Mistakes and Misconceptions In Vedantic Investigation – 2/2

Part – I

Historically, Buddhism and Zen came to the West prior to the Advaita philosophy. Their teachings made a deep impact on the Western mind. Particularly, the Mountain and River Sutra and the Return of the Bull to the Market are well-remembered today even by those who moved on to the Advaita philosophy. The Mountain and River Sutra runs something as follows:

“When I first began to practice, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. As I trained, mountains were not mountains; rivers were not rivers. Now that I am established in the way, mountains are once more mountains and rivers are once more rivers.”

However, when viewed from an Advaita philosophy angle, the last line above gets modified roughly as: ‘Now that I am established in the Advaita way, I find that mountains are the Self, rivers are Self, and there is Self Alone and no second (thing).’ In the second story too, the fulfilled seeker would usually end up with no interest in the market or conducting transactions within it, because his/her sense of doership – experiencership (kartrutva – bhoktrutva) doesn’t continue after Self-realization is fully achieved.

But the Western Advaita teachers like to hold that “nothing needs to change” on the attainment of Self-realization and that the multifaceted world and their interactions within it will continue. In order to buttress their argument, they tell us that Ramana quotes Shankara to say that, “brahman is the universe” and being already brahman, the world cannot get affected. From their own personal code of conduct and behavior (see The Pre-requisites, we referred to in Part – 1), an observer gets the impression that they would, as though, like to keep their one leg entrenched in the dualistic world and its allurements.

[Note: True, nothing needs to change ‘out there.’ But a change does happen in one’s “vision” after Self-realization, as we will see towards the end of this article.] 

The Ramana quote claiming brahman is the world does sound a bit strange; It’s like saying all Gold is ring. But did not Shankara famously say that the world is mithya (false or real-unreal)? Could he ever say brahman is the world?

[Note: We use the two words, universe and world, interchangeably above.]

In the Talk # 315 on Jan 03, 1937, Ramana did say: “The ‘tantriks‘ and others of the kind condemn Sri Sankara’s philosophy as ‘maya vada‘ without understanding him alright. What does he say? He says:

(1) brahman is real; (2) the universe is a myth; (3) brahman is the universe.

He does not stop at the second statement but continues to supplement it with the third. What does it signify? The universe is conceived to be apart from brahman and that perception is wrong.” — p: 289, Ref. 1.

Similar conversation appears in a book edited by D. Godman (1985). The third statement appears slightly altered here. It is reported as:

“Q: Brahman is real. The world [jagat] is ‘illusion’ is the stock phrase of Sri Sankaracharya. Yet others say, ‘The world is reality.’ Which is true?

A: Sankara was criticized for his views on maya without being understood. He said that

(1) brahman is real, (2) the universe is unreal, and (3) The universe is brahman.

He did not stop at the second, because the third explains the other two. It signifies that the universe is real if perceived as the Self, and unreal if perceived apart from the Self. Hence maya and reality are one and the same.” — p: 110, Ref. 2.

[Note: One does not know if any errors could have crept into the dialogs while recording, transcribing, translating and editing of these dialogs.]

It is difficult to know what was Ramana’s source to say that Shankara made the statement at # 3. We have at least 3 texts, where the famous statement attributed to Shankara that “brahman is real; the world is false (or illusory) occurs.” The three verses are:

ब्रह्म सत्यं जगन्मिथ्या जीवो ब्रह्मैव नापरः । — 20, brahmajnAnAvalimAlA; also 67, vedAnta DinDima.

Meaning: brahman is Real; the world is unreal; the individual (jIva) is none other than brahman.

ब्रह्म सत्यं जगन्मिथ्येत्येवंरूपो विनिश्चयः ॥ — 20, vivekacUDAmani.

Meaning: A firm conviction that brahman alone is Real and the phenomenal world is unreal (is known as discrimination between the Real and the unreal).

None of the works by Shankara or Gaudapada or the three canonical Vedanta texts do support a contention that what is perceived by the five senses or the mind, which goes by the name of ‘world’ is brahman. In fact, brahman is said to be inaccessible to the senses or the mind. It will be a huge Misconception to suppose that the perceived world is brahman. This is the Mistake No. 4.


Several devotionally oriented seekers on the Advaita path would love to interpret the changing forms of the objects of the world as a play or a manifestation of brahman which appears in multiple forms as a blessing to Its creatures. Such a statement totally ignores the very first dictum that the formless, featureless, boundless, desireless, motionless brahman does not act or do anything. It is ‘ignorance’ and partly arrogance (ego) on our part to assume that our seeing is perfect and that the motion / change ‘seen’ by us is out there. We are slow to admit that our perceptual apparatus (5 senses + mind) is limited in its capacity and inadequate to discover the aberrations contributed by it to our “vision.” We tend not to realize this shortfall of ours and we ‘play victim’ trying to blame some imaginary concept or entity for the change we notice. This is the Mistake No. 5.

