Duality and Non-Duality in Vedic and Biblical Traditions
by Br. John Martin (aka, Swami Sahajananda)
The Vedic Tradition
The Upanishads reveal the ultimate experience of God in which a person can declare "I am Brahman", or " I am God", which is described as Non-dual (advaita) 'experience' or ontological non-duality.
The Vedic tradition reveals a progressive growth of divine-human relationship in four stages: relationship through poetry (Samhithas), relationship through ritual or sacrifices (brahmanas), relationship through meditations in the forest (aranyakas) and finally self-realization (Upanishads).
The Upanishads speak of four levels of consciousnesses, which again show the progressive growth in divine-human relationship: waking consciousness, dreaming consciousness, deep sleep consciousness and the thuriya, which means the fourth.
In waking consciousness one identifies with one's physical body and lives to satisfy one's physical desires and ambitions.
In the dreaming consciousness one identifies with ideals and ideal persons taken from the past or memory and tries to follow and imitate them. Here a person might say I am a Hindu, Christian, or Muslim etc.
In the deep sleep one is freed from the personal and collective ideals and ideal persons of the past (time) and enters into the realm of originality and creativity (eternity) and becomes an original and creative person and is able to say, 'I am'.
In the thuriya or the fourth state one realizes one's identity with God and says, 'I am Brahman'. The statement, 'I am Brahman' may appear to a statement of spiritual arrogance but in reality it is a statement of utter humility in which the ego is completely renounced and only Brahman remains.
To say that 'I am God' does not mean that a human being becomes God but it is to affirm that God is the only Reality.
There are four or five mahavakyas connected to this ultimate 'experience': I am Brahman (ahambrahmasmi), you are that-Brahman (tatvamasi), Atman is Brahman (ayatmanbrahma), all this is Brahman (sarvametatbrahma) and Brahman is non-dual (prajnanambrahma).
These mahavakhyas are different ways of expressing the same advaitic experience. The Vedas should not be seen as the systematic treaties of philosophy but the collection of the various philosophical discoveries and experiences of the seekers of Truth or God.
Later the great teachers (acharyas) tried to define the teachings of the upanishads into various systems of thought. There are three main schools of thought: advaita (non-duality), visistaadvaita (qualified non-duality) and dvaita (duality).
According to advaita profounded by Shankara (7th cent. CE, who hailed from Kerala) Brahman or God alone is real and the world is an illusion or Maya. Human soul is ultimately identical with Brahman. The mahavakya ahambrahmasmi, I am Brahman or God is the experience of this non-duality. Brahman is nirguna without any attributes. The way to realize this truth is jnana marga, the path of wisdom.
The system of visistaadvaita propounded by Ramanuja (12th cent. CE, who hailed from Tamil Nadu) states that God and creation are like soul and the body (or body and the hair that grows on the body) inseparable. God and human beings are like soul and body inseparable but they are not identical.
God lives in human beings and creation and creation and human beings live in God but they are not identical. The soul, though of the same substance as God's, and emanated from him rather than being created by him, can obtain bliss not in absorption, but in existence near him. The way to have this experience is through self-surrender.
He proposed the path of devotion or bhakti as a way to this realization, which comes through the grace of God. A person might say I am in God and God is in me but cannot say I am God. For Ramanuja, God is saguna, with attributes like omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence.
Madhava (13th cent. CE, from Kamataka) proposed the system of dvaita, duality. He clearly distinguishes between God, human beings and creation. God is the only Supreme Being and there is nothing or no one equal to him. He proposed the path of devotion (bhakti) and good actions (karma). To reach God one needs a Guru. Here a person might say 'God is greater than I' but cannot say 'I am God'.
Interestingly, all these three masters are from the South of India. Though a majority of the Hindus believe that the non-duality of Shankara is the supreme truth but most of them practice the path of devotion and worship to the various manifestations of Supreme Being, (as Vishnu, Siva, Krishna and Rama) and the path of self-less action.
Thus the path of wisdom (jnana), the path of devotion (bhakti) and the path of action (karma) are the three typical ways that the Indian sages propose to reach God.
