Play of Consciousness: An Inquiry into Advaita Vedanta’s Core Questions

Introduction

I recently received a profound set of questions that strike at the very heart of our existence:

  1. What is the purpose of life?
  2. If we are in a state of sat-chit-ananda and are this ‘Self’ already, why do we experience illusions and ignorance?
  3. How can we accept the concept of lila (divine play)? What purpose could it serve? There seems to be no satisfactory answer.
  4. What is the proof that the ‘Self’ exists?
  5. Does Advaita Vedanta rely on blind faith?
    • The problem is that Advaitic teachings seem to ultimately rely on ‘blind faith'. Other religions also ask for unquestioning belief in God to attain the promised ‘Kingdom of Heaven'. But Advaitins claim that it is through reason and logical inquiry, not pure faith, that the truth is reached. Gaudapada states in his Mandukya Upanishad Karika: “That which is stated in the scriptures and is supported by reason – is true and nothing else”. However, I feel this ‘reason/logical discourse' argument made by Advaita is unsound. It relies not on blind faith in a deity, but faith in an abstract ‘Self'.
  6. Even if we accept the non-dual nature of reality, why does this seeming duality, this mithya, exist?

To properly address this multi-faceted doubt, we will embark on a step-by-step inquiry, progressively examining the complex issues of whether life has a purpose, and if so, what that could be.

Inquiry 1: What is the Purpose of Life?

Question: What is the purpose of life?

This is the most common question asked by those starting on the path of self-discovery. The ancient Vedāntic method of ātma-vicāra (self-inquiry) taught to me begins with examining one's motivations, so it's the perfect place to start our inquiry into the nature of reality.

The great ṛṣis (sages) of the past categorized human pursuits into four broad aims known as puruṣārthas:

  1. Artha – security
  2. Kāma – pleasure
  3. Dharma – virtue
  4. Mokṣa – freedom or liberation

Artha – security

Initially, people seek security because the dualistic world is fundamentally uncertain and ever-changing. Even those with material affluence often feel anxious about losing it. So we naturally try to acquire various objects, both subtle (love, respect, power, fame) and gross (money, shelter, food, clothing), hoping they will make us feel secure.

Kama – pleasure

Once we feel secure, we pursue pleasure. When our basic needs are met, the tendency is to look for enjoyment. Much of modern society revolves around the quest for sensory and mental stimulation through things like entertainment, addictions and thrills. In today’s world, it seems that virtually everyone is a pleasure- seeker to a greater or lesser degree. It might even be said that the foundation of modern society is this very fact. Obsessions with sex, food, sports, fashion, movies, music, social networking, gaming, gambling, drugs, and alcohol — all testify to people’s incessant craving for the sensory titillation and/or psychological stimulation that passes for pleasure — which serves to temporarily distract them from the nagging inner sense of inadequacy and incompleteness by which they are troubled.

Dharma – virtue

The third aim is virtue or righteousness. For various reasons, most of us don't feel inherently good about ourselves, plagued by the sense that we are in some way deficient. The spiritually-inclined often see themselves as lacking in compassion and kindness, falling painfully short of the flawless standards set by luminaries like Jesus, Buddha, Kṛṣṇa and Gandhi.

Some, having tasted worldly delights to excess — conclude that there is more to life than self-gratification and resolve to serve others or champion worthy causes. Others, mired in shame over transgressions, hope to absolve their sins and secure divine favor through acts of piety and repentance.

Their focus is on objects – not the subject…

The main issue with the many pursuits that fall into these three categories—security, pleasure, and virtue—is that they focus on objects. They are structured upon a base of subject-object duality, of an individual striving to obtain something external to itself. However, reality is non-dual, a truth supported by both scripture and our own careful examination of life. This mismatch puts us on shaky ground in our quest for lasting happiness and peace.

In the dualistic world we live in, change is the only constant. Everything is always in flux, and nothing stays the same forever. As soon as I get what I want, the object of my desire often changes. If the object doesn’t change, I might. My interests and desires shift. So, even after getting what I thought would bring me fulfillment, I often end up feeling the same old discontent.

Even if we could somehow permanently secure the objects of our fancy and solidify our passion for them, there remains a deeper existential issue. The tantalizing happiness we seem to derive from our coveted objects does not actually originate from them at all. In truth, those objects are not the source of the joy we believe they provide. Most find this incredibly difficult to accept, for it certainly appears self-evident that my happiness comes from acquiring and experiencing what I want. However, a clear analysis of our own lived experience exposes the fallacy of this notion.

As an example, consider this scenario: Imagine a group of coworkers at a company lunch. To break the ice, one of them asks, “If you could only eat one type of cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be?” As they go around the table, the answers are diverse: “Italian.” “Mexican.” “Japanese.” When one coworker says, “Indian,” the others are surprised.

“Why Indian food?” someone asks.

The coworker explains that they love the rich spices and vegetarian options. The rest of the group, who are more accustomed to milder flavors and meat-centric dishes, are astonished. They can't fathom someone would choose Indian cuisine over their favorites like pizza, hamburgers, or sushi. The point is that the same type of food doesn’t satisfy everyone.

If the joy we experienced through objects was truly intrinsic to them, then any given object would bring the same happiness to all who encountered it. But we know full well this isn't how it works. While I may cringe at my neighbor's ear-splitting heavy metal music, a Krishna Das kirtan would likely have that same metalhead clawing his eyes out from sheer boredom. Clearly then, the joy cannot reside in the object itself.

