Two Zeros Take the Ring: Advaita Vedanta vs. Kashmir Shaivism

On the surface, Vedanta and Saivism appear as happy bedfellows. After all, they are both self-proclaimed “non-dualisms,” as they both adhere to the being of just one essential reality. And they both prescribe a discerning temperament to tease out truth from untruth. That Truth, in both systems, transcends discourse and any words that might be used to describe it.

Truth, in both, is an experiential matter. You can realize Truth in experience, but you cannot “think truth.” The best that thoughts can do is point you in the direction of that ultimate, essential truth. As with all good Eastern philosophies, truth is the culmination of a spiritual quest, not a fact of predicative knowledge (as truth is so often presented in Western culture).

Where these two traditions differ, however, is on the subject of reality, of what is real. For Advaita Vedanta, only Brahman is real, the unchanging ground of everything. Maya, the world of appearances, is not real and is illusory. For Saivites, all is real without exception.

But before we get to all that, let’s pause to give a background to these two traditions.

Vedanta is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy. Vedanta literally translates as “end of the Vedas”, and refers specifically to the Upanishads and the philosophies interpreting them. For this discussion, I’m focused primarily on Advaita Vedanta, which is the oldest school of Vedanta, dating back to the 8th century. Advaita means “not-two” and signifies the non-dualism at the heart of this spiritual-philosophical method.

Saivism also goes by a somewhat controversial and deeply misused word, tantra, although this tantra is probably quite a bit different than the one you may have come to associate with kinky sex or blood-thirsty cults. When exactly Saivism emerged in Kashmir is unknown, but the first texts of Saivism were written in the 9th century C.E.

(Needless to say, the thinking and the rituals associated with these two traditions would have extended further back than our textual sources imply, however the “when” of origin is not as important to us as the content of these philosophies.)

Why would I pull these two philosophies into a discussion inspired by the fool archetype? Zero reason; or rather, for the reason of zero. Both of these philosophies prescribe a “nullification” process, so to speak, whereby the seeker progressively sheds the stories and the concepts to which she has become attached and identified. In Vedanta, it is the “Neti, Neti” practice (“not this, not this”), and for Saivism it is the deconstruction of vikalpas (petrified edifices of thought) that serves the task of aligning one’s identity with the Truth of Being.

Through subtraction of thoughts, labels, and concepts that, according to both traditions, detract from the experience of Truth, one ultimately arrives at the zero point, where no narrative or thought pattern is predicated upon that zero – the ground of awareness. For Vedanta, this ground is Brahman, the completely still and unchanging ground of Being. For the Saivites, that ground is referred to as Siva.

Now when I refer to this ground as zero, I do not mean there is nothing there. Or perhaps I do, in the sense that there is a nothing there which is also a something. It is only a nothing with regards to words and the objectified world of discrete objects. Because it is the very ground of the possibility of anything whatsoever, words cannot wrap themselves around it. The only way to speak of it is through seemingly paradoxical poetry, for it is the space in which emptiness and fullness and every opposite ever imagined lives comfortably. It is where contradiction and sense are not at odds.

We are not meant to analyze it into a logical equation, which is perhaps why this sort of Truth cannot be recognized by Western philosophical discourse. It is outside the realm of what that discourse deems legitimate – which is of course unfortunate, because it is a flat out denial of a well-documented world of diverse experiences.

But let’s get back to the difference between Vedanta and Saivism: the subject of reality.

Vedanta becomes a non-dualism through negation. The material world and all appearances are changing and therefore deemed unreal in the face of the unchanging real of Brahman. In other words, because the material world is a realm of dualism, it cannot be a part of the singular non-dualism of Being.

But perhaps you’ve already started to become skeptical of this, because is not the strict demarcation between dualism and non-dualism itself a dualism? Namely the dualism of Brahman and Maya, of Reality and Illusion, of changing and unchanging, of non-dualism and dualism?

Saivism thought so, which is why instead of a philosophy of negation, Saivism ends in affirmation. Saivism sees every appearance as an expression of the encompassing consciousness that is Siva. Siva is both changing and unchanging (in some traditions Shakti is referred to as the changing aspect of Siva, but they are one and the same Siva-Shakti). The transcendent and the immanent are equally expressions of Siva, just registered on differing levels of perception.

So while both prescribe an involution into the primordial zero, Vedanta stays here while Saivism sees it as only the first step of a two-step process. The second step is to take this awareness of the oneness of everything that is Siva and return to the world, seeing with fresh eyes the magnificent diversity of Siva-Shakti.

The power of Being is so profound as to be able to express itself in infinite forms, and Saivism invites us not to transcend that world of forms but to interact with that world with an understanding of our seamlessness with it. The problem is not the world but the lenses through which we see the world. When we are operating through limiting beliefs that see the world as a separate object from ourselves, we’ve lost the plot. Saivism first invites an identification with Siva so that we may then see our “Self” in others – in flowers, in cities and rivers, continuous and without end.

It is my view that Saivism offers a more compelling metaphysical picture than Vedanta, for the sheer fact that it ends in affirming life and the world. Vedanta ends in pure negation, at zero, whereas Saivism knows (along with the fool card) that this is only the beginning of the journey. One has to first see full nothingness at the heart of Being before one can begin to manifest that knowledge in the external world. A life lived in an ecstatic orb above the world is a lonely, unsustainable life.

As we’ve heard from many, “Heaven is a place on earth.” So too is hell, and many people are living in it. The kingdom of interconnected Self-understanding is a dimension as close as a decision to see differently. How hard it is to shift that vision is up to you.