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Maya and Vedanta

To: soc.religion.eastern
From: vidya@cco.caltech.edu (Vidyasankar Sundaresan)
Subject: Maya and Vedanta (9406.mayavdn.vs)
Date: 49940602

In the previous two postings, I have tried to point out two major points : 

1) Firstly, Advaita as the philosophy of Vedanta existed at the time 
   of composition of the Vishnu Purana (i.e. nearly 2000 years ago).    
   Parasara presents the ultimate description of Vishnu as the Nirguna 
   Brahman of Advaita, goes on to affirm the identity of the individual 
   Atma (Vasudeva) with Vishnu who transcends the world, and leaves the 
   question of the ontological status of mAyA unanswered. This corresponds 
   in all major details to the position taken by Advaita Vedanta. The 
   identity of the Atman and Brahman may be questioned, for Vasudeva is a 
   term with some personal connotation, but the Nirguna Brahman cannot be 
   denied. This answers Mani's comments about the influence of Buddhism on 
   Advaita's maintaining the Ultimate Reality as Nirguna Brahman.  

2) It might be argued that even if some sort of Advaitic tradition existed 
   before Sankara, this was also influenced by Buddhism. Such an argument 
   can really have no basis, if one looks at the historic relationship 
   between Buddhism and Vedanta. In my posting on GaudapAda, Sankara's 
   paramaguru, I have tried to show the important philosophical 
   differences between Buddhism and GaudapAda's writing. Advaita being 
   "Buddhism in disguise" is a favorite criticism for the other schools of 
   Vedanta, and they are not going to give it up that easily. Still, I 
   think an impartial reader would see the major points of difference as 
   well as the points of agreement, and decide for himself how much 
   Advaita is indebted to Buddhism. My thesis is that later developments 
   in Buddhism itself are based at least partly on Upanishadic thought and 
   the similarity between mAdhyamika Buddhism and Advaita is only due to 
   that.  

Even GaudapAda's being conversant with Buddhist doctrines is not enough  
for the Visishtadvaitin to substantiate the claim that Advaita is  
"prachanna bauddham". For Advaita is defined more by Sankara's writings  
than by GaudapAda's. Thus, the Visishtadvaitin tries to show that the  
basic philosophy of Advaita is itself Buddhist in origin. This is done by  
attacking the Advaitin's use of the word mAyA. It does not matter for the  
critic that the most important tenet of Advaita - Brahma satyam - is not  
and cannot be a borrowal from Buddhism. He thinks his job is done if he  
chips at the lesser detail of how Advaita views mAyA. More often than not,  
the criticism is based on misunderstanding the Advaitin's statement,  
deliberately or otherwise. This post focuses on this topic.  

Sankara doesn't say more than that mAyA is anirvachanIya. That is, mAyA is  
inexplicable. It is neither being, nor non-being, nor both nor neither.  
Now this is the famous four-fold negation of Nagarjuna. Is it unique to  
Madhyamika Buddhism however? The rudiments of this philosophical  
speculation are found in the oldest Hindu scripture, the RgVeda. The  
nAsadIya hymn says- 

		It was not Non-Being, nor was it Being
		...............
		That which was coming into Being was covered by void
		...............
		The wise discovered in their hearts
		the bond of Being to non-Being. 
		...............
		Whence is this creation? Is it founded or not? 
		The presiding Deity in the skies knows it,
		or perhaps He does not. 

To be sure, the hymn affirms a presiding Deity, so it is not indicative of  
SUnyavAda. So what is this thing which was not non-Being, and also not  
Being? The Being and the non-Being are in this creation. The ending line  
"perhaps He does not" already points to the very early origin of the  
philosophical speculation whether world-origination is a conscious act of  
will of this Deity or not. For if there were no question, the hymn could  
have just told us "Only the presiding Deity in the skies knows it."

The Upanishads represent the major details of this philosophical  
speculation of the Vedic seers. For the most part, the origin of the world  
from Being (Brahman) is affirmed, though it is open to question whether  
such origination is active or not. In other words, does the  
world-origination change the Brahman from which the world originates? For  
if it were active or conscious, Brahman itself gets changed by the very  
fact of world-origination. Furthermore, Brahman manifests Itself as the  
world, so after the manifestation, is the original Brahman changed or left  
unchanged? This question can be said to be the cornerstone on which the  
various schools of Vedanta are divided. 

