Does Permanence imply Reality? Let’s ask Shankara

We shall be here walking on epistemological ground. The last post made use of two verses from the Atmabodha to discuss the distinction between action and knowledge, and to decide which of the two is directly conducive to liberation. In any discussion of the various themes of Advaita Vedanta two primal realities constantly come to surface – the reality of Consciousness and the reality of Being. The sum total of an Advaitin’s spiritual and intellectual endeavours involves an understanding and recognition of these realities. What is meant by these is not, of course, this or that instance of conscious awareness or existence, but instead the whole of Consciousness and Being.

Why is that so? Or – why these? Why are they situated at the very foundation of whatever there is? Or – why are they met with in an analytical attempt at plumbing the very depths of experience? A simple answer (one that is not so simple) is that they are permanent, everlasting, undying, immortal. These two (they aren’t really two, and that is the whole point of Advaita) do not have the quality of bubbles Shankara ascribes to the phenomenal world in the Atmabodha. Let’s quote him –

Like bubbles in the water, the worlds rise, exist and dissolve in the supreme Self (verse 8)

Brahman, who is of the very nature of Consciousness and Being, is not of the nature of bubbles. Brahman instead is like the water on which the bubbles take birth and death constantly. Or – of which bubbles are but ephemeral manifestations. Brahman itself does not take birth or death and is timeless and permanent. And it is this that makes Brahman the only reality, while the rest of manifest creation is but contingent upon this reality. Yet, a question that used to plague me often in my wrestling with the basic truths of Vedanta was of the relation between reality and permanence. Why is permanence considered the mark of the real? What ground do we have to suppose that? Why is it not that truth and reality are ephemeral and short-lasting? Heraclitus, as opposed to Parmenides, held the view that permanence was a delusion and that everything in reality is a never-ending flux (a never-ending flux! Paradoxical!). But if Heraclitus is right then there should be no reason whatsoever to consider, say, a dream experience as false. Except for its ephemerality (it’s bubble-ness) there is nothing to suggest that a dream is untrue. In fact, a dream is not untrue at all except if one defines truth as permanence. What is untrue in a dream? What we experience in a dream contradicts, say, the laws of nature we usually experience in the waking state. But that too is an appeal to permanence, is it not? What is law but a repeated (and therefore permanent) behaviour. When we call a dream untrue, we mean to say that it doesn’t behave the same way every time. We say that its behaviour is not permanent, it lasts only eight hours! When faced with the option of choosing what lasts consistently for eight hours and what lasts and has lasted in the rest of one’s life experience, one is sure, like Nachiketa rejecting the wealth offered him by Yama in the Katha Upanishad, to choose the latter. The snake that exists for a moment doesn’t have the same epistemic value as the rope that is permanently available to one’s inspection. Mere flux without an underlying permanence makes the acquisition of knowledge and concern for truth meaningless. However, even if one were to assign equal value, in a phenomenological sense, to dreams and waking states and hallucinations and so on – even that, in a broader sense, is welcome to the Advaitin. All being Brahman, the misperceived world too is Brahman, just as the misperceived snake is nothing different from or other than the rope!

In Science too (and we just referred to natural law) what is thought of as real is what has been constant and permanent in the natural order. If we have inherited, say, a working biological mechanism since the time we parted company with our amphibian ancestors, then this mechanism is considered a truer factor in the description and understanding of the reality of man than, say, some newly acquired social trait which hasn’t proved its mettle through biological time. Thus is it that permanence is accorded not only a greater epistemic value but is itself just another name for truth. Something that is eternal is by definition truer than that which is merely passing. Indeed, not only that but that which is passing and ephemeral is most likely embedded in the eternal just as the bubbles are in the substratum that is water.

The Advaitin’s intellectual task then is more the philosophical study of permanence than even the investigation of Consciousness and Being. For, through analysis, the Advaitin finds that permanence is but another name for Consciousness and Being. And to this analysis I hope to turn in my coming posts.