The Non-Duality of Advaita and the Christian Metaphor by Merlyn Swan

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I was born into Roman Catholicism, schooled by Irish catholic nuns, and conditioned never to question the dogmas of the church.  One day in my late thirties I questioned the concept of original sin which is said to have flawed mankind and so needing a divine saviour to be redeemed.  These queries grew till I found I had drifted away from the rigid structure of the church and its literal interpretation of the concepts.  The drift continued till I moved from Ceylon to England.  It was here not long after that I encountered the Non-duality of the Advaita philosophy through the Study Society of London.  I found this Advaita philosophy very acceptable as I was free to search for the Truth unhindered by dogmas and a rigid structure that were unquestionable.  I have stayed with the philosophy these last fifty years or more.  However I felt there was a missing link in the Christian story waiting to be acknowledged and I had no idea where to find it at the time; moreover I did not think to even try.  Then Easter Sunday 2011 dawned.  I was meditating and suddenly in a flash it happened.  This is the story of that happening.

First a few explanations of terms being used.

What is Advaita

Briefly Advaita is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘not two’ – or non-duality.  The Advaita philosophy maintains that there is a single power, an energy, which holds everything together.

This Power or Energy is said to be everywhere, is always present, and is the source of all that is.  This power is also identified as One without a second, Oneness, Reality, God, Energy, Consciousness, Totality.  The philosophy is said to concern God and mankind, where mankind in substance is one with God, in principle one, but in practice, in our thinking there is a duality, of God and mankind.

This Power, the impersonal, primal energy is generally referred to as ‘Potential Energy’, or ‘Consciousness Immobile’.  It has the potential to know Itself so activates Itself, becomes mobile and manifests as phenomenality, the creation.

This manifested state, the creation, is considered the stage on which the drama of life is played out.  This play of life, known as Lila, is the form and manner in which the Divine acts out the human experience.  The One has thus been transformed into the many parts of the creation.  From Oneness comes duality.

The universe or phenomenality is considered to be an illusion, as regards Reality or Consciousness, as it is a phenomenon – an appearance of Reality – and not a separate entity.  It is often likened to a shadow that only exists with a subject to cast it and the subject is Reality/Consciousness.

Phenomenality is the object, the content in the context of Reality/Consciousness.

Duality explained

Without a creation, phenomenality, there would only be ‘Potential Energy’ or ‘Consciousness Immobile’ so duality is an essential mechanism for the manifestation of creation.

Duality has two qualities.  The first is considered an essential mechanism for human understanding of the existence of phenomenality, i.e. universe.  It indicates in our minds the polarity of interconnected opposites, where one cannot exist without the other. Examples of this are that there cannot be hot without cold, dark without light, or good without evil.

The second related part of the mechanism is a natural split into duality in the working of our minds, often termed dualism.  The human mind is a tool of Oneness/Consciousness which splits everything into a separation, of two. There seems to arise a ‘you’ and a ‘me’ considered as separate entities and understood to be the doers of action.  The creation, a manifestation of Oneness, is also seen as separated from Oneness.  This is known as ‘The Divine Paradox’

This seeming separation is called Maya.  It acts as a separating screen, creating this illusion of separation of Consciousness from its manifestation, the creation.  It is the same Consciousness that constitutes both.

Maya, is, however, seen as an essential mechanism in order for the universe to function.  Maya conceals the ‘Real’ and projects the ‘Unreal’, as this is its function.  Without this seeming separation there could not be any action in the creation as there would only be potential Energy, or immobile Consciousness.

The human mind-ego or split mind consequently appears to operate from two levels, the individual and the universal, as a subject, object concept.

When mind-ego is operating on a universal level no mental split is recognised and ‘me’ and the ‘other’ are acknowledged as one with Consciousness, the Subject, and the mind-ego becomes a conduit for Consciousness /Oneness, the acknowledged doer of all activities.

On an individual level the split is recognised, so that ‘me’ and ‘other’ is each considered as a separate entity, as the doer of actions.  Most of the time we are only aware of operating on this individual level.

The transcendence to the universal level can happen at any time but cannot be coaxed, or ordered to appear.  It is said it comes only as an act of Grace, a divine gift, when the mind-ego, individual Consciousness transcends to Universal Consciousness and everything is recognized as One.

Grace, synonymous with Consciousness, transcends ordinary thinking into the universal, unknown level.  I do not know how it happens but it does occur and is sometimes termed a ‘peak’ experience.

A follower of the Advaita philosophy might hope to see through the Maya and so recognise the Truth.

As the Persian poet Rumi put it:

“Saying ‘I am God’ means ‘I don’t exist.’  Everything is God.  Only God exists.  I am nothing,  I am utter emptiness……. When one is drowned in the ocean of God there would be no such thing as one’s actions, only movements of the water.”

