Duality vs Non-Duality: Is it an important distinction?

Many times the best way to understand a concept is through discussions and debates. In earlier days, such discussions often happened through face-to-face interaction or through paper mail when two people were long distance. These days there is internet. Here is one such discussion that turned interesting and intense but very helpful. This is one of those discussions that have helped me understand and analyze my own viewpoint.

Here is how it unfolded…


I had stumbled on a discussion of duality vs non-duality with one of my closest friend (I believe in him more than I believe in myself – so he is not only my friend but also in many ways an anchor in my life) one night and with this quote – it followed on the email exchange:

When the mind is detached from the senses
One reaches the summit of consciousness.
Mastery of the mind leads to wisdom.
Practice meditation. Stop all vain talk.
The highest state is beyond reach of thought,
For it lies beyond all duality.

Keep repeating the ancient mantram OM
Until it reverberates in your heart.

-Amritabindu Upanishad

He follows Vedas from the Arya Samaj viewpoint. So I quoted the Upanishad to see how he interpreted it? He replied back saying the following:

Whatever makes you a better person and gives you happiness is good.

If you’re inclined to pursue this further, here’s a conversation from the Satyarth Prakash. Person A is from ‘Vedanti’ camp, Person B is from ‘Siddhanti’ camp.

Person A: The world is unreal. Only the Brahman (Supreme Being) is real or the truth. He/It is all-pervading.

Person B: What do you mean by unreal?

A: What appears to be but does not exist in reality.
B: How can a thing appear to be but not exist?
A: It appears from supposition.
B: Who experiences the illusion of a world in the Supreme Being?
A: The soul experiences it.
B: Where does the soul come from?
A: It comes out of ignorance.
B: Whence does ignorance come from, and where does it reside?
A: Ignorance is unbeginning and resides in the Brahman.
B: Was there in the Brahman the ignorance of self or something else?
And who/what had that ignorance?
A: The ‘chidabhasa’ had it.
B: What is the nature of ‘chidabhasa’?
A: The Brahman and its ignorance of self, this is to say, the Brahman forgets its own self.
B: What is the cause of the Brahman’s forgetfulness?
A: Avidya
B: Is Avidya an attribute of the all-pervading and all-knowing Being or is it of one who has limited knowledge?
A: It is an attribute of the Being of limited Knowledge.
B: If your original opinion holds that there is only one real being, then where does
this Being of limited knowledge come from? If the Brahman is ignorant of one part of its existence, it will be ignorant and afflicted in all parts of its existence.
A: It is a characteristic of the ‘Upadhi’, but not of the Brahman.
B: Is the Upadhi real or otherwise?
A: it is neither real or unreal.
B: That is self-contradictory.
A: The Upadhi or Chidabhasa is a reflection of the Brahman.
B: If the Chidabhasa is a reflection, it has to be distinct from the Brahman. But you claim that the Brahman is immutable and entire, then the ignorance in the Brahman makes no sense. By definition the Brahman cannot be all pervading and all-knowing.

My reply was:

Nice story. But it could be easily have been out of Quran or Bible. Vedantic scholars including Vasistha and Krishna who probably were the finest of all, say something else. This conversation is EXACTLY what a person who uses a “mind” instead of who has “experienced” the truth would engage in. That is why, Quran, Bible, and now (knowing from you) Satyarth Prakash are the examples of books that I have seen put forward the “dualilty” theory. The reason I argue against it is because it was, in my personal view, born out of thinkers who were either from the Abrahamic religions or had a certain “inferiority complex” from the rise of the West.. so they gave a Biblical or Quranic color to Hindu Philosophy and thought. That is what, I am convinced, makes Hindu thought so weak in comparison to all.

