Advaita Vedanta, Thomas Merton, and the Future of Religion

This essay is a meditation on Advaita Vedanta, Thomas Merton’s conception of Grace, and the future of rational religion in the Modern West, which is currently experiencing a tremendous crisis of meaning as we face the disastrous spiritual, ethical, and environmental implications of materialism and its logical entailment of nihilism.

As always, I am indebted to Swami Sarvapriyananda and his masterful lectures on Advaita Vedanta. He does not know who I am, but I consider him my greatest spiritual guide, my source of Truth. Any distortions of Advaita Vedanta are entirely my own. I consider myself just a spiritual seeker like anyone else with a penchant for writing, not a teacher with any kind of authority.

Thomas Merton said,

“Grace is not a strange, magic substance which is subtly filtered into our souls to act as a kind of spiritual penicillin. Grace is unity, oneness within ourselves, oneness with God.”

Compare this with the Ashtavakra Gita, the great text of Advaita Vedanta, which says:

“Oh, the root of misery is duality. There is no other remedy for it except the realization that all objects of experience are unreal and that I am pure, One, Consciousness, Bliss.” 11.15

“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

The Misery of Christian Duality

Typically when Christians think of God’s Grace, they think of it as an “outpouring,” as a “magic substance,” in Thomas Merton’s poetic language. They imagine this Grace as pouring out of God and washing over Creation, conceived as being naturally and intrinsically without Grace.

This picture of things is based on a fundamental duality: on the one hand, there is God, pure intrinsic Grace, and on the other hand, Creation, intrinsic non-Grace. And then God has “mercy” on us and gives us some of His Grace, which then purges us of our intrinsic sinfulness and unGodliness.

On this view, the realm of Nature and the realm of God are separate and distinct ontological realms, and the only joining is by means of a special dispensation of special sauce poured out from God according to the whims of divine preference, and we, the unholy ones, are meant to prostrate on all fours begging and pleading God to receive this magic substance of Grace so that we may transform ourselves from dirty rags to slightly cleaner rags that have been magically blessed with God’s Grace.

In this view, God’s Grace does not really transform our intrinsic nature as sinful but rather acts as a kind of divine hall pass that allows us to walk into Heaven without setting off the alarm.

But as the Ashtavakra Gita says, at the root of such duality is pure misery.

Thomas Merton counters this naive and crude conception of Grace with a simple but profound definition: “God is unity, oneness within ourselves, oneness with God.”

Thomas Merton is speaking the language of pure Advaita Vedanta whether he knows it or not! A Swami Vivekananda said,

“All differences in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything. All is One, which manifests Itself, either as thought, or life, or soul, or body, and the difference is only in degree.”

This philosophy of Oneness is the secret of Advaita Vedanta and unlocks an intellectual and philosophical superstructure upon which all religions can find their truth and foundation. 

Materialistic Nihilism and the Future of Rational Religion

Swami Vivekananda said, 

“The salvation of Europe depends on a rationalistic religion, and Advaita — the non-duality, the Oneness, the idea of the Impersonal God — is the only religion that can have any hold on any intellectual people.” 

All the great traditions of dualistic religion are currently under attack by the dogma of Scientific Materialism and the hound dogs of nihilism. Many people are not aware that materialistic atheism taken to its logical conclusion leads not only to nihilism but eliminative materialism as well.

The great naturalist philosopher of mind Pat Churchland has been pushing physicalism to its logical conclusion for decades by arguing that the only logically consistent physicalist answer to the hard problem of consciousness is to simply deny that consciousness exists at all. Dan Dennett has basically said the same thing.

And in his book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, American philosopher, naturalist, and atheist Alex Rosenberg picks up the thread of Nietzsche and argues that the logical conclusion of the atheistic worldview is complete nihilism about value, meaning, etc.

He tempers this by calling it a “nice nihilism” because we still have values and meaning, it’s just that they are utterly and completely contingent on temporary arrangements of causation and matter, due to either evolution or culture.

