Nondualism: A Brief History of a Timeless Concept

Many traditions and mystics talk about nondualism. But what is nondualism, and how have people—from different religions in different parts of the word—described this concept over time? In this book you will discover the long history of nondualism, from its first roots in the Indian Upanishads to it’s most modern-day proponents. If you are a person in a nondual tradition, this book is an invaluable companion on your journey. Following is the excerpt from the book by Michael W. Taft.   

Advaita Vedanta: Hindu Nondualism
Nondual-cover-rose4AMAZONNondualism as a separate and distinct tradition in Hinduism begins rather late and yet has exerted a tremendously powerful influence, both in India and—much later—in the West. For example, the very fact that this book concerns the topic of “nondualism,” as opposed to “emptiness” or “rigpa” or another Buddhist term hints at the fact that the discussion, particularly in America and Europe, has lately been fueled by teachers of Advaita.

Advaita Vendanta begins with the Commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, written by Gaudapada around theseventh Century CE. We saw earlier that the Mandukya Upanishad contains passages that can be interpreted as describing a philosophy of nondualism. Writing almost 1300 years later, Gaudapada draws on elements of the Buddhist theory of emptiness to re-interpret the Mandukya Upanishad in a strongly nondual manner.

Gaudapada’s main doctrine is called the theory of “no origination” (ajātivāda), which states that the entire world is nothing other than an illusion. Nothing mundane ever actually comes into existence (i.e “originates”), because only Brahman (i.e. “God”) is real. The entire phenomenal world is simply a dream or fantasy, and is ultimately unreal (maya). As we’ve already seen, this view was common in Mahayana Buddhism. Some selections from Gaudapada’s Commentary give the gist of his philosophy:

  • II. 31. As dream and illusion or a castle in the air are seen (to be unreal), so this whole universe is seen by those who are wise in Vendānta.
  • II. 32. There is no dissolution and no creation, no one in bondage and no one who is striving for or who is desirous of liberation, and there is no one who is liberated. This is the absolute truth.
  • III. 19. The birthless One is differentiated only through illusion, and in no other way. For if differentiation were real then the immortal would become mortal (which is absurd).
  • III. 28. There is no birth for a non-existent thing either through illusion or reality. The son of a barren woman is not born either through illusion or reality.
  • III. 46. When the mind does not disappear nor again is dispersed, when it is motionless and without sense-images, then it becomes Brahman.[1]

There is some controversy over the extent to which Gaudapada was influenced by Buddhism. Gaudapada uses intellectual arguments and images directly drawn from Buddhist sources to construct his philosophy. While traditional Vedantins must admit these parallels, they maintain that he merely was merely using common content from the contemporary discussion to make his own, original point.

In my opinion, he seems to be taking Buddhist philosophy and retroactively reading it into the Mandukya Upanishad to give the philosophy a “Hindu” source. This is not really necessary, since the Buddha was probably drawing from these Upanishads himself, as we have seen.

Gaudapada’s philosophy is called Advaita VedantaAdvaita as we have already seen, means “nondual”—Sanskrit: “not” (a-) “dual” (-dvaita). Vedanta literally means a “limb” (-anta) of the Vedas, and refers to a class of literature that is considered to be a commentary on or continuation of the Vedas.

Gaudapada was the paramguru (guru’s guru) of Shankara,[2] who is recognized as the founder of the Advaita Vedanta movement, and is a towering figure in modern Hinduism. Shankara was born in India (probably sometime in theeighth century) when Hinduism had been in decline for many centuries.

Shankara’s personal history—even when the obviously mythological portions are elided—tells the story of a young man who seems to have been marked for destiny. A childhood prodigy in Sanskrit and the ancient scriptures, Shankara left home early and found his guru (Govinda, a student of Gaudapada), who taught him the basics of Advaita. From that point onward, Shankara was unstoppable, walking the length and breadth of India to teach Advaita, reform what he saw as degenerate practices, debate with religious scholars, and re-ignite interest in Hinduism among the Indian populace.