So what then is the actual source of joy and happiness?

Vedanta tells us that there are essentially only two things that exist – the subject (me) and the objects I perceive.

We know from direct experience that joy exists, and logical examination shows that this joy doesn't come from the objects themselves. Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion is that joy comes from within me.

Ironically, I am the source of the happiness I seek through my endless pursuit of both “inner” objects (like emotional and psychological states) and “outer” objects (like relationships, possessions, and experiences). Following this reasoning to its conclusion, I realize that joy is my true nature. I am joy itself.

But if joy is my essential nature, why does it appear to come from objects?

Due to ignorance of my limitless nature, I feel small, inadequate and incomplete – a perception totally contrary to my true nature and thus extraordinarily painful. Driven by this inner deficit, I seek gross and subtle objects which I believe will complete me. Desire powerfully agitates the mind, turning my attention away from the inner wellspring of contentment towards the external world in hopes of finding fulfillment.

In that rare and magical moment when I obtain my heart's desire, the inner agitation caused by the outward-turned mind is briefly pacified. Momentarily relieved of desire's domineering influence, my awareness re-connects with its inherent wholeness and I am washed in a sense of completeness and peace. In this way, the object merely acts as a catalyst, evoking the inner joy that is my birthright.

The key takeaway from this inquiry is that it’s never the object itself that I truly desire. Instead, what I crave is the peace, happiness, and fulfillment that I mistakenly believe the object will provide.

While the fulfillment of desire undoubtedly brings happiness, the insurmountable issue with object-oriented happiness is its transient nature. Everything in this apparent dualistic universe is impermanent and limited – the external objects as well as the body-mind complex I take myself to be. What lasting result could ever come from the interaction of two finite and fleeting entities?

Despite my habitual misidentification with the limited individual, I am in reality the whole and complete, infinite, unchanging, non-dual awareness, untouched by the vagaries of time and circumstance. My real identity is one of limitless perfection – nothing can be added to or taken from me. And if my innate nature is ānanda (limitless joy), this joy must be just as permanent and immutable as I am. To seek temporary gratification through ephemeral objects is thus an exercise in utter futility.

Moksha – freedom or liberation

This realization gives rise to the fourth pursuit—freedom or liberation (moksha)—which now takes center stage in my life. At this point, achieving freedom from limitations becomes my top priority, the guiding goal that infuses purpose into all my actions.

However, since immortal perfection is my true nature, it’s not something I can acquire or gain like the objects I chase in the apparent reality. My true nature is not an external object, nor is it separate from me. In other words, I already possess what I am seeking. The only issue is that I don’t realize it—I am simply ignorant of my true nature.

So, what’s the solution? What will dispel my ignorance and reveal my true identity?

Once again, reason rather than faith provides the answer. Logical inquiry inevitably leads to the conclusion that only one thing can reveal what I already have: knowledge.

Only knowledge can free me from my mistaken notions of limitation and thus “give” me the freedom that is inherently mine. Therefore, according to Vedanta, the purpose of life and the point of gaining knowledge are ultimately the same: Liberation.

Inquiry 1 Summarized Version

  • Purpose of Life: A common question in self-discovery.
  • Vedantic Method: Begins with examining one's motivations.
  • Four Basic Pursuits: Security (artha), Pleasure (kama), Virtue (dharma), and Liberation (moksha).
  • Security: Driven by the uncertainty of the dualistic world; people seek both subtle and gross objects for invulnerability.
  • Pleasure: Sought after security is achieved; modern society often fixates on sensory and psychological stimulation.
  • Virtue: Arises from a desire to be better human beings or to help others and champion worthy causes.
  • Problems with Object-Oriented Pursuits:
    • Impermanence: Objects change, leading to discontent.
    • Joy Source Misidentified: Joy is not in the objects but in the subject.
  • Realization: Joy is an intrinsic nature of the self.
  • Mechanism of Desire:
    • Ignorance of True Nature: Leads to feelings of inadequacy.
    • Desire Causes Inner Agitation: Redirects attention outward.
    • Temporary Joy: Securing objects dissolves desire temporarily, revealing innate joy.
  • Conclusion: Pursuing joy directly within oneself leads to liberation (moksha).
  • Knowledge as Liberation: Only knowledge (not objects) can remove ignorance and reveal the true self.

Inquiry 2: What is the Purpose of Ignorance

Question: If, as stated in Advaita, we are actually in a state of sat-cit-ānanda and are already this ‘Self,’ why do we experience illusions and ignorance?

Before exploring the reason for ignorance, we must first correct the notion that limitless awareness is a state.

Self is not a state of being, for all states are time-bound and therefore transient. The limitless self, however, is inherently beyond all limitations, standing eternally untouched by the vagaries of time and space. It is the changeless substratum upon which the three fundamental states – waking, dream and deep sleep – and all phenomena within them appear.

Self is not a particular experience, epiphany or way of being to be attained or preserved – it is the formless, ever-free reality of our own being. It cannot be acquired because it is already who we are.

In fact who else are you ever experiencing then your Self, as “I am, I am, I am”.

Vedanta describes our true nature as sat-cit-ananda. Rather than denoting three separate attributes, these words are synonyms pointing to a single, indivisible truth.

Sat

Sat means “being” or “what is.”

When we say “The bird is,” “The book is,” or “The girl is,” — the common thread is the “is-ness,” the fact of their existence.

Cit

How do we know they exist? Cit – consciousness. We are aware of them.