Shankara gives the example of the appearance of ‘Double Moons’ to a man with cataract problems at several places in his commentaries. It’s a disease of the eye and as and when the disease is cured, our vision becomes normal again. Likewise, our perception is overtaken by the disease called (for our convenience) ‘ignorance’ and as soon as we can cure ourselves from that ignorance, our healthy state of natural being (swa stha ta) gets restored. As the kaTha Upanishad urges us, we better do it in this very life as any deferment will make the cure more arduous. The way to see and be our Pure Self, is to change our “vision,” by getting rid of the defects and filling with Self-knowledge rather than trying to find scapegoats outside ourselves or culprits over yonder somewhere for the appearance of a changing manifold. He instructs us benevolently in aparokShAnubhUti as follows:

दृष्टिं ज्ञानमयीं कृत्वा पश्येद्ब्रह्ममयं जगत् 

सा दृष्टिः परमोदारा  नासाग्रावलोकिनी ॥  —  116, aparokShAnubhUti.

Meaning: Converting the ordinary vision into one of Self-knowledge, one should view the world as brahman Itself. That is the noblest vision, and not that which is focused on the tip of the nose.

Shankara says that our perception should be from the position of Self-knowledge and we should see the world to be pervaded by brahman. Such a vision is Perception based Creation and not Creation based Perception. 

If perception takes place in creation, it is the cycle of birth and death. If the creation is based on perception, it is intimate union. When the perception takes place from the standpoint of Self-Knowledge, the entire world will be visible to be brahman.


Reference 1: ‘Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi,’ (Three volumes in one) – 2006, Published by Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai – 606603, Tamil Nadu, India. With foreword by Prof. TMP, Mahadevan.

Reference 2: Godman, D., 1985, Be As You Are, Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA.

6 thoughts on “Mistakes and Misconceptions In Vedantic Investigation – 2/2

  1. Hi Ramesam,

    It’s not totally clear to me what you are saying here. (I freely confess that it may be because my thinking is fuzzy today!)

    You make a number of quotes to the effect that the universe is ‘unreal’. But Shankara never said this. The term used in Advaita is that the universe is mithyā. It does not have reality on its own account, so to speak, but borrows this from Brahman. To say that the universe is unreal would be like saying that the ring, necklace and bangle that you actually hold in your hand and are looking at are unreal – they are not. They ‘borrow’ their reality and existence from the gold from which they are formed. I know you are effectively saying this in your Ref. 2 quotation and your final statement, but your Vivekacūḍāmani quotation would appear to refute it.

    Vivekacūḍāmani 20 is not saying anything about discrimination between ‘real and unreal’. It is talking about nitya anitya vastu viveka – discrimination between what is eternal and what is transient. This is quite a different thing, as you would know if I stood on your hand for example. The pain might only be transient but it would certainly not be unreal!

    Also, your penultimate paragraph appears to be claiming that Shankara was associated with dṛṣṭi sṛṣṭi vāda. I would want some very clear quotations before I would countenance this!

    In conclusion, I would have to emphasize (in case any other readers were confused) that the world is not ‘unreal’. It is mithyā. And that means that it is name and form of Brahman.

    Best wishes,

  2. Dear Dennis,

    I readily admit that I too am not very happy with the overall outcome of the expression in the essay and thought, at one point, of requesting your editorial help for sharpening and finetuning some of the words, before I hit the ‘Publish’ button. Maybe, I should have done that.

    I began with making a grazing reference simultaneously to a large number of disparate issues and, perhaps, spiralled off too fast, deeply conscious of the length of the article, to the peak, where I hoped the reader’s attention should be really focused on! Yes, I touched on the vestige mindsets, inconsistencies in some teachings, popular but unauthentic quotes, the mithyatva of the world, the state of living liberation, etc. having no interest in them or in resolving the problems connected with them.

    What I desired to is to impress the reader that, in essence, Shankara exhorts us to, ultimately, realize that the 3-dimensional split of the One Consciousness, which Alone IS, into the apparent nAma-rUpa-kriya (thought-form-function) lies in the inadequacy of our observational apparatus and not outside us. Once we are able to repair that inadequacy within us, like taking a medicine for a disease, via whatever techniques, our true intrinsic pristine nature will automatically shine.


  3. No problem! A bit of back and forth banter helps clarify issues and agreement is a great conclusion!

    Best wishes,

  4. Your logic of Necklace is gold, but gold is not just a necklace to an extent makes the point. You really cannot extend this any further since the necklace is an effect (pariNam) where as the world is projection within Brahman.
    However, BU 1.4.10 says “Brahman sees itself” may be interpreted by some as “world is Brahman or Brahman sees world”. But Shankara makes it very clear that Brahman does not see or cognize Brahman (or world); BU 1.4.10 SB (page 110 BU Swami Madhavananda Version)
    ““It knew only itself” only means cessation of superimposition of ignorance and not the actual cognizing of the self as an object”. He further explains” Since by the cessation of the superimposed notion of not being Brahman, its effect, the notion of not being all is gone; therefore, it became all.”
    So, my conclusion is that “it became all” only after the world is sublated. So, per Shankara, one cannot say that world is also Brahman.
    Also, if one sees Brahman in every object then it is like dualism of Bhakta Prahlada who sees Narayana in a pole.

  5. Vijay,

    There is always ONLY Brahman in reality. Whether or not you think that there is a world at some point, it must be only Brahman. So the world cannot ‘become’ Brahman and ‘it’ (whatever it might be) cannot become Brahman either. And Brahman cannot change in any way since it is nirvikAra.

    Best wishes,

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