Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

A Realist view of Advaita
Part VII
Chittaranjan Naik

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Part VII - Ontology

Om Gurubhyo Namah


We have attempted so far to uncover the meaning of the word 'object' by extricating it from the predication of existence that is attributed to it, as well as by separating it from the different modes of cognition through which it is cognised (such as conception and perception). Now, an object that is seen or conceived as an existing thing is a substance, for substance (dravya) is that which is brought forth as an existing thing, wherein the prior notion of existence is already constituted in the thing cognised. Therefore, the question of whether a substance exists is, in Kantian language, an analytical judgement, because a substance is that which is known a priori as existing, and the judgement of its existence reduces to a tautology. But it is necessary to explicate the nature of substance in greater depth before the meaning of substance can shine.

Substance is revealed in the perception of an object as the existing thing, but substance, qua substance, is never experienced by itself, for substance is immanent as the ground in the things experienced. What does ground here mean? Firstly, substance is the existential core of the thing. It is this existence that is expressed as substantiality. For we say that a horse seen in a dream is insubstantial while the horse seen in the world is substantial. That reality which is immanent in the perception of the latter horse is the existentiality of substance. Secondly, substance is a unity of existence. Substance is the unity of all sensual and non-sensual predicates that characterise a thing. We do not, in actual experience, perceive mere sensations as Hume presumed, but we perceive objects as possessing sensual attributes. We do not see complexes of colours and shapes floating about; rather we see an apple, a table, a tree, as possessing these qualities. There is no valid basis to argue, as some empiricists do, that sensations, or sense data, are agglomerated into objects through association. These empiricists may be held guilty of an 'empiricist violation' in professing that complexes are agglomerated into an object - because no such process of agglomeration is actually experienced. When I perceive a tree, I have no experience of a process whereby sensations are bundled into a unity - on the other hand the perception of the tree is immediate. The proposition of agglomeration is based on inductive reasoning from a premise not given in the empirical and the empiricists that postulate it seem to violate the very premise on which empiricism is constructed by putting forth an inference that supersedes an empirical fact.

Substance, as the ground, is the unity of all the attributes, and we may rightly say that attributes are coterminous with the substance. Shankara affirms this nature of substance while refuting the Vaisesikas:

But in the case under discussion, the substance itself being known as possessed of the respective attributes in such perceptions as, a 'white blanket', 'a red cow', 'a blue lotus', and so on, there can be no such perception of difference between a substance and a quality as between fire and smoke. Hence the quality is one with the substance.
(BSB II, 2.3.17).

Again, Shankara refutes the duality of substance and attributes by refuting the relationship of inherence:

Because this leads to an infinite regress on a parity of reasoning... for ...inherence itself, which is absolutely different from the inhering things, should be connected with the inhering things through a separate relationship of the nature of inherence, since the fact of similarity of absolute difference exists here as well. And from this it follows that for those successive relationships, other relationships of inherence have to be imagined. In this way, the door is laid open for an infinite regress. (BSB II, 2.3.13)

Substance is therefore the existent, and attributes are the descriptions of that same existent. For it cannot be that the description of a thing becomes existentially other than the thing it describes. It is this truth that is imbedded into the structure of language wherein identity is predicated between the substance and attribute by its subject-predicate form: 'An apple is red'.


When existence is predicated of a thing, it is on account of the thing being seen as substantial i.e., as an existing thing. But that which is seen as existing at one time may be seen as non-existing at another time, for example, the horse seen in the dream. The predication of existence therefore seems to have no ground to stand on except for its manifestation as existent and non-existent. In this respect, the ontology of presence would appear to be false as an absolute nature of existence.

Yet, substance as the existential core is not merely a form. Substance, qua substance, is bare. It cannot be said what substance is because the thing said of it becomes its description, and a predicate is not the substance in its capacity as pure substance. Substance, as abstracted from attributes, is indiscernible. Substance is noumenal. Every manifestation has an existential core, even the water in a mirage, because while the water is seen to be lacking in substantiality, the form itself called by the name `mirage' is not seen as non-existent. The horse in a dream is seen as insubstantial, but the form itself called the 'insubstantial form of a horse' is not seen as non-existent. The mirage-water and the dream-horse are not like the son of a barren woman that can never be. They are beings, all of them - the unreal mirage-water, the unreal dream-horse, the real water, and the real horse.

