Self, not selfie: The case for Advaita

Shriya Mohan | Updated on November 22, 2019

Illustration: DIPANKAR

On the occasion of World Philosophy Day, a toast to an ancient school of thought that sees the universe as one

It was sometime in the early 8th century, when the Hindu seer and philosopher Adi Shankara was walking down the lanes of Varanasi with his disciples that a chandala — a so-called untouchable — crossed his path. Shankara gestured to the man to give way, expecting him to scurry away, in keeping with prevailing customs. But the chandala stood his ground and addressed Shankara:

“O great ascetic! Do you want me to keep a distance from you, taking me to be an outcaste? Is it addressed from one body made of food to another body made of food, or is it from consciousness to consciousness — which do you wish should go away?”

Shankara understood this was no ordinary man, believing him to be Shiva himself.

He replied in five stanzas of Sanskrit, which in essence mean: “If a person has attained the knowledge that he is not an object of perception, but is that pure consciousness which dwells in all bodies from that of the creator Brahma to that of the ant, then he is my Guru, irrespective of whether he is an outcaste or a Brahmana.” These verses came to be known as Manisha Panchakam, Shankara’s best-known advaitic work.

A part of Hinduism’s Vedanta school of philosophy, Advaita (Sanskrit for non-dualism) emerged as an egalitarian spiritual revolution in the 8th century. It holds that Brahman or God is within, not without; and that the highest truth can only be found by realising the Self, which is a permanent, unchanging substratum of all existence. It deems the world as Maya, an illusion that has no independent reality separate from our perception. We create the world we live in. Knowing one’s true Self is the way out of misery, it preaches.

On the occasion of World Philosophy Day (November 21), as Indian society continues to wrestle with inequality, the time has come to dip into this ancient school of thought. With its call to humans to rise above differences and see the entire universe as one, it remains as relevant as ever.

There are no gods to invoke, no idols to worship, no religious text to follow, no cult leader, and best of all, no doom threatened if one does not follow it. Advaitins, its proponents, see the same Self in man and termite alike. Swami Ranganathananda of the Ramakrishna Mission had said an advaitic attitude of equality was essential in polity, governance and day-to-day affairs.

Ramana Maharshi, the advaitic sage who rose to prominence in the 20th century, said that the only question worth asking was, “Who am I?” ‘Tat tvam asi’, meaning ‘that you are’, and ‘aham brahmasmi’, meaning ‘I am Brahman’ are two of the founding principles, or Mahavakyas, of advaitic thought.

For the longest time, scriptures and seers struggled to come up with a word for the experience of self-realisation. ‘That’ or ‘Brahman’ or even ‘God’ doesn’t quite capture its all-pervasiveness.

“When salt is dissolved in water, can it remain distinct,” asked Tukaram, the 17th-century Marathi saint belonging to the Bhakti movement — which propounded devotion as the route to salvation.“Maintain equanimity in happiness or suffering; Treat alike a shard of clay pot and a piece of gold,” enjoined the Devi Kalottaram, an ancient text in which Shiva tells Parvati how to realise the Self.

The essence of advaitic philosophy — seeing God as one with the worshipper — echoes across other religions too.

In Christianity, Jesus said, “I and my father are one” and “He that has seen me has seen the Father”.

The 20th-century Islamic philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal was also an exponent of advaitic thought. In his best-known work, the Persian Secret of the Self, Iqbal says that to understand God you have to first understand yourself. According to his notion of Khudi, or Self, the cosmos exists in order to make possible the emergence and perfection of the Self.

In Buddhism, the idea of Sunyata is almost the opposite of advaitic thought, where the only reality is seemingly a void, but is potent beyond all definition or limitation. What advaitins call a ‘wholeness’ the Buddhists term ‘liberating emptiness’. As for Sufism, non-dualism is the bedrock. The concept of fanaa, made popular by the mystic poet Rumi in the 13th century, refers to the annihilation of the self and merging with the divine.

So, why didn’t Advaita gain more wider acceptance? Dr Uma Maheshwari Shankar, professor of philosophy at Mumbai’s SIES College, believes that for an average person who likes to follow religion like an instruction manual, Advaita appears abstract and rather audacious. How can anybody claim to be God?

“If that thought acquired power over you... it would transform you, and perhaps crush you,” German philosopher Nietzche wrote.

On April 8, 1900, at a meeting in San Francisco, Swami Vivekananda mentioned Advaita as the religion of the future. He rued that India could not give up the notion of God as a superior king ruling his subjects. “But there is a chance of Advaita Vedanta becoming the religion of your country because of democracy,” he told his American audience. More than a century later, in a vibrantly democratic India peopled by self-confident, selfie loving millennials, is there room — and faith — for the revival of this philosophy that dreams of an equal world?

Shriya Mohan

Published on November 21, 2019

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