Why did the One become the Many? Any student of philosophy, East or West, knows this question to be perhaps the most fundamental of all questions. In my opinion, traditional Advaita Vedanta has the most eloquent, precise, and spiritually enlightening answer to this question of any other competing philosophical school.
I do not proclaim to be an expert or teacher of Advaita Vedanta by any means. All I have learned is through the wisdom of Swami Sarvapriyananda and his many wonderful Vedanta lectures on Youtube.
The question of the One and the Many is connected to another great metaphysical question of philosophy:
Why is there something rather than nothing?
If God is perfect in Herself as unitary Oneness, why did He choose to create this great manifest plurality of entities with a causal chain stretching back to the Big Bang?
But that great chain of causation raises a deeper question: what caused the Big Bang itself?
Is it just an infinite chain of finite causes or does it ultimately bottom out at an ontological primitive that is itself not finite?
And if that is the case, why did that Infinite Prime Mover decide to Move Itself so as to manifest this great cosmos of multiplicity?
One might think the answer to all this is just “physics” and the physical laws of Nature.
But this still leads to the question, what caused those laws of Nature to exist at all? Why not just no laws at all? Why not no nature or existence at all? Just sheer empty nothingness. Not even “empty space,” not even a vacuum. But pure nothingness itself, devoid of all physical law, devoid of all being.
So, as many theologians have argued, it seems as if our encounter of the Many logically implies the existence of a primordial ontological Oneness which is the source or primordial ontological ground of the Many.
Advaita Vedanta’s Answer to the One and the Many
But primordial ontological Oneness only raises further questions:
What is the relation of the Many to the One?
Why did the One become the Many?
Why did the One become this Many and not some other Many?
Vedanta is an ancient philosophical system based on one of the oldest continuously living spiritual philosophies in existence: the Upanishads. The Upanishads were then systematized into a rigorous non-dualistic form of Vedanta called Advaita Vedanta by the great Indian sage Adi Shankara, who lived in the 8th or 9th century CE (though these dates are still in dispute by scholars to this day.)
Advaita Vedanta gives a precise, systematic, but quite paradoxical answer to the question of how the Many relates to the One. As Swami Sarvapriyananda puts it,
“Why has the One become the Many? The answer from Advaita Vedanta is: it hasn’t.”
The root message of Advaita Vedanta is that the One (which is called Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, or Brahman), the Absolute Reality, is “without second.” In other words, Brahman alone is real and the world (the Many) is unreal.
This unreal world is called Maya and its root cause is simply ignorance of Brahman.
So, strictly speaking, the One did not “become” the Many nor has the Many “emerged” from the One.
At the absolute level, there is no ontological reality separate from Brahman which exists apart from Brahman.
There is just Brahman alone, which is One, eternal, infinite, unchanging, unitary, whole, complete, all-pervasive, omnipresent, beyond all name, form, word, concept, absolutely transcendental, and without second.
One might ask how we as individual conscious beings relate to this Absolute reality of Brahman.
The answer is surprising: Advaita Vedanta says “Thou art That.”
Your Self (Atman) and Brahman are one and the same reality, with no difference whatsoever.
So your True Self just is Brahman. Thus, you are One, you are Pure Consciousness, you are Pure Existence. You pervade the universe and the universe pervades you. You are eternal, unchanging, have never been born, and will never die.
This is not just philosophy for philosophy’s sake. The great sages of Vedanta tack on an additional claim: true realization of this Vedantic fact will set you free, end your grief, end your suffering, and bring true, lasting, eternal peace.
But how? How can this be? I perceive myself to be an individual body-mind complex with distinct thoughts and feelings, perceiving a manifest plurality of different entities and events, which all seem discrete and distinct, unfolding as finite events in time and space under the limited confines of causation.
How could all the manifest multiplicity be unreal? Nothing seems more real! How can all this be unreal and Brahman alone be the sole reality?
In other words, how can we make sense of Swami Sarvapriyananda’s claim that the One never became the Many? I propose the following analogy to wrap our minds around this (note of caution: all analogies ultimately break down if you push them far enough).
The Glass Planet
Imagine a planet made entirely of crystalline glass with an enormous, pure light source at the center. You are an alien scientist visiting this planet with a special ship that can shrink itself very small or grow very big. You decide to check out the glass planet and so you shrink your ship down very, very small and dive deep into the ocean of glass.
As you go into the depths of the glass ocean you see a source of light coming from the depths, and you see a fantastic play of lights, with shadows and figures swirling all around you.
You see dancers and other figures twirling around in a great spectacle as you fly through the glass ocean. But when you stop and investigate the glass ocean itself you find it is perfectly unmoving and unchanging. Now, you might ask yourself, “What is causing the glass to dance? Why is the glass changing so much? What is causing all this multiplicity in the glass?”
At first, this seems to be a perfectly good question. After all, you do perceive the figures to be dancing. But the glass itself does not seem to be moving or changing and the light source at the center of the planet is perfectly steady.
So why has the glass become the dancing figures? It suddenly dawns on you: it hasn’t! The dancing figures are but a mere appearance, a mirage caused by your own ignorance of the situation.
Once you realize this, you begin to see through the dancing figures. They become transparent and behind them, you now recognize them to be the light reflecting off and through the glass in various ways as you move through the ocean.
But the key point is: the glass has not become anything at all. The glass did not “cause” the figures to emerge. The dancers did not emerge at all. The glass did not “become” the dancers.
