“Seeing” Objects per Advaita –

We all take it for granted that there is a world full of objects, plants, animals, people and so on out there external to us. All of us also believe that we are born into a world which pre-exists us.

The general public wonder how this enormous world came into being. The scientists study the various facets of its origin and evolution; philosophers conceptualize different ethereal theories for its creation; artists and poets sing peans in its praise.

Advaitins, on the other hand, are unique in their bold pronouncement that the appearance of a world is a mere mental projection, no more than a hallucination.

In order to explain their doctrine, they ask us to rewind our tape, go back to our own birth, the birth of all our ancestors, nay, not only the forefathers but humanity and life itself and beyond — including the very beginning of any living or non-living matter. In other words, clean out the slate completely. And begin at the very beginning. To help us in the process, Advaita tells us that the entire range of things we observe in the whole of the universe can be reduced to two categories:

  1. The Seer or Knower or The Sentience; (in Sanskrit, jnAnam) and,
  2. The ‘seen’ or ‘known’ or the ‘insentient’ (in Sanskrit, the jneyam).

The ancient Sages discovered, rather counter-intuitively, that It was all Infinite unbounded Sentience only and no ‘second’ thing that co-existed with It. They, for lack of any better way to say this fact, expressed It to be “a-dvaita” in Sanskrit meaning ‘Non-duality.’ It was all just jnAnam (derived from the root ‘jna‘ in its seed sense ‘to know‘). Nothing else whatsoever. The popular name used as a pointer to that formless jnAnam is brahman.

That’s what it is prior to all creation or evolution. And even Now! Paradoxically!!

We may think of the Orb of the Sun to give us a feel of It. What is there on the surface of the Sun except for his brilliance and illumination? To be in and as That pristine position prior to any ‘creation’ is Nirvana!

When that Infinite Unbounded Pure brilliant Knowing, “ignores” Its own Infinite nature and assumes ‘to be limited and finite’ for an inexplicable and unknown reason, the entire drama of the ‘appearance’ of a world begins.

We may wonder “Why does that Infinite, which is ever without a second, totally fulfilled and lacks nothing, “ignore” Its own Infinity?”

“It NEVER did,” assure us the Sages, with resounding certitude. Saying that It “ignores” is merely a hypothesis, a bait, to help us introspect ourselves and hive off from the unverified belief systems we are deeply entrenched in (like those assumptions mentioned in the opening paragraph).

So, the drama begins with the assumption that the Infinite “ignored” Its own boundlessness and ‘thinks’ It is bound and limited. Is that scenario really such an unbelievable and unconvincing strange thing? We may say, “YES.”

But not really. That’s what we have been doing in our own experience every night when we go to sleep. We ignore all our day-time acquired knowledge, experience, education, expertise, family, assets, intelligence and we create a private ‘Dream world’ for ourselves! Not once, but 4-5 times each night, as the Sleep experts tell us with the proof of hypnograms.

Likewise, we create the movie, “My World,” comprising the awake, dream and deep sleep states. The story writer for the basic movie “My World,” is our own accumulated ‘impressions’ stored in the form of our own “Causal body.” The Creator of the world (Ishwara as per the above mentioned hypothesis) also acts as the ‘karmaphaladAta‘ or Director for the film “My World.” But that projected film still remains invisible for us.

The causal body generates an idea’ or ‘thought’ (nAma, pratyaya) in the mind. A corresponding ‘object’ or ‘thing’ (rUpa, viShaya) gets projected outside to ourself. In order to be able to perceive it (i.e. ‘see’ the object using any of the five senses and mind), the ‘intellect’ has to reach that object and form a vRitti (a modulation) in the shape of that object, as Shankara explains in AtmajnAnopadeshavidhi. It is the intellect itself which ‘sees’ the ‘object’ with the capability ‘borrowed’ from brahman. Thus, our intellect plays a double role as both the ‘seen’ (object) and the ‘seer.’

Advaita introduces two key concepts at this stage. They are:

  1. vRitti vyApti‘ (pervasion of the thought modulation); and,
  2. phala vyApti.’ (pervasion of the result).

Sage Vasishta explains well these terms in the Chapter 2 of Yogavasishta. A brief summary is given below:

“Suppose that there is a tree in front of a man. His eyesight is normal. His eyes are wide open. There is adequate light. Even so, he does not see the tree. Why? You would say that he is inattentive, his mind is elsewhere. What exactly does it mean? His personal consciousness did not flow out through his eye and had not assumed the shape of the tree. Had it done so, he would have seen the tree.