But most people do not feel in their heart of hearts that the vagaries of causation and finitude are a complete answer to the nagging crisis of meaning plaguing modernity.

The infinite hole in the center of our being cries out for an infinite solution, not a half-way house of causation that will ultimately terminate in the heat death of the universe billions of years from now. Something very deep within our Soul yearns to transcend the limitations of finitude, for the depths of our Soul themselves are infinite.

But this kind of nihilistic materialism is the prevailing worldview in academic and intellectual circles in the modern West. Dualistic religion, rightly so, is seen as irrational, hateful, incompatible with science, and unfit for a strong-minded, intellectual person in the 21st century.

Spirituality is seen as “woo-woo” and unbecoming of a hard-nosed intellectual and anyone looking beyond this material world of sense objects to a greater, transcendental Absolute is seen as naive. Spirituality is considered passé.

We are supposed to be just tough, practical people focused on our careers, money, a bit of sense pleasure here and there, maybe throw in a bit of aesthetic appreciation and maybe doing some occasional good deeds until we ultimately die and then that’s it.

But the dogmas of Scientific Materialism will not and cannot save us from the many existential crises of our time. They are too great.

They are not a path towards true liberation from the limitations of our own finitude, as evidenced by the great destructive forces of materialism, that have led to lust, greed, capitalism, nihilism, and the plunder of Nature as a resource to be extracted rather than a holy sanctuary infused with the presence of divinity.

As many observers have pointed out, the whole modern world is suffering a crisis of meaning. Our planet is burning alive and yet the greatest, most influential worldview of the Scientific West, Dogmatic Materialism, has zero philosophical basis to find any meaning or spiritual significance in matter itself.

According to the worldview of Dogmatic Materialism, all that we see around us is ultimately just atoms and the void.

Taken far enough, Materialism even denies the existence of Consciousness itself, seeing it as either identical to brain matter or a mere epiphenomenon of brain matter, like steam coming out of a steam engine. 

Advaita Vedanta: Spirituality for the 21st Century and Beyond

The whole world of Western Modernity is crying out for a spiritual system that is intellectually rigorous and yet provides the philosophical foundation for true religion that is beyond the childish duality of traditional religion and yet capable of absorbing and providing an intellectual basis for the cultural rituals and symbolism that are necessary for the human mind to grasp onto in its search for spiritual liberation.

It is my opinion, Advaita Vedanta is the answer we Westerners are looking for (and indeed, the whole world).

And as Swami Vivekananda points out, Advaita Vedanta’s great beauty and power is not destructive. It does not sweep away the entire history of dualistic religion and say, “This is garbage. Discard it.”

Rather, Advaita Vedanta provides the rational basis for religion and makes it possible for us to believe in religion and find a true sense of the spiritual that is intellectually rigorous, ethically sound, and capable of pointing us toward the transcendent, beyond the shallow constraints of hollow materialism.

What is the essential message of this Advaita Vedanta? It is a spiritual philosophy of Grace, of unity, of Oneness, of nonduality.

It is the idea that Nature and Supernature are not two separate realities. It is the idea that we are One with God, and God is One with us, and within our innermost, True Self there is a center, an Absolute Ground of Being and that Ground is the same Ground that is God, Pure Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.

With Advaita Vedanta, we can keep our beloved trinkets and symbols and holy books, our rituals, prayers, and idols, and venerate them sincerely knowing with conviction that there is an underlying Absolute, nondual reality undergirding the duality of religion.

As the Ashtavakara Gita says,

“As waves, foam, and bubbles are not different from water, so the universe emanating from the Self is not different from It.”  2.4

All the trappings of dualistic religion are but waves, foam, and bubbles in the great ocean of nondual Consciousness. We don’t have to throw them away, any more than we have to throw away eating breakfast or going to work.

