Dualism & Nondualism


Students of 21st Century Transnational Postural Yoga typically begin our study with little or no theory; practice is all.  As we deepen our practice, we are introduced to what we are told is “Yoga Philosophy.” Depending on the tradition we are studying, this is usually a pat genealogy; we are told that “Yoga Philosophy” is found in the Yoga Sūtras, and that the philosophy they contain is called स़ाम्ख्य, Sāmkhya, and that it is dualistic.  Because Yoga is supposedly Indian, we are also likely to be introduced to some Indian religious classics: the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gītā.  In the course of this, we may be told that some of these texts expound another acceptable Indian philosophical system, that of Non-Dualism (or “Monism”).  And there the matter is likely to be left.

I am suspicious of almost every aspect of this process, but today I want to explore one aspect in particular:  the Sāmkhya and Advaita approaches, their relation to the English words “Dualism” and “Monism,” and to the Yoga Sūtras and Bhagavad Gita.  Two questions I am bearing in mind are:  Is the Bhagavad Gita monistic? and, are the Yoga Sūtras dualistic?


Sanskrit अद्वैत (Advaita) is cognate with English “Non-Duality” (A-, negating prefix; –dvai-, from the same Indo-European root as Greek δυο, English “dual”; –ta, nominating suffix).  As an Indian philosophical system, it is mainly associated with some early Upanishads and works of Shankara (9th Century CE), though there is also a robust and poetic tradition of nondual Tantrism, often referred to as Kashmiri Śaivism owing to its flowering in Medieval Kashmir.  The English term Non-dualism has also been applied to several other mystical traditions including Tibetan Dzogchen, the Christian Meister Eckhardt and Sufi ibn ‘Arabi, Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen.  In the 20th Century, a number of Indian and Euro-American soi-disant gurus also adopted the term.

As expounded by Shankara, Advaita is an intellectual and contemplative practice.  Constantly noticing that whatever can be perceived, including one’s own body and thoughts, is an object of perception  and thus not the perceiver, one is led into direct experience of the non-difference (or “unity”) of one’s own profound subjectivity, one’s deepest “self” or consciousness, with the primal force that creates and sustains the entire universe, the attributes of which in the Upanishads are said to be “being, awareness, and bliss.”

As expounded by Abhinavagupta, a Tantric sadhaka and scholar of 11th Century Kashmir, the process is more physical and perceptual.  By engaging aesthetically with one’s environment, he taught, including ceremonially indulging in forbidden or passionate activities, what is called Bhairava-Consciousness arises; subject and object are felt to be in delightful, playful, eternal erotic entanglement, the nature of which is pure vibration, without self and other.

(Shankara’s teaching, by the way, was morally strict and socially conventional.  Despite this, Kashmiri Śaivites adopted him into their lineage, and were fond of telling the folktale that Shankara, though sworn to celibacy, by yogic power traded bodies with a king for several months, so that he could enjoy erotic love to the fullest without breaking his vows, and wrote his great books after returning to his own body.  Food for thought!)

European intellectuals, encountering Shankara’s writings, and assuming that any philosophy from another culture must already exist in Europe, considered Advaita to be a kind of “Monism,” a term associated with Neo-Platonism, with its somewhat enigmatic description of all existence “emanating” from “The One.”  This is probably (depending on your interpretation of Neo-Platonism) a mistake; the sense of nonseparation between subject and object is simply not found in European philosophy until Phenomenology in the 20th Century.  As a name, also, it is misleading.  There is a reason this path is called Advaita, Non-Duality, and not Ekata, Unity.  To pronounce that all things are one is not the same as to recognize that they cannot be separated.  In one case we make a positive statement, denying the independence of other entities who may believe themselves to exist as such; in the other we acknowledge that neither we nor they can exist without each other.  One (Following Levinas) is a statement about Totality, the other about Infinity.  One is arrogant, the other humble.

I belabor the point only because I am constantly being surprised by people’s carelessness regarding this distinction. “Everything is one” is an abstract and unverifiable statement which belongs to the realm of metaphysics.  “I cannot see where one thing stops and another begins” is an honest statement about one’s own experience.  The effect of making these two statements can be felt immediately in the bodymind; they are not equivalent.  And the misapplication of the word “Monism” obscures the difference.

