A Primer on Advaita Vedanta, or Non-Dualist Hinduism: Or, Why Atman is Brahman, And Why We Should Care

One of the most difficult concepts to grasp in any attempt to understand Hinduism in its arguably most complex form of Advaita Vedanta, literally “non-dual end of knowledge,” is that of the Atman. Once this concept is grasped, however, a whole world opens up, and the results are pretty profound, and this post will try to explain this tricky concept.

Before starting, however, it’s worth clearing up some historical issues that often get in the way of explaining the concepts involved. Most in the West tend to think of “Hinduism” as older than Buddhism, and in some senses, they are correct, the original Vedic traditions in India are some of the oldest in the world. When the Buddha began to preach a new path around the time of Confucius and Socrates, he was clearly the young upstart, with the Vedic tradition having already been practiced for likely thousands of years. Buddhism became a massively powerful cultural force, but after around 500 years, began to lose steam, and mutated substantially to give rise to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, which has been dominant ever since, not long after the time of Jesus in the Near East. It is about this time as well that the Vedic traditions mutate, and really Buddhism and what was to become “Hinduism” as it is generally known in the West today are the result. Many of the classic “Hindu” texts, such as the later Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, come from this period of mutation. The philosophers  Nagarjuna and Shankara are those who are generally seen as systematizing the belief systems of Mahayana Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, respectively, both writing a few hundred years of each other in the middle of the first century C.E., with Shankara in many ways trying to provide a Vedanta response to Nagarjuna. Many scholars believe that the co-evolutionary developments of these two faiths were due to the competition for converts during this worldwide period of massive social change. Such a perspective, of course, is historical rather than devotional in nature, and many adherents of these worldviews have argued that linear history and social pressures shouldn’t be applied to issues of revelation. From such a perspective, either the truths were always there, and only later revealed, or were present in the original texts, and just not properly understood until later, and so the deeper truths shouldn’t be seen as evolving. Either way, there are strong similarities between Vedanta and Mahayana thought, two of the most complex developments in Indic thought as a whole. And for those interested, there are also strong similarities between both of these schools and certain developments in contemporary philosophy, such as the immanentism of Deleuze, or my own networkological thought, but these issues will be discussed at another time. Also, neither Buddhism nor Hinduism are monolithic, and there are many strands of these, both today and over time. Advaita Vedanta, and the Mahayana philosophies of figures like Nagarjuna and Tsong Kapa in Buddhism, are simply the most philosophically complex, but there are many other more perspectives within both traditions.

The Atman: Starting From the Self

One of the clearest ways paths into the notion of the Atman is that described by Swami Bhaskarananda in Chapter 6 of his excellent, short, super-friendly text  Journey From the One to the Many: Essentials of Advaita Vedanta (2009). The title swami simply means something like teacher, and is similar to terms like guru or the arabic term shaykh. Bhaskarananda’s approach is one of simple negation, of trying to isolate precisely what each of us is, and the difficulties that arise when we really follow this approach.

Think to yourself: what am I, really? And when you encounter something, if it’s only a part of you, realize, well, you are more than that. For example, I’m sitting in my room, typing on my computer. Clearly I’m not my computer, nor the desk in front of my, nor my dog, nor the music coming from my stereo. I experience these things, but these experiences are a part of the “I” that experiences. To put this in common western philosophical jargon, I’m the subject, and these are the objects of my experience. What unites both, of course, is the experiencing.

In this sense, I’m not any particular object in my experience, rather, I’m the subject. I’m not the food I eat, the people around me, the objects in front of me, or individual sensations, thoughts, or feelings. I’m me. Things get tricky, of course, when we get closer to home. Most of us would say that we’re not the same thing as our bodies, that our bodies are also objects, parts of us, but not really ourselves. When I dream, I know that I still have a sense of being “me,” even though my body seems to be elsewhere. My consciousness, the deeper me that seems to reside in my body as a vessel, is more me than my body.

