Q.526 MithyA

Q: In your comment on the article by Arun Kumar, I was confused but intrigued that you define Mithya as something that simply explains the fundamental nature of the Brahman in life and its objects. I have not so far found any dictionary that defines mithya as anything other than false or illusory nor discovered any major scholar-philosopher who thought that Shankara viewed this world as a reality – as real as the ornament in your metaphor. You say that Shankara himself by discriminating between the waking and dream states suggests that novel meaning of Mithya. Is this your own interpretation or does Shankara himself link the ability to differentiate between those states to explain mithya?

You raise the example of how jumping into the middle of traffic would help one realize why this world is NOT an illusion… but it is not convincing enough. Potentially, both a person jumping in front of a truck and his consequent “death” could be perceived as illusory events too. The real question I have is whether Shankara himself viewed this world as illusion and used Mithya to convey that or not. And, if it was an illusion for him, what did he think the meaning of life was? If on the other hand life was Not an illusion to him, as you seem to suggest, what was its purpose in that case?

I also found it interesting that both you and Venkat wanted Advaitic methods to be reserved only for spiritual growth but not for pursuing materialistic gains. Is this because you wish to keep spirituality and ordinary life separate (that life is an illusion and one’s focus should only be on moksha?) or because you think that advaitic ‘methods’ would not help and may even harm a materialistic life?  Sorry for this long comment and the many questions!

A: Yours is unfortunately one of those questions that cannot really be answered in just one or two sentences. In fact, Volume 2 of my forthcoming books on ‘Confusions in Advaita Vedanta’ addresses the topic of what happens on enlightenment. One thing that does not happen is that the world does not disappear. And there are quite a few thousand words covering this! (You can read the discussions from which I took most of the material in posts and comments beginning around Aug. 2020.) Volume 3 addresses the topics of Status of the World, Creation, Causality and Reality. So there are a few more thousand relevant words there.

I will address a couple of points that might be of help. Note that I am just responding to your questions. The post and comments you refer to are quite long and I haven’t re-read them. I also include here some quotations from the forthcoming books so please treat them as copyright.

One of the most famous ‘summaries’ of Advaita is ‘brahma satyam, jaganmithyA, jIvo brahmaiva nAparaH’, attributed to Shankara. This states that the world is mithyA and not ‘real’. But that does not mean illusory. We mentally project a snake onto the rope but we don’t project the rope. The rope is real in the context of vyavahAra. Brahmasutra 2.2.29 says that: “And because of the difference in nature (the waking state is) not (false) like dream etc.” and Shankara comments: “It has been said by those who deny the existence of external things that perceptions of things like a pillar etc. in the waking state occur even in the absence of external things, just as they do in a dream; for as perceptions they are similar. That has to be refuted. With regard to this we say the perceptions of the waking state cannot be classed with those in a dream.

The world is ‘created’ by Ishvara, not by the jIva. Shankara says: “Creations of Īśvara universally perceived in the waking state such as ākāśa are objective; the dream creation is not objective and publicly transactionable.” (Brahmasutra bhāṣya 3.2.4) (It is accepted that we know that this is an interim explanation and that ‘in reality’ there has never been any creation.)

If you claim that the world is neither real nor mithyA, you are obliged to conclude that it is ‘all in your mind’. This is Idealism and leads to solipsism. It is the belief of the vij~nAna vAda Buddhist and it is rejected by Advaita. Badarayana rejects it in Brahmasutra 2.2.28: “(External objects are) not non-existent, for they are perceived.” Shankara’s commentary on this sutra is quite scathing and even sarcastic to the pUrvapakSha-s that he puts forward to support the claim.

I think maybe you have an incorrect understanding of mithyA. It does not mean either unreal or illusory. I agree that some dictionaries, writers and teachers translate it as that but, unfortunately, you cannot believe everything that you read – even from ‘famous’ teachers or previously trusted sources, as you will learn from Volume 1 of ‘Confusions’! All it means really is that the thing that you are talking about derives its existence from some more fundamental substance. The table is ‘really’ wood. The world is ‘really’ Brahman. 

The mithyAtva of the world is spoken of by the Bhagavad Gita 9.4 to 9.6. In 9.4, Krishna says: “This whole world is pervaded by Me in My unmanifest form. All beings exist in Me, but I am not contained in them.” Then, in 9.5, he says: “Nor do the beings dwell in Me… I am the sustainer and originator of beings but My Self is not contained in the beings.” The whole world is ‘pervaded by me’ in the same way that all ornaments are ‘pervaded by gold’. ‘All beings are in me’ in the same way that all ornaments are ‘in’ gold. The reality of the ornament is gold; the reality of the world is Brahman. But gold is in no way dependent upon the ornament; the ‘existence’ belongs to the gold, not the ornament. Similarly, Brahman is the ‘existence’ of the world. It exists quite independently of the world while the world’s existence is totally dependent upon Brahman.

Just as the gold could say that ‘all chains, bangles and rings are in me’, so Krishna says that ‘all beings are in Me’. Similarly, ‘everything is pervaded by Me’ refers to Consciousness being the ‘reality’ of the mithyA universe. But Brahman is not ‘in’ the things of the world, which are only name and form. When we say that the necklace ‘is’, the ‘is’ does not belong to the necklace but to the gold. Whatever is mithyA needs a satyam for its existence but a satyam does not require any mithyA!

As regards your second question, the entire thrust of the teaching of Advaita is mokSha. It is to bring you to the realization that you are already free because you are Brahman and there is nothing else. Every other pursuit/ambition/endeavor in life is chasing unicorns, based on a false belief that there is something other than Brahman that will give you happiness and fulfillment. You are already full-filled, perfect and complete. So, yes, using Advaita to further material aims is like using a diamond to seal a hole in a bucket. Not only is it a misuse of a priceless asset, it is also unlikely to do a very good job.