All these are in the noumenal ground of Existence. The noumenal ground is One and not many, because substance, qua substance, is bare and indiscernible. And there cannot be difference between indiscernible 'things' because difference is nothing but a discernible. Therefore substance is One and indivisible. Thus, there is nothing that is non-existent, but only Existence showing forth non- existence as a manifest feature of its multitudinous attributions, i.e., non-existence is a mode of Existence. In accordance with the unfolding of experience, things may exist or may not exist, but at a deeper level, they are all unreal as belonging merely to the chimera of substantiality as bestowed upon them by names and forms. And yet, at the deepest level, they are ultimately all real in accordance with their existential core being the noumenal ground of Existence, for it is not possible for a thing to not be. There is nothing but Existence, even in the unreal, it being only a mode of the Real. Now this same conclusion may be arrived at through the doctrine of vivartavada.


The world is said to be unreal because it exists in the middle but not in the beginning and the end. It is indeed not possible for non- existence to come into existence or for existence to become non- existence. Therefore, when things are seen to exist in the middle and not in the beginning and end, it can mean that things are non- existent because they were not there yesterday and will not be there tomorrow, or it can mean that it was always there, and that its coming into existence is merely a seeming, and that this seeming of things coming to be is false. The latter alone is the Advaitic truth, and the former is the falsity of superficiality that Advaita negates. The former is not the Advaitic truth because it is what Advaita negates, and Advaita cannot be assumed to negate an Advaitic truth!

What is it that is meant by creation and destruction? What indeed is change? The most fundamental ground of logic is that a thing is itself; a thing is identical to itself. This apparently obvious and seemingly trivial statement yet has something to say: that a thing cannot be other than itself. This compels us to conclude that a thing can never be other than itself even in change.

It is an empirical fact that we see an object changing. But an object changes without ceasing to be itself because otherwise it cannot be the SAME object that changes. This seems to lead to the question: what is an object that it is identical to itself even in displaying various and diverse forms and attributes. An object therefore cannot be a mere constitution of attributes, because if it were, the change in constitution would not be seen as the same object, unless there be a unifying unchanging principle identical to itself through the change. That is, if the being of the object is not other than the being of the variety of attributes that it may assume or manifest, wherein the attributes are each identical to themselves in form, but not separate in existence from the object, but existentially subsumed in the object. This 'being of the object' is substance as we have seen.

An object does not change. Let us take, as an example, a hypothetical circular coin made of wax. Its shape is a circle. The shape circle can never be another shape without ceasing to be itself. Now let us deform the coin till it assumes a square shape. We say that the object (coin) has changed from being circular to being square. When the shape of the coin changed, did the shape 'round' become the shape 'square'? That is never possible, for circle can never become square even as square can never become circle for it is the nature of a circle to be circle even as it is the nature of square to be square.

The circle was not destroyed even as the square was not created. Thus, the attributes seen when the object changes, themselves do not change. Each of the attributes that the object displayed was not generated, but different attributes, each of which is unchanging, was displayed in the 'change' attributed to the object. Thus, the law of identity is not violated and yet change is possible as the showing forth of attributes that are pre-existent in the substantial ground. Change is the manifesting dynamism of things that are each unchanging. It is not an ontological 'it' that constitutes change, but the actualisation of 'its' manifest possibilities. Which dynamism is real, and is called 'Time' (Kala). Time is the bewitching power of Maya that drapes itself over eternally unchanging forms. She is Mahakali, the Great Night behind creation.

In truth, there is nothing born, nothing destroyed, for everything is eternal in the infinite nature of Brahman. But let us now hear Shankara speak, and I quote at length here because of the importance that this commentary bears to the understanding of Advaita:

Shankara: The effect too exists before it is produced.

Question: How?

Reply: Because its manifestation points out its pre-existence. Manifestation means coming within the range of perception. It is a common occurrence that a thing, a jar for instance, which was hidden by darkness or any other thing and comes within the range of perception when the obstruction is removed by the appearance of light or in some other way, does not preclude its previous existence. Similarly this universe too, we can understand, existed before its manifestation. For a jar that is non-existent is not perceived even when the sun rises.

Objection: No, it must be perceived, for you deny its previous non- existence. According to you, any effect, say a jar, is never non- existent. So it must be perceived when the sun rises. Its previous form, the lump of clay, is nowhere near, and obstructions like darkness are absent' so, being existent, it cannot but appear.

Reply: Not so, for obstruction is of two kinds. Every effect such as a jar has two kinds of obstruction. When it has become manifest from its component clay, darkness and the wall etc. are the obstructions; while before its manifestation from the clay the obstruction consists in particles of clay remaining as some other effect such as a lump. Therefore, the effect, the jar, although existent, is not perceived before its manifestation, as it is hidden. The terms and concepts 'destroyed', 'produced', 'existence' and 'non-existence' depend on this two-fold character of manifestation and disappearance.