But what of my ego? Am I the image I have of myself in my head? Likely not. The picture I have of myself in my head seems likely a composite image, a fuzzy amalgalm of other images, abstracted and synthesized from bits and pieces of images of my body I’ve seen in mirrors, photos, and melded with the memories of things I’ve thought and felt. My ego is my vain attempt to grasp myself as an object. But really, I’m a subject, a process, not a thing. I sense, feel, think, will, act, and while I might think of these in relation to an image of myself related to my body, this is a convenient fiction, but not quite the full picture.

Many psychologists build upon Freud’s approach to this issue when he says that “the ego is, first and foremost, a bodily ego.” That is, infants form an image of themselves, a stable sense of self, so to speak, by internalizing an image of their bodies, and use this as an anchor to conceptualizing how “they” relate to the world around them, tying memories and desires to this anchor image. Following Freud’s notion, Lacan built upon this and called this the stage in infant development in which the child forms an ego the “mirror stage,” because it is formed by thinking of oneself as if in a mirror, if not with the help of physical mirrors, but more importantly, the mirroring of the body of the baby back to it in the view of others. That is, when I think of myself as an ego, I see myself as others see me, which is to say, as an agency inside a body. To others, my body is the envelope or container of my self.

But from the inside, things are much more complex. My body, and my ego, are just parts of the deeper me, which is to say, myself. That said, even my thoughts and feelings are simply parts of me. They seem to arise from within, and yet, this other part of me, this void from which thoughts and feelings arise, seems both like me and yet also not me. This is what psychologists call “the unconscious.” It’s where dreams come from, but also sometimes intrusive thoughts I don’t ask for, like when I see a friend, and without wanting to, remember that unpleasant thing they said to me. The unconscious seems like a part of me that’s not fully in my control. That said, I can go digging there, and get memories when I need them. But notice that it’s me that does the digging, the me that both is and isn’t my unconscious, or my ego. Or my thoughts or feelings.

This me, this self that is a part of my ego but beyond it, part of my unconscious or body but beyond them as well, part of my experiences of the external world of physical sensations and objects but beyond them, part of my thoughts and feelings but beyond them, this is me, this my self. It’s the flow of my experiences, the central core of myself, that to which all incoming sensations from the external world of sensations and internal worlds of memories, thoughts, and feelings go, but it’s also my willing self, that from which my desires, fantasies, decisions, and actions flow. This is the self that tells my body to do things, the self that wills, loves, desires, in and beyond my ego, body, unconscious, or any other part of me. It’s the deepest, core part of me, my self.

This is what, in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu tradition, is called Atman. In fact, the word literally translates as “Self.” And similar to the way this term is used in English, a language which is linked with all the other European languages as being a distant cousin of Sanskrit in the Indo-European language family, the term Atman derives from the reflexive pronoun, like when someone uses the term “myself” to speak about themselves, such as in the sentence “I did this myself.” Atman is this sense of self-ness, it is experience or awareness of selfhood as such.

In the Vedanta tradition, each of us, because we have a self, is a world. And in fact, this is the only world we ever know. I only know the experiences of other people because they tell me. My self is my world, and any sense I have of a world which exists beyond myself comes to me through this self. So when other people tell me of other countries they’ve been to, and I go see them and they are there, these seem to indicate a world beyond myself, just as when others tell me of things they feel or think, sensations which occur to them inside their bodies, beyond my awareness, I take them at their world, and yet, all this only comes to me through my own experience of the world. So all these indirect evidences that there’s something beyond me still only come to me through my own world of experience, which is to say, myself.

For ultimately, anything in my world is part of me, and this is why one of the mantras of Vedanta is “Thou art That.” Look at anything in your world. It’s a part of yourself, and you are part of it, because you are two sides of the experience that unites you both, and these are all ultimately your self, your experience, which is your world. It’s all you, all yourself. And this is your world, the only world you’ve ever known.

And yet, the indirect evidence that there is something beyond myself is pretty convincing. While I could just be a brain floating in a computer simulation, it’s more likely that consciousness comes from bodies, and these seem to be born, and then die. And when people go to sleep, or are under anesthesia, their consciousness seems to vanish, and then return. It’s quite likely, then, that my consciousness, self, and world, all come from within my body. And this body is part of a larger world.

