Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Real and the Unreal
Chittaranjan Naik

flower picture
Chittarnajan Naik


Read Chittaranjan's discourse on the A Realist View of Advaita.


The following is derived from posts to the Advaitin Egroup 19th Jan. 2004.


There seems to be a two-stage process in advaita to differentiate the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’. In our normal state, we see body, mind and world as ‘objects’, i.e. as something other than consciousness (which is ‘subject’ under this illusory dichotomy. Paradoxically, we then identify with some of those objects, namely body and mind. While we are still under the spell of this illusion, we should, as a first step, cease to
identify with any illusory objects.

But once this identification ceases, the next stage can begin, which is to see everything as the Divine Consciousness. Body, mind and world are included, though now they are no longer seen as objects but as manifestations of consciousness, like illusions. In this way, we realize that there is only Consciousness or brahman, and this realization produces liberation, according to the testimony of sages.

Failure to understand this two-step process leads to much confusion. If we are too literal, the famous 'Neti, neti' seems to contradict the even more famous 'All is brahman'. This is explained by the two-stage process, where first we are under the spell of the illusion of objects, and then we come to understand that spell and liberate ourselves from it.

The 'unreal' is only unreal when perceived as an object, as something other than consciousness. That is, no object has a status as an independent self-sustaining entity outside of consciousness, as it seems to. When properly interpreted as a dream or illusion, all apparent objects then dissolve into consciousness, i.e. brahman.


An important distinction needs to be made here. This is the distinction between the upAya, the means to the end, and the assertion of truth. The one is the method prescribed for the sAdhaka, the other is the statement of the Advaitic Ontological Truth. And then everything seems to fall into place almost magically. Truth is not a matter of a step-by-step process. The Truth is eternal. It is always the same, both when we are blinded to it, and when our eyes are open to see it. This truth is the paramArthika satya that All is brahman. The world is brahman, brahman is the Real, the world is therefore real.

The prescription of "neti, neti" is the upAya, a provisional means for the sAdhaka to free himself from the bondage of the limited to awaken to the light of the Unlimited. Again, it may be noticed that "neti, neti" is used with a greater emphasis on the denial of the seen as constituting the Self than on the denial of the world itself. The mind is naturally directed outward towards objects and does not "see" the Self, and it must return from being outward bound to its source by a denial of the objects that attract its attention. The entire process is one of dispelling the false notion of the objects it clings to as being the Self.

In order to obtain conviction that this is not just a clever sleight of hand, the following points may be considered:

1. A large part of the brahmasUtra bhAshya of the AchArya is devoted to showing that the material cause of the world is brahman. This is done on the observation that the effect is nothing but the cause itself and is only a name for a peculiar condition of the cause. The AchArya proceeds to establish that all the five elements resolve themselves one by one into its involute cause until they are identical with brahman.

Thus the world is the reality of brahman. It is brahman alone that is the world through and through. It is by focussing on mAyA to the exclusion of this part of the AchArya's writings that vishiShTadvaita was able to launch one of its two major points of attacks on advaita. Their point of contention was that if the world is mAyA, then the shruti statement that by knowing One all is known becomes false. But this objection is invalidated by brahman being the material cause of the world in advaita.

2. It is significant that the AchArya considers sAMkhya as the doctrine that is closest to advaita Vedanta. sAMkhya is a doctrine of realism. Indeed the AchArya explicitly states that by adopting the doctrine of the effect being the cause, sAMkhya comes closest to Vedanta. But whereas sAMkhya stops at undifferentiated avyakta as the cause of the universe and maintains the duality of puruSha and prakRRiti, advaita proceeds to bind prakRRiti and puruSha into a non- duality. Again, the word "bind" is used in a metaphorical sense, because there is no binding of two things in advaita: puruSha and prakRRiti are not two, but two aspects of the one brahman.