In Advaita Vedanta, God (Brahman) is defined as Being. This is in perfect  
accordance with the Upanishad which says "sadeva sowmya idam agra AsIt."  
(sat = Being/Reality, eva = only -> Being alone, dear student, was here in  
the beginning.) This world, not being Brahman as is, is therefore, not  
Being. However, it is not non-Being either, because, Being is the  
substratum of this world. That it is neither follows at once. Also it is  
not both, because no entity can be both Being and non-Being at the same  
time.  Automatically, it can only be perceived as mithya, as mAyA. The  
same argument holds for the mAyA conceived as the power of creation too.  
Whether this mAyA is real or not is the next question. For Advaita  
Vedanta, Brahman is the only Reality. Thus mAyA is not Real, not Unreal,  
nor both, nor neither. That is the primary meaning. Illusion comes about  
only as a popular secondary meaning, because that which is mAyA is  
generally understood as illusion.  As regards the world, the conclusion of  
Advaita is that this world is a vivarta on Brahman, not a pariNAma - i.e.  
the world-origination does not change Brahman, which continues to be the  
changeless Nirguna. In that sense, the world is one of appearances, not of  
ultimate reality. How is that we perceive the world around us as real  
then? How is it that the world originates from Brahman, but Brahman Itself  
is not changed by it? The answer is - that is inexplicable, that is mAyA,  
which is "anirvachanIya", a mystery. Advaitins use mAyA in this technical  
sense. Critics of Advaita, both Dvaitins and Visishtadvaitins, purposely  
misunderstand it in the popular sense as mere illusion, and find fault  
with it. 

For the Visishtadvaitin, there are other reals. Hence he finds no problem  
in ascribing reality to mAyA too. Advaita does not differentiate various  
things in Ultimate Reality, because as the Upanishads repeatedly tell us,  
the Highest is undifferentiated, without parts. Advaitins also maintain  
this "anirvachanIya" nature of mAyA only at the Ultimate level. The  
meaning of mAyA as neither real nor unreal occurs only at the level of  
"pAramArthika satya". At the level of "vyAvahArika satya" - mAyA is as  
real as anything else, but then that is only because one doesn't apprehend  
the pAramArthika at the level of the vyAvahArika. To find fault with mAyA  
at the level of objective reality is putting the cart before the horse -  
what we perceive as objectively real is due to this mysterious thing  
called mAyA; we cannot say anything about its reality or otherwise unless  
we have known the pAramArthika satya. Visishtadvaitins easily slip into  
characterizing the Advaitic idea of mAyA as unreal. Advaita is careful to  
point out that ultimately, if mAyA is not real, it is not unreal either.  
To argue that such a category cannot exist, that mAyA has to be either  
wholly real or wholly unreal, is being simply blind to the logic behind  
such a categorization. 

It is true that the Buddhists had used this categorization before Sankara,  
but then it is not Sankara's fault that he lived in the 7-8 th cent. A.  
D., while Nagarjuna lived in the 1st-2nd cent. A. D. It goes to Sankara's  
credit that he is prepared to accept that which is logical in a school  
opposed to his own. Mere dogma does not stand in his way of appreciating  
what doesn't contradict the Upanishads from any system, be it Samkhya or  
Buddhism or Nyaya or Bhagavatism. Moreover, the influence of Upanishadic  
ideas on the development of mAdhyamika Buddhism itself cannot be denied.  
Also, there is substantial difference between Buddhist usage and Advaitic  
usage of mAyA. For the Buddhist, there is no Brahman, therefore mAyA is  
like pure dream. For Advaita, Brahman is Supreme, therefore mAyA can be  
many different things.  When Brahman is seen as Saguna, it is the power of  
self-expression of ISvara.  Ultimately, it is incomprehensible. 

