Adi Shankaracharya

Upanishadic thought culminated in the non-dualism of Advait philosophy of Vedant ( appendix to Vedic hymns). Its greatest proponent was the brilliant sage-philosopher of the 8th century AD who sought to consolidate trends of thought on the subject present in different treatises (see my post/page on Adi Shankaracharya).

The concepts of Karma and Rebirth had already formed in the Upanishads but had now become sophisticated concepts well entrenched in Hindu thought. Karma and Rebirth were features of the illusory world whose only reality was the self (Atman). This self however was hidden deep in the mirage of the world and could only be discovered by getting rid of Ignorance which made the physical world and the ego appear real. This could be achieved in stages through righteous actions without desire for reward, yoga, and meditation. Devotional worship was also only a preliminary stage on ones journey to realization of non-duality.( Advait techniques were prescribed by shankeracharya, followed to this day in his Muths or monastries throughout india, as study, Reflection, Postures, contolled Breathing, Withdrawal of sense functions, concentration, Meditation, absorption, dual and non-dual – a complcated series of regimes to the final goal)

Another aspect of ignorance was to conceive of a personal divine being worshipped as the creator, maintainer and terminator of the cosmos with form and characteristics . Such a being was to be regarded as the emergence of a magnificent super-ego much like the individual ego and was equally illusory. This omniscient, omnipotent, magnificent Being could never truly correspond with Brahman the essence without attributes. At best it was a mask which we had placed on the face of Brahman to understand him better, one which had to be cast away when the adept in Advait Vedant had ascended beyond the need for one – the personality of the highest and magnificent godhead would then disappear. Both the illusion of the godhead and his created world would then vanish leaving him with the reality of self, truth (Sat), consciousness (Chit) and bliss (Anand) which was an aspect of Brahman within him. (This position of Vedant challenging the reality of godhead was of course furiously opposed by Hindu devotional cults and saints of popular Hinduism who were more concerned with the object of their devotion as the godhead or his Avatar (incarnated godhead) rather than so called esoteric truths. In fact the devotional movement began to have a moderating influence on absolute Monist beliefs.)

Returning to Advait –  ‘Ignorance’ and its product ‘Illusion’ were not nothing – indeed it was ‘something’ which appears as a passing reality which has the form of becoming (Bhavarupa) – if it were real beyond change  (Sat) it could never be dispelled.  Ignorance the source of Maya or illusion was  not merely a negative principle, like lack of insight or understanding but a positive force (shakti – energy) which creates the illusion of the world and the five sheaths covering the eternal soul. It has two aspects – the negative which covers and hides the soul and in its positive aspect creates the multiplicity of phenomena – desires, fear, loathing, fulfilment, suffering and infecting our consciousness with notions of euphoria and delight.     (in my personal view the concept of illusion is connected in relative terms to the transient and changing form of the physical world where under the inexorable march of time everything changes from instant to instant – we are not what we were a moment before – so what is our reality – there is nothing unchanging, not even the sun – nothing has absolute stability – therefore it is a bit of an illusion from which we need to extract ourselves and anchor our minds on something which has permanence – a kind of fleeting reality which in the Hindu philosophical thinking has earned itself the extreme nomenclature of unreal or illusion, without qualification.)

In that so called illusory world on the physical plane, however  Karma and Rebirth held sway. Both concepts had fully evolved from their preliminary references in the Upanishads into mature doctrines in the Gita which had far reaching influence on the daily life styles, beliefs and ethics of the common man. According to Vedanta the self, remained hidden deep within the illusory world covered by five sheaths. The first was the gross body  (the waking state of the Mandukya Upanishad – see previous post ). The second the vital forces, the third, mind, the fourth, intellect – these three formed the subtle body ( the dream state of the Mandukya). While the fifth (deep dreamless sleep of Mandukya – the equivalent of the godhead) was the causal body. All these sheaths according to Advait Vedanta are illusory, including the state of realizing godhead and arose from Ignorance (avidya). Beyond it is the Silence which is the only Reality – that of Brahman( beyond the sound of Om the total silence).

The soul entrapped in these sheaths of Ignorance keeps hopping from one life to another ( after death of the gross body) carrying with it the subtle body full of Karmic traces and effects of past lives, till the subtle body is finally cleansed and refined and pure without Karmic effects whereupon the Ignorance is shed, the sheaths fall away and the soul is free to ‘merge’ back into the universal essence of Brahman. This in a sense is all a divine illusory play (Lila) which ends when the mirage of Ignorance has dispersed or been dispelled. Ultimately it can be called Brahman’s dream or again his play for which there is no audience. For after all the individual soul and Brahman the universal Soul were never separated, were always One.