Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The strange demise of Advaita ...

Devotee: Is Maharshi’s teaching the same as Shankara’s?

Ramana: Maharshi’s teaching is only an expression of his own experience and realisation. Others find that it tallies with Sri Shankara’s.

Devotee: Quite so. Can it be put in other ways to express the same realisation?

Ramana: A realised person will use his own language.

[No.189 of Ramana Maharshi's Talks]

Ramana Maharshi's realisation was based on experience and was nothing to do with the revelations of Advaita Vedanta. Advaita (consolidated by Shankara) is a calcified, redundant expression of life in liberation. Ramana's legacy is an enigmatic Cheshire cat's smile that stirs our imagination like a whisper in the wind. Ramana inspires but what he speaks of eludes us because religious traditions try to formularise and capture that which can never be expressed. Primordial freedom has no crossed legs or straight posture. There is no truth to enunciate and no lineage to claim (that's Mooji, Madhukar, Spermananda and other itinerant carpetbaggers down the drain!)

All religious teachings are the progeny of power, manipulation and corruption.

Likewise Shankara's philosophy, which is simply a product of its time. Shankara was a Upanishadic philosopher who aimed to provide the correct meaning of the ancient Indian texts at a point when both the Buddhist and the Hindu communities in India were showing signs of disintegration, corruption and decay. Shankara lived in the 8th and early 9th century, born of Brahmin parents in the village of Kaladi on the Malabar coast (today's Kerala, South India). He mostly frequented Varanasi however, the stronghold of Brahminical Hinduism and was taught within the lineage of Gaudapada, a Upanishadic teacher strongly influenced by Buddhism.

This period of Indian history saw immense religious conflict and social change. Hinduism was disunited and had split into many groups and sects, each with their own views. Buddhist philosophy appeared pessimistic to the general populace. According to Shankara, literalists and ritualists alike had missed the spirit of the Upanishads while even worse, nihilists and iconoclasts were contradicting the sacred scriptures. He accused Buddhism of teaching non-existence and even portrayed the Buddha as an incarnation sent to lead the wicked astray and hasten the end of the Kali Yuga.

Meanwhile in Varanasi, Buddhism was gaining popularity with the local elite: new ideologies of renunciation were emerging in Northern India which opposed ritualism and superceded Brahminism with its accent on caste inequalities and the privileged position of priests. Fierce competition broke out among the Indian philosophical schools for royal benefaction and economic security. To secure his survival as a spiritual teacher, Shankara assimilated Hindu and Buddhist ideas into a new form of Vedantic Absolutism which continued to endorse the authority of the Upanishads and his lineage teacher, Gaudapada.

The Upanishads speak of an ultimate reality named Brahman which is eternal. This was also the teaching of Gaudapada. However Gaudapada (who lived in the 8th century too) was also strongly influenced by Yogacara Buddhism and Madhyamaka Buddhism. Since the Upanishadic Brahman was ultimately real, he readily accepted the Yogacara teaching that by contrast the world was unreal and illusory (māyā) being a projection of the mind. However whereas Madhyamaka Buddhism taught the doctrine of non-origination (anutpāda), which said there was no ultimate reality (like Brahman) to ever come into existence, Gaudapada decided to keep the Upanishadic Brahman and say instead that it was 'unoriginated' (ajativāda). He did this to avoid contradicting the authority of the sacred texts.

As a result Shankara argued for Gaudapada's "unoriginated Brahman" stating that Brahman was unchangeable, infinite and imperishable. This continued to uphold the authority of the Upanishads since Brahman remained the supreme reality but it also pandered to new fashionable Buddhist ideas since the Upanishadic Brahman was recast as nirguna or "without attribute": that is, formless and indescribable. But Shankara's Brahman was also non-dual. This reinvented the traditional Hindu concepts of jiva, Atman and Brahman and reconfigured their relationship, which once again put the Upanishads head and shoulders above the rest. Shankara had sidestepped the literalists by sweeping away the theism of early Vedantins (which later culminated in Ramanuja and Madhva). He had countered the Hindu ritualists because he had embraced the Buddhist idea of non-violence (ahiṃsā) and its rejection of animal sacrifice. Shankara also continued to distance Hinduism from Buddhism by vehemently criticising the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (śūnyatā). This reiterated the popular perception that Buddhism was pessimistic and conveniently disguised the fact that he and Gaudapada had borrowed ideas from the Yogacara and Madhyamaka schools.

Shankara's philosophy - just as all spiritual philosophy - was political. This is now having serious implications for today's Advaita:

Advaita is outmoded and does not recognise modern theoretical physics. Because Gaudapada and Shankara accepted Yogacarin ideas that the world is illusory (being a creation of the mind), Advaita argues that ultimate reality is experienceable, non-illusory, and eternal. This rules out by definition the existence of theoretical entities such as electrons, protons and neutrinos since they cannot be directly experienced or perceived.

It is stuck in absolutism. In subverting the Madhyamakan theory of non-origination which states there is "no birth", Gaudapada and Shankara taught instead "there is an unborn" in the form of an unoriginated Brahman. Madhyamakans suggest that an ultimate reality is impossible because existence is co-dependently originated (pratītyasamutpāda). If all things arise interdependently, they can have no independent essence of their own, in which case they cannot be said to have ever arisen. Advaita however argues for an ultimate reality and says instead that it is this which is unoriginated. This is where Shankara's teaching short-circuits. Shankara stated that all levels of reality culminate in Brahman as the substratum of anything we experience. For him the world is an illusory appearance in Brahman. All things are therefore unreal and subject to change but due to ignorance (avidyā) we mistake them for being real - an ignorance which must be destroyed. Here the Advaitic Brahman is something "that is already there" despite us being unaware of its existence. Shankara turns his Nirguna Brahman into an absolutely existent object skulking in the shadows. The problem with objectifying anything is that it is then found not to truly exist - because like all phenomena - it is subject to change. This is a circle which cannot be squared ...

