In What Sense Is the World Unreal in Shankara’s Philosophy?

Critics of Shri Shankara sometimes say that the practical world, with all its beauty and utility, is treated by him as an illusion, as a mere appearance, having no stuff of reality in it. They base their criticism on a statement which they imagine typifies the non-dual position: ‘Brahman (the Absolute) is real; the world is unreal and nothing but Brahman.’ Thus to many students of Shankara, the world is merely an illusion.

These critics have not understood Shankara’s true meaning. The following is the classification of objects mentioned by him in his 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’. It is the objects in this category that 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 nama-rupa (name and form), by which he means the changes and modifications in all their diversity which we find in the world.

Shankara says that the objects in the first category, such as ‘the horns of a hare’, have this 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 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. Shankara says we cannot call ‘the snake in the rope’ false in the same way as we call ‘the horns of a hare’ false. He 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 Shankara has to say about objects in the third category that is, the empirical objects called nama-rupa (name and form). In his commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad, he says that these objects agree in an important respect with the objects described as ‘the snake in the rope’. These changes (to Shankara 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 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 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.

Shankara observes that when one falls asleep and happens to dream, one finds oneself, say, to be a king occupying a throne. Now the activities performed as a king and the states and feelings enjoyed are all 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? Shankara holds 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 Shankara never says that what we experience in our 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 significant passage: ‘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 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 his commentary on the same Upanishad, he says that prior to its production and manifestation, the world was real as 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 as 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. Shankara does not deny the existence of the world as such; he only wants us to treat it as something non-different from Brahman. 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 his system. The world is simply to be taken as the means through which the underlying nature of Brahman is being expressed or realised. 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’.

Hari Prasad Shastri

This article is from the Winter 2024 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.