Appearance and Substance

Perhaps it may not be far from truth to say that many people hold the idea that the world is an “appearance” and the real “substance” behind is the featureless and formless ‘brahman.’ Several teachers too pronounce that ‘The world is the manifest form of brahman.’ It is presented that ‘brahman‘ is “the ‘as-though’ kAraNa” (cause) and the world is the kArya (effect).

“Most religions stop with a [that] description of the creator as pertaining to the intelligent cause for the universe. vedAnta goes one step further to define Ishvara as not only the intelligent cause or nimitta kAraNa, but also the material cause or upAdAna kAraNa as well. We thus have an improved definition for Ishvara as ‘jagat kAraNam IshvaraH’, where kAraNam or cause involves undifferentiable intelligent and material cause (abhinna nimitta upAdAna kAraNa).” [Please see here ]

If “rope” stands for the jagat kAraNa and the snake represents the world (as per ‘the snake – rope metaphor’), it will tantamount to saying that the rope is the ‘substance’ and snake is its ‘form’! But we will be ill at ease  to accept as the Truth a statement that connotes that the  apparent ‘snake’ is made up of the substance ‘rope.’

What do the Advaita Acharyas actually say?

Gaudapada Acharya is very unequivocal and does not mince his words. He demolishes at one stroke the two views, viz., the one that avers that Consciousness is the cause of the material world; as well as the other that holds  that Consciousness arises out of matter as an ‘epiphenomenon’. He writes:

(एवं) चित्तजा धर्माश्चित्तं वापि धर्मजम्

एवं हेतुफलाजातिं प्रविशन्ति मनीषिणः  — 4.54, GK

Meaning: (In this way), the external entities are not the products of Consciousness; nor Consciousness a product of the external entities. Thus, the wise confirm the birthlessness of cause and effect. (Translation: Swami Gambhirananda).

In addition, Gaudapada warns the wrong believers:

यावद्धेतुफलावेशः संसारस्तावदायतः

क्षीणे हेतुफलावेशे संसारं प्रपद्यते  — 4.56, GK.

Meaning: As long as there is a mental preoccupation with causality, so long does the worldly state continue. When the engrossment with causality is exhausted, one does not attain the worldly state.

In order to make sure that the clear message is not lost, Shankara further underlines the gravity of message in his bhAShya at the above verse. He comments:

“As long as the mental preoccupation with causality is not removed through perfect illumination, so long the worldly state persists unimpaired. It remains outstretched, i.e., continues for long. But when the engrossment with causality is attenuated one does not attain the worldly state, for then there is no cause for it.”

It is quite interesting to add here, not only that brahman has nothing to do with the appearance of the world (because of no causal relationships between brahman and the appearance of a world), but also to emphasize that it is our defective and finite sensory apparatus (5 senses + mind/intellect) which shows us an unreal world (See 4.57, GK which says: “Everything seems to be born because of our  *empirical* outlook.” Needless to add here that it is well-known that our empirical (transactional) or vyAvahArika world emerges when our sensory organs and the mind are active).

Gaudapada also informs us that the “appearance” of a world is without any substance to it at 4.50 of his kArikiA-s (almost like the Cheshire Cat situation) invoking a comparison to the variegated shapes generated when a fire-brand is moved around:

निर्गता अलातात्ते द्रव्यत्वाभावयोगतः 
विज्ञानेऽपि तथैव स्युराभासस्याविशेषतः — 4.50, GK.

Meaning:  They (the various shapes) did not issue out of the fire-brand by reason of their insubstantiality. With regard to Consciousness also the appearances must be of a similar kind, for as appearance, there is no distinction.

Shankara adds, in way of further explanation, that “The appearances do not issue out of the fire-brand, like something coming out of a house because of them (the appearances) being devoid of substantiality.” (Trans: Swami Gambhirananda).

A Question may be raised whether the patterns emerging from the motion of the fire-brand belong to the fire-brand itself.  The answer is already available at the above kArikA as well as at 4.54. These verses make it absolutely clear that the patterns are not only not real and that they do NOT belong to Consciousness (brahman). They are the mere distortions and aberrations contributed by the finite sensory apparatus used by us operating on the principles of causality.

If it is asked if the patterns (comparable to the world) could be seen in the absence of the functioning of the sensory apparatus (5 senses + mind), the answer is a clear “NO,” as it is in everyone’s experience in our deep sleep.

Shankara declares that “the seer, seeing, and the seen – is a false notion superimposed by you” (19.9, US) and explains at 3.2 and 3.3, AtmajnAnopadeshavidhi that it is our own intellect which projects the objects of the world and it itself sees them, wrongly attributing the ‘seeing’ to the Self.