Sāmkhya and Dualism

Sanskrit Sāmkhya means more or less “enumeration.”  It was called that because of its careful analysis of various tattvas or ontological categories (although this kind of analysis is also found in other Indian traditions).  Although Sāmkhya counts 25 such categories, 24 of them are considered to belong to the realm of inert matter, which is conceived of as female.  The 25th is pure subjectivity, which is conceived of as male.

Thus Sāmkhya is strict dualism, and so far sounds a lot like the Judeo-Christian mind/body, self/world dualism so familiar from the works of Descartes and other European philosophers.  Although gendered, there is nothing sexy about the way these two principles interact; in fact, Sāmkhya understands moksha to be liberation of the masculine principle from the feminine.  Yikes!

However, upon examination, this dualism is nothing like the dualism of Descartes et al.  For in addition to stones, trees, rivers and mushrooms, प्रकृति, Prakriti, inert feminine non-sentient nature, is said to include ego (ahamkara) and cognition (buddhi).  This should give us, as post-Cartesian technocapitalist subjects, pause.  First, in what sense can egoity and thought itself be said to be inert and non-sentient?  Second, if this पुरुष, Purusha, pure subjectivity, is not my sense of I-ness, nor my thoughts, then what is it, exactly?

Finally, how exactly does this dualist Sāmkhya differ from non-dualist Advaita?  Sāmkhya maintains that myriad subjectivities, each utterly distinct from one another, can, through discipline and contemplation, realize their complete separation from world, selfhood and thoughts, experiencing identity with that cosmic principle that is the only live, sentient thing that has ever or will ever exist.  Advaita proposes that myriad individual souls, each non-separate from the others, can, through discipline and contemplation, realize that world, selfhood and thoughts are all illusion, and that all that exists is a cosmic principle of pure awareness and absolute bliss which is one’s real self and always has been.

There are differences, and they may be important; but they are subtler than the distinction between “dualist” and “non-dualist” might imply.  And my question is, how are these two paths different for the practitioner, the one who treads them?

Philosophy As Pedagogy

Viewing theories or practices that originate in other lifeways, Europeans cannot be blamed for trying to fit them into pre-existing categories of European thought or practice.  “Superstition,” “religion,” and “philosophy” are three such categories the distinctions among which may not be that useful in understanding theories or practices originating outside the European tradition.  The category of “religion,” for instance, brings with it a host of assumptions, and instigates fruitless and unanswerable debates like “Is Buddhism a religion?”  “Is Yoga a religion?”  “Is Animism a religion?” “Is there such a thing as Animism?” etc.

The category “philosophy” has baggage too.  In the European tradition, stretching broadly from Plato through the Scholastics to Hegel, Descartes and Hume, a “philosophy” has been understood to be a set of claims about reality and consciousness and their relation (or lack thereof).  These claims may be explicit or implicit, but that is what “philosophy” is assumed to be doing; making claims about the answers to questions about reality and consciousness.  The specific questions may change (becoming more or less theological for instance) and the techniques used to resolve them may change (analyzing the language in which the questions are posed has assumed greater importance), but fundamentally, in the European tradition, to adhere to a given philosophy means to accept its claims about the nature and relationship of reality and consciousness, and to reject the claims of other philosophies.

This assumption — that philosophies are arguments about what is true — is so ingrained in those educated in the European tradition that it can be hard to recognize, but it begins to break down at the edges of the tradition, with Diogenes, say, or Nietzsche, and I would submit that it may not be helpful in understanding successional traditions originating in the Indian subcontinent.

These traditions in general historically did not claim to be making statements about reality and consciousness, or even to be particularly concerned with describing reality or consciousness, though that is how they have been generally interpreted by those educated in the European tradition.  Rather, they understood themselves to be concerned with the best methods of attaining a common goal:  liberation from bondage or an end to suffering.  The existence of this bondage or suffering is presumed a priori by these systems and is not open for debate; and while the description of liberation or release may differ from one tradition to the next, the main concern is the practical one of how best to attain the goal.

