Recognizing Nonduality through the Upaniṣads

The Upaniṣads, the ancient oral texts within the corpus of the Vedas, are the world’s earliest extant discussions of nonduality. They develop an integrative vision that reveals the hidden connections tying individuals to the world. The Upaniṣads raise questions about our personal identity. How should I understand my body, mind, and consciousness? And what is their relationship to the world and to God (or if there is a God or many gods)? Such lines of inquiry are the epistemic seeds for psychological integration, ethical virtuosity, and most importantly for the discovery of genuine happiness and an unshakeable internal freedom within life’s vicissitudes. 

Over the centuries, several Vedānta traditions within the umbrella of Brahmanical Hinduism arose with differing metaphysical interpretations of the Upaniṣads, including qualified nondualism and dualism; however, the Advaita Vedānta tradition is the oldest living custodian to inherit the Upaniṣads’ nondual wisdom. According to Advaita Vedāntins, in their final vision, the Upaniṣads show that I, the individual, am numerically identical with nonduality. This  recognition frees me from suffering and existential anxiety by revealing a wellspring of wholeness at the core of my individual subjectivity. 

Our education addresses topics that are always other than us, objects which we can perceive directly or instrumentally, or those that we can understand through inferential reasoning. The worlds of therapeutic psychology and modern spirituality move inwards and help bridge this gap; yet are still oriented to objects (albeit internal ones) like personal narratives, emotions, and extraordinary experiences which depend on internal perception. The subject matter of nonduality is unlike anything we study in the world because it is the very being of ourselves. The Kena Upaniṣad for example, opens with the following query:

By whom impelled, by whom compelled, does the mind soar forth?
By whom enjoined does the breath, march on as the first?
By whom is this speech impelled, with which people speak?
And who is the god that joins the sight and hearing?[note]Quoted from Patrick Olivelle, The Early Upaniṣads. New York: Oxford University Press (1998: 365).[/note]

The Upaniṣads urge us to question, who is the subject that has our internal perceptions? In other words, what is the nature of my consciousness? This subject matter is exceedingly difficult because consciousness is a priori, presupposed by each and every experience, and never absent from experience. Without consciousness there is no experience. We are conditioned to consider consciousness as somehow identical to our minds and therefore as an object that we can know; but consciousness is not an object. Even though the fact that I am a conscious being is self-evident and undeniable, I cannot objectify my own consciousness, for in that very moment, who remains as the conscious subject illuminating the object I have (mistakenly) assumed to be consciousness? Therefore, consciousness appears to be unknowable in the way we understand all other things. Like catching a receding horizon, its presence behind my experience eludes every attempt to grasp it. 

The Upaniṣads employ a brilliant set of methods designed to deal with this epistemic conundrum. They are a unique means of knowledge that function like a mirror to reflect our intrinsic nature by negating false self-identifications; however, we cannot simply read them as didactic literature or as a guide book to intuit nonduality. The technical teaching paradigms are difficult to employ because the texts are set in narrative dialogues and poetry, are symbolically embedded in the ritual context of Vedic religion, and employ a number of riddles and paradoxes. Only when a teacher properly unfolds the Upaniṣads according to their traditional methodologies and contemplative practices do they reveal liberating nondual knowledge; otherwise they remain opaque, conceptual, or inspirational at best. These methods unlock the texts to reflexively reveal consciousness as nondual—a wholeness which is innate and always present, but overlooked due to identifying one’s self as the mind-body complex.

Advaita (literally “not-dual”) Vedānta (meaning the “end of the Vedas” – referring to the Upaniṣads) traces its lineage back through Bādarāyaṇa (circa 1st century BCE), the author of the Brahmasūtras (The Aphorisms on Brahman), to the sages in Upaniṣadic narratives, and ultimately to īśvara (roughly “God” for lack of a better English term) as Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa or Dakṣināmūrti, a teaching form of Śiva. The tradition finds its most sustained early philosophical articulation in the works of the preeminent 7-8th century CE Advaitin, Śaṅkarācārya. He composed our earliest extant commentaries on the Upaniṣads, Brahmasūtras, and Bhagavadgītā, which constitute Advaita’s triple canon, as well as an independent work, the Upadeśasāhasrī (A Thousand Teachings). Śaṅkarācārya’s writing is the most influential for Advaita’s teaching tradition which continues unbroken into the present day. Advaita Vedānta’s monastic lineages carefully maintain the teachings as a chain of wisdom passed down from teacher to disciple.

