Origin and Meaning of the word mithyA


Seekers often ask questions about the meaning of the word mithyA. It is, after all, one of the most important concepts in Advaita. Someone has just asked about the usage of the word itself: Did Shankara use it? Does it occur in the Upanishads? I had to do a bit of research on this one and thought others might be interested in what I discovered.

The dictionary definition of the word gives: 1) contrarily, incorrectly, wrongly, improperly; 2) falsely, deceitfully, untruly; 3) not in reality, only apparently; 4) to no purpose, fruitlessly, in vain. According to John Grimes, it derives from the verb-root mith, meaning ‘to dispute angrily, altercate’.

It seems that it only occurs in one Upanishad – the muktikopaniShad. This is the Upanishad which tells you which Upanishads you need to study in order to obtain mokSha or mukti. It says that you can, in theory, get away with studying only one – the Mandukya, with its bare 12 sutras. If this alone does not enlighten you, then you need to study the 10 major Upanishads (Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka). If you still haven’t got it, there are a further 22 making up the main ones. Failing that, you are doomed to have to study the 108 commonly recognized ones. (After that, you start again!)

Obviously, the muktika itself has to be a relatively recent Upanishad since it is able to name these 108. (The muktika awards itself 108th position.) It seems certain that it was written after Gaudapada’s kArikA-s on the Mandukya Upanishad. (The best guess seems to be that it was written prior to 1656CE.) If this is the case, then it also seems probable that the reason this Upanishad mentions the word mithyA is because Gaudapada himself uses it.

It occurs in kArikA-s 2.7 and 4.32. Since these verses are identical, the word is effectively only used in one place prior to Shankara. The kArikA reads:

saprayojanataA teShAM svapne vipratipadyate |
tasmAdAdyantavattvena mithyaiva khalu te smRRitAH ||

The utility (of the objects seen in the waking state) is contradicted by the dream state. (Objects) have to be regarded as mithyA since they have a beginning and an end.

In the section where this occurs, Gaudapada is refuting the various suggestions about what makes an object ‘real’. One of these is that, if an object has utility, then it must be real. Thus, for example, I see a glass of water on the table; I pick it up and drink it and my thirst is quenched. Therefore that glass of water must have been real. But the glass of water seen in a dream quenches the thirst of the dreamer. On waking, however, it is realized not to have been real. In fact, the waking glass of water is totally useless to the dreamer. Accordingly, utility cannot be a relevant factor in determining what is real. (Otherwise, we would have to conclude that reality was relative.) What we have to say is that the dream world is useful to the dreamer and the waking world to the waker. Both worlds are ‘relatively real’ but neither is absolutely real.  Hence there is the need for a new word to describe them – mithyA.

A good metaphor for this is ‘fatherhood’. If X is the father of Y who in turn is the father of Z, then we can say that the ‘fatherhood’ of Y is real from the standpoint of Z but not from the standpoint of X. It is a relative term only and has no absolute reality.

Objects are not real because they can be sublated (in the way that the rope-snake can be realized to be a rope). Chairs can be realized to be only wood; waves to be water; water to be H2O etc. But they are not unreal because we can perceive them; they have utility and so on.

(As an aside, the word is also used in the Bhagavad Gita 18.59 but here it is used in the sense of ‘vain, untrue, hopeless’: “Your resolve will be in vain”. This is the fourth of the definitions given above.)

The Muktika quote is from 2.14:

janmAntashatAbhyastA mithyA sa.nsAravAsanA |
sA chirAbhyAsayogena vinA na kshIyate kvachit ||

Krishna Warrier translates this: “The false impression of worldly life is got in a hundred lives and cannot be destroyed without long practice.”

