The following is a series of answers concerning Advaita Vedanta where Raphael, in a clear and synthetic way, expresses the main aspects of the metaphysical doctrine of Non-duality underlining its importance and interest for todays human-kind.
Q: Could you synthetically express the essence of Advaita Vedanta?
R: The whole teaching of Advaita is included in this simple statement: «Brahman is the only Reality, the world is non-real, and That thou art (Tat tvam asi)». Let us try to understand this truth in all its implications; we will make use of terms that may be more familiar to the western mind.
For Advaita Vedanta Reality must be constant, identical to itself, self-evident, indivisible, infinite, and beyond time-space-causality. In addition, Vedanta probes reality on all systems of co-ordinates or on all levels of Being (from the individual to the universal).
Q: If Brahman is the only reality, then everything else is illusion?
R: Let us restate the problem in a different way: given that Brahman is the only reality, what is all that we see and perceive? According to Vedanta, due to the effect of maya we mistake a simple rope for a snake, to use Sankaras well-known and meaningful analogy.
R: What is the meaning of maya?
R: The word maya has many different meanings: what makes possible the impossible, taking something to be something else, veiling superimposition, etc. In Western terms we could say that it is synonymous with appearance, phenomenon, form-producing movement .
Q: Can maya be considered as pure illusion?
R: Maya is not illusion as the term is meant in the West. An illusion proper does not produce anything, and if an event or a thing are capable of changing our pre-existing state of consciousness, they cannot be considered illusions. The snake of the analogy that has changed our state of consciousness must have a point of departure or a base of reality responsible for its emergence as it cannot spring forth from nothing. In fact, its base is the rope.
Q: But is the world we live in just a dream? Are the pain, the fights, the joys, mans history, all of the conquests of the intellect only mere imagination? If all this has no sense we are left with psychological nihilism.
R: All that is process, or becoming, and all that it implies has its value and its degree of truth until one is involved in the process. Sankara, the codifier of Advaita Vedanta, has correctly settled this problem: the empirical world has its meaning and its raison dêtre up to the time we are identified with it.
On the other hand there are two important points we should underline to avoid all too easy misunderstandings: the metaphysics of Non-duality does not require us to abandon, refuse or disown maya as this attitude would still belong to ignorance-avidya. Advaita points out that we should not to create an identification or identity with maya or superimpose maya upon Reality, as this would mean mistaking the rope for the snake.
In addition, a metaphysical vision of life cannot find itself in opposition to anyone or anything, because for it both the phenomenon and the noumenon merge in the One-without-a-second.
We may also add, since we believe this to be of a particular importance, that Vedanta is not after increasing its following; Truth, according to this doctrine, needs no street-criers also because everything in any given time finds itself at its proper place.
Q: According to Vedanta what keeps us captive is ignorance-avidya; can you tell us what kind of ignorance are we talking about?
R: The term avidya, for Advaita Vedanta, does not mean lack of erudition but ignorance of a metaphysical order in that it concerns the Reality or noumenon; in other words, it is ignorance about the nature of Being. Avidya is the individual aspect of the universal or cosmic Ignorance, that is maya.
Q: Can avidya be considered as real and permanent?
R: If it were real and absolute we would never be able to eliminate it, and so we would be forced to live in incompleteness-ignorance; we would always be at fault, with no way out.
Q: Some people consider Vedanta as a sort of philosophical phenomenalism, others equate it with pantheism (immanentism); others still identify it either with subjective idealism or objective idealism. Could you expand on these points?
R: Philosophical phenomenalism argues that everything is a phenomenon, including Reality itself and the individual in his wholeness. Vedanta, on the other hand, states that behind the phenomenon there is a Reality that is not a phenomenon, and this Reality is, we have already pointed that out, the Constant without generation, time, space and causality. Behind the maya-phenomenon there is Brahman as the Absolute and the Infinite. To say that reality is a phenomenon-appearance, something relative and subject to change does not meet with reason, if only for the simple reason that, if everything is relative and changing, even the statement all is relative is relative.
