Reality of the World – Q.336

Q: I understand the advaita vedanta teaching – that we are what is perceiving, the consciousness in which the world, including our body-minds, appear.  And that it is mAyA that makes us think we are a separate self.  I can see this as one logical explanation of our experience.  As many teachers say, there is nothing in our experience that can prove to us that there is a “real” world out there, since everything has to arise in consciousness.

 It seems to me that an alternative, plausible explanation of our experience, is that there is a world which this body-mind experiences.  However, even in this model, it is clear to  me that there is no separation – that everything is inter-dependent, and that we are simply conditioned beings, programmed by our genetics and environment, and under the illusion that we are somehow separate from the world. But the truth is that we are just chemicals / molecules / energy quanta, the essence of which is the same in all things.  As Krishnamurti used to say, you are the world and the world is you.  This also seems to be more in line with the Buddhist emptiness / dependent origination explanations.

 So the question is, do you find one model of reality more “provable” / plausible above the other? I presume you will say the advaita model, but why not the above alternative model I sketched out?  I know that both end up at similar conclusions – that the ego is illusory and there is no separation, but it would be interesting to know if one is “truer” than the other.

A (Ramesam):  A very good question indeed!

You have proposed three possible models of reality in explaining our experience.

Model 1: The Perceiver and the perceived world (percept) are one. As you put it, there is no ‘real’ world out there because everything arises in Consciousness.

Model 2:  There is a world out there separate from the Perceiver and the world is experienced through the senses. The world is essentially made up of certain fundamental constituents (matter + energy quanta) which are common to all the things.

Model 3:  It is all just ‘emptiness’ but a world arises in it based on the Buddhist idea of ‘dependent origination.’

You have clubbed Mr. J. Krishnamurti’s quote with the Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness’ as you felt that both “seem to be in line.”

Let me straightaway say here that Krishnamurti’s view may, at a superficial level, appear to be similar to the Buddhist’s view of emptiness. But to say so is not correct. However, we shall not enter into analyzing this at present, as it is beside the immediate point of our interest which is to find out the true Model that represents our experience. One may, if interested, refer to the dialogs of the famous Sri Lankan Buddhist Dr. W. Rahula with JK for an in depth understanding of ‘emptiness’, what Gautam Buddha actually taught, and JK’s own philosophy.

The three models referred to by you conform broadly to the Advaita, Sankhya and Nihilist schools of philosophical thought. Our ancient Sages and Seers, in fact, proposed the possibility of not only these three Models, but three more systems according to which the reality of our experience can be assessed. For an exhaustive review of these systems and their variants and derivatives, a standard reference like the voluminous work of S. Dasgupta, “A History of Indian Philosophy” (1922), may be consulted — this is available free on the internet.

Highly competent scholars and Pundits have been discussing and debating on the merits of the different schools of philosophy in representing the truth of our experience for centuries. Several arguments can be extended in support of or against any one particular school of thought. For one with a passionate commitment for a specific philosophical system, no matter what the reasoning, the other systems will not be appealing.

We shall try examining the matter here with a fresh breath of air totally dispassionately making no a priori assumptions. We shall not invoke some queer quote of an authoritative figure nor shall we hide behind what one or the other guru had said. We shall presently restrict our discussion only to the three Models referred to by you to find out which amongst them is nearest to the Truth.

Keeping in mind the above preamble, let me restate your Questions concisely:

Q 1.  “….. do you find one model of reality more “provable” / plausible above the other?”

Q 2. “…..  presuming you will say the advaita model, but why [not] the alternative model I sketched out?”

Q 3.  “ …..  but it would be interesting to know if one is “truer” than the other.”

We have already agreed that we will not up front make any assumptions or presumptions. Hence, Q 2 need not be considered by us. We shall take up Q 1 and Q 3 only for further examination. Let the answer come out by itself for Q 2.

Q 1 above refers to provability. So we must first be clear about what constitutes a valid proof and what are the criteria to accept something to be a proof.

