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:
- The Seer or Knower or The Sentience; (in Sanskrit, jnAnam) and,
- 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:
- ‘vRitti vyApti‘ (pervasion of the thought modulation); and,
- ‘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.]