Definition - Ramesh Krishnamurthy
The advaitins often say that the world is mithyA.
This is a term that causes much confusion. Often
one comes across people who talk about the "unreality
of the world" or about "illusion" without
having given much thought to what the term mithyA
So here is my understanding for what its worth.
I am sharing this because this understanding
came to me during one of those rare moments of
insight, and filled me with exhilaration for
just a short while :-)
When it is said that the world is mithyA, it
does not mean that the world does not exist at
all (like a hare's horns or a sterile woman's
son) or that it is entirely a product of one's
imagination. Rather, mithyA refers to that which
is true within a given frame of reference. In
that sense it is *arbitrary*, not "really
real". This is opposed to satya, which is
truth beyond any frames of reference.
Here is a simple (perhaps simplistic) example
to illustrate this:
Suppose I were to take 6 men to the banks of
the river Ganga. I point to the river and ask
each of the men, "what’s this?"
Their responses are as follows: A: That's a
fluid B: That's water C: That's a chemical made
up of two elements - hydrogen & oxygen D:
That's a river E: That's the Ganga F: That's
a goddess - Mother Ganga.
Which of the above is correct? Actually all
of them are correct, but only within their own
frames of reference, and each frame is *arbitrary*.
What is relevant for one person is not relevant
for the other. It is in this sense that world
of objects is mithyA, which is somewhat misleadingly
translated as "illusory".
And yet, in spite of the seeming differences,
there is a fact common to all the statements
- all the men perceived *something*, they only
called it by different names. That *something*
is the substratum which is pure being - brahman.
Now, is brahman the fluid? Yes Is brahman the
water? Yes Is brahman the river? Yes
The fluid, the water and the river are *relative
realities* (mithyA). They are real within their
respective frames of reference. At the same time,
they are also the absolute reality (satya), as
they are brahman.
So is the world of objects real?
All objects are brahman and hence real, but
a given name-form is mithyA as it is true only
within a frame of reference.
The above example, if understood clearly, would
be a counter to those who mistakenly criticize
advaita for being "world denying" or
for encouraging a "negative attitude towards
Another interesting point emerges from the above
example: while there can be no mithyA without
satya, there can be no satya without mithyA either
(in the sense that satya is perceived only through
the lens of mithyA). For "pure" satya
alone, one has to resort to ajAtivAda, in which
there is no saMsAra, no mokSha, and certainly
no mailing list!! †
Yet another point from the same example: the
world of objects does not disappear into nothingness
on enlightenment. If that were the case, jIvanmukti
would not be possible, as living requires interaction
with the external world. With his senses, the
j~nAnI perceives objects like anybody else. But
he recognizes that when the mind rushes to attach
name & form to that which is perceived, it
does so only within a frame of reference. And
as all frames of reference are arbitrary, the
j~nAnI does not cling to any. In that sense,
the j~nAnI sees brahman alone. This "non-clingingness" is
the essence of manonAsha (destruction of the
mind) & vAsanAkShaya (elimination of attachments & aversions)
But this does not prevent him from using any
frame of reference. On the contrary, while we
the unenlightened are constrained to use only
this or that frame (due to our vAsanA-s), the
jnAnI is utterly free to choose whatever frame
he pleases. By being established in brahman,
he can ride the waves of mAyA with utter abandon!
That is why jIvanmukti is described as "freedom", "bliss" etc
Hence one finds that some j~nAnI-s stay in solitude,
while others are very active in the world. It
is their absolute freedom!
† any discussion about satya
can be only within the mithyA realm. There would
have been no conception of satya in
the absence of mithyA, as all philosophizing
is in the mithyA jagat. Even the shruti is in
the mithyA jagat.
The notion of independence is dependent on the
notion of dependence!
So I wasn't making an ontological claim about
satya being dependent on mithyA. Rather, I was
indicating that all "standpoints" have
mithyA status. The mithyA standpoint that recognizes
the mithyAtva of all standpoints is what we call
the pAramArthika standpoint.
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