Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

A Realist view of Advaita
Part IV
Chittaranjan Naik

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Part IV - The Dream Analogy

Om Gurubhyo Namah


According to Shri Shankaracharya, the world cannot be said to be false on the basis of the dream analogy:

It has been said by those who deny the existence of the external things that perception of things like a pillar etc. in the waking state occur even in the absence of external things, just as they do in a dream; for as perceptions, they are similar. That has to be refuted. With regard to this we say, the perceptions of the waking state cannot be classed with those in a dream.

The dream analogy presents us with an enigma. While Shankara affirms the existence of the world in the Brahma Sutra Bhashya, his commentary on the Gaudapada Karika seems to corroborate the view that the world is unreal like the world of a dream. I suspect that, more often than not, this seeming contradiction is resolved by assuming that the bhashya speaks from a position of provisional or vyavaharika sathya. While this thesis may not be entirely false, it would be a deflection from the intent of the Acharya's words if we abstain from examining the arguments provided. For, Shankara denies that the appearance of objects can arise without there being real objects. In order to reveal the full import of Shankara's words, we shall cite here the three reasons given in the bhashya to show specifically that the waking state is not like the dream state, along with one other quote taken from a slightly different context, but equally applicable to the case.

1. The objects of the waking state are not sublated under any condition unlike those of the dream state.

To a man arisen from sleep, the object perceived in a dream becomes sublated, for he says, 'Falsely did I imagine myself in contact with great men. In fact I never came in contact with great men; only my mind became overpowered by sleep; and thus this delusion arose.' So also in the case of magic etc., adequate sublation takes place. But a thing seen in the waking state, a pillar for instance, is not thus sublated under any condition.

2. Dream vision is a kind of memory whereas those of the waking state are perceptions of objects.

Moreover, dream vision is a kind of memory, whereas the visions of the waking state are forms of perception (through valid means of knowledge). And the difference between perception and memory, consisting in the presence or absence of objects, can be understood by oneself, as for instance when one says: 'I remember my beloved son, but I do not see him, though I want to see'.

3. Objects cannot appear from mere internal impressions.

And the assertion has to be refuted that even in the absence of objects, the diversity of experience can be explained on the strength of the variety of tendencies (or impressions). To this we say: The tendencies cannot logically exist; for according to you, objects are not perceived externally. It is precisely owing to the perception of objects that a variety of (mental) tendencies corresponding to the diverse objects can arise. But how can a variety of tendencies arise when no object is perceived? Even if these tendencies have no beginning (on the analogy of the seed and sprout), this infinite regress will amount to a baseless assumption leading us nowhere like the blind leading the blind, and it will thus cut at the roots of all human dealings, so that your aim will remain unfulfilled. And it is to be noted that the positive and negative instances that were adduced by those who would deny the existence of external objects by saying, 'All these experiences are caused by tendencies and not objects' - those instances also stand refuted from this standpoint; for no tendency can arise unless there be a perception of some object. Moreover, from the admission that apprehension of objects is possible even in the absence of past tendencies, and from the non- apprehension that tendencies are possible in the absence of perception of object, it follows that such positive and negative instances (adduced by you) also prove the existence of objects. Besides, what you call a tendency is a kind of impression (or predisposition); and from common experience it is known that a disposition cannot be imagined to exist unless it has some basis to stand on, whereas you have nothing to supply this need; for nothing can be found (by following your view) to stand as an abode for dispositions.

4. Objects are not unreal because they have distinguishing characteristics.

There is no distinction, as regards the nature of non-existence, between the non-existence arising from the destruction of the seed and the rest and the horns of a hare, both being equally unsubstantial….. If, again, distinctive attributes be ascribed to non- existence on the analogy of the lotus having blueness etc., then on that very analogy of the lotus etc., non-existence will turn into existence by the very fact of possessing distinctive qualities.

Objects of the waking state are not like those of a dream. What remains empirically valid cannot be superseded by a mere analogy. In Shankara's words:

Moreover, one who cannot speak of the waking experience as naturally baseless, just because that would contradict experience, wants to speak of them as such on the strength of their similarity with dream experiences. But anything that cannot be the characteristic of something in its own right cannot certainly be so because of a similarity with another. For fire, which is felt to be warm, does not become cold because of some similarity with water. As for the difference between dream and waking states, this has already been shown.

