05 June 2021

What does it mean to say everything is one? Doesn’t it seem like the world is full of many different things? Or is separateness just an illusion? This week we’re thinking about Nonduality and the Oneness of Being.

Lots of philosophers, from both Eastern and Western traditions, have made claims about the oneness of being. But for this week's show, we’re mostly focusing on nondualist philosophy from the Hindu Vedic tradition. Even within that tradition, there are many different schools of thought with different understandings of oneness, so it can be a bit confusing for the novice. The school that is probably the best known here is called Advaita Vedanta. The word “advaita” literally means “not two” in Sanskrit, so that much is clear. It’s a denial of duality. But what does that mean?

For those of us who are more familiar with Western philosophy than Eastern, it’s tempting to think of Descartes, who famously proposed a theory of mind-body dualism. For Descartes, there were essentially two kinds of substance, one being pure thinking substance or consciousness and the other pure matter. Humans have both a soul and a material body, and they are fundamentally different from one another. This view is a type of substance dualism, in contrast to substance monism, which posits only one kind of stuff in the world. 

So how does that help us understand nonduality? Advaita is a kind of substance monism—it posits that there is only one kind of stuff in the world and that is pure consciousness. Note, physicalism is also a kind of substance monism, but it posits that everything is physical (as opposed to spiritual). According to Advaita, physical objects are not real—they’re just projections of consciousness. In other words, Advaita embraces idealism.  

But nonduality goes beyond the claim that consciousness is all that there is. It also posits that there is only one thing that exists. It may look like there are many things, but that is ultimately an illusion. So if I seem to perceive the table in front of me and the computer I seem to be typing on, I am doubly mistaken. Not only do the physical objects I seem to perceive not exist (except as a projection of consciousness), but the idea that there is a distinct “I” that perceives is also mistaken. 

To express this idea using terminology from Hinduism, you and I are both individual souls, or Atman. And Brahman is the ultimate reality behind all the different objects we see. According to Advaita, these two things—Atman and Brahman—are not really two. They are one thing, and that single thing is all that exists. Ultimately, there are no individual egos, and the perception that we are separate and distinct from one another, and from everything else in the world, is just an illusion. All is Brahman and Brahman is all.

From one perspective, this might be an appealing view. For example, if you believe that we are all really part of this ultimate all-pervading unity, you might be inclined to be more compassionate, more egoless, less selfish. 

On the other hand, it’s not clear to me why anyone would believe this view in the first place. For example, if “you” and “I” are not really distinct, why do we have different beliefs and desires? Why do I not know everything you know and vice versa? 

I have no idea how to answer those questions, but our guest this week does! Elisa Freschi from the University of Toronto is an expert on the Hindu school of nondual philosophy called Vishishtadvaita Vedanta (or qualified nonduality), but she also knows a lot about Advaita Vedanta and other nondual schools, so tune in for what should be an enlightening conversation.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Comments (5)

Swarna's picture


Sunday, June 6, 2021 -- 11:43 AM

Hello, I feel that a more

Hello, I feel that a more appropriate guest would be a Swami or Swamini, an ordained monk who's life is dedicated to realizing the state of advaita. I am a practicing Hindu & for me, we all call ourselves "I". That "I" is the same in each and every being. A simple example is the ocean is made up of countless drops of water, yet the ocean is one body of water. We are all drops of the Ocean of Brahman. Right now, due to Maya & our identification with the body, we don't realize that we are not a mere drop & each drop is separate, but we are in fact one and the same as the infinite ocean of Brahman and therefore all one.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, June 7, 2021 -- 7:42 AM

Philosophy has struggled with

Philosophy has struggled with these questions, nearly as much as those who first posed them. Philosophers and holy people agree on some answers and are at odds with others. Both schools base much of their of positions on things like logic, ethics, belief, faith and the like. Davidson called these, and a number of others, propositional attitudes. Whether one agrees with his assessment is itself a propositional attitude. Whether someone believes in a supreme creator---much the same. Maybe this is nothing more than over thinking the matter. But, don't present that to a devout believer.
Certainly, there are larger problems to solve. Most of those truly importanr ones are insoluable as well. Seems to me.

