Unity and Plurality in Non-Dual Consciousness

“Those who know reality say it is non-dual knowledge.

— 1.2.11

Reality is the most valuable thing any person can attain. Therefore it certainly should be the highest form of happiness, and not diminish or come to an end.

Those who understand reality describe it as “non-dual knowledge” – advaya-jñāna. Here, the word “knowledge” (jñāna) denotes sentience, consciousness — the basis of knowledge. Śuka describes this consciousness as “non-dual” (advaya), indicating that nothing in existence is separate from it.

Thus, Bhāgavatam describes reality as the consciousness that is the essence of all things. Everyone and everything that exists is a manifestation of this self-manifest consciousness, and all of them are fully dependent upon it.

“Non-dual reality is pure consciousness fixed exclusively upon its supreme objective. This Bhāgavatam clarifies the essence of all Vedānta by describing the characteristics of this supreme objective.”

— 12.13.12

“Reality is Brahman: infinite consciousness.”

— Taittirīya (2.1.1)

“Hear about it and you hear about everything. Know it, and you know all that is to be known.”

— Chāndogya (6.1.3)

“Only that reality, consciousness, existed in the beginning, thinking, ‘I will manifest as living beings each with their own names and forms, for I should be many.’”

— Chāndogya (6.2.1 – 3)

Plurality in Non-Duality

In his trance, Badarāyaṇa saw plurality in non-dual consciousness, for he saw two distinct types of conscious beings: (1) The supreme conscious being, and (2) individual conscious beings. We will thoroughly examine the relationship between the supreme and the individual later on, in the third essay, named Paramātmā Sandarbha. In summary, the individual is a distinctly perfect quantum of consciousness manifest from a fragmental ray of the amazing potencies of the supreme consciousness.

The supreme object/objective of individual consciousness is the supreme consciousness at its root. Thus supreme consciousness is therefore the essence of Vedānta and the primary subject of Śrī Bhāgavatam.

“Non-dual reality is pure consciousness fixed exclusively upon its supreme objective. This Bhāgavatam clarifies the essence of all Vedānta by describing the characteristics of this supreme objective.”

— 12.13.12

Here, the word “exclusively” does not mean without separate existence. It means purely. “Purity” means to be without anything extraneous, to be without ulterior motive. Thus the word hints that individual consciousness can attain the supreme objective most efficaciously by virtue of pure devotion. We will discuss this at much greater length in the sixth essay, Prīti Sandarbha.

Unity in Non-Duality

In non-duality, unity and plurality coexist. The Upanishads sometimes stress the unity of the individual and supreme consciousness, and at other times they stress their distinct plurality. The individual and the supreme are one unified reality, for they are the same in substance: consciousness. Yet within this unity a distinction manifests plurality: individual consciousness is the emanation, and supreme consciousness is the emanator.

Here is an example where the Upanishads stress the unity between the individual and the supreme:

“You are that.”

— Chandogya 6.8.7

In this statement, “you” refers to the individual consciousness, and “that” refers to the supreme consciousness. By highlighting the similarity between the individual and the supreme, the Upanishads convey important, factual information that we, just like the supreme, are eternal and full of sentience.

Another important reason for stressing the sameness of the individual and the supreme is to tell us that we can begin to understand the supreme by understanding ourselves. Since our own individual consciousness is a ray from the supreme consciousness, we can get an initial grasp of the supreme by understanding ourselves.

“Understanding one grants understanding of the other.”

— Vedānta Sūtra (1.3.20)

Imagine a person who has stayed shut within his house since birth and cannot go out into the sun. If he wants to know what the sun is, we could point to a minute ray of sunlight falling through a crack in his shutters and say, “this is it.” By comprehending that fragment of light, he would begin to get an accurate idea about the great amalgamation of light that is the sun itself.

Śrī Bhāgavatam also clearly states the essential similarities between the individual and the supreme consciousness:

“The conscious-self does is never born, and it does not die, or grow, or decay. It merely experiences all these conditions. It is the ever-present, constant, unfading substance of cognition itself.


“Conscious-self” means the pure living being.

It “is never born” because it has always existed. Since it is never born, it is not subject to the conditions following on the heels of birth: growth, decay, and death. These conditions occur only in the physical body. The conscious-self “merely experiences” them, without being directly affected.

Who is the conscious-self, the observer distinct from everything it observes? The conscious-self is pure sentience, “the substance of cognition itself.”

Where does it exist? Everywhere, “it is ever-present.” The consciousness of the individual self completely pervades whatever field it projects into.

There is unity between the individual and the supreme because the essence of both is pure consciousness itself. Therefore both the individual and the supreme possess the qualities of consciousness: begininglessness, changelessness, and pervasiveness.

An excerpt from
Basic Truths:
An English Rendition of Śrī Jīva Goswāmī’s Tattva-Sandarbha

by Vraja Kishor

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