The Biblical Tradition
In the Biblical Tradition also we see a progressive growth in divine-human relationship. First relating to God through prayers and psalms; second relating through the rituals and sacrifices in the temple; then God's promise of a New Covenant and John the Baptist preaching (symbolic of aranyakas) the end of the old and the coming of the new; then Jesus' experience of God as non-dual, 'I and the Father are one' and the inauguration of the new realization of God.
We can say that the New Testament is the Upanishads of the Biblical Tradition.
We also find four levels of consciousness in Jesus: first Jesus a human being (waking consciousness), Jesus the Jew (dreaming consciousness as Judaism was his spiritual ideal), Jesus, the Son of God, universal consciousness freed from the Jewish memory (deep sleep consciousness in which he says, 'I am in the Father and the Father is in me'), and finally Jesus as God (the thuriya, I and the Father are one), ontological non-duality.
Jesus also makes many great statements. To quote four of them: I am the light of the world (I am Brahman), You are the light of the world (You are Brahman), I and the Father are one (Atman is Brahman) and this is my body and this is my blood (All this is Brahman).
Jewish religion is basically a dualistic religion. God is the transcendent reality and creator. Human beings are creatures of God. Nobody can see God and live. No one should make any image of God. No one can come near to God, as He is Holy.
This God can speak only through the prophets. But the prophets also foresaw a new relationship with God in which God writes the law in the hearts of the people. God will be Emmanuel, with us and within us (visistaadvaitic experience).
Jesus inaugurates this new covenant at the moment of his baptism and takes it little further into advaitic experience. He could say boldly that he and God are one. This realization was not in the memory of Jewish tradition. The theory that God is our creator and we are his creatures makes this realization unthinkable and it would be blasphemous if anyone claim a direct experience of the divine.
Thus Jesus brings about a revolution in his spiritual tradition and fulfills the spiritual search of his spiritual tradition. Jesus does not abolish the dualistic and qualified non-dualistic relationships but opens them to a new possibility of complete non-duality. 'I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law' he said.
Can we make a system of thought from the teaching of Christ? Is it advaitic or visistaadvaitic or dvaitic? Jesus made three important statements, which might throw some light on these questions.
- I and the Father are one, or, I am the light of the world (advaita, ontological non-duality of Shankara)
- I am in the Father and the Father is in me (visistaadvaita, qualified non-duality of Ramanuja)
- My Father is greater than I; and my God, my God, why have you forsaken me (dvaita, duality of Madhava).
So, is Jesus a non-dualist, a qualified non-dualist or a dualist?
It seems to me that we cannot put Jesus into any particular category since he manifests all these experiences. It shows that these statements are not exclusive but they belong to the different levels of the human consciousness and can be present at the same time.
The difference between stages and states is that the stages follow one after the other but the states can be present simultaneously. Truth is not a static system but a dynamic living reality which cannot be confined to any system.
One has to grow from duality to qualified nonduality and from there to non-duality (Spiritual life is a growth. Sin is a refusal to grow, and/or, attempting to block growth in others). And then one will at times come down to qualified-nonduality and then to duality.
But there is a qualitative difference between a person who has the non-dual realization and also functions in qualified non-duality and duality, and, a person who functions in duality and even qualified non-duality without ever having had the non-dual realization.
A religious person who lives dualistically thinks or believes that s/he is a creature of God -- s/he praises and worships God.
A person who lives from a qualified non-dual perspective might be called a 'mystic'. S/He might say, 'I am in God and God is in me.'
A person who experiences non-duality is a self-realized person. S/He can say, 'I am God' or 'My Real "I" is God'. But s/he can also be a mystic and a worshipper of God.
Sri Shankara had non-dualistic experience of Reality but he also wrote devotional hymns as if he was a dualist. Sri Ramakrishna had non-dualistic experience but he had great devotion to the Divine Mother. Jesus had non-dualistic experience of God but he also prayed and spoke to God dualistically.
Spiritual life is not only an upward movement towards God but also a downward movement towards human beings and the world: the love of God and the love of neighbour of the biblical tradition.
When one is growing spiritually, the dualistic experience, qualified non-dualistic experience and the experience of non-duality appear to be stages but when one is moving from one to the other, then they are seen as states of consciousness.