Thus, rather than making truth claims about reality, consciousness, and their relationship, I sometimes think it is more helpful to understand Indian philosophies and commentarial traditions as pedagogical systems.  Seen in this light, models of reality that they propose may be more incidental than essential.  the concepts of (to return, at long last, to our topic) Purusha and Prakriti, for instance, would not be so much a claim about two enduring principles which constitute reality as a kind of map to orient a practitioner on the road to liberation.  A system like Advaita would not be offering a contrasting claim about the nature of reality and consciousness, so much as a contrasting claim about pedagogy, about the best way to orient oneself on the path.

The differences might be more methodological and metaphoric than metaphysical or substantial; differences between imagining the process as one of separation, and imagining it as one of union; between the efficacy of imagining oneself as Purusha, eternally separate from the universe, and imagining oneself as Ātman, eternally non-separate from the universe.  Just a thought.

The Example Of Buddhism

Yoga students are often taught that Buddhism and its practices belong to an alien stream, non-Hindu and therefore with no relation to “Yoga Philosophy” whatever that may or may not be.  But it was not always so.  The yamas and niyamas of the Yoga Sūtras are substantially the same as the ethical precepts of Early Buddhism, which Buddhists vow to uphold to this day; even Patañjali’s choice of eight as the number of limbs is thought by some scholars to indicate Buddhist influence, as Gautama also enumerated an “Eightfold Path” in his first articulation of the Way to Nirvana.  Buddhism, Jainism, Sāmkhya and Yoga all shared terminology and emerged from the same spiritual-philosophical culture of ~500 BCE India.  禅 (Chan or Zen) Buddhism, whose name is the Chinese mispronunciation of Sanskrit ध्यान, dhyāna, meditation, one of Patañjali’s eight limbs, is based on an Indian Buddhist teaching called योगाचार, yogācāra, which just means “the practice of yoga.”

So Buddhist teaching may not be as irrelevant to yoga practice as is sometimes thought.  In any case, particularly seen as a pedagogical structure rather than a bundle of ontological and epistemological claims, Buddhism can help clarify our concepts of Duality and Non-duality.

Sāmkhya, as we know, teaches that one’s inmost self, आत्मन्, Ātman (from an Indo-European root signifying breath, cognate with Greek ατμοσ, English “atmosphere”), is in fact identical withपुरुष, Purusha, or Cosmic Man, a term used mythologically in Vedic literature.  Advaita, likewise, teaches that one’s inmost self, Ātman, is non-different from ब्रह्मन्, Brahman, the creator of the universe.  The two schools differ pragmatically in their conception of the process leading to realization of these facts.  For Sāmkhya, this process is conceived of as कैवल्य, kaivalya, “isolation,” (of Purusha from Prakriti); for Advaita, as ज्ञान, jñāna, “knowledge” (of oneself as Brahman).  Early Buddhism, however, provides a different perspective, pronouncing that one of the marks of existence is अनात्मन, anātman, “selflessness,” lack of an ātman.  Early Buddhism proposes that this self, this principle of pure subjectivity, which Sāmkhya would isolate from the world and Advaita would come to know as identical with the divine, may not exist at all.  Buddhist practice is then conceived of as eight ways of embodying this fact, called निर्वान, nirvāna, “extinguishment.”

Again, rather than models of reality among which one must choose, if we understand these three as pedagogical structures within which to explore our own experience of being alive, we can ask:  How do these differing models of practice make me feel?  Does anātman or selflessness make me feel frightened or dizzy?  Is kaivalya or isolation cold and lonely?  Is Non-Duality blissful?  And where do these or other emotional responses come from, and what do they tell us about the associated practices (if anything?)

Finally, later Buddhist philosophy can help to clarify — or maybe obfuscate — the relationship between Duality and Non-Duality, if only by showing that many more subtle schemas are possible.  Nagārjuna’s “Not One, Not Two” can be helpful here, as can the “five ranks” (五位, wu wei)attributed to Chan teacher Dongshan, which can be stated as:

  1. Duality within Non-Duality
  2. Non-Duality within Duality
  3. Coming from within Non-Duality
  4. Arrival at mutual integration
  5. Complete interpenetration of Duality and Non-Duality

Space does not allow a detailed examination of these kinds of analyses of the interrelationships among Duality and Non-Duality, but I encourage those who are interested to look into them.  I hint at them here only to demonstrate that, as practitioners, we are not necessarily presented with a simple choice between two ideological or metaphysical systems.  Rather practice invites us to explore and articulate the subtleties of our own experience.

