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While Advaita’s profound inspiration and liberating potential are undeniable, its worldview has not been without its critics. Even though “modern” Advaita seems to emphasize the indivisible nature of the universe, or the world of time, space and manifestations, and of the Brahman, or the Self Absolute, as a tradition it has always expressed a “deep metaphysical bias against the world…(and failed) to present a true nondualism of world and Absolute…It is rather an acosmic monism. It achieves its nonduality not inclusively, but exclusively. Empirical reality is admitted in a provisional way, but in the end it is cast out of the Absolute, out of existence. From the highest perspective, the world is simply not there” (Lance Nelson, “Living Liberation in Hindu Thought”). In the classical Advaita view, the world is clearly recognized as being either completely unreal, or only partially real, and this is what Advaita has been criticized for. Precisely because of its emphasis on the ultimate unreality and illusory nature of the world, any teaching on how to live in the world or how to act and react dealing with all kinds of this world’s manifestations, our fellow human beings in particular, is entirely absent in what historically has been known as Advaita Vedanta. Up to its nowadays’ interpretations, Advaita does not seem to address the ethical or moral dimension of human life, its contradictory and ever more complex realities.

One of the reasons for that may be that the highest teachings were “never intended to be a philosophy for the general public”, but were “formulated by and for a narrow spiritual elite of male brahmins (members of the priestly class), primarily sannyasins (renunciates), who alone were believed qualified to fully appropriate its import.” (Lance Nelson, “Living Liberation in Hindu Thought”). The individual to whom Advaita teachings were revealed should have already fulfilled the demanding moral and ethical qualifications for discipleship. Shankara himself states that from every follower an extraordinary degree of purity and detachment from worldly desires is demanded.

The unusual phenomenon occurring now is that the most esoteric teachings of Nonduality, which throughout history were known to be the highest and revealed to those who were prepared and proven themselves worthy of this unimaginable depth and subtlety, are becoming more and more available to anyone who wanders into a spiritual bookstore. An important question seems to be: Are most seekers genuinely prepared for the psychological upheaval and world-shattering shift of perception that penetration into the Absolute unleashes? Advaita’s emphasis on the illusory nature of embodied existence has the potential to give license to human weakness and self-indulgence if the individual is not already firmly grounded in a fundamentally wholesome relationship to life. The unwholesome tendencies characterized by narcissistic, neurotic and deeply cynical convictions so common today create a dangerously weak foundation for a nondual perspective that transcends all pairs of opposites.

While Advaita’s great strength is its singular, undivided emphasis on the Absolute dimension of existence, its weakness is revealed in the limited scope of its singularity. And while the truly Absolute view must, by definition, transcend all distinctions, there is nowadays an enormous potential in the nondualist teachings to inspire a worldview that is perilously empty of any value which would help discern purity and impurity, good and evil, truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Indeed, the potential for escape, rather than genuine transcendence, is great and difficult to be recognized on one’s own path of spiritual practice. For to be embraced, absorbed and utterly consumed by the Absolute is one thing – but to hide in the nondualist teachings from sad realities of one’s “daily” existence, to escape from the inherent complexity of life in order to avoid the overwhelming responsibility that true surrender requires is another thing altogether.

This article, based on excerpts from WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? magazine and books by Andrew Cohen all published by MOKSHA PRESS, is continued on the next page


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©All texts by Michael Momot, Saint Petersburg, 2001

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