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.

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?

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bAdha versus nAsha

The following was posted to the Advaitin List by Satyan Chidambaran, who has agreed for me to record it here.

There is a distinction between bAdha (sublation) and nAsha (destruction) that the tradition makes.

To know that a Pot is not real, and only clay alone is real, one shouldn’t need to destroy (engage in nAsha of) the Pot appearance. One just needs to know clearly that the Pot is just a name and form and Clay alone really exists. Therefore, even when seeing a Pot, a “Clay j~nAnI” knows clearly that the Pot is mithyA nAma rUpa and Clay alone is satyam. This is bAdha of the Pot.

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Plato and Opinions

Is everything said just an opinion? 

Mostly yes, except for mathematics, which is not theory-dependent. If you are appalled at reading this, wait a second. 1) All scientific statements are theory-dependent and subject to further developments in the empirical sciences. 2) In ordinary life what is considered true, objective, common-sense statements (e.g. London is the capital of England) are true within the parameters of empirical life.

From the metaphysical perspective, however – for instance, that of Plato – things are quite different, e.g. what is a physical object, whether natural or man-made? What is ‘true opinion’? What do the senses tell us and how to relate them to the Intellect (nous)? In this higher, metaphysical, order there is, following Plato, only one (ultimate) truth: that arrived at through contemplation of ‘Ideas’ or archetypes, themselves reducible to the one supreme Idea, ‘the Good’. This is the only thing that merits the name of real knowledge according to Plato and is not transferable from person to person.

All interactions between people can be considered at most ‘true opinion’ (except, as said, consensual, empirical truths for the most part). Plato found ‘true opinion’ to be lacking in epistemic support; in the end, he even made a joke about it, rather than ending with the usual ‘aporia’ (indeterminable). A similar account of truth v. belief or opinion can be found in Eastern metaphysics.

 Enlightenment, for Plato, can only be effected through the contemplation of the highest Idea, the Idea of the ‘Good’, which involves having led a life in accord with that supreme end.

If one has in view Advaita Vedanta in that respect – opinion (or ’true opinion’) – the ready answer lies in vyavahara/vyavaharika, which refers to the empirical life as a whole, where everything is relative. In this realm can we not say that everything in human interactions is just an opinion, except, say, for the words of a real jñani?

The Final Paradox – ahaṃ brahmāsmi

Shankara’s explanation in Bhagavad Gita bhāṣya 2.21

[Note that this is a ‘stand-alone’ article which nevertheless supplements the material asking ‘Who am I?’ in the pratibandha posts beginning https://www.advaita-vision.org/pratibandha-s-part-5-of-7/. It provides a response to Venkat’s challenge at https://www.advaita-vision.org/verse1-of-drg-drsya-vivek-an-analysis-of/#comment-9797]

Reality is non-dual. All Advaitins know that this is the teaching, even if they have not yet succeeded in reconciling this with the appearance of the world and their own apparent individuality.

The Self does not act. The jñānī knows this. The well-known statement in Bhagavad Gita 5.8-9 tells us that: The balanced person who knows the truth thinks: ‘I do nothing at all; it is only the senses relating to their sense objects,’ even whilst seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, excreting or grasping; even just opening or closing the eyes. It is all simply the ‘play of the guṇa-s’, name and changing form, like the movement of waves on the surface of the ocean – all is always only water.

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Q.521 External Objects

Q: Do objects exist independently? For example, if one is not seeing the moon then does moon exist or not?

A: From the perspective of absolute reality (paramArtha), of course there is no problem; no question or answer! There is only Brahman; no creation and no objects. But I assume that your question relates to empirical reality (vyavahAra). Here, Advaita teaches that Ishvara governs the ‘creation’, setting and maintaining the physical laws that apply to the universe and the karmic laws that apply to the jIva-s. It is only some post-Shankara philosophers who try to make out that there is only one jIva so that, as soon as this jIva is enlightened, the apparent creation comes to an end. You can read all about the ‘world disappearing on enlightenment’ in the seemingly endless discussions we had on that topic beginning in 2020 (I think).

So, as regards your specific question, objects continue to exist when you go out of the room (for example). Otherwise, other jIva-s would not be able to enjoy them! Suppose that you go outside at night with a friend and both look at the moon. And suppose that you turn away but your friend doesn’t.  If the moon ceased to exist, so would your friend (who is also an object at the gross level).

