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.

53 Replies to “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?

    • Brahman is considered to be the only reality. Maya is only apparently real and also a dependent reality. Advaita is a monism because one cannot count two realities. Just as one cannot count one’s body along with it’s shadow as two bodies.

  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.

        • Advaita means MT or integrated awareness. here is no GOAL, just is ness, any interpretation in any language is DUALISTIC, subject and an object, contaminated, corrupted thoughts!

    • “Advaita Vedanta is opposed to experience”. What is this “experience”? What is the validity of this experience? All experiences or knowledge can be both valid or invalid. Advaita only brings us more closer to our experiences.

  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.

  13. If we are all one, we are all one atman, the self, do we exist at all? Doesn’t Moksha then imply that you cease to exist in the same way a raindorp falls in the ocean. It was a rain drop with it’s unique characteristics. Now it is merely part of the Ocean. That’s not immortality. That’s nothingness. Whenever I read AV philosophy I keep wondering whether they understand that what they are ultimately advocating (and it may very well be true) is complete non-existence. I’m thinking of the poem “Illusion” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

    • Yes, John, and in fact this criticism has been raised against AV by many thinkers, especially bhāktas who claimed that they would rather be slaves of God than disappear in Brahman’s nothingness.

      • Elisa,

        It is a criticism if you want to think it to be one. Gaudapada has said,

        “Verse 3.1 – The duty of practicing worshipful contemplation arises when Brahman is taken to be born. Before birth all is unborn, for this reason such a practice is regarded pitiable. ”

        “Verse 3.2 – Therefore I shall speak of that which is not pitiable, established as the self-identity of the unoriginated, which though appearing born everywhere is in fact not born in any manner”

        ” Verse 3.16 – There are three stages [of aspirants of truth] having low, middle, and supreme vision. The worship is prescribed for them out of compassion”

        All these show that worship is prescribed for people who cannot give up their sense of duality because the “ego” does not want to give up its sense of separate self. There is fear

        Finally, as Gaudapada says,

        “This is ” Asparsha Yoga” by name, difficult to be realized by all yogins. Yogins are afraid of it, seeing fear where there is no fear”

        [All translations by Richard King]

        Lastly, I forgot to point out one very important error in your blog. Brahman is not a “substance”. Nowhere shall you find it being described by this “category” by Shankara or Gaudapada. Brahman is always described by them as pure Knowledge or better still “Knowingness”.

        Substance and Attributes are categories of dualistic empirical knowledge framework. They never exist independently of each other. You cannot think of a substance without an attribute and you cannot think of an attribute without a substance. They are mutually dependent existents conditioned by each other. Brahman is beyond all such dualistic categories.

        • Thanks for the thoughts.

          I do not understand the term “dualistic empirical knowledge framework”. Empirical comes from experience and hence an universal a priori framework for empirical knowledge seems implausible. Also isn’t the talk of dualistic and nondualistic framework itself dualistic?

          Secondly coming to the analogy, wave is not only water but it is formed by the intersection of water, wave and air.

          • Sanket,

            All talk is from a dualistic framework. Even saying non-duality can be seen as related to duality. So some Advaita scriptures say something like “Beyond the dual and non-dual”. A teacher uses skilful means in Advaita. Which means used the dualistic framework to ultimately sublate all duality and end in a transcendental insight/experience. Thus Advaita is not in that sense a metaphysics or philosophy. It is not interested in describing reality in any metaphysical way because that would still be an empirical reality. The main aim of Advaita is non dual experience.

            Please don’t extend the wave analogy too far. All analogies are just that – analogies. The point was that once you know non-dual reality, no forms need to get extinguished in any way. It’s just that the way of looking changes. Instead of looking and experiencing reality as a subject in a world of objects, the experience shifts to non dual experience. There can be no name to such an experience. Who shall call it what when the who and what are empirical constructs that dissolved in non dual experience. That is what I wanted to express in the analogy. A wave can know another wave but as water, it cannot know anything because it is all that exists. Now please don’t carry this analogy forward to reifying Brahman as a substance like water 🙂

          • Dear Anurag,

            The problem may be with my comprehension but I cannot understand your answer. If non-dual experience is something different from dual experience, it is by definition dual.

