Dualism and Non Dualism

"Dualism and Non Dualism" or "Dvaita and Advaita" in Sanskrit.

These are two great traditions within the fold of eastern philosophy represented by the dualism, dvaita of Madhva and Patanjali and the non dualism, advaita vedanta of Shankara. In addition there is as school of thought called qualified non dualism (vishista advaita) propounded by Ramanuja which may be seen as in between the former two schools. Sometimes these schools are also referred to as pluralism, qualified monism and monism for example within Shaiva Siddhantha. Some scholars object to the interchangeability of these terms arguing a subtle difference in meaning, while others use these terms interchangeably. For the purposes of this essay I will consider them interchangeable.

This article will explore the similarities and differences between these belief systems and why this may be relevant to the contemporary world.

To begin I looked in the Oxford dictionary, what is dualism? "Divided in two, a theory recognizing two independent principles, ie. spirit and matter."

Thus it would follow that Non Dualism means undivided.

The phenomenal world is also full of dualities or opposites; hot - cold, north - south, good – evil, life - death. Nature is constantly trying to resolve or balance these opposites it seems you cannott have one without the other.

We can see that by a balancing of forces it is possible to rise above dualities. These dualities can be seen as nested within the phenomenal world and may be seen as qualities rather than absolutes.

However we turn to the dualism between matter and spirit here, the phenomenal world which includes the subtle senses and objects of individuation or nature and spirit, the absolute, unformed.

Samkhya and classical yoga of Patanjali believe in a strict dualism between spirit and nature. The two are not equal, nature is subservient to spirit; Purusha and Prakriti or Spirit and Nature.

Patanjali was a theist and proponent of dualism, two principles that of the finite and infinite. To a non dualist difference dissolves but not for dualist differences cannot be broken.

The dualist philosophy also said the world was real, this was a positive view of nature, even comparing nature to the body of god.

Non Dualism believes in one reality – Brahman, the essence underlying all creation. Brahman is the universal soul and inner principle of the human being and creation, that all entities are merged in spirit. Brahman is real, the world is an illusory appearance, the individuated soul in its true character is Brahman alone.

Shankara, a famous proponent of advaita, was a called a monist – believed in one reality, the external world as an illusion, underlying everything is Brahman. He was a realist, however, everything exists around us but was not the end of existence, there is an underlying substratum. If we identify with this principle we see through the differences in the world, the world becomes transparent.

Tirumular, a siddha in the Shaiva Siddhantha tradition, in his tirumandirum proclaims:

“The whole world has evolved from One.
The whole world is sustainedby One.
The whole world will merge into One.
That is my support – Oh Shiva!”

The yoga sutras of Patanjali speak of subject and object, the objects being all of the inputs of our senses, our thoughts and emotions while the subject is the atman the witness, that part of ourselves that has always been there simply watching what is happening.

To Patanjali the goal is to become the witness of your life, if you step back further you become a witness of the universe, you become the universe or transition to a non-dualist view. At the crux of this change in perspective is the elimination of the I thought. Once the I thought disappears one may experience All is One. This can be seen as summing up the difference between dualism and non dualism.

“In dualist thought there is a divide between god and man and it is necessary for this to exist for there to be a love affair between man and god as seen in the various devotional schools in India.

This dualistic philosophy seems to be the orientation of western religious thought, god and man are separate.

“The western mind has lost the balance between the visible world and the unseen, unoriginated, unformed which was the Buddha’s description of that which the ever changing universe is. The balance is in the totality of things and in non duality, the beyond of the relative. Such is man’s concern, not to conquer life or bend it to his will but rather to live life as life lives itself. Absolute and relative are one.” - Christian Humphreys.

However it may be said that great devotees such as Ramakrishna experienced a merging with their object of adoration. In another story about Ramakrishna and Totapuri, who initiated him into advaita vedanta, it is said that when Ramakrishna was having difficulty going beyond the form of Kali, Totapuri stuck a shard of glass in Ramkrishna’s head between the brows and said “Concentrate on this!” Upon which Ramakrishna did and is said to have clove Kali in two and remained in samadhi for 3 days and was only later brought back by Totapuri’s efforts.

Another difference between these two philosophies is the nature of the world. Dualism believes in the reality of the world as the body of God while Non Dualist thought believes the world is a dream, an illusion. A variation to this may be found in the Shaiva Siddhantha monist view, where while adopting many of the conclusions of Advaita Vedanta, they concluded the world was both real and unreal at the same time.

Ramanuja believed in a qualified non dualism. His ideas were consistent with non dualism, yet a difference still existed. This approach holds two principles are required for a devotional approach, the devotee and the object of devotion. He was very influencial in Vaishnavism and held that bhakti or devotion as being the highest pathway to union with the divine.

