Moving beyond mithyā

The aim of my previous blog on this topic was to clarify the term mithyā and thereby bridge the apparent gap between everyone’s perception of a diverse and ‘real’ universe and the advaita teaching that says that there is only one single non-dual Reality. Mithyā is that which cannot be dismissed as unreal nor can it be accepted as absolutely real. Due to a mistranslation of the word, many declare the mithyā universe to be an illusion and consequently act as though it can be discounted as if it was absolutely non-existent. Through the analogy of water and wave we are led to understand that, whilst still perceiving the wave, we nevertheless know that what we’re seeing is nothing but water. Similarly when looking out at the mithyā universe the wise person knows that what’s being seen is nothing but Brahman, pure existence-consciousness without limit.

This is not such an easy achievement.

Merely accepting that the cosmos is mithyā places us in the same territory as most religious believers who have to take their scriptural proclamations on faith. Advaita Vedānta, however, does not expect anything to be merely accepted on faith: it defines faith as ‘acceptance pending verification’. The statement that the universe is mithyā should either be verifiable or rejected. That is the strength of the Advaita Vedānta approach: the teaching is so precise and the teaching methodology so refined that it can result in the resolution of all doubt and the total elimination of self-ignorance.

To establish the ‘as though’ status (mithyātvam) of the universe we start by inquiring into its nature to get to its essence. We reduce matter to molecules, molecules to atoms, atoms to sub atomic particles and sub-sub atomic particles, but do not have a rational way of going beyond ‘the singularity’ (the state of the universe before the Big Bang) where science stops. Even if we take up philosophy as the tool for enquiring beyond the singularity, the furthest we can reach as the common feature of everything in the universe is ‘existence’. Everything has existence. The universe begins with the coming into existence of everything.

‘Existence’ is what manifests as the innumerable names and forms we perceive. Energy exists. Atoms exist. Stones exist. Trees exist. Animals exist. People exist. Emotion exist. Thoughts exist. Mind exists. Knowledge exists. I exist! This ‘existence’ seems to fit the Vedāntic description of Brahman: it is all-pervasive (what is there that doesn’t have existence?); it sustains all (remove existence and where is the thing?); it is untainted (is existence soiled by excrement or exalted by the finest prayer?); it is independent (remove one thing and existence is there with another, remove everything and it is still there with absence); it is unitary (names and forms vary but the very same existence is what’s there behind them all). The Upaniṣad confirms this by stating: Existence is Brahman [satyam brahma].

The Reality of the universe, Brahman, is available for recognition in the form of existence that infuses everything – from the gods down to a clump of earth. The Reality is there in front of our eyes all the time in everything we see. When we say, ‘The rock is’, the ‘is-ness’ is satyam Brahman and ‘rock’ is the mithyā name and form through which Brahman manifests.

The problem we now face is that existence is always experienced as attached to some name and form. How do we get to pure existence to know Brahman? How do we detach existence from name and form for us to enquire further into the nature of the Reality? If we remove all names and forms existence isn’t manifest – in fact one of the names and forms happens to be the very mind we use in enquiry – and so we seem to have reached a dead end in our direct examination of the external universe.

Vedānta now comes to our aid by pointing out that consciousness takes the form of existence. Try describing something of whose existence you have no awareness… ‘Tree is’ is a statement that can only be made if there is consciousness of the tree: ‘Tree consciousness is’. Without tree consciousness the tree is as good as non-existent. Consciousness is available for recognition as the existence of the universe.

So how do we enquire into the consciousness of the universe around us? We cannot. Again, like existence, consciousness is attached to the names and forms of objects and is also thus unavailable for enquiry when separated from them. But, before we give up, Vedānta prompts the question: who is conscious? Our answer is obvious: I am. I have access to the subtle world of thought and feelings and awareness in mind. What’s more, every night even my mind is transcended in the state of dreamless sleep – no thoughts are manifest, there isn’t even the ‘I’ thought. And with the resolution of the ‘I’ thought, all other thoughts of ‘this’ or ‘that’ also resolve. This is the state in which all names and forms are not there but awareness remains. What confirms that we are on the right track is that, on waking, we say: ‘I knew nothing at all.’ This ‘I’ that knows even when the mind is resolved is the Self that we crave to know. It seems then that the only viable field for enquiry into consciousness is myself, the subject.

Many stop here – at distinguishing the ultimate witness from the body-mind-sense complex. They arrive at a clarity that ‘I’ is not the body or vital energy or sense powers or mind. This, according to traditional advaita teaching, is only a partial (albeit valuable) step: one knows that I exist distinct from the mind-body-sense complex BUT I don’t fully know what ‘I’ actually is because I haven’t accounted for the existence of the world around me and duality thereby persists. We can press logic into service again and, with the additional help of scripture in the hands of a qualified teacher, we arrive at the understanding that this thing at the very core of my being, lending me existence, without which not only do I not exists but also nothing else exists, is pure awareness, consciousness, cit. So now we have a name for my Self: consciousness, with synonyms that include terms such as pure awareness, knowledge, cit, caitanya, jñānam.