According to Advaita Vedānta’s nonduality, my-self, the world, and īśvara share a single non-dual identity known as brahman – the Upaniṣadic formulation of reality. This identity is pure consciousness, infinite existence, and limitless. It is free from space, time, and causation, and constitutes all names and forms making up the world. It is also the intrinsic nature underlying our experiences of love and wholeness. The direct and immediate recognition of the self (ātman) as this reality (brahman) is enlightenment (mokṣa), in which one discovers an intrinsic happiness (ānanda) that is complete, not subject to any change or loss, and ever-present.

There are a vast range of practices in Advaita Vedānta—including yogic meditation and visualization methods, ascetic practices like forest dwelling and letting go of materialism, cultivating virtues of kindness and compassion, and learning to relate to īśvara. In fact, understanding īśvara as the natural order of all causes and effects functions as a unique devotional means of psychological growth. The Bhagavadgītā, for example, provides an understanding of īśvara as the naturalistic order pervading the world and one’s inner mental life from painful neuroses to blissful states. It further prescribes that one should transform life into a ritual practice for the welfare of the world: 

A person is bound by action other than action meant for
sacrifice (yajña).
Oh Arjuna, free from attachment, perform action for that purpose (3.9).[note]yajñārthāt karmaṇo ‘nyatra loko ‘yaṃ karmabandhanaḥ |
tad arthaṃ karma kaunteya muktasaṅgaḥ samācara || (3.9)
(Translations by author unless otherwise noted)[/note]

One, who does not here turn the wheel thus set in motion,
lives a malicious life, in vain, reveling in sense pleasures, Arjuna (3.16).[note]evaṃ pravartitaṃ cakraṃ nānuvartayatīha yaḥ |
aghāyur indriyārāmo moghaṃ pārtha sa jīvati || (3.16)[/note]

This world-view provides Advaitins a way to ritualize life as prayerful action by acting in harmony with īśvara’s order and recognizing its manifestation in all actions and results. All willful actions may become devotional offerings into the cosmic sacrifice, from ethical actions to even one’s eating, breathing, and sense-perception. This yoga of action (karma-yoga) develops acceptance and equanimity with regard to one’s psyche, intersubjective relationships, and the results of action. However, though all of these practices are intrinsically valuable, they are only indirectly instrumental for mokṣa. They purify one’s mind to facilitate proper recognition of nonduality. Without this deep internal work nonduality will only remain as an intellectual world-view that does not land on one’s self.

To help conceptualize Advaita Vedānta’s nonduality, imagine looking at a vast ocean. The ocean is full of multiplicity such as different waves, swells, and froth, yet there is only one ocean. In this illustration, each form like a wave represents an individual and the ocean represents īśvara. Īśvara is the whole universe including me. This leads to an initial type of oneness – a form of interconnection with one whole composed of several parts like a cell to the body. Advaita moves an essential step beyond interconnection to the underlying reality of both individual and the whole, both wave and ocean. The reality of both wave and ocean is simply water, which represents brahman. Brahman is the nondual existence underlying both īśvara and me. It is pure consciousness. With this recognition, the individual’s self-identity shifts to brahman. When the wave recognizes it is water in reality, it need not fear death or loss of self as a destruction of its form.