Now if my world is part of a larger world, then it makes sense that my self is part of a larger self. That is, if myself is the same as my world of my experience, and I literally know nothing directly beyond this self-world of experience, and yet, all evidence points to the fact that this is contained inside my body, then it seems likely that all of my experience is but one part of a larger world of experience. And if my world is really indistinguishable from my self, then this larger world is likely indistinguishable from a larger self.

Why Atman is Brahman

All of which is to say, Vedanta Hinduism starts from experience. My self and my world are two sides of my experience. And if my experience is part of a larger experience, it makes sense that this larger experience also has a self and world as its aspects. And my self is part of this larger self, and my world part of this larger world.

This self of selves, the principle of selfness, of which all selves are selves, this is paramatman, the supreme Atman, or simply THE Atman, THE Self, while my Atman, my little individual self, is jivatman. The individual self and the principle of selfness are simply two sides of the Self, or Atman.

This can help explain why it is that there are many selves, even if each seems to be all that is to themselves in their own way. That is, each individual is a manifestation of the supreme self, or principle of the self as such, just as each of our worlds a manifestation of the supreme world, or principle of the world as such. And these are two sides of the same.

Now the other side of experience, that of the world, is what is known as Brahman, which Bhaskarananda points out derives from the Sanskrit word “to pervade.” It’s the all, it’s the world of experience. My world of experience is an aspect of the world as such, just as my self is an aspect of the self as such, just as these are really two sides of experience, which is the way the world, or Brahman, experiences itself as consciousness. In Vedanta, Brahman is the privileged side of experience, for it is both that which experiences and is experienced, as well as that which brings them together in experiencing. In fact, it is beyond all limitations, it’s everything that we’ve ever experienced, or can experience, because it’s the source.

We could even think of Brahman as the Big Bang, and everything that came from this, which is, ultimately, all we ever experience, and all we ever will. The Big Bang was there before we were, but is also, as scientists tell us, the origin of space and time. So while it’s difficult to think this through from a human perspective, the Big Bang is both the origin of space and time, beyond them, and in all of them. All our experience is really the Big Bang, as event and primal stuff, experiencing itself through us. As the song goes, “we are stardust.” All our matter and energy came from the Big Bang, and our very experiences in space and time, and this very space and time itself, is the result of and within this Big Bang as it continues to explore itself, in and beyond space and time.

In Vedanta Hinduism, this is simply Brahman. And Brahman can’t be limited, it is the All, that from which all arises, and which all is. And so it’s better to speak of Brahman as having aspects, avatars, or refractions, and these are the aspects of the world we experience. We are all Brahman, experiencing Brahman, but as aspects of this, we are selves, which is to say, Atman, individuals which refract the larger Atman, which is Brahman. Brahman is the self of all selves, of which our self and experience is just a refraction. Just as an image in a crystal is a refraction of what is beyond that crystal within the crystal, we are simply refractions of the crystal of Brahman within itself.

Is this God? Who knows! It’s beyond our limited ideas, and any attempt to conceive of Brahman, of the whole of what is, will always fail. That said, there are many reasons why it makes sense to treat this as if it were what humans know as God, for Brahman is the source, origin, and all. When Brahman is thought of in this sense, it is Ishvara, the personal, God-side of Brahman. This is not Nirguna Brahman (guna means quality, literally, Brahman without qualities), which is the Brahman Beyond any Limitation, but Saguna Brahma (notice the grammatical shift from Brahman to Brahma, these are different!). This is the God upon which we humans project human-like qualities. The specific Gods of Hinduism, including Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, and Siva the Destroyer, are particular sides of Ishvara, the deity side of Brahman.