These absolutist ideas manifest in the ridiculous schism between Traditional and Neo Advaita, which is the legacy of the weaknesses of Gaudapada and Shankara's political philosophy. In recent times, Dennis Waite and James Swartz have initiated an acrimonious attack on those who dismiss methods and focus on the non-existence of the "I". Waite and his cabal call themselves "Traditional Advaitins"; they insist that a method is necessary for realisation; and they accuse their critics of the heresy of nihilism, labelling them "Neo Advaitins". This is the same argument that Shankara had with the Buddhists. Shankara rightly accused Buddhism of nihilism: the Sarvastivada and Yogacara schools taught the complete non-existence (as well as the total existence) of phenomena. But here Shankara was guilty of exactly the same absolutism. While the Sarvastivadins and the Yogacarins argued for the complete non-existence of something, Advaita was arguing for the complete existence of something (that is, Nirguna Brahman). This is nihilism and eternalism respectively. Advaita and Buddhism were playing off the same chess board, just positioned at opposite ends ...

In exactly the same way there are now modern Advaita teachers who say either "no method" or "no I" (e.g. Papaji, Karl Renz) - and also - "there is only the Self" or "there is only Consciousness" (e.g. Lakshmana Swamy, Nisargadatta). These statements are absolutist too since they insist that the Self and Consciousness completely exist (eternalism) or something like a method or the "I" completely don't exist (nihilism). Dennis Waite and his cronies are culpable of exactly the same crime they are accusing their critics of. Traditional Advaita's criticism of Neo Advaita is the song and dance of separation still playing to the same ill-starred tune: a Greek chorus of personae acting out the sequel to the Gaudapadian drama! The conceit of Traditional Advaita has become a mirror image of their consumerist cousins the Neo Advaitins. They are locked together in an eternal struggle which neither can win. This is like a still from the opening of the Russian movie Nightwatch where the forces of polarity - light/dark, order/chaos and eternalism/nihilism (call them what you will!) - are locked into a Mexican standoff of epic proportions. Traditional and Neo Advaita are both purveyors of a dogma/anti-dogma which is stale and strangely irrelevant - and their only contribution has been to add a new historical layer of mental confusion over a complete absence of any spiritual realisation whatsoever. They are engrossed in a petty, factional fight and their day is done.

Traditional and Gaudapadian Advaita have failed to address the arguments of Madhyamaka Buddhism. This too is the legacy of Gaudapada's political formulation of Advaita. We know that Gaudapada borrowed from the Madhymakans and reinterpreted their thesis of non-origination without crediting them. Unlike the Sarvastivadin and Yogacarin positions, the Madhyamaka teaching of non-origination was not nihilist. Its main teachers Nagarjuna and Candrakirti - now classified as Prasangika Madhyamaka - rejected outright both nihilism and eternalism. They advocated instead a new interpretation of the Buddha's Middle Way which says (as modern theoretical physics confirms) that absolutes are impossible. There cannot truly be any enlightenment, Self or Brahman to attain - nor can there truly be any jiva, "I" or method to attain it. This position does not say "no I" or "no method". It says all things including the person exist as empty, co-dependent arisings which are neither totally existent nor totally non-existent. Methods may happen, methods may not - what happens simply happens - and whether someone practises a method or not is completely irrelevant ...

Traditional Advaita does not even faithfully represent Shankara's teaching. Waite and Swartz are likely unaware of the precise historical currents they are shaped by. But even if they are aware of them, they don't understand them. For example their dogmatic insistence on "rigorous practice" flies in the face of the fact that Shankara, rather ironically, didn't really advocate a method for realisation! Because Gaudapada and Shankara theorised the world as unreal, the jiva in its ignorance was in need of unification with Brahman. This meant the jiva and Brahman were two separate entities and something was needed to connect them. Shankara therefore suggested the new idea that Brahman resided as Atman within the jiva, stating that Brahman could not be attained. Rather, the jiva could only hope that their ignorance would be destroyed by the jnana of an enlightened guru. Giving up desire for worldly pleasure and reflecting on the meaning of Atman as identical to Brahman would help but it could not bring about liberation itself ...

Traditional Advaita is a 21st century White-supremacist, post-colonial cult. Waite and Swartz are arch-conservatives, patriarchs of the Church of Advaita who have come to set us all right. They are Biblical Pharisees who have contrived a debate with self-created opponents in order to assert the "correct" reading of Advaita. This is no different from the civilising project of the British Empire whose Christian missionaries led the moral rectification of India.

Advaita has become a Trojan Horse of monstrous proportions hiding ill intent and murderous deceit within its liturgies and traditions. Its ancient and modern forms are the product of a self-promoting fixation on comprehending and formularising liberation so it can be controlled, taught and sold. The Gaudapadian lineage and its modern bastard Traditional Advaita are shallow, politico-religious, economic philosophies devoid of integrity, which are intellectually designed for EGOIC survival.