• 24 Jun, 2024

Oneness & Multiplicity

Oneness & Multiplicity

Is Reality one and indivisible, as the vedantis declare, or is it multitudinous, as we experience? Or, is it both? — Glimpses into the mysticism of Vedanta.


Sarvam Brahmeti—All this is Brahman, the Divine

The first most common objection to the central formula of sarvam brahmeti is that it does not really resolve the issue of multiplicity and diversity in cosmic experience. We may possess this master formula of the vedanta, but how would that affect our day to day reality where we still see and experience the many and the varied forms of cosmic existence? Is mental knowledge of the One brahman enough to reconcile it with the actual experience of the Many? 

This is, however, an objection that arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of brahman, or brahmic oneness. This brahmic oneness is not mathematical but ontological, arising from the very nature of brahman. The right word in Sanskrit for this oneness is sarvata, all-ness or wholeness, and not ekya or ekatva. Sarvata is somewhat difficult to explain conceptually.

Brahman is indivisibly, immutably, absolutely One and simultaneously multitudinous, permeating infinite forms, formations and movements of this universe. This is how the Vedic seers had experienced and realized brahman, but they did not explain any of their experiences or realizations. Their business was to state what they saw and knew, not explain. It was left to later scholars and commentators to explain, rationalize, debate—and therefore, the many schools of vedanta trying to reconcile or resolve the seeming contradiction between brahman’s indivisible and immutable oneness and the multiplicity and diversity of its cosmic existence. But, then, there is a reason why the seers never explained—there was nothing to explain. It is self-evident, yatha bhutam. Brahman is indivisibly and immutably one and brahman is this multitudinous universe, equally and simultaneously. Or, as some vedanti logicians would love to say, brahman is both and neither. This is obviously neither mathematical nor even logical.

The fact is that the real difference between oneness and multiplicity is only in mental perception. You get distracted by brahman’s dynamic and creative play of multiplicity and miss the indivisible brahman behind the play. To explain this, let us consider an analogy. 

A beautiful woman stands on stage about to perform a dance. You see her and are enchanted by her beauty. There is no dance and thus, there is no dancer yet. But as soon as the dance begins, the woman is transformed into a dancer: you no longer see the woman, you are now distracted by the dance and the dancer. But as the dance proceeds and gets increasingly engaging, even the dancer disappears into the dance. Then, there is only the dance. The dancer obscures the woman and the dance obscures the dancer. But once the performance ends, where do the dance and the dancer go? There remains only the woman—and through all this, does the woman herself change and become the dancer and the dance? 

This is an effective analogy to explain brahman and its manifestation as this universe. The woman in this analogy represents the immutable, indivisible brahman, the dancer and the dance represent brahman as the universe and the dynamic play of cosmic existence. Just as the woman herself remains unaltered by the dancer and the dance, brahman remains unaltered by the universe and its dynamic cosmic play. In other words, just as the woman is the dancer and the dance with no inner or outer separation or division, brahman is the universe and its cosmic play without any inner or outer separation or division; and just as the woman does not actually become the dancer and the dance, except in a manner of speaking, brahman too does not actually become the universe or its cosmic play—it only seems to become. 

The reason, therefore, why one cannot perceive brahman as cosmic existence is because the mind is distracted by the cosmic play, it is in the cosmic play that the mind finds its rasa, and so it never cares to look deeper to see what or who is behind or within the play. The mind’s gaze, say the seers, is pulled towards the play of multiplicity for it is there that the sense-mind finds its rasa—and where the gaze goes, there rests our attention. Yato drishti, stato dhyana.


Image: Sanjive Sharma 

Partho Sanyal

Writer and poet, Partho is an exponent of integral Vedanta, and is a follower of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. He writes and speaks on Vedanta, Sanatan Dharma and Sri Aurobindo's integral Yoga.

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