What is the reason for the tree being seen only when the consciousness assumes the shape of the tree? To find the answer, we must know what the tree is. The fact of the matter is that everything in this creation is a transfiguration (a disguise) of brahman only. The difference is that brahman is self-effulgent. When brahman assumes the shape of inert things, the darkness of ‘ignorance’ pervades around them. So, they fail to shine by themselves. When an individual’s consciousness reaches that thing, the ignorance enveloping that thing is removed. That is called ‘vRRitti vyApti.’

Once the veil of ignorance is removed, the consciousness within that vRitti illuminates the object and makes the thing known. This is called ‘phalavyApti.’

[Note: For the sake of more clarity to the readers to understand the terms ‘vRittivyApti’ and ‘phalavyApti’ well, let us do a thought experiment. Say you are made to sit in a dark room. There is a table in front of you and on that table is a diamond. There is also a black curtain between you and the table. You are asked whether you can see that diamond?

You say, “No.” When you say that you do not see the diamond, some one has removed the curtain. You are again asked, “Do you see now?” You again say, ‘no.’ Then a light is switched on. The diamond is now seen clearly. In this world, the ignorance that envelops every inert (non-sentient) object is like the curtain in this story. The vRitti of the inner organ (mind) removes the curtain. This is vRittivyApti. Yet that thing is not known. Then the consciousness along with the vRitti of the inner organ acts like the light and then you see the thing. This is phalavyApti.

In our story, we depicted that the removal of the curtain and switching on the light having happened one after the other. But in real life, both vRRittivyApti and phalavyApti occur simultaneously.]”

— (Adopted from: http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/downloads/Yogavasishta_ii.pdf)

[For explanatory visuals as slides and also for a comparison with cognition of ‘objects’ as per modern Science with that of Advaita please click.] 

14 thoughts on ““Seeing” Objects per Advaita –

  1. [Also sprach Ramesam]: “Advaitins…are unique in their bold pronouncement that the appearance of a world is a mere mental projection, no more than a hallucination.”

    Shankara for one does not describe the world as an illusion or hallucination and in fact argues strenuously against the subjective idealists who reduce the world to a mere idea of the perceiving individual and who deny the world any existence outside of the mind. He disputes the claim that what appears to be outside the mind is illusory and argues for the objective nature of the world:

    “For external things are perceived as a matter of fact. It is wrong to say that external things do not exist merely on the ground that cognition is seen to have the likeness of an object, because the very likeness of an object is not possible unless the object itself be there, and also because the object is cognized outside.” (BSBh 2.2.28, page 420 of Swami Gambhirananda’s translation)

    Also of note is the fact that Shankara objects to equating waking and dream experiences. The significant difference is that dream experiences and perceptions are contradicted in the waking state, whereas the experiences of the waking state are not negated in any state. One is sublatable while the other is not. This distinction is especially important in view of the fact that Advaita interpreters commonly equate the two. For Shankara’s comment on this see BSBh 2.2.29, 423-424 and 2.2.30, 424-425.

    In his commentary on the Brahma Sutras, Shankara never uses the word ‘mithya’ (false or illusory) to describe the world. He makes frequent use of the word ‘mithya’ to characterize wrong knowledge of Brahman, but never to define the nature of the world.

  2. And at a higher level, when Sankara is not trying to arguing against Buddhist idealism . . .

    BG bhasya 2.16: Therefore you too, by adopting the vision of the men of realisation and giving up sorrow and delusion forbear the dualities . . . mentally being convinced that this phenomenal world is changeful, verily unreal and appears falsely like water in a mirage.

    Brhad Up bhasya 4.3.19: The experience of the waking state also is considered by the Sruti to be but dream. Another Sruti passage bears this out: ‘he has three abodes, three dream states’ (Aitreya 1.3.12)

    Aitreya Up bhasya 1.3.12:
    Q: The waking state is not a dream
    A: Not so, it is verily a dream. Since there is no consciousness of one’s own supreme Self, and in it are perceived unreal things as in a dream

    Upadesa Shashri
    7.5: The object only manifests in the mind and only when the mind itself is manifest (waking or dream). When (in dreamless sleep) the mind is not manifest the object has no existence. Therefore because the Seer is constant (through all three states) duality does not exist.
    17.18: Just as in dream, so also in waking, the external object and internal idealise as relative conceptions
    17.20: All this world is unreal and proceeds from nescience, because it is seen only by one afflicted with nescience, and is not seen in dreamless sleep.

