Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century


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 indicates.

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 life"..

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.

Return to the Contents page for the Terms and Definition.

Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012