Not until you have understood Gita – probably the finest treatise of Vedic thought, would you be able to understand this duality question and the real answer as to why finite or the impure can arise out of Brahman. That it does is what Gita and Vasistha Yoga say, apart from several other Saints like Guru Nanak.. and our Upanishads.. but then if you just try to understand everything from the level of your mind – which by the very definition is part of Maya – then its quite difficult to “transcend” your limited knowledge and experience.. isnt it? Now, read the last line of your dialog carefully:

“B: If the Chidabhasa is a reflection, it has to be distinct from the Brahman. But you claim that the Brahman is immutable and entire, then the ignorance in the Brahman makes no sense. By definition the Brahman cannot be all pervading and all-knowing.”

here the speaker has effortlessly installed himself as the subject and Brahman as an object. So that the speaker decides who has what limitations. And regarding Swami Dayananda being a “RIshi”.. even Sathya Sai Baba and Osho called themselves “God”.. that is not a strong credential to truth.

Krishna, in Gita, however, say this: Chapter 8:

All manifestations come out of the unmanifest state or Prakriti at the arrival of Brahmaa’s day, and they again merge into the same Prakriti at the coming of Brahmaa’s night. (8.18)

The same multitude of beings come into existence again and again at the arrival of the day of Brahmaa, and they are annihilated, inevitably, at the arrival of Brahmaa’s night. (8.19)

There is another eternal unmanifest state higher than (both Purusha and) Prakriti that does not perish when all beings perish. (8.20)

This unmanifest state is called the imperishable or Brahman. This is said to be the ultimate goal. Those who reach My Supreme abode do not return (or take rebirth). (8.21)
This Supreme abode, O Arjuna, is attainable by unswerving devotion to Me within which all beings exist, and by which all this universe is pervaded. (8.22)

While in Vasistha Yoga, Vasistha tells Ram, the following:

“During the cosmic dissolution the entire objective creation is resolved into the infinite being, which is variously designated as Atma, Brahman, Truth, etc by the wise, to facilitate communication and dialogue. This same infinite self conceives within itself the duality of oneself and the other. Thence, mind arises, as a wave arises when the surface of the calm ocean is disturbed. But, please bear in mind that just as a bracelet of gold is but gold (and though gold exists without bracelet, bracelet does not exist without the gold or other metal), the qualities and the nature of the created and potentiality of creation are inherent in the creator. The mind is non-different from (has no existence independent of) the infinite self.”

Both say the same thing.

Even if I take Ram and Krishna and other RIshis to be normal human beings instead of incarnations (which is what I believe), I now believe that seldom has human thought and intelligence reached such heights as theirs. Modern day thinkers from Ramakrishna to Vivekananda to Dayananda, to Guru Nanak to modern day Radha Soamis (with the sole exception of Krishnamurthi) were dwarfs compared to those in the Vedic times.

I suggest that instead of reading an “interpretation” of the Vedic truth it is better to read the Truth itself. And Vedas by themselves have not been adequate in telling that truth.. use them in conjunction with the Upanishads and the Gita. Gita is probably still the best way to get the real crux of the philosophy.

Also, the inherent question that the dialog in your mail addresses is: How can Infinite give birth to Finite? And the answer that the person B gives is that there is no such thing as Infinite. The Creation is Only Finite, is what B claims. The reason is because B has not experienced the Infinite and hasnt understood that matter maybe just an illusion – as many Quantum Theorist now suggest that it may be .. atom is 90% vacuum.. and at the sub atomic – the basic unit of all matter – there is no “matter” but those “particles” are form of wave or energy.. although as in a photon.. they “behave” as if they were physical in nature!! Isnt that what the Vedanta, Krishna, and Vasistha also say?

Finally, B also assumes the Law of Causation. That Causation is “Universal” and Brahman is part of that causation. Causation and Time are inseparable. So that would mean that there is nothing beyond time! However, that supposition does not solve the LAST question to be asked about B’s Brahman.. who CREATED HIM? Since there is no such thing as “Unmanifest” in B’s dictionary.. who is the manifest who created the “highest of the creators”?

On a mathematical level this could be likened to a theorem. Where the Origin is on one side and the Creation on the other side. Where the Constant in this case is the one that is solvable and variables are the ones which are “known”. B’s way of solving the equation is to simply “suppose” the value of the constant instead of solving it! That is neither here nor there.