These are not provisional statements. They are to be resolved with other statements in the bhashya through samanvaya, reconciliation, by finding the higher truth in which the seeming contradictions are resolved. I believe that the dream analogy has been used with a certain lack of caution to 'prove' that the world is unreal. It is true that in Advaita the world is considered unreal in a certain sense, but it is this very meaning that is to be illuminated in the light of the discriminative knowledge of the real and the unreal. Until then the meaning of unreality lies hidden by darkness, as much as does the meaning of reality.


The Karika does not derive the unreality of the world on the basis of the dream analogy. The Karika bases its proof on the method of syllogistic inference (anumana) and not on upamana (comparision). The dream analogy appears in the syllogism as an adaharana (example) to illustrate the vyapti (invariable concomitance) that provides the hetu (ground or reason) for deriving the conclusion. The hetu here is the fact of 'being perceived' - the waking world is unreal because 'it is perceived' just as is the dream world. If we closely examine this inference, we find that there is something the matter with the vyapti, or the invariable concomitance, that is used in the Karika, because, for an invariable concomitance to be valid, it must be an a priori perceived fact. It must be remembered that in all Vedic philosophies there is a Platonic element in the 'attainment' of knowledge i.e., the knowledge that is to be attained is in a sense prior to the attainment. Thus, the knowledge derived from inference is not something new or alien, but is the application of a prior knowledge to the particular instance of observation. For example, the smoke, the fire, and the invariable concomitance between smoke and fire must have been perceived a priori for the fire to be inferred from the smoke because such inference is based on the invariable concomitance: 'where there is fire, there is smoke'. The syllogism only employs the prior knowledge to establish the presence of one of the elements based on the observation of the other in the instance where the former is hidden. If we examine the vyapti that is employed in the Karika, it is obvious that the invariance of the relation between 'being perceived' and 'the unreality of objects' is violated in the waking state because objects in the waking state are perceived to be real. Thus, the vyapti used in the syllogism to prove the unreality of the world is NOT VALID for a person who sees the world as real in the waking state. I think the entire argument calls for a closer scrutiny.

Vyapti is an invariable concomitance between two perceived objects. But there is a peculiarity to the vyapti used in the Karika because the component 'being perceived' is not a perceived object. And it is this peculiarity that provides us with a clue to the entire riddle. If 'being perceived' is fit to be an object, then the perceiver must abide as a witness not merely of the object of perception, but also of the apperception of perception. Such a 'perception' is possible only for the Self that remains as the unmoving witness - it is the Turiya that is spoken of. Therefore, we must recognise that we are here in the presence of an extra-normal cognition. The entire Karika speaks from a standpoint of extra-normal perception in which the unreality of the world is seen as a prior truth and it is thus that 'being perceived' bears an invariable relation to 'the unreality of what is perceived' and becomes a vyapti for the syllogism. The validity of the syllogism is thus preserved in the Karika based on an extra-normal vyapti as would obtain from a yogi or jnani (for it is said that their perception is not through the sense organs). But this does not really provide us with the meaning of 'the unreality of the world' as seen in the extra-normal perception. For that, we turn to the Brahma Sutra Bhashya.


According to Shankara, the unreality of the world, and world- sublation, has no meaning in isolation from knowledge of the Self:

Here our question is: What is meant by sublation of the universe of manifestations? Is the world to be annihilated like the destruction of the solidity of ghee by coming into contact with fire; or is it that the world of name and form, created in Brahman by nescience like many moons created in the moon by the eye disease called timara, has to be destroyed through knowledge? Now if it be said that this existing universe of manifestation, consisting of the body etc. on the corporeal plane and externally of the earth etc., is to be annihilated, that is a task impossible for any man, and hence the instruction about its extirpation is meaningless. Moreover (even supposing that such a thing is possible, then) the universe, including the earth etc., having been annihilated by the first man who got liberation, the present universe should have been devoid of the earth etc. Again, if it be said that this universe of manifestations superimposed on the one Brahman alone through ignorance has to be sublated by enlightenment, then it is Brahman Itself that has to be presented through a denial of the manifestation superimposed by ignorance by saying, 'Brahman is one without a second' (Ch.VI.ii.1), 'That is truth, That is the Self, That thou art
(O Svetaketu)' (Ch.VI.viii.7-16). When Brahman is taught thus, knowledge dawns automatically, and by that knowledge ignorance is removed. As a result of that, this whole manifestation of name and form, superimposed by ignorance, vanishes away like things seen in a dream. But unless Brahman is (first) taught, neither does the knowledge of Brahman dawn nor is the universe sublated even though the instruction, 'Know Brahman, sublate the world', be imparted a hundred times.