Objects can only be said to exist because they appear in consciousness. Just as images require a screen on which to be projected — objects require the “space” of awareness in order to be.

And since reality is One, objects don't just appear in consciousness but are made of consciousness.

The universe is like a painting — the objects in it seem to be distinct entities but are in fact made of nothing but paint. In the same way, the myriad objects arising in awareness are formed of awareness itself. Thus, sat (being) and cit (consciousness) are one and the same.

Ananta

Although objects perpetually arise and subside, their essential “is-ness,” consciousness itself, remains forever unchanged and untainted. It is ananta – without end, infinite.

In fact, even terms like “eternal” and “infinite” are inadequate, as they imply the existence of time and space.

Pure consciousness exists beyond these limited constructs – indeed, time and space themselves are simply objects appearing within the limitless expanse of awareness.

My own experience confirms this truth – although innumerable sensations, feelings and thoughts have come and gone, the conscious being that I am remains unaffected.

Ananda

The term ānanda in sat-cit-ānanda is often misinterpreted as “bliss.”

To resolve this, we must understand the two kinds of ananda referred to in the scriptures: bimbānanda and pratibimbānanda.

Bimbānanda (also called ātmānanda), is the inherent joy of self. It is ever-present but cannot be objectified or experienced as a particular state. It is simply our natural condition, to be recognized and claimed.

Pratibimbānanda is the reflection of that joy experienced in a purified (sattvic) mind. Translating ānanda as “bliss” reduces it to this experiential joy, a common mistake found in yoga and mystical traditions.

However, self cannot be defined in terms of any experience, as all experiences occur within the finite limits of time and space while the self is beyond all such boundaries. 

While ānanda is better translated as “limitlessness” than “bliss,” the common interpretation has some validity if properly understood…

The “bliss” referred to is not a state of giddy elation but rather an unshakable peace and contentment, a wholeness beyond the agitations of the mind.

Since consciousness is everything, it is pūrṇam – complete, full, lacking nothing. And having no wants or needs, it is naturally free of agitation, utterly content and eternally at peace.

An analysis of our own experience irrefutably confirms that the deepest motivation behind all our actions is the desire for more happiness and peace.

Every choice we make – from the most mundane to the most consequential – is impelled by the promise of greater joy or lesser sorrow. And when we do experience happiness, we never consciously seek to adulterate it with even a modicum of misery. Because joy is our very essence, we are content simply being content.

Given that limitless joy is our inherent nature, the apparent condition of ignorance and its seeming obscuration of our innate happiness is profoundly ironic. If we were limited by an inability to experience ignorance, we would not be truly limitless. Only that which is infinite has the “capacity” to apparently ignore itself.

Such paradoxes are common when trying to reflect on the limitless and attributeless nature of the self. Concepts like how Brahman (self) can be both with and without qualities (nirguṇa and saguṇa), how self can be beyond the mind yet perceived by it (manasā paśyati), how multiplicity exists in a non-dual reality, and how we can attain what we have never been apart from — illustrate the complexity.

Vedanta should be seen as a “both/and” proposition rather than “either/or.” To fully assimilate self-knowledge, one must see from both the individual's and the limitless self's perspectives.

Nature of Ignorance

Moreover, it’s important to understand that the self does not “have” illusions and ignorance. Ignorance is simply a power within the self, called avarana-shakti. As such, it is not something that came into being or began. Ignorance, like the self, is beginningless. Unlike the self, however, it does have an end.

Ultimately, ignorance has no purpose. There is no reason for its existence, no aim it is intended to fulfill. It is simply the primordial condition of not seeing clearly, a state of delusion that dissolves like mist in the light of self-knowledge. When ignorance is recognized for what it is, it evaporates in the limitless sky of pure awareness, leaving only the non-dual self shining in its eternal effulgence.

Inquiry 2 Summarized Version

  • Clarification: The self is not a state; it is beyond time and impermanence.
  • Sat-chit-ananda: Being-consciousness-bliss are synonymous and describe the self.
  • Bliss Misinterpretation: Bliss (ananda) is intrinsic and not an experiential state.
  • Ignorance:
    • Ignorance as Power: An existential condition, not an object or action.
    • No Purpose: Ignorance has no purpose; it simply clouds reality.

Inquiry 3: For What Purpose Would Self Want to Play?

Question: How can we believe in līlā? What could be its purpose? There is no convincing answer – I am sure you will concur.

Creation is not something we need to believe in. Just as we don't need to believe in the mind to experience the arising of thoughts, we don't need to believe in the world to find ourselves surrounded by myriad objects.

Like the self, creation is self-evident, requiring no belief to be apparent. But unlike the self, creation is not self-dependent.

To understand the relationship between creation and the self, we must grasp Vedānta's three ontological categories: sat (real), asat (unreal), and mithyā (apparently real).

Sat

According to Vedanta, only that which is unchanging, eternal, all-pervasive and ever-present is considered sat, or real. The self alone fits this definition.

Asat

That which cannot exist, like a dog's wings, is asat, or unreal.

Mithya

Anything that can be experienced and serves a function, but depends on something else for its existence, is mithyā, or apparently real.

Common analogies illustrate this: a clay pot, a wave, a shirt, and a gold ornament are all mithyā, being dependent on clay, the ocean, cotton, and gold respectively for their existence.

Similarly, Vedanta asserts that all objects, gross and subtle, rely on awareness to exist. The entire universe is thus only apparently real.