That, is precisely the reason why Gita and upanishads and the Learned have called the Origin or the “Brahman” as CAUSELESS. Only Causeless has the property of being unmanifest and only that which is unmanifest cannot perish. Otherwise, soul – even of B’s definition – will be perishable because it is manifest!! It is not! It is Unmanifest – it just “seems” as though it is “born” and THAT is the VERY ESSENCE of Gita. Soul is Unperishable and Causeless!! The “thoughts” make it look different from the Brahman!

And, I dont agree that this is a semantic difference in the Hindu Philosophy. This difference of Duality vs Non-duality is exactly what makes vedantic thought the highest human beings have gotten to in terms of knowledge. And that is what, in my opinion, makes it so strong and compelling a philosophy to live by!

Then came his reply:

My points:
1. You need to get off the internet, pick up the Vedas and read the Siddhantic (B) point of view. You assumptions about it show you don’t know much about it. According to it, God and Soul ARE eternal and causeless. The 3rd entity that is eternal is prakriti.

2. The vedantic view has no answer for the question : if the world is an illusion, who is the experiencer of the illusion? Clearly an illusion cannot the experiencer of an illusion.

3. I have also read the Gita and know how close the view is to the Vedic view. That is why I don’t believe you should be wasting your time on this duality/non-duality question. That is also why I am not interested in trying to change your mind. If non-duality helps you find peace so be it; though it looks like so far you’re not at peace. The only trouble I could possibly have with your view is if you believe that the suffering of the people of the world (your mother included) is an illusion. Because if one believes another’s suffering is an illusion, the moral argument to help isn’t there.

Needless to say, this was not my idea of what Vedic Philosophy did say in particular. I followed it up with my understanding of what Vedanta and Gita says and Why. Specially in relation to my friends questions:

Reply Back:

My knowledge of Gita is not from Internet although I quoted from there. Also, I, as a matter of principle, donot read anyone’s “interpretation” of Gita – just the translations. I have pondered on it a lot to get my own understanding. Same goes for Vasistha Yoga. I have not read the Vedas yet but will do that one day. So internet is not my source, be rest assured of that.

Now, about the suffering being an illusion. Yes it is. That is the VERY thrust of Krishna’s message to Arjuna. What you think is suffering is only with respect to the body.. not with regard to the soul. There is a very nice story of two brothers in Vasistha Yoga – where their father dies. One of them is wailing and the other is silent. The one crying asks the other, “dont you feel bad”? The silent one says – I have had so many fathers in all my earlier lives and they all died, for whom should I start crying first? That is my stand too. Precisely the reason why I have never cried or felt bad at anyone’s death in my family until now. It is not recommended by Gita as well as by the Puranas (Garuda Purana).

Now, about your question of why do good then? Vivekananda has explained it the best: You cannot do “good” of the world per se. Nobody has and nobody can. If you think all the Gurus, Saints etc did good – look at the number of people who got killed due to their religions (not just Mohammad but even guys like Buddha and Guru Nanak!). So “complete good” is an impossibility. He argues, and correctly, that those who dream – like in Christianity – that they would bring peace or good to the people of the world – should remember that this World and Creation exists due to the Equilibrium of the opposites – Good-Bad, Positive-Negative, etc. The only other state of this creation or Universe can be in the state of Equality. And in that state, Creation as we know it CEASES TO EXIST! So, if you are talking of “Good” it is with respect to THIS creation only and in that case you are powerless anyways to “change”.

So, why do good? The ONLY reason why you must do good is that helps you to get rid of the Ego. When you sacrifice – not as in the havan in the Arya Samaj temple, where we keep asking for prosperity while we are sacrificing – selflessly.. knowing that you are doing it because it is your DUTY – just as Krishna said Arjune approach his life – and you are NOT to expect ANYTHING in return.. not even the SATISFACTION of having made a difference! Then, a time will come that you will be able to get completely rid of your ego – since, you have read Gita you will know those are the EXACT STEPS that Krishna recommends for Karma Yoga to Arjuna! So when you do “good” – it is NOT for others.. but because it is YOUR DUTY!! Nothing more. Nothing less.

