Advaita Vedanta vs. Visistadvaita Vedanta: On the Nature of Self

Final Paper for “Indian Philosophy” with Professor Bill Allen at austin College, May 2001

Two schools of Vedanta, Advaita and Visistadvaita both grew as interpretations of the Upanisads. Samkara’s non-dual Advaita was later followed by Ramanuja’s qualified non-dual Visistadvaita. Although derived from the same text these two schools hold disparate views on the issue of the self and its relationships. Where Ramanuja says the self is finite and knowable, Samkara asserts that the self is infinite and unknowable. In the following paragraphs we shall flesh out this discrepancy and try to come to a reasonable conclusion.

Let’s define some pertinent terms first. The entire debate hinges on the definition of terms, different definitions lead to different conclusions. In a sense, if a consensus could be reached in the definitions of terms, there is no longer a debate, as the bulk of discrepancies of opinion stem from discrepancies in definitions. In order to keep our heads out of the clouds of over-complexity and our feet on the ground of practicality, we’ll base the validity of definitions on their correspondence with our everyday uses of the terms. This might bias our judges against one school or another, but it seems that for the sake of the helpfulness of any philosophical conclusion we might reach, terms must apply to the world in which we live.

Right off the bat we will see that Advaita must abandon their concept of the presence of consciousness and knowledge in the absence of subject/object distinction. Advaita claims that the self is consciousness, and the self is knowledge, along with other things. They take this further by claiming that these can exist apart from subject/object distinction, commonly thought to be necessary for thought, knowledge and consciousness. The example given of such a state of undifferentiated consciousness is that of dreamless sleep. Upon awaking one is aware that they have been sleeping, so Advaitas consider this consciousness. I, and others would consider this a conscious reflection on the absence of consciousness, thereby containing both a subject and an object.

Consciousness and knowledge, as the terms are used everyday, never refer to dreamless sleep, but always of the relation of a subject to an object. The phrase, “I know,” lacks meaning without an object of knowledge, something that I know. Similarly, to be conscious, is to be conscious of something – self-conscious, socially conscious, environmentally conscious, interacting. By a medical definition a conscious person is one that can interact coherently with the world around them. An unconscious person does not lose their self, thus the self persists without the persistence of consciousness or knowledge. I could run through the Webster’s 7+ definitions, but let’s just suffice it to say that none of them resembled dreamless sleep, as a matter of fact they were all quite active.   So sorry Samkara, we’ll have to reject that the self is consciousness or knowledge because that claim is contrary to how the words are used in concrete circumstances of everyday life.

So where does that leave us for a definition of self? Both schools will agree, “thou art that” – Atman is Brahman. The question remains though, whether the two are identical or merely participants in a mode/substance relation. Defining words in this previous sentence can get tricky. Does the term “is” set up an equality or more like “a square is a rectangle” relation?

We’ll now see if we can pin down some common idea of self, substance, mode, and identity. By putting the words in the context of a thesis we’ll have a place to start from and get into the thick of the debate. We’ll begin with a thesis and proof stated by representatives of the Visistadvaita.

1) the self is a mode

2) because it is of the substance Brahman

3) All substance has modes (e.g. I have a soccer player mode, a daughter mode, etc.)

4) the self is a mode which is of the substance Brahman

5) therefore the self is a mode.

OK time for definitions again…

We must first acknowledge the Advaita distinction between the individual self which acts and the universal Self (Atman) which is. Ramanuja, on the other hand endows his own concept of individual self with the qualities Samkara attributes to the universal Self, namely: eternality, consciousness, immutability, and atomic indivisibility. Thus when we refer to the self, Advaitas should understand that this is their Self, in the universal sense, rather than their individual self.

The invariable concomitance of the above stated argument is that of the mode and substance; neither exists without the other. This is not to say that independent existence is not possible, but that it is not the case. A substance is one identifiable thing that takes many shapes. Each shape is a mode of the substance. For example, water can be either a gas, a liquid or a solid. The feature which links these distinct states is that they are all forms of water, their substance. The term water is nonsensical without one of it’s modes, ice, vapor or liquid, just as we lack a fundamental understanding of the reality of the modes, their relationship to one another, if we do not recognize that they are of one substance, namely water.

This reasoning presumes that Brahman is a substance which exists in each individual self. Both Vedanta schools will uphold this Upanishadic derived concept. But Advaita will not agree that the self is a mode, and will insist on it’s identity/equality with Brahman. Either Advaita sees each mode as the same as its substance or that the individual self is the mode of the universal self, and the mode does not share any of the eternal attribute of the substance, but is only somehow mysteriously connected. The connection between a physical substance and mode like that of water is easy to understand, but when one tries to establish a connection between a physical mode and an abstract substance the connection is a little less provable. What constitutes the relationship between individual self and universal Self, if the two are completely distinct?   Thus the substance and its mode are either purely identical or purely different. This claim hinges on the definitions of identity and difference. Here Ramanuja’s school might propose a proof such as the following…

1) Self is a mode of God

2) Because self is not purely identified with or different from God

3) Because pure identity and pure difference are mere abstraction and equally unreal.

