[Samkara (c.700 CE) was an Indian Brahmin who is regarded by many as the most authoritative Hindu thinker of all time. He was primarily a commentator on the sacred texts of the Vedas and a teacher of the Advaitin branch of Vedanta philosophy. Unlike monotheism, which has its roots in a mind-body dualism, Samkara maintained there is no such dualism.]
Throughout Samkara’s various treatises, Samkara argues in favor of a metaphysics that is non-dualistic. Herein, we shall examine why; are his appeals based upon reason, are they an appeal to scriptural authority, or an appeal to experience? Does he argue based upon multiple appeals? In order to find out, we must begin (and end) with the equation of Atman with Brahman, seeing how it is clear from Sengaku Mayeda’s transcripts of the Upadesasahasra that there is no difference between Atman and Brahman. However, because no philosophy can be straightforward, this is not the same as saying they are the same thing.
First, we must understand what Brahman is. Samkara held Brahman as the unifying, highest reality, a reality free of qualities that is manifest in both the physical world and one’s absolute identity (ultimately Atman, which will be discussed shortly). Brahman is formless and is neither existent nor non-existent. Thus, Brahman is the totality of all there is. This view is taken from various scripture that cite Brahman as “without and within, unborn,” “That which transcends hunger and thirst,” and “Verily, this is all Brahman.” But how does this view relate to Atman and why is there no dualism in Samkara’s metaphysics?
Aside from Brahman, we must now understand Atman. Atman can be understood in terms of being an eternal universal spirit that when resident in a (supposed) individual person becomes the eternal soul of that individual. Or, in relation to Atman as a whole, a person’s soul equals atman, a piece of Atman, in a manner of speaking. This is not to say atman is a constituent of Atman; one’s atman is equivalent to Atman since there must be a principle soul from which living things can be infused with (what appears to be) their own souls. Any apparent division between the two is due to the power of maya, an illusion-inducing force which makes it possible for one’s atman to know the world subjectively. In actuality, each atman – which is any individual’s sought after true nature – is Atman as well.
But how can the individual’s ultimate nature be Atman if, as the pupil indicates it is written, that the highest Atman is “free from evil, ageless, deathless”? A student might ask how he can be Atman if he feels pain or other physical sensations. Samkara argues that something like pain is an illusion (again, due to maya); pain is perceived in our bodies at a particular location, not in perceivers themselves. If the perceiver (Atman) was the location of pain, we would point to our whole body as the location of pain. Moreover, Samkara shores up this view by informing the student of the locus of forms and desires as being “Right in the intellect.” Obviously, impressions and emotions have no physical location that one can point to as in the case of pain, so where could they be? In none other than that which is not physical, the soul.
Now Samkara can connect atman to Atman. Samkara has built a certain relationship between one’s body and their atman; pain is felt in the body, not in the perceiver, not in one’s soul. Samkara makes a similar relation between atman and Atman; desires and emotions are in one’s soul, but not in the eternal universal spirit.
Here, we begin to see what Samkara means by ‘reasonableness;’ he is pointing out what he believes to be obvious. However, in pointing out what he believes is obvious, he defers to the scriptural authority that identifies the perceiver with Atman. In the example of pain, Samkara appears to be well aware that there is some disconnection between a person’s perceptions and where they perceive something like pain to take place. Samkara may be correct that the perceiver is not their own body in which pain occurs, but there is nothing other than scriptural authority that equates that perceiver with either atman or Atman in particular, or that some other explanation can be ruled out altogether. Samkara appears to strongly defer to scripture in equating the ultimate perceiver with such quotes as, “He is declared to be unchanging” and “Because He is beginningless and attributeless.” Samkara treats atman similarly, writing, “Impurity [such as desire and aversion] is in the object and not in Atman [which is the subject] according to hundreds of sruti passages such as…” There doesn’t appear to be any true justification for Samkara’s view that atman and Atman are equal, simply that there is something strange going on between the body and whatever it is that perceives. Samkara can give that power a name, but this merely serves as a starting point from which we can begin to wonder what is really taking place.
But let us suppose for a moment that Samkara is right about atman and Atman, or simply Atman since they are not different. Most obviously, if we are to hold the view that Brahman encompasses everything that is seen and unseen, then Atman is within the sphere of Brahman. That is, if Brahman is everything, everything is also Brahman. Brahman is found in the physical world and the spiritual world (not that this division is real). Atman then falls under the umbrella of Brahman, so-to-speak, relating to Brahman in the same way atman relates to Atman – Atman is not separate from Brahman’s essence (if ‘essence’ were the appropriate word to use for that which has no essence). Just as each atman is Atman, Atman is Brahman. Not realizing this leads to what one might perceive as a duality between the two.
However, as before, there really does not seem to be any particular line of reasoning that might lead us to this conclusion. Whereas we saw previously that the equation of atman with Atman required some leap of faith, so does it appear in the case of equating Atman with Brahman. Samkara literally fails to base his reasoning on logic alone, writing, “The scripture gradually removes his ignorance regarding this matter” which has the effect of indicating that any pupil of Samkara is going to have to read, re-read, and reinforce through a need to believe it that Atman is Brahman. Samkara ultimately sees reasonableness as what is revealed by scriptures, which apparently explains and solves the apparent duality between perceiver and objects and the interconnectedness of things. It may seem reasonable to observe and attempt to explain a world that operates in such a manner, and it may be correct, but deferring to scriptures on the matter does not lead us there. Where is the evidence? It is awfully convenient of the scriptures to hold that Atman or Brahman can be accounted for by evidence since the supposed evidence would be all around us and we simply have to realize it.
In conclusion, we should not think Samkara has any good justification (in the Western analytic philosophy sense) for his belief in non-dualism. In fact, his basic premise – that something strange is going on between the body and the perceiver – we can easily think actually argues in favor of dualism. It appears the only way for Samkara to make the leap from the apparent reality of objects and our bodies to their unity with the spiritual world is to defer to the scriptural beliefs in maya. Certainly, if maya is a real illusionary power, our extended world is not real and Samkara’s arguments are victorious. But too much rests upon scriptural reference in Samkara’s arguments. Where is his evidence that Brahman has no beginning or end or is “without and within, unborn”? Where is the evidence that our inner perceiver, our soul, is a manifestation of the Atman as super-soul? As indicated earlier, Samakara’s logic is found wanting. That being the case, he would need evidence to support his views, and this reader has found that evidence lacking. The conceptions of atman, Atman, and Brahman, all rest upon scripture, not from any independent arguments or experiences that indicate the reality of such things. ‘Reasonableness’ is not found by twisting scriptural references to fit one’s version of the truth.