Two theories of creation…

Given the non-dual nature of reality, nothing new is actually created. However, Vedanta offers two theories on how the apparent creation came into being: māyā (apparent ignorance) and līlā (playful desire).

The māyā theory is similar to the Big Bang and evolution. Unlike the materialist view that consciousness evolved from matter, Vedanta posits that consciousness first appeared as insentient subtle elements, which then grossified into physical matter and lent sentience to the universe through its association with forms like plants, animals, and humans.

The līlā theory is a mythological narrative where anthropomorphized consciousness, feeling existential boredom, expresses and enjoys its attributes through an elaborate “dance,” which is the interplay of all objects and actions in the universe.

Crucially, neither theory is presented as a factual account of creation's origin or an empirically verifiable description of its mechanics. Vedanta is not concerned with cosmological speculation. As a means of self-knowledge leading to liberation, its focus is on resolving our mistaken notions of who we are and realizing our true nature as the limitless self.

Moreover, the “why” and “how” of creation lie forever beyond the reach of human knowing. The finite instruments of scientific investigation and the intellect that interprets their data can never fully account for the infinite “space” of awareness in which they appear and of which they are made.

With this in mind, let us return to the question of life's purpose, this time from the standpoint of the self…

Purpose of life from standpoint of Self

What reason could self (Brahman) have for manifesting as the universe and playing out a ceaseless cycle of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, birth and death?

As far as the self is concerned, there is no purpose whatsoever.

In Vedanta, great care is taken to precisely define Sanskrit terms to arrive at their true meaning. In this case, it's worth examining the English word “purpose” to shed light on the matter.

“Purpose” comes from the Anglo-Norman word “porposer,” with roots in Latin “pro” (forth) and “poser” (to put). Thus, “purpose” means “to put forth.”

The self, being all-pervasive, is inherently actionless. It does not “put” or project anything, nor does it have any location outside of itself toward which it could “put forth.”

Furthermore, the self is pure impersonal awareness, without will or volition.

Lastly, the self is whole, complete, and perfect unto itself, and therefore without desire or want.

Despite the poetic appeal of the līlā theory, it is untenable to posit that impersonal consciousness creates the world because it is bored and wants to play.

Nor does consciousness require objects to know itself. The three states of waking, dream and deep sleep reveal that whether objects appear or not — I, awareness, remain ever-present.

In dreamless sleep, devoid of objects, I still know that I am, else I could not later report having slept peacefully.

The self is self-evident, self-luminous, and self-complete, entirely independent of objects. It is “beyond,” untouched and eternally free. It is not concerned with gain, loss, improvement, or experiencing oneness. It is already whole and the whole.

Due to the power of māyā, the self appears as the manifold universe — much as gold appears as various ornaments. But just as gold remains gold even when appearing as a bracelet, the self never loses its essential nature of pure awareness despite appearing as the world.

From the self's perspective then, nothing ever happens, much less happens for any purpose. The universe is not a cosmic playground projected by consciousness for its own amusement. It is simply an appearance, a play of light and shadow upon the unchanging screen of the self.

Inquiry 3 Summarized Version

  • Creation:
    • Self-Evident: Creation is evident but not self-dependent.
    • Three Categories: Real (sat), Not Real (asat), and Apparently Real (mithya).
  • Vedantic Theories:
    • Maya: Impersonal creation theory akin to the Big Bang.
    • Lila: Mythological story of divine play.
  • Self's Point of View: No purpose; creation is an apparent phenomenon due to ignorance (maya's avarana-shakti).

Inquiry 4: Is There Any Proof That The Self Exists?

Question: What is the proof that the ‘Self' exists, given all that has been written about it?

I know the self exists by virtue of my own existence. Simply put, I am, therefore the self is. My very being is self-evident proof of the self. I know that the self exists because I exist.

You might wonder, however, how I can be certain that my individual self is the universal self. Could there not be many selves?

This doubt can be resolved through a careful examination of our experience.

Observe the flow of sensations, emotions and thoughts that constitute your inner world. Notice how each of these phenomena arises within awareness, lingers for a time, and then disappears back into awareness.

We habitually identify with these phenomena, claiming them as “mine.” But while they appear in you — you are not confined to them. The awareness in which they are witnessed remains untainted and unchanged by their presence or absence.

Look closely: Does your fundamental being flicker in and out of existence with the coming and going of thoughts and feelings? Is your essential awareness altered even slightly by the ceaseless flux of mental activity? Has your existence ever been enhanced, diminished, or otherwise changed by their appearance and disappearance?

At the level of the limited individual you take yourself to be — you may indeed feel impacted by the ever-shifting tides of the mind. You may be elated by a particular thought or dejected by an emotion. But the simple, boundless awareness in which that individual appears is utterly unaffected.

Similarly, consider your experience of the outer world. Whether you meet with success or failure, gain or loss, praise or blame — the awareness in which that drama unfolds remains a changeless constant, illuminating each scene with perfect equanimity.

Now, try to locate an edge or boundary to this awareness. Can you pinpoint a place where it begins or ends?

Undoubtedly, the individual mind with which awareness is identifying has limits. Our knowledge and perception as individuals is constrained by the capacities of the mind-body mechanism. But the pure awareness that illumines the mind has no such constraints.

Your infinite nature is clearly revealed each night in the state of deep sleep. While the individual is absent in that state, awareness remains. Were you not present as that awareness, you would have no way of knowing you had slept at all, let alone slept soundly. Upon waking, in inferring you slept well, you affirm the continuity of your true self during the temporary dissolution of the body-mind.

