Nonduality: What is Nonduality

What is Nonduality

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Advaita according to Encyclopedia Britannica

The Advaita websites recommended by Encyclopedia Britannica:

The Advaita Vedanta Home Page
Advaita Vedanta for Today
Sankara's Life

Encyclopædia Britannica Article

(Sanskrit: “Nondualism,” or “Monism”), most influential of the schools of Vedanta, an orthodox philosophy of India. While its followers find its main tenets already fully expressed in the Upanisads and systematized by the Vedanta-sutras, it has its historical beginning with the 7th-century thinker Gaudapada, author of the Ma n d ukya-karika, a commentary in verse form on the late Ma n d ukya Upanisad.

Gaudapada builds further on the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of S unyava-da (“Emptiness”). He argues that there is no duality; the mind, awake or dreaming, moves through maya (“illusion”); and only nonduality (advaita) is the final truth. This truth is concealed by the ignorance of illusion. There is no becoming, either of a thing by itself or of a thing out of some other thing. There is ultimately no individual self or soul (jiva), only the
atman (all-soul), in which individuals may be temporarily delineated just as the space in a jar delineates a part of main space: when the jar is broken, the individual space becomes once more part of the main space.

The medieval Indian philosopher
Sankara, or Sankaracarya (Master Sankara, c. 700–750), builds further on Gaudapada's foundation, principally in his commentary on the Vedanta-sutras, the S ari-raka-mima msa-bha sya (“Commentary on the Study of the Self ”). Sankara in his philosophy does not start from the empirical world with logical analysis but, rather, directly from the absolute (Brahman). If interpreted correctly, he argues, the Upanisads teach the nature of Brahman. In making this argument, he develops a complete epistemology to account for the human error in taking the phenomenal world for real. Fundamental for Sankara is the tenet that the Brahman is real and the world is unreal. Any change, duality, or plurality is an illusion. The self is nothing but Brahman. Insight into this identity results in spiritual release. Brahman is outside time, space, and causality, which are simply forms of empirical experience. No distinction in Brahman or from Brahman is possible.

Sankara points to scriptural texts, either stating identity (“Thou art that”) or denying difference (“There is no duality here”), as declaring the true meaning of a Brahman without qualities (
nirguna ). Other texts that ascribe qualities (saguna) to Brahman refer not to the true nature of Brahman but to its personality as God (I svara).

Human perception of the unitary and infinite Brahman as the plural and infinite is due to human beings' innate habit of superimposition (adhya sa), by which a thou is ascribed to the I (I am tired; I am happy; I am perceiving). The habit stems from human ignorance (ajñana, avidya ), which can be avoided only by the realization of the identity of Brahman. Nevertheless, the empirical world is not totally unreal, for it is a misapprehension of the real Brahman. A rope is mistaken for a snake; there is only a rope and no snake, but, as long as it is thought of as a snake, it is one.

Sankara had many followers who continued and elaborated his work, notably the 9th-century philosopher Vacaspati Misra. The Advaita literature is extremely extensive, and its influence is still felt in modern Hindu thought.

"Advaita" Encyclopædia Britannica[Accessed [December 30, 2001].

Sanskrit Atman, one of the most basic concepts in Hindu philosophy, describing that eternal core of the personality that survives after death and that transmigrates to a new life or is released from the bonds of existence. While in the early Vedic texts it occurred mostly as a reflexive pronoun (oneself), in the later Upanishads it comes more and more to the fore as a philosophic topic: atman is that which makes the other organs and faculties function and for which indeed they function; atman underlies all the activities of a person, as Brahman (the absolute) underlies the workings of the universe; to know it brings bliss; it is part of the universal Brahman, with which it can commune or even fuse. So fundamental was the atman deemed to be that certain circles identified it with Brahman. Of the various systems (darshans) of Hindu philosophy, the schools of Samkhya and Yoga (which use the term purusha to convey the idea of atman) and the orthodox school of Vedanta particularly concern themselves with the atman, though the interpretation varies in accordance with each system's general worldviews.

"atman" Encyclopædia Britannica
[Accessed December 30, 2001].


born 700? , Kaladi village?, India
died 750? , Kedarnath

also spelled Shankara , also called Sankaracarya philosopher and theologian, most renowned exponent of the Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy, from whose doctrines the main currents of modern Indian thought are derived. He wrote commentaries on the Brahma-sutra and the principal Upanisads, affirming his belief in one eternal unchanging reality (Brahman) and the illusion of plurality and differentiation.

