Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Creation Theories in Advaita
Vidyasankar Sundaresan

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(from a post to the Advaita-L Egroup Jan 1997. Note that the transliteration scheme used here is that devised by Vidyasankar and does not precisely correspond with ITRANS. See hie website for more information.)

Most advaitins admit ajAti (i.e. no creation) in the pAramArthika sense, and sr.shTi-dr.shTi in the vyAvahArika sense. To my knowledge, there is only one author, prakASAnanda sarasvatI, who talks of creation in terms of dr.shTi-sr.shTi vAda.

sr.shTi-dr.shTi vAda :-
I'll come back to dr.shTi-sr.shTi later. Meanwhile, whether of the bhAmatI or of the vivaraNa school, most authors start off assuming the universe.

From the perspective of the student, this makes sense, because everybody starts off by observing a universe distinct from "oneself", and believing that this observed universe has a distinct reality apart from "oneself".

So long as this "oneself" is identified by the observer, not with the Atman, but with anAtman, advaitins would say, `yes, there is a difference between the observed ("the universe" which, by the way, is wrongly perceived) and the observer (the "oneself" which is wrongly identified).' At this stage, there is still ignorance about the true nature of external things and oneself. Taking this ignorance into account, and referring to the IkshaNa-Sruti (tadaikshta, bahusyAm prajAyeya - this sentence occurs everywhere there is talk of creation, as in the sad-vidyA section of the chAndogya), the universe is held to be created by brahman in His capacity as ISvara. This is the sr.shTi-dr.shTi vAda, i.e. the universe that is seen has been created by ISvara. sr.shTi (creation) is therefore prior to dr.shTi (perception). In other words, advaita will defend the view that a thing has to exist beforehand for it to be perceived.

However, it is pointed out that to even talk of creation, one has to assume avidyA, and one has to admit of mAyA, as the power of ISvara. Still, it is denied that this mAyA has an independent existence or reality of its own, and is absolutely dependent on brahman, which is the only reality. It is this position that differentiates advaita vedAnta from the dualistic sAm.khya, although some authors of the bhAmatI school write in such a way as to make this distinction very fuzzy indeed. Inasmuch as the only independent cause is brahman as ISvara, and so far as it is held that the mAyA disappears when brahman is truly known, this view is still non-dual in its teaching.

This notion of ISvara, as saguNa brahman, who is different from the creation, is therefore described as the "taTastha-lakshaNa" - a temporary description for the purposes of explaining creation to those who seek an explanation. This temporary description does not mean that non-duality is compromised. It is only this view that explains the fact that throughout the ages, advaitins have by and large been very devoutly religious people, who worship their chosen deity. They do not think that this affects non-duality in any way. So much for vyavahAra.

ajAti vAda :-
The notion that mAyA has no reality in itself, and that brahman is the only real, allows the sr.shTi-dr.shTi vAdin to "graduate", so to speak, to ajAtivAda, the view that no creation really occured ever. Although one initially starts looking for brahman from an ontological perspective, this search for origins is ultimately futile, as far as moksha is concerned.

When the house is on fire, one first searches for water to put the fire out. Only after the fire is put out does one search for the causes of the fire. Similarly, if the questioner's goal is moksha, advaita points out that there is no moksha till the Atman is properly known as brahman itself. Therefore, understand the Atman first, questions about creation can wait. Until now, the questioner has been concerned mainly with explaining the external world, which (s)he knows only through the operation of the senses. The identity propounded by the upanishads (between the Atman and brahman) opens up an even more fascinating inner world that is not seen by the eye, not heard by the ear and not felt by touch. It is this inner search that allows the sAdhaka to acquire the jnAna to deny mAyA any reality whatsover. At this stage, brahman, which was previously understood to be with attributes, is really understood in its essence.

This essential nature of brahman is described as "svarUpa-lakshaNa" - a description that captures the real nature of brahman. When brahman is apprehended as the nirguNa, without any attributes, mAyA completely disappears. The universe too, consequently has to disappear. This is the most difficult thing for anybody to understand and accept, because the senses constantly seem to remind one of the presence of the universe. But then, the unitary understanding of brahman as identical to the Atman occurs only at the turIya state, not in the jAgrat, svapna and sushupti states. As the mANDUkya upanishad reminds us, the turIya is adr.shTam, avyavahAryam, agrAhyam, alakshaNam, acintyam, avyapadeSyam, ekAtma-pratyaya-sAram, prapancopaSamam, SAntam, Sivam, advaitam.

