Does anything exist according to Advaita Vedānta?

The authors of Advaita Vedānta maintain that God, the impersonal brahman, is the only reality and that each hint of dualism or pluralism is due to māyā ‘illusion’. In other words, the absolute, the brahman, is the only reality and everything else (including the material world and the conscious beings within it) only seems to exist, due to māyā, but is not ultimately real. Due to the the Advaita Vedānta’s absolute monism, the brahman cannot have any quality, as any quality would introduce a duality in the singular nature of the brahman. Thus, given that the brahman is the only reality and that it is absolutely simple (since any complexity would entail plurality) it cannot contain any intentional knowledge*, since any such knowledge would be necessary articulated according to the distinction between a knowing subject and the objects it knows and exactly such distinction is considered illusory by Advaita Vedānta authors.

In contrast, these authors contend that the brahman, being the only reality, does not have knowledge as its quality. However, they would also not be content with a brahman conceived as just the material and unconscious cause of the world. Accordingly, the brahman is for them nothing but pure knowledge. Knowledge is therefore conceived as a substance and no longer as a quality. What is this consciousness about? Nothing. It cannot have any content, since any content would alter the pure monism mentioned above. Thus, it is nothing but pure consciousness, cit, without any content.

In summary, Advaita Vedānta authors uphold an absolute monism, where only a single and simple substance exists. Due to the absoluteness of this monism, it is even difficult to speak of ‘existence’ in the case of the brahman, which is in a possibly non-existential way, since it is the only reality, outside of time and space, being also illusory.
All that seems to exist to common beings, by contrast, strictly speaking does not exist at all. Its ontological status is compared by Advaita Vedānta authors to that of the reflection of the moon on the water, insofar as it is only superimposed on the real brahman. The whole world as common beings know it, therefore, has an ambiguous ontological status, insofar as it is neither a substance nor a quality or an action, but only pure illusion which happens to be superimposed on something real, the brahman, upon which it thus depends. The world as common beings know it, therefore, exists only as a superimposition relating to the brahman. This superimposition is, in turn, only illusory, since it cannot be considered to be a different reality, due to the absolute monism of Advaita Vedānta.

Can we speak of a substance ontology at all in the case of Advaita Vedānta?

  • ”Intentional” is here used in Franz Brentano’s sense, according to which knowledge can only be knowledge of something.

(cross-posted on my personal blog, where you can read other interesting comments.)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

34 thoughts on “Does anything exist according to Advaita Vedānta?

  1. This week I’ve been looking at Śaṅkara’s Gītā-bhāṣya in preparation for teaching it to our students, and your post calls to mind his discussion of an objection at 2.16, which is “tad-asattve sarva-abhāva-prasaṅgaḥ iti cet.” He rejects this, reasoning on the basis of the two kinds of buddhi (apprehensions), one which fluctuates, deviates (vyabhicarati) and one which doesn’t, and of course our apprehension of existence is of the latter kind. I’ve always found Śaṅkara puzzling, here, though, since as you (with Rāmānuja, I think!) point out, that kind of intentional structure isn’t something we can ultimately appeal to in Advaita Vedānta, as it, too, has a variable nature. And, of course, Brahman is beyond being and non-being, so it isn’t as if we can just identify being/non-change with Brahman in a simple way.

    However, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad says on this dialectic in his book “Divine Self, Human Self,” that Śaṅkara’s point here isn’t about the ordinary use of pramāṇa, like distinguishing between real and unreal objects. But instead, he argues that (if I understand his point correctly) that Śaṅkara’s argument is phenomenological, based on how objects present themselves in different ways, both in their having being, and in their lacking being. I have to admit that I still find this disatisfactory, since it seems to require intentionality in a some genuine way.

    Anyway, I’m not sure that this answers your question directly, but given that I’ve been reading both Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja this week, I thought it worth making the textual connection!