By definition, that which is limitless precludes (rules out) the existence of anything outside of it. If awareness is truly boundless – and our inquiry has shown it to be precisely that – then it necessarily follows that there can be no second awareness standing apart from it, no “other” to its infinite inclusivity.

The self, therefore, being limitless, is singular. In reality, there are not many selves, but only the one, non-dual self.

And what is the nature of this self? Nothing more or less than pure, unqualified existence. The self simply is, shining self-effulgent in each moment, needing no proof apart from its own immediate presence.

You, awareness, are that self – the one without a second, the irreducible ground of all that is. Know this deeply, and be free.

Inquiry 4 Summarized Version

  • Self-Evident: The self is known because “I am”.
  • Singularity of Awareness:
    • Examination of Experience: Awareness is beyond sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
    • Limitlessness: Awareness has no end or perimeter.
    • Eternality: Verified in deep sleep; the self is ever-present and limitless.

Inquiry 5: What Validity Has Vedanta?

The core issue is that in the final analysis, even Advaitic teachings rely on ‘blind faith' to make their case. Faith itself is not problematic – all religions require unquestioning belief in a higher power to attain salvation. But Advaitins insist that their approach is different, that they arrive at truth through reason and analysis rather than pure faith.

Gaudapāda states in his Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad Kārikā, “That which is stated in the scriptures and is supported by reason, is true and nothing else”. However, I contend that this ‘reason/analysis' argument made by Advaitins is specious. Instead of faith in a deity, it demands blind belief in an inscrutable ‘Self'.

This criticism implies that the concept of the self is a mere theoretical abstraction, a philosophical fiction invented to alleviate our existential anxiety. It suggests that the self must be either accepted on faith or validated through argument alone.

But Vedanta is neither a faith-based religion nor a speculative philosophy. While its methodology of self-inquiry does initially require a degree of faith, as the student's understanding is still obscured by ignorance — the truth it reveals can be directly verified through a diligent examination of one's own experience. This is not to say that self-knowledge is a particular experience to be had, but rather that the one common self inherent in all experience can be discerned through careful reasoning and inquiry.

In fact, Vedanta asserts that the search for a unique experience of the self is entirely misguided. The reality is that we are always experiencing self, in every moment of our lives. If reality is truly non-dual, as Vedanta claims, then there can be nothing other than self to be experienced, now or ever.

Of course, this raises the crucial question: How do we know that reality is in fact non-dual?

As with all Vedantic conclusions, the infallible proof of non-duality is found through a penetrating analysis of the unexamined logic of our own experience. A fresh look at our relationship with the objects of our experience, exposes the erroneous assumptions we have made about the nature of reality.

Our experience of the world is defined by our perception of and interaction with objects.

Let us examine where these objects are actually located…

If I see a boy holding an ice cream cone across the street, where is that cone? We typically assume, based on our cultural conditioning, that the cone is in the boy's hand some distance away. But is this true?

To answer this, we must consider the mechanism of perception, specifically vision.

Visual perception occurs when light bounces off an object and is received by our eyes, creating an image in the mind.

We realize that what we see is not the object itself but an image or idea of it within our mind.

Next, consider the mind itself. How far is my mind from awareness? The answer is that there is no gap between my mind and me. Therefore, there is no separation between the objective world and me, the subjective perceiver, or the pure awareness in which all objective phenomena appear.

If I recognize that my body is merely an object appearing within me, no different to any other object, I realize the true non-dual nature of reality.

Objection

One might object that this analysis doesn't disprove the independent reality of the object that initially reflected light into our eyes. But further inquiry dissolves this doubt.

Before proceeding, let us clarify what we mean by “real.” The common materialist view of reality, which equates reality with independent physical existence, crumbles under rational scrutiny.

By this definition, a given object is assumed to be a self-contained entity distinct from all other objects. But this criterion fails to account for mental and emotional phenomena.

What is ‘real'…

In Vedanta, what is considered “real” is that which is immutable and eternal, the unchanging substratum upon which the time-space continuum depends.

According to Vedanta, what is “real” is that which cannot be negated, is always true, and serves as the substratum of the time-space continuum that defines apparent reality. Reality is that upon which all objects depend but which is self-dependent and self-luminous, remaining ever-free of all phenomena appearing within it.

Contrary to some interpretations of Buddhism and Neo-Advaita — Vedanta does not say that the realm of dependent objects doesn’t exist. Our direct experience attests to the existence of objects. The issue is not their existence but their reality.

If objects did not exist, we would not perceive them. The question is not whether objects exist, but whether they are real. 

To determine whether objects are real, Vedanta points out three ontological categories… 

According to Vedanta, there are three ontological categories: real (satya), not-real (asat), and apparent (mithyā).

Sat refers to what cannot be negated and doesn’t change. It cannot be enhanced or diminished. The only reality that is ultimately real is the self, pure awareness, me.

Asat is that which cannot exist, like the horns of a rabbit or the son of a barren woman.

Mithyā is the ontological status of the entire objective universe. Physical objects, thoughts and emotions all fall under this category. Although we experience them, they are impermanent, ever in flux. We cannot say they are absolutely real, as they are always changing. But nor can we say they are utterly non-existent, as we do perceive them. 

The crux of Vedanta is discernment between the real (satya) and the apparent (mithya), what is called ātma-anātma-viveka, distinguishing the self from the not-self.

Furthermore, it's not like satya and mithya are different. They just enjoy a different ontological reality.