 Certainly the concept, if not the word, occurs in the Vedas (Upanishads). The tadananyatvAdhikaraNam topic (Brahmasutras chapter 2.1.14-20 or 15-21 depending upon which version you have) is all about this. ‘The world (effect) is non-different from Brahman (the cause)’ etc. The idea is that ‘everything’ which might be considered to be a modification of this cause is mithyA and therefore does not exist separate from Brahman. Shankara quotes Br. U. 4.5.6 and 2.4.6 and Ch. U. 6.1.1 as examples where this is taught. The latter is the famous vAchArambhaNa section which I have written about elsewhere, the idea that we effectively bring something into existence by giving it a name.

I think that basically, it is a word hit upon later by commentators as a good word for the idea conveyed by Shankara et all when talking about the nature of the universe. There are five definitions encountered in Advaita. The best book I have come across for discussing these is ‘The Fundamentals of Advaita’ by K. Narain, Indological Research Centre, 2003; ISBN 81-88260-00-2 (but beware – although it is called ‘fundamental’, it is actually quite difficult reading!).

The first definition equates mithyA with anirvachanIya – indefinable or inexplicable. Narain spells it out as “that which is not the substratum of either being or non-being”. This is often encountered as sad-asad-vilakShaNa, other than real or non-real. If analyzed, it is found that this could mean several things. What is meant by Advaitins is that a mithyA object has two properties: ‘the absolute negation of being’ and ‘the absolute negation of non-being’. Other philosophies regard this as contradictory! The advaita siddhi by madhusUdana discusses all the intricacies of logic here and refutes the objectors. But, if Narain is ‘difficult’, the advaita siddhi is incomprehensible!

The second definition uses the concept of ‘counterpositive’ (pratiyogin) and many people (including myself) have great difficulty getting their heads around it! It is discussed in detail in Madhavananda’s vedAnta paribhAshA, probably the most difficult text on Advaita (epistemology) that I have ever encountered. Acharya Sadananda wrote an extensive commentary on the first part of this work for the Advaitin group and I edited this extensively for the site (the ‘Knowledge’ series, parts 1 and 2, with around 70 separate essays). There is an interpolated essay on the concept of ‘counterpositive’ by S. N. Sastri at http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/knowledge/counterpositive.htm. There, he gives an example which comes closest for me to explaining the meaning:

If one makes a statement such as: “There is no pot on this floor” or “A pot does not exist on this floor”, the pot is the counter-positive of its own non-existence and the floor is the substratum. A person sees a rope and thinks it is a snake. Afterwards he finds out that it is only a rope. Then he says, “There never was a snake here”. Another way of saying this is, “There is absolute non-existence of a snake here”. In this sentence the snake, whose non-existence is stated, is the counter-positive. The rope in front is the substratum. So we can say that the snake is the counter- positive of its own absolute non-existence in the rope which was the substratum on which it was seen, i.e. which was supposed to be its substratum. The expression “non-existence that abides in the substratum” means only “the non-existence in the substratum”. Thus what the sentence quoted above means is: That which appeared to exist at a particular place, but was found later to be non-existent there is mithyA. The snake appeared to exist where the rope was, but later on it was found that it did not exist. So the snake is mithyA.

So the second definition, utilizing this concept is: (mithyAtva is) the counter-positive of absolute negation with reference to the substratum in which it is cognized. As Narain puts it, which is just about understandable, “when Advaitins affirm that a jar is ‘unreal’ (i.e. mithyA) they mean: ‘it is capable of being absolutely denied (with reference to past, present and future) in regard to the point of space and time in relation to which it is cognized’, like ‘silver’ in ‘conchshell’ (or nacre).” Again, there is lots of to and fro argumentation in respect of this definition if you have the intellect able to tackle it!

The third definition was given by Citsukha, an Advaitin who lived around the 13th century CE. He suggested the (much simpler!) one that mithyAtva is that which possesses the specific character that it is sublated by knowledge. The obvious example would be the snake that we see in the dark which, when light (knowledge) is brought to the subject, is realized to be a rope. If it had been real, then knowledge could only reinforce the belief. Only those things that are mistakenly perceived can be altered as a result of knowledge. But misperceived snakes etc cannot be regarded as totally unreal either, since they have their effects on our metabolism. So, being neither real nor unreal, we use the word mithyA.

