In the Hindu philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta the idea expressed in the cryptic phrase “Atman is Brahman” is that your True Self (Atman) is nothing other than a pure, unified consciousness that is the only thing that is ultimately real (Brahman). That idea may sound like a non-starter, but I don’t think we should dismiss it out of hand. Before we can write it off as implausible, we should step back and ask: Implausible compared to what? So, lets take a few moments to consider a couple alternatives. In America, at least, the two dominant fundamental worldviews are theism, and atheistic naturalism. And both can be made to seem implausible as well.
According to theism, there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, necessarily existing Being that created the universe from nothing. This Being is either outside of time (if that makes any sense) or has existed for eternity (if that is possible). If He is outside of time, when did He create the universe? (Of course, the question doesn’t make sense. That’s the point.) If he is eternal, then, apparently, He didn’t create time itself, which is usually thought of as part of the nature of the universe (space-time). This is only the beginning of Theism’s problems. And when we look at specific versions of Theism, the problems seem to multiply. (The Christian doctrine of the “Trinity,” for example, may seem self-contradictory, at least to the uninitiated.) I’m not suggesting that there is no adequate way of addressing these issues. Indeed, that’s the point. Even if an idea seems implausible at first, we should not reject it without first considering the arguments for it, and whether apparent problems can be adequately addressed, as well as the comparative success of competing ideas.
According to atheistic naturalism, all that exists is a universe of physical stuff (matter and energy) governed by immutable laws. Why does it exist at all? No reason; it’s pure chance. (What does that even mean in this context?) Why are the fundamental constants, such as the strength for the fundamental forces, finely tuned to support life? Pure chance, again. Or, maybe there are a huge number of universes, and we just live in the one that happens to support life. But isn’t the postulation of multiple universes just wild speculation, invented simply to provide a seemingly better answer than “pure chance.” And how did any of these universes come into existence? “They just did” is no answer. Is it any better to say, “They Big Bang-ed into existence”? How? Why? Atheistic naturalist don’t seem to have any answer at all. And isn’t the very idea of a big bang a miracle? Doesn’t it defy the fundamental thesis of atheistic naturalism, that all there is the universe and its immutable laws. And, further, how can naturalism—being purely mechanistic—account for consciousness and free will? (Some naturalists, recognizing the force of this problem, conclude that free will is an illusion, and that consciousness is a mere “epiphenomenon” with no effect on the world!)
I am not suggesting here that theism and atheistic naturalism are obviously false and unworthy of further consideration. On the contrary, I take them both seriously. Indeed, I regularly spent most of a semester evaluating these two against each other in my Philosophy of Religion course. But I do want to suggest that, if looked at objectively, the idea that Atman is Brahman may not be any more implausible on its face than ideas that you take serious or possibly even believe, assuming that, at minimum, you take seriously at least one of the views just discussed. By point this out I am just trying to suggest that Advaita Vedanta might also be worthy of being taken seriously, despite what first impression may suggest.
Now, let’s go back to the beginning. Instead of starting by assuming that matter (and energy—which is convertible into matter) is all there is, and then having a problem explaining consciousness, let’s start by accepting the reality of consciousness. After all, we have direct experience of consciousness, and only indirect experience of matter. It is, after all, through consciousness that we experience matter. And that is not even quite right. We don’t unproblematically experience “matter.” We infer the existence of matter. But what is this “matter” that seems to be out there providing structure to our world, or at least to the experience of a world out there? If current scientific studies are to believed, it is very strange and obscure “stuff” indeed. The closer one looks, the less it seems to be concrete material at all.
So let’s now consider the story Vedanta tells. The following is a version of the story, presented by Alan Watts in The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are:
There was never a time when the world began, because it goes round and round like a circle, and there is no place on a circle where it begins. Look at my watch, which tells the time; it goes round, and so the world repeats itself again and again. But just as the hour-hand of the watch goes up to twelve and down to six, so, too, there is day and night, waking and sleeping, living and dying, summer and winter. You can’t have any one of these without the other, because you wouldn’t be able to know what black is unless you had seen it side-by-side with white, or white unless side-by-side with black.
In the same way, there are times when the world is, and times when it isn’t, for if the world went on and on without rest for ever and ever, it would get horribly tired of itself. It comes and it goes. Now you see it; now you don’t. So because it doesn’t get tired of itself, it always comes back again after it disappears. It’s like your breath: it goes in and out, in and out, and if you try to hold it in all the time you feel terrible. It’s also like the game of hide-and-seek, because it’s always fun to find new ways of hiding, and to seek for someone who doesn’t always hide in the same place.
God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself. This is his way of hiding from himself. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear.
Now when God plays hide and pretends that he is you and I, he does it so well that it takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. But that’s the whole fun of it—just what he wanted to do.
He doesn’t want to find himself too quickly, for that would spoil the game. That is why it is so difficult for you and me to find out that we are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself. But when the game has gone on long enough, all of us will wake up, stop pretending, and remember that we are all one single Self—the God who is all that there is and who lives for ever and ever.
Of course, you must remember that God isn’t shaped like a person. People have skins and there is always something outside our skins. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t know the difference between what is inside and outside our bodies. But God has no skin and no shape because there isn’t any outside to him.
[With a sufficiently intelligent child, I illustrate this with a Möbius strip—a ring of paper tape twisted once in such a way that it has only one side and one edge.]
The inside and the outside of God are the same. And though I have been talking about God as ‘he’ and not ‘she,’ God isn’t a man or a woman. I didn’t say ‘it’ because we usually say ‘it’ for things that aren’t alive. “God is the Self of the world, but you can’t see God for the same reason that, without a mirror, you can’t see your own eyes, and you certainly can’t bite your own teeth or look inside your head. Your self is that cleverly hidden because it is God hiding.
You may ask why God sometimes hides in the form of horrible people, or pretends to be people who suffer great disease and pain. Remember, first, that he isn’t really doing this to anyone but himself. Remember, too, that in almost all the stories you enjoy there have to be bad people as well as good people, for the thrill of the tale is to find out how the good people will get the better of the bad. It’s the same as when we play cards. At the beginning of the game we shuffle them all into a mess, which is like the bad things in the world, but the point of the game is to put the mess into good order, and the one who does it best is the winner. Then we shuffle the cards once more and play again, and so it goes with the world.
Of course, this is not intended to be taken literally, and “God” should not be misunderstood in the common way. Rather, “God” in this story means something like “ultimate reality,” which is an all encompassing consciousness. While this is presented as a kind of myth, that does not mean it isn’t intended to convey something true. Rather it is an attempt to provide a hint of an idea that eludes literal articulation, for the limits of language, along with the misleading nature of everyday experience, makes it difficult to explain literally. Note that if we assume this myth is in some sense true, we should expect its truth to be hard to fathom. Otherwise there would be no fun in it.
If you found this interesting, you might enjoy my forthcoming books on the philosophy of religion: (1) Is there a God? Reflections of a Former Atheist, and (2) What is “God”? Further Reflections of a Former Atheist. If you’d like me to let you know when they are released (probably sometime in 2018 and then 2019), then please use the form below to let me know. I’d love to hear from you.