Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

a differentiation

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by Professor V. Krishnamurthy

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Shankara was a great philosopher. There have probably been very few such achievers in a short life span of 32 years, either before him or after him. But if you go and ask the modern layman, even a well-educated one, about what he knows about Shankara, the only thing he might say, probably with an air of condescension, is: 'Is he not the one who taught that the world is all an illusion, a myth?' This is the point. Many people misunderstand Shankara and the advaita that he propagated, by saying that all the universe and all our goings-on in the world are a total myth. Yes, Shankara's writings do contain the following statement: 'brahma satyam jagan mithyA jIvo brahmaiva nAparaH', meaning, 'The Absolute is the only Reality, the universe is all mithyA; the individual soul is brahman itself and not something else.'

mithyA here does not mean total falsity. Whoever originally (that is, first, historically) translated the Sanskrit word 'mithyA' into a Western language must have given the connotation of 'falsity' or 'illusion' to it. And that has survived all along. Absolute truth is one extreme and absolute falsity is the other extreme. mithyA means it is neither an absolute truth nor an absolute falsity. The only absolute truth is brahman. One concocted example for Absolute Falsity is 'hare's horn', which does not exist either in the past, or in the present or probably in the future also. mithyA stands for something in between these two extremes. vedAnta usually cites the example of a dream. A dream is not absolutely true, because even for the dreamer who thought, while he was dreaming, that it was true, it disappears after the dream is over. And it is not absolutely false, because the dreamer did see it, even though for some fleeting moments. The dream example is a standard one in advaita vedAnta. But today I will give you a different dramatic example.

This 'I', that is, this Krishnamurthy, is now talking from the TV channel. You are seeing me on the TV. Keep this 'I' in your mind. When this is actually telecast, I could be sitting on a sofa in my living room in my own house, watching this 'I' who is talking from the TV. Now you have two 'I's to consider. Which one is 'more real'? The obvious answer is, THAT 'I' who is sitting on the sofa and watching THIS 'I' who 'is talking'. But the 'I' who is talking will disappear after the TV show is over or if the TV is switched off. So it is only an 'appearance'. Whenever something is only an appearance, advaita says it is mithyA, neither absolutely true, nor absolutely false .

Before I proceed further, one more point. THIS 'I' of the TV owes its existence to THAT 'I' of the sofa who is watching THIS 'I'. For it was THAT 'I' whose talk was shot and recorded on a particular day some days ago so that it could be seen on the TV today. But for THAT 'I', THIS 'I' would not exist. Comparing the two 'I's, one can easily understand the difference in reality of the two.

Now comes the punchline of Shankaracharya. It is not only his punchline but it is the punchline of all upaniShads. They say: 'THAT "I" who is sitting on the sofa and watching THIS "I" is ALSO mithyA.'

This is the central point of the whole of advaita. THAT 'I' is also mithyA because it owes its existence to another higher level of real 'I' . Without that real 'I', the 'I' sitting on the sofa will not exist. That real 'I' is the Atman. The 'I' that is sitting on the sofa and watching will also disappear in due time and only the real 'I' will remain eternally. It is from that real 'I' all this universe emanated and into that all of this universe will dissolve. That is why Shankara says this jagat (universe) is a mithyA.

THIS 'I' that is speaking from the TV is only a phenomenal reality (prAtibhAsika satyam) like an image in a mirror. THAT 'I' that is watching is an empirical reality (vyAvahArika satyam). The real 'I' that is eternal is the absolute reality (pAramArthika satyam). This is the gradation of realities talked about in advaita. The first two are mithyA, but not falsities, and the third one is the only Absolute Reality.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012