There are at least 11 works that profess to be biographies of Sankara. All of them were composed several centuries later than the time of Sankara and are filled with legendary stories and incredible anecdotes, some of which are mutually conflicting. Today there are no materials with which to reconstruct his life with certainty. His date of birth is naturally a controversial problem. It has been customary to assign him the birth and death dates 788–820. But the dates 700–750, grounded in 20th-century scholarship, are more acceptable.

According to one tradition, Sankara was born into a pious Nambudiri Brahman family in a quiet village called Kaladi on the Curn a (or Purn a, Periyar) River, Kerala, southern India. He is said to have lost his father, Sivaguru, early in his life. He renounced the world and became a sannyasin (ascetic) against his mother's will. He studied under Govinda, who was a pupil of Gaudapada. Nothing certain is known about Govinda, but Gaudapada is notable as the author of an important Vedanta work, Ma n d ukya-karika, in which the influence of Mahayana Buddhism—a form of Buddhism aiming at the salvation of all beings and tending toward nondualistic or monistic thought—is evident and even extreme, especially in its last chapter.

A tradition says that Siva, one of the principal gods in Hinduism, was Sankara's family deity and that he was, by birth, a S akta, or worshipper of Sakti, the consort of Siva and female personification of divine energy. Later he came to be regarded as a worshipper of Siva or even an incarnation of Siva himself. His doctrine, however, is far removed from Saivism and S aktism. It is ascertained from his works that he had some faith in, or was favourable to, Vais navism, the worship of the god Vishnu. It is highly possible that he was familiar with Yoga (one of the classical systems of Indian philosophy, as well as
a technique to achieve salvation). One study has suggested that in the beginning he was an adherent of Yoga and later became an Advaitin (Nondualist).

Biographers narrate that Sankara first went to Ka s i (Varanasi), a city celebrated for learning and spirituality, and then travelled all over India, holding discussions with philosophers of different creeds. His heated debate with Man dana Misra, a philosopher of the Mima msa (Investigation) school, whose wife served as an umpire, is perhaps the most interesting episode in his biography and may reflect a historical fact; that is, keen conflict between Sankara, who regarded the knowledge of Brahman as the only means to final release, and followers of the Mima msa school, which emphasized the performance of ordained duty and the Vedic rituals.

Sankara was active in a politically chaotic age. He would not teach his doctrine to city dwellers. The power of Buddhism was still strong in the cities, though already declining, and Jainism, a nontheistic ascetic faith, prevailed among the merchants and manufacturers. Popular Hinduism occupied the minds of ordinary people, while city dwellers pursued ease and pleasure. There were also epicureans in cities. It was
difficult for Sankara to communicate Vedanta philosophy to these people. Consequently, Sankara propagated his teachings chiefly to sannyasins and intellectuals in the villages, and he gradually won the respect of Brahmans and feudal lords. He enthusiastically endeavoured to restore the orthodox Brahmanical tradition without paying attention to the bhakti (devotional) movement, which had made a deep impression on ordinary Hindus in his age.

It is very likely that Sankara had many pupils, but only four are known (from their writings): Padmapada, Suresvara, Totaka (or Trotaka), and Hastamalaka. Sankara is said to have founded four monasteries, at S r ngeri (south), Puri (east), Dvaraka (west), and Badarinatha (north), probably following the Buddhist monastery (vihara) system. Their foundation was one of the most significant factors in the development of his teachings into the leading philosophy of India.

More than 300 works—commentative, expository, and poetical—written in the Sanskrit language, are attributed to him. Most of them, however, cannot be regarded as authentic. His masterpiece is the Brahma-sutra-bha sya, the commentary on the Brahma-sutra, which is a fundamental text of the Vedanta school. The commentaries on the principal Upanisads that are attributed to Sankara are certainly all genuine, with the possible exception of the commentary on the Sveta svatara Upa ni sad. The commentary on the Ma n d ukya-karika was also composed by Sankara himself. It is very probable that he is the author of the Yoga-sutra-bha sya-vivarana, the exposition of Vyasa's commentary on the Yoga-sutra, a fundamental text of the Yoga school. The Upadesasahasri, which is a good introduction to Sankara's philosophy, is the only non-commentative work that is certainly authentic.

