The perfectly real is beyond all change and so beyond action12 min read

Advaita Vedantais the doctrine contained in a certain body of treatises which follow a particular line of explanation and defence of the main teachings of the Upanishads. On the theoretical side, its main principle is that only the Absolute exists, known variously as the Self, as Brahman or as the supreme Lord (Parameshwara). The apparent plurality of individual souls is illusory: only the Self exists. Simple and partless, the latter is changeless being, a stranger to all development, action or suffering. In it, being, consciousness and bliss are all identical. If only the Absolute as pure, changeless Spirit exists, everything revealed in empirical experience as multifarious, as process, as non-spirit must be in some sense “not- truly-existent” (asatya). And it is the purpose of the present article to explain a little further how this character of being “not-truly-existent” is conceived.

“Not-truly-existent” (asatya) is not the same as “nonexistent” (asat). The Advaita doctrine of the illusory nature of the world is not worked out as a pure theoretical system pursued in detachment from any pragmatic aim. Knowledge is valued by the Indian philosophers not, as with Aristotle, for its own sake, but as a means to liberation from the sufferings of rebirth. For the Advaitin, liberation is the realization on the part of the individual soul that it is nothing other than the one universal Self. From the standpoint of one who has realized the Self, the world of plurality is seen to be valueless (tuccha) and even to have no real being.

But it is only for the liberated one himself that the world is in fact not truly existent: for those still living in ignorance its reality is in no way undermined. The concept of “not-truly-existent” is thus relative, in that the meaning which it actually can have for a person depends on the standpoint from which he experiences the world. To the liberated one it is a fact. To the one still striving for liberation it can be no more than a kind of pledge.

He may think “If it can be proved that the world has no authentic being, then it will be sensible and reasonable for me to pursue liberation as understood by the Advaitins.” And the Advaitic thinkers were ready to show that though the world could be shown to be not-truly-existent, yet the theory explained and allowed sign- ficance to all practical activity before final liberation. (Ishta Siddhi, p. 34f.).

Thus conceived, the not-truly-existent always includes an element of real being. The strictly Upanishadic tradition of Advaita amongst the Hindus never assumed the form of merely explaining the world away in paradoxical epigrams. Even amongst the earliest Advaitins whose works have come down to us, Gaudapada, Shankara and Mandana Mishra, formulations which allow the world a certain reality are found. Under pressure of closer polemical criticism from other schools, later philosophers of the school felt the need to place the world with greater exactitude amid a heirarchy of degrees of levels of reality. There is not space here to pursue the full five-fold scheme of degrees of reality initiated by Vimuktatman in the tenth century and repeated by the later writers, but some account must be taken of these discussions, as the concept of “not- truly-existent” gains in clarity as a result of them.

In ordinary speech, the Sanskrit term “sat” meant real in the sense of empirically given, and the term “satya” meant “that which measures up to the standard of ‘sat’,” and so was often used to mean “true.” In strict philosophical use in Advaita, “sat” and “satya” can refer only to the Absolute, self-existent undifferentiated being. While the Advaitins do not distinguish between “sat” and “satya,” they do consciously distinguish between the negative counterparts of the two words, “asat” and “asatya.”

The distinction goes back to common speech usage. In the latter, the asat was the flatly non-existent: the asatya was the not truly existent, that which did not properly exist or would be seen not to exist under closer scrutiny, even though it did in fact exist in some imperfect or questionable way. The not-truly-existent could lay claim to no such reality as could contradict known fact. And yet it could not be denied that it had a certain existence, even if only as idea.

These everyday concepts of non-existent (asat) and not-truly- existent (asatya) were applied by the Advaitin to the realm of strict ontological theory. Strictly, the asat was that which never was and never could be, the horn of a hare or the sky- flower. While the two terms were sometimes loosely confounded, the non-existent (asat) was in principle different from the not-truly existent (asatya). The latter came in time to be identified with the indeterminable (anirvachaniya), a most important conception, to which we must now turn.