For example, gold always remains gold, no matter what state it's in. So it's metaphorically satyam. While the ring, bangle and millions of different ornaments, are metaphorically mithya, because they all depend on gold for their IS-ness.

A Vedanta teacher will further show how this universe of multiplicity arises out of one Awareness. 

Four world-shattering insights that deconstruct our commonly held notions about the nature of objects and our relationship to them…

Additionally, experience of seemingly independent objects reveals that sensory qualities and perceptions occur in awareness and have no verifiable existence outside of awareness. All objects, both gross and subtle, are only verifiable through sense perception and/or inference, both of which occur in awareness.

This mode of analysis can be applied to all objects, for even subtle objects like thoughts and emotions have a sensory component, as they are invariably accompanied by mental images. A thorough inquiry along these lines shatters our assumptions about the nature of objects and our relationship with them.

Insight 1: 

First, no sensory experience verifies the existence of an independent perceiver. In other words, through your sensory experience of a supposedly independent object, you do not experience some other perceiver who exists independently from you (i.e. you don’t see another seer, smell another smeller, etc.). The upshot of this realization is that you are the only witnessing entity whose existence can be undoubtedly determined.

Insight 2:

Second, no sensory experience verifies the existence of an independent object. Honest analysis of your own direct experience reveals that the perceptions of any one sense organ do not add up to the whole of the object you think has its own independent existence (i.e. the visual sensations of color and shape you experience when looking at the driver’s side of a car do not account for the existence of the front and back ends nor the passenger’s side of the car; you only assume that those aspects exist because of the way you have been conditioned to accept the three-dimensional nature of the world). This observation leads to the realization that what you are actually experiencing is not an independent physical object, but only one or more particular sensorial qualities (i.e. the sense of sight perceives the qualities of color and shape; the sense of touch experiences degrees of heat and coolness, hardness and softness, wetness and dryness, roughness and smoothness, heaviness and lightness; and so on for the other senses). The upshot of this realization is that the sensory qualities that we experience cannot be verified as coming from any separate object that exists outside of ourselves.

In short: Our senses only perceive individual qualities, not complete independent objects, which are merely assumed based on conditioned perceptions.

Insight 3:

Third, no sensory experience verifies the independent existence of any sensorial quality. In other words, these qualities are not just sitting around “out there” in the world waiting to be experienced. In order to verify that such were the case, we would have to be able to experience the quality by way of some other sense, which is clearly impossible (i.e. we can’t hear a color or shape, we can’t see a sound, we can’t feel a smell, etc.). The upshot of this realization is twofold. First, we see that the sensorial quality and the sense organ that perceives it are essentially one and the same. In other words, smelling only occurs when a smell registers in our mind. That is, when a particular odor arises in our mind, we call that experience “smelling.” In general terms, then, it can be said that the smell and the sense of smell are mutually dependent upon one another. Neither exists without the other, and so neither can be said to have an independent existence. Second, we see that the sense of smell is the substrate of any particular smell. In other words, the sense of smell is what allows for the experience of any specific odor, and though any specific odor is only temporary the sense of smell remains the sustaining element of any experience of smelling. In essence, then, we can say that while any particular smell is dependent upon the sense of smell for its existence, the sense of smell is free of dependence on any particular smell. That is, no particular smell can exist independent of the sense of smell, but the sense of smell is experienced in connection with a wide variety of odors and thus does not depend on any particular smell for its existence.

In short: No sensory experience verifies the independent existence of any sensory quality, as these qualities and the sense organs perceiving them are mutually dependent and exist only within the mind.

Insight 4:

Fourth, no sensorial experience verifies the independent existence of any sense organ. As is the case with the sensory qualities, the sense organs are not just sitting around “out there” in the world like a bunch of tools waiting to be picked up and used by awareness in order for awareness to have experiences. Rather, the sense organs are actually modes of awareness itself and are thus not separate from awareness. Another way of looking at it is to understand that while the instruments with which we gather sensory data – and which are commonly referred to as sense organs – are located on the physical body, the sense organs as such are actually functions of the mind. Thus, as we realized through our previous inquiry, all seemingly objective sensory experience is actually “happening” in the mind. And, of course, the mind is simply awareness appearing in subtle form.

In short: No sensory experience verifies the independent existence of any sense organ, as sense organs are modes of awareness and are functions of the mind, existing only within awareness.

So, through this analysis, all objects – gross and subtle – are resolved into the singular awareness which is their source and substance. We are led to the conclusion that only awareness exists, and thus reality is fundamentally non-dual. While this might seem to contradict the earlier statement affirming the existence of objects, it does not. Although awareness is the ground and essence of all manifestation, this does not negate the appearance of objects. Objects do exist, but not as self-contained entities separate from awareness. Rather, they are appearances within and made of awareness itself. They enjoy an apparent or dependent existence.

The universe and all the myriad objects within it – including what we call the body and mind – are in the final analysis nothing but awareness knowing itself in and through itself. All objects arise from, abide in, and dissolve back into pure awareness. Like a spider spinning its web from its own substance, awareness is both the material and intelligent cause of all that is. Existence is awareness, and awareness is non-dual. Rightly understood, my entire life is an unbroken, uninterrupted experience of my own self.

Vedanta then is not a speculative philosophy to be believed in, but a means of knowledge (pramāṇa), a methodical inquiry that reveals the true nature of reality. It is a shabda pramaṇa, a vehicle of knowledge that uses words to guide the mind beyond the limits of conceptual understanding to the non-conceptual fact of the self. Though words are themselves conceptual, Vedanta employs them as pointers (lakṣaṇas) to direct the mind toward its own source – the limitless expanse of pure awareness.

