Life is a dream – The world is real


A. Of course, if everything is like a dream (mithyA), then the sages and their scriptures are a part of that dream. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the teachings and the scriptures are not useful for awakening from the dream.

B. That is true, in my understanding. ‘Life is a Dream’ (Calderón de la Barca’s play), ‘All the world’s a stage’ (Shakespeare). As to Vedanta, here is what a sage (among so many others) has said: “Vedanta plays the role of the dream lion in this world. Vedantic knowledge itself is part of the illusory world. But then it dissolves the entire illusion of this world, revealing reality as it is.” Sw. Parthsarathy.

A. If no one dies, then no one is enlightened either, and yet we still talk as if people really do die and really do become enlightened.

B. True also. That modifier, ‘as if’, is crucial.

In the next para. you write: “…an individual who appears to exist while not really existing (AS AN INDIVIDUAL) has appeared to become enlightened while not really being enlightened (AS THE PURPORTED INDIVIDUAL).” I have taken the liberty of adding the capital letters, for advaitic sense. Further, while ‘everybody is enlightened’, as Neo advaitins claim, ‘no one is enlightened’, as the sage Gaudapada declared. Are these two seemingly contradictory statements true – and in what sense? *

A. I think the problem with brain damage is the possibility that a j~nAnI [sage] would lose most or all of the knowledge (including Self-knowledge) that he gained through his studies.

B. This is as seen from the vyavaharika (empirical) perspective, which cannot be denied (only understood). Jñani/s (sages) also experience thoughts and emotions. With them, these either quickly disappear, or are transmuted or resolved into consciousness; in fact, they are only consciousness, as mind is also a projection of consciousness.

Something more for pondering: “People forget the reality of the illusory world”. Huang Po.

(*) Gaudapada (Shankara, and the whole tradition of advaita Vedanta) deny multiplicity as being real. In essence ‘all is One’. The Neo-advaitin’s dictum (’everybody is enlightened’) is thus true and false at the same time.


10 thoughts on “Life is a dream – The world is real

  1. Ah, yes, I remember this exchange.

    Some good, supplemental quotes came to mind as I reread it.

    Concerning the inference that the sages and the scriptures must be part of the dream:

    Words cannot reach Him. But you have to point Reality out with words. Somebody asked me last year in San Francisco: “If everything is Illusion, you are Illusion too?” I said, “Yes, I am a first class Illusion.” What I say is wrong, what I speak is also wrong, but for whom I speak is true. That’s the difference. How can I show the Truth? You are He. How can I show you? I point it out to you. Forget everything, and you are He. Everything is not true, Illusion is not true, so how can I be true?

    —Ranjit Maharaj, Illusion vs. Reality

    Concerning the latter half of the title of your post:

    Some think that something exists, and others that nothing does. Rare is the man who does not think either, and is thereby free from distraction.

    Ashtavakra Gita (18.42)

    When you were in deep sleep, did the phenomenal world exist for you? Can you not intuitively and naturally visualize your pristine state – your original being – before this body-consciousness condition intruded upon you
    unasked, unaided? In that state, were you conscious of your ‘existence’?
    Certainly not.
    The universal manifestation is only in consciousness, but the ‘awakened’ one
    has his centre of seeing in the Absolute. In the original state of pure being,
    not aware of its beingness, consciousness arises like a wave on an expanse of water, and in consciousnes the world appears and disappears. The waves rise and fall, but the expanse of water remains. Before all beginnings,
    after all endings, I am. Whatever happens, ‘I’ must be there to witness it.

    It is not that the world does not ‘exist’. Exist it does, but merely as an
    appearance in consciousness – the totality of the known manifested, in the
    infinity of the unknown, unmanifested. What begins must end. What appears
    must disappear.
    The duration of appearance is a matter of relativity, but
    the principle is that whatever is subject to time and duration must end, and is,
    therefore, not real.
    Now can you not apperceive that in this living-dream you are still asleep, that all that is cognizable is contained in this phantasy of living; and that the one, who whilst cognizing this objectified world considers oneself an ‘entity’ apart from the totality which is cognized, is actually very much an integral part of the very hypothetical world?
    Also, consider: We seem to be convinced that we live a life of our own, according to our own plan and design through our own individual efforts. But is that really so? Or, are we being dreamed and lived without volition, totally as puppets, exactly as in a personal dream? Think! Never forget that just as the world exists, albeit as an appearance, the dreamed figures too, in either dream, must have a content – they are what the dream-subject is. That is why I say: Relatively ‘I’ am not, but the manifested universe is myself.

