Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Advaita Vedanta and Idealistic Monism


A great deal of attention has focused in recent years on the relation between Quantum Physics and Hindu philosophy, especially Advaita Vedanta.

This attention has been further focussed by the writings of Prof. Amit Goswami, a physicist, who has formulated Advaita Vedanta as Idealistic Monism and then related it to quantum physics.

Amit Goswami has interpreted quantum physics from an idealistic viewpoint and thus related it to his version of Advaita Vedanta by saying quantum physics proves this Advaita.

The interpretation of quantum physics from an idealistic viewpoint has been challenged by most physicists. Many have considered it to be an idiosyncratic interpretation which is not at all scientific.

Although I myself do not support Goswami’s interpretation, this is for a different reason, which I will come to.

What I would like to point out is that Goswami is not very far off in his interpretation of quantum physics from an idealistic viewpoint.

This interpretation in fact was first suggested by Von Newmann, the famous mathematician who was so important in placing quantum dynamics on a firm mathematical footing.

Von Newmann was a very strict logician. His logic was this:

The quantum particles are in a shadowy, spread out state until they interact with an observer, and it is only then that they take up a definite state. For example, the electron is considered to be spread out within its orbit till it is observed, whereupon it takes on one or the other position depending on probability. This act when a particle in a wave form takes on a definite position is called wave collapse.

Now the question is where does this wave collapse occur? According to the Copenhagen interpretation, this wave collapse occurs in the ‘observational apparatus’. Where in the apparatus is not bothered by the Copenhaganists, and the ‘observational apparatus’ is considered to be a black box with what exactly happens within it not being known and only the final result of the wave collapse coming out of the apparatus.

But Von Newmann followed the whole process strictly, and could not locate a point where the quantum event stops and classical events take over. The interaction of the electron with the fluorescent screen is certainly a quantum event as the electron reacts with the atoms of the screen. The discharge of a photon from the fluorescent matter is also again a quantum event. When this photon hits the atoms of the retina of our eye, this is again a quantum event. So Von Newmann placed the point of changeover from quantum event to classical event, from an ill-defined quantum state to a well defined classical state, in the consciousness of the observer. It is when the signals from the retina reach the consciousness of the observer and the observer interprets these signals that wave collapse occurs. The wave collapse occurs somewhere after the retina, when the photon is converted into a signal for the consciousness in the retina. It is only here that the quantum state, of existing in a multiple diffuse state, is converted to a classical well defined position.

In this interpretation, quantum physics becomes idealistic. Without an observer, there is no wave collapse, no change from quantum state to classical state. Thus without an observer, the world would remain in a quantum, ill-defined state and only the presence of an observer causes a well defined state.

It is this idealistic interpretation of quantum physics that is taken by Goswami and used to support his version of idealistic Advaita Vedanta. At least as far as his interpretation of quantum physics is concerned, Goswami does have strong support, no less than Von Newmann himself, one of the strongest logicians and mathematicians to study quantum physics.

But it can certainly be argued that Goswami takes a stronger idealistic interpretation of quantum physics than Newmann argued for.

Essentially Newmann’s view can be said to be like observing a rainbow. A rainbow is caused by refraction of the sun’s rays by raindrops far away. Each observer sees a rainbow dispersed by a different set of raindrops, and in fact for the same observer also, the rays from a different set of raindrops reach each eye. So each view of a rainbow can be said to be unique. Von Newmann perhaps intended a no stronger idealism than this, that each observer sees a unique set of quantum events.

But Goswami goes for a stronger idealism which makes his theory far fetched. From arguing that each observer sees a different rainbow to saying that the rainbow does not exist at all when there is no observer is a conceptual jump. It is not warranted by the facts. Quantum physics also, despite the vagueness of the wave collapse, does not really warrant a strong idealistic interpretation such as offered by Goswami.

Idealistic metaphysics has always had many problems. The reality of the world being denied, the problem of whether other minds exist or they must all be denied, what other minds think, the descent into solipsism, etc, are all problems which beset idealism.

But besides this, my main disagreement with Goswami is his characterization of Advaita Vedanta as being Idealistic.

Advaita Vedanta has never been an Idealistic philosophy. It follows a strictly Realistic Metaphysics.

This confusion arose from the Karika on the Mandukya Upanishad written by Gaudapada. This gave an idealistic interpretation of Advaita Vedanta which was quite similar to Yogachara Buddhism.

But it is only in this Karika that such an idealistic interpretation to be found. Other than this, Advaita Vedanta in particular and Hinduism in general is strongly Realistic. An interpretation of Hinduism or Advaita Vedanta as being Idealistic cannot be supported at all.

I have discussed this in length in my ‘Realistic Vs. Idealistic Metaphysics’ page in the ‘Discussion’ section of this site, interested readers can go through this here. In these pages I have given many passages from the Upanishads which all show that it is strongly Realistic. I have not found till now even one passage in all my readings of Hindu texts which suggest any Idealistic bias.

The only exception is the Karika of Gaudapada. My interpretation of this is given here, Karika of Gaudapada.

In understanding Hinduism and Advaita Vedanta, we must rely directly on the vast strength of the Upanishads and not a single small text written by a particular sage, that too at a much later date around the 8th century, when Buddhism was strongly prevalent.

The Idealistic Monism that Goswami talks of is in fact the philosophy of Yogachara Buddhism, a form of Mahayana Buddhism, and is seen in such practices as Zen. Had Goswami married his interpretation of quantum physics to Yogachara Buddhism, it would have been quite appropriate.

But I cannot but strongly disagree to any suggestion that Advaita Vedanta is Idealistic Monism, and would resist any attempts to try and prove this.

* People who read this also read:

* To read more on Advaita Vedanta and Yoga and its harmony with modern science and reason, you can go through my book on Amazon:

Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga

// //

Home Book Discussion Excerpts Reviews Contact Us
Articles Author Info Discussion Forum Live Chat Blog