Advaita is not subjective idealism. Objects are not ‘in the mind’ (although the names and forms that we give them ARE in the mind – hence we can see a rope as a snake). But the moon is not ‘real’ in an Advaitic sense; it is mithyA. The story of the sage and the wild elephant is relevant here. A seeker saw his guru run away when a rogue elephant charged. Afterwards he asked why his teacher had run when he would say that the elephant is mithyA. The teacher replied that the ‘running away’ was also mithyA. (At least, that is how I recall the story.)

Language and Color

Those people who regularly read my articles will know that, although my educational background is that of a scientist, I frequently criticize science in respect of its inability to say anything useful about the nature of reality. Because science can only operate by virtue of a subject making observations on an object, it only has validity in the empirical realm (vyavahAra). Nevertheless, I do acknowledge that science can sometimes throw light upon the thorny topics that we frequently encounter in advaita.  An obvious example of this is the findings of Benjamin Libet and Daniel Wegner regarding free will, about which I have written several times. Accordingly, I was very interested to hear recently (on a BBC Horizon program about how we perceive color) that scientists have carried out experiments which demonstrate that language affects the way in which we see the world.

I did not expect to see anything relating to advaita in the program but, when they described an experiment concerning the Himba tribe of northern Namibia, it quickly became clear that this was relevant to the vAchArambhaNa sutras from the Chandogya Upanishad.  

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Q. 514 Some thoughts on ‘Truth’

Q: Are true and false relative opposites, like fast and slow?

A: Wow – a difficult one!

To some extent, I think both depend upon context (so would have to be ‘relative’). Fast and slow are a good analogy. These still have an ‘absolute’ sense: ‘Fast’ (with capital letter) must be speed of light; ‘Slow’ must be stationary. Similarly, most statements can be construed as true or false ‘to a degree’, can’t they?

Here is the opening from the Philosophy Foundation website on ‘Truth-Falsity’:

Are these a) true, b) false, c) neither or d) both?

    ‘I am 20.

    ‘I am me.’

    ‘The Simpsons is a really good programme.’

    ‘I am shopping in Lewisham’ (when the speaker is shopping, but not in Lewisham)

    ‘This cake is made of jelly’ (when it is half jelly and half something else).

    ‘2 + 2 = 4’

    ‘Unicorns only have one horn.’

    ’10 grains of sand make a heap.’

    ‘This sentence is false.’

    ‘Aliens exist.’

Makes you think, doesn’t it?!

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Q.513 Negating the negator

Q: You wrote: We say ‘neti, neti’ not just to all of the presumed objects in the world, and to our body and mind, but also to the ahaMkAra ‘I’ that relates to this body-mind. The ‘I’ that is able to do this is the ‘witness’. It is the ‘negator’ that is left when everything else has been negated.

You also wrote: The ‘witness’ also has to be negated intellectually …(Answer to Q.402)

The first passage seems to imply that the witness cannot be negated, but that contradicts the second quote. Could you please clarify?

A: The point is that the entire teaching of Advaita necessarily takes place in vyavahAra. The ‘neti, neti’ practice is negating all of names and forms with which we identify and saying that it is the ultimate ‘identifier’ that we really are. But an ‘identifier’ is still a vyAvahArika concept. We have to recognize this fact (intellectually) and ‘as if’ negate the idea of witness too. Ultimately, the intellect has to ‘let go’ of everything, including ideas about Brahman and Non-Duality, in order to appreciate the final reality. But we know that this is still an intellectual exercise in vyavahAra, and (in vyAvahArika reality) we cannot negate the witness!

Neo – Advaita & Traditional Advaita

Martin. In this seeming world of so-called saṃsāra (or vyavahāra) language and understanding, is there an entity or entities that understand, judge, etc.?

Neo-Advaitin. This is simply ‘life’. ‘Being’ appears to talk to ‘Being’ about things that ‘Being’ already knows (and need no reminding). It is just ‘playing’.

Since there is never an actual central ‘self,’ there could be no separate entity that asks a question or makes a reply. There is no separate entity that asks or answers. It is simply Life answering Itself.

But it seems that you don’t get this, or are not able to discuss it without going back into concepts and the need to find the correct label to assign, whether that is ‘nihilism’, ‘Advaita Vedanta’, ‘spontaneously self-realized’, ‘abhāsa’, etc. I suggest you drop all that, all those presumed ‘things you know.’ Freedom lies in the unknowing, the moment-by-moment un-nameable, not in the knowledge, information, and labels that the ‘mind’ thinks it has gathered. Who is the ‘you’ called ‘Martin’ writing this question?

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