  2. Hi. I’m new to this blog. I have one question:
    Supposing the Brahman is pure consciousness and that it cannot have any quality whatsoever, since it would distort the concept of absolute monism, do we not encounter a problem with respect to māyā ? If māyā is the cause of all these illusory perceptions and the existence of material world and conscious beings, wherefrom this māyā come? The Brahman cannot have māyā as its quality, according to Advaita Vedānta’s absolute monism. If māyā, which gives rise to illusory beings and the material world, which is responsible for the ‘superimposition’, is something that exists separately, then there cannot be absolute monism because māyā is ontologically different from the Brahman. And we cannot say that māyā is the Brahman, because, according to Advaita Vedānta’s absolute monism, the Brahman cannot have any quality, as any quality would introduce a duality in the singular nature of the Brahman. Assuming I have not missed anything, how do we solve this problem?

    • as per my understanding of advaita :
      Empirical self has a nature and consequently a unique perspective on life.This possession of empirical self is seen as a bond,the
      cause of all sorts of attachments.The self is in bondage to its own nature and is unable to exercise any control over it, as if it
      is under a spell.This is a spell of ignorance,called MAYA.Maya misleads empirical self away from its right goals.Right knowledge
      alone can rescue the self from maya.Right knowledge enables the empirical self to transcend the controls of its own nature and make
      the efforts of nature inconsequential.
      The spell called maya is qualitatively different with individuals.The individual cannot confirm its presence/absence.Maya cannot be
      defined.It is not real.
      Right knowledge is knowldge of Brahman.
      `

      • I see, but how can something unreal still have efficacy? You might mention the example of dreams (unreal, but might have efficacy), but why should the single perfect brahman/ātman have dream-like experiences? This beginningless māyā still troubles me.

        • Maya is a sort of spell on empirical self.Under the spell the self follows the likes/dislikes set by its own nature.When the empirical self discovers that it is living in a wrong direction ( as a result of knowledge) the spell disappears automatically.
          As you say maya is not doing anything.

          • This assumes the empirical self exists. Is it different from Brahman. If yes, there is no non-distinctiveness (advaitata). If no, then how can I understand the post keeping in mind the non-distinctiveness of empirical self and Brahman?

  3. My understanding of Brahman of advaita philosophy is :

    In our daily lives we experience a self,empirical self as an experiencer/knower/agent.And these absorptions of empirical self are
    possible because of its strong association with its own individual nature.It is believed that actually the individual`s nature
    does all experiencing/knowing/doing and empirical self is under illusion of those absorptions.
    Also if the strong association of self with its nature is made less rigid then qualitatively different results happen.

    Now we can imagine an empirical self getting itself detached from its own nature and becoming indifferent to the influences of own
    nature.This self is the metaphysical self which cannot engage/absorb itself in experiencing /knowing/doing but just aware of itself.
    This self-awareness of metaphysical self is brahman.

    This self-awareness is existence-consciousness,a state of bliss. `

  4. Advaita Vedanta is opposed to human experience. Human experience at all times
    impress on us that we are not Brahman
    or that we are always dependent on Brahman. Experience is the test of reality.Dvaita Vedanta confirms existence
    of dependent reality. Brahman and Non-Brahmans are Nithya Padartha or permanent entities.

    • I understand Advaita vedanta accepts human experience.But it yields a lower truth,the empirical one.
      The higher truth is the experience of metaphysical self,the Brahman.

        • The higher truth is a metaphysical truth for the empiricists.For them its possible existence is based on ” culmination of a series of incremental progresses in same direction”. The series happens when the empirical self incrementally detaches itself from the influences of its own nature and moving towards metaphysical self.

          • thank you. Then, as I see it, the a priori assumption becomes “there must be somewhere a culmination of the series of incremental progresses”. The same argument is used, by the way, to postulate that there must be yogipratyakṣa (since there is a gradation of sight and all gradation must come to a culmination). Kumārila contested it.

  5. Thanks to all for your queries and comments. It is interesting to see how Advaita Vedānta elicits much more interest than the topic I usually deal with on this blog.
    The comments from B Sarvothaman and tn also show how “experience” can be understood in different ways. After having read the former, I was inclined to comment that I agree with him, but that his argumentation requires an a priori demonstration that we can trust our experience (which is not obvious —for instance, astronomy has shown that we cannot trust it when it makes us believe that the earth is flat). However, the latter made me realise that one could appeal to experience to get an opposite result…

    As for Kaamesh Singam’s question, the status of māyā is the central problem for Advaita Vedānta, since it cannot be identical with the brahman (otherwise, the brahman would have the appearances of plurality within itself) nor completely different (since in that case the brahman would no longer be the only reality). Thus, the māyā must ultimately not exist. Yet, it seems to exist… Some authors speak therefore of its anirvācanīya `inexpressible’ nature. Other authors have shifted towards theism and spoken of māyā as God’s līlā (but in this way one looses the complete simplicity of the brahman).