    2.6: As dream objects are unreal in a dream so also, because of that very reason, the objects in waking state are unreal.
    2.6 bhasya: Therefore falsify is admitted of objects in the waking state as well.
    2.7 bhasya: the objects of the waking state are seen to be contradicted in dream. Accordingly we are of the opinion that their unreality, like that of dream objects, is beyond doubt
    2.31: Just as dream and magic are seen to be unreal, or as is a city in the sky, so also is this whole universe known to be unreal from the Upanishads, by the wise

  3. Thanks Venkat for all the shruti quotes.
    In fact, Rick himself quoted in his previous comments 2.1.14, 3.2.21, BSB, 4.5.15, BU, 2.4.12, BUB for the non-existence of a world.

    @ Rick, please do not forget that 2.2.28, BSB is a developing argument by Shankara against the Buddhistic concept of shUnya; it is NOT to say that the world exists. This point was raised, discussed and explained many times at this site.


  4. It occurs to me that some contributors do not appreciate the difference between existence and reality,

    Here is a paragraph I wrote very recently for the second volume of ‘Confusions – Ignorance and its Removal’ (this volume will address at great length the topic of disappearance of the world on enlightenment and related issues):

    ” And herein lies the distinction. The objects of the world are not real (avAstava) but they clearly exist (bhAvarUpa). Brahman is both real and existent. The barren-woman’s offspring is neither. The real thing (Brahman) exists all the time (and cannot be sublated). The unreal things never exist. Everyday objects exist at the time they are perceived but are neither real nor unreal. The fact that they do not exist all the time (i.e. they can be sublated) means that they cannot be real; the fact that they are perceived and utilized by us means that they cannot be unreal.”

  5. Nope. It occurs to me that some contributors do not appreciate an unnecessarily manufactured confusion over what is a meaningless distinction.

    It is this confusion which is at the heart of some proponents arguing for simultaneously having jnana whilst also holding onto the world – when Sankara unequivocally talked of renunciation of the wise (for self-evident reasons given unreality). So breaking this down:

    Firstly, dream objects ‘clearly exist’ but they are not real. Similarly, waking objects ‘clearly exist’ but they also are not real. Sankara eqautes the two, stating in Aitreya: “in it [the waking state] are perceived unreal things as in a dream”. One can get into some mental contortions as to whether one state has a higher degree of ‘existence’ or ‘reality’ than the other; but clearly that is not Sankara’s principal objective, or highest teaching if you will.

    Secondly, the objects of the world ‘clearly exist’ only because of ignorance. In the absence of ignorance, there can be no object and no subject. No duality. ADVAITA. It is confusion to maintain advaita, and then talk about the existence of subjects and objects; other than in the sense of a mirage or dream (with the body-mind also being part of the mirage)

    Re-read Upadesa Shashri
    7.5: The object only manifests in the mind and only when the mind itself is manifest (waking or dream). When (in dreamless sleep) the mind is not manifest the object has no existence. Therefore because the Seer is constant (through all three states) duality does not exist.

    Without a holistic understanding of what Sankara was trying to say, the essence of which he pithily summarised for us by ‘neti, neti and renunciation are the ultimate message being conveyed’, you are apt to get confused in diversions about the difference between existence vs reality of the world, and studiously miss the forest for the trees.

    • Addendum: another confusion.

      “The unreal things never exist. Everyday objects exist at the time they are perceived but are neither real nor unreal. The fact that they do not exist all the time (i.e. they can be sublated) means that they cannot be real; the fact that they are perceived and utilized by us means that they cannot be unreal.”

      Mandukya karika 2.6 bhasya et seq categorically refutes this

      Objection : The assertion that the things seen in the waking state are unreal like those seen in the dream is wrong, since objects of the waking state, for instance food, drink, vehicles, etc., ARE SEEN TO FULFIL SOME PURPOSE by assuaging hunger and thirst and moving to and fro, whereas dream objects have no such utility. THEREFORE IT IS A MERE FIGMENT OF THE BRAIN TO SAY THAT THE OBJECTS OF THE WAKING STATE ARC ILLUSORY LIKE THOSE OF DREAM.

      [Sounds like a prior birth of Dennis as the objector]

      Answer: That is not so

      Objection : Why?

      Answer: Because:

      7. Their utility is contradicted in dream Therefore from the fact of their having a beginning and an end they are rightly held to be unreal.