And this is why Bhaskarananda often describes Brahman in his book as taking the form of a screen upon which we project our own limitations in the manner in which humans project movies on a screen. We hide Brahman from ourselves, we veil him (avarana-shakti, power of veiling), and then project upon him what we want to see there (vishekta-shakti, projecting power), and together, these are ignorance (vidya), which comes in two forms, primal ignorance (mulavidya) and secondary ignorance (tulavidya). That is, we don’t realize that we limit our worlds by only seeing our limited version of it, and thinking we are separate from it. By separating ourselves from the Self, and our world from the World, we limit ourselves. This is primal ignorance, and all other ignorances derive from this.

That is, we see what we want to see, which is a world warped by our fears, which give rise to cravings. We are run by our pains, which derive from the instability of our pleasures. And so we imagine what’s not really there. This is the famous Sanskrit term maya. Literally it means “magic power,” but it has often been described as the veils of ignorance or illusion that mask Brahman from us. But could the whole world really be an illusion, and what’s more, an illusion which results from our cravings?

Beyond the Veil of Maya

These questions can be clarified if we reflect on the question of what in our worlds is the most real. In my world, it’s experience that’s the most real. Thoughts, feelings, sensations, my body, my  unconscious, my ego, other people, dreams, fantasies, memories, all these are less real than my core of experience, the here and now of the perpetually shifting present. Any thought or feeling will pass. Any object that comes up before my eyes will eventually leave, or I will leave it. Physical objects decay over time, but my experience continues. And it seems this is part of a larger experience, from which all experience, which is to say, all the world of anything, derives.

While science tells us that experience is a result of physical matter, there’s no reason to believe that physical matter might not be simply a figment of our imaginations, like what we experience when we dream. That is, any experience we have of physical matter is ultimately a part of our experience, not the other way around. Experience is primary, not matter. Even my most consistent experience, that of my ego, is less real than the flow of my experience. And this flow is beyond feelings, even pleasure, pain, memory, desire. It just is.

And this “just is” is the most real thing I’ve ever experienced. And yet, while I can’t remember it having a start, it seems everything has a start, and this originless origin is likely a more encompassing “just is,” which is precisely Atman, which is Brahman. Or, if we want to use a more scientific chain of reasoning, the Big Bang. We’re all just aspects of this. And everything in our world of experience, from feelings to dreams to objects and people, are just aspects of this.

Now if we realize this, all that’s in front of us seems much less real. All the objects of the world are like dreams in the mind of the Big Bang, and all the objects in our world are like dreams in our experience. All our fears and desires seem puny, in fact, because we realize that we are just parts of this something bigger than us, and just as thoughts and feelings emerge within us and then dissolve back into us, so we will likely do with this larger whole of which we are just aspects. We are dreams in the dreaming of the Big Bang. And when we focus on this, our whole world recontextualizes.

Any fears and desires seem small. We stop craving things of this world, which are illusions, and instead focus on what’s the most real, what can never be taken away from us, and which provides a more consistent pleasure. For any sense pleasure is fleeting, and this creates pain when it’s gone. Pain and fleeting pleasure are two sides of the same, and either leads us to suffering, which is the flip-side of craving, which is wanting to hold on to this or that. But this or that will always fade and pass, because they’re derivative, merely fleeting aspects of the deeper continuity, which is the principle of their production. This is the Atman which is Brahman.

And its state of being is detached from fleeting pleasures and pains, a state known as Bliss, or  Ananda. Bliss is a state of what Pierre Hadot calls “stable pleasure,” it’s free from the rollercoaster ride of fleeting pleasure, followed by its absence, which causes pain. When we realize, deep in our bones, that we are Atman, and that Atman is Brahman, this knowledge frees us from illusion or ignorance. We stop focusing on our projections and veilings of the deeper unity of experience, and so these seem less real. And what is more real comes to the the fore. The more we know this, really know this, often something which can only be achieved by meditation, the more real it seems to us, even though, it actually is more real and consistent than any of the passing illusions within it, which are the products of our projections. And the more real it seems to us, the more we experience bliss, the state beyond pleasure and pain, a deeper pleasure, a detached pleasure not at the whim of every passing sensation.

