Chapter 7 - Has the universe been created?
Religions, together with those philosophies that accept the existence of a god, usually claim that God is the creator of the universe. When they use this word ‘creation’, however, what they invariably mean is that God is the intelligent cause of the universe. Indeed, probably the most commonly used argument for God is the argument from design and the metaphor often encountered is the one of the watchmaker.
When we look at the internal mechanism of a watch, it is said, the workings are so complex that it is inconceivable that they could have come together accidentally - there must be an intelligent designer. In the same way, then, since the world around us exhibits so much complexity and yet all of the various functions operate together with beauty and efficiency, there must be an intelligence behind its creation.
Philosophy differentiates the ‘intelligent cause’ as described here from the ‘material cause’. As an example a wooden table or chair has, as its intelligent cause, a carpenter (ignoring the complications of modern self-assembly furniture). But the material cause of both (table and chair, that is - not carpenter) is wood. Advaita is unique amongst philosophies in claiming that God (or more pedantically Ishvara) is the material cause as well as the intelligent cause. This follows from the earlier discussions on ‘mithya’, since we have seen that everything has Brahman (i.e. Ishvara from the perspective of vyavahara) as its ultimate substrate or dependent reality.
Of course, if you are really alert, you might at this point be asking how there can be a creation at all, since this seems to contradict the very basis of the statement made by Advaita that ‘there are not two things’. And you would be right to do so! Hopefully, this chapter will resolve such issues!
Attribution and rescission
First of all, it is necessary to mention one of the fundamental aspects in the teaching of advaita, namely the practice of stating something as true and then later modifying it - attribution and rescission or retraction. The technical term for this is ‘adhyaropa – apavada’. What it means in essence is that what you’re told initially may not actually be completely true! It is the intention of the teacher to address a seeker at his or her present level of understanding. By analogy, if you think of someone learning mathematics, there would be little point in teaching differential calculus to a student who has yet to learn algebra, and algebra would be of little value to someone who did not even know basic arithmetic.
Note that this does not mean that you cannot trust what the teacher tells you! In fact, many teachers will give you the bottom line right from the start, even though you will almost certainly not understand why it is so. What they will then do, however, is start from the beginning, using simple arithmetic! There is no point in being impatient. You have to take it step by step. Indeed, patience is one of the mental prerequisites for studying Advaita.
For example, there are several accounts in the Upanishads of how the world was created by God. Typically, these involve progressive creation from the basic elements but the various stories differ widely in detail. The skeptic can easily use this as an argument for pointing out the inconsistency in the scriptures. But they are not meant to be taken literally. At a simplistic level, they may be viewed in much the same way as one might tell a young child that she was ‘brought by the storks’, rather than attempting a description of the process of conception, growth in the womb and birth. It satisfies for the time being until she is ready for a more sophisticated explanation.
Differing theories of creation
To continue, then, with the developing explanation of creation: Because Advaita utilizes this methodology of providing explanations appropriate to the level of understanding of the student, it is also natural that it should make use of theories provided by other schools of philosophy. And so it does! The next major explanation to be presented is that used by the Sankhya philosophers. It is called ‘satkarya vada’ and this means the theory (vada) that the effect (karya) is already existent (sat). More usually, it is said that the effect already exists in the cause and the metaphor that is often used to explain this is that of the sculptures of Michelangelo. It is said that he used to claim that he did not really create his sculptures; rather he chiseled away the marble to reveal what was already there beneath.
This is how Sankhya (and Yoga) philosophers envisaged creation and another name they used was ‘transformation’. The unmanifest nature was ‘transformed’ into the people and objects that we see in the world around us.
Two other schools, the Nyaya and Vaisheshika philosophies held the opposite view, namely that an effect was not pre-existing in the cause but created anew by the efficient cause (e.g. Michelangelo). And Advaita (eventually) shows how each of these theories successfully contradicts the other and that neither is therefore tenable. The first is tantamount to saying that something that already exists can be born. The second effectively says that something can come out of nothing. For example, chipping away the marble might reveal a fully functioning Aston Martin instead. (And this argument applies equally to the Big Bang theory, of course. How could the creation come out of nothing? It would, at the very least, contradict the Law of Conservation of mass-energy.)
This analysis leads on to the more sophisticated explanation of what is called vivarta vada - the theory that the effect is only an apparent transformation. The argument is that the confusion arises because of language. We give something a name for convenience and, as a result of constant use, we take it for granted that the word refers to some separately existing thing. The classic examples that are quoted in the scriptures are clay-pot and gold-ring-bangle etc. When the potter makes a pot out of a lump of clay, the resultant object clearly has a new function. It can hold a liquid so that we can use it as a drinking vessel, for example. But we quickly forget that the pot is not a new thing in its own right. In the beginning, it was simply a lump of clay. Now, it is clay shaped into a more useful form. If we break it, it will still be clay, albeit now in pieces with little use of their own. It is never anything other than clay.
Problem of language
The Chandogya Upanishad (6.1.4 - 6) says that any product is only a new word: "just as, through a single clod of clay, all that is made of clay would become known, for all modification is but name based upon words and the clay alone is real..." And the same argument applies to everything. Any given object, as we learned earlier is only mithya; its reality is always only Brahman. Its seeming difference depends ultimately on mere words. The making of the pot is simply changing the form of the clay and giving it a new name.
In the same way, then, when the world and the jiva come into being, all that is happening is that Brahman is acquiring new forms and new names to go with them. But, before, during and after, all that actually exists is Brahman.
And that brings us to the ultimate explanation for creation, when all of the earlier, provisional theories have been rescinded. This is simply that there has never been any creation at all. This is called ajati vada - the ‘unborn’ theory. If the world can neither exist nor not-exist prior to creation, the only logical conclusion is that there has not been any creation at all. This is the contention of Gaudapada, supposed to have been the teacher of Shankara’s guru. The theory is called ajati vada (ajati means ‘not born’). The world has always existed because effectively there is no world – there is only name and form of the non-dual Brahman. Gaudapada, in his explanatory verses on one of the Upanishads, says: “No kind of jiva is ever born nor is there any cause for any such birth. The ultimate truth is that nothing whatsoever is born.”
Below is the list of contents from the book (which, as the title implies, aims to give a short, traditionally authentic, and comprehensive introduction to the subject):
1. What is Advaita?
What does it say?
2. How ought we to act?
Desire, Action and Results
Karma and Reincarnation
Goals of Life
3. What is real and what is illusion?
Waking versus Dream
‘Levels of Reality’
4. Why is Self-knowledge so important?
5. Am I only this body and mind?
6. Who am I?
Who am I?
7. Has the universe been created?
Attribution and rescission
Differing theories of creation
Problem of language
8. How do I become enlightened?
‘Paths’ to realization
What to do to gain enlightenment
Three Stages of Learning
9. Why is traditional Advaita so powerful?
An arithmetical example
The Sheath Model
Discrimination between the Seer and the Seen
Method of Co-presence and Co-absence
10. What different approaches are there?
Categories of Teaching
What should you read to find out more?