Objection: This is incorrect, since the obstruction represented by particular forms such as the lump of the two halves of a jar are of a different nature. To be explicit: Such obstructions to the manifestation of a jar as darkness or the wall, we see, do not occupy the same space as a jar, but the lump or the two halves of a jar do. So your statement that the jar, although present in the form of the lump or the two halves, is not perceived because it is hidden, is wrong, for the nature of the obstruction in this case is different.

Reply: No, for we see that water mixed with milk occupies the same space as the milk which conceals it.

Objection: But since the component parts of a jar such as its two halves or pieces are included in the effect, the jar, they should not prove obstructions at all.

Reply: Not so, for being separated from the jar they are so many different effects, and can therefore serve as obstructions.

Objection: Then the effort should be directed solely to the removal of obstructions. That is to say, is, as you say, the effect, the jar for instance, is actually present in the state of the lump or the two halves, and is not perceived because of an obstruction, then one who wants the effect, the jar, should try to remove the obstruction, and not make a jar. But as a matter of fact, nobody does so. Therefore your statement is wrong.

Reply: No, for there is no hard and fast rule about it. It is not always the case that a jar or any other effect manifests itself if only one tries to remove the obstruction; for when a jar, for instance, is covered with darkness etc., one tries to light a lamp.

Objection: That too is just for destroying the darkness. This effort to light a lamp is also for removing the darkness, which done, the jar is automatically perceived. Nothing is added to the jar.

Reply: No, for the jar is perceived as covered with light when the lamp is lighted. Not so before lighting of the lamp. Hence this was not simply for removing the darkness, but for covering the jar with light, for it is since perceived as covered with light. Sometimes the effort is directed to the removal of the obstruction, as when the wall, for instance, is pulled down. Therefore it cannot be laid down as a rule that one who wants the manifestation of something must simply try to remove the obstruction. Besides, one should take such steps as will cause the manifestation for the efficacy of the established practice regarding it. We have already said that an effect which is patent in the cause serves as an obstruction to the manifestation of the other effects. So if one tries only to destroy the previously manifested effect such as the lump or the two halves which stand between it and the jar, one may also have such as the potsherds or tiny pieces. These too will conceal the jar and prevent its being perceived; so a fresh attempt will be needed. Hence the necessary operation of the factors of an action has its utility for one who wants the manifestation of a jar or any other thing. Therefore the effect exists even before its manifestation.

From our divergent notions of the past and future also we infer this. Our notions of a jar that was and one that is yet to be cannot, like the notion of the present jar, be entirely independent of objects. For one who desires to have a jar not yet made sets oneself to work for it. We do not see people strive for things which they know to be non-existent. Another reason for the pre-existence of the effect is the fact that the knowledge (of God) and the Yogins concerning the past and future jar is infallible. Were the future jar non-existent, His (and their) perception of it would prove false. Nor is this perception a mere figure of speech. As to the reasons for inferring the existence of the jar, we have already stated them.

Another reason for it is that the opposite view involves a self- contradiction. If on seeing a potter, for instance, at work on the production of a jar one is certain in view of the evidence that the jar will come into existence, then it would be a contradiction in terms to say that the jar is non-existent at the very time with which it is said it will come into relation. For to say that the jar that will be is non-existent, is the same thing as to say that it will not be. It would be like saying, 'This jar does not exist.' If, however, you say that before its manifestation the jar is non-existent, meaning thereby that it does not exist exactly as the potter, for instance, exists while he is at work on its production, then there is no dispute between us.

Objection: Why?

Reply: Because the jar exists in its own future form. It should be borne in mind that the present existence of the lump or the two halves is not the same as that of the jar. Nor is the future existence of the jar the same as theirs. Therefore you do not contradict us when you say that the jar is non-existent before its manifestation while the activity of the potter, for instance, is going on. You will be doing this if you deny to the jar its own future form as an effect. But you do not deny that. Nor do all things undergoing modification have an identical form of existence in the present or in the future.

Moreover, of the four kinds of negation relating to, say, a jar, we observe that what is called mutual exclusion is other than the jar: The negation of a jar is cloth or some other thing, not the jar itself. But the cloth, although it is the negation of the jar, is not a non-entity, but a positive entity. Similarly, the previous non- existence, the non-existence due to destruction, and absolute negation must also be other than the jar: for they are spoken of in terms of it, as in the case of the mutual exclusion relating to it. And these negations must also (like the cloth, for instance) be positive entities. Hence the previous non-existence of a jar does not mean that it does not at all exist as an entity before it comes into being. If however, you say that the previous non-existence of a jar means the jar itself, then to mention it as being 'of a jar' (instead of 'the jar itself') is an incongruity. If you use it merely as a fancy, as in the expression, 'The body of the stone roller', then the phrase 'the previous non-existence of a jar' would only mean that it is the imaginary non-existence that is mentioned in terms of the jar, and not the jar itself. If, on the other hand, you say that the negation of a jar is something other than it, we have already answered the point. Moreover, if the jar before its manifestation be an absolute nonentity like the proverbial horns of a hare, it cannot be connected either with its cause or with existence (as the logicians hold), for connection requires two positive entities.