The reverence accorded to scripture in the Vedantic tradition is rooted in the recognition that these texts are a repository of the wisdom of the ancient seers who first experienced these truths directly.

Over generations, their insights have been tested, refined and purified of all personal distortion. In this way, the scriptures function as an unerring mirror in which we can behold the self with pristine clarity. They are not a creed demanding our blind belief, but an aid to understanding, an illuminating guide to deciphering the truth of our own experience.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, Vedanta is simply the lamp of knowledge that dispels the darkness of ignorance. It is the supreme means to enlightenment, a way of understanding that frees the mind from its bondage to false limitations, allowing us to abide in our true nature as ever-free, infinite awareness.

Like a thorn used to remove a thorn, Advaita Vedanta is the tool that dislodges the fundamental misunderstanding that is the cause of all suffering. When its purpose is served, it leaves us resting in the boundless freedom and joy of the self, the one non-dual reality.

The essential point is that Vedanta's claims are not appeals to faith, but rigorous conclusions drawn from a penetrating inquiry into the hidden logic of our lived experience. Its authority comes not from any unverifiable dogma, but from its power to make sense of our immediate reality in a way that no other model can.

Vedanta is a friend, not a tyrant. It does not demand belief, but invites us to investigate, to test its principles in the laboratory of our own lives. For one who looks with an open mind and an eager heart, the vision of non-duality becomes not a distant abstraction, but a living, moment-to-moment reality.

Its truth is not something to be taken on trust, but to be continuously discovered and affirmed in the depths of one's own being.

Inquiry 5 Summarized Version

  • Not Blind Faith: Vedanta is neither a faith-based religion nor a theoretical philosophy.
  • Means of Knowledge: Vedanta is a pramana (means of knowledge) that reveals the self through logical inquiry.
  • Non-Duality: Established through a logical analysis of sensory experience.
  • Three Ontological Categories: Real (satya), Not Real (asat), and Apparent (mithya).
  • Vedanta's Purpose: Emancipate from ignorance and reveal the true nature as limitless awareness.

Inquiry 6: What is the Purpose of the Apparent?

Question: Even if reality is non-dual, why does this seeming duality exist? Why does this mithya of life exist?

As previously established, there is no creation in the sense of something entirely new coming into being. Consciousness alone exists, forming the substratum of all that is. There can be nothing apart from consciousness, so any apparent object is merely a reconfiguration of this singular substance, not a novel entity.

That said, from the standpoint of both the individual and Īśvara (God), there is indeed an apparent creation. However, there is a key distinction between Īśvara sṛṣṭi, God's projection of the objective universe, and jīva sṛṣṭi, the individual's subjective interpretation of that universe.

To understand this distinction, we must first consider the fundamental building blocks of the apparent reality – the three guṇas, or qualities. Sattva is characterized by harmony, light and knowledge; rajas by activity, passion and desire; and tamas by inertia, delusion and ignorance. The infinite permutations of these guṇas give rise to the myriad objects and experiences that constitute the manifest world.

Through a complex process called panchikaranam, pure consciousness apparently forgets its true nature, assumes the appearance of the five elements – the fundamental building blocks of the apparent reality – and thereafter projects itself as the manifested universe on both the gross and subtle levels of being. This projection is what is referred to as God’s creation (Ishvara srishti). Once established, its fundamental laws and order does not change. However objects within it are in a constant state of flux by mere virtue of objects interacting with other objects within laws like psychological, biological, chemical, dharmic, etc., laws.

Within this framework, the individual, or jīva, also has a certain capacity to “create,” although in a much more limited and superficial way. The individual is essentially a composite of impressions, or vāsanās, which manifest as one's likes and dislikes, or rāga-dveṣas. These preferences are shaped by the individual's experiences, both in this life and in previous incarnations. A pleasurable experience creates a vāsanā of attraction, while a painful one creates a vāsanā of aversion. Stored in the causal-body, these vāsanās impel us to seek out pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant ones, coloring our perception and interpretation of reality. Vasanas are composed of varying proportions of the guṇas – a predominance of rajas leads to extroverted desires, while a predominance of tamas leads to fearful avoidance. In this way, the vāsanās are like filters through which the individual views Īśvara sṛṣṭi, “creating” a personalized and distorted version of it.

Not matter of faith…

Now, one might argue that this distinction between Īśvara sṛṣṭi and jīva sṛṣṭi is an unverifiable matter of faith. But a careful examination of our experience refutes this. Consider your own mind, the most intimate object of your experience. For this mind to appear, it must appear within some field of awareness. There are only two possibilities: either it appears in an individual field of awareness, or in the universal field of awareness that is Īśvara sṛṣṭi.

If we take the first option, we quickly run into logical problems. There would be no way to establish that one's personal awareness is the only awareness, nor any way to confirm the existence of other awarenesses. More fundamentally, as an individual, you could never experience anything outside your own field of awareness. The very notion of an external world would be rendered moot, as it could have no tangible impact on you. This position amounts to solipsism and is thus untenable.

The alternative – that the individual mind appears within the universal field of awareness – accords with both scripture and reason. Though our individual perspective is undoubtedly limited, the awareness illumining our mind is the very same awareness illumining all minds and all phenomena.