We are dualistic creatures living in a dualistic world. This world is called Maya. But its apparent multiplicity and separateness are but an illusion, for once we remove our ignorance we see this multiplicity for what it is in reality: a manifestation of nondual reality.

We are One with All and the All is One with Us. All this multiplicity and plurality, all these varied objects of experience in our day-to-day life, are but manifestations of a great Ocean of Being which is Pure Consciousness itself. Knowledge of this spiritual fact is the master key to ending suffering.

There is of course still pain, disease, grief, and bodily death but the key lesson of Advaita is that You are not your body-mind!

You are not your pain. You are not your body. You are not even the intellect thinking thoughts about your pain and your body.

You are the Witness Consciousness, the Knower who is the Subject before whom all these objects of experience appear. As the Ashtavakra Gita says,

“My child, you have long been caught in the noose of body-consciousness. Sever it with the sword of the knowledge ‘I am Consciousness’, and be happy.” ~ 1.14

You are not your body or your mind. You are not your pain. You are the One who Knows your pain.

You Are Existence-Consciousness-Bliss

And who is this “One who Knows”? 

“The Self is witness, all-pervading, perfect, One, free, Consciousness, actionless, unattached, desireless, and quiet. Through illusion It appears as if It is of the world (i.e. subject to the ever-repeating cycle of birth and death).” Ashtavakra Gita, 1.12

As it turns out, it is only ignorance about our true reality that makes us identify with the temporary, the finite, the contingent, the changing, the world of the body and the mind. But once we know the truth, we come to realize that all these great fluctuations of multiplicity are but appearances in the Oness of Being, which is God, the Absolute.

Imagine a great planet made entirely of water and that you are on a very tiny spaceship hovering close to the surface of the planet. All you see around you are foam and bubbles and waves, for as far as the eye can see. Your entire existence is foam and bubbles and waves. You spend your whole life among the foam and bubbles and waves. You have no concept of “ocean.”

But then suppose you suddenly fly out to outer space and behold the planet as a great sphere of water, a unitary body of water. It turns out all those foam and bubbles and waves were but a manifestation of a single ocean of water. 

Our experience of reality is similar to that. Although it appears as if we the foam bubbles are separate from the ocean, in reality, the foam bubbles have no separate existence from the ocean. We are one with the ocean and our existence is just the ocean at play.

When we come to know this Truth as fact and deeply internalize it, we can step through a door to another mode of existence where all our pain and misery become just another foam bubble that will ultimately burst and dissolve into the infinite Oneness of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.

When we realize this, we understand the true nature of God’s grace. We realize that we were never separate from God. That we were never sinful creatures in need of salvation.

We realize that our only sin was the ignorance of knowing that our Inmost Self and God are joined in perfect unity and Oneness, and Our Truest, Deepest Self is the same Absolute Existence-Consciousness-Bliss in which all reality subsists.

Related Links

The Future of Christianity is Advaita Vedanta

Christianity and Advaita Vedanta: The Kingdom of God is Within

Advaita Vedanta and Christian Love

Vedantic Christianity and Its Essential Message

Advaita Vedanta and Christianity: Towards a Cosmopolitan Spirituality

What is Brahman in Advaita Vedanta?

2 thoughts on “Advaita Vedanta, Thomas Merton, and the Future of Religion”

  1. Really enjoyed this one! There are scientists trying to bridge the gap. Check out Donald Hoffman or Bernardo Kastrup. There is also a budding field called Exo studies that seeks to study phenomenon beyond the physical as well. I have hope that we’re shifting out of the paradigm of scientific materialism.

    • Yes, I have been a big fan of Kastrup for awhile. I’ve read much of his work and find his critiques of physicalism convincing. I also really like his work on Jung. However Swami Sarvapriyananda has recently said he wants to do a talk about the nuanced difference between traditional Advaita Vedanta and Kastrup’s idealism because there are some ever so slight differences but I think depending on how you approach it they are very much aligned at least insofar as avoiding the temptation of materialist approaches the consciousness


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