Sunday, August 14, 2005

Arvind Sharma's book on Experiential Dimension of Advaita Vedanta

Reading the book, The Experiential Dimension of Advaita Vedanta, by Arvind Sharma.

This book is dedicated to Eliot Deutsch.

The preface itself is good. Sharma says that no word other than the sanskrit word "Advaita" is necessary to understand the concept of experiential advaita. To prove this, he claims to use only five previously unknown words in the book: Advaita Vedanta, Sankara, Ramana and Nisargadatta.

Sharma answers the question of "why is the concept of experience important or relevant" by saying that experience is something everyone can feel for themselves. This is to differentiate it from scriptural over emphasis someone may find in such an exposition.

A similar thought is given his other book titled "Advaita Vedanta", which seems to be written later. This is my post on that book (also contains the amazon link to that book). That book is divided into three main chapters: scriptural, rational and experiential aspects of Advaita. This is my post on the third part of that book.

Whose experience are we talking about? To disambiguate the term experience, as to who's experiences and which experiences, Sharma divides the term experience into the four categories:
  • ordinary experiences of ordinary people,
  • extraordinary experiences of ordinary people,
  • ordinary experiences of extraordinary people, and
  • extraordinary experiences of ordinary people.

    In the introduction, Sharma says that Sankara is the leading expositor of doctrinal Advaita and Ramana is the leading expositor of experiential Advaita.

    The first chapter titled "what is normal experience". At the end of chapter, Sharma raises 11 points and sub-points about how people give primacy to waking, over those of dream and dreamless sleep. This is even among among people who agree that all three are just states of consciousness and should be comparable.

    In the second chapter titled "critique of normal experience" gives the counter arguments that Advaita provides to each of the 11 points and sub-points raised in the first chapter. Some significant conclusions seem to be in point, where to answer the question 'If a contradicting experience is superior to a contradicted experience, is not waking state superior to dreaming?'. Sharma admits that a contradicting experience is superior to a contradicted experience. However all three states are capable of contradicting each other [How can dreamless state contradict any of the other? Ans: we experience pain when awake. When asleep, we donot experience it. So pain characterizes not the body but the body-consciousness as it comes and goes with it.]. For example, a rich man may dream that he is poor, which is a contradiction when he is in dream state. So, the fact that a state can be a contradicting some other state enforces our view that the contradicting state can be contradicted.

    The third chapter titled "Conclusions on the critique" makes some conclusions. The important being that the three states contradict each other in terms of reality in each of them. None of these three states represents reality by itself. What is common between all three? The being I is common all three states.

    The fourth chapter titled "Advaitin Experience and its relationship to Normal Experience", Sharma makes some interesting points. He answers the question, how does an Advaitin experience reality (and dualities like pleasure and pain) different from normal people. He says that

    the realized person, however, in a sense experiences less than the ordinary person; in another sense experiences more than the ordinary person; and in another sense experiences the world differently from an ordinary person.

    He says the following about the differences in experience of dualities by the realized and ordinary person.

    The realized person experiences pain and pleasure but does not experience it in the same way as an ordinary person. ... In a sense it might be said that the realized person feels physical pain but nor mental pain. It could be said that the difference between a realized person and an ordinary person does not lie not so much in what the realized one experiences and the ordinary one does not but rather in what the ordinary person experiences and the realized one does not. The realized person and the ordinary person both experience sugar as sweet and wormwood as bitter, both see and smell and walk and talk. But the ordinary person also experiences anxiety, fear, suffering, hope, diappointment etc. These the realized person does not experience.

    The eight chapter is titled "Some accounts of Advaitin Experience". It is mainly about the experience of Ramana, of his 'disciple' Paul Brunton and of Nisargadatta. [Paul Brunton wrote the book "Search in secret India". This is the Amazon link.]

    Sharma concludes the book with the following:

    There is starkness [emphasis mine] about Advaita Vedanta when presented in its experiential dimension. This starkness some find compelling and some repelling and others remain unaffected by it. All, however, would perhaps want to know: Does it have anything to offer?

    The question was put to Ramana whose virtual nakedness symbolized, as it were, the starkness of the experiential dimension of Advaita Vedanta. He was once asked by a somwehat cynical seeker: 'Do you have anything to offer to me?'

    'Yes', Ramana is supposed to have said, putting aside the comic book he was reading. 'But do you think you can take it?'

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