      Bhasya: Therefore the objects of the waking state are seen to be contradicted in dream. Accordingly, we are of opinion that their unreality like that of dream objects is beyond doubt.

      Dennis: “Everyday objects exist . . .but are neither real nor unreal” is meaningless obfuscation and flatly contradicts Sankara. Again, to reiterate Sankara from another source, Upadesha Sahashri

      17.20: All this world is unreal and proceeds from nescience, because it is seen only by one afflicted with nescience

  6. All of your arguments do not acquire more credence by being repeated. They are a wilful misunderstanding of what has been said. The world is mithyA, NOT unreal. Gaudapada/Shankara acknowledge utility in the waking world but argue that this does not prove reality. Ignorance is, in a sense, the cause of the world (Ishvara + mAyA) but eliminating ignorance in the individual does not eliminate the world-appearance, only the mistaken belief in its separate reality.

    I am not looking up all of the arguments from shruti and Shankara so that I can quote from them again. You (and any reader sufficiently interested to revisit them) can search for them in all of the discussions we had on this topic. EIther that or wait for Vol. 2 of ‘Confusions’ to be published (2024?).

    The articles, in order of posting (since some discussions carry forward from earlier ones) are as follows:
    1) https://www.advaita-vision.org/ignorance-goes-but-maya-remains/
    2) https://www.advaita-vision.org/the-disappearing-world/
    3) https://www.advaita-vision.org/ignorance-and-the-world/
    4) https://www.advaita-vision.org/the-i-am-realized-delusion-1/
    5) https://www.advaita-vision.org/the-i-am-realized-delusion-2/
    6) https://www.advaita-vision.org/the-i-am-realized-delusion-3/
    7) https://www.advaita-vision.org/ignorance-the-cause-of-the-world/
    8) https://www.advaita-vision.org/gaudapada-and-world-appearance/
    9) https://www.advaita-vision.org/the-i-am-realized-delusion-4/
    10) https://www.advaita-vision.org/the-i-am-realized-delusion-5/
    11) https://www.advaita-vision.org/post-enlightenment-perception/

    Most of the discussion takes place under 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 and 11.

    • And I, Dennis am not going to waste my time reading your convoluted arguments again – which I have previously read and disagreed with.

      You state you go back to find Sankara’s actual words and then cherry-pick and dismiss those that are not convenient.

      All of your posts do not acquire more credence by being repeated.

      As for Confusions, seems like a case of auto-projection to me.

  7. Dear Dennis,

    Thanks for your comment and the observations.

    The current Post of mine begins with a question about ‘What was it that was prior to the creation of a world.

    The question is more akin to the point made at 6.2.1, chAndogya.
    So, it is not about “disappearance of the world on enlightenment.”
    Hence, we are far away from this vexatious issue.

    The chAndogya mantra says very clearly ‘sadeva soumya idmagra AsIt.’ It also adds, ‘ekam, advitIyam.’ We all know the meaning of everyone of those terms. There is no reference to a world at all in them.

    Shankara’s bhAShya at that mantra is also quite illuminating. He raises a question and answers it himself:

    “Question: When was this Being only ?
    Answer: In the beginning, i.e., prior to the birth of the universe.”
    Please note the words “prior to the birth of the universe.”

    The second point I would like to draw your kind attention is to the fact that the words, you have chosen to express what you would like to, appear to be inadequate in this context.

    Even Shankara had to struggle a bit. He wrote in his commentary:
    “Being only — the term ‘Being’ stands for that entity which is mere *esse,* — subtle, undefinable, etc.” (Translation: Dr. G.N. Jha).
    Please notice the word “esse.”
    It is NOT equivalent to “exist.”
    “exist,” as you know is derived from Latin ‘ex sistere’ to mean “stand out.” So some ‘thing’ that stands out against a background is said to “exist.” brahman, is ever the ‘substratum,’ ‘the background,’ but not what stands out. It is the very ‘Beingness’ or ‘esse.’

    Likewise, “real” too, as the de facto convention says, is inadequate. We have to use “Real” (wth caps ‘R’) for brahman.

    Thus, it may not be very accurate to say ‘Brahman is both real and existent.’

    I do not mean to object to your expression. What you wrote serves well for ordinary purpose in a general way. But for a critical discussion, perhaps, we need a little bit of fine-tuning, I presume.

    The inadequacy of the words becomes apparent more conspicuously when you bring a comparison with the “barren-woman’s offspring.”
    That is an example for “atyanta abhAva” or “tuccha.”
    it is NOT the same as “unreal.”

