The legend begins with a Brahmin monk and his disciples making their way down to the Ganges River to perform their ceremonial ablutions, when they happen across a Chandala walking towards them on the road, leading a pack of four mangy dogs. A Chandala was an Untouchable, the despised class of people who didn’t belong to any recognized varna or caste. Their only allowed participation within Hindu society was to be maintainers the funeral burning grounds or other equally detestable work. When the Chandala refused, the Brahmin became indignant and he instructed the out-caste to stand aside, for a holy man of Brahmin birth could never permit himself to be polluted by even the shadow of such an offensive being. The Chandala stood his ground and demanded that the Brahmin explain himself.
The Chandala said, “You preach to others that the atman and the Brahman are the same, that all distinctions are barriers against the realization of that supreme truth. If there is one Absolute Brahman in all, then why do you accept caste and creed? You teach that there is only one Absolute Brahman in all things, yet you acknowledge differences between man and man. How can this be consistent with your teaching of Advaita ? To whom do you address? The body which is transient, or the soul which is eternal?” Admonished in this way, the monk realized his error and prostrated himself before the Chandala, proclaiming that anyone who could show him the truth, Brahmin or Untouchable, that one was his teacher.
The name of that Brahmin monk was Adi Śaṅkara, founder of Advaita Vedanta, and considered one of the greatest religious philosophers in Indian history. Those of us in the West may have never heard of Śaṅkara, but 1200 years ago, he established a religious movement that has lasted to this day. Śaṅkara achieved fame and notoriety for traveling on foot across the four corners of India to debate other monks and scholars and setting up monasteries to promulgate his teachings, before dying at the age of thirty-two.
The major tenet of Advaita is that of Universality – that “all is God, and God is all and everything is the manifestation of Brahman.” This absolute monism claims that only the Brahma, the ultimate reality, is the Only Reality. All forms are just manifestations of Brahman.
The world of differentiated objects, or the variety of forms, like a water drop and the ocean, are ultimately illusions; everything in existence are but the thoughts of Brahman . This Brahman was totally uninterested and absolutely removed from the happenings at the level of human beings.
However, Śaṅkara’s absolute monism ran into the same contradiction that the ancient Greek philosophers were pressed to resolve: how could an unchanging, unmovable, uninterested, undivided and utterly transcendent Universal Principle have any relation to the affairs of the world?
Śaṅkara solved this problem by stating that the Brahman was both wholly transcendent and pervaded all of existence. The being who achieves knowledge of the Brahman within his soul, or Atman, achieves liberation from the world, and becomes one with Brahman. The end result of this process is termed, the “Higher Self,” which is the pure self of consciousness, free from ignorance and impurity and liberated by its knowledge of its awareness that all distinctions are false.
According to Śaṅkara, The “lower self” is subject to ignorance and deception, which causes the being into believing that polarity and the differentiation of objects are real. The minds of those beings that are ignorant of Śaṅkara’s Brahman will only form a projection which stands as the personal god the devotees pray to and worship.
This projection is the “Lower Brahman” whom Śaṅkara called, Ishvara, who possesses human qualities such as Love and Justice. Although these projections of the human mind are broadcasted through ignorance, Śaṅkara claimed it was better to worship the projection than to worship nothing at all, because Isvara, even as a projection, is the closest thing to the Higher and pure Brahman of consciousness.
Critics have labeled Śaṅkara’s doctrine as moral skepticism, charging that it implies that one risks enslavement to rebirth and ignorance by following moral codes of dharma and caste – when the unrealized self-will be seduced by differences one sees in the world, while believing self-identification is real – when all of what is seen, is illusion. Śaṅkara claimed that while all things in existence are the mere thoughts of the Higher Brahman – the Higher Brahman Itself, is devoid of attributes, thus “qualities” like individuality and polarities like “good and evil” do not exist.
Yet, Śaṅkara was forced to recognize that apparently, the people always suffered the consequences of evil actions.
Śaṅkara employs the line of reasoning that Evil cannot be created by God because in the allowance of evil, God’s qualities of goodness would be negated, and God would be in truth open to the accusation of extreme cruelty “abhorred even by a villain.” Śaṅkara reasons that since the Higher Brahma has no qualities at all – He cannot be the author of evil. Thus evil is the ignorance that deceives the human mind, which is geared to self-interest and abuse against others in this world.
The seeming duality of “good and evil” and “light and dark” are relative only at a certain level of reality. Śaṅkara compared the Brahman’s position to the polarity of good and evil to that of the sun producing both day and night. The sun itself is not subject to day and night, but the world rotating on its axis produces the effect. It is the characteristics of the Earth and its relation to the sun and the ignorance of the observer that appears to cause day and night. The same design holds for the apparent distinction of good and evil.
Śaṅkara used the analogy of a magician to illustrate his point about Brahman ‘s relation to the illusion of ignorance. When the magician pulls off a magic trick through sleight-of-hand, the ignorant viewer is taken in by the magician’s creation of a perception, like pulling a live rabbit out of a hat. Those in the know are not fooled, because they have knowledge that the magician has used an illusion, and they know how the illusion works. The magician, who stands as Brahman, is not confused by the illusion of the magic trick.
Anyone familiar with the workings of the Law of Attraction will recognize the role Brahman as pure consciousness plays. The idea with the Law of Attraction is to consciously draw to yourself prosperity and wealth, which is considered an indication of one’s self-realization and spiritual growth.
Śaṅkara’s Higher Brahman stands as the point of absolute Universal Consciousness, or Divine Mind, which pervades the essence and substance of existence, and is the conduit of the magnetic attraction that brings one’s desire to fruition. The concept was transformed in the West as the starting points of the new religious movements led by the writings of Helena Blavatsky, Alice Bailey and Rudolf Steiner, who were all instrumental in forging the design of the spirituality of modern Hindu and New Age philosophy.
The philosophy of Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta by Shyama Kumar Chattopadhyaya, 2000
Self-realization (Brahmaanubhava): the Advaitic perspective of Shankara by Vensus A. George, 2001
“Parallels in the Philosophies of Madhyamika Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, and Kabbalah,”Ira Israel. March 26th 1999. Religious Studies 257
Hindu Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
“Isvara.” New World Encyclopedia. 23 Jun 2008, 23:44 UTC. 20 Jan 2010, 13:07
“Shankara and Indian Philosophy” by Natalia Isaeva. State University of New York Press. 1993
“The Philosophy of Religion and Advaita Vedanta” by Arvind Sharma, Penn State Press, 1995