Sankara's description of mAyA-Sakti as "anirvachanIya" fully captures the  
mystery that the Upanishads indicate it is. There are many sub-schools of  
post-Sankaran Advaita which try to explain mAyA in myriad different ways.  
Because mAyA can be many different things, each person sees some of those  
things. These sub-schools are all subordinated to the original teaching of  
Sankara, so that differences of opinion about what mAyA is, do not lead to  
major schisms within Advaita on a philosophical or a religious basis. The  
emphasis remains on understanding and knowing Brahman as one's own Atman.  
For, whatever mAyA is thought to be, when the Atman is known as Brahman,  
mAyA is fully understood to be "anirvachnaIya". In no way can the Advaitic  
idea of mAyA be dismissed as a mere illusion. Having said that, let me  
turn to the other criticism about mAyA. 

Mani - 	For example, consider the ontological status of mAyA, the 
	principle that is supposed to be the source of avidyA and hence
	our bondage in this world.  Other Vedantins wish to know, if 
	Brahman is pure, homogeneous Consciousness, admitting of no 
	difference whatsoever, how does mAyA fit into the picture? 
	Advaitins respond by saying "it is anirvacanIya 
	(incomprehensible)". Now you tell me, is that a response in the 
	context of a debate?

My response to this frivolous charge is this. Don't you resort to  
incomprehensibility yourself? Let me elaborate. Visishtadvaita explains  
the relationship between the Atman and the Brahman, not as an Identity  
(even though Upanishad expressly tells us so) but as a SarIra-SArIrin  
relationship. When asked how is it that changes in the SarIra (one's AtmA)  
do not affect the SArIrin (Brahman), what is the Visishtadvaitin's answer?  
He cannot say that one's individual AtmA is changeless, because that is  
the Advaitic view. However, Brahman, the AtmA of this Atma, must remain  
changeless, because Upanishad says so. How does he resolve this? He  
resorts to this same mysteriousness! The Visishtadvaitin can hardly find  
fault with Advaita for saying mAyA is anirvachanIya. The double standard  
in his reasoning is patent. When the Advaitin says mAyA is inexplicable  
i.e. mysterious, that is not a proper response in the context of a debate.  
When the Visishtadvaitin says "Mysterious are the ways of the Lord", that  
is a wonderful response in the debate and the Advaitin should exalt him as  
a great bhakta, I suppose!
 
Advaita would rather leave the ontological status of mAyA as  
anirvachanIya, than compromise on the Upanishadic teaching of identity  
between Atman and Brahman. When the Upanishad says "tat tvam asi" it does  
not mean "tad tava AtmA". Similarly, "ayamAtmA Brahma", not "asya Atmana:  
AtmA Brahma".  No SarIra-SArIrin relationship here, no soul of the soul  
description, only absolute identity. In fact, it is this identity that is  
unique to the teaching of the Upanishads, in no other religion is such  
powerful non-duality affirmed. (Buddhism teaches identity, but not with  
Brahman, because there is no concept of Brahman in Buddhism.)  
Visishtadvaita offers alternative explanations to such identity, and is  
comfortable with it; Advaita does not wish to dilute the Upanishadic  
teaching. 

Nobody disputes the Visishtadvaita claim that Brahman is described as  
Saguna in the Upanishads. The Advaitin accepts the Saguna fully, as a  
manifestation of the Nirguna. What the Advaitin disputes is the  
Visishtadvaitic denial of the Nirguna. Ultimately the Advaitin's answer to  
the Visishtadvaitin is that you cannot just wish away the Nirguna Brahman  
and claim that Brahman is Saguna always. You cannot just wish away the  
identity affirmed in the Upanishads. You cannot adequately explain  
Yajnavalkya's affirmation of non-duality as the ultimate truth in the  
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (IV, 5. 15, for example), in terms of  
Visishtadvaita. The Advaita explanation is the only one to fully  
understand the teaching of the Upanishad. 

Even if you do explain Yajnavalkya's affirmation of non-duality in terms  
of Visishtadvaita, at least recognize that the Advaita explanation is an  
alternative explanation, and in fact the older one with the force of  
tradition behind it. Do not arbitrarily dismiss Advaita as nihilistic and  
do not search for imaginary origins in Buddhism. At the very least, do not  
claim that Visishtadvaita is the only true school of Vedanta. 

Vidyasankar

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