Advaita extends the wave/ocean analogy further. Water is the substantial cause of various effects like wave forms. These effects arise and resolve back into their cause, having no existence apart from their persisting water content. Śaṅkarācārya writes, for example,

Moreover, the world is brahman not only during its manifestation and preservation alone because of non-existence apart from consciousness, but also in the time of dissolution—like water bubbles, foam, etc. do not exist apart from water. In this manner, name, form, and action which are the effects of that (brahman) do not exist apart from consciousness even when resolving into it. Therefore, brahman is to be accepted as one only, nothing but consciousness, and homogenous.[note]kiñcānyat na kevalaṃ sthityutpattikālayor eva prajñānavyatirekeṇābhāvāj jagato brahmatvam pralayakāle ca jalabudbudaphenādīnām iva salilavyatirekeṇābhāvaḥ | evaṃ prajñānavyatirekeṇa tatkāryāṇāṃ nāmarūpakarmaṇāṃ tasminn eva līyamānānām abhāvaḥ | tasmād ekam eva brahma prajñānaghanam ekarasaṃ pratipattavyam (Commentary on Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.4.11).[/note]

The water is the metaphysical ground of changing wave forms, bubbles, etc., and in this sense possesses more reality than the forms it takes. The wave’s existence is entirely ontologically dependent on the water. If we remove the water the wave no longer exists, yet the water does not similarly depend on a particular wave form. This reveals an asymmetrical ontological dependence between substance and effects. In following this logic to its conclusion, we find that in reality there are not two things, wave and water. There is only water. Therefore, the wave form is a conceptual appearance. “Appearance” does not mean the form is nonexistent like a rabbit’s horn or self-contradictory like a square circle; but that it holds a liminal middle space where its existence is contingent and therefore not as ultimately real as its substantial ground.

The Upaniṣads reveal that the world and nondual brahman possess a similar asymmetrical relationship—the world is dependent upon brahman for its existence, yet brahman has no dependence on the world even though immanent within it. The world exists, yet crumbles under an analytical gaze to resolve into brahman. The existence of the phenomenal empirical world alongside that of nondual brahman is in fact a less-than-real appearance that is indeterminable as completely real or as nonexistent. This sets up a two-truths (or two-tiered) understanding of reality: (1) the empirical world of perception, transaction, and intersubjective agreement; and (2) the absolute nonduality that is brahman

These two levels of reality, empirical multiplicity and absolute nonduality, are not two different things, just as the wave and water are not two. Even though we may say nonduality is the “substratum” of duality, from the absolute standpoint of nonduality there is only brahman. There is no birth or dissolution of the universe. One vital practical insight from this is that we don’t need to transcend duality, seek nondual mystical experiences, or expect visions of myself and the universe dissolving into a nondual soup. All we need is proper knowledge, which is the removal of my ignorance of brahman. The Kena Upaniṣad says for example, “One gains immortality through knowledge.”[note]vidyayā vindate ‘mṛtam (Kena Upaniṣad 2.4).[/note]  Recognizing nonduality is a simple but profound epistemic shift from form to metaphysical ground. It is not gaining, producing, or reaching brahman, nor a radical transformation of my being, because nonduality is already present and changeless. This liberating recognition is more akin to searching all over my home for my missing glasses, until my daughter shows me there are resting on top of my head. I had them all along but did not realize it.

So where do we then find this metaphysical ground of the world, and what kind of existence is it? All things exist. Trees are, cars are, time is, space is, etc. We tend to assume objects possess existence, and that their “is-ness” is bound within their form; but this assumption is flawed. How can we isolate existence in a form? When I search for that existence, the form breaks down into parts, and those parts into further parts infinitely. We just find parts within parts, forms within forms, and names within names. The assumption that forms possess existence fails due to these infinite regressions. In fact, according to Advaita Vedānta, they fail because existence actually contains forms within it and transcends those forms. We can apply the same reasoning to time. Time always exists as the present moment, but how can we grasp this existence in a unit of time which is infinitely divisible? For this reason the Chāndogya Upaniṣad asserts that “transformation (i.e. causation and its effects) has its basis in speech and is just the word itself.”[note]vācārambhanaṃ vikāro nāmadheyaṃ (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.1.4).[/note] This inquiry leads to an understanding that even space and time are ultimately just names that depend on nondual brahman for their existence. We are still in the dark though because the existence which is brahman now appears impossible to find; however, there is one place we forgot to search.