The glass didn’t change whatsoever! It remained perfectly itself as pure glass, lit by the inner light. What happened was that the glass appeared to be dancing. But that was just an appearance, caused by your own ignorance.
However, as you get back to your scientific business you still see the dancing figures. They still swirl and twirl all around you. But you are not fooled anymore. You know the truth. This dancing is but a mere appearance. In reality, all that exists is a single unitary ocean of unchanging and unmoving glass, lit up by an inner source of light.
All movement, change, causation, or becoming is but a mere appearance. The “many” dancers are but one unchanging reality of glass and light.
Hopefully, you can see how this analogy ties into the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. The glass ocean is Being itself, Existence itself.
The light is Pure Consciousness or Witness Consciousness illuminating Pure Existence with the Light of Awareness. The “One” is the whole glass planet as a unitary whole, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. The “Many” is the dancing figures.
Basically, what Advaita Vedanta is saying is that all of reality is Pure Consciousness. In the words of the Ashtavakra Gita,
“Burn down the forest of ignorance with the fire of the conviction ‘I am the One, and Pure Consciousness’, and be free from grief and be happy.” ~ 1.9
So all of reality is Pure Consciousness, which is eternal, infinite, and unchanging.
Any manifest finitude, causation, and multiplicity is but an appearance in Pure Consciousness.
The finite universe is an appearance in Pure Consciousness.
But appearing to Whom? Pure Consciousness Itself. It is Pure Consciousness all the way down, all the way around, inside and out, pervading everything. It is you. The Self. Thou art That.
Contrast With Subjective Idealism
But we must be careful. Subjective Idealists like Bernardo Kastrup often talk about “vortices” or “localizations” in the river of Consciousness. But as Swami Sarvapriyananda points out, this is not traditional Advaita Vedanta.
In traditional Advaita, there are no real “vortices” in Pure Consciousness, which implies events or changes in Consciousness. By definition for Pure Consciousness to be absolutely “pure” it must be eternal and unchanging, to an infinite extent.
So any “vortices” are but appearances in Consciousness appearing to Consciousness.
So nothing is really “happening” in Pure Consciousness. All this activity about us is just an appearance.
But does this mean that nothing matters and our families and work and ego-consciousness and everything else are all simple illusions and it’s all just one big undifferentiated mass of Pure Being?
At the absolute level, yes. But Shankara distinguished between the absolute level and what has been called the relative, conventional, or transactional level, which is Maya, caused by ignorance.
By means of the positive power of ignorance, we do live at the transactional level in a world where we still have obligations to our families, to the poor, to our work, where we still have to exist in our beautifully complex bodies, where we still get sick, where our physical bodies die, where we still have thoughts and desires and feelings and everything else that comes along with being a human being living in a body-mind complex existing in a physical world.
According to traditional Advaita Vedanta, ignorance both exists and does not exist simultaneously. Obviously it exists at one level of reality because we experience it at the relative level. But in terms of the absolute level of reality, it does not exist. So it is a true contradiction. A true paradox.
As Swami Sarvapriyananda says,
“Reality of nonduality does not contradict experience of duality.”
And in the traditional Advaita Vedanta view, even though Brahman alone is real, and the world (Maya) is unreal, there is still room for an all-powerful personal Creator God manifesting in a plurality of forms. To use an example this would be the difference between the power of global Maya (the entire ocean of glass) vs the power of an individual in Maya (an individual shard of glass).
Both exist at the relative level and are unreal from the perspective of Brahman but at the transactional level they are not identical. So although it is true in Advaita Vedanta to say you are one and the same as Brahman at the absolute level, it is not accurate to say you are identical with the Creator God. That is reserved for incarnations of God such as Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Sri Ramakrishna, etc.
It is a common misunderstanding of Advaita that manifest plurality phenomenologically goes away when we realize the truth of Brahman. It is just that our ignorance about the true nature of reality drops away and we see the manifest world as what it really is in reality: an appearance in Brahman, which alone is real without second.
It is only the rare enlightened masters of the world who are able to realize this truth about Brahman and permanently stay absorbed in the reality of nondual Brahman. But for the rest of us, we cannot help but continue to have thoughts, feelings of ego-consciousness, perceive names and forms, live in a world of multiplicity, etc.
But through deeper assimilation of the ultimate truth via spiritual discipline, the goal of Vivekananda’s “Practical Vedanta” suggests that upon Self-realization of the identity of Self and Brahman, we should gradually lose our craving and attachment to the manifest, unreal world and we are able to act in the world without being attached to the outcome.
We should more be likely to have sensations and suffering and pleasure without being attached to those things. We are able to be selfless in service to others for we see the ultimate Oneness of ourselves in all things and all beings. As Swami Sarvapriyananda says,
“But now we know why is it that we should treat others the way we want them to treat us. Vedanta shows us how I and the other are not separate. This oneness of all beings is the foundation of morality.”
Indeed, Vivekananda’s conception of Practical Vedanta involved two key phases (1) recognition of inner divinity and (2) manifestation of inner divinity in terms of service towards humanity.
It is a common failure of “Neo-Advaita” to think that a New Age wishy-washy philosophy of “Oneness” obviates our obligations of karma yoga. It is the opposite: the illusoriness of the world provides the ontological ground for the very possibility of infinite love towards all living beings and indeed, the whole Cosmos and God Herself.