As an Advaitic technical term, the word “indeterminable” is not found standing alone, In Shankara’s Commentaries and Upadesha Sahasri regularly, and in Mandana Mishra’s Brahma Siddhi occasionally, it is found completed by a phrase that literally means “indeterminable as a ‘that’ or as anything else” (tattva-anyatvabhyam-anirvachaniya). In Mandana the phrase evidently means “neither identical with the Absolute nor different” (Brahma Siddhi, p. 48). But its meaning in Shankara is problematic, as he applies it typically to the seed-condition of the world before manifestation, and with him it may mean indeterminable (yet) as anything definite (a ‘that,’ a ‘real’) or as anything else.”

After Shankara’s time, this phrase became quickly ousted by another formula, also found in Mandana, “indeterminable as existent or non-existent” or “indeterminable as real or unreal” (sad-asadbhyam-anirvachaniya). The term “indeterminable” is no longer used specifically to characterize the seed-condition of the world, as it was by Shankara.

Historically, the notion of “neither existent nor non-existent” had very ancient roots in India. They are to be found on the one hand in the speculations about what existed before the rise of the world set out in the Creation Hymn of the Rig Veda, and on the other in certain mystical formulations of the nature of the Absolute to be found in traditional texts from the Upanishads on. The Creation Hymn says “there was then neither being nor non-being.”

The notion of creation from nothing was foreign to the Indians, and in those circumstances one cannot say that before the world of empirical being arose it did not exist, for it could not then have arisen. It must therefore have existed in some primaeval form. But one cannot say, either, that anything “existed” in the empirical sense, for existence in this sense had yet to arise. In this connection, it is noteworthy that in his commentaries Shankara applies the word “indeterminable” regularly to the primaeval or seed-condition of the world before its manifestation, and not less noteworthy that all serious interest in this particular application of the term ceased amongst his followers after his death.

The other source for “neither …. nor . . . .” formulae, and so for such phrases as “indeterminable as either real or unreal,” was the description of the Absolute by means of series of negations. The boldest of these series would deny even being and non-being of the Supreme Reality. Here being and non-being are understood in the empirical sense, as the Absolute remains being in the metaphysical sense. Shankara’s pupil Sureshvara speaks of the Self as “beyond being and non-being” (Naish- karmya Siddhi III. 57). A formula of a similar kind, but bearing the clear stamp of Buddhist origins, is that of Gaudapada’s Karika IV. 83: “Childish persons verily cover It (the Absolute)

For the Upanishads, for Gaudapada and Shankara, and even for Shankara’s pupil Sureshvara, it was the Absolute that was indeterminable as real or as unreal. For the later Advaitins it was primarily the world that was characterized by this formula, whereas the Self or Absolute was thought of as the self-evident, the unproblematic. Not that there is any sharp line of demarcation. The old Upanishadic formulae about the unintelligible character of the Absolute were still retained by the later writers. And for Shankara himself it was experience of the empirical world that was questionable, while the liberated one’s experience of the Self was not (Upadesha Sahasri, XVIII. 217).

But the more Advaita developed from mystical training into scholastic system-building, the more the Advaitins entered into the arena as polemical defenders of a particular system, the less prepared they became to emphasize the irrational and transcendent character of the Absolute, and the more ready they became to present it as pure being, understood as a logically intelligible category. And so it came about that, in contrast to the Absolute as intelligible being, it was the world which was more and more presented as illogical, as questionable, as neither existent nor non-existent. And from now on the formula “indeterminable” (as either real or unreal) is applied to the world as a whole, and not merely, as in Shankara, to its primaeval seed-condition before manifestation.

Meanwhile, important developments were taking place in the Advaitic theory of error. Advaitic thinking, as has already been remarked, is orientated towards liberation from rebirth and suffering. But it was common ground amongst the Indian schools that rebirth was conditioned by ignorance and liberation acquired through knowledge.

Hence ignorance and error were regarded as important subjects for investigation. This was particularly true in the case of the Advaitin, who regarded all worldly experience as such as not-truly-existent. For him, correct empirical knowledge was, viewed from the metaphysical standpoint, itself but a special case of illusion.

From the time of Vimuktatman in the tenth century onwards, the main subject in Advaitic theory of error became speculation on the degree of reality of the illusory object. The illusory is perceived, and so cannot be completely unreal or nonexistent (asat) like the horn of a hare, the sky-flower or other fanciful object that never comes into practical experience. On the other hand it is “cancelled” by subsequent correct cognition, and from then on no longer exists. So it cannot be fully real or existent either, for the real cannot be cancelled by knowledge. Erroneously perceived phenomena are therefore to be described as “indeterminable either as existent or non-existent.” The typical characteristic of the “indeterminable” in this sense is that it is subject to cancellation.

But the whole world has the same degree of reality as an erroneous perception. For it is perceived in worldly experience, and so cannot be completely unreal; but it is also cancelled in mystical experience, so that it cannot be completely real. “Indeterminable” (anirvachaniya) is thus a synonym for “not truly existent” (asatya). All other expressions meaning “false,” notably mithya, have the same meaning in Advaita. The world is also indeterminable in its relation to the real (sat) or the Self (Atman).

It cannot be altogether identical with the latter, for the latter is pure Consciousness, and, as such, homogeneous, whereas the world is non-consciousness (achit) and variegated. And yet it cannot be altogether different from the Self either. For it thrusts itself in on us in experience as in some sense existent. And, since all existence is one and undifferentiated, whatever exists, in so far as it exists, cannot be other than the one Self or pure being. Thus the Advaitin is neither prepared to identify the world fully with the Absolute, nor to differentiate it completely from the Absolute. It is his concern to preserve the strict transcendence of the Absolute, and at the same time, through the doctrine that the world is an illusion, to provide for a certain—illusory—interplay between the Absolute and the world.

One further refinement of the doctrine must also be referred to, which is found in the work of Prakashatman and may also date from the tenth century. When one is philosophising over the relation between the Absolute and the world, the Absolute is “truly-existent” (satya) and the world “not-truly-existent” (asatya). But when one is investigating illusory phenomena within the world, it is the world that is “truly existent” (satya), and the illusory phenomenon “not-truly-existent” (asatya). Consequently it depends entirely on the standpoint of the discussion whether one labels the world “truly existent” or “not-truly existent,” and this relativity comprises the clarity of the doctrine.

Gradually the need was felt for distinguishing two further grades of reality within the indeterminable, the practically real (vyavaharika sat) and the merely apparent (pratibhasika sat). It should be noted that both these reality-grades, as examples of the indeterminable, are more real than the sky- flower or the horn of a hare. Even the snake illusorily perceived in a rope, though less real than the rope, is in some sense met with in experience and has practical effects in experience, such as promotion of fear, whereas the sky-flower is not met with at all and has no practical effects.

The two expressions “practically real” (vyavaharika) and “merely apparent” (pratibhasika) had long been current, but until Prakashatman their meanings had not been distinguished and placed in a hierarchy of degrees of reality. On the one hand, a kind of practical efficiency had long been attributed to the whole realm of the indeterminable, including errors. And on the other, the world, as such, had long been dismissed as “mere appearance” (as “pratibhasika”), and compared to a sense- illusion, and it remained legitimate to speak of it as such even after the clear distinction between the vyavaharika and the pratibhasika had been made.

Yet the clear differentiation of the practically real from the merely apparent effected by Prakashatman did result in the world gaining in reality-content. Henceforward it was not quite so easy to place the world on the same footing as sense-illusions, as had been so often done by Gaudapada and Shankara.

In the fully developed theory, two orders of illusion were admitted, those produced by bare nescience (i.e. the practically real objects of the world) and those produced by an adventitious defect over and above bare nescience, such as a disease in the eyes, bad light etc.

The two kinds of “illusory objects” were taken to be of different grades of reality, though both were subgrades of the indeterminable. The indeterminable, besides being, as we have seen, that which is subject to cancellation by knowledge, is also the realm of the practically efficient. The perfectly real and the perfectly unreal have the common negative character of not being practically efficient, though of course for different reasons. The perfectly real is beyond all change and so beyond action, the perfectly unreal is never met with in experience and so exerts no effects.