    Moreover, as Venkat already highlighted, the argument based on “the fact that they are perceived and utilized by us means that they cannot be unreal,” is very weak to say the least. After all, dream objects too are perceived and utilized in the dream world. Just as one can rank the dream objects as “unreal” and cannot serve any purpose in the awake state, the awake objects too can be ranked as ‘unreal’ from the outlook of a dreamer as the awake objects cannot serve any purpose in the dream world.

    I am also not sure if a thing is ‘bhAvarUpa,’ it would autmatically mean that it ‘exists.’ For example, “ignorance” is said to be ‘bhAvarUpa.’ Does it really mean it is existent?


  8. Dear Ramesam,

    I don’t believe I was the one to take this into ‘world disappearing’ territory! Indeed, I was most reluctant to do so! It ended up there because someone started talking about there being no objects in the world.

    Regarding ‘existence’, this in fact comes from the Latin ‘existere’, which means things like ‘to become, to arise’, or even ‘to be’, but has the sense of coming into being. The word ‘esse’ is also Latin – infinitive of the verb ‘to be’. So you will have to explain to me what Jha means by his translation!

    If Brahman is NOT both real and existent, how would you put it?

    Apologies if what I wrote is only of value in a ‘general way’. I deliberately did not want to embark upon a detailed comment with supporting Shankara bhASya etc. I was simply making an observation for clarity.

    tuchCha IS the same as unreal if you define it to be so. In my writing, I use pAramArthika, vyAvahArika, pratibhAsika, and tuchCha as the ‘sequence’ of reality. And tuchCha stands at the far end of ‘unreal’ – something that is totally unreal (because not possible in the example of barren woman’s son). The middle two are mithyA in my parlance.

    I deal with Gaudapada’s and Shankara’s treatment of waking and dream utility and reality in ‘A-U-M’, as you know. I agree with your analysis but not your conclusion. I said (and you even quote me as saying) that objects perceived and utilized by us ‘cannot be unreal’. This is correct. I did not say that they were real. The appropriate term is ‘mithyA’.

    As regards the existence of ignorance, I am still writing about this. One observation is: “Yet, the fact the knowledge can bring an end to ignorance reinforces the idea that avidyA is a positive entity. We cannot bring an end to something that does not exist in the first place!”

    Best wishes,

  9. Dear Dennis,

    Thanks for the clarificatitons.
    I was searching for some old posts re: the question of “ignorance” and what happens on ending of ignorance.
    My search and reading is to continue still.
    I don’t have the last word, yet.
    But I felt it is quite germane to bring to your notice two excellent articles right at this Web site. Both are either written by you or edited by you!

    One is your 2016 article on Ignorance.
    Link: https://www.advaita-vision.org/ignorance-not-so-obvious/#more-5132

    Another is an extract of the discussions at AdvaitaL in 1998, led by Ananda Hudli.
    Link: http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/teachers/maya_hudli.htm

    In both the essays, I find that ‘ignorance’ is said to be the cause for the appearance of samsAra. So, obviously, then the eradication of ‘ignorance’ should bring an end to samsAra.

    Secondly, ignorance ‘seems’ to have two functional aspects – perhaps occurring together. One is the AvaraNa or covering effect and the other is the vikShepa or projection effect. There was no reference in the above two articles regarding a 2-phased removal of ignorance.

    It appears that it is a new approach in epistemology to suggest that removal of ignorance only establishes mithyatva of the world while the vikShepa continues. A very interesting discussion on this point is available in 2016 at AdvaitaL. I have to check back again to be sure, but looks that Dr. Sadananda supports such a view. Your 2016 article did not take such a stand of 2-phased removal of ignorance. Your quotes from your book, BTTT and your stand expressed therein appear to me to be uncontestable.


  10. Thanks for the references, Ramesam (and the vote of confidence!). I was aware of the first but not the second, which I shall now read.

    The AvaraNa-vikShepa treatment of ignorance is defininitely post-Shankara. Using it as the ‘explanation’: once the covering aspect has been removed (and one then knows that ‘I am Brahman’), there is no need to remove the projecting element. Please forward a link to the Advaita-L discussion if you find it.

    The way that I explain things may well differ from previous statements, since I have been studying and writing about the topic for the past 6 months. And everyone should be very wary of taking anything in BttT for ‘gospel’ Advaita. That was written many years ago and I am now much ‘wiser’!

    Best wishes,

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