Reality and appearance in Advaita Vada13 min read

It was the duty of a classical Vedantic commentator to explain all the texts of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedanta Sutras as forming a single consistent body of doctrine. But some Upanishadic texts ascribe forms to the Absolute, while others deny that it has any form. For example, at Chhandogya Upanishad I. vi. 8 the Absolute is referred to as follows:

“Now, that golden Person who is seen within the sun has a golden beard and golden hair. He is exceedingly brilliant, all, even to the fingernail tips.”

Here a particular limited form is ascribed to the Absolute. And at Chhandogya Upanishad III. xiv. 2 the totality of all empirical forms in general is ascribed to the Absolute. It is said to constitute all acts, all desires, all tastes. On the other hand, other texts deny all empirical characteristics of the Absolute. For example, the Absolute is described at Shwetashwatara Upanishad VI. 19 as “partless, actionless, motionless, faultless, taintless,” and at Brihadaranyaka Upanishad II. iii. 6 as “Not thus, not thus,” and the correct translation here might even be just plain “Not, not.”

The term Vedanta originally meant the texts of the Upani- shads. But it now includes, and indeed primarily means, the whole body of commentaries on the Upanishads, the philosophical treatises written in defence of a particular line of interpretation of the Upanishads, and the exegetical treatises written to harmonize the apparent conflict among the texts. The doctrine mainly propagated in this journal is the Vedanta of the school of Shankara or Shankaracharya (c. a.d.700).

How did Shankaracharya approach the problem of the presence in the Upanishads of one body of texts speaking of the Absolute as void of all empirical qualities and of another body of texts either ascribing all empirical qualities to it or else a few determinate ones ? Enquiry into this problem will open up one line of approach towards appreciating Shankara’s doctrine of appearance and reality, by showing how it can be considered partly as the outcome of his criticism of the attempts of his predecessors to deal with the exegetical problem outlined above.

It is relevant here to refer, in particular, to the solution of this problem propounded by one of Shankaracharya’s immediate predecessors, Bhartriprapancha (c. sixth or seventh century a.d.). Bhartriprapancha wrote an immense commentary, now lost, on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Shankara, whose own commentary runs to 950 pages in translation, tells us that it is extremely brief compared to the commentary of Bhartriprapancha. Scholars, notably Hiriyanna in his collected essays and Swami Sacchidanandendra in a modern Sanskrit treatise, have had to reconstruct the doctine of Bhartriprapancha from the works of Shankara and Sureshwara and their commentators. Two stray references by later writers suggest Bhartriprapancha may have written a commentary on the Vedanta Sutras, and either he or one of his school must have written a commentary on the Gita, for it was he who was responsible for that doctrine of the “conjunction of knowledge with work” which bulks so largely in Shankara’s Gita commentary among the erroneous views refuted.

Bhartriprapancha held that both groups of texts about the Absolute were perfectly true so far as they went, but that  neither told the whole truth about the Absolute. Each had to be completed by the other. He worked this exegetical doctrine out in terms of a philosophical world-view known as “Bhedabheda Vada,” or the Doctrine of Identity in Difference. According to this doctrine, to affirm that the Absolute is always self-identical is already to affirm that it contains internal distinctions. The very concept of identity implies difference. In the absence of difference, identity is meaningless. To say that the Absolute is self-identical is to say that it has changing states through which it persists as self-identical. The presence of the changing states depends on the underlying self-identity, but the self-identity itself depends on the presence of the changing states. No self-identity, no reality: no changing states, no self-identity. Identify in difference must be the very nature of the real.

There were four main patterns under which the relation between the Absolute as unmanifest ground and the Absolute as manifest universe of particulars was worked out, viz. cause and its effects, substance and its modes, whole and parts, universal and particulars.

That is, the Absolute may be viewed as

(1) the cause sustaining the objects of the universe as its effects, or
(2) as a substance wearing the successive states of the universe as its modes, or
(3) as a whole of which the objects of the universe are the parts, or
(4) as the one universal “Being” of which all finite manifestations are particular instances.

The illustrative examples cited were respectively, (1) clay and pots, (2) the sea and its waves, (3) the tree and its branches, (4) the universal ‘cowhood’ and the particular cows.

