Non-duality has increasingly become a well known concept across the world. Several spiritually oriented people are interested in non-duality. The oldest source of non-duality happens to be the teachings of Vedānta – the Upaniṣads and the Gītā.
Non-duality is usually taught in terms of not-two, not-even-two, not-even-one, etc. and the premise of non-duality is the realization of the complete oneness of everything.
The mind which divides, names and grasps is responsible for the perception of apparent multiplicity of objects. In reality, there is only one, the Brahman, which gets resolved by the conceptual mind into several. While the conceptual mind grasps the appearances of the Brahman, the mind that does not break down entities and comes in contact with the entirety of reality grasps the Brahman.
This situation leads to the distinction of the Absolute vs the Relative. There is a view that the Relative is mostly an illusion and only the Absolute is real. This view is prone to cause confusion. For example, if a tiger appears before a person, should a knower of Absolute sit quietly assuming the tiger is an illusion? Are poverty and suffering mere illusions that should not influence a knower of the Absolute?
Some teachers come back with the answer that the Relative has practical validity though it is not ultimately real. It can be honored for practical purposes. This answer greatly weakens the non-dual position. If the Relative is practical, it is clear that the Absolute is impractical. As practical concerns are more relevant due to their immediate effect, the Absolute gets relegated to a mere philosophical abstraction that is of no use at all. Knowing that there is such an Absolute becomes a mere intellectual position. The Absolute becomes a concept (ironically) that is incapable of providing any inspiration to the human condition since it is beyond all relations. What is the use of knowledge without value?
However in most of Vaiṣṇava Vedānta, the above understanding of non-duality is strongly denied. The question first investigated is if the Ultimate Reality is something to be realized or is it beyond all knowledge and realization. If the Ultimate Reality is utterly beyond all forms of knowledge, realization and experience, it does not exist for the human condition. We would end up converting our system into a dogmatic religion where everything must be unquestioningly accepted whether they make sense or not. Since we are not such a religion of doctrines, it has to be accepted that the Brahman can be realized (as oneself).
Language is simply a way of naming things that we perceive, comprehend or understand. If the Brahman can be realized, then it can be named through language. That is how the names, Brahman, Viṣṇu or Kṛṣṇa come to be used. As long as one realizes that the Brahman is like no other thing, there is no need to consider language as the source of illusion. It is all a matter of perspective.
In the Vaiṣṇava approach to Vedānta, the Brahman is known to be Absolute and the Ultimate Reality. However, though the Brahman is not relative, it is relatable. The Brahman that one relates to is not a lower form of Brahman. It is exactly the same Brahman Itself. The Brahman that one relates to is the Brahman realized in human condition. It is a distinct experience since it is not like the realization of a pot or a crow. Though the Brahman is transcendent, it is not a complete void, it is not zero. A description of the Brahman escapes words; this is not the same as saying the Brahman has no aspect to be described (and where description fails). These two are often confused.
The Brahman realized in the human condition is called God or Īśvara. Īśvara is non-different from the Brahman. For anyone born in the human condition, Īśvara is the only Brahman that can be known and experienced. God is not a mental construct, nor a fantasy or a myth. God is the blissful who resides in the deepest layers of consciousness. That is how God can be experienced no matter how deep a samādhi one gets into.
In Vaiṣṇava systems, one is not asked to become indifferent to the world and remove one’s mind of all concepts. It is recognized that conceptualization exists for a purpose and a person’s life would be one of misery if one were to keep switching between using concepts and not-using them from time to time.
Instead, the mind of relations is asked to relate to the Brahman. When the mind is purified of anger, desire, etc. it can not only see itself but also recognize something deeper in awareness, the Witnessing Self. The mind is then asked to relate favorably to the Self.
Another view in Vaiṣṇava systems is to equate the mind with the brain, and its function. The mind is insentient and devoid of consciousness though it is capable of interacting with the latter. It is the individual self or jīva who is recognized to be the conscious entity. Ego belongs to the jīva, not the mind. The mind binds and conditions the conscious experience of the jīva. The one to whom thoughts occur, who participates in action is the jīva. The mind and the body are drivers and enablers of action. But, agency is ascribed to the jīva due to the notion that agency can only be attributed to a sentient entity. Though the jīva is an agent, it is a helpless agent for the most part driven by impulses, the workings of the mind (sub-conscious), the state of the body and other circumstances. However, all is not lost and the jīva has the opportunity for liberation. Liberation comes by directing the mind to the Supreme Self within oneself. When the mind becomes very quiet and awareness is heightened, one realizes the Supreme Self. Hence, the Upaniṣads which say The Brahman is beyond the grasp of speech or intellect, also say By the pure mind, one knows the Brahman.
Unlike other non-dual traditions, the Vaiṣṇava approach to Vedānta does not proclaim the demise or disappearance of the jīva after realization of Brahman. There is only a shift in awareness. Instead of the light of awareness being concentrated around the ego, awareness now extends into its greater depths and discovers the Brahman. The jīva continues to exist though it is not experienced as a separate entity. The only experience is as the Divine to which the jīva becomes transparent. The loss is not of entity but of identity. The jīva is not experienced separately to lead to the notion of an entity with independent identity. Instead it is identified with the Brahman. Some ‘gurus’ commit offences after realization. This is because they deceived themselves that the jīva would die once realization was achieved. Yet, it persisted. Since it was ignored, its morality fell apart leading to indiscretion.
Instead of complete internal absorption and withdrawal from all action, the Vaiṣṇava approach is to draw out the Divine into the field of play – the universe. The jīva submits to the Brahman and becomes an accessory to Divine action. One’s mind and senses are surrendered to the Brahman’s disposal with the clear realization: All this is of the Brahman and so am I.
The Vaiṣṇava resolution of reality is not on the basis of presence or absence of relations but on independence. Brahman is the only independent real. The jīva and the universe are conditional reals (not unreal, not illusions). Theistic versions of Vaiṣṇavism employ these ideas to great effect.
The relatable nature of the Brahman leads to the Brahman being experienced as the guide, as the father, as the mother. The independence of the Brahman set against the conditional existence of other reals leads to the idea of subservience of the soul to God. The complete actualization of the soul in its being accessory to the Divine creates the notion of the soul as a servant of God. The sweetness and bliss of the Self allow the cultivation of devotional love, and experiences of God as a sweet child or God as the lover. These are not to be ridiculed or laughed at. These are human responses to deep engagement with the Divine.
At the same time, one must be wary of these theistic manifestations of principle. Excessive externalization can lead to blindness of the fact that the Brahman is not outside but within, that the Brahman is not the other but oneself.
Spirituality walks on a very thin line that separates an indifferent, inert, impractical understanding of non-duality and full-blown dualism that takes us back to square one. The Vaiṣṇava stance rests on this thin line. The jīva is not denied or dissipated but actualized by allowing it to lose itself in the awareness of Brahman.
It must be noted that the modern understanding of non-duality – even in the aggressively self-denying spheres – is slowly coming out of inertness and inaction in order to appeal to all walks of life and all cultures, not just the extreme ascetics of India. The emphasis is less on inaction or self-denial, and more on waking up. It is a good sign that some go even to the extent of teaching people how to love, how to solve disputes and how to relate with one another. It should be obvious that without this empowering understanding of non-duality, spirituality cannot inspire morality and uplift the human condition.