Shri Shankara on illusory appearances in pure consciousness8 min read

Every philosopher is confronted at some time or another with the problem of change.

He has to answer the question, “ Granted that it is the nature of all the objects that come within the range of our experience to come into being, to change and to pass away, is there or is there not anything that exists eternally and is unchanged, and, if so, in what relation does the unchanged thing (or things) stand to the ones that do change ? ”.

Shri Shankara affirmed that there was such a changeless thing, namely chit or pure consciousness, and he spoke of its relation to the changing things sometimes as “ substratum ” and sometimes as “ witness ”.

He regarded both these descriptions of the relation of the changeless to the changing as provisional only. Once the existence of anything eternal and changeless is admitted, it becomes difficult to maintain the reality of the things that change and pass away.

Even if it be held in the manner of orthodox Christian theology that God is eternal but that he creates the transient objects of the world, then if the objects are regarded as real God becomes an agent and Himself subject to change,—and how can that which changes be eternal ?

Shri Shankara did not try to maintain that the objects of the world were real, but maintained, on the contrary, that they were illusory appearances in pure consciousness, and from this it followed that the relation between pure consciousness and the objects of the world was itself also illusory, for there could not, for Shri Shankara, be a real relation between a real and an illusory thing.

In strict truth, the relation between pure consciousness and the changing objects collapses into simple identity (tadatmya), in the sense that the changing objects simply are the pure consciousness misread.

This being the true fact, all other descriptions of the relation between the pure consciousness and the changing objects are to be regarded as provisional descriptions only, descriptions designed not to state the true nature of the facts but to ward off erroneous ideas about the nature of the pure consciousness on the part of ourselves who cannot rise to an awareness of the simple identity and who persist in taking the changing objects of the world to be real.

From this point of view, when Shri Shankara wished to emphasise that the objects had no reality of their own over against the pure consciousness, he said that the latter was their substratum or adhisthana, that from which they arose, in which they existed and to which they would return. And when he wished to emphasise that the pure consciousness was transcendent to and in no way implicated in the changes and impurities of the changing objects, he said that it was their witness or sakshin. The first description stresses the non-difference of the objects from pure consciousness, the second the difference.

Neither are complete expressions of the real fact, which is a simple identity in which the objects completely disappear. But granting provisionally the existence of the objects, the first description wards off the erroneous notions associated with dualism, the second those associated with pantheism.

It is sometimes felt by the student that Shri Shankara is inconsistent in affirming that pure consciousness is both the substratum and the witness of objects, that it is both non-different and different from them at the same time. But the fault does not lie with the philosopher. He states the true relation, namely simple identity, and adheres to it with perfect consistency. But he also deliberately comes down to our point of view, the point of view that the changing objects are real, and from this point of view the statements that the pure consciousness is the substratum of the objects of the world and also their witness—implying respectively that it is non-different from them and different—are both true and both express important features of the nature of the relation of pure consciousness to the objects of the world, while failure to perceive that they are both true leads to philosophical errors.

The illogicality in the situation is inherent in our own vision of the objects as real, to which the philosopher deliberately conforms, and not in the vision of the philosopher himself, a point which Shri Shankara’s pupil Sureshwara brings out with force in his Naishkarmya Siddhi.

Let us  illustrate what we meant by the statement that the description of the pure consciousness as a witness was meant to ward off the erroneous ideas associated with the term “ Pantheism ”.

In modern text-books Shri Shankara is frequently characterised (somewhat loosely) as a monist and as an absolute idealist, and his system is compared with the various brands of European absolute idealism of the post-Kantian period.

In this connection it is worth remarking that he begins his chief work (the Commentary on the Vedanta Sutras) with the words:

It is a matter not requiring any proof that the object and the subject, . . . which are opposed to each other as much as darkness and light, cannot be identified”.

The main effort in post-Kantian idealism was to try to exhibit the world as consisting of some one principle of thought or feeling which somehow modified itself both into finite centres of experience and also into the actual experiences which those centres enjoyed, without losing its essential unity.

It seems likely, to judge from Shri Shankara’s handling of the Buddhist idealists of his day, that he would have regarded these theories as vitiated from the start with the defects associated with the term “ Pantheism ”.

The Buddhist idealists spoke of a single principle of consciousness (vijnand) which transformed itself into both the subjects and objects of finite experience. Shri Shankara criticised them for their insufficiently trenchant analysis of the facts of human experience, and the failure to discover that the stream of our mental experiences is itself witnessed and illumined by a self-revealing principle of consciousness that is totally distinct from it (yilakshana) and witnesses it as an object.

Our empirical experiences consist of a continuous succession of states of waking dream and deep sleep. But if we wish to know the real nature of the consciousness which illumines our experiences we have to penetrate behind these three states to the witness-consciousness that illumines them as objects.

The witness-consciousness is distinct from the mental experiences, and is not implicated either in their changes, their impurities or their limitations.

It is transcendent, changeless, unlimited in time or space. It is one and the same in all intellects (See Upadesha Sahasri, verse section, VII. 2.).

It cannot be known as an object by ordinary introspection (“ Thou canst not know the knower of knowing ”, says Yajnavalkya), but one can become aware of one’s identity with it through practical Vedanta.

We can see from this that Shri Shankara’s doctrine is different from those of the post-Kantian idealists. His doctrine of the witness brings out clearly the transcendent nature of the pure consciousness. The latter is changeless, limitless, eternal, incapable of modification. It is the pure subject or self, and all change and modification falls on the side of the object or not-self, these two being totally distinct, as appears from the words we quoted from the opening of the Vedanta Sutra Commentary.

If the pure consciousness includes the objects in the sense that they are nothing apart from it, it excludes them finally in the sense that it turns out ultimately that it alone is real and they are not. In fact when the truth is finally known it is found that the self is relationless and that it has nothing to do with activity or with change or with thought in the empirical sense.

Meanwhile, until that discovery is made, the ‘llusory world-panorama continues to unfold, and just as the sunlight illumines different colours, such as red, blue and yellow, and yet itself remains unaffected, so the witness illumines the stream of our experiences and yet remains unaffected by them”.

The representations of the mind come and go, but the witness is constant. If no objects are seen in sleep, that is not for lack of a witness but because the mind is at rest. And all the while the witness is indifferent. As a magician hides himself from the spectators, casts up a rope into the sky and appears to climb up it and engage in fierce combats while all the time surveying the scene in complete indifference from below, so the self of man remains hidden behind its veil of Maya, and sends forth appearances of itself in the guise of experiencers identified with the experiences of waking, dreams and deep sleep, while all the time surveying these experiencers as objects in complete indifference from within—and in the one case as in the other nothing whatever has really happened.

Shri Shankara’s doctrine of the witness implies duality between the witness and the objects witnessed. This duality is purely provisional, since the objects turn out ultimately to be unreal, and it has to be counteracted by the complementary doctrine that objects are mere appearances having consciousness for their substratum.

Nevertheless it is an important feature of his system, a system which preserved the transcendence and changelessness of the pure consciousness when speaking both from the empirical and from the ultimate point of view, and which for that reason is to be distinguished sharply from “ Hegelian ” monism and Buddhist idealism alike.


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