It should be a surprise to no one that Advaita nonduality developed in India. Few countries in the world have experienced the scale of human suffering than has India. People in India have suffered from famine, despotism (often in the form of organized religion through the cruel caste system), disease, urban poverty, and many other physical and cultural ills. It is the perfect place to create and nurture a philosophy that negates everything in this world as “mere appearance”.
In a world of incredible suffering and hopeless, a spiritual philosophy that claims that it is all just a dream, just a projection could take hold among people powerless to change the nature and quality of their lives. Instead of horrendous suffering, we now have, voila, perfection. And, perhaps the cruelest injunction of all is that if you don’t experience this perfection of being, then you are unawakened.
Contrast this with the life philosophy of the Navajo, a group I know well because I have worked with traditional healers there for quite a few years. It is, essentially, the exact opposite of Advaita. In the Navajo world, the earth is sacred. Everything we take from it, we must make amends and return in kind. We thank the plants and animals that make our lives possible. We acknowledge the beauty of rain and sun. We celebrate our children as sacred beings; unique and beautiful in their own, distinct way. This world is the only reality and we are fully connected through the web of its being. I have never heard a healer talk about the ground of being that negates phenomenon as just passing, incidental appearance. It is just the opposite, the world of appearance is everything and we are responsible for our actions that effect it.
The denial of life, as a direct consequence of human suffering, is found throughout history. Religion has served the needs of the hopeless to offer people a way out of their misery. So it often speaks of the unreal as our salvation. We can abandon this life, because Heaven awaits us. We can claim victory over our enemies, since they will be going to hell. Thus religion serves the desperate and powerless. Advaita is little different.
Today, with all of our wealth and technology, we are living at a time of unprecedented numbers of clinical depression, a rapid decline in the earth’s capacity to sustain environmental diversity, and we are seeing the enormous disruption of the earth’s atmosphere through global warming. We can escape the challenge of living in such a world through recently esoteric teachings such as advaita. That is the easy choice. It makes logical sense and anyone can do it in the glow and privacy of their own home computers.
The much more difficult choice is to organize with others and demand changes from our political and corporate leader and to make sacrifices in our life styles to reduce pollution. This is a lot more difficult than just believing it all away through denying its existence.
This life is a puzzle. Frankly, the Navajos do not have it figured out. Many of them believe that this life phase is soon coming to an end. To me, that sounds like another hope built on desperation. The most courageous step is finding your own voice. Finding out what is real. Being less concerned with bliss than finding out what is true without depending on any belief system. The best definition of a neurotic is a person who places their well being on good feelings. That is the shakiest of foundations. Feelings, like everything else change and we have little to no control over them. But we can be free to find out what is real and what is true to the best of our abilities. That, I suggest, is the challenge of this life