3. In order to understand how there can be two aspects of One, it is necessary to remember that brahman is the substratum of the world. (It might be mentioned here that the symbolism of substance has lost its meaning in the modern world, and contemporary academic philosophy vainly grapples with a variety of new concepts such as the compresence of universals, bare-particulars, tropes, etc, to find a solution to the problem of substances.) This necessitates an understanding of the relationship between dravya and guNa, or in the English language, between substance and attributes.

In the philosophy of nyAya, it is the intimate relation of samavAya, or inherence, that binds the two. The very connotation of the word "inherence" is to exist within, yet because the distinction of dravya and guNa distinctively separates them, nyAya posits the relation of inherence. In the brahmasUtra bhashya, the relation of inherence is not accepted by the AchArya on two grounds, the first being that it leads to an infinite regress, and the second that it is against the principle of parsimony.

The AchArya's writings are unequivocal that attributes are co-terminus with the substantive itself. This is also the manner in which vishiShTadvaita conceives of the entire universe as being the body of Ishvara. But vishiShTadvaita in its persistence of calling advaita a doctrine of mAyAvAda, launches its second major point of attack on advaita stating that an object is not false and that its reality only points through the attributes to its substantive which is Existence or brahman itself. But here again, we may see that the objection is invalid because the position of advaita is the same. (In the history of Western Philosophy, there is only one unique philosopher who conceived of God in this manner, and that is Spinoza. Yet he was, and continues to be, much misunderstood, primarily because of the erosion of the symbolism of substance.)

4. The AchArya provides a very lucid explanation in his commentary on the bRRihadAraNyaka Upanishad, starting with the verse "There was nothing whatsoever here in the beginning. It was covered only by Death...". The AchArya says "on the authority of the shruti we conclude that the cause which covered, and the effect which was covered, were both existent before the origin of the universe." Again, he says as follows: "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 the 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." And: "The terms and concepts `destroyed', `produced', `existence' and `non-existence' depend on this two-fold character of manifestation and disappearance."

The commentary goes on to explain the different types of obstructions to manifestation, and declares the eternality of the cause as well as the effect. We may consider this example: The statue is not created. It already exists in the granite block out of which it is carved. The sculptor only unveils and makes manifest the form (rUpa) which already exists in the granite block, and to which the name (nAma), statue, is attached. Likewise, this world exists eternally in brahman; it exists both when it is unmanifest and when it is made manifest.

5. In advaita, the world is nAma and rUpa, name and form. The name, or word, is different from the form, but the two are intimately wedded to each other. When there is the name, there is the form. Indeed, creation is said to arise from the word by the invocation of forms through speech. Now in advaita, as with the Grammarians, words are said to be eternal. If words are eternal, how can forms not be eternal? If in the silence of nirguNa, the eternal word is unmanifest, then it only follows that likewise in the silence of nirguNa the eternal world is also unmanifest, and not that the world is unreal or non-existent.

6. mAyA is not illusion. It is prakRRiti that is one with puruSha. This is not unreal. mAyA is also the projective power of brahman associated with Time. This too is not unreal. mAyA is also the concealing power within this projection in Time. It is only this that we may perhaps call unreal. I am not sure.

One can find many more instances in the AchArya's writings to support the view that the world is reality itself. Now, then, what is it that is unreal? Indeed, there is only Reality everywhere! There can never be anything that can be pointed to as being unreal! The unreal is not in the world, but in the knots of the heart, in the paradoxical avidyA that seems to fracture this world into a multiplicity of self- subsisting objects. The seat of the unreal is the ignorance within that hides the plenitude of the Self and makes us attached to the limited body, or makes us run after objects when indeed the entire universe is in the Self. It is this ignorance that imbues the world with two kinds of falsities arising out of viparya (conflation) and vikalpa (delusion).

This emphasis helps me keep a balance when speaking about mAyA, and prevents me from unwittingly slipping into a locution where Ishvara becomes only a concession to the play of mAyA. Ishwara is real. Ishwara is all-pervasive. The veil of mAyA blinds my eyes. When I use the word "I", it denotes a limited thing. But even in vyAvahArika satya, we are the clearings in which the light of the divine shines, the Divine that dances as this world in the effulgence of Conscious Spirit.

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