Advaita Vedanta: Hindu Nondualism
Apr 8, 2021

Reading time 8 min.

Nondualism is a different and unmistakable convention in Hinduism that starts rather late and yet has exerted an impact, both in India and—a lot later—in the West.

Advaita Vedanta starts with the Commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, written by Gaudapada around the seventh century CE. We saw that the Mandukya Upanishad contains passages that can be interpreted as a way of thinking of nondualism. Writing almost 1300 years later, Gaudapada draws on components of the Buddhist theory of emptiness to re-interpret the Mandukya Upanishad in a strongly nondual manner.

Gaudapada’s doctrine is known as the hypothesis of “no beginning” (ajātivāda), which expresses that the whole world is nothing other than a fantasy. Nothing mundane ever actually comes into existence (i.e “originates”), because Brahman (“God”) is real. The whole world is a fantasy or dream and is eventually unbelievable (maya). As we’ve just seen, this view was basic in Mahayana Buddhism. A few selections from Gaudapada’s Commentary give the gist of his philosophy:

• II. 31. As dreams 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

There is some discussion over the degree to which Gaudapada was affected by Buddhism. Gaudapadauses intellectual arguments and images directly drawn from Buddhist sources to develop his way of thinking. While Vedantins should concede these equals, they maintain that he was merely using common content from the contemporary discussion to make his own, unique point.

He takes the Buddhist way of thinking and retroactively reading it to the Mandukya Upanishad to give the philosophy a “Hindu” source. This isn’t essential, since the Buddha was presumably drawing from these Upanishads himself, as we have seen.

Gaudapada’s way of thinking is called Advaita Vedanta. Advaita as we have just seen signifies “nondual”— Sanskrit: “not” (a-) “double” (- dvaita). Vedanta 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 (master) of Shankara, who is perceived as the originator of the Advaita Vedanta development and is a transcending figure in current Hinduism. Shankara was brought into the world in India (likely at some point in the eighth century) when Hinduism had been in decline for a long time.

Shankara’s history tells the story of a young fellow who has been marked for destiny. A childhood prodigy in Sanskrit and the ancient sacred writings, Shankara ventured out from home early and discovered his master (Govinda, a student of Gaudapada), who showed him the basics of Advaita. From that point onward, Shankara was unstoppable, strolling the length and breadth of India to show Advaita, change what he saw as degenerate practices, debate with religious scholars, and reignite interest in Hinduism among the Indian populace.

The effect of Shakara’s Advaita philosophy on current Hinduism couldn’t be more important. His numerous writings, magnetic character, and devotion to the cause revitalized what had been a religion in decline. Shankara recast much of the Hindu religion in a nondual form. Nondualism turned into a hidden viewpoint on old practices and conventions. Indeed, even the numerous divine beings supposedly existed as a component of the play of maya, simply 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 basic viewpoints of Hinduism.

The Philosophy of Advaita Vedanta

Shankara summed up his whole way of thinking of Advaita in a single sentence:

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

This is Advaita Vedanta. Shankara states that Brahman is the unrivaled reality, the one presence. It is pure consciousness, forever beyond the reach of pain, indivisible, immeasurable, formless, nameless, immutable.

Although such words are all attempts at describing Brahman, the highest Brahman is complete without any attributes whatsoever. This most elevated Brahman is called nirguna brahman, which signifies “Brahman without attributes”. Any appearance of a God or divinity of any sort (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 detailing the individual soul and Brahman are indistinguishable. The spirit (atman) isn’t some little piece of Brahman that eventually merges back into Brahman. The soul is 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 illumination. Rather there is no individual soul at all. There is just a single Atman, and it is indistinguishable from Brahman. Numerous spirits are emerging 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 allegory, it seems as though the one moon in the sky was reflected by numerous bubbles.

Pundits blamed Shankara for being a “mystery Buddhist,” and for pretty much sneaking Buddhism into Hinduism. To be sure, it is hard not to look at his atman/Brahman idea to the Buddha-nature or storehouse consciousness ideas. As far as it matters for him, Shankara denied this. He was a philosopher and used his knowledge of Buddhism to show the contrasts between his lessons and the Buddhist view. A review of these distinctions, in any case, demonstrates them to be minor. Call it Brahman or Buddha-nature, it is nondual mindfulness in any case.

Advaita Practices for Moksha, or Liberation

Enlightenment (Skt. moksha, lit: “freedom”) is conceivable, as indicated by Advaita, by conquering the fancy of Maya, and subsequently seeing the character of Atman with Brahman. We see that there is no distinction, that they are the same.

There are a few notable Advaita methods for accomplishing freedom. Likely the most well-known conventional practice is that of neti-neti. As we found in the Upanishad area, this is a statement from the Brihardaranyaka Upanishad, describing Brahman as “not this, not that. The practitioner applies this statement to any 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 only a dream. This training capacity is a sort of bringing up guidance that continually causes a person to notice mindfulness itself, as opposed to the object of mindfulness.

Another training is the mantra Aham brahma’smi, which signifies, “I’m Brahman,”. This sentence is known as the “incredible announcement,” since it does not just speak to the philosophical comprehension of the quintessence of Advaita, however, it is likewise supposed to be the acknowledgment or decree of a yogi at the moment of enlightenment: “Aha! I’m Brahman!”

There are numerous different practices, some of them from the “do nothing” school that emphasizes the prior state of nondual mindfulness, in a manner reminiscent of the dzogchen tradition – i.e. “You are already there.”

There is an interesting anecdote about the Advaita practices of Ramakrishna, presumably the most popular Indian holy person of the nineteenth century. Ramakrishna was at that point an expert of dualistic mystery, completely steeped with the reflection of the Goddess Kali. Nevertheless, he agreed to receive the Advaita teachings from a wandering, naked, ash-besmeared master of nondualism named Totapuri.

Totapuri respected all types of love, so dear to Ramakrishna, as puerile and strange. He educated Ramakrishna on the fundamentals of Advaita Vedanta, saying:

“Brahman is the only Reality, ever pure, ever illumined, ever free, beyond the limits of time, space, and causation. Though 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 additionally showed Ramakrishna the act of formless meditation, yet that first night as Ramakrishna sat to meditate, he was lost in dualistic absorption of the Goddess Kali. At the point when he announced this inability to Totapuri the following day, his teacher picked up a tiny shard of glass from the ground and stuck it into the skin between Ramakrishna’s eyes, requesting him to focus on that spot. So Ramakrishna sat in meditation, and when Kali showed up once more, he – in his allegory – got the “sword of nondual wisdom and cut her down with it.” She quickly vanished and Ramakrishna was pushed into nondual absorption that kept going for a few days. He expressed gratitude toward Totapuri, saying, “If you had not come, I would have lived my whole life with the hallucination. My last barrier has fallen away”

Nevertheless, Totapuri himself had not yet finished expanding the depths of his nondual awareness. After his instruction of Ramakrishna, Totapuri contracted a severe case of dysentery. He wasn’t able to meditate, thus he was disgusted with the limitations of his body. In his view, the body was just a hallucination, and now it was being more of an obstacle than usual. A free soul no more focuses on the body. So one-night Totapuri stepped into the Gangesdetermined to drown his body and be rid of this annoying object. However, But the tide was out and he ended up walking 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 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.

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