Sankara's style of writing is lucid and profound. Penetrating insight and analytical skill characterize his works. His approach to truth is psychological and religious rather than logical; for that reason, he is perhaps best considered to be a prominent religious teacher rather than a philosopher in the 20th-century sense. His works reveal that he was not only versed in the orthodox Brahmanical traditions but also was well acquainted with Mahayana Buddhism. He is often criticized as a “Buddhist in disguise” by his opponents because of the similarity between his doctrine and Buddhism. Despite this criticism, it should be noted that he made full use of his knowledge of Buddhism to attack Buddhist doctrines severely or to transmute them into his own Vedantic
nondualism, and he tried with great effort to “vedanticize” the Vedanta philosophy, which had been made extremely Buddhistic by his predecessors. The basic structure of his philosophy is more akin to Sa nkya, a philosophic system of nontheistic dualism, and the Yoga school than to Buddhism. It is said that Sankara died at Kedarnatha in the Himalayas. The Advaita Vedanta school founded by him has always been preeminent in the learned circles of India.

"Sankara" Encyclopædia Britannica
[Accessed December 30, 2001].

Sanskrit Brahman, in the Upanishads (Indian sacred writings), the supreme existence or absolute, the font of all things. The etymology of the Sanskrit is uncertain. Though a variety of views are expressed in the Upanishads, they concur in the definition of brahma as eternal, conscious, irreducible, infinite, omnipresent, spiritual source of the universe of finiteness and change. Marked differences in interpretation of brahma characterize the various subschools of Vedanta, the orthodox system of Hindu philosophy based on the writings of the Upanishads.

According to the Advaita (Nondualist) school of Vedanta, brahma is categorically different from anything phenomenal, and human perceptions of differentiation are illusively projected on this reality. The Bhedabheda (Dualist–Nondualist) school maintains that brahma is nondifferent from the world, which is its product, but different in that phenomenality imposes certain adventitious conditions (upadhis) on brahma. The Visis t advaita (Nonduality of the Qualified) school maintains that a relation between brahma and the world of soul and matter exists that is comparable to the relation between soul and body and that phenomenality is a glorious manifestation of brahma; the school identifies brahma with a personal god, Brahma, who is both transcendent and immanent. The Dvaita (Dualist) school refuses to accept the identity of brahma and world, maintaining the ontological separateness of the supreme, which it also identifies with a personal god.

In early Hindu mythology, brahma is personified as the creator god Brahma and placed in a triad of divine functions: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Siva the destroyer.

"brahma" Encyclopædia Britannica
[Accessed December 30, 2001].

Nirguna: (Sanskrit: “distinctionless”), concept of primary importance in the orthodox Hindu philosophy of Vedanta, raising the question of whether the supreme being, Brahman, is to be characterized as without qualities (nirguna) or as possessing qualities (saguna).

The Advaita (Nondualist) school of Vedanta assumes on the basis of selected passages of the Upanisads that Brahman is beyond all polarity and therefore cannot be characterized in the normal terms of human discursive thought. This being the case, Brahman cannot possess qualities that distinguish it from all other magnitudes, as Brahman is not a magnitude but is all.

The fundamental text of this tenet is the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad definition of Brahman as neti-neti (“not this! not that!” 2.3.6). The scriptural texts that ascribe qualities to Brahman, leading to the conception of a qualified Brahman (saguna) are, according to the Advaita school, merely preparatory aids to meditations. Others, notably the theistic schools of Vedanta (for example, Visis t advaita), argue that God (Brahman) is possessed of all perfections and that the scriptural passages denying qualities deny only imperfect ones.

"nirguna" Encyclopædia Britannica
[Accessed December 30, 2001].

editor's note: This web page presents only a portion of what's available on Advaita. See Encylopedia Britannica for further investigation. As of this writing, you can get a free two-week subscription.

Nonduality: What is Nonduality

What is Nonduality

Experience Nonduality via Yoga Nidra

Starting February 1, 2018, will operated by James Traverse.


All 5000+ pages on may be accessed here and here.

Copyright 1997-2018 by Jerry Katz & James Traverse