Q: Since brahman is non-dual, attributeless, changeless, and eternal, and since brahman is everything, it must follow that everything is also non-dual, attributeless, changeless, and eternal. So how can it be that we experience duality, attributes, change, and impermanence in the world? How can the changeless manifest change, even if this change is in appearance only (mithyA)? How can there be anything but the “perfect” unchanging oneness if everything is this oneness?
A (Ramesam): The manifestation of Consciousness (= Brahman) as the world (multiplicity) in a sense is an “explanatory gap” from a strict rationalistic point of view. It is, perhaps, the ‘weakest link’ in the Advaita siddhanta (theoretical framework).
Having said so, there are a number of ways to resolve the ‘One –-> many’ problem. I shall list here several metaphors just to answer the “appearance” of the world part without getting into the bigger questions related to why and how of “creation” itself (origin of the universe).
1. Scriptural view: The Upanishads (e.g. Chandogya, Taittiriya) state that the undifferentiated changeless “That” desired to become ‘many.’ Because of the observed ‘change’ in the state, one may post facto deduce that a ‘power’ must have caused it. The name given to that power is mAyA. mAyA has no, ontologically speaking, independent existence. It is not ‘sat’ (real). But it wrought a change. Hence it is not non-existent either.
In other words, it is the indefinable, not-real-but-also-not-unreal power of mAyA that gives raise to the false appearance of the world.
This type of modification of the immutable Oneness into multiple forms is described by the scriptures as vivarta (Sanskrit word which can be translated as ‘changeless change’). The resultant product (appearance of the world) is placed in the category of real-unreal or mithyA.
One can never locate or find an entity mAyA anywhere. The scriptures narrate through several stories the futility of searching for mAyA. Therefore, admittedly, ‘mAyA vAda’ is an explanatory artifact.
Ignorance on your part: The scriptures also invoke ‘ignorance’ (avidyA) also to explain the manifestation of the variegated manifold. Ignorance arises with your forgetfulness. When a thought arises in you, you tend to forget your true nature and you will ‘run’ (metaphorically) with the thought. Thus you ‘ignore’ your True Self (as Brahman). The ignorance tentatively ‘veils’ what you truly are. When you forget thus who or what you truly are, you begin to see multiplicity instead of Oneness.
Other models: There are many other explanatory devices one comes across in the scriptures to elucidate the appearance of a world based on the concepts of ‘karma’ (as an effect of past actions), ‘divine play’ (a game played with no purpose), ‘anAdi’ (cyclic operation with no known point of origin) etc. etc.
In Reality (with a capital ‘R’), the apparent world that is perceived is comparable to a dream. It lasts as long as the dreamer believes in it and does not wake up from his/her dream. So the world is described to be no more than a “Flower in the sky” (gagana pushpa) or a “Castle in the air” (gandharva nagari).
What has to be fundamentally appreciated is the Advaitic philosophical truth that the very question of “why” (under the assumption that there has to be a preceding ‘cause’ for ‘what I see as a changing world’), makes the world to arise! In the absence of a ‘thinker’ asking such a question, ‘Whatever-Is-There’ simply IS. And that ‘Whatever-Is-There’ is Brahman. It is beyond the scope of the present space here to expand the intricate philosophical doctrine involved.
2. “Throb in the Blob” Metaphor: I proposed this metaphor in my Post of 23 Sep 2012 to answer essentially the same question but formulated slightly differently. It can be accessed here:
Imagine a homogeneous isotropic indivisible infinite shapeless Blob that has awareness. Say a small throb occurs somewhere within it. The throb is a movement. The movement takes the shape of a wave with crests and troughs. Space is required for any movement to take place. Movement also necessarily involves time for the change of position from one place to the other. So along with the throb, space and time are simultaneously engendered.
As the Blob looks through the oscillatory movement (i.e. The Blob being aware, it is aware of itself), variegated, colorful and multiple shapes appear to it, much like the one uniform white light passing through a prism gets refracted into multicolored spectrum. (Bear in mind that all this is taking place somewhere within the Blob itself and not anywhere outside the Blob because there is no ‘outside’ to the Blob).
In the above metaphor, the Blob is Brahman; the throb is a thought; and the colorful spectrum is the world. The ‘throb’ represents the thought of the “desire to see.”
The throb oscillates like a ripple. It raises and falls. With each rise of the thought, a world is generated. With each ending of the thought, the world is dissolved.
If there is no throb, there is no thought.
If there is no thought, there is no world.
The moment the throb (thought) rises, so does the world. The moment thought dissolves, the world too ends. Hence the appearance of the world happens from moment to moment.
Dennis pointed out (in a private e-mail) that even language (when we try to communicate the Oneness) may act like a prism and create duality because language by its very structure is dualistic.
Illustrative graphics can be seen at the above link.
3. The Computer Screen Metaphor: Another good way to understand the multiplicity is the analogy with the computer screen.
Suppose there is a picture on the screen. When you look at the picture, apparently you see the colorful girl, the running water, green trees, red flowers etc. But where is the screen? Has the screen disappeared anywhere? Whether it is the tree or flower or river, it is all screen only. At one pixel position, the screen takes the form of a flower and at another pixel it appears as river. But has it ever stopped being the screen whether you see a tree or water or whatever? Irrespective of the form it takes, it is always screen only. The picture on the screen temporarily veils the screen, but the screen does not disappear anywhere nor the screen stops being what it is. You are always and everywhere looking at the screen only unless you are absorbed in the content of the picture element forgetting the screen.