Pantheism argues that all is nature; for Pantheism there is no transcendent Being, everything is immanent in an absolute sense and the Divine itself becomes the world. This is not in agreement with the Advaita view where it states that the relationship of Brahman and the World is non-reciprocal. Brahman is indeed other than the sensible and intelligible Universe, and in the final analysis nothing exists apart from Brahman. In other words, Brahman does not become the World, while the World, although not separated from Brahman, appears and disappears.
Subjective idealism altogether negates the external material reality and connects everything back to ones own individual consciousness; as reality is granted only to the subjective idea of the single being this vision cannot but result in a dangerous solipsism.
Objective idealism, on the other hand, posits the object independent from the perceiving subject; everything depends from the individual or universal object.
These two philosophical currents cannot be confused with the metaphysical doctrine of Advaita Vedanta for which both the individual and the universal spheres, though having a certain degree of reality, find their solution in the Absolute-Brahman.
Q: What meaning can this ancient teaching have for the man of the third millennium?
R: This Teaching is indeed very ancient since it is born with the Being itself; but exactly because it is born with the Being, i.e. comes down from, lives and perpetuates itself in the Being, it cannot but always be valid and so not only suitable but even essential and necessary for mankind of no matter which millennium.
Q: What advantages can the man of the third millennium draw from it?
R: We said that it is essential and necessary because man has only one real and basic need, and that is to know himself. The Greeks knew this perfectly when they proclaimed Know thyself and thou will know the Universe and God. Man, in addition to the idea of quantity, has always needed a Teaching of a qualitative synthesis that could tell him who he is, where he comes from and where he is going. Man needs a teaching that can lead him to discover his own true nature, which is identity with the Divine, the Tat tvam asi of Vedanta.
So the man of the third millennium has two possibilities before him: a) self destruction, if he goes on following the road of possession, accumulation, oppression, destruction (all of this under the guidance of ignorance); or b) Harmony-Beauty, if he manages a U-turn and is capable of re-directing all of his energies and capabilities toward the discovery of his true self. As a result, the cooperation among all the kingdoms of nature will ensue and the conditions for a life of dignity will gradually be created so that it may be possible once again for the Gods to walk with mankind. All of this, although very demanding, is possible; indeed, it is the real destiny of the human being.
Only a vision of Life free from opposition and contradiction may solve the conflicting dualism in which todays humankind is struggling; and this is why the message of Advaita Vedanta may be considered as topical.
Q: In your books and in other occasions you have expressed yourself in terms of Philosophy of Being; is this different from the Advaita Vedanta teaching you have been speaking so far?
R: Advaita Vedanta is one of the branches of the Philosophy of Being, or Philosophia Perennis, which includes universal truths no people or age can claim as its own. The Philosophy of Being we are talking about stems from the Principle and extends to including the human being, therefore it is beyond the political party, the religious sectarianism, or the cultural-scientific lobby, exactly as it is beyond any egoistic interest of individuals, nations or races.
Q: Can this Philosophy of Being, that deals with the Principle, be applicable even in this contingent world? Can it meet both the psycho-spiritual need of the individual and his contingent material needs of social policy?
R: Let us say, first of all, that the individual may choose to follow two different ways of life: the Philosophy of Being and the philosophy of becoming. The former teaches the total make up of the individual and how he may find his Self in himself; it points to a way of Realization and not of self-affirmation. The latter points to a way leading to acquisitions, extroversion, consumerism and to estrangement from ones own Self. Hence, the state of bewilderment, confusion and evasion the society of becoming is living in.
Q: The philosophical vision of today troubles me because if I am, as a total being, just history, process and movement that appears and disappears, I must conclude that my future is called total annihilation. So, I am not going towards life, but towards emptiness. If this is my destiny, I wonder what incentive might arise and urge me to act, to love, to procreate, to enter into politics or to be a revolutionary. To cut a long story short, if before me I have the frightening prospect of annihilation, in what sense and under what motivations would I wish to express myself?
R: «So, I am not going towards life, but towards emptiness...»; this is the point. The philosophy of becoming cannot but lead you to nihilism and traumatic nothingness, and it proposes fighting, opposition against and separation from the others. The Philosophy of Being proposes harmony of oneself with oneself, with ones own species and with nature.