An anonymous friend recently suggested an intriguing equivalence to me: the problem of ignorance in Advaita Vedānta is effectively an Indian form of theodicy.
Let’s back up a bit for those who aren’t familiar with Advaita Vedānta (or theodicy). Vedānta is philosophy based on the “end of the Vedas,” the Upaniṣads – sacred Indian texts often considered “Hindu” (although there are a lot of problems with that term). The Sanskrit advaita means “non-dual”; Advaita Vedānta, associated above all with the philosophical teacher Śaṅkara, is the kind of Vedānta that says everything is really one, and not two (or more). Especially, there is no duality between subject and object. The universe is all one, and each of us ultimately is that one. We seem to perceive multiplicity in the world, but only because of our ignorance. Multiplicity is an illusion; really, all is one. This one is expressed with the word sat, meaning existence, truth, even goodness.
But the difficult question for an Advaitin to answer is: where does that ignorance come from? How can it even exist? Śaṅkkara’s great critic Rāmānuja, from a different (theistic) school of Vedānta, thought that this was a damning criticism of the Advaita view. Either ignorance is part of the one truth or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then things are not one after all; ignorance is a second thing. But if ignorance is a part of the truth, how can it maintain its status as truth, as goodness?
Advaitins have proposed some answers to this question. But what interests me here is the status of the question itself. As far as I can tell, it strikes at the very heart of Advaitin tradition in exactly the same way that the problem of suffering strikes at the heart of Abrahamic monotheism. Jews, Christians and Muslims accept, as fundamental to the universe, a being who is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. Such a fact would seem to imply that the world is perfectly good. How then can we live in a world full of suffering, of earthquakes and plagues and hurricanes and degenerative disorders? Similarly, Advaitins accept that fundamental to the universe is a single perfect truth; how then can we live in a world in which everyone is ignorant? (For Advaitins, as for Buddhists, ignorance is a central cause of suffering.)
Getting into the prevailing answers to these questions (which I’m not yet sure I understand) is a subject for another time. What I’m interested in here is the structural similarity of the questions, which seems to point to still deeper similarities. Reality’s bad features are difficult for both Advaitins and monotheists to explain; they’re difficult because both effectively seem to place goodness at the heart of reality. (One might then suspect that Plato, with his view that the Good underlies being, would have a similar problem.)
By contrast, little of this seems to be a problem for Buddhists – at least South Asian Buddhists. Robert Gimello once said, in a class I took, that “Where does ignorance come from?” is a problem for Buddhists comparable to theodicy, in that it is seemingly unsolvable. The twelve-step process of causation in paṭiccasamuppāda, “dependent co-arising,” begins with ignorance; we don’t hear where it comes from. But for the Buddha of the Pali suttas, at least, it really doesn’t matter where it comes from. That’s a “question that tends not to edification,” a question that does nothing to get us out of suffering. Not all metaphysical questions fall in that category; we need to know the true nature of the self and of karma, or we’ll remain mired in ignorance and therefore in suffering. But where the ignorance comes from? Not important. By contrast, knowing the nature of the ultimate truth is essential to Advaita; and understanding God’s perfection is central to understanding God at all. The difference, it seems to me, is that early Buddhist thought, unlike these other two varieties of thought, does not see goodness at the heart of existence.