The Bhagavad Gītā and Yoga Sūtras

Returning to the Bhagavad Gītā and Yoga Sūtras, have these meditations helped or hindered our understanding?  Perhaps both.

Without undertaking a detailed textual analysis, we can make some generalizations.  First, neither book is particularly homogeneous.  The Bhagavad Gītā is written as a work of fiction, inserted into a larger work of mythography; it makes no pretenses to philosophical coherence.  The Yoga Sūtras, while presented as a unified statement, are notoriously unclear.  For reasons of both form and content, many scholars consider the first two chapters to belong to a different author and possibly tradition than the rest of the book.

So we should not be seeking absolutes!  At best, we may find clues suggesting the personal leanings of some of the various oral poets, authors and copyists these texts may have had; and in so doing, shed some light on our own beliefs or affiliations.

Among many things the Bhagavad Gītā is — an attempt to justify racism, classism, and murder, an account of what sounds like a pretty shattering drug trip — it propounds two broad categories of practice, which have come to be called karma yoga and bhakti yoga.  Doing one’s job, without attachment to results, as a spiritual practice, and adoring and serving a deity as a spiritual practice.

Karma yoga, as a practice, can be conceived of either dualistically or non-dualistically.  One might find that, in doing one’s work without attachment, one becomes one with one’s work, one with God, non-separate from the universe; or one might believe that in so doing one was propitiating the powers that be and storing up merit for oneself and one’s family.  The Bhagavad Gītā does not explicitly choose a context for this practice.

Bhakti yoga, however, is dualistic through-and-through.  While the Bhagavad Gītā does contain some language about “union with God,” which is pretty strong stuff from a monotheistic perspective, as a method of reaching that union bhakti yoga is the essence of dualism.  Even the interpretation of this “union” is controversial; other passages of the Bhagavad Gītā suggest it is to be understood as “interaction.”

The Yoga Sūtras are normally thought of as dualist.  However, they are so exceedingly gnomic and succinct that almost any interpretation is possible, and I know of several translations that attempt to present Patañjali’s teaching as non-dual.  And the Yoga Sūtras are far from a decisive statement of Sāmkhyan metaphysics.  The clues to Patañjali’s intent are mainly his vocabulary, specifically the words Purusha and Prakriti.  Beyond that, there is no metaphysical context, dualist or otherwise, save a later use of the word kaivalya, which also hasSāmkhya associations; and there is a big problem.  This problem, of course, is the word ईश्वर, Īshvara, “Lord,” which appears prominently once.  It is certainly dualistic, belonging to the same Vaishnavite theological milieu as the Bhagavad Gītā; however, it would never be used in a classical Sāmkhya  text, Sāmkhya being thorough goingly atheist.  This has led many to declare that the “metaphysics” of the Yoga Sūtras are a kind of “theistic Sāmkhya,” adding a third, transcendent term to Purusha and Prakriti (as if Purusha weren’t transcendent enough); but there is little to support this.  Simpler, perhaps, to admit that the Yoga Sūtras contain no coherent statement of a metaphysics, and are a guide to practice only, with some inconsistent metaphysical accretions.  Seen thus, we are free to provide our own context; the famous definition of yoga as चित्तनिरोधः, cittanirodhaẖ, stilling of mind’s movements, by itself would not be out of place in an utterly non-dual work like the Śiva Sūtras.

So, where have we landed, and where did we begin?  For some, this will have been mainly a rehearsing of well-known facts, though hopefully with some challenging (maybe incorrect!) perspectives.  Some may have been exposed to some new concepts.  For me, as should be obvious, I do not see a debate here.  I believe that “Duality” and “Non-Duality” are two conceptual frameworks providing pedagogical structure for a heterogeneous and historically contingent body of practices called “yoga.”  One of these structures may be more appealing, and/or more effective, for some practitioners, and the other for others, while some may prefer just to practice without telling themselves a story about where they began and where they are going.


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