Most of these terms and their significance will be known to everybody here. As far as creation theories are concerned, the most important adjective here, in my opinion, is prapancopaSamam - that into which the world is resolved. This indicates that in the turIya state, there is no more external world perceived as separate from oneself, because the mistaken identification of the Atman with anAtman has ceased. The "oneself" that was previously talked about doesn't exist anymore, and the world external to this "oneself" also does not exist anymore. Only the One Atman remains.

It is only at this stage that it makes sense to talk of ajAti. The word "prapancopaSamam" indicates that the world-in-itself has no existence. It is as if this world that was previously seen as external to "oneself", along with the "oneself" that was previously mistakenly identified with things other than the Atman, is now resolved into the Atman, the one and only Reality.

The same idea is mentioned in the br.hadAraNyaka - "yatra tvasya sarvam AtmaivAbhUt, tatra kena kam paSyet?" etc. leading to "vijnAtAram are kena vijAnIyAt?" In the state of non-duality, the Atman itself is the whole world; there is nothing other than this Atman, so talk of a world external to this Atman does not even arise. The questions posed by the br.hadAraNyaka indicate that there are no senses of sight, smell, touch etc. that can operate at this state. Hence the question, "vijnAtAram are kena vijAnIyAt?" - how is the knower to be known? i.e. not through the senses, as there are no senses that operate here. I will restrict the urge to indulge in poetic fancy about the ineffable nature of this vijnAtA, and the experience that defies words.

Reverting to our concern about creation, we can say this much. So long as the question of creation does not even arise when the identity of Atman with brahman is known, ajAtivAda follows. After all, this Atman is eternal, unborn and undying, admitting of no divisions. As the prapanca has been resolved (upaSamanam) into this Atman itself, prapanca is not created. This is the paramArtha.

Returning to the vyavahAra, we come back to the jAgrat, svapna and sushupti states, where sr.shTi-dr.shTi vAda explains creation. Again, non-duality is not compromised.

Thus, provisionally explaining creation in terms of sr.shTi-dr.shTi vAda, and then denying that creation is a real event, by means of ajAti vAda, is the only way traditional advaita vedAntins will handle creation.

This approach also closely follows the adhyAropa-apavAda method, and is closely tied to the vyavahAra and paramArtha ways of understanding reality. So far as the paramArtha is held to be the only Real, ajAti is upheld. sr.shTi-dr.shTi is accepted only in the vyAvahAric sense, and needs to be transcended along with the rest of vyavahAra, for the sake of moksha.

To the best of my knowledge, the description given above closely follows Sankara, sureSvara, Anandagiri and others who are the most celebrated teachers in the advaita tradition. Thus, advaita vedAnta has no desire to claim an illusory "oneness" in the realm of vyavahAra. The duality in the vyAvahAric world is accepted, but only as a thing that needs to be properly understood as lacking any eternality, and finally to be transcended in the paramArtha. It is only in paramArtha that difference is denied, but this is because vyavahAra itself loses its significance here.

The entities that seem to exist as separate in vyavahAra are no longer seen as separate things; they have all been resolved into the SAntam, Sivam, advaitam. Thus, advaita vedAnta is "idealistic" to one who is a "realist" or a "logical positivist", but it will defend "realism" when confronted with a "subjective idealist".

This description of advaita holds true for those authors who want to approach the paramArtha through the vyavahAra, i.e. go from sr.shTi-dr.shTi to ajAti. There are other authors like SrIharsha, citsukha and sukhaprakASa, who care not a whit for vyavahAra, and do not feel the need to even talk about creation. These authors are masters of dialectic, much like nAgArjuna, and are interested in demolishing the logical premises of any question or definition that presupposes duality. As an aside, these authors are quite aware that their method is very close to the bauddha one, but they categorically assert brahman as the only absolute, and still find fault with nAgArjuna for not asserting the existence of one absolute.

dr.shTi-sr.shTi vAda :-
This brings me to the last vAda, namely dr.shTi-sr.shTi vAda. This is the view mainly of one author - prakASAnanda (ca. 16th century CE). This vAda is described in prakASAnanda's *vedAnta-siddhAnta-muktAvalI*. This author also wrote texts on SrIvidyA, such as *tArAbhakti-tarangiNI*. His view does not have much use for the vyavahAra-paramArtha distinction accepted by most advaitins. The individual jIva in its capacity as individual is asserted to create its objects of perception. The famous question, "if a tree fell in the forest, and nobody heard it, did it make a sound?" seems to knock the bottom out of this view. But prakASAnanda would reply that so long as there was no observer, there was no forest, no tree, hence no question of its falling down nor of its making any sound. This vAda comes close to many schools of subjective idealism and also to the buddhist vijnAnavAda. It also seems to throw up the most interesting logical paradoxes that are familiar to those involved in interpretations of quantum mechanics, e.g. the act of observation itself causing a particular collapse of a wave function, thus creating its outcome, in some sense, and the absolute necessity of the observer in any description of an event.