Ramesh's picture


Wednesday, June 9, 2021 -- 8:41 PM

Very gratified to find this

Very gratified to find this item on nonduality here at Philosophy Talk. Just joined Philosophy Talk as a result. After making two recent posts about pure being and philosophy of spirituality and not receiving much response, I thought there was not enough interest here in ideas such as nonduality.
Last year I published a book called "One Being: Spiritual Path of Adi Shankara." I followed it up by another book called "Self and World: Major Aspects of Indian Philosophy." Both books are concerned with nonduality, particularly the former. Adi Shankara is the foremost proponent of nonduality in the history of Vedanta philosophy. His philosophy is called Advaita Vedanta. More correctly, what goes by nonduality in English-speaking world is Shankara's view which is properly called Kevaladvaita or sole nondualism for the reason that there are two other Advaita philosophies: Vishishta Advaita or qualified nondualism of Ramanuja and Shuddha Advaita or pure nondualism of Vallabha.
The comparison, or rather contrast, with the Cartesian mind-body duality is what may come to the mind in the context of Western philosophy in relation to the Advaita concept of nonduality. But a good way to get into it is through Brentano-inspired notion of Husserl called intentionality. The latter holds that consciousness by its nature intends an object. This is the duality that Shankara's nonduality denies. According to it, the core of consciousness is without the subject-object duality.
One argument of Shankara may make this clear.
Any subject having consciousness normally is at a time conscious of something, either inside the mind or outside. Shankara says in his book called Drig-drishya-viveka, that what is experienced can be analyzed as existence plus something else. If I am conscious of a red tomato on my dining table, what I am facing is existence plus the tomato's actual appearance. If I close my eyes and think of this, I have existence plus the idea of tomato's appearance. Now, Shankara says that we can never get out of experiencing existence plus something else in any case any time anywhere. So, in all the cases all the time everywhere there is existence and something else. That something else is merely name and form in ceaseless flux and by itself devoid of existence. But existence in its pure form is the only thing that there ever is or can be. This is nondual existence and the core of Advaita which is the philosophy of oneness. I do not want to take up more time here. My book "One Being" explores Shankara's philosophy in greater detail, while the book "Self and World" would introduce the reader to all major philosophies in India's history. Click for details: Of course, I will be happy to respond to any thoughts or comments to what I said about nonduality above.

Ceci's picture


Thursday, June 10, 2021 -- 11:26 PM

Modern teachers who have

Modern teachers who have actually experienced radical nondualism (Advaita Vedanta) can be found on You Tube, explaining without Sanskrit terms. Check out Lisa Cairns and Eckhart Tolle.

Ramesh's picture


Saturday, June 12, 2021 -- 6:07 PM

YouTube has a lot of

YouTube has a lot of popularizing and simplifying stuff for people wanting instant gratification handouts. There are simplifiers of philosophy too. As there are of science and other subjects that need time and energy to get one's teeth into. True, some of this may even have merit. If you dig around a lot, you may find such. But discrimination is good part of wisdom. Fake gurus are aplenty. Caveat emptor!
Advaita Vedanta itself is a Sanskrit term. When nondualism is conflated with monism, as in this thread, you see the result of half-baked and hasty attempts at surmising something which is backed by thousands of years of intense thinking and disciplined practice.
Advaita is also a sophisticated philosophical system, not just a feel-good mystical recipe. It has been cultivated in Sanskrit for thousands of years. It has a rich and diverse array of thinkers who make subtle distinctions which they have debated intensively. But all of them reject the idea of substance and simple-minded monism. That is why it is called a-dvaita or non-dual and not one or oneness. Its "one" is one without a second or ekam eva advitiyam. To equate it with "All is One" simplicity is a category error.
Sanskrit has crystal clear diction too and is not always amenable to precise translation without loss of clarity. That is why all serious students of Indian philosophy, of which nondualism is a part, get acquainted with Sanskrit. Both my books, "One Being" and "Self and World" that I referred to above have a glossary of Sanskrit terms at the end, to facilitate readers not conversant with Sanskrit, to clarify without losing rigor. I take care to not use a Sanskrit term without introducing an English equivalent. When asked, I am glad to explain any Sanskrit or philosophical terms I use. Thank you!