    —Nisargadatta Maharaj, from Ramesh Balsekar’s Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj

    Concerning your *footnote:

    “The jnani sees no one as an ajnani. All are only jnanis in his sight. In the ignorant state one superimposes one’s ignorance on a jnani and mistakes him for a doer. In the state of jnana, the jnani sees nothing separate from the Self. The Self is all shining and only pure jnana. So there is no ajnana in his sight. There is an illustration for this kind of illusion or superimposition. Two friends went to sleep side by side. One of them dreamt that both of them had gone on a long journey and that they had had strange experiences. On waking up he recapitulated them and asked his friend if it was not so. The other one simply ridiculed him saying that it was only his dream and could not affect the other. So it is with the ajnani who superimposes his illusory ideas on others.”

    —Ramana Maharshi

  2. I believe one cannot fully understand the selection from Nisargadatta (above) without realizing that there are three ontological levels according to his metaphysics: (phenomenal) ‘existence’, Being or beingness, and Beyond being or awareness, going from lower to higher (scalar metahysics).

    1. Beyond being = Pure being = static consciousness = The Absolute.

    2. Beingness = Dynamic consciousness = I am = I-witness = universal manifestation (‘ocean’)

    3. Existence = Appearance/phenomena = multiplicity (apparent ‘I’ and ‘world’) (wave)

    In the second phase of his teaching, Nisargadatta disassociated himself from the ‘I am’, ‘I amness, saying at times that it is like nothing (more or less, as I remember); nothing, that is, as compared with the real subject, pure being or awareness = static consciousness.

    According to the foregoing, consciousness appears and disappears and the phenomenal world appears and disappears … in consciousness. This last is, thus, ‘dynamic consciousness’, or consciousness with an object (the conventional use of the term, and quite misleading from the viewpoint of advaita, as happens also with the term ‘witness’).

    Last paragraph in the selection: “Never forget that just as the world exists, albeit as an appearance, the dreamed figures too, in either dream [dreaming and ‘world’], must have a content – they are what the dream-subject is. That is why I say: Relatively ‘I’ am not, but the manifested universe is myself.”

    • ‘I’ am not… as an apparent individual: phenomenon (level 3)

    • ‘the manifested universe is myself’ = ‘I am’ = witness, which here is avyakta: unmanifest (all of these level 2).

    In contrast, there is only one ontological degree in shankarian metaphysics: Consciousness/Atma-Brahman. The relative (jivas/world) is/are mere appearance (mithya) — with the crucial consideration that all phenomena are, in essence, non other than Consciousnes, awareness, or the Absolute. Unique witness (as substratum of any witnessing).

  3. Prof. A. Rambachan poses the most puzzling question that many a seeker faces: “If brahman is non-dual and limitless, how are we to understand the status and significance of the world in relation to brahman? Do we have to deny the world?” and he proceeds to provide an answer in his book, “The Advaita Worldview – God, World and Humanity” (2006).

    He holds the view that denial of the world may provide a “justification for world-renunciation rather than world-affirmation”, a stand that is suitable for monastic strands of Hinduism. He points out that “there are numerous passages in the Upanishad-s affirming that the universe to be non-different from brahman, and that all that exists is brahman.”

    He says: “Too much energy has been expended in traditional advaita metaphysics in establishing the so-called unreality of the world. The world, in itself, is neither illusory nor deceptive. The world simply is. Ignorance is a human characteristic because of which one fails to apprehend the non-difference of the world from brahman. In fact, the world, as non-different from brahman, enjoys the same permanency and reality as brahman. In the words of Sankara, ‘Just as the brahman, the cause, is never without existence in all three periods of time, so also the universe, which is an effect, never parts company with Existence in all the three periods’.”

    Thus, in the words of Prof. Rambachan, “The world is a celebrative expression of brahman’s fullness, an overflow of brahman’s undiminishing limitlessness.”

    [A discussion on this: Part 5 of Process Models and Practice Methods in Advaita, Advaita Academy web site.]


    • I think the most perplexing question for me – at the moment, at least – is this: how is ignorance; a sense of separateness; as well as a limited, individual first-person point of view; possible if everything is omniscient Consciousness? How could there be an experience of a finite individual if there is nothing but infinite Reality?