In a state of bliss, we still experience the world, we still feel pleasures and pains and desires and needs. But they dominate us less. Our eyes are on something bigger, and this helps us to live in the world, but not be run by it. This is what the Buddhists call enlightenment, the experience of nirvana. But for the Mahayana Buddhists, nirvana is samsara, which is to say, enligtenment is the world of illusion. Brahman is maya, it’s all about a change of point of view, and this change in perspective makes all the difference.

But why would all powerful Brahman give rise to illusion? He doesn’t. We do. Or rather, the less perfect aspects of the world do, by projecting their cravings on Brahman, warping him, producing maya, which is to say, veils and projections, really two sides of the same. The more our actions confirm the seeming reality of these illusions, the realer they feel. These actions, called karma, accumulate, and only by practice in meditation can we learn to see beyond this. Brahman is the most perfect aspect of experience, but that which surrounds him is less so, and these emanations are maya. Ultimately, our very selves are maya, we are illusions. And as we learn to see beyond our limited selves, which is to say, the warpings in our perception created by cravings, the result will be to see clearly, and become one with a state of Bliss, which is to say, become one with Brahman.

This is why the Vedanta scriptures, known as the Vedanta or Upanishads, the final section of the Vedas, speak of the world as being like a pot. The inside of the pot is Atman, the outside is Brahman, but the pot itself is really maya, for there is no real difference between the space inside or outside the pot, but only our way of looking at it. Remove the pot, and it’s all just space, Atman really always was Brahman, there was just something inessential in the way.

Beyond Reincarnation

All of which recontextualizes the notion of reincarnation that most Westerners think is at work in much of Indic thought. If our very selves are the result of our cravings, and in fact, our cravings to hold on to our egos, our separate existences, our fears of becoming one with the larger whole of which we are really a part anyway, why does this continue in the world? Our cravings produce projections, and this is action, which perpetuates itself in the world. Our cravings produce projections, or illusions, and these reinforce our cravings, which is to say, our fears, and ways of acting based on fear of loss. This is different, however, from desire, which is not craving, but beyond it. We can desire bliss, but not crave it. Buddhism and Vedanta point beyond craving, but actually teach us how to desire better. When we detach from needing aspects of our world, we get them all back, but rather than being slave to them, they are simply aspects of us, as we are aspects of the larger whole. And we experience bliss, rather than cycles of extreme pleasure and pain. And as bliss increases, the momentary pleasures of the rollercoaster seem much less enticing. It takes practice, however, to get beyond our habits, and this is why meditation is crucial. To learn how to re-see the world, and then act in such a way that this sight becomes habitual. When this happens, as the Vedanta says, our Atman is like a current of water that flows into the ocean, and becomes part of it. We become one with Brahman.

And this is why we stop being reincarnated. We are always dying, which is to say, changing state. Our thoughts and feelings shift, and they die within us. Likewise, our bodies change. And eventually, they die as well. But the habits of seeing and acting live on, and take on new bodies, just as our habits of thought and feeling live on in our bodies, and repeat through memory. That is, while it’s possible to read Hindu and Buddhist approaches to reincarnation as the literal ‘transmigration of souls,’ it’s also quite possible to read this metaphorically. And ultimately, these two are two sides of the same. Everything in our world reincarnates in the way it perpetuates in the world. And so, are we the same “us” when we arise after a deep sleep? It seems like we are, because we wake with the same memories. But we have no way of knowing. Likewise, our memories live on in various ways, even after the physical death of our bodies, and to the extent that they do, either in other people, or writings or videos or the way we impacted the world, is the extent to which we reincarnate in new forms. While it’s likely that these reincarnations are more dispersed than that of the self which reappears in our bodies each day when we wake from deep sleep, is it fundamentally different? Hard to say.

Either way, it’s all just aspects of Brahman. And the more we bring the world closer to realizing this, and that bliss is better than craving, the more it becomes liberated. And us with it. It’s ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we see beyond craving, the less real craving is. The more we liberate our ways of seeing the world, the more liberated the world becomes because we act different. Action and knowledge, desire and perception, are as much in this sense two sides of the same as Atman and Brahman.