So also everything that appears is Brahman who tentatively appears at that point in that shape when you begin to look at things using your mind (and senses).
The everlasting screen is comparable to Brahman. If you ‘misidentify’ yourself with one of the characters on the screen or ‘non-apprehend’ the screen wherever you are, you do not see the screen, but you keep seeing the other picture elements.
4. The Forest and the Trees Metaphor: There is One Brahman alone and no second ‘thing’ (ekameva advitIyam). Therefore, Brahman has infinite freedom and none who can impose restraints or controls on Brahman. So Brahman can appear in any form It chooses.
Then automatically it means whatever is appearing is Brahman only. So what you may call as the ‘world’ is nothing but Brahman. It cannot be any other thing!
Let me give you a small example. I say there is a man only here and nothing else.
But you may say, “I find two hands hanging down a torso which is standing precariously on two slender awkwardly shaped pillars. There is a round thing on the top of this structure with some holes, two small shiny moving balls covered by lids etc. I see many things there but not a man. Where is the man?”
The obvious thing is that you are looking at Brahman but you are fragmenting it into several parts and seeing the different parts. The entire thing is Brahman only. You are missing the wood for the trees!
Isavasa Upanishad says ‘isaavaasa midagam sarvam’ (what there is around is permeated by Brahman only), Chandogya Up. Says ‘neha nAnAsti kincana’ (there is no multiplicity here).
5. The Eye can’t see itself: You see with your eye; but the eye cannot see itself. Similarly, the seer can never become the seen. The moment a thing is ‘seen’, there has to be someone different there who is the seer. Right?
You are yourself Brahman (the Seer like the eye). Then how can you see yourself?
Let me give you an example. Suppose you are a drop of water. You want to find out what an ocean is. So as a drop of water you enter the ocean. What happens? Can the water drop see the ocean as a separate thing sitting out there away from itself? The water drop in the ocean loses its identity. It is as much the ocean as what is around.
Frustrating though it is, you (i.e. the one who thinks (s)he is this body-mind seeing a world out there using his sensory organs) can never see Brahman. He will see a world only.
In fact the sensory system of the human body is so built that it is sensitive to notice ‘change’ only. If there is no change, the neurons in the brain become ‘adapted’ and fail to perceive anything, (For example: have you been feeling the shirt on your back until I point out now to you?)
6. Looking makes the world to arise: Brahman becomes the world the moment you look at It.
To look at a thing, you have to position yourself away from what you look at. That means you create space and distance between you and the thing you are looking at. That in turn means, you think that you are separate from the thing being looked at.
In other words, the sense of separation actually comes first and then you are able to look at a thing. When the sense of a separate ‘me’ here looking at a thing there arises, the ONE Brahman gets divided into two – “I” here and the “world” there. If there is no sense of separate ‘me’, there is no “I” here and a distant “world” there. All are One.
7. Mind as Mirror: Suppose you want to look at your face. How do you do it? You use a mirror. Without a mirror or some reflector, you cannot see your own face. Similarly, when Brahman gets a thought to look at itself, the ‘thought that I am separate’ comes. This ‘thought I am separate’ has the name ‘mind.’ Mind works as the mirror. So Brahman looking at himself through mind, sees his reflection – which is called the world.
The mind works with the assistance of the five senses. The five senses pass on their own qualities to what is observed (like colored filters painting their own color). As a result the one Brahman appears as multiplicity.
8. Limitation of the Apparatus: Suppose you are sitting in a closed room and looking out through a small narrow window. Obviously then the view you get will be limited. It is so because of the inherent limitation or defects in the apparatus you are using to look at; but it is not a limitation of what is out there. The mind and the sensory organs you use are inadequate to show the infinite Brahman and provide you fragmented views broken as per the senses – something visual, some part auditory, yet another part tactile and so on instead of the one “Whole.” So you think what is seen is divided into parts attributing the limitation of the instruments of perception to what is seen.
A common example given in the Vedanta is appearance of ‘two moons because of defective vision in the eye’. Though there is actually only one moon, a short-sighted man sees as if there is more than one moon in the sky. So your inability to perceive the unchanging Oneness of Brahman is because of the limitations of your mind and the sensory organs.
A (Meenakshi): *// Since brahman is non-dual, attributeless, changeless, and eternal, and since brahman is everything, it must follow that everything is also non-dual, attributeless, changeless, and eternal.*//
Everything we see is non-dual, attribute-less and changeless IN ESSENCE. We certainly see divisions but the underlying basis of the apparent divisions is one division-less truth.
*//So how can it be that we experience duality, attributes, change, and impermanence in the world? *//
The duality and change we experience belong to the material world. The non-material self is the substratum upon which the changes occur. The self remains unchanged. Is self a different, limited thing separated from the material world? No, it is inherent even in the material world yet is association-less. We can take the example of silver ware. There is silver in spoon, glass dish etc. There are divisions but the only truth is the silver. No silver, implies no silverware. Here, silver is the essence. So also, the self is the basis upon which all changes of the body, mind and world occur. The essence is the changeless self that is the core of one’s own being.
*//How can the changeless manifest change, even if this change is in appearance only (mithyA)?*//
The changeless is not undergoing any change. The change is apparent and it belongs only to the material world, body and mind. The self is action-less and modification-less. If the self were undