Q.529 Comments on mithyā

Q: Do the Upaniṣads talk about or mention mithyā? If not, why not, when Advaita seems to speak so much about it?

A: The absolute ‘bottom line’ of Advaita is as expressed by Māṇḍūkya Up. and Gauḍapāda’s kārikā-s, namely that there is no creation, no one has ever been born etc. Māṇḍūkya 7 is the final word on the matter:

“This (consciousness) is known as the ‘fourth’. (It is) neither (the knower of) the internal (world), nor the external. Neither (is it the knower of) both. (And it is) not (just) a ‘mass’ of consciousness. (It is) not consciousness (in the empirical sense of conscious ‘of’) nor (is it) unconsciousness. (It is) imperceptible, transaction-less, not ‘graspable’, un-inferable, unthinkable, and indescribable. (It is) the essential ‘I’-experience. (It is) the negation of the experience of all plurality of the universe. (It is) pure, tranquility, and non-dual. This is the Self. This is to be understood.”

Consequently, anything in experience (i.e. dualistic) cannot be real. Yet we DO experience the world. Therefore, it has to be mithyā. No need to specifically talk about it. Gaudapada does, in fact, in Chapter 2, which is called ‘Vaitathya Prakaraṇa’. Vaitathya is essentially a synonym for mithyā. (My book ‘A-U-M’ is all about this – https://www.advaita.org.uk/extracts/a_u_m_unreal.html).

Ṥaṅkara also talks about it in BSB 1.4.19; 2.1.14; bhāṣya on Mand. Up. 7; Gaud.  kārikā 4.9 and Vivekacūḍāmaṇi 194 -5 (ish).

The distinction between paramārtha and vyavahāra is also effectively another way of talking about mithyā. Vyavahāra is ‘appearance’, whose substantive reality is actually Brahman. Every discussion about ‘name and form’ as opposed to reality is about mithyā, whether or not the word is used.

5 thoughts on “Q.529 Comments on mithyā

  1. Shankaracharya coined the word Mithya. It is the third category, different from real and unreal. What about Maya? Do Upanishads use it?

  2. Dear Bimal,

    I believe both words existed before Shankara but, as part of his unique ability to explain difficult topics from the scriptures, he certainly must have used quite a few ‘novel’ words.

    The word ‘mithyA’ is translated by Monier-Williams as ‘wrongly, improperly, falsely’ etc. So I suppose the idea is that we falsely attribute either reality or unreality to the world.

    The word ‘mAyA’ originally means ‘illusion’ etc. specifically in the sense of being by a magical or supernatural power, associated with magicians or witchcraft. So I guess Shankara thought it appropriate to provide a temporary explanation for why we see what appears to be a real world.

    I don’t know of any occurrences of ‘mithyA’ in scriptures although, as I pointed out, Gaudapada’s ‘vaitathya’ essentially means the same thing. (Monier-Williams just gives ‘falseness’)

    The only occurrence of ‘mAyA’ that I am aware of is Ṥvetāśvatara 4.10 but this does seem to be used in the same way as Shankara subsequently used it: “One should know nature surely to be mAyA and the Great Lord to be the lord of mAyA…”

    Best wishes,

    • Namaste Bimal Ji and Dennis Ji,

      The word mAyA also figures in नृसिंहतापिन्युपनिषत् (nRRisiMhatApinyupaniShat) Ch 9 verses 3 to 5. I am quoting part of it here This part is stated in Sidhanatalesha Samgraha of Sri Appayya Dikshita 2.3112 (page PDF 171) (english translation) as cited in the text Tattvaviveka

      // ‘जीवेशावाभासेन करोति माया चाविद्या च स्वयमेव भवति’ //

      // ‘jIveshAvAbhAsena karoti mAyA chAvidyA cha svayameva bhavati’ //

      Translation (from SLS by Prof Suryanarayana Shastri) // It creates the jIva and the Lord as reflections, and itself becomes mAyA and nescience (avidyA) //.

      The **It** in the translation refers to ** the primal cause, madeup of the three constituents satva,rajas and tamas**.


  3. The word ‘mithya’ is found in two Upanishads. The Niralamba Upanishad states in verse 35, ‘Brahma satyam jagat mithya jivo Brahmaiva naparah’

    “Only Brahman is truth, this world is mithya. Jiva and Brahman are not different“ (A.G. Krishna Warrier’s translation).

    It also makes an appearance (no pun intended) in the Yogakhikha Upanishad 4.4 (Srinivasa Ayyangar’s translation)

    “The immediate cause of the phenomenal world is no other than the Brahman. Hence, this phenomenal world in its entirety is the Brahman alone and nothing else. What is pervaded and what pervades, is all mithya as, according to the scripture, all is the Atman. Should the highest truth be understood thus, where is the room for any difference (of opinion).”

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