Advaita Vision

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Advaita for the 21st Century

An Introduction to Vedanta
Part XVIII
Dr. K. Sadananda

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Part XVIII – Does the world exist independent of an observer?

First, let us ask some basic questions which might have escaped the attention of many. How do we know that there is a world out there?

What kind of question is that? I know the world because I experience the world every day, in fact every minute. I am in the world; everything reminds me of that fact including your question.

Good. Let us pose the next question, does the world exists if we do not experience it?

Of course it does, whether we experience it or not. We come into this world and we exit from the world; the world has always been there from our forefathers’ time and it will be there even after we leave. We exit from this world, but the world will always exist.

Is that so? But, how do you know that? Does the world tell you that it exists? Or do you infer that the world exists based on the information you have gathered from books or listening to others?

If there is no conscious entity to report the fact, can one prove that the world exists? The world cannot declare that it exists, since it is inert. Others, including historians, report that the universe has existed from the time of the big bang and there is no reason why it should disappear. In fact, matter can never be destroyed – that is the law.

But we are not discussing here the destruction of matter; we are questioning the very existence of matter, before we talk about its destruction. Can one prove the existence of matter or any inert entity without a conscious entity to establish its existence? Essentially, can one establish the existence of the universe independent of a conscious entity?

Histories and theories etc. are all products of the conscious entity based on observations and deductions. The fact of the matter is that the existence of the world can never be proved without a conscious entity being present. Let us pose the question in a different way. Does the world exist when you go into the deep sleep state?

Of course it exists - when I get up in the morning, everything is in the same place that I left it in the night, including all the problems that I had. The world was there before you went to sleep, since you were there to experience it. The world is there in the morning, since you are there to experience it. The question is: without the presence of an experiencer, a conscious entity, can one prove the existence of the inert world on its own?

Remember we posed a similar question when you are in a pitch dark room. You are there independent of any means of knowledge or pramANa since you are a self-conscious entity and therefore a self-existent entity. But you were not sure about the presence of any objects in the dark room since you could not see them or experience them. The question is the same, but is now being asked in terms of the world of objects, in fact the whole universe that includes not only objects but other beings as well. (From my reference point, all other beings are only objects, since I can only perceive their body and at best make inferences about their minds or the manifested aspects of their consciousness).

The existence of the world independent of a conscious entity is not possible since the world is not self-conscious and therefore not a self-existent entity. One can infer its existence based on the continuity principle but even to infer that, I have to be there. Whether the world can exist independent of me becomes a moot question since there is no way to prove that existence. Hence Shankara calls it ‘anirvachanIya’ – inexplicable. In the world of math it is called an indeterminate problem. That is, one cannot say the world is nor can one say the world is not; and to say ‘is’ or ‘is not’, I the conscious entity have to exist first.

Furthermore, I should also illumine the world for me to be conscious of the world. This is in addition to any other illuminating factors needed to illumine the objects for me to be conscious of them. Recall the example of the pitch dark room. I am there alright, but I also need another light to see the existence or non-existence of the objects in that room. Otherwise I can only illumine the darkness that envelopes all the objects. Until I illumine the objects too, in the presence of a light, I cannot say whether the objects in the room exist or not - their existence is indeterminate. Suppose I am not there, but there is a bright light burning in that room. I still would not know if there are any objects in that room or not. This means that two factors are needed to establish the existence of the universe. One is a conscious entity that I am, and the other factor is presence of all the factors needed for complete operation of the means of knowledge or pramANa. If I am there but the light is too dim for me to see clearly, I may see snakes instead of ropes. The bottom line is that, without the presence of ‘I am’, the existence of the world cannot be established.

You can postulate that the world is real and is always present, as some philosophers propose. But even to postulate that, I have to be there. No, No, Vedas say so! – Sir, that is your interpretation. Vedanta says in fact the opposite, in tune with the above analysis. But the fact of the matter is that, even to validate what Vedanta says, I have to be there. The Vedas are also part of this world, not out of this world. No – they are apauruSheya, not written by a human being and they eternally exist. Yes, even to believe that I have to be there first. This is blasphemy. No. Vedas are scientific truths and they themselves declare that they come under apara vidyA [superior knowledge], like any other scientific truths, which are eternal. However, I have to be there even to validate the existence of the Vedas too. In short, ‘I am’ comes before the world comes into existence.

This is really weird. You have mentioned before that the Vedas are only pramANa or a means of knowledge to know the absolute. And now, you are dismissing the Vedas too, along with the world. You are contradicting yourself. How can the Vedas which are part of the world be a means of knowledge for that which is beyond the world of plurality? This is not Vedanta.

Sir, contradictions are only at the level of the mind. Vedas are pramANa for POINTING in the direction of the truth that is beyond any means of knowledge. The truth as we said before is ‘aprameyam’, beyond any means of knowledge. What we said is that Vedanta, in the hands of a teacher, becomes the means for a well-prepared mind to take off to a ‘state’ beyond any description and beyond that even Vedas describe as indescribable – ‘adRRiShTam, avyapadeshyam, agrAhyam, achintyam, - imperceptible, indescribable, unattainable, unthinkable etc.

Proceed to the next essay.

Other Essays in this Section:
01. The common questions. 27. The Mind of God.
02. Search for happiness. 28. The Paradox of Space and Time.
03. Questions about Religions and God. 29. Living in the Present.
04. Belief that we are Mortal, Unhappy and Ignorant. 30. Relationless Relation.
05. You are not what you take yourself to be. 31. Concept of Ishvara or God-Hood.
06. Problem Definition. 32. Self-realization or God-realization.
07. Vedanta as pramANa. 33. Self realization - attitude of mind.
08. shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana. 34. Consciousness and reflected consciousness.
09. Experience versus Knowledge. 35. Conscious and Unconscious Entities.
10. Who am I or what am I not? 36. Real Self and false self.
11. Ego or ahaMkAra. 37. Transmigration of Soul.
12. All about the universe. 38. Witnessing consciousness and reflected consciousness.
13. Creation according to Vedanta. 39. Analysis of Mind: Intro part 1
14. Description of brahman. 40. Analysis of Mind: Intro part 2
15. Progressive teaching method: svarUpa lakShaNa. 41. Mind and Matter: Part 1
16. Carpets and Schrödinger's Cat. 42. Mind and Matter: Part 2
17. Attribute and Substantive. 43. Classification of the Mind: Part 1
18. Does the world exist independent of an observer? 44. Classification of the Mind: Part 2
19. Brahman and the world. 45. Classification of the Mind: Part 3
20. The Cognitive Process. 46. Classification of the Mind: Part 4
21. Perception of the world. 47. Fundamental Human Problem: Part 1
22. What does negation involve? 48. Fundamental Human Problem: Part 2
23. Errors in Perception. 49. Fundamental Human Problem: Part 3
24. adhyAsa or error superimposition. 50. vAsanA-s part 1
25. What is Real? 51. vAsanA-s part 2
26. Transformation-less transformation. 52. Viewpoints of reality.

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