Experiencing different ultimate unities

Defenders of cross-cultural mystical experience are right to note that in many widely varying cultures, respected sages have referred to the experience of an ultimate nonduality: a perception that everything, including oneself, is ultimately one. But one might also then rightly ask: which ultimate nonduality?

Nondualism may be the world’s most widespread philosophy, but it can mean different things – not merely different things in different places, but different things in the same place. Members of the Indian Vedānta tradition frequently proclaimed that everything is “one, without a second”, in the words of the Upaniṣads they followed. But they disagreed as to what that meant. Śaṅkara founded the Advaita Vedānta tradition – a-dvaita literally meaning non-dual – which argued that only the one, ultimate truth (sat, braḥman) was real, and all multiplicity and plurality was an illusion. His opponent Rāmānuja agreed that everything is “one, without a second” – but in his Viśiṣṭādvaita (qualified nondual) school, that meant something quite different. All the many things and people we see around us – what Chinese metaphysicians called the “ten thousand things” – are parts of that ultimate one, and they are real, not illusory.

I was reminded of this point in the great comments on my previous post about cross-cultural mysticism. I had cited W.T. Stace as an influential advocate of the view that mysticism is cross-cultural, and noted how Robert Forman’s book defended Stace by pointing to contentless experiences of void, from the Yoga Sūtras to Hasidism, that “blot out” sense perception. Seth Segall made the important point that in Stace’s own work not all mystical experiences are contentless in this way. Leaving aside the “hot” or “visionary” experiences (like St. Teresa and the angel) which Stace does not count as mystical experiences – even among what Stace counts as genuine mystical experiences, he makes a key distinction between introvertive and extrovertive mystical experiences. This isn’t just a distinction between the interpretations applied to the experiences, but between the experiences themselves. The contentless “Pure Consciousness Events” described in Forman’s book, where distinctions fade into void, are introvertive; experiences of merging with a unified natural world, like Teresa saying “it was granted to me in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God”, are extrovertive.

And here’s where I find this all really interesting: that introvertive/extrovertive distinction, between different types of experiences, corresponds to the metaphysical difference between Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja! Neither Śaṅkara nor Rāmānuja cites experience, mystical or otherwise, as the source of their philosophy. Both claim to be deriving it from the Upaniṣads (and other texts like the Bhagavad Gītā), and they each defend their view (of the scriptures and of reality) with logical arguments. Yet even so, the distinction Stace observed in descriptions of mystical experiences turns out to correspond pretty closely to the distinction between their philosophies.

In Śaṅkara’s philosophy, as in an introvertive experience, the many things of the world, including oneself, all fall away; what remains is the one reality alone. In Rāmānuja’s philosophy, as in an extrovertive experience, the things of the world, including oneself, remain, but they are all unified together: they continue to have a real existence, but as connected members of a larger unity.

All this is a major caveat for perennialist-leaning ideas: even if you were to argue that mystical experience pointed to a cross-culturally recognized nondualism, you would still have to specify which nondualism. The smartass response is to say “all the nondualisms are one”, but that’s not really satisfactory, not even to the nondualists themselves. Rāmānuja attacked Śaṅkara’s view, and while Śaṅkara lived centuries before Rāmānuja, he attacked other thinkers who had views like Rāmānuja’s.

Some mystically inclined thinkers take a moderate or intermediate position that compromises between an absolute nondual view and the view of common sense or received tradition. Such was the approach of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī, the Indian Sufi who reconciled Sufi experiences of mystical oneness with Qur’anic orthodoxy by proclaiming “not ‘All is Him’ but ‘All is from Him'”. It’s tempting to view Rāmānuja’s approach to Śaṅkara as similar, tempering an absolute mysticism with a common-sense view of the world as real: Śaṅkara’s mystical excesses take him way out there and Rāmānuja pulls him back. But such an approach doesn’t really work. It’s flummoxed not only by the fact that Śaṅkara claimed no mystical grounding for his philosophy, but also by the existence of extrovertive mysticism: the many who have felt an experience of oneness with the grass and trees would not have been drawn by that experience to Śaṅkara’s view, but directly to Rāmānuja’s. (I have previously suggested that Rāmānuja is indeed moderating Śaṅkara’s overall approach – but with respect to Śaṅkara’s possible autism rather than to mysticism.)