It was noted above that other philosophies, such as dvaitins, argue against all of these definitions. As an aside, an interesting one relating to this definition is as follows. As it stands, the idea is that it is knowledge that, in a moment of realization, reveals an object previously thought to be real as false. One of the key Dvaitins (Vyasatirtha) asked whether a jar that has been destroyed by a stick in the past is false. Here, the jar is ‘terminated’ by the stick and not by knowledge! Therefore, the jar must have been real before its destruction! This resulted in further arguments and refining of definitions – but I am not going to attempt to go into this here. (It involves more ‘counterpositives’.)

The fourth definition is again from Citsukha and is a slight modification of the second. mithyAtva is the character of being the counterpositive of absolute negation located in its own substratum. The example that is used a cloth, consisting of woven threads. The cloth only exists in conjunction with the threads – it is never seen anywhere else. And we cannot attribute separate reality to it where it is seen either, since we know it is only an arrangement of the threads. So we say that it is the counterpositive of absolute negation located in the threads, and we say that the cloth is mithyA.

The final definition is that mithyAtva is something distinct and different from ‘real’. This proved to be a bit too indefinite and the advaita siddhi amplifies this to explain that the word ‘real’ means “established by pramANa, unrelated to any of the defects that have their final causality in avidyA and uncontradicted at all times (past, present and future)”.

Nowadays, the word mithyA is very commonly used. We use it to describe everything in ‘creation’. The world appears to be real but, when Self-ignorance is removed, we realize that it is the substratum – brahman – that is the only reality. Thus the world (which we still see, and which is therefore not unreal) is known not to be real. Accordingly, we require the word mithyA to talk about it. It is not a synonym for vyavahAra. Everything in vyavahAra is mithyA, but dreams are mithyA too and they are prAtibhAsika.

The standard text for all of this is the Advaita-Siddhi itself and, strictly for the most intrepid souls, this is available in the Indian Philosophical Classics series: advaita-siddhiH, madhusUdana sarasvatI, translated and explained by Karuna Bhattacharya, Motilal Banarsidass, 1992. ISBN 84-85636-00-1. The five definitions of falsity and an additional chapter on the ‘Justification of Falsity in General’ occupy some 200+ pages. There is also the original text, together with four commentaries edited by Pt. N. S. Ananta Krishna Sastri, Parimal Publications, 2005. ISBN 81-7110-010-4. This has 904 pages plus a supplementary section! Oh yes, it is also in Sanskrit…

4 thoughts on “Origin and Meaning of the word mithyA

  1. Thank you, Dennis, for this interesting background information – which goes to show how a term that hardly appears in the Upanishads at all, still can be immensely important and useful in the teaching of Vedanta.

  2. Thanks for the explanation. I would like to add something more to this..

    There is a short work in Sanskrit called ‘Brahmajnanavalimala’, which is usually attributed to Shankara..

    The 20th verse goes like this:

    brahma satyam jaganmithyA jIvo brahmaiva nAparah
    anena vedyam sacchAstram iti vedAntaDiNDimah–20

    20. Brahman is real, the universe is mithya (it cannot be categorized as
    either real or unreal). The jiva is Brahman itself and not different. This
    should be understood as the correct SAstra. This is proclaimed by

    I think the word ‘mithya’ became very popular after this verse.. In fact, the meaning of this verse is often quoted by people, attributing it to Shankara. No way to know if Shankara really composed this, but the poem only has 21 verses and explains the essence of Advaita.

  3. To my info., the verse quoted by Shri Shanmugam has a paThAntara (alternate text for some words) appearing as the Verse 67 in vedAntaDiNDimaH. The second line there reads as:
    jIvanmuktastu tadvidvAn iti vedAntaDiNDimaH ||

    (And one who knows this is a jIvanmukta (liberated while living)).


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