The impact of Shakara’s Advaita philosophy on modern Hinduism cannot be overstated. His many writings, charismatic personality, and dedication to the cause revitalized what had been a religion in decline. More importantly for our discussion, however, Shankara recast much of Hindu religion in a nondual mold. Nondualism became an underlying perspective on old practices and traditions. Even the many gods were seen to exist as part of the play of maya, just more manifestations of Brahman. Of course there have been many backlashes and counter- reformations from the dualist camps, but overall Shankara’s nondualism has become one of the foundational outlooks of Hinduism. This in turn greatly influenced the modern discussion of nondualism in the West, as we’ll see in an upcoming section.

The Philosophy of Advaita Vedanta
Shankara summarized his entire philosophy of Advaita in a single, pithy sentence:[3]

Brahma satyam jagat mithyā, jīvo brahmaiva nāparah — Brahman is the only truth, the world is illusion, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and individual self.

This, in a nutshell, is Advaita Vedanta. Shankara states that Brahman is the one and only reality, the one existence, the one without a second. It is pure consciousness, free from any taint, beginningless and endless. It is joy, forever beyond the reach of pain, indivisible, immeasurable, formless, nameless, immutable. [4] It is the infinite, omnipresent, omnipotent, incorporeal, impersonal, transcendent reality that is the ground of all being. [5]

Although such words are all attempts at describing Brahman, the highest Brahman is actually completely without any attributes whatsoever. This highest Brahman is called nirguna brahman, which literally means “Brahman without attributes.” Any appearance of a God or deity of any kind (saguna brahman, lit: “Brahman with attributes”) is merely Brahman taking on a mask or persona, and does not represent the actual nature of Brahman.

In Shankara’s formulation the individual soul and Brahman are identical. The soul (atman) is not some small part of Brahman that eventually merges back into Brahman. The soul is actually the entirety of Brahman. According to Shankara (unlike in the Western religions, and some forms of Hinduism), each person does not have a unique, individual soul that then returns to Brahman upon enlightenment or death. Instead there is no individual soul whatsoever. There is only one Atman, and it is identical with Brahman. The false idea that there are many souls arises from the tricks of maya. Individuals (jiva) live in a state of ignorance in a body with senses, which causes the delusion that we feel as if we have an individual soul. In Shankara’s metaphor, it is as if the one moon in the sky were reflected by many bubbles.

Critics accused Shankara of being a “secret Buddhist,” and of more or less sneaking Buddhism into Hinduism. Indeed, it is hard not to compare his atman/Brahman concept to the Buddha-nature or storehouse consciousness ideas. They seem to just be different names for the same idea. For his part, Shankara vehemently denied this. He was an erudite philosopher, and used his extensive knowledge of Buddhism to show the differences between his teachings and the Buddhist view. A review of these differences, however, quickly shows them to be (in my opinion) very minor. Call it Brahman or Buddha-nature, it is nondual awareness either way.

Advaita Practices for Moksha, or Liberation
Enlightenment (Skt. moksha, lit: “liberation”) is possible, according to Advaita, by overcoming the delusion of maya, and thereby seeing the identity of Atman with Brahman. We see that there is absolutely no difference, that they are one and the same.

There are several well-known Advaita techniques for achieving liberation. Probably the most famous traditional practice is that of neti-neti. As we saw in the Upanishad section, this is a statement from the Brihardaranyaka Upanishad, describing Brahman as “not this, not that.” The practitioner applies this statement to any and all sensory experiences (including thoughts) that arise in consciousness. This is done as an active, phenomenological inquiry, not the rote repetition of a mantra. Whatever arises is seen to be the product of maya, of something other than perfect, nondual awareness. It is just an illusion. This practice functions as a kind of pointing out instruction that constantly draws attention to awareness itself, rather than the object of awareness.

Another practice is the mantra aham brahma’smi, which means, “I am Brahman,” (also found in the Brihardaranyaka Upanishad). This sentence is called the “great proclamation,” because it not only represents the philosophical understanding of the essence of Advaita, but it is also said to be the realization or proclamation of a yogi at the moment of enlightenment: “Eureka! I am Brahman!”