None of this is intended as a refutation of mystical views of reality, or even necessarily of perennialism. It seems to me that both introvertive and extrovertive experiences are found across a wide range of cultures, often accompanied by a sense of certainty, and are worth taking seriously for that reason. But we then need to take both seriously: if the world is one, then are our many differing perceptions illusory or real? Here, I think, it helps that both illusionist and realist forms of nondual philosophy – experientially based or otherwise – also occur in multiple places. The debates between them might help us sort out what reality – if any – the experiences are pointing to.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

7 Replies to “Experiencing different ultimate unities”

  1. True, there is only Brahman term used in Upanishads which is the only subject, and all others are objects created in consciousness-producing duality. All this is difficult to understand for a common man. I have written a book, Hard Truth of Everything: Matter-Life-Death-Consciousness. The book discusses the whole truth keeping aside all belief systems, imagination, and hallucinations created by the human mind. It covers the secret concealed in Upanishads, understanding of Nagarjuna, and truth revealed by quantum mechanics/neuroscience/evolutionary biology. How the mind is getting created and how we can decode thought, the basic unit of human psychology. The book published by the oldest publisher of Indology, Moti Lal Banarsidass Publishing House will be available on Amazon maybe next week. I am searching for likeminded people and my email id is authorjcgoel@gmail.com
    With gratitude
    Warm Regards
    JC Goel

  2. Well said, my friend. Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan makes an argument that all is one, including Buddhist nondualism, and explains the variation between divergent accounts by arguing that since all language is dualistic (insofar as every term has inclusion/exclusion–differentiation, hence dualistic–criteria/meaning), nonduality is thus technically ineffable, in which case all attempts to describe it will be necessarily incomplete as well as culturally/historically influenced by whatever proximal language and related conceptual frameworks that already exist in the mystic’s lifeworld (e.g., Vedic, Buddhist, etc.). I don’t see an inconsistency between the two types of nondual experiences you describe (introvert/extrovert): both seem co-possible (one can have either or both) and both seem possibly co-veridical (both can be simultaneously reality-accessing). NeoPlatonism tries to account for the One and the Many in a way that makes these two types of experiences possible within the same metaphysical framework.

    • I think you’re right that at least prima facie there’s no inconsistency between the two types of experiences. A person who’s had both could reasonably think of them as co-veridical. The question comes when you try to think through the implications of them both being co-veridical. If experiences divulge an ultimate reality, what kind of reality is it? A completely nonlinguistic one that reveals all else to be illusion, or a unity that really contains everything else? Saying convincingly that reality is both those things might not be impossible, but it wouldn’t be easy.

  3. Shankaracharya’s Advaitha philosophy is based on Bhagavad Gita, where the Vishwaroopa darshana (BG Ch 11) explains the universal oneness and the Kshetra Kshetrajna Yoga(BG Ch 13) illustrates the dynamic existence and interactions of the diverse entities in to form the ultimate “One” called “Paramathma”

  4. Śaṅkara was not a Monist in the modern sense of William James:: indeed he argued to exclude the tradition of praṇa and with it vitalism from his spiritual vision. Thereby he also excludes the Christian soul, which is a principle of life, specific to s vital identity. That made for a reading of the Upaniṣads that has been widely criticised in recent decades.

    Recently a remarkable PhD by Finnian McKean Moore Gerety at Harvard South Asian Studies 2015, This Whole World is OM, shows praṇa transformed through ritual chanting and OM into a manifestation of Brahma, in the Jaiminīya tradition, flowing into the Cḥāndogya Upaniṣad. In that process is something of life as a performance, a theatre, against which Śaṅkara’s Advaita alligns with the old Buddhist moralism.

    Despite the large stream of evidence found by More Gerety, the conceptual challenge is not small: the process involved resembles Pāṇini finding the whole language generated from the root sound a.

    Interestingly, that places his Classical Sanskrit with the Aitareya, from the ancient heartland of Kuru-Pancala, and academics like Bronkhorst allow the history to collapse into a poiticised mayhem they call Greater Magadha, actually confusing three defferent empires. But an ironically telling depiction of how the world seems now. To grasp the whole puzzle now asks a whole lot of compassion, forgiveness, and at the same time detachment and balance.

  5. Hello everyone here. I came across a notice on wiki about a page title nonduality (spirituality) that the page may get changed to no duality. I was looking at history of the page and I see in past it was called nondualism. I also saw lot of discussion going on at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Nonduality_(spirituality)

    Can someone help understand the discussion there? Why change from nondualism to nonduality? Are those terms same? And is nondual awareness same as nondualism or nonduality

    • I approved this comment and didn’t approve your other one, just because the other was a duplicate.

      I don’t have time to look at the Wikipedia discussion, but I would usually think the difference between nonduality and nondualism is somewhat like the difference between modernity and modernism: nonduality is a state of existence, nondualism is a belief system. That, is, nonduality is a quality of the world (the world has nonduality if it actually is nondual) and nondualism is a quality of a person (you believe or practice nondualism – you are a nondualist – if you think the world is nondual).

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