Having looked again at point 4, I think there is confusion of �Consciousness� (i.e. brahman) and �consciousness� (i.e. [human] awareness). Clearly there can be no consciousness of a time prior to consciousness but Consciousness is independent of humans or anything else; is eternal and unchanging. Indeed, Consciousness is satyam; consciousness is mithyA.

brahman and mAyA

Q. In advaitic philosophy, 'brahman' is everything. How does mAyA have a separate existence? How does brahman come under the influence of mAyA? Why does brahman get influenced by mAyA? jIvAtma-s are the result of brahman's being influenced by mAyA. Are they real or illusionary? Do they represent a deterioration in the original condition of brahman? The goal of jIvAtma-s is liberation. Does this mean that brahman under mAyA's influence is to seek brahman outside mAyA's influence? The number of jIvAtma-s is infinite. What does it mean if a few of them attain liberation?

A. Briefly, your question is confusing paramArtha and vyavahAra � real and apparent. From the vantage point of absolute reality, there is only brahman. But we seem to see a world of multiplicity and, in order to explain this appearance, we postulate a magical force called mAyA, which we say is wielded by Ishvara in order to create the world. But the world, Ishvara and mAyA are all mithyA � they have no reality of their own, being essentially brahman only. So, to answer your questions, mAyA does not have a separate existence; brahman does not come under the influence of mAyA. jIva-s are similarly mithyA (neither real nor illusory); in essence they are brahman only. Their goal is liberation only because they do not know that they are already free. The aim of advaita is to remove the ignorance that obscures this knowledge (and the ignorance and knowledge are also mithyA).

On the question of why everyone does not become enlightened when one does, see Question 168.

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: 02-Apr-2013