Does this mean that when we become with Brahman we cease reincarnating? In a sense, yes. Does this mean that we live forever? In a sense yes, even though we cease to live at all. Then again, we never were living, this was simply a part of our experience, which was an illusion projected on the screen of Brahman. The same with time or space. These are all limitations. Brahman, as beyond time and space, has no need of eternal life. And so, eternal life is here and now, all we need to do is realize this. The idea of a continuation of our personal individual existences in some sort of heaven is a limitation of what we could be. For those that need this, they will be with Ishvara for eternity in heaven, but even these are limitations, products of maya, cravings. The Big Bang always is and always was, and all that has happened or will happen refracts in our present here and now, as much as the reverse. When we realize this, we realize that our dreams of heaven are limitations on the deeper reality. The deeper reality is that all that ever is or was or could be is present in the here and now, and we are all the all, and the all is us.

Why would anyone want to be their limited selves, when they could be everything, beyond time and space? Give up yourself, and gain the universe and more, gain the all. Or at least, that’s what Vedanta has to offer.

A This Worldly Vedantaism

There are many reasons why such an approach, in either it’s Buddhist or Vedantist flavors, has much to offer us today. While Buddhism clearly favors metaphors of emptiness and extinction of craving, and Vedantaism favors metaphors of plenitude and fullness, they ultimately aim towards identifying with the non-dual (advaita), the non-limited, that which is beyond spacetime, beyond craving, the ego, that which is the principle of the all beyond limitations. There are many parallels here with various strains of Sufi thought, as well as Hellenist Neoplatonism, both of which may have been influenced by the more ancient Indic tradition, even as it modified itself in relation to various influences as well.

There are, however, some legitimate potential objections to such an approach to the world. Firstly, what if this is all made up? That is, just as we might say that the Big Bang is the most real, we could also say that it is the least real thing there is. None of us have ever seen the Big Bang. It’s the furthest thing from our everyday lives. Might this not be living for a fiction? Building upon this notion, Nietzsche argued that many traditional philosophies and religions are “life-hating,” because they value a world we never see over the world we do, this world, and as such, are examples of “otherwordly-isms.” Is Vedanta life-hating and otherworldly?

On the one hand, perhaps it is. Certainly followers of Hinduism and Buddhism often remove themselves from the world and its pleasures. Many are celibate. They seem to live “in the clouds.” But perhaps this is just a historical relic. Maybe it might be possible to imagine a “this worldly” Vedantism or Buddhism. For in a sense, it does seem that the world has two poles of “most-real-ness,” namely, from one end, the Big Bang, but from the other end, each and every one of its concrete aspects in experience. Might it not make sense to play both angles, both sides at once?

If Brahman is the most free, the principle of everything, then perhaps true liberation isn’t merely to identify with this, which would certainly give freedom from the cravings of this world. But perhaps it also means to extend this freedom to all maya, all the illusions. Perhaps this is compassion beyond that to mere persons, but to all matter. Maybe we need to make the world more Brahman, and bring liberation not only to our minds, but all the world of experience. A this-worldly Vedantaism, which aims to liberate not only experience, but even matter from its limitations. An activist Vedantism.

As I’ve come to realize, as I continue working on my own work on developing a networkological, relational approach to philosophy, while learning increasingly about non-western philosophies, is that a this-worldly, activist version of what Buddhism, Sufism, Vedanta, and Neoplatonism propose is precisely what the networkological project aims at.

One could make the argument that this is already latent in Vedanta. But there is without doubt an individualistic focus in Hinduism and Buddhism, despite the fact that both are ultimately about dissolving the ego. That said, change happens inside, not outside. Then again, it does seem that the only reason why Brahman would have for giving rise to the world of maya would be precisely to lead it to liberation from its limitations, and the work of Sri Aurobindo, a Neo-Vedantist, works to integrate Vedantism with an evolutionary approach to the world.

