- Could There Be Mystical Evidence for a Nondual Brahman?A Causal Objection
This article has three sections: an introduction, a stretch of textual interpretation, and a final evaluative argument. The upshot of the middle section is that the eighth-century Advaitin Śaṅkara in his commentary on the first four sūtras of the Brahmasūtra (the catuḥsūtrī) intimates a mystic/sensory parallelism thesis. Brahman as a preexistent reality not dependent on human cognition (or activity) gives rise to mystical knowledge (brahma-vidyā) in a fashion parallel to the way that objects of sensory experience give rise to sensory information. The upshot of the final section is a certain worry about this parallelism thesis, namely that Śaṅkara's metaphysics of Brahman precludes the sort of causal story that a true mystic parallelism would entail. I shall also explore resources within the Advaita view for answering such a causal objection and comment on the overall viability of a mystical argument for Brahman.
The second section is perhaps best framed by a few points about our own intellectual culture. Śaṅkara is a Vedāntin, and Vedānta is a school of classical Indian philosophy whose advocates expressly proclaim reason and rational inquiry to be subordinate to the teachings of what they regard as scripture, the teachings of the Upaniṣads.1 Thus, to students these days, to rip a mystic parallelism out from the Advaita web of belief and an express epistemology of sacred texts may seem anachronistic at best and distortional at worst. However, my mystical reading of Sankara is steered by two considerations: first, that those same Upaniṣads have been inspirations and guides for mystic endeavors such that by being Upaniṣadic Vedānta philosophy is mystical, and second, that in long-standing traditions of Indian mystical practice Vedānta has been regarded as the guiding philosophy, the intellectual expression of a type of life and of its promises and requirements as well as of its metaphysical underpinnings. For example, the Ramakrishna Mission, founded in the nineteenth century by the Bengali illiterate mystic Ramakrishna (and his very literate disciple Vivekananda), takes Śaṅkara's Advaita as its "house philosophy." Ramakrishna, of course, had no direct familiarity with Śaṅkara's writings, and his own personal teaching is hardly systematic, but he leads and extols a mystic way of life under the Advaita banner.2 My reading of Sankara is one that sees Sankara as encouraging mystic practices—meditation and yoga in a broad sense—that several prominent traditions of Indian mysticism have taken him to encourage and that continue to be engaged in the Advaita name. Furthermore, according to Śaṅkara Brahman-knowledge is the supreme good (the parama-puruṣârtha), and this is held [End Page 492] to be a state of consciousness available to a person while alive (jīvan-mukti). Claims about the nature of Brahman-knowledge are mainstays of my mystical reading, which is hardly an unfamiliar approach to the texts.
Further motivation for attempting a mystical reading derives from the concerns of contemporary philosophy. To be blunt, the question whether there can be experience that counts as evidence for a spiritual monism holds a lot more interest philosophically than the question of the truth of Vedāntic scripture. For whereas scriptural arguments face well-known refutations, sensory experience is, to put the matter crudely, the way we know the world. If Śaṅkara or his modern advocate could successfully defend such a parallelism as he appears to imply, the Advaita spiritual monism would enter the metaphysical ring with a special empirical argument. Sensory evidence is often to be discounted in the face of wider knowledge, but undefeated sensory evidence has true epistemic clout.3
The final section of the effort here is framed, then, by a concern for evaluating this portion of our global heritage in philosophy. And note that joining Śaṅkara much Eastern philosophy makes its appeal in terms of possible experiences. The experiences to which yogic and similar disciplines are supposed to lead are said to be preeminently valuable, better than sex or ice cream. An enlightenment or nirvāṇa experience, self-realization...