The philosophy of Advaita is intended to be practical so that it becomes possible to play one’s part in the world in a better way and with greater efficiency than would otherwise be the case.
Advaita is a Sanskrit word, which literally means ‘not two’.
The word ‘dvaita’ means ‘two’ and the prefix ‘a’ gives the meaning ‘not two’ or ‘non-dual’. The main proponent of this philosophy was Shankara, who is thought to have lived in the eighth century in India.
According to this philosophy what is present is true existence, which is both transient and unchanging.
An analogy is given by way of illustration. Gold is a single substance. Out of this single substance of gold, rings, ornaments and innumerable other forms may be fashioned. When we see a ring we call it a ring, but it is still the same gold. If that gold is melted down and fashioned into an ornament, we would call it an ornament but it is still gold. It never loses its essence of gold. Only the form changes, not the essence. In this analogy the rings, ornaments etc. represent all the things of the world that we see, hear, touch and so on. All of these forms are transient. Even something as mighty as a mountain will not last for ever. The substance of gold represents that which does not change. It is the underlying existence or essence.
When the mind becomes still and quiet there can sometimes be a connection with this underlying and unchanging existence. The poet William Blake described this in the following way:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
(William Blake ‘Auguries of Innocence’)
It is not possible to see the unchanging existence just with the eyes, or hear it just with the ears. In addition there has to be wisdom. This is sometimes called the third eye. It is opened by the practice of discrimination. This word means to discern, to distinguish or separate. The word discrimination is often used nowadays in a rather negative context. However, in the context in which we are speaking, it means discriminating between the transient and the unchanging; that is to say, distinguishing between all that which is obvious and apparent and passing on the one hand, and the unchanging and eternal existence on the other hand.
Going back to the analogy of the ring and the gold, the ring represents a transitory form and the gold represents the unchanging. Likewise in meeting a person there is a lot that changes and is transitory, but there is also an underlying essence that remains the same.