Vedānta illustrates this with several analogies: the wave and the ocean, the pot and the clay, the ornament and the gold. In each case, the individual entity is dependent upon and non-different from the whole of which it is a part. In the same way, the awareness perceived through the lens of the individual (ātman) is ultimately no different from the absolute awareness that is Brahman.

However, due to the power of māyā, this non-dual awareness apparently forgets itself and identifies with the limited mind-body-sense complex. Like a ray of sunlight passing through a prism, the infinite light of awareness seems to assume the colorations and limitations of the particular individual through which it shines. While in essence the awareness remains unchanged, from the standpoint of the jīva it seems to be constrained.

This explains the apparent paradox of why we, as individuals, are not omniscient or omnipotent if our true nature is limitless awareness. In reality, awareness is all-knowing and all-powerful, “inhabiting” and animating every being simultaneously. But when awareness identifies with a particular mind-body complex, it seems to be bound by the limitations of that structure. From the perspective of the jīva, awareness is confined to the sensory and mental capacities of that specific individual.

Therefore, the only reasonable purpose we can ascribe to life is liberation – the dispelling of ignorance and the recognition of our true nature as the non-dual self. As long as we identify with the limited individual, we will continue to experience the suffering born of this misidentification. But through the self-knowledge gained from Vedantic inquiry, we can break free from this illusory bondage and abide in our innate freedom as pure, limitless awareness.

The apparent duality that is the world serves no ultimate purpose, for in reality, it does not even exist. It is merely an illusory play of consciousness, a fleeting dream that dissolves upon waking to our true nature. But from the relative standpoint of the jīva still lost in ignorance, the highest purpose of this ephemeral existence must be to realize its ephemeral nature. To see through the false veil of separation and rediscover the non-dual essence of our being – this is the only truly worthwhile aim and endeavor. For it is only in the clear light of self-knowledge that we can, at last, find the wholeness, peace and freedom that are our birthright.

Glory of Vedanta

When, through the patient application of Vedantic inquiry, we lift the obscuring veil of ignorance and see ourselves as we truly are, the search for meaning and purpose comes to an end. For we discover that we are the very meaning we have been seeking, the irreducible essence of existence itself. In that recognition, all questions are answered, all doubts are dissolved, and all desires are fulfilled. We stand revealed as the ever-free, ever-full, ever-blissful awareness, the silent ground of all that is.

This is mokṣa, liberation – not the gaining of something new, but the rediscovery of our eternal nature. It is the ultimate destination of the human journey, the consummation of all spiritual aspiration. And it is available to each of us, here and now, for it is the fundamental fact of our very being.

The purpose of the apparent, then, is to be realized as just that – an appearance. It is a cosmic game of hide-and-seek, wherein consciousness forgets itself for the sheer delight of remembering. The world is a grand tapestry woven of light and shadow, a fleeting dream conjured by the divine magician. But though the dream may play out in endlessly fascinating ways, its only real purpose is to be recognized for what it is – an ephemeral dance staged upon the changeless ground of pure awareness.

When we awaken to this truth, when we see the dream as a dream and know the dreamer as our own self, the enchantment of duality is broken. We no longer identify with the limited roles we play, but delight in them as spontaneous expressions of our inherent creativity. Suffering born of clinging and attachment comes to an end, for we know that no experience, however intense, can add to or detract from our innate wholeness. Fear dissolves, for we see that there is nothing apart from us to threaten us. Desire subsides, for we recognize that we are the very source of all joy and contentment.

In short, we are freed to live with a sense of lightness, ease and spontaneity, embracing all that arises as an effortless manifestation of the self. This is the natural state of the jivanmukta, the one who is liberated while still appearing to live in the world. Abiding in the unshakable knowledge of our true nature, we navigate the vicissitudes of life with unwavering peace and equanimity, secure in the conviction that whatever comes, we remain forever untouched, forever free.

This is the invitation and the promise of Vedanta – not a distant ideal to be attained, but an ever-present reality to be recognized and claimed. It is a call to abandon the fruitless search for fulfillment in the ephemeral and embrace our true identity as the eternal. It is a beacon guiding us home to the heart of our being, the abode of lasting joy and peace.

Let us heed this call, for in the end, there is no higher aspiration, no deeper satisfaction, than to know ourselves as we truly are. Let us embark on this inner journey with sincerity and devotion, trusting that the self, our constant companion and infallible guide, will surely lead us to the goal. For the self is not a distant destination, but the immanent reality of our own awareness, the very substance of our being. To seek it is to find it, and to find it is to be free.

So let us begin. Let us turn our gaze inward with the torch of self-inquiry and boldly plumb the depths of our experience. Let us fearlessly question all that we have taken for granted and relentlessly pursue the truth of who we are. Let us make this the great work of our lives, the unwavering focus of our minds and hearts. For in the end, there is no more worthy endeavor, no more sacred quest, than the journey to the self.

May we all have the courage and the clarity to walk this path. May we all awaken to the wonder and beauty of our true nature. May we all know the limitless joy and freedom that are our birthright. For in that knowing, all seeking comes to an end, and life becomes a spontaneous outpouring of love and service. This is the highest aim and the deepest meaning of our existence. This is the purpose of the apparent. Let us realize it, here and now.

Inquiry 6 Summarized Version

  • No Creation: From the self's perspective, there is no creation.
  • God's Creation (Isvara Shrishti): The apparent universe projected by God.
  • Individual's Creation (Jiva Shrishti): The individual's subjective experience colored by vasanas.
  • Purpose of Life: Liberation from the notion of limited individuality and realization of one's true nature as limitless awareness.

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