There are of course many other practices, some of them from the “do nothing” school that emphasizes the pre-existing condition of nondual awareness, in a manner reminiscent of the dzogchen tradition – i.e. “You are already there.”

There is a fascinating story about the Advaita practices of Ramakrishna, probably the most famous Indian saint of thenineteenth Century. At the time of the story, Ramakrishna was already a master of dualistic mysticism, fully steeped in the meditation of the Goddess Kali. Nevertheless he agreed to receive the Advaita teachings from a wandering, naked, ash-besmeared master of nondualism named Totapuri.

Totapuri regarded all forms of worship, so dear to Ramakrishna, as childish and ridiculous. He instructed Ramakrishna the basics of Advaita Vedanta, saying:

“Brahman is the only Reality, ever pure, ever illumined, ever free, beyond the limits of time, space, and causation. Though apparently divided by names and forms through the inscrutable power of maya, that enchantress who makes the impossible possible, Brahman is really One and undivided. When a seeker merges in the beatitude of samadhi, he does not perceive time and space or name and form, the offspring of maya. Whatever is within the domain of maya is unreal. Give it up. Destroy the prisonhouse of name and form and rush out of it with the strength of a lion. Dive deep in search of the Self and realize It through samadhi. You will find the world of name and form vanishing into void, and the puny ego dissolving in Brahman-Consciousness. You will realize your identity with Brahman, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute.”

He also taught Ramakrishna the practice of formless meditation (technically different than nondual meditation, but nevertheless a major step in that direction), but that first night as Ramakrishna sat to meditate, he was immediately lost in dualistic absorption of the Goddess Kali. When he reported this failure to Totapuri the next day, his teacher picked up a tiny shard of glass from the ground and stuck it into the skin between Ramakrishna’s eyes, ordering him to concentrate on that spot. So Ramakrishna sat in meditation, and when Kali arrived again, he – in his own metaphor – picked up the “sword of nondual wisdom and cut her down with it.” She instantly disappeared and Ramakrishna was thrust into a nondual absorption that lasted several days. He thanked Totapuri, saying, “If you had not come, I would have lived my whole life with the hallucination. My last barrier has fallen away.”

But Totapuri himself had not yet finished expanding the depths of his own nondual awareness. Several months after his teaching of Ramakrishna, Totapuri contracted a severe case of dysentery. His incapacitation made it impossible to meditate, and so – in the classic style of an Advaitin monk – he grew disgusted with the limitations of his body. In his view the body was nothing more than an illusion or obstacle on his path, and now it was being more of an obstacle than usual. A free soul cares nothing for the body. So one night Totapuri strode into the Ganges determined to drown his body and be rid of this annoying object. But the tide was out and he ended up walking all the way across to the other side unharmed. Dumbfounded, he looked back at the Kali Temple gleaming in the moonlight and experienced a sudden, deep awakening. He saw the power of the absolute not just in the formless, but now also in the form of the temple, the goddess, the river, even his body. Thus Totapuri experienced the elimination of the distinction between form and the formless, and went to a much deeper level of nondual awareness. As the Heart Sutra maintains, the perfection of wisdom lies in the realization that emptiness and form are one, not two.

The book is available on Amazon (in Kindle and paperback verions).  


[1] Translation by Eliot Deutsch, in The Essential Vedanta: A New Source Book of Advaita Vedanta

[2] Shankara – As is typical for an important figure in Hinduism, Shankara has a bewilderingly large number of names by which he is known. Commonly he is also called Shankacharya. Acharya, means a guru or religious teacher, specifically the head of a spiritual lineage, so this name means “Shankara the Teacher.” Shankara founded several important lineages, and the heads of these lineages are today each known, confusingly, as Shankaracharya. To distinguish the original Shankaracharya from these successors, the historical figure is often referred to as Adishankacharya, which means the “Original Shankara the Teacher.” Adding to the confusion, Shankara is also spelled “Sankara” in English.”

[3] Quote from Brahma Jnanavali Mala 

[4] Summarized from Shankara’s Crest Jewel of Discrimination, translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

[5] From Wikipedia’s Advaita Vedanta article

This article was first published in November, 2014


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