      Regarding the question of whether or not one ought to deny the world, I think Nisargadatta and the Ashtavakra Gita may have the answers, though they may be just describing the realized state rather than prescribing methods for attaining that state:

      “The ignorant man will want to live as long as he can. He would like to postpone the moment of death as much as possible. But for a jnani, what benefit of any kind can he expect by existing in the world even one more minute? So the only thing that would be nice is for the (vital) breath to leave quietly and not make a fuss.
      “The jnani is that principle which dismisses the life force and the consciousness. The consciousness and the life force together may be given the highest name and status; that is atman, Ishwara, whatever; but the jnani is not even that. The jnani is apart from even that highest category.
      “Having understood what the consciousness is and the life force is, I have never gone to anyone and asked whether my view is correct or incorrect.
      “Once you have understood the whole point, there is no need for you to stay here any longer. As to myself, having understood this life force and the consciousness, I do not have any interest at all in either one.
      “People have been coming here and I have been talking. Why have I been talking? Because the life span has to be spent, it has to be used. So even that is merely entertainment. Something has to be done; this is entertainment—whiling away the time, the life span. The name is the giving of knowledge; but what is the game? A game of cards, entertainment. The name is spiritual knowledge; the game is cards.”

      —Nisargadatta Maharaj, The Ultimate Medicine

      The wise person of self-knowledge, playing the game of worldly enjoyment, bears no resemblance whatever to samsara’s bewildered beasts of burden. 4.1

      I am pure consciousness, and the world is like a magician’s show. How could I imagine there is anything there to take up or reject? 7.5

      The inner freedom of having nothing is hard to achieve, even with just a loin-cloth, but I live as I please, abandoning both renunciation and acquisition. 13.1

      The various states of one who is free of uncertainty within, and who outwardly wanders about as he pleases like an idiot, can only be known by someone in the same condition. 14.4

      The passionate man wants to eliminate samsara so as to avoid pain, but the dispassionate man is free from pain and feels no distress even in it. 16.9

      He feels no desire for the elimination of all this, nor anger at its continuing, so the fortunate man lives happily with whatever sustinence presents itself. 17.7

      The liberated man is not averse to the senses nor is he attached to them. He enjoys hinself continually with an unattached mind in both success and failure. 17.17

      The wise man who just goes on doing what presents itself for him to do, encounters no difficulty in either activity or inactivity. 18.20

      He whose mind is pure and undistracted from just hearing of the Truth does not see anything to do or anything to avoid or even a cause for indifference. 18.48

      Ashtavakra Gita

      • Dear PtN,

        ” How could there be an experience of a finite individual if there is nothing but infinite Reality? ”

        Without any presumption on my part that “I have the answers,” may I request you to take a look at the ‘Lampshade model’ in the blog article Part 15 on ‘The Enigma of Deep Sleep’ at:

        If the question is reframed as the famous “One brahman to many” problem, may I suggest this Blog :



        • Thank you for the interesting and informative articles and dialogue.

          What I will say for now is that I think I am still stuck on the question of WHO or WHAT is ignorant/deluded. It’s not difficult for me to accept the explanations of how a finite entity can have an experience of duality. It makes sense that the problem would lie within the limitations of the mind/brain. But I remain baffled as to how such a finite entity (and not the delusions it is capable of) can arise in the first place – even if the entity and its experience are a mere appearance. Supposedly I am the omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient brahman, and yet I have a strong, seemingly unshakable sense of infinitesimality, impuissance, and ignorance. How could I be infinite in reality and yet simultaneously experience myself as finite? The notion that a limited first-person POV can arise out of an unlimited and indivisible Monad is as paradoxical – or in any case mindboggling – as the notion that something could come from nothing (i.e., Aristotle’s “nothing” and not the “nothing” of quantum mechanics).

          Paramahansa Yogananda expressed the human condition as the result of God dividing His consciousness, but this doesn’t add up if there is only Consciousness and Consciousness is always one without a second; Consciousness cannot be simultaneously divided and undivided.

          Another problem that I simply cannot get my head around is that of reincarnation. I can accept the idea that the material comprising things is constantly undertaking new forms. What I cannot accept, even within the context of mithyA, is the idea that there is an individual, unique “soul” that is constantly being transferred from one psychosomatic vehicle to another, and may even visit heavens and hells as a result of past actions. (Here is a Vivekananda quote: “It is child’s talk that a man dies and goes to heaven. We never come nor go. We are where we are. All the souls that have been, are, and will be, are on one geometrical point.”)