4) Self is not purely identified with or different from God

5) Self is a mode of God

A challenge may immediately be put forth on the order of the subject / object presentation. Could God not be a mode of the self substance? If the two are identical yes. If Ramanuja claims that God is infinite and the self finite, he had better come up with a good reason why. The notion of finite vs. Infinite self will be explored shortly.

This line of reasoning might be supported with the claim that were pure identity a reality, there could be no action and thus no knowledge. In order for there to be knowledge, there must be knowing. To know is a verb and thus requires action which depends on some sort of extension of place and time beyond the identity of all things with pure atomistic indivisibility. To which a quick witted Advaita would reply, only Atman and Brahman are identical, the extension of the empirical world allows for action to occur, thus pure identity has not been negated. This is a claim that there is pure difference between the ultimate and the immediate. Yet the two are connected and interacting. Because we can postulate no mechanism for this interaction between two things utterly distinct, can we rule out this possibility of their true difference? Things must be related in some way for them to interact, thus true difference is a mere abstraction. If anything were purely different from ourselves, we would have no way to know of it.   But pure identity must remain a possibility; along with that of the substance mode relation.

The debate carries on… Pure identity of physical objects is nonsensical, but this claim has no bearing on the pure identity of abstract concepts not spatially or temporally extended and separate. Thus because Atman and Brahman are abstractions they are allowed to be purely identified. So are the abstract and concrete related? Yes, in a substance/mode relation of invariable concomitance. The abstract is nothing without the concrete and the concrete has no meaning without the abstract. We could actually work in a framework that assumed that there was no meaning thus negating our abstract/concrete invariable concomitance, but we’ll not deal with that one today. Meaning is reassuring, so you can get the majority of people to go along with it in some form or fashion. So Atman and Brahman are not purely different, because they must relate to each other. Are they purely identified? Not if one is a substance (abstract) and one is a mode (concrete)- this is a difference which bars identity. If they are purely identified and both abstract (substance), then where is the connection to the material world?

Obviously the connection is the physical mode. Ice connects to water in that it is a form of water. The ice will not last, but the water will remain water. This analogy tends to support the Advaita side of the argument. Each mode is fully substance, and can attain release (moksa) which still in physical form (liquid water) and release beyond physical life into water vapor. Once absorbed into Brahman, the substantive particles are no longer bound together in one form, they are free to participate in Brahman and revel in their true identity with Brahman, rather than maintain their history as a particular group of particles that were once a mode. Ramanuja prefers the maintenance of ego beyond moksa, through individual history. This could make sense with our water analogy because each particle need not remain connected with its original mode group in order to maintain an individual history which included that participation in a mode.

While we’re utilizing common sense definitions, let’s check on how we use identity in everyday life. We can open the whole debate on what exactly makes up a persons’ identity. How many body parts can one remove and/or transplant before their sense of self is no longer intact? The self is, by nature, a transient entity. Consider the person who steps into a stream and a moment later neither the stream nor the person are the same as they were previously. The water in the stream has changed, the thoughts and collective experience of the person have changed. A thing is as much defined by what it is as by what it is not. Thus any one thing, or person, depends on the existence of all other things for its being and essence. So we can’t seem to define the continuity of self crisply at all. Thus if one were to argue that the self was knowable they would have to ascertain that the universe was knowable. We have yet to achieve this feat. AS a matter of fact it seems the more we learn the greater the problem seems, thus as we draw ourselves nearer the goal draws exponentially further away. This does not tend to favor the finitude of the universe, and thus the self as a plausible prospect.

Moreover, on the issue of identity, when we refer to a friend, we refer to their essential self, the compilation of all that they are even if we just comprehend a small portion of who they truly are. We use a name to represent that self, when we experience any aspect of a person we infer their entirety. A voice on a phone is not just a mode of a person we know, it is actually that person speaking to us. Their physical presence isn’t just a mode, it is their entirety – whether conscious or unconscious, old or young, happy or sad. A self is fully present in anything that evokes the notion of the whole. Because we evoke the notion of Brahman in its entirety, we, too, are that essential essence.

The truth, as it so often does, appears to lie not with one side or the other, but somewhere between the two. Ramanuja’s insight into the mode/substance relation of Atman and Brahman brings a valuable understanding, what it lacks is the essential unity of Samkara’s understanding. Although self is a mode of God, it maintains identity with an infinite, incomprehensible God. The insight to be obtained, however, is that all things are incomprehensible in their entirety, our knowledge can only give us a grasp on one corner of the blanket of reality. Thus to truly know is to know that knowledge is limited. All things are infinite, but we only participate in a finite manner. The truth of any thing is unspeakable because it is infinite, we can only subject finite aspects of infinity to our mental games. So the self is truly infinite and unknowable as Samkara claims, but the modes of self and God we can know in their limitedness as Ramanuja prefers. Both are right, and through the discussion a greater appreciation for the truth was found for both.


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