    Thanks also to Malcolm. I hope Ram will step in himself and solve the problem…

    • I also hope Ram will step in! However, he has already taken on this topic in print in his chapter on prakāśavāda in his 2007 “Indian Philosophy and the Consequences of Knowledge”, in addition to the book I quoted. Maybe I’ll post after I’ve had a look at the former. And perhaps he has some new thoughts, after this time!

  6. Pingback: Does anything exist according to Advaita Vedānta? | elisa freschi

  7. The article is very interesting. My thoughts:

    1- Treating Brahman as an object of knowledge may be incorrect. Does this call into question all scholarly analysis of Advaita Vedanta?

    2- Positing an absolute difference between substance and quality may not be ontologically correct.

    3- Consciousness is always of something. We may need to distinguish between consciousness and knowledge.

    4- Pure knowledge implies something outside knowledge that can make it impure.

    5- Maya has been “defined” as “neither same nor different from Brahman”. I think Brahman is the substance and Maya is the quality. As long as we are distinguishing between substance and quality, we are seeing an imaginary difference between the two.

      • In a deep sense yes. But we must first be clear that the distinction between substance and quality is relative and not absolute. Brahman is substance and all qualities arise from Maya, which can be called base quality. So at a functional level they are different.

        • Hi, Sanket. I sense some cunning usage of words here. But anyway I will accept your interpretation of Brahman and Maya as substance and its quality. Now, my question is: Why would an ‘ontologically superior substance’ (Brahman) unnecessarily give rise to an ‘ontologically inferior entity or entities’ (our universe or its humans for instance)? What is the purpose behind this? If you give a theistic explanation, such as that it is because of God’s lila (which is equivalent to saying Brahman’s Maya), it becomes unphilosophical. If you say that it can only be understood by those who have attained moksa, it again becomes unphilosophical because it presupposes faith in Advaita Vedanta before there even is a proof for it. I see Brahman as no different from Greek philosopher Anaximander’s ‘Apeiron’. If the purpose of this ‘ontological devolution’ is unknown, then there is no point in believing in it; that is, we humans cannot benefit from this metaphysical system. We will simply want to escape this alleged illusory existence for no reason, believing that there is some superior substance.
          Rather, if we believe in a somewhat opposite metaphysical system where Brahman or Apeiron or any primary substance that ‘somehow’ gave rise to humans (or universe) is ontologically inferior to that which it created, then it gives us humans a purpose at least: a purpose to evolve to superior organisms (if we can) even though we don’t know the end of this ‘ontological evolution’. Here, in this evolutionary metaphysical system, humans are ontologically the most superior organisms or substances. By which I mean humans are superior to the substance that created them. I come to this conclusion because I see no other reason for our coming into existence.
          The only other alternative for this system is that of randomness where humans and possibly this universe and other organisms in it are offshoots or the result of chance events. There is no ultimate purpose. This seems equally possible.

          • Hi Kamlesh.

            Firstly, Brahmana is advaita i.e. non-dual. The terms “ontologically superior” or “ontologically inferior” implies duality of substances as well as a standard with respect to which substances can be measured. None of this is warranted in Advaita. Even otherwise you may want to read Bertrand Russell’s essay on superiority between amoeba and humans which suggests that there are no objective grounds to assert human superiority.

            Evolution happens in time and your reasoning implies that you believe time is independent of Brahman. Again this is not warranted in Advaita.

            One analogy for understanding Vedanta will be the existence of the universe. “Before” the big bang there was no matter-energy or space-time. In fact there was no “before”. From our perspective, big bang existed at time zero. But from big bang’s perspective, if it can have one, there is nothing called time and hence nothing called time zero. The question, ‘what was there before big bang?’ reflects our inability to comprehend the big bang and is not a real question.

