First Definition -
anirvachanIya may be translated as "inexplicable" or "indefinable".
I. Basic review
Advaita philosophy affirms a non-dual substratum
Reality (brahman) behind the manifold universe
of our experience. The common analogy is that
of the rope being seen as a snake in dull light;
similarly Brahman is seen as the universe in
the context of upAdhi-s (or avidyA, or mAyA).
This "context of upAdhi-s" defines
the subject-object divide in consciousness. It
is non-absolute (relative, "ever changing")
and hence unreal. The effect/correspondence to
this divide is the superimposition of duality
(ego-world/God), again non-absolute and unreal.
(The upAdhi-s or limiting-adjuncts determine
the frames of reference relative to which Brahman
appears in such and such manner.)
II. The individual
Now who asks a question? The individual.
The individual is ('continually') predefined
through/in the upAdhi-s and so is the universe
that is (seemingly) "observed and analysed".
For the individual however, observation, analysis
and conclusion are real processes. The referential
context, though evidently non-absolute, is continually
regarded as real unto itself, and duality/change
is affirmed as the only truth.
III. What to ask?
Any valid question that the individual may hope
to answer must therefore lie within the bounds
of the starting assumption of individuality.
We may ask about the body, mind, world, and of
change/relativity. Firm belief in karma-karmaphala
(cause-effect) corresponds with our starting
assumption and serves as the basis for our answers.
We may also enquire regarding the enquirer,
the witness to all. Who am I? A rational enquiry
will perhaps conclude that the Self is non- different
from the context of upAdhi-s that defines the
individuality and thereby characterizes the Self
either as ephemeral consciousness or as the product
of material law. Thus the individual ever aware
of its own non-absolute status convinces itself
that the Self is also unreal, and that the inescapable
proclamation of "I am" from within
is sheer imagination.
IV. Anirvachaniya (one attempt)
According to advaita however, the Self/I is
the non-dual Reality (brahman) that in the referential
context appears divided as ego and world. This
conclusion is transcendental, beyond the individual's
reach. Itself a product of superimposition and
pertaining to upAdhi-s, the individual cannot
fathom the Self/Brahman nor can it hope to answer
questions of "how/why this Real appears
thus unreal?" The answer to such questions
is "anirvachanIya" - inexplicable.
At best, the individual can assess what is truth
in the referential contexts: karma, Ishvara,
big-bang, etc, or what the scripture says is
the underlying Truth (devoid of individuality)
of all referential versions of existence.
V. Anirvachaniya (another attempt)
Duality is real/true in the individual's referential
context (vyAvahArika) and yet unreal/non-existent
in the "context of Brahman" (pAramArthika),
i.e. devoid of the "context of upAdhi-s".
In view of this dichotomy, advaita classifies
the status of duality as anirvachanIya or indefinable.
It exists (as if real) relative to a referential
context (individuality) that is concurrent with
it and 'vanishes' (into the Real) with the surrender
of individuality `in' Brahman. Questions regarding
its origin and nature can either be answered
within a relative context (for instance, Ishvara,
big-bang, etc.) or by simply pinpointing the
fact of questioning itself. Why universe? - Because
individual. Why duality? - because you see it.
It is the avidyA or ignorance of the questioner
that this world is.
This type of answer is given because the questions
do not belong in the context of brahman. If the
questioner retains individuality (as real), the
best answer is Ishvara (or karma-karmaphala) and
not (nirguNa) brahman - Ishvara brings forth this
duality through His power of mAyA and is the antaryAmin
(inner controller) of all beings. Such an answer
is either a correct reply to a weaker empirical
question, or simply a disguised way of saying, "we
don't know, ultimately" to those who seek
a deterministic response. Duality is an inexplicable
fact of experience for the mind experiencing; it
is anirvachanIya. The goal is to realize the non-dual
Truth/Unity (that "aham brahmAsmi") and
not to dwell upon the duality for its own sake;
the latter method cannot resolve the problem of
Note from Sunder
The word 'anirvachanIya' occurs in the following
Shankara has used the word anirvachanIya in:
Upadeshasahasri # 18 in Prose section, and
Vivekachudamai #109 (# 111 in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan edition).
Dr. K. Sadananda adds:
The simplest definition of anirvachanIya is anirvachanIya
itself: “that which cannot be defined.”
Definition – S. N. Sastri
The word 'anirvachanIya' is derived from the verbal root
'vac' which means 'to say' or 'to describe'. 'vachanIya'
means 'what can be described', 'nirvachanIya' means 'what
can be specifically described'. 'anirvachanIya' therefore
means 'what cannot be specifically described'. The word
'anirvachanIya' can be used in any situation where we want
to say that something is incapable of being described in
specific terms. In advaita vedAnta it has been given a
specific meaning. In the context of advaita vedAnta we
have to add the words 'as real or as unreal', .so that
the meaning becomes 'what cannot be specifically described
as real or as unreal'.
Though the word 'anirvachanIya' is often used by itself
in advaitic literature, it is understood to stand for 'sattvena
asattvena vA anirvachanIya). The world is 'sattvena asattvena
vA anirvachanIya, i.e., it cannot be described as either
real or unreal. It does not have the same reality as brahman,
nor is it unreal like the horn of a rabbit. It has vyAvahArika
reality only. anirvachanIya thus has the same meaning as
As regards the term 'upAdhi', its derivation is – upa
samIpe svIyam dharmam AdadhAti—which means—upAdhi
is that which transmits its own quality to some thing near
it. The pot gives to the total space surrounding it its
own qualities of being of a particular size and shape.
Space looks as if it has taken on the size and shape of
the pot. The mind gives its quality of thinking to the
Self and so it appears as if the Self is thinking, and
so on with all other upAdhis such as gross body, etc.
Other essays on this topic may be found at the Oneness Commitment site.
Return to the Contents page for the Terms and Definition.