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  • Studies in Advaita Vedanta: Towards an Advaita Theory of Consciousness
  • Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad
Studies in Advaita Vedanta: Towards an Advaita Theory of Consciousness. By Sukharanjan Saha. Kolkata: Jadavpur University, 2004. Pp. 231.

Studies in Advaita Vedanta: Towards an Advaita Theory of Consciousness, by Sukhar-anjan Saha, is a collection of papers each of which has something to say about consciousness in Advaita, although some of the papers have a rather tenuous connection to this theme. Saha brings to bear a lifetime of study of Advaita and its philosophical contexts in these essays. The one notable lacuna in his approach is the tendency to ignore virtually all contemporary literature on Advaita, and to concentrate almost entirely on the original Sanskrit texts themselves—although he is clearly at home in a variety of modern philosophical techniques. His views are, in themselves, interesting and carefully spelled out.

In "The Many Faces of the 'I,' " Saha draws on well-known uses of aham in Śaṅkara, Vācaspati, and Padmapāda to draw the larger conclusion that Advaita is willing to allow for multiple, context-variant senses of 'I,' in contrast to both a Naiyāyika like Gadhādhara and Western thinkers like Husserl.

"Advaita Analysis of Suffering" is an elegant and surprising essay. Much of it appears to be a fairly general survey of the manner in which different Hindu and Buddhist thinkers identify a positive cognitive error in understanding reality—avidyā—as the cause of suffering. But Saha notes that the classical consensus on suffering is not an empirical statement; there are ordinary success stories, after all. He then ingeniously uses this fact to show that suffering is something structural to existence. Śaṅkara's example of someone who feels "I am fair-complexioned" is a smug indication of the suffering brought to bear on others who are not, in a society that favors fair complexion. Suffering, Saha argues, is socially relative; it relates to value structures more than mere physical discomfort. If all were of the highest or lowest varna, there would be neither pride nor striving, neither bragging nor lamenting. The metaphysical discussion on suffering, it turns out, is really a commentary on Hindu society.

Saha heroically—in the light of modern, especially Western scholarship, which sees Śaṅkara as an arch-conservative proponent of brahminical values—tends to see the Advaitin as a social reformer. In the essay above, he sees ś an.kara as teaching precisely the social lesson against discrimination when he talks of suffering. Saha returns to this theme in "Śaṅkara and Varna Distinctions in Hinduism." He puts forward the argument that since Śaṅkara held that all social distinctions were not ultimate (pāramārthika), and since class/varna distinctions are social ones while liberating knowledge is ultimate, varna is irrelevant to liberation. How those traditionally excluded from brahminical philosophy will respond to this generosity is another matter. [End Page 107]

In "Inner Sense and Higher Order Consciousness," Saha usefully explains how Nyāya takes an awareness of awareness to be a matter of inner sense, while Advaita denies this. It is sometimes hard to follow him through the essay, as it is not always clear what is being argued. But the contours of the standard Nyāya and Advaita positions on putative higher-order consciousness are laid out competently. The Nyāya position is clear enough, in that the higher-order awareness is an inner perception, with the mind playing the role of an 'inner' organ for the self. So the self becomes conscious of an object through the mind, and that act of consciousness itself becomes an object of the mind; in the latter instance, the mind functions to generate a higher-order consciousness, taking the first mental state as its object. This is relatively clear, but puts a great burden on Nyāya to give a cogent theory of mind, such that the idea of the mind as an inner sense organ becomes persuasive. But this challenge lies beyond the scope of Saha's essay.

Gradually, Saha's argument emerges. Advaita takes the mind to be separate from consciousness, which is the untouched ātman. So, there may well be mental...


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