These words point to the subtle and perplexing nature of negation that is involved in Advaita. The 'unreal' truly has to be a 'nothing' if Advaita is not to devolve into a kind of duality. Yet it is not possible to negate without having a distinctive thing to negate, and if there is such a distinction, then that distinguished thing 'will turn into existence by the very fact of possessing distinctive qualities'. The answer to this riddle lies in carefully discriminating what it is that Advaita negates. The object of negation being both 'something' as well as 'nothing' is resolved only if we recognise that the denial of the world is a denial of the surface when the surface itself is seen as constituting the depth of its true nature. When the depth is known the surface is not false, but the falsity of taking the surface as the true nature is negated. Thus, the object of negation is the surface, and in the ultimate analysis, there is nothing that is negated because the surface is ultimately subsumed in the Reality. Therefore, the sublation of the world is nothing but the knowledge of the Self that subsumes the world. Therein lies the meaning of world-negation. This view is reinforced by the following words of Shankara's commentary in the Advaita Prakarana (Chapter II of the Karika):

Thus the definite conclusion arrived at by hundreds of Vedic texts is that the reality of the Self that is a CO-EXTENSIVE WITH ALL that exists within and without, and is birthless, is one without a second, and there is nothing besides. It is now said that this very fact is established by reason as well.

And then follows these pregnant words of the Karika:

The birth of a thing that exists can reasonably be possible only through Maya and not in reality. For one who holds that things take birth in a real sense, there can only be the birth of what is already born.
Verse #27

There can be no birth for a non-existing object either through Maya or in reality, for the son of a barren woman is born neither through Maya nor in reality.
Verse #28

What is striking here - and it appears again and again in Advaita - is the significant assertion that the 'unreality of the world is not like the son of a barren woman' for such a thing is possible 'neither through Maya nor in reality'. Maya can possibly only 'give birth' to what is already existent. Again, if we read this in juxtaposition with Shankara words that the Self is 'co-extensive with all that exists within and without..', the meaning that emerges is surely that the denial of the world is a denial of the surface as constituting the true depth of its nature in which it abides in identity with its substratum.

The Mandukya Upanishad says (I,2):
All this is surely Brahman. This Self is Brahman. The Self, such as it is, is possessed of four quarters." And commenting on this, Shankara says that "Turiya is realised by successively merging the earlier three, starting from Visva.

How can Visva be merged with Taijasa, and Taijasa with Prajna, and Prajna with Turiya if each is not in reality subsumed in the next?

Knowing objects in truth is to know the depth of objects and not their surface. It is the seeing into the heart of things, and the heart of an object is its 'self'. Therefore is the suffix 'self' attached to a thing to describe its true nature - for then we say that it is it-self. Negation is the negation of a thing's surface posturing as the thing it-Self. In other words, the truth of the world is its soul, and the seemingly soulless world is a superficial façade of its reality. It is this 'corpse' of the world, this death as it were, that is what is negated! The SLEEP OF DEATH characterises the three states of jagrat, svapna, and sushupti, whereas the Self is ETERNALLY AWAKE. The Self never sleeps because its nature is Consciousness. And in that consciousness shines the REAL LIVING WORLD!


There is an objection that rises up here: If the validity of the syllogism in the Karika is preserved based on an extra normal vyapti, then how can it be sustained in the light of the assertion that when the Truth is seen the entire world is Real? For there must be a component of unreality in the perceived world if the invariable concomitance between 'being perceived' and 'the unreality of that which is perceived' is to be valid. In order to counter this objection, we need to analyse what adhyasa is, for it is in the context of adhyasa that Advaita says 'jagat is mithya' or that the entire world is a superimposition on Brahman like the snake on the rope. What exactly is the superimposition that is spoken about in Advaita? A slightly different analogy than the snake-rope analogy is here used to illustrate the superimposition.

Imagine that you are sitting by a lake on a perfectly calm and pleasant day. You become aware of something floating on the water, and as it drifts closer, you see its course brown surface barely visible above the water and take it to be a log of wood. You go back to my thoughts, and after a while, you hear a splash in the water. When you turn towards the source of the sound you catch a glimpse of a thrashing crocodile before it disappears into the water. What you had taken to be a log was actually a crocodile!

