(Vedānta, monism, and the erasure of polytheism)
All too often, it’s claimed that “Advaita Vedānta is a form of monotheism.” Or even that Advaita Vedānta is a better, more pure, more refined form of monotheism than its Middle Eastern competitors, Christianity and Islam.
No, Advaita is not monotheism. It is monism,* the view that “there is only one thing.” But if there is only one thing, there is no more reason to call that thing “God” that to call it “cosmos” or “human being” or “chair” or “river.” I mean no disrespect or impiety here, but simply an entry into the core Advaita notion of “neti, neti”, “not this, not this.” Any label, any category, always functions by distinguishing X from what is not-X or what is other-than-X; in other words, by splitting things into different groups based on their defining features. No predicates, no labels whatsoever can possibly apply to Brahman, the one reality, since there is nothing other than itself from which it can be distinguished. Even calling it Brahman is ultimately problematic, for the very same reasons: ‘Brahman’ is a predicate/label, too.
Rather, the plethora of Gods and Goddesses, just like the plethora of humans, chairs, rivers, and other things that seem to populate the world, are all of them ultimately unreal to the monist/Advaitin.
But this is monism, not monotheism.
The monotheist asserts, “there are many things/beings, but the category ‘God’ contains only one of them.” The monist asserts, “there is only one [thing/reality], and so on the ultimate analysis, there are no meaningful categories at all.”
So for the Advaitin, on the level of ultimate reality, nothing at all can accurately be affirmed in language, and we are left with Śāṇkara’s “neti, neti,” “not this, not this”: a denial of the adequacy of any category, any word, any concept, to accurately express that ultimate reality. At the level of ordinary, conventional reality—the only level on which any of our linguistic categories make sense—the Gods are just are real as human beings, chairs, or rivers. And just as, at the level of conventional reality, there are many distinct human beings, chairs, and rivers, so too, there are many distinct Gods. And when we look at ordinary, day-to-day Hindu religious practice, and at the writings of philosophers and poets who are committed Advaitins (which not all Hindus are or have been), we in fact find those many Gods being worshipped and honored. In other words, at the only level at which the word ‘God’ is meaningful at all, there are many Gods.
As a historical matter, I think this deliberate confusion of terms comes as a (quite understandable) reaction to the ongoing oppression of Hindus by monotheists, where the reaction is something like “okay, if monotheism is ‘where it’s at,’ then we can be even better monotheists than you.” But understandable as this is, as a strategic move in a game of respectability politics, it’s still false as a matter of philosophical or religious doctrine.
Let’s stop acting as if everyone is (trying to be) a monotheist.
*The Sanskrit term Advaita literally means “non-duality” (from dvi, ‘two’, with the negative prefix a-, and stem vowel strengthening together with the suffix -ta to form an abstract noun).