          I can see how all things may be interrelated and ultimately inseparable, but I cannot see how there can be a distinct reincarnational “lineage,” so to speak. I’ve wondered if reincarnation is merely a metaphor for the relationship between the past and the present within a single lifespan, with sleeping and waking corresponding to dying and being reborn, respectively. One is not the exact same person today that one was yesterday. Being a pattern-based process, a person is his/her history – a series of clones with a beginning and an end.

          A particularly salient question is this: what are the consequences for one who fails to attain enlightenment in this life? As a visitor once asked Nisargadatta, “What is the difference after death between a man who has understood during his lifetime and a man who has not understood?” I cannot see how a particular first-person POV – which is perhaps the defining characteristic of an individual – can persist beyond the eventual collapse of the physical system associated with that POV. If it indeed cannot persist, then it would follow that the ignorance of an individual is born and dies with that individual, even if that individual fails to become Self-realized.

          • I used the following metaphor (which I found helpful) in ‘Book of One’:

            “Sri Parthasarathy also has a useful metaphor for reincarnation. He says that we are like mirrors. The frame of the mirror represents our body, the glass our subtle body of mind/intellect and associated vAsanA-s. During our life, the mirror reflects the Sun, which is the metaphor for our true Self, Consciousness or brahman. At death, the frame is discarded and the mirror removed and put into a new frame, where it once more reflects the sun. This represents the body dying and the jIva being reborn in a new body. Throughout all of this, the real Self (the Sun) is totally unaffected.”

            To extend the metaphor you can say that this only happens in the case of an aj~nAnI. (The ‘reflection’ in the mind or intellect is called chidAbhAsa, which I have written about before. It could also be thought of as ego or ahaMkAra, since the reflection identifies with the body-mind and believes itself to be an entity in its own right.) You could say that the gaining of Self-knowledge dissolves this identification. Metaphorically, this results in the destruction of the mirror on death of the body so that there is no mirror to be installed into a new frame – i.e. no ‘further’ reincarnation.

            • Dear PtN:
              You say: ‘The notion that a limited first-person POV can arise out of an unlimited and indivisible Monad is as paradoxical – or in any case mindboggling – as the notion that something could come from nothing.’

              I would say that ‘the limited person and its point of view‘does not arise from the ‘unlimited and indivisible Monad’. The distinction appearance-reality is implicated here. In REALITY the ‘Monad’ alone can be said to exist, and it does not proceed, evolve, or become anything else.

              Appearances (body-minds included) are due to superimposition (adhyasa), which is avidya; simply, a mistaken view without basis (in reality). Phenomena do not have to disappear or be eliminated, only understood as to their ultimate, real nature, which is Consciousness-atman-brahman.

              This is the way that the Absolute *appears* to present itself when not seen as what it is – ‘The world is real… reality is the world’. True perception (rather than conception, following Jean Klein) is of the essence.

              • In REALITY the ‘Monad’ alone can be said to exist, and it does not proceed, evolve, or become anything else.

                I remain confused. I think my question boils down to this: how can error or the appearance of error even be possible in a unicity that is pure, omniscient intelligence?

            • That is a rather useful metaphor indeed. So frame = body (B) and glass = subtle body (S). So far so good. Now, does S possess distinct, unique characteristics that more or less remain constant, or is it being continually modified like B is always being modified? The theory you’re describing seems to suggest that the animating force is different for each B.

              In explaining the life force, Ramesh Balsekar used the metaphor of gadgets and the electricity by which they function. According to his metaphor, the vessels are different from one another but the animating force (F) is the same for all of them. But according to the analogy you gave, it seems, there is a distinct F for each vessel. What exactly makes one F different from another? What exactly is being transferred from vessel to vessel, and why should it matter from a subjective viewpoint?

              Yogananda said that a lack of recollection is not a sound reason for rejecting reincarnation, pointing out that one doesn’t even have a recollection of one’s birth in the present lifetime. Fair enough. But if I have no recollection whatsoever of my previous reincarnations, and if my subsequent reincarnations will have no recollection whatsoever of my present reincarnation, how would my current predicament be any different if nothing ever preceded or will succeed the present incarnation? Either way, as far as I’m concerned, on a subjective and practical level, this incarnation and this lifetime is all I know.

              As I understand that one of the main purposes of The Book of One is to address the more labyrinthine conundrums of the Advaitic system, I’ve decided to save it for later, until I’ve gotten through at least a couple of books on Dvaita.

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