What was the superimposed thing here? It was the log that was never there. But the features that you saw of the thing - the coarse, brown surface - were not false, but what you imputed to the features - as that object to which it belonged - was a superimposition. And then, when you saw that it was a crocodile, the superimposition of the log disappeared and the truth of the crocodile, which was what it always was, became revealed. The coarse brown attribute remained throughout, both before and after.

Here the crocodile is Brahman. The log that you saw in the water is the superimposed world. The cause of the superimposition is the concealment of avidya regarding the true nature of what was there. The features that you saw - the coarse brown surface - are the features of the world. They are not false or an illusion. The illusion is the false log that was 'seen'.

What is often missed out while considering the snake-rope error is that the attribute that was responsible for the error - the coil - is not sublated when the error is sublated. That similarity on account of which the mistake took place persists through the error and continues to be seen after the real thing is revealed because it is what the real thing has as its attribute. It cannot disappear with the disappearance of the unreal. Therefore, when the world is said to be a superimposition on Brahman, like the snake on the rope, it calls for a sifting of the elements involved in the error. What is it that is 'the snake of the world' on the Reality of Brahman?

When something is seen, what is seen of the thing is its attributes. The name of the thing, say 'rope', points to the core existential which is described as this or that wherein the 'this' and 'that' are the predicates seen as belonging to it and as being coterminous with it because they are the descriptions of the existential itself. In the perception of the world, the attributes discerned are not false, but the core that is grasped of the world is grasped as a self- subsisting thing. In other words, the existence of the world is seen to be independent. This independence cannot be sustained in the vision of non-dual Truth, but it is nevertheless a characteristic seen of the world. It is this `independence' that is the falseness, the 'snake' that is superimposed on Reality and is the 'unreality' that no more deludes but is seen when the Truth is seen. It is the unreality that forms a component of the extra-normal vyapti used in the Karika.

The negation of the superimposition of the world on Brahman does not negate the world in so far as the world is the attributive mode of Brahman, but negates the world in so far as it is perceived as independently subsisting. Therefore, the negation is truly the negation of duality. The vision that it presents at this stage of our enquiry is non-duality as in Vishishtadvaita. To move to Advaita, we need to examine the nature of 'bheda' or 'difference'. Difference is the most difficult topic of all, and I believe that it is due to this difficulty that the conception of Brahman as Nirguna becomes one of the biggest stumbling blocks in our attempts to understand Advaita. I am of the conviction that there is a way to sameness through understanding the nature of difference. God willing, we shall attempt an enquiry into the mysteries of 'difference' later on in these discussions.


Before we close this section, it would be in order to look for the reasons why the Karika takes a different perspective on the dream than does the Brahma Sutra Bhashya. For this, I think we must see the Karika in a historical context. The Karika was written before the Mimamsa philosophers had pulled down the citadels of the Buddhist fort, and there seems to be an overriding emphasis in its pages to refute the nihilism of the Buddhists. If we go back to the tradition of tarka-shastra, we find that one of the accepted ways of refutation is to begin with a common tenet with the opponent - called the siddhanta - and then proceed to demolish the conclusion of the purva- paksha. I believe that this is the approach taken by the Karika. Such a thesis is supported by the following words of Shankara (Karika IV.27):

The text starting with, 'In accord with the perception of its cause, knowledge..' and ending with the previous verse, which represents the view of the subjective-idealists among the Buddhists, is approved by the teacher (Gaudapada) in so far as it refutes the view of those who believe in the external world. Now he makes use of that very argument as a ground of inference for demolishing their own points of view.

Again, it is significant that immediately after establishing the illusoriness of the world in the first ten verses of the Vaitathya Prakarana, the Karika moves on directly to a refutation of the Buddhists:

If the objects cognised in both the conditions (of dream and of waking) be illusory, who cognises all these (illusory objects) and who again imagines them?
Sutra #11

Atman, the self-luminous, through the power of his own Maya, imagines in himself by himself (all objects that the subject experiences within and without). He alone is the cogniser of objects
(so created). That is the decision of Vedanta.

Sutra #12

These words are obviously aimed at the nihilists. The demonstration of the reality of Self by accepting the siddhanta of world-unreality is a succinct and effective way of achieving the goal. As for Sri Shankaracharya's Sariraka Bhashya, it takes the traditional approach of leading to the Truth through a path that does not ignore tattva- jnana as is evident from these words:

But anything that cannot be the characteristic of something in its own right cannot certainly be so because of a similarity with another. For fire, which is felt to be warm, does not become cold because of some similarity with water.

Proceed to fifth essay.

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