“God and Soul ARE eternal and causeless”

That is a nonsensical statement and again betrays the habit of one assuming himself to be Subject and treat everything else as an object. Creation is like the Wave in the Ocean. Ocean is Causeless so, by definition, Wave – which is a part of the Ocean, will be causeless. But to say Wave “AND” Ocean are two different things .. and “Both” are causeless is nonsensical.

First of all, the reason why I regard the Vedic Rishis and Krishna to be such Giants is because they could take an idea to its logical conclusion. For example, Violence is said to be a necessarily moralistic issue by Buddha and Jesus (Thou Shalt not Kill), Krishna, on the other hand goes to say that “You cannot Kill” – so Violence loses its moralistic stance. Duty becomes prime in Krishna’s eyes. Selfless – without ego. THAT kind of understanding takes a lot of things as inputs – when the mind (which is the cause of illusion or Maya) tricks a soul to believe that body is its only dimension, then soul becomes confined and not “liberated”. By liberated, Krishna clearly means – going to the level which is Brahman (although Vasistha says it beyond Brahman) – the unchangeable! At that level there is ONLY ONE! Logically, and practically there cannot be More than One UNMANIFEST entities. It is NOT possible.

Then you ask: “if the world is an illusion, who is the experiencer of the illusion?”

I think both Gita and Vasistha are clear on this. The body is the experiencer. Body is an illusion. Atma (or Self or Soul as many call it – different from the “soul” that you are talking about) does NOT experience illusion. Remember it cannot be hurt or touched or made wet or weakened? Soul, that is assumed by “Siddhantis” at the level of a being is also an incorrect interpretation. They have equated Causal body with the Soul – which is why I called your statement nonsensical. Because it is clear that they are completely confused. They have gotten lost in the maze of semantics. Baat to Sukshama Shareer ki kar rahein hain aur bol rahe hain usko Atma!

This is how Vasistha explains it very nicely:

“He was not created, but he is the Creator of all beings. Surely, the created (like a Bracelet) is of the same substance as that of which it was created (gold). The Creator’s thought being the cause of this manifold creation and the Creator himself having no physical body, the creation too, is truly of the nature of thought, without materiality.

A throbbing noise arose in the Creator whose thought had spread out as the universe. This throb brought into being the subtle body (made of intelligence*) of all beings. Made only of thought, all thes ebeings only appeared to be, though they felt that the appearance was real. However, this appearance thus imagined to be real, produced realistic results or consequences, even as sexual enjoyment in a dream does. Similarly, even the Creator though he has no body, appears to have a body”

Again, I have seen time and again with many Saints and Gurus that either they do not get their basics right – or they do not have the heart or the intellect to take their basic principles to their logical understanding. The only ones that I think got it right were the Vedic Rishis. Siddhantis fall in the first category. That is why they will come to the wrong conclusions. And honestly, only those who believe in the “Dualism” keep harping on the Morals – like Christianity with its Trinity does too – where Morals and “Good” is itself relative at best. Moralistic understanding as opposed to Selfless Yogic understanding of the world (if the world is burning, a selfless yogi may not intervene or if he does he will do so when he is part of an army.. and in that sense, even Bhishma who fought for Duryodhana was a Selfless yogi – as he did his Duty.. selflessly!). – is the final concluding statement of every Dualist and frankly, it does not solve any problem.. as it never has. World today is still the same as it was before. Morals and Good, my friend, there fore are Illusions just as your Sukshama Shareer roopi “Atma” is!!


The discussion goes on – I will bring the next instalments as they unfold.

Given the dicussion above and your own understanding, what do you think of this subject?

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Desh Kapoor

The panache of a writer is proven by the creative pen he uses to transform the most mundane topic into a thrilling story. Desh - the author, critic and analyst uses the power of his pen to create thought-provoking pieces from ordinary topics of discussion. He writes on myriad interesting themes. Read the articles to know more about his views and "drishtikone".

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1 thought on “Duality vs Non-Duality: Is it an important distinction?”

  1. The Vedas clearly state that Ishwar (God), Aatma (Soul) and Prakriti (Nature) are the three eternal (beginning less and endless) entities. If one disregards this then he disregards the Vedas.

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