In Shri Shankara’s philosophy in what sense is the world unreal?6 min read

Critics of the holy Shankara who have not taken pains to study his philosophy, often say that the practical world, with all its beauty and unity, is treated by holy Shankara as an illusion, as a mere appearance, having no stuff of reality in it. This is particularly the accusation of the adherents of Christian churches against the incomparable structure of human thought of Shri Shankara.

They base it on a saying of the great Vedantic scholar and monk, Shri Gaudapada: “Brahman is real; the world is unreal and nothing but Brahman”.

To many students of Shankara, the world is merely an illusion. These critics have not understood the true meaning of the holy Acharya.

The following is the classification of objects mentioned by Shri Shankara in his great commentaries :—

(1) The objects which are generally referred to by him as “the horns of a hare”, “a barren woman’s son” and “flowers seen in the sky”, he calls false, non-existent, unreal (asat).

(2) The objects such as “a rope appearing as a snake”, “mother-of-pearl appearing as silver” and “the sky appearing as blue”, are sometimes denoted by him as unreal (asat).

(3) The phenomenal objects of the world he designates namarupa (name and form), by which he means the changes and modifications in all their diversity which we find in the world.

Shri Shankara says that the objects in the first category, such as “the horns of a hare”, have this distinguishing peculiarity of their nature; they form a separate class from the other two categories. They serve no practical purpose in the world, and he calls them “false”, meaning that they have nothing as their substratum, no permanent ground to sustain them:

“they have no prior cause from which they are produced; neither are these objects sustained at the present moment by any underlying cause or being; again, when these objects disappear, they have nothing—no sustaining ground— into which they will merge; as they are not true, they are false”.

These conditions do not apply to the objects of the second category. Shri Shankara says we cannot call “the snake in the rope” false in the same way as we call “the horns of a hare” false.

The Acharya further remarks that the objects of the second category have a substratum: it is the rope which is the substratum of the snake seen in it. When, in the light of correct knowledge, the imagined snake disappears, contrary to the objects in the first category it disappears in its substratum, the rope.

Now let us see what Shri Shankara has to say about objects in the third category—that is, the empirical objects called namarupa (name and form). In his commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad, the Acharya says that these objects agree in an important respect with the objects described as “the snake in the rope”. These changes (to the Acharya all empirical phenomena are merely a series of changes), these empirical objects, have a prior cause from which they are produced; during their existence at the present moment, the same identical causal reality underlies and sustains them; and in future also, they will merge in the same underlying ground which now sustains them.

The result of the discussion is that Shri Shankara calls the objects of the first category false and unreal; but teaches in express terms the reality of the empirical objects in relation to the first category, and their unreality in relation to Brahman (Absolute Reality). These empirical objects can neither be called real nor unreal; hence the term ‘mithya’ (inexplicable) is used to denote them. They have a semblance of reality, borrowed from their substratum (Absolute Reality).

Because on several occasions Shri Shankara has compared the experiences of our waking life with our dream experiences, many students of the Advaita (non-dualistic) system which he expounds run away with the idea that as the dream experiences are known to be without any objective reality, so the waking experiences—which have been likened to them—must be unreal.

In refutation of this unwarranted deduction, we invite our readers’ attention to the following. Shri Shankara observes that when a man falls asleep and happens to dream he finds himself, say, to be a king occupying a throne. Now the activities he performs as a king and the states and feelings he enjoys—these are all his dream experiences. Are these experiences to be taken as constituting the actual nature of the Self (Atman), or is the nature of the Self something distinct from these?

The Acharya declares that these experiences cannot constitute the Self, neither can the Self be resolved into and identified with them. They are not the nature of the Self. The real Self is that which experiences these things but is unaffected by them. The Self is the subject of all these objects.

The reader will observe that Shri Shankara never says that what a man experiences in his dream is false; all that he says is that these experiences do not exist as the nature of the Self.

The experiences of both the waking and the dreaming states cannot constitute the nature of the Self, which is their subject. The Self, therefore, is distinct from its experiences.

In his commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad there is the following passage which is significant: “but both kinds of experience must be regarded as real respectively in their own spheres”.

The world of names and forms has been described by Shri Shankara as inexplicable—that is, mithya. The reason is as follows: Brahman is the absolute reality (sat); the world is neither absolutely real (sat, i.e. Brahman), nor is it unreal (a-sat, i.e. something absolutely different from Brahman); it is therefore inexplicable.

So long as the world exists in Brahman in an undifferentiated condition it is identical with Brahman; but as soon as the world is differentiated there is some difference. In the Acharya’s commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad, he says that prior to its production and manifestation, the world was real—sat— Brahman; but when the world came out of Brahman (that is, when it actually appeared), it began to be looked upon as something absolutely different from Brahman. Taken in the latter sense, the world—the aggregate of names and forms—is unreal; but from the higher standpoint, it is inseparably connected with Brahman. Hence we can see the world is neither absolutely real nor absolutely unreal—in other words, it is mithya or inexplicable.

Even from the practical point of view we must look upon the world from the higher standpoint, namely that it stands inseparably connected with its cause, Brahman, the underlying Reality. It is through the world that the underlying Reality is being expressed and realised. Shri Shankara’s view of unreality is that he does not deny the existence of the world as such; he only wants us to treat it as something non-different from Brahman. In the Acharya’s view the world is not something self-existent or independent of Brahman.

In his commentary on the Vedanta Sutras he does not absolutely identify Brahman, the causal Reality, with its effects. The world is not to be taken as identical with Brahman or as real; the real nature of the Cause is transcendental in the system of Shri Shankara.

The world is simply to be taken as the means through which the underlying nature of Brahman is being expressed or realised. Shri Shankara remarks:

“As a player, taking successive characters upon himself, enacts on the stage the parts of each of these characters in succession but yet retains his own distinct character; so the underlying Causal Unity, retaining its own distinct identity, realises itself successively in each of these changes produced”.