Swami Sivananda provides some insight into these schools of thought.

“There are 3 schools of metaphysical thought.

  • Dualism (dvaita)
  • Qualified non-dualism or monism (vishistadvaita)
  • Monism or non dualism (advaita)

They are all stages on the way to the ultimate truth and Para Brahman.

They are rungs in the ladder of yoga. They are not at all contradictory. On the contrary they are complimentaryto one another. These stages are harmoniously arranged in a graded series of spiritual experiences.

Dualism, qualified monism, pure monism all these culminate eventually in advaita –vedantic realization of the absolute or the transcendental trigunatita ananta Brahman.

Madhva said man is a servant of god.
Ramanuja said man is a ray or spark of god
Shankara said man is identical with Brahman

People have different temperaments and different capacities so different schools of philosophy are necessary.

The highest rung is advaita, a dualist or qualified monist eventually becomes a kevala advaitin.”
- Sivananda

Sivananda’s perspective is that all schools are interrelated may put at rest any divisiveness between these schools of thought.

I came across a few quotations that follow; they kindled my interest or I felt elucidated this subject.

“Like a good horse freeing itself from the bridle happy is the yoga free from subject and object.” - Milarepa

“In the course of his instruction to the disciple the Guru raised two fingers by which he meant the duality of Brahman and Maya. Then by lowering one finger he taught him that when Maya vanishes, nothing of the universe remains. Only the absolute Brahman is.” - Ramakrishna

“The non duality of Brahman the non reality of the world and the non difference of the atman from Brahman these constitute the teachings of Advaita.” - Sharma

I found the diagram of the 36 principles of existence according to Shaiva Tantrism in Feuerstein’s Yoga Tradition helpful here. The first 24 principles are according to Samkhya philosophy and are equivalent to Patanjali’s thought. However built on top of this are another 12 principles culminating in a Parama Shiva or the union of Shiva and Shakti (Consciousness and Energy) representing a non dual oneness or union.

“The deeper mystics do not draw a square to exclude deny or condemn views which oppose their own. Instead they draw a wide circle that embraces the entirety of the vast mystery of Shiva’s creation.” - W. Heisenberg quoted in article on Monism and Pluralism in Shaiva Siddhantha

This is expressed in another way, likening the paths to god as routes up a mountain.“ From a mountain top perspective we can appreciate, understand and be lovingly tolerant of all of the theological paths to God /Shiva.” - Subramanian Swamy

Is one philosophy correct and the other not? Ultimately it is about perspective, some people of devotional character see a personal God this is initially dualistic, seeing God as a transcendental all pervading spirit is non dualist something perhaps one adopts later or one can switch back and forth.

As suggested earlier it is also a matter of stepping back from a witness of our individual lives to that of creation itself.

What practical application can we take away from these world views?

A scientific case can be made for there being only one life form - the ecosphere, that envelope of life surrounding the earth. Whether we view the world as the body of god or that there is only one being including all inanimate matter, the change in perspective from individualistic survival and welfare to that of ecosphere survival and the interconnectedness of all is an important shift we need to make.

Vivekananda speaks to dualism and non dualism advising not to be too concerned about it, the similarities outweigh the differences between these two viewpoints which one should never lose sight of.

“If there is one common doctrine that runs through all our apparently fighting and contrary sects, it is that all power, all glory and purity are within the soul already; only according to Ramanuja the soul contracts and expands at times and according to Shankara it comes under a delusion. Never mind these differences. All admit the truth that the power is there, potential or manifest, it is there and the sooner you believe that, the better for you.” - Vivekananda

Vivekananda’s words are powerful. They speak of empowerment, what can be more practical in every day and age in our day to day lives?



Ramakrishna, Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramakrishna Math Publishers, date unknown.
Sharma, Arvind, Advaita Vedanta an Introduction, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2004.
Milarepa, Chang translation, 100,000 Verses of Milarepa, Shambala Publishers, 2001.
Vivekananda, Jnana Yoga, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1970 reprint of 1955 edition.
Lipner, J. Cambridge U. Video on Eastern Religions.
Feuerstein, Georg, The Yoga Tradition, Hohm Press, 1998.
Sivananda, Lectures on Yoga and Vedanta, Divine Life Society, 1984.
Subramanian Swamy, Monism and Pluralism in Saiva Siddhantha, Tirumandirum, Vol 10, Appendices, BKY Publishers, 2010.
Humphreys, Christmas, D.T. Suzuki, The Field of Zen, Perennial Library, 1969.