Similarly, regarding Q 3, we should be clear about what is Truth, how to establish the relative order of truth (true, ‘truer’ and ‘truest’).

We should be exceptionally cautious to see that our own hidden preconceptions, prejudices and prejudgments do not come into operation.

In view of the rigor of our investigation, we should be extremely wary of any evidence from external sources as proof, because any evidence sourced from outside may not conform to the highest standards we have set for ourselves. Its reliability, its definitions of the terms, the contextuality of its applicability are always open to doubt.

Hence let us accept only such proof that is self-evident for each one of us.

Next, we have to consider the starting point for our investigation.

The best place to start with is where we are now and our own experience.

Whether it is our body, or the world we live in, we find everything to be under constant change. Nothing remains the same and change is the only thing that is constant. If something is constantly changing, can we take any of it to be real, as truth? If we do, anything and everything, meaningful or meaningless, has to be true. This obviously does not make sense.

So the first lesson we can draw is that “what is real/true cannot be changing.” …….. Criterion 1.

If truth is something that cannot be changing, it should be changeless in space too. That is to say, whatever is true/real should be the same thing at all places. You cannot have one truth in New York and another in New Delhi. So Truth should be unchanging in both time and space dimensions.

But there is a subtle effect to being changeless. Time, after all, is a measure of change. No time can be deciphered, if there is no change whatsoever. And because it is uniformly one and the same ‘thing’ at all places, there is no way to distinguish any spatial coordinates within it. In other words, Truth/Reality is independent of both time and space dimensions.

Truth/Reality cannot also have further components or parts inside it because the presence of a different component or a different part would mean that there is a change within it. This would violate our first Criterion.

So the next lesson we will draw would be that Truth/Reality has to be impartite (indivisible), single homogenous entity invariant in space-time. ……………. Criterion 2.

It becomes obvious that there cannot be more than one ‘thing’ that can satisfy all the above stipulations, for, if there is a second thing either in space or time, the presence of the second thing implies a change (from the thing1 to thing2). Hence, there cannot be a second thing.

So the third lesson we draw is Truth/Reality is One alone, no second being there. ……. Criterion 3.

Just like the space and time dimensions cannot limit or set boundaries for the Truth/Reality, no other types of dimensional measures can set any limitations of measure. The moment there is any sort of such a dimensional restriction, it means, there is another thing existing beyond those limits. Hence Truth or Reality cannot have any dimensional limits in size, shape, color, weight or any sort of conceivable descriptors. It cannot be finite by any dimension.

So the fourth lesson we draw is that Truth/Reality is Infinite (=not finite) and undimensional. ………….. Criterion 4.

Having agreed on these terms, we shall proceed now to find out from our experience what such a Truth/Reality can be.

What we experience comprises three apparently distinct categories distinguishable by seemingly immiscible boundaries. These three, in common parlance, are:

(i)  Invisible diaphanous Mind; (ii) Our Body that gives a form to us; and (iii) A World which in turn consists of objects;

or simply,

Mind – Body – World  …………………………… (Step 1).

Mind, body and the world look very physical with clear borders between each. But we do not actually experience any mind or a body or an object in the world. We actually experience only thoughts or imaginations which we take it to be our mind; similarly we experience some sensations, the summation of which we call our body and cumulated sensory perceptions which are interpreted by us to be objects in the world. (It is normally believed that each sensory organ like the eye or skin or ear reveals an object all by itself. Current scientific research is clearly establishing that most of the time all the sensory organs together provide input for giving raise to a meaningful objective experience. For more details on latest scientific thinking, please see the PowerPoint presentation titled “Object Cognition – Advaita and Neuroscience” at my Blog:

Therefore, going a step back into what is experienced by us, we can say that what we experience are not mind, body and a world but:

Thoughts/ Images – Sensations – Perceptions   ……………………………  (Step 2).

As we move to Step 2 from Step 1, we can already see that the three actual experienced entities that give raise to a mind, body and the world do not have dense marked boundaries between them. Regressing further and looking at the processes responsible for what is experienced as Step 2, we can understand that the actual processes to be:

Thinking – Sensing – Perceiving   …………………………………. (Step 3).

At this level, it becomes still clearer that the rigid borders demarcating one process from another are already fading and hazy, and what actually goes on as different processes are indistinguishable. Pushing further, we can see that the three processes have one and the same common element behind them. And that is:

 Knowing     …………………………..  (Step 4).

Thus we can see that the multiplicity of our experience is actually a manifestation or a modulation of one single entity, our “knowing” of our thoughts, sensations and perceptions. In other words, it is the bare “Knowing capacity” or Knowingness. It has also other names as Awareness; Consciousness etc. From here, it is an easy step to see that what I call to be ‘me’ (“I”) is none other than this Knowingness or Consciousness. I am not elaborating on this part of the story as you said that you understand this teaching of the Vedanta.

(A small hint for a reader who would like to know how this is arrived at: Ask yourself the questions:  Is not your own consciousness self-evident to you? Is your own consciousness not known to you? Do you need an external proof to say that you are conscious? This quality of “Consciousness or Knowingness”, that quality of raw “Awareness”, is called Brahman! You are that Awareness. You are Brahman. You do not have to go any further).

Cutting short further arguments, we can clearly see without any ado that the Knowingness we have arrived at in Step No. 4 satisfies the Criteria 1 – 4 we established about Reality.

The above logical arguments and derivations establish beyond any presumptions or requirements of faith that the Model 1 postulated by you stands fully validated from your own experience to be the Only Reality.

The untenability of Model 2:

Some people get stuck at Step # 3 and are unable to proceed all the way to Step # 4. These are all dualists. One or the other boundary between the three elements in Step # 3 does not fade, in their opinion. We have two categories of people here.

Those that group together the “thinking + sensing” as “I” and imagine it to be separated from “perceiving.” They ascribe reality to both – ‘thinking + sensing’ (Purusha) and ‘perceiving’ (Prakriti). These are Sankhyas.

Those that imagine a persistent boundary between “thinking” on one hand and “sensing + perceiving” on the other. These are the Dvaitins.

Tenability of Model 3:

Nowhere in your experience do you find that something arises from ‘nothing.’  Even Buddha did not define ‘emptiness’ to be absolute ‘voidness.’ Quantum Physicists, as you maybe aware, define ‘nothingness’ as boiling roiling quantum foam of constant virtual particles arising and disappearing. These virtual particles contribute the maximum weight even to the subatomic particles like a proton or neutron whose matter constituents, the quarks, giving them hardly a tenth or so of the total weight. The energy in the ‘vacuum’ of intergalactic space is responsible for the ever expanding universe defying gravitational attraction.

Therefore, a comment on the tenability of Model 3 will depend on what you understand by the word ‘emptiness’ and how you define it. The ‘emptiness’ of Buddha is not totally void.  Detailed explanation would call for a separate essay by itself.

In conclusion, if you are tenaciously persistent to follow the logic you have set forth till the end, you find that there is no justification at all to believe either of the boundaries between the three entities in Step 3 would stay rigid. When you notice that both the boundaries dissolve, you are Advaitin.

What now remains is one final proof.  It comes by asking yourself what happens if all three – thinking, sensing and perceiving – end. You do not have to ask a Helen Keller. You know it happening to yourself in your deep sleep 3-4 times each night. Whatever is the residuum in sushupti, that itself is the Oneness that Advaita talks about. Please see my articles at this site on deep sleep for more details.

A (Peter): As is often the case, there are two levels at which to respond to this question: 1) putting it into a wider context and 2) addressing it on a ‘technical’ level.

 The context: Every serious seeker is trying to understand the relation between the individual, the universe and the creator, the context being our search for freedom from the sense of smallness and insecurity centred on ‘I’ (mokṣa). If this is remembered, then it becomes the touchstone for our questions and conclusions. We can ask: ‘How will the answer to this question help me uncover the truth of my identity?’

 We can apply this touchstone to the question on the table now: Is there an existing ‘something’ called a universe that is experienced by the body-mind-sense amalgam? Or is there only consciousness that is experienced in the form of the universe of names, forms and functions?

 If we answer that there IS some pre-existing thing, then how does that impact our desire for mokṣa? If we say that there is only limitless existence-consciousness in truth, then who am I?

 Getting technical: If one is a dualist (dvaitin), then it makes no difference if the universe exists as a parallel entity, because from the dualist’s perspective mokṣa can accommodate the existence of a universe separate from me: it simply requires the individual to acknowledge the supremacy of the divine. If one is a ‘qualified non-dualist’ (vaśiṣṭādvaitin) then that concept too can accommodate the existence of a separate universe (and individual) as atoms in God’s body: mokṣa is realising this relation between individual, universe and the single divine entity.

 The existence of the universe as a parallel reality is not acceptable in the traditional advaita vision. Advaita recognises only limitless existence-consciousness to be real and thus requires the existence of the universe to be resolved ultimately into that Reality.

 Putting all this together, the question now becomes: Which of the three interpretations of the teaching – dvaita, vaśiṣṭādvaita or advaita – makes more sense in helping me discover the truth of who I am? Or is some other view, like that of the athiests, more helpful? Don’t accept someone else’s crunching of the data: reflect on what you yourself understand and you will know which of the two scenarios you propose is more ‘right’ and why.

A (Dennis): There are whole books written on this topic and half-a-dozen (at least) differing theories regarding the creation of the world. All suffer from deficiencies and often contradict one another.

Your ‘alternative, plausible explanation’ sounds like the charvaka’s (materialist) view. You say that ‘the truth is that we are just chemicals / molecules / energy quanta’. Is the salt on your table aware of the sugar? The missing, and quite inexplicable factor (by materialists/scientists) is consciousness. Unless you can explain this, you have no viable theory.

The mAyA explanation is also deficient in the final analysis. According to Advaita, there are not two things, so we cannot have brahman AND mAyA. And brahman cannot ‘do’ anything (and could have no desire to do it anyway). So, such explanations can only ever be interim, ‘explaining’ the seeming world at the level of that world. In the end, you have to accept that there is no creation and that everything is just name and form of brahman.

There is an interesting refutation of Buddhism in Shankara’s bhAshya on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (unfortunately I don’t have the reference). The Buddhist is arguing that there is nothing other than consciousness, which is ‘self-luminous’, like a lamp which illuminates itself as well as the objects around it. But Shankara says that the lamp needs consciousness to ‘reveal’ it. For something to be ‘revealed’, it must be possible for it to be present or absent to the revealer. Since the lamp cannot be absent from itself, it cannot be its own revealer. The bottom line of this is that consciousness is distinct from its objects. I.e. realism, not idealism. (Of course, the ‘objects’ are mithyA, so this does not pose any threat to advaita.) [Ref. Vol. III of Karl Potter’s ‘Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies’ for this discussion.]

One thought on “Reality of the World – Q.336

  1. Dennis: “There is an interesting refutation of Buddhism in Shankara’s bhAshya on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (unfortunately I don’t have the reference). The Buddhist is arguing that there is nothing other than consciousness, which is ‘self-luminous’, like a lamp which illuminates itself as well as the objects around it. But Shankara says that the lamp needs consciousness to ‘reveal’ it”.

    The reference is: l.iv.7:
    ‘Objection: Suppose we say that the same Self is both subject and object, like a lamp?
    Reply: No, for It cannot be both simultaneously. Besides the Self cannot be supposed to have parts*. This also refutes the (Buddhist) view that the same consciousness is both subject and object…
    * fn. of trans: As a lamp has, the flame illumining the rest of it.

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