For nearly two thousand years, Christian tradition has presented the divine-human relationship in a dualistic sense, and only in the case of a few 'mystics' has it allowed the possibility of a qualified non-dual relationship, but the complete non-dual 'experience' (one cannot say, relationship) is reserved only for Jesus and is officially denied to his followers.
The theory of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) adopted by the early church makes nondual 'experience' or self-realization unthinkable for most theologians.
In the same way the three paths of jñana, bhakti and karma should not be seen as exclusive. Good actions lead to devotion, and devotion leads to jñana. This jñana manifests in devotion, and further in selfless action.
In spiritual life, there is a movement of ascending, and there is also a moment of descending, since few can remain fully conscious (of nondual Reality) all the time. Meanwhile, life is not only to be (jnana) but also to relate (bhakti) and to act or to share (karma). They are an integral part of being alive.
Our relationships and actions should be based on the strong foundation of our Being. Otherwise they can be very superficial.
The non-dualistic interpretation of the Upanishads by Shankara seems to focus entirely on the ontological nonduality and neglects the functional duality, though he himself wrote many devotional hymns later. For this he had a justifying reason.
Shankara found that the spirituality of that time, based on devotion and rituals, was very superstitious, superficial and sentimental and closed the door to the highest divine-human realization. He wanted to get rid of the chaff and preserve the grain, but this ideal, he found, was unattainable by the vast majority.
This seems to have been much the same situation that had confronted Jesus at an earlier time and in a different culture.
With his zeal for the absolute, Shankara refused to give any value and meaning to the world and human relationships and held to the view that the world is an illusion. Thus he tended to move towards monism.
While Ramanuja tried to correct this extreme position and give some meaning to the world and human beings but he was suspected of moving towards pantheism!
Madhava, while trying to keep the balance between monism of Shankara and the pantheism of Ramanuja, created an unbridgeable gulf between God and human beings.
Though Ramanuja and Madhava, with their qualified non-dual and dualistic interpretations, tried to give meaning to the divine-human relationship and bring God closer to the ordinary people, but they also closed the door to the non-dual realization of God. These dualistic approaches had preparatory value and later, functional value, but not ontological value.
As long as we have a physical body and live in this world of time and space, we need to relate with God and with one another in a functional duality though we know that we are ontologically one with God and with one another as there is only one Reality.
Jewish tradition also focused too much on the functional duality, and closed the door to the experience of ontological non-duality to its adherants. Though Jesus opened the door to this possibility for every human being, the early 'Church Fathers' reserved it only for Jesus and, as previously said, denied this possibility for his followers.
Some Christians of a more mystical persuasion (e.g. contemplatives, Quakers etc.) claimed the experience of God's indwelling presence, but only a handful ever claimed the complete non-dual realization.
If there is any Christian on record who made the statement 'I am God,' it was Meister Eckhart of Germany, who said that a spiritually poor person (poor in spirit) is one who says, 'I and God are one.' But he was eventually condemned as a heretic by the Roman Church -- a condemnation that still stands to this day.
Perhaps in that particular time and spiritual tradition, no one could have imagined the possibility of non-dual realization, but today, many Christians are ready for it.
Jesus did not relate with God as his creator, but as his Father. That was a revolution. Jesus was not only a non-dualist (I and the Father are one), but a qualified non-dualist (I am in the Father and the Father is in me), and a dualist (My Father is greater than I).
He did not reject dualistic approaches to God, but rather used them as a preparatory ground for his teaching of, or pointing to, non-dual realization. According to the records, he himself often engaged in dualistic prayer, for instance.
He was not only a jñani who realized his oneness with the Father, but a bhakta, who had devotion to his Father and a doer, who did the will of his Father.
Jesus' earthly experience of God included both ontological non-duality and functional duality.
To realize ontological oneness with God and at the same time live dualistically in the world of time and space at the functional level is perhaps the greatest miracle of all.
Or, as Eckhart Tolle has put it ...
"The supreme art of living is to embody simultaneously the relative and the absolute in yourself. That is why you're here on this planet: to live this state of perfection where heaven and earth come together. To embody that is your practice."