The main principles of the non-duality philosophy are broadly:-

  1. Oneness or Non-duality, Advaita.
  2. Oneness as phenomenality.
  3. Maya veiling the Oneness, as duality.
  4. Universal and individual Consciousness.
  5. Self-realisation or recognition of Oneness.

The Christian Story

The Christian story, like the explanation of Advaita philosophy, can be viewed as based on recognition of one single power – one God, omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient.  God is seen as the creator of the universe, with mankind created in God’s image.

Christianity claims that mankind is born with original sin and is therefore flawed, needing a divine redeemer as a saviour.  The Christian message is presented in the form of a series of stories, and followers are inclined to take a literal view of the stories.  As a result Reality becomes masked by concepts such as original sin.  To be forgiven for the original sin, a divine redeemer is needed.

Other concepts such as Jesus having died on the Cross, and the resurrection and ascension to heaven are also taken literally. If the Christian story is viewed metaphorically and symbolically, it can be seen as having similar attributes to the Non-duality philosophy, whereas accepting the Christian story as a literal interpretation distorts the Non-duality concept of Unity, or Oneness.

The five main principles of the Christian story are:

1.     The creation and duality, or split from God
2.     Adam and Eve living in  original sin
3.     Arrival of Jesus as the divine redeemer
4.     The Redemptive act  of the crucifixion
5.     The Resurrection and Ascension to heaven

Proposal of New Concept

I propose to bring these two frameworks, the Christian story and the concept of Non-duality, or Oneness of Advaita, together in order to illustrate that the structure and interpretation of the Christian story is a metaphor for non-duality/Oneness.

The Creation and Duality

The Christian story proposes that God created heaven and earth, darkness was everywhere and God said “Let there be light.”  According   to the Advaita Non-duality philosophy, immobile Consciousness becomes mobile and manifests as phenomenality, so from darkness/immobility there is light/mobility.

Darkness can also be seen as symbolic of the potential Energy of non-duality.  Without this movement of immobility to mobility, there would be no phenomenality, but only Oneness/God as potential Energy.  In the Christian story, if there were only darkness and no light, no creation would have appeared only darkness would prevail.

According to the Christian story, God created mankind in His own image.  Similarly, likeness is symbolic of the Non-duality philosophy where mankind is a manifestation of God, the Divine, having a human experience.

Like the Advaita philosophy, the Christian story contains an understanding of the mechanism of duality being essential for human understanding of God.  The law of opposites, an aspect of Non-duality essential for action in the universe, can also be seen too in the Christian story.  God divided the light from darkness, dry land from the water, day from night, good from evil.

Adam and Eve and Original Sin

The Adam and Eve story is a simple way of dealing with what non-duality calls the separation  from Oneness, i.e. a mental split, or duality, which causes a subject/object  relationship of ‘me’ and ‘other’.

Adam and Eve were one with God but once they ate the apple they thought they were as wise as gods.  Their power and wisdom made them think they were the doers of actions and not merely manifestations of God, the only doer.

The ‘eating the apple’ concept manifests the duality of the split mind as the two humans recognise their own differences as Man and Woman, and experience a separation from God, in considering themselves as gods.  Original sin is the metaphor for Maya that screens and veils the ‘Unity’ and causes ideas of separation from God and from each other.

Another very important concept of Non-duality is that of the two levels of Consciousness, individual Consciousness and universal Consciousness.  This is also evident in the Christian story.  When Adam and Eve are without original sin, they are one with God, symbolic of universal Consciousness.  On the individual level of Consciousness, having eaten the apple, they are now separated from God in thinking they are as gods.  They need to be saved, and this can only be done by a divine redeemer.

The Divine Redeemer

In the Christian story the redeemer comes in the person of Jesus, the divine son of God, as only a divine intervention can redeem mankind.  In the Non duality philosophy, individual Consciousness, or ego/mind cannot transcend at will, as the divine power of Consciousness known as ‘Grace’ is needed for transcendence.

In the Christian story the birth of Jesus through the Virgin Mary is the means for the manifestation of the Divine to have this human experience.  Mary is a virgin, a metaphor used for flawlessness, so she is considered not to have experienced original sin.  Oneness/God manifests as Mary and Jesus is the divine progeny of this sinless being, appearing as the Divine Son of the Divine Father.

The Crucifixion- The Redemptive Act

In the Christian story the crucifixion of the Divine Christ is the ultimate sacrifice of the Divine Son of God atoning for man’s original sin.  This symbolises what in the Non-duality philosophy is the sacrifice of the ego.  Divine grace transcends the individual Consciousness/ego to Universal Consciousness and ego becomes a tool of Consciousness, the doer.  Atonement means to be at One with God.

Jesus the Son of God died for all mankind symbolising God/Consciousness manifesting as all mankind in the Oneness.

The words uttered by Christ on the cross ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’ might be viewed as an acknowledgement of the Oneness of the Father and Son in the context of an ignorance by humans that they are a manifestation of the Oneness.

For Christians, mankind has to go to the Father through the Son.  The idea of  Father and Son being One is similar to the Advaita concept of Potential Consciousness/ Father and manifested Consciousness /Son being one and the same Consciousness/God.

The Resurrection and Ascension to Heaven

The story of the resurrection of Christ from the grave and His ascension to heaven can be seen as a metaphor for a total surrender of the human will to the Divine will.  It is an acknowledgement of the Oneness, the Unity and the surrender of the separate entity, as a doer, to God/Consciousness/One as the doer.  It is the final acknowledgement, the resurrected Christ, as the Son of God, ascends to Heaven to be one with God, the Father.  This can be understood in the Non- duality philosophy as ‘I Am That’.

I shall try to sum up the similarities in the two traditions:

  Non-duality philosophy Christian Tradition
1 Potential Energy activates Itself and is manifested as phenomenality/creation. From darkness God created light and heaven and earth resulted.
2 Mankind is a manifestation of One/God and not a separate entity, in other words the Divine is having a human experience. God created man in His own image and likeness.
3 The law of opposites is an essential mechanism for existence, as black/white dark/light. God caused dark and light, dry land and water, day and night, good and evil.
4 Consciousness/Subject can only manifest as organisms/objects and Maya acts as a veil to create the illusion of separation of Universal Consciousness from individual Consciousness/ego-mind.  Thus a mental split, duality, is said to occur from One into many.  Individual Consciousness /ego-mind now recognises a ‘me’ and an ‘other’ as separate entities and doers of action and therefore is alienated from Oneness.  Only Grace can cause individual Consciousness to transcend to Universal Consciousness/Oneness. Adam and Eve were at one with God till they ate the apple which caused the original sin and a separation from God, as they thought they were as gods and wise.  It also caused the duality as they saw themselves as separate entities, man and woman, and the doers of actions.  The concept of Original sin might be considered as Maya, a mechanism that veils this unity with God and creates duality.  A divine redeemer is needed to forgive mankind for this original sin and bring mankind back to unity with God.
5 Unity is when there is a total surrender of the human will to the Divine Will.  This surrender is a sacrifice of individual Consciousness/ego to Universal Consciousness and happens only through divine Grace. The redeemer Jesus is the divine son of God.  The death of Jesus on the cross restores sinful mankind to be whole again.  Jesus a manifestation of God as mankind may be viewed as symbolic of the surrender of the human will to the Divine Will, where individual ego is sacrificed on the cross to Universal Consciousness/God.  Father and Son are One through the crucifixion, the total surrender
6 Self-realisation is a term to describe a state when individual Consciousness/ego-mind is no longer regarded as the doer.  It transcends to Universal Consciousness, and the separation of ‘me’ and ‘other’ are recognised as an illusion.  There is the   recognition that there is only Consciousness, and that everything is a manifestation of Consciousness, which is the only doer, hence, ‘I am That’. Christ’s resurrection and ascension to heaven mean Jesus the divine Son becomes one with God the divine Father. Jesus represents all mankind and the resurrection and ascension are both symbols of the transcendence of the separation from God to unity with God.  Original sin has been forgiven through the crucifixion of the divine, a seeing through the illusion in the Non duality philosophy, and mankind as Jesus is restored to unity once more with God

The essence or crux of the Christian story becomes hidden in the form and structure of the language used.  Metaphors and symbolic terms are often used in language to explain or indicate complex concepts as Truth/Reality which is unexplainable.

To live with Non duality as a philosophy is to accept that life is what it is meant to be and is as it is, not a model of how we would like it to be.  There is only Oneness and all is a manifestation of this Oneness.  There is no separation as Consciousness is the doer.

The Biblical stories like the utterings of the Vedantic sages can be received and understood on different levels.

I like to think, and offer the idea, that  the story form and literal interpretation of the Christian story is the metaphor for Maya; the mind’s screen of separation from Reality, that veils the Oneness, the Non-duality  concept in Christianity.  The principle that forms the basis of Advaita, Non-duality is Oneness/God.  This is the ground of our being, meaning that we are all manifestations of the One.

The ignorance engendered by Maya makes for seemingly very different philosophies being formed by different people, when in fact there is a great similarity of understanding of Oneness/God between the Advaita philosophy and Christianity, if the Christian story is understood metaphorically and symbolically.


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