The only place we can discover existence is in our own self. When I say “I am,” where does my self-existence land? What is its locus? Like their analysis of the world, Advaitins pursue what is continuous, constant, and therefore real within self-identity by discriminating what is transient and less real. This process seeks to isolate the core of subjective experience, one’s most intimate sense of existence, through the logic that in any given experience, what one objectifies is other than the subject of experience. Even as we have different experiences from perception to memory to imagination and dreaming, there is a constant presence underlying each one that is just me. Reflecting on and discovering this constant presence without objectifying it is a contemplative phenomenological investigation of discriminating the seer from the seen. It leads to discovering my-self as pure consciousness, that which witnesses and illumines all cognition. 

Chapter four of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (4.3.5-6) contains a beautiful discussion of consciousness as illumination. In a dialogue about the “light” (jyoti, i.e. consciousness) of a person, King Janaka asks the sage Yājñavalkya, 

But when both the sun and the moon have set, the fire has died out, and the voice is stilled, Yājñavalkya, what then is the source of light for a person?

Yājñavalkya replies, 

The self (ātman) is then his source of light. It is by the light of the self that a person sits down, goes about, does his work and returns.[note]Olivelle (1998:111).[/note]

This consciousness is different from the inner instrument, the mind, which assumes the forms of objects in cognition. Consciousness allows all cognition, from sensory perception to internal mental states like pleasure and pain, to be known without the mediation of another mental mode. It is immediate and self-revealing in all cognition, while simultaneously remaining the non-object of knowledge—a position of intrinsic reflexivity that uniquely defines consciousness as self-luminous and self-evident. Similar to the sun, which illuminates objects and itself simultaneously, consciousness is immediately known even as it illuminates the mind and objects of cognition. The existence of myself, my very being, is just this consciousness. It is self-existent because it does not depend on anything else for its being. And it is not a form or an object that can be divided into parts or placed in a process of causation. It is identical with the nondual existence making up the world. Like the water underlying the ocean, this consciousness/existence makes up both subjective and objective realms. My mind is therefore just another form whose metaphysical ground is nondual consciousness/existence. 

Liberation is the direct understanding of consciousness as nondual, concisely summarized in Upaniṣadic identity statements equating self and brahman like “I am brahman” (ahaṃ brahmāsmi)[note]Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.10[/note] or “You are that” (tat tvam asi)[note]Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.8.7[/note] This non-intentional and unchanging consciousness is not only the ultimate essence underlying the individual, one’s self-existence, but is also the single self of all sentient beings, from a blade of grass to īśvara. In chapter six of the Bhagavadgītā, after a discussion of the contemplative process of understanding nonduality, Kṛṣṇa states, 

One who sees me everywhere, and who sees everything in me, is not lost to me, nor am I lost to him (6.30).[note]yo māṃ paśyati sarvatra sarva ca mayi paśyati |[/note]

The yogī, rooted in oneness, who worships me as existing in all living beings, exists in me however they are (6.31).[note]sarvabhūtasthitaṃ yo māṃ bhajaty ekatvamāsthitaḥ
sarvathā vartamāno ‘pi sa yogī mayi vartate || 6.31[/note]

No matter where this liberated yogī is or whatever condition they are in, they cannot be separated from īśvara, because their very self (brahman) is the same self of īśvara, and that self is the reality of all things we objectify in the world.

This self-knowledge is profoundly different from how we may conceptualize nonduality as a distant and abstract entity, because brahman’s existence is already the most immediate I, the innermost center of my being. It is intrinsic to my every phenomenological experience. I need not wait for some future nondual event of transcendence or transformation. The recognition here and now that my real self is limitless, complete, and free of fear allows me to abide in ever-present fullness. This knowledge dissolves self-alienation and the sense of not feeling-at-home in life. This is liberation while living. With further contemplation such a wise person abides effortlessly in their nondual self, and fully integrates the vision of nonduality into their psychological, social, and natural worlds.