Most advaitins believe that, ultimately, there is no such thing as creation. As far as the appearance of our day to day existence is concerned, however, they would concede that our practical experience is one of an external universe separate from ourselves. As long as we believe that we are not the Atman, there is clearly a difference between the observer and the observed. But in this case, they would argue that we are not seeing the universe aright. We are deluded about ourselves and we are ignorant about the true nature of things. In this situation, the explanation adopted is that the universe was created by brahman in his capacity as Ishvara. We ‘see’ it as a result. i.e. most advaitins defend the view that a thing has to exist for it to be perceived.
But none of this is possible without ignorance and the power of mAyA is attributed to Ishvara to explain the delusion. This mAyA has no independent existence, being absolutely dependent on brahman (which, after all, is all there is) and disappears as soon as realisation occurs. This explanation, of an Ishvara who creates the universe, is a temporary one only, introduced simply to provide an explanation for those who desire one. The concept does not compromise non-duality and explains the devotional nature of many advaitins. Once it can be accepted that mAyA is not real and there is only brahman, then the view that there never was a creation becomes reasonable.
This interim view of a real creation and a creator cannot lead to realisation. Moreover, there is no purpose in ‘looking’ for brahman whilst still in this interim state. If your house is on fire, you should concentrate on putting out the fire before looking for a cause. Similarly, if our aim is Realisation, our primary task is to understand the Atman. Once this has been done, then we can (if still needed!) ask about the creation. Thus our concern to date has been to explain the external world, as known through the senses. In order to realise the identity of Atman and brahman, we need to look inwards, beyond the senses.
It is this search which reveals the knowledge of the unreality of mAyA. Brahman is understood in its essence, without any attributes, and recognised as being one’s own true nature. mAyA, and consequently the universe, then disappear. This is obviously extremely difficult to comprehend in our current, waking state since the apparent existence of an external world is continually reinforced by the senses. But the recognition of the equivalence of Atman and brahman does not take place in the waking state but on the fourth plane of consciousness, turIya. Here, the mistaken understanding of the Atman is resolved and an external world, separate from the Self, is no longer seen. Neither ‘oneself’ nor the world outside of that self exist. Both are now resolved into the Atman, the one and only reality. Now it seems, it would become possible to talk about the concept of ‘no creation’ except that, since there is now known to be nothing other than the Atman, talk of a world external to it now no longer arises. Furthermore no senses operate at this level and the nature of the Atman is ultimately ineffable. The Atman is eternal, unborn and undying, and undivided. The apparent universe having been resolved into the Atman itself, there is now no creation. This is the ultimate reality.
Thus the provisional view of a creation and a creator can be held at the level of our (illusory) day to day existence. It is something which needs to be properly understood and eventually transcended so that the ultimate reality of ‘no creation’ may be realised. Once realisation has taken place, there are no longer separate things.
Finally, there is a minority viewpoint to the effect that the embodied Atman effectively creates its objects of perception and that without an observer there is no creation. This is similar to a Western subjective idealism philosophy and has interesting parallels in modern quantum physics, where the observer is an inseparable part of the observation and directly affects it. This point of view is, however, not accepted by most advaitins and seems to have some logical contradictions.
Read Vidyasankar's more detailed essay on Creation Theories in Advaita.
Visit Vidyasankar's authoritative website.
Return to list of topics in Discourses by Teachers and Writers .
See the list sorted by Topic.
See the list sorted by Author.