But I digress here. However relevant it might seem to modern science, the dr.shTi-sr.shTi view is not accepted by most advaita vedAntins. To begin with, this view is a significant departure from SankarAcArya himself. The first objection to this would be that it flies in the face of all pramANas, such as perception, inference etc. A thing has to exist, in whatever sense, for it to be observed. The other objection to prakASAnanda's answer would most probably be that this view can be taken as denying brahman Itself, leading to all sorts of logical contradictions.

Does prakASAnanda explicitly deny the vyavahAra-paramArtha distinction? He cannot, because then moksha would not be different from samsAra, which is again close to the bauddha equations of samvr.ti and paramArtha, and of samsAra and nirvANa. Whether the bauddha SUnyatA is different from the advaita brahman or not, every advaita vedAntin wants to set himself apart from the buddhist in this regard. For the typical advaita vedAntin, dr.shTi-sr.shTi vAda is unnecessary for paramArtha; ajAtivAda explains paramArtha better. Its only use then, can be for vyavahAra. Given the axiom that brahman always exists, it follows for the sake of vyavahAra, that brahman as ISvara is the universal witness. Even if no ordinary living being heard the tree falling, ISvara always observes all, and hence, provisionally accepting prakASAnanda's dr.shti-sr.shTi vAda, it must be allowed that there was some sound when it fell. Does prakASAnanda deny that brahman exists, for the sake of vyavahAra, as ISvara?

I don't know prakASAnanda's answer, but I think that he cannot, so long as he allows that brahman exists in the forms of observers and observed. If ISvara exists in the vyAvahAric sense, then is he the creator of the universe or not? If yes, dr.shTi-sr.shTi vAda is contradicted, for it holds that an individual observer also creates that which he observes.

This takes away from the creatorship of ISvara. If it is said that the jIva and ISvara are both brahman and the created entity is also brahman (since everything is brahman, anyway), so that the creation by a jIva does not contradict ISvara's creatorship, the objection to this would be that such a view ends up partitioning brahman into several different real entities, but brahman cannot be so divided. If ISvara is said not to be the creator, then this view contradicts Sruti. Besides, what is the practical use of admitting such an ISvara?

I might be simplifying these arguments here somewhat, but that is because I am still not very familiar with prakASAnanda's reasoning. I would like to end on a note of caution against reading too much into the names of these vAdas. The names are meant to capture the most significant thread of discussion in each vAda, but it is easy to be misled into an analysis of the respective positions that concentrates only on their names and forgets all the other allied arguments that are not specifically mentioned in the name. Each vAda touches upon every issue that is of concern to the advaita vedAntin, but in slightly different ways. Also, a dvaitin of the AnandatIrtha school is necessarily a sr.shTi-dr.shTi vAdin, in his own way. but he can never be a dr.shTi-sr.shTi vAdin. An advaitin, on the other hand, may find nothing wrong with dr.shTi-sr.shTi vAda, although few among them seem to be. There might be a few contemporary advaitins who develop prakASAnanda's line of reasoning, but if there are, I don't know of them. Most of them will accept sr.shTi-dr.shTi and some of them will talk of ajAti, but all advaitins will accept the basic Atman = brahman equation as axiomatic truth. According to my understanding, no true advaitin can deny ajAtivAda, although he may rarely talk of it, and he probably will not actively teach it to anybody but the most advanced student.

Personally, I feel that the sr.shTi-dr.shTi vAda is truer to the spirit of religion that has a place for devotion, although an advaita vedAntin need not insist upon it. In other words, commensensical ideas of creation can be modified to some extent. I can give the employees of Sun Microsystems credit for creating this computer, and I don't have to invoke ISvara to explain the existence of this computer, except in a roundabout sense. In any case, by the time the argument for ISvara is done, the computer ceases to have any significance in and of itself. If I feel the urge to accomodate quantum physics into a philosophy of advaita, dr.shTi-sr.shTi might provide a way, although I am not completely sure how. In the final analysis, as long as moksha remains the prime issue around which every discussion revolves, ajAti always remains, and every true advaitin returns to ajAti, whatever other vAda he uses to talk of vyavahAra.

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