In an earlier post, we had encountered the modern claim that Dvaita is the first step of spiritual progress, Viśiṣṭādvaita is an intermediate step and Advaita is the final step. However, this is not substantiated by the works of original teachers of Advaita. They do not seem to think that the perception of duality and the view of God as the final end of spiritual practice somehow lead to the end of Advaita.
In this article, we explore the opposite possibility: can Advaita be a step in the spiritual progress that ends in Viśiṣṭādvaita.
Fundamental motivation in Advaita
To begin with, let us understand the basic motivation for Advaita. The noble goal of Advaita is to enable one to know oneself.
Advaita clearly recognizes that suffering is due to bondage. This bondage is a consequence of the soul identifying itself with mind and body. Adhyāsa or superimposition of avidyā (ignorance) on the soul is the reason for this false identification. Liberation lies in becoming free from the effects of avidyā which are the three guṇa-s (modes) of Prakṛti (nature). The soul is, in essence, free of all modifications of guṇa-s and in its liberated state, it is nirguṇa.
Though adhyāsa is not taught in Vedānta, it is used by Advaita to explain the situation of bondage and provide the nature of liberation.
Points of contention
Up until the above description of Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita would largely be in agreement. However, below are the points of disagreement.
- In Advaita, the individual soul is the product of ahaṃkāra (identity-causer), a component of nature, and hence is ultimately unreal. But, in Viśiṣṭādvaita, this point is disagreed upon. The individual soul is not a product of ahaṃkāra. Ahaṃkāra only draws the identity of the individual soul to the mind/body. It does not create it. The individual soul cannot be an illusion but has to be real in order to allow ahaṃkāra to cause identification with mind and body. Likewise, ahaṃkāra and prakṛti also have to be real in order to interact with the real soul. It is not possible for the mind, which is agreed by all to be an evolute of non-sentient nature, to become the sentient entity. It is only possible for the sentient individual soul to misidentify itself with nature in accordance with its karma. Since karma is unique to each soul and experience, even spiritual, is unique to each soul, it logically follows that there are several souls - each experiencing bondage in accordance to its own karma.
- In Advaita, consciousness is pure and simple. The superimposition of ignorance leads to the problem of consciousness being modified. However, Advaita responds to this problem by considering that the superimposition is ultimately unreal and does not affect consciousness in reality. After all, we do see that even those, given to anger etc., do not lose their consciousness which they can realize as pure in subsequent states of meditation. Viśiṣṭādvaita considers that the problem is not addressed in the above case but only explained away. Therefore, it resolves the individual soul as substance and attribute: substance consciousness and attributive consciousness. The substance-consciousness is never affected and remains eternal. It is the attribute-consciousness that is modified in accordance with karma. This is the reason why in meditation, the conscious entity is seen as pure. It is also established even in the early stages of meditation or mindfulness that experience can be had at a level where the individual soul is the observer that observes the modifications of its experience - from a distance. The observer is not agitated by the experience. This proves that what is being modified by experience is only consciousness, the attribute and not consciousness, the substance which is always pure and exists as a knower (not the mind-knower) at a deep level. It knows and observed what is available to the attribute-consciousness which identifying with those modifications.
- Advaita teaches that the individual soul must be ultimately known to be identical to the Brahman. Viśiṣṭādvaita disagrees on this point as well. Since the existence of several individual souls is not disproved by any evidence, it is clear that bondage and liberation are specific to each soul. What the Vedānta teaches is not identity with the Brahman but inseparability of the individual soul from the Brahman. The individual soul exists as a mode (prakāra) of the Brahman (God). In fact, the entire universe is an unfolding of the Brahman’s form (śarīra) and everything is related to and in the Brahman. Nature and souls are not unreal; their reality depends on God and they are subordinate to His will in existence and action. This view removes the problem of separation and leads to one’s realization that one is brahmātmaka (having Brahman for one’s soul). Everything is filled with the Brahman, and supported by it. We owe our existence as such and all the dynamics around us to the determining will of God. Even in the highest state of meditation, one cannot control the dynamics of the world or alter the laws of karma. This is known directly in both mundane and spiritual experience. The individual soul is simply emerging out of the modifications of nature. It is not becoming God and never will.
Given such strong points of difference how is it possible for Advaita to be part of the spiritual maturity reached in Viśiṣṭādvaita?
One must be honest in admitting that there is no way that Advaita considered in its fullest can be an intermediate stage to Viśiṣṭādvaita. However, it is possible to appreciate the motivations of Advaita and accept it as part of the spiritual progress in Viśiṣṭādvaita.
Whatever Advaita might claim, it is clear that it achieves only the realization of the individual soul, not God/Brahman. The spiritual discipline of Advaita helps one extricate oneself from the modification of nature and realize one’s true state as the sentient entity that is beyond such modifications. Some Neo-Advaita teachers claim to perform miracles and defy the laws of nature, but none of these claims have survived scrutiny or been recorded in verifiable manner. This proves that only the individual soul that stands beyond all karmic modifications is realized at the end of Advaita.
This realization is encouraged in Viśiṣṭādvaita too. One must realize oneself as nirguṇa, standing above the modifications of nature. Until this realization is complete, one is always identified with mind or body. However, this alone does not confer the final spiritual end.
As the individual soul is understood more and more, one truly recognizes that it is atomic and is subject to a higher will. There is a higher being who regulates and harmonizes the dynamics of individuals and nature - Pradhāna-Puruṣeśvara, the God/Controller of nature and soul. One is not separate but related to everything through God. Neo-Advaita has been skirting this view for sometime by using the slogan, ‘Everything is connected’. However, this view cannot be achieved by the traditional discipline of Advaita which only leads one to discover the individual soul in all its purity. Everything is connected not just superficially as ‘Trees give us the air we breathe’, ‘the atoms of our body come from the universe’, etc. but deeply in that these differences as trees, atoms, bodies, I, You, etc. exist only in God who is the Highest Real. Everything else other than God owes its existence, nature and dynamics to Him. However, since something cannot pop out of nothing or disappear into nothing, all of this is not unreal, but real due to God. The universe is not a product of ignorance but the striking evidence of God. This is the meaning of having Brahma-dṛṣṭi, the view of Brahman in everything. This does not teach that everything is unreal and the Brahman alone is real but that everything has a deeper reality in God. In a way, the entire universe and the words we use to speak about the universe carry only one meaning: God. The purpose of Vedānta is to declare this greatness of God.
This grand realization is impossible as long as one is identified with mind and body since one’s perception of reality becomes severely restricted and clouded. To come out of this restriction, one must first realize that one is not mind or body, but the sentient soul. In producing this result, the discipline of Advaita is relevant. However, a spiritual aspirant must not lose oneself in this condition and go beyond in the discovery of truth to realize God, who is the soul of everything. One must realize not only oneself as pure but as being pure in God. This is the goal of Viśiṣṭādvaita. To live blissfully in God, as an expression/instrument of God, is true Brahma-vihāra. This involves subordinating one's individuality to the larger reality of God. This is the meaning of surrender and lies at the root of Viśiṣṭādvaita's development of the concept of śeṣatva.