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  • Consciousness in Indian Philosophy: The Advaita Doctrine of 'Awareness Only'
  • Alan Preti
Consciousness in Indian Philosophy: The Advaita Doctrine of 'Awareness Only'. By Sthaneshwar Timalsina. New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. 179.

In the Indian tradition, the identification of pure consciousness as an independent monistic principle identical with Being can be traced, as is well known, to the earliest Upaniṣadic speculations. The general picture to emerge from these reflections on the nature of subjective experience and external reality, although far from systematic, described consciousness as the ultimate subject of all mental states, itself ever precluded from becoming an object; as a universal type, it transcends the psychophysical complex constituting the empirical individual and the three associated levels of waking, dream, and deep-sleep consciousness common to all. Ubiquitous, pure consciousness is the foundation for the knowledge relation between subject and object: the field, if you will, upon which the relation between mind and world plays itself out. The mind (and the world revealed to it), while not entirely fictitious, is nevertheless an obstacle to the realization that at bottom the individualized consciousness (ātman) is nothing but the universal consciousness (Brahman). The realization of the ātman-Brahman identity is the summum bonum of existence, signifying final emancipation from the mundane world and the beginningless cycle of death and rebirth.

This characterization served as the point of departure for the developed accounts of the nature and function of consciousness found in classical Advaita and its sub-schools, as well as in competing systems of thought. The developed accounts themselves resulted from debate, both internal and with other schools, on a constellation of related epistemological issues. The disputations arose as philosophers sought to [End Page 730] defend their particular interpretation of the Upaniṣadic pronouncements; in so doing, the accounts of mind and world grew in detail and sophistication. Answers to questions concerning the sources of knowledge (e.g., what are the causes of veridical cognition?), perception (what is directly perceived in an act of cognition?), truth and error (how are veridical and non-veridical cognitions distinguished?), consciousness in general (is consciousness intentional or non-intentional; is consciousness a substance, quality, or an act?), et cetera, ultimately led to the crystallization of a remarkable variety of views on the nature of consciousness among Indian philosophers.

Sthaneshwar Timalsina's Consciousness in Indian Philosophy: The Advaita Doctrine of 'Awareness Only' is one of the more recent contributions to a growing body of specialized scholarship addressing themes in classical Indian thought as divorced from their soteriological context. The book is the latest in Routledge's Hindu Studies Series, whose aim, in collaboration with the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, is to foster research that focuses on "Hindu theological, philosophical and ethical projects aimed at bringing Hindu traditions into dialogue with contemporary trends in scholarship and contemporary society" (—from the front matter). Specifically, Timalsina's interest is in providing an account of the central Advaitic doctrine of cinmātra, or 'awareness only'—the view that identifies pure consciousness or awareness, free of any kind of modality or qualification, with ultimate reality. The account is not a philosophical reconstruction, nor does Timalsina seek to defend the awareness-only thesis of consciousness against opposing views; the work is essentially an analytical-philological exploration of the development of the doctrine at the hands of its many proponents from classical through later Advaita.

While the thesis that accords ontological primacy to pure consciousness can be approached from a variety of angles—careful exegesis of important Upaniṣadic passages, reflection on Advaita as a method for realizing Brahman, or epistemological analysis—Timalsina's efforts are directed toward the latter, the study consisting of an examination of the broad array of arguments advanced by exponents of classical Advaitic thought regarding the nature, function, and scope of knowledge, and their bearing on nondualism. One of Timalsina's aims is to call attention to the diversity of the approaches adopted by the various thinkers in the tradition; Advaita, he reminds us, is not a homogeneous system, but is best understood as "multiple threads that all coexist within the overarching philosophy of nonduality" (Introduction, p. xv). The extent to which Advaitins differed, either in...