Thus the Absolute, the Para Brahman of the Upanishad texts, is the one basic inmost principle revealing itself in the plurality and variety of all existent things: the things themselves, considered as constituting a reality independent of their unmanifest ground, correspond to the Apara Brahman of the Upanishadic texts.

The solution of the Bhedabheda Yadin to the problem of reconciling the two classes of texts which respectively ascribe and deny all qualities to the Absolute comes out clearly in the work of a later representative of the school, Bhaskara. There are texts, he says, describing the Absolute as bereft of all qualities. True. But we must not forget that there are others in which it is referred to as a bare quality. Bliss, for example, is conceivable only as a quality inhering in the mind of an experiencer. Yet the Absolute is referred to as bliss, and it is said that from a fraction of this bliss all things come forth. How should this opposition among the texts be reconciled?

Qualities, he says, cannot exist separate from a substance which owns them. And a bare substance without qualities (the Western reader may recognize the “Hegelian” character of the argument) is itself an abstraction. From this it follows that it is wrong to try to separate qualities from substance or vice-versa. The Absolute is the concrete whole, the universal united with its particulars. When the Upanishadic texts refer to the Absolute either as a substance bereft of all qualities or as a bare quality they are drawing our attention to a certain aspect of the Absolute for a certain purpose. The reality to which they refer, however, is always the composite whole of substance and its qualities.

Thus when they refer to the Absolute as the “Person with a golden beard,” this is for purposes of worship. When they refer to it as that which is made up of and includes all qualities, they are describing its true nature for purposes of meditation. And when they speak of it as bereft of qualities, they are merely drawing attention to the hidden aspect of changeless unity and self-identity which, without the help of philosophical analysis, we might very well miss as we observe the change, variety and plurality which characterize its manifest form as the universe of nature (See Bhaskara’s Commentary to Vedanta Sutra I. i. 19).

Of this whole doctrine Shankara observes that “it is a charming construction, but has the defect of being repugnant alike to scripture, tradition and reason,” and we may deal briefly with the typical criticisms of it offered by himself and some of his followers in so far as it offended against reason.

The chief logical weapon which Shankaracharya used to combat the Bhedabheda Vadins was the principle of contradiction. It may be worth recalling this principle here, as it is enunciated by Shankara on several occasions and receives a wide variety of applications in his writings. It was understood by Shankara very much in the same sense as it is found in Aristotle, the classical logician of the West. He understood it to mean that nothing can both have and not have the same characteristic at the same time. Thus, one and the same Absolute cannot at the same time be both one and not-one, differentiated and not-differentiated, static and non-static, featureless and with features. For the logic of identity in difference Shankara substituted a logic of pure identity. The language of the Bhedabheda Yadin is in Shankara to some extent retained, but it is given a new and revolutionary change of meaning. The drive towards a consistent formulation of the nature of the real necessitates the rejection of the empirical world as appearance.

The logic of identity is consistently applied and pervades Shankara’s whole system. The Absolute and the world of objects still stand to one another in the relation of cause to effects, one to many, substance to its modes etc. But the relation is transfigured if not suppressed by the fact that the Absolute also stands to the objects throughout as reality to appearance. The term appearance is perhaps in itself ambiguous. But when we contrast a reality with its appearance we use the term appearance in a sense which implies the falsity of the appearance and the reality of that of which it is an appearance. And although the exact ontological status of the appearance is a matter of some mystery, it can at least be affirmed that the reality and its appearance are not two separate reals. The appearance is an appearance of the real as something else. And though the appearance is dependent on the reality, the reality is not dependent on the appearance or in any way affected by it. Suppose I mistake a piece of rope for a snake in the twilight and then on approaching with a lamp discover my mistake. I know then that the snake never existed and that its coming-to- be and passing-away left the rope untouched.

Shankara’s doctrine of appearance, when it received more precise technical formulation at the hands of his successors, came to be known as the doctrine of Vivarta Vada, and was in this sense contrasted with the Parinama Vada of the Bhedabheda Vadins. According to the Parinama Vada of the latter, there is a real transformation (parinama) of the Absolute as cause into the world as effect. And the cause is dependent on the effect in the sense that its very nature demands that it should undergo change and assume manifestation as effect (no difference, no identity!). In the language of Spinoza, who was himself rewriting in mathematical language a world-view the essentials of which had been proclaimed long ago by the Stoics and by Heraclitus before them, the cause implies the effect, and an infinity of attributes can be deduced from the very concept of substance.

But Shankara argued that whatever suffers change has parts, and whatever has parts is composite, and whatever has been composed will one day be decomposed and is not eternal, and whatever is not eternal is not self-existent and hence not real. The Absolute is changeless, partless, modeless, selfexistent, self-luminous consciousness. The world is its appearance. The appearance, which comprises all transitory forms, is false. The appearance implies the real and depends on it. But the real, pace Spinoza, does not imply the appearance.

But can the doctrine of reality and appearance itself stand examination? We say that the whole, the one, the universal, the substance is the real — the parts, the many, the particulars, the modes, together with the relations connecting them, are its appearances. But what can it mean to speak of a whole whose parts are but appearances, a substance without genuine modes or attributes ? Will not such wholes or substances be fictions too ?

The attitude of mature Advaita Vada (that is, Vedanta of Shankara’s school) on this question has been neatly summed up by Sarvajnatma Muni in his great classic the Sankshepa Shariraka. Neither the parinama nor the vivarta doctrine contain the final truth, he says, but both must be retained as relevant to particular stages in the spiritual discipline of Advaita. The parinama standpoint must be retained and expounded as the most suitable theoretical framework for practical life and for obedience to scriptural injunctions. Besides its practical utility, the doctrine is useful from the dialectical standpoint also. The great merit of the parinama doctrine is that it grasps that the effect must be non-different (tadatmya) from the cause. But it fails to see that this nondifference must in the end be taken as absolute, and it interprets tadatmya as identity in difference.

It is through first appreciating the value of the parinama doctrine as a refutation of all kinds of dualism and then endeavouring to work it out consistently that one comes to see the need for the doctrine of appearance (vivarta). This latter doctrine takes us up to the metaphysical sphere while retaining a foothold in the cosmological. But it leads beyond itself to the realm of the ineffable. This is the realm of perfect vision where duality has not merely been rejected as false appearance but has actually vanished. It is the realm of pure existence, beyond all conceptualization. Here even the subtle contraditions latent in the doctrine of appearance are resolved, and the yogi remains “sunk in his own majesty, beyond all empirical conceptions, beyond the notion of cause and effect.”

Thus for Sarvajnatma Muni the doctrine of real transformation (parinama) and the doctrine of appearance (vivarta) must both be retained, but neither are final. The former supplies the theoretical framework for the performance of good works. As Radhakrishnan has pertinently asked, apropos of the Advaita doctrine stated in its most brusque form by Guadapada, who would engage in action in an unreal world where all the prizes are blanks? Good works lighten the burden of existence and lead the mind towards fitness for comprehension of the real. The parinama doctrine does justice to the world as empirical reality and at the same time rightly emphasises its non-difference from the Absolute. But it stands in the way of a right comprehension of the Absolute, since it presents it as subject to change and to numerous other defects.

The doctrine of appearance reveals how the world can arise as an appearance in the Absolute while the latter, as pure consciousness, is not affected by it and retains its purity and changless self-identity. It is a suitable basis for metaphysical reflection (manana, vichara) — that critical reflection on the implications of one’s own experiences and the words of the scriptural texts which precedes the final attainment of release through hearing those texts proclaimed by a teacher.

It does not matter whether, with Sarvajnatma Muni and others the theory of appearance is labelled Vivarta Vada or whether, as with Shankara, one continues to use the word parinama only interpreting it in the sense of illusory transformation. In either case its function is the same. That function is to provide a conceptual framework for interpreting experience and revealed doctrine which points to the sole reality of undifferentiated consciousness as the ground of the world- appearance. In so far as it performs this task and can be worked out in a way that is free from self-contradiction it may be said to be true.

We cannot pass from the world of the conditioned and the relative to its unconditioned ground by asserting the subsistence between the two of any of the modes of relation that hold within the conditioned world — e.g. cause and effect, substance and attribute, whole and part. By doing so we bring down the unconditioned into the realm of the conditioned. But according to the doctrine of appearance, these relations themselves have to be interpreted as instances of the one basic relation of reality and appearance. That this relation was itself an appearance, and moreover an appearance that must ultimately be overcome, was perfectly clear to all the Advaitic thinkers from Shankara on.