But now we need to see that this consciousness, the truth of ‘I’, is the same consciousness that is the truth of everything in the universe. And secondly, that every mithyā thing that appears to be other than consciousness is never again taken to be independently real – not even for a moment – and is resolved back into its cause, leaving consciousness alone. Only by further enquiry into our own set-up can we arrive at such clarity.

This is not a simple exercise of saying I can observe my body so the body is not real, so what is real? You need to ask an open question because you do not really know the answer and you really want to know: what is the body and what is that without which the body cannot exist? Advaita Vedānta offers the ‘five sheaths’ methodology for the conduct of a systematic enquiry into everything I take myself to be.

We start with enquiry into the body so that it is clear that the ‘I’ sense is free from attachment to the body and from such beliefs as: I am tall or I am fat or I am in pain or I am beautiful. Here intellectual rigour is required and no wriggle room should be allowed by saying, ‘I accept that I am not the body but one has to communicate, so that’s why I say things like I am ugly/beautiful/cold/etc.’ The clarity needs to be such that, even when one’s finger is trapped in the car door, there is a clear observation that the pain belongs to the finger and that ‘I’ do not suffer as a consequence. Not easy to be this objective towards the body: after all we have practiced identification with it every waking hour every day over innumerable lifetimes.

Okay, say one does manage to be clear that ‘I’ is not one’s physical body, that the body does not have independent existence apart from ‘I’ (i.e. the body is mithyā), but what about the physical world around us? Is there a relation between my physical body and the physical things all around me?

It does not take much analysis to see that the individual’s physical body may be assembled differently from those of other beings, but is not different in essence from any other physical matter in the universe – it can be reduced to the same fundamental building blocks of particles and waves. The building blocks of particles and waves that go to make up an inert rock cannot be distinguished from the particles and waves that make up the human body (or any other physical thing for that matter). What essentially constitutes the individual’s physical body is no different from what constitutes a rock and any other physical thing. In this way the individual gross body is resolved into the universal gross matter: there is no fundamental difference at the physical level. This should not be mere book understanding, it should be assimilated by knowing: ‘I have always seen my body as the periphery of myself, the ‘I’, but after enquiry it is now clear the individual gross body is not different from the mithyā gross universe (just assembled differently), so my sense of individuality loses the body as its distinct abode, and ‘I’ needs to find another distinct locus if my separate individuality is to be maintained. If not the body…then what can be the source of my individuality?’

We can use reason to identify that the physical body is sustained by the life force – the five physiological functions called prāṇas.  If the body is not the locus of ‘I’, then maybe the prāṇas are the essential me. The five-fold life functions of a person – respiration, evacuation, circulation, digestion, ejection – also turn out to be similar in essence to the life functions of all living things. Living things need to take in energy, get rid of waste, grow and develop, respond to the environment, reproduce. So what I take to be ‘my’ life-force turns out to partake in the life-force that sustains the whole universe: there’s nothing individual about the prāṇas either. Due to the sophistication (or otherwise) of the manifesting instrument, the life force will be perceptible (or not). For example, if the life force in a rock is not obvious, it is because the medium for manifesting it is not developed. Advaita Vedānta is clear that non-manifestation does not mean non-existence. My body and the cosmic body are one and the same; my vital force and the vital force that sustains the universe are one and the same. And neither the individual nor the universal body or life-force is the seat of ‘I’, the consciousness. So where can I now place my individuality?

In this methodical way Vedānta helps us enquire into that which is commonly believed to give individuality to the individual, jīva – the physical body, the physiological life functions, the thinking/emotional function, the cognitive functions – and resolves all of them into their cosmic counterparts. Everything observable that we take ourselves to be is thus shown to also be mithyā. In this way, as the individual is resolved into the cosmos, the commonly held locations in which we place our separate individual ‘I’-sense are resolved one by one till the final ‘I’ resolves into the non-negatable truth of itself, pure consciousness Brahman.

Not much of lasting value is gained by merely declaring that the universe is an illusion and that the self is pure consciousness and that any concepts are worthless because they are not the self. Vedanta does not deny duality but points out that our conclusion that duality is absolutely real is wrong! Duality is empirically real (dvaitam vyāvaharika satyam); non-duality is absolutely real (advaitam pāramārtika satyam). Instead of merely dismissing the world, Vedānta helps us see the truth of it by systematically exploring the truth of the most accessible manifestation of the universe: namely one’s very own self itself! In this way of proceeding not only do we arrive at the oneness of the ‘I’ and Brahman, but also there is no residue of the mithyā universe for the ‘I’ to become entangled with. The only Reality that remains is Brahman. That am I.

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About Peter

I am a student of traditional Vedanta, in London, an interest that started in 1970s. Current Influences: In 2007 I attended a talk by Swamini Atmaprakasananda on Ganapati Atharvashirsha – and knew I had found my teacher. I am current Secretary of Arsha Vidya Centre UK, an organisation established to make available in the UK the teaching of traditional advaita as unfolded by Swaminiji and her own teacher, the illustrious HH Swami Dayananda Saraswatiji, the most respected teacher of traditional advaita.