The Mahayana Buddhist spin on these issues, seems to emphasize precisely the fact that the advent of the Buddha is precisely this saving compassion for all manifesting in the world. Sufism takes this further, and sees this as in fact the very purpose of creation as such, which is to say, the lifting of the veils, which transforms the individual, annihilating them as they merge with the limitless freedom and power of God. While these are clearly different traditions, the similarities between their notions of liberation are striking. Hindu forms of this, including Vedanta, deemphasize the collective and compassionate, even though this is latent within it, while Mahayana Buddhism and Sufism emphasize this more collective end of things, and this can be seen materially as well. Buddhism makes the alleviation of suffering it’s primary emphasis, and gives rise to monasteries for monks, while Sufism emphasizes the love of God for creation, and gives rise to massive lodges and orders. Vedanta emphasizes lifting the veil of ignorance over alleviation of suffering, and doesn’t give rise to more organized collectives to the extent of Buddhism or Sufism. While compassion and collective action in the world are implicit in some ways, they are less emphasized. That said, a Vedantic critique of this might be that these approaches emphasize the Ishvara side over that of Brahman itself. Certainly in Sufism, God as that which is Beyond Being presents itself in theophanic form to speak to us in a language we understand, and in Buddhism, the manifestations of the Buddhanature in so many Buddhas and Boddhisattvas are there to give us something to hold on to, so that we hear a message put in terms that we will more easily understand.

While such comparativist discussions are necessarily oversimplifying, they do allow for the potential to see the overall projects of Sufism, Advaita Vedanta, and Buddhism as having many strong commonalities, something which has been advocated and recognized by figures within these traditions, such as the famed Vedantic scholars Swami Vivekananda and Ananda Coomaraswamy, Sufi scholars like Seyyed Hossain Nasr, western Sufi converts such as Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon. While Buddhist scholars are perhaps less comparativist in this sense, because Buddhism doesn’t see itself as a religion at all, the issue of exclusivity is less pressing, and Buddhism has coexisted with many of these more doctrinally exclusive formations, and the similarities in many of these projects has been noted by prominent Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama. What’s more, many scholars have noticed strong commonalities with classic Chinese Taoism, particularly as manifested in the writings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. While these issues cannot be addressed here, they are certainly worth pursuing more systematically elsewhere.


~ by chris on June 20, 2012.

3 Responses to “A Primer on Advaita Vedanta, or Non-Dualist Hinduism: Or, Why Atman is Brahman, And Why We Should Care”

  1. […] A Primer on Advaita Vedanta, or Non-Dualist Hinduism: Or, Why … […]

  2. Brilliant… absolutely brilliant. I’ve been reading the Upanishads and other Hindu texts, Dhammapada, Sufi books, etc., and this is the clearest plain English explanation of what the Atman/Brahman “is”.

    I might point out that Hindus generally believe in a cyclic universe (the days and nights of Lord Brahma), so it is possible that Brahman is not only the Big Bang but also a Big Crunch, followed by another Big Bang, for eternity.

  3. Great analysis! Althought I must point out what seemed incomplete…. If you look at certain Vaishnava strands emerging from Vedanta thought, you will see that Bhaktism or “This-worldy” Vedanta is an existing discourse, not merely something one must try imagining. The worship of Prakriti, as opposed to the Purusha who is the Atman, and recognition of how the world is sustained only by their union (as seen in Rama/Krsna Bhakti and Tantric philosophy) preservation of its evolution into Brahman, is a part of householder/non-ascetic Vedanta thought that emphasizes the identification with brahman/ascetic/celibate path as only for a few.
    “a this-worldly, activist version of what Buddhism, Sufism, Vedanta, and Neoplatonism propose is precisely what the networkological project aims at.” – Brilliantly put! As a student of philosophy with a strong cultural ties to Vedanta thought, I find myself wanting to further such a project that combines activist deconstruction and analysis of the difference and diversity of experience in Prakriti with a Neoplatonic/Buddhist/ Vedanta conception of transcendence that could potentially give rise to a sustainable ethics and metaphysics.

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