One another important fact of really real Reality revealed to us by the shruti (scripture)  and Shankara’s bhAShya-s (commentaries) there on is that our “vision” through the 5 senses and mind is a “come and go type.” The shruti informs us that we are endowed with another “Vision” which is Eternal, Immutable, Unborn and Ever-present. That “Vision” is Universal and invisible to us. It is the true Sentience and is Infinite. That’s what we truly are! For example;

“Question: [Are there] then two kinds of vision, one eternal and invisible, and the other transitory and visible?

Vedantin replies: Yes! The transitory vision is familiar to us, for we see some people are blind, and others are not. …  But the vision of the (True) Seer is an eternal one.” (Shankara at 1.4.10, BUB).

We have Shankara explicating to us at another mantra of brihadAraNyaka:

“Vision is of two kinds, ordinary and Real. The “ordinary vision” is a function of the mind as connected with the eye; it is an act, and as such it has a beginning and an end. But the Vision of the Self is like the heat and light of fire; being the very essence of the Witness, It has neither beginning nor end. Because It appears to be connected with the ordinary vision, which is produced and is but a limiting adjunct of It, It is spoken of as the Witness, and also as differentiated into Witness and vision. The ordinary vision, however, is colored by the objects seen through the eye, and of course has a beginning; it appears to be connected with the eternal vision of the self, and is but its reflection; it originates and ends, pervaded by the other …” Shankara at 3.4.2, BUB.

The Bhagavad-Gita calls the Eternal Vision “jnAna cakShu.” (vide 13.34, 15.10, BG). It is different from and superior to even the divya cakShu which was bestowed by Krishna to Arjuna to enable the latter to see the former’s Cosmic (Virat) form (vide 11.8; 18.75, BG).

Some may argue that the appearance of a world can never disappear because it (the form) never existed in the first place. But it is quite a disingenuous statement to say so.


Because, at our level, as seekers, “The world never existed” is just a ‘borrowed wisdom.’ Had we really known that to be so, there would never be a reason for us to ‘seek’ a way out of this misery ridden cycles of birth and death. Ever since we are born, we are aware of the dualistic world through our relationships and interactions utilizing our 5 senses and mind that wallows in cause-effect relationships. Our entire effort is to attain back that pristine and pure abidance where we just remain as the Eternal Vision where there is no second (‘an other’) to see. Our aim as seekers is to be as That ‘where the world never existed.’

If a question were to arise what “That” would be like, one may say it could be like the Deep sleep (4.3.23, Br.U.) where “there is no “finite me”; no “body”; no “world”; no “other” or “second thing”; free of “desires for objects”; free of “dreams (illusory projections)”; “in whom all (experiences) become unified or undifferentiated”; who is verily “a mass of Consciousness”; who is “full of Bliss” (vide mantra # 5 of mANDUkya) and also FREE of hunger and thirst etc. (vide 3.9.6, BUB).”

3 thoughts on “Appearance and Substance

  1. Nice post, Ramesam!

    I, too, like the fire-brand metaphor. It does actually have another step to it. And I don’t think your analysis is quite right. It is certainly true that modern science tells us that it is the ‘persistence of vision’ – the delayed response of our retina-optic nerve system which gives rise to the appearance of patterns. But I don’t think that Gaudapada was aware of this at the time he was writing! And one must be careful not to let our knowledge of this confuse the issue!

    According to Gaudapada-Shankara, it is the movement of the firebrand that brings about the images of patterns. And the added aspect of the metaphor is that, when that movement stops, it is seen that there were no patterns in reality. The reality behind the patterns is the glowing tip of the fire-brand.

    And of course the other side of the metaphor is that the mithyA appearance of the world is brought about by the ‘movement of Consciousness’ (in a metaphorical sense of course). And when this ‘movement’ stops (i.e. on enlightenment), we realize that there was no separate world in reality, it was always just (name and form of) Consciousness.

    One must also (of course) beware of taking the metaphor beyond the realm of its applicability and starting to talk about ‘world disappearing’ etc.!

    Best wishes,

  2. Overuse of Chandogya 3.14.1 Sarvam khalvidam brahman and bhakta Prahlada’s pointing out God in every object may be one of the causes of this confusion.
    To me it seems 3.14.1 is a prakriya as described by Shankara in his bhashya on this vetse.

  3. Hi Vijay,

    Not clear what you are saying here. Shankara says in his bhAShya:

    “…Verily, all this is Brahman. ‘Verily’ is a poetic embellishment. ‘All this’ means this world of names and forms, a modification, knowable through perception, inference and other means of knowledge. This world is Brahman itself, Brahman its cause, its origin.”

    Seems pretty clear…

    Best wishes,

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