            Secondly, in my opinion, experience is by nature non-dual as an empirical object is viewing other empirical objects. It is only consciousness that creates the feeling of difference.

            Thirdly, waves are not just water. It has shape and other elements. The analogy you gave is, in my view, lacking in a fundamental way. Analogies are like models and like a good model, a good analogy should convey the essence.

          • Sanket,

            Non dual experience is not any definition. It is an experience that comes when the mind is freed from ignorance of duality. Duality is not something real. It is neither said to exist or not exist. Therefore it is called Mithya. Duality is like seeing a snake on the rope. The snake neither exists nor does not exist. It exists because it appears and it does not exist because it vanishes on right knowledge of rope or non duality. The snake is with parts but rope is partless.

            The shape of wave and the name wave are conceptual imputations superimposed on water. The wave is water conditioned with name-form wave and the ocean is water conditioned with name-form ocean. Remove the conditioning adjuncts from both and their essence is the same: water.

            When one concentrates on the name and form they see only multiplicity. When one gets non dual knolwedge of water, they see oneness. When one concentrates on mind-body-intellect as the name form one considers oneself as a Jiva separate from others. When one knows oneself as essence as Brahman (as water) one does not see any multiplicity even though seeing different names and forms.

            Cheers !

    • John,
      There is never any “ceasing to exist” any way. There is only an understanding that you have never been born. Name and form was a superimposition on eternal Self or Knowledge. All names and forms are mithya or apparently real, changing entities superimposed on Self/Knowledge.

      The analogy, thus, you have presented is not that of a raindrop falling and getting merged into the ocean. That is a dualistic way of thinking. The analogy, if you want one, is that of a wave coming to know itself as water. The word “wave” was just an imputation supplied by empirical knolwedge categorical framework. Notice that wave does not call itself wave 🙂

      • Anurag, if you allow me to join the discussion, let me speak for the ones who like their limited ego. They love their spouses exactly for their individual traits and can’t bear the idea of these being lost in the ocean of brahman —however blissful this might be and however illusory individuality might be.

        • Elisa,

          Why do you even have to ask permission to join the conversation? My comment was to your post 🙂

          No issues with people liking their egos. People follow whatever gives them happiness. Not everyone SHOULD follow Advaita.

          There are also the paths of Dvaita and Vishishtadvaita. There is also Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. I have a very devoted Christian student studying Advaita with me 🙂

          On another note Advaitins also have relationships with their spouses 🙂 Traits are not lost. The notion of a separate individual is lost. What’s more, Advaita does not say that you BECOME Brahman. YOU ALREADY ARE BRAHMAN. So there is no question of becoming anything. At no point in the past, present or future shall you not be Brahman. It’s a question of you realising it or not.

  14. Dear Anurag,

    Firstly, according to the law of excluded middle (Either X or not X is true), the statement “It is neither said to exist or not exist” is definitely false. Also is the statement same as “It exists and does not exist”. Secondly, if duality is not real then there is a duality between real and not real. Thus rejection of duality therefore leads to acceptance of duality. And why end at duality? Reality can be multiple just as many logics suggest truth values to be multiple. Thirdly, experience is singular as an empirical object i.e. the body is experiencing other empirical objects. It is consciousness that brings plurality, not necessarily duality, to it. Fourthly, water, wave and ocean are different. Water is a chemical compound; ocean is a body of water and wave is a pattern formed when ocean interacts with land. Just because water is a substance common to the three does not mean the three are same. To give an egregious example, urine is mostly water but I will be highly angered if I ask for water and I am offered urine instead. Fifthly, you say that the “notion of a separate individual is lost” but also mention that “I have a very devoted Christian student studying Advaita with me”. If some one has no notion of a separate individuality how can one be a very devoted Christian as being Christian is an individual attribute. Similarly, if there is no I, how can some one study with me?

    I agree that people have the right to follow what why want. If some one wants to follow Advaitavad it is their choice. I have also tried to read some Advaita texts in detail. My understanding is that Advaita cannot be followed in practice given its confusion regarding individuality. The separation between vyavaharika (practical) and adhyatmika (spiritual) truths is not only a form of duality but also an admission of defeat.

Leave a Reply to Nirjhar Das Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*