            Brahmana is big bang with the added assumption that the big bang has a perspective. Because differentiation exists in time and time is a creation of big bang there is no differentiation from big bang’s perspective.

            So in terms of physics, the question is:- Assuming big bang occurred, does anything really exist except for the big bang? If yes, why? If no, why not?

  8. To ELISA FRESCHI on his reply post of 25th Oct,
    Thank you for the reference related to this argument.I will get myself familiarised.
    In my post I indicated a basis for believing in the referred metaphysical truth.I understand that metaphysical truths do not
    require a proof for a belief in them.If there is adequate basis for belief it is good enough for a try.
    Further as brains work on predictive basis,empirical self gains the ability to foresee its next stage in its progress,reinforcing
    its belief.

  9. To Sanket referring to his post of 25th Oct.
    On the rope-snake analogy,empirical self ( under ignorance ) corresponds to snake and Brahman is the underlying reality which is the rope.
    Empirical self exists as an appearance.

    • If empirical self is an illusion then how can we have a spell on an illusion (definition of Maya)? Secondly, whose illusion?

      • Thank you for the interest.My understanding is as follows —
        Empirical self experiences the empirical world or samsara or ordinary reality.
        Metaphysical self exists in ultimate reality.From the point of view of this self,(empirical) self of samsara was under a spell
        of ignorance and itself is the enlightened one and both selves are one only.This enlightenment is a logical product of thought
        experiment of empirical selves.
        NOTE : Empirical self is in bondage with its nature and metaphysical self is the liberated one from all bondages.Advaita says that
        the feeling of bondage is not real ( but an illusion ).

          • Metaphysical self cannot have delusions.
            Empirical self,in its thought experiment,can imagine itself getting freed from the controls of its own nature & knowledge and
            thus be the metaphysical self.At this point the empirical self feels itself coming out of the spell of ignorance and enjoying
            a rare bliss.
            Empirical self feels coming out of Maya,repeating again.And the feeling grows gradually as the empirical self gains control over its bondage.

  10. Thanks. So, if I understood it correctly, the empirical self comes out of ignorance and becomes the metaphysical self. Hence, the two are initially distinct.

  11. Sorry for my failure to explain clearly.
    1.At all instants of time there is one self only.
    2.Empirical self (ES) on coming out of ignorance FEELS a rare liberation.In reality there is no BECOMING of ES into metaphysical
    sef (MS).A simple change of feeling only has happened.From the experienced change in feeling we erroneously conclude that a BECOMING has
    taken place.
    I tried my best to make my understanding of advaita clear.
    BYE.

    • Thanks. So if I understand it correctly:-
      1. Empirical self is same as metaphysical self
      2. Metaphysical self cannot be deluded
      3. Empirical self is normally in a state of delusion

      Thus Advaita Vedanta either believes in violating the law of identity or the law of non-contradiction.

      • Supposing some self felt suddenly that he came out of some delusion.Does he think that he remained same or changed?
        There is an identity between ES and MS.The felt non-identity is being experienced under delusion.
        There is only one self .The delusion cannot create any change.

        • “There is only one self .The delusion cannot create any change.”

          Yes but according to you the meta-physical self is not deluded while the empirical self is deluded. So either the identity of empirical self with meta-physical self is not correct or one of the laws of logic does not hold in this case.

          Please let me know which of the three premises are wrong. If all three are correct, the conclusion that advaita is not logically compatible is necessarily correct. off course, there is no reason why logic should be universally correct.

  12. What is the delusion?—that the nature is the boss and self is the servant.
    What is coming out of delusion?—the self is the boss and nature is the servant.
    The self remains as self.
    I find there is no point in continuing discussion further. BYE.

    • Dear tn,

      I mentioned the three premises that I have deduced from your posts and the conclusion that flows from the premise. You did not mention if there is anything wrong in the premises or the conclusion.

      So, I conclude that you agree that advaita as defined by you does not conform to laws of logic.If you would like to comment on this conclusion please address them directly.

      No material change may take place due to lifting of delusion but the soul is by definition non-material. So this point is non-sequitur.

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