Objection: It is all right with things that are inseparable.

Reply: No, for we cannot conceive of an inseparable connection between an existent and a non-existent thing. Separable or inseparable connection is possible between two positive entities only, not between an entity and a nonentity, nor between two nonentities. Therefore we conclude that the effect does exist before it is manifested.
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter I, Section II)


There is nothing that is unreal. The absolutely unreal is only the 'son of a barren woman' - a purely meaningless term. The real is the opposite of the unreal - and hence it is all that has meaning. It is all that is seen and conceived. This is in perfect harmony with Sri Shankaracharya's commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

The second meaning of unreal - which arises within this overarching reality of the All - is the mistaking of one thing for another. It pertains to the lack of genuineness of a thing that is seen. It is that unreality whereby what is seen is a not what is genuinely there. We must now reassess the meaning of superimposition in the light of these meanings.

The theory of adhyasa arises in the context of the second meaning of unreality. The articulation of unreality in the Preamble is to be seen in the light of this meaning of reality. Now, the question that arises in the context of the 'reality of all' is: Why does one thing get mistaken for another? Why does the snake ever get mistaken for a rope? It is true that the rope lies concealed in the dim light of dusk; it is also true that the coil has a likeness to a snake; yet, why does the mind does not rest in suspension when it vaguely sees a coil in the dim light of dusk? Why can't it contain itself in the admission that the object is not known rather than rush to the conclusion that it is a snake? The answer lies in the manner in which we cognise things. We do not perceive mere attributes, but we perceive attributes as belonging to a thing. Substance is the 'thing' that is perceived, and the attributes are perceived as being 'of the thing' that is perceived. Cognition never sees only attributes. The mind and the senses both partake in the cognition and while the senses grasp the sensible attributes, the mind grasps the thing in which the attributes inhere. Adhyasa takes place when there is concealment - when the attributes are seen but the thing of which they are the attributes are not seen. Since the mind always sees attributes as 'of a thing', it rushes out to grasp the thing without the ascertainment of its truth and THAT IS THE SUPERIMPOSITION that is spoken about in Advaita.

Vyavaharika is the state when the substratum of the world lies concealed. The sentient Substance of the world is concealed and the mind rushes out to grasp the insentient prakriti as the substance. The mistaken existential core that it grasps is the falseness of jada when in reality the existential core is the sentient Brahman. This is the 'world' that is superimposed on Brahman, and which Advaita says is false. Advaita does not say that superimposition is the nature of the world, but merely points out that adhyasa is a natural feature that characterises people in this world. It is what is to be removed through adhyaropa apavada. The world as adhyasa is what Advaita rejects as false. The world as ensouled by Brahman is the reality of Advaita. The truth of Advaita is the continuum of Brahman. This whole universe abides with Brahman as its Heart. There is no superimposition in the continuum - Brahman is here All.

He who inhabits the earth, yet is within the earth, whom the earth does not know, whose body the earth is, and who controls the earth from within - He is your Self, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

There is now the final question that we need to answer now: If the entire universe is real then how can it be said that Brahman is nirguna and formless? We shall try and attempt this topic in the next part. Meanwhile we take leave of this long post with the words of the Goddess in Parmenides' 'Way of Truth':

Welcome, O youth, that comest to my abode on the car that bears thee, tended by immortal charioteers. It is no ill chance, but right and justice, that has sent thee forth to travel on this way. Far indeed does it lie from the beaten track of men. Meet it is that thou shouldst learn all things, as well the unshaken heart of well-rounded truth, as the opinions of mortals in which is no true belief at all. Yet none the less shalt thou learn these things also - how, passing right through all things, one should judge the things that seem to be. (Fr.1)

Come now, and I will tell thee - and do thou hearken and carry my word away - the only ways of enquiry that exists for thinking: the one way, that it is and cannot not-be, is the path of Persuasion, for it attends upon Truth; the other, that it is-not and needs must not- be, that I tell thee is a path altogether unthinkable. For thou couldst not know that which is-not nor utter it; for the same thing exists for thinking and for being. (Fr.2)

One way only is left to be spoken of, that it is; and on this way are full many signs that what is is uncreated and imperishable, for it is entire, immovable and without end. It was not in the past, nor shall it be, since it is now, all at once, one, continuous; for what creation wilt thou seek for it? (Fr.8)

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