Is there creation in nonduality?
I was participating in a nonduality discussion forum recently, and there was a question about how genes control our emotions. Since this was a nonduality forum and not a genetics forum, the discussion quickly led to questions about whether consciousness creates the world, and if so, how. Most people seemed to be familiar with the idea that there are scientific theories about the creation of the universe, but participants in the discussion were interested in what nondualism has to say. I’ve asked this myself at times. Does nondualism endorse a particular account of how the world comes to be?
After all, many other paths have such accounts. In Abrahamic religions, it is said that God created the heavens and the earth.
In the Western mystical paths like Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and Anthroposophy, there are also creation accounts, but they are what my traditional Vedanta teacher once called “emanation models.” Creation is different from emanation. The Biblical creation story, in its literal and orthodox form, tells us how the world is created by an entity who just may be external to the world. But most emanation models show how the world is a seamless outflow or crystallization of the Divine. This assures us that everything we see and touch, including ourselves, has this same nature of divinity. And there needn’t be any entity performing an action. Here are some images depicting emanation models from Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and Anthroposophy.
Traditional Vedanta also has its accounts of emanation. Even though the accounts may use the word “creation,” the process is explained to be more a continuous unfolding of Brahman, and less the act of a separate being. The result of the emanation is that the world and its beings are only Brahman. From my experience in traditional Vedanta classes, just how and when these accounts are taught depends on the teacher and the context of the teaching. Vedanta teaching is primarily a face-to-face oral tradition, and I’ve seen various accounts used in classes – even with the same teacher! It depends on the particular insight or point being covered. And the teacher usually explains the shifts between the different accounts of creation. The three accounts range in order from less subtle to more subtle.
- sRshTi-dRshTi vAda – Creation precedes perception. In this account, the universe that is seen has been created by Brahman in His capacity as ISvara. The only cause is Brahman as ISvara. The main purpose of study under this theory is to account for the external world, which is only known through the senses. This approach supports devotion and the assurance that the world is continuous with the Absolute.
- dRshTi-sRshTi vAda – Creation and perception are simultaneous. This account is more subtle. It is also closer to idealism, and becomes relevant when the purpose of study is to account for the mind, perception and cognition. Its explanations are more subtle than those in sRshTi-dRshTi vAda, and do not depend on the pre-existence of external objects. It is also more appropriate when the very notion of separate minds begins to look questionable.
- ajAti vAda – Creation is not an actual event. This is appropriate when certain features of the previous models become questionable, such as the independent existence of the world, the notion of causality, and the idea that Brahman has qualities and performs actions. This account leaves no possibility of a world existing apart from oneself. The only thing that remains is the one Brahman, Atman.
For most students at any one time, one of these “vadas” will feel like a better explanation than the other two vadas. One vada will seem like the best way to account for the world and for our experience.
And then every so often the student will experience a sort of penetrating insight or gestalt shift. Oftentimes this comes from inquiring into the mechanics of the very “vada” that has been taught! For example, if a student comes to see that the outside world cannot be different from the perceiving mind, then sRshTi-dRshTi vAda will no longer seem like the best explanation of things. It will seem like things are happening on the subtle plane, and dRshTi-sRshTi vAda will make more sense. And then if the student has a shift and sees through causality or the idea of multiple jivas, then dRshTi-sRshTi vAda won’t seem like the best explanation any longer. The student may start to feel that ajAti vAda makes better sense. Traditional Vedanta anticipates the possibility of these shifts and offers multiple accounts, depending on what the student is working with at the time.
For students of nondualism, all this might seem way too complicated, way too dependent upon specific schools of thought. What about a kind of nonduality that doesn’t routinely teach about gods or deities, and concentrates on the teaching that everything is already oneness, consciousness or the Self? I’ve often wondered, is there any official account of creation in these teachings? But it’s not so simple. There are different flavors of nondualism, and different teachers give very different accounts. Here are examples of different accounts.
The ego is the source of all thought. It creates the body and the world…
(Ramana Maharshi, reported in Gems from Bhagavan by Devaraja Mudaliar, Ch. 10)
In the late 1990s I was at a satsang in New York City given by a teacher named Satyam Nadeen (author of From Onions to Pearls). Someone asked, “Why is there a world? How did it come to be?” He answered
Consciousness knew itself, but it wanted to experience itself. So it made a world.
And Shri Atmananda took a very different approach to creation, more like Vedanta’s an ajAti vAda. Creation is a species of causality. In Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda, he deconstructed causality, arriving at the following conclusion:
Causality is a misnomer, and it never functions.
Shri Atmananda unpacks his answer in much more detail (see note #1433, 23rd January 1959). The questioner asked:
Q: HOW DOES CAUSALITY FUNCTION?
Shri Atmananda answered
A: Causality is a misnomer, and it never functions.
(This is said from the highest level.) Viewing it from a lower plane: When one object is supposed to produce another, the former is said to be the cause and the latter the effect. But the relationship between cause and effect has to be examined more closely, though from the standpoint of the waking state. There can be only two possible positions, if we adopt this approach.
- That the cause and effect are entirely different one from the other.
- That they are not different.
If we accept the first position, causality cannot function, because a cause cannot produce an entirely different effect. And if they are not different, as in the second position, then causality has no meaning. Therefore, in either case, causality is a misnomer.
I find it significant that Shri Atmananda says that not only at the highest level, but also from a lower plane, causality is a misnomer and does not function. Following Shri Atmananda’s example, I too take the “no creation, no causality” approach in my book The Direct Path. In Part 4, “Witnessing Awareness,” beginning on p. 192, we investigate creation and causality in direct experience. While investigating, you will perhaps find a succession of arisings in experience, but no direct experience in which Arising A causes Arising B. The thought that “Arising A causes Arising B” may be found. But this is merely a thought seeming to make a claim. The truth of that claim is not directly experienced. The claim is nothing more than another arising, which has its consciousness as its source and nature.
The answer is – no single answer
Back to the question, Does nondualism endorse a particular account of how the world comes to be? The answer is that different teachings handle the issue in different ways. There is no link between a particular teaching and a “closest” or “truest” or “most accurate” account of creation.
Quick note about our linguistic freedom
Even though some teachings like ajAti vAda and the Direct Path don’t endorse a creation story about the world, this doesn’t mean that a person studying these paths can’t adopt a manner of everyday speech that includes terms for creation and causality. If my wife asks me why I didn’t bring home any Arugula and croutons for the salad, it is perfectly legitimate for me to answer, “So sorry! I forgot!” I don’t feel that it is effective or loving communication for me to tell my wife, “There is no reason. Causality doesn’t function. We will see what unfolds next time in consciousness.” Rather, I’ll say, “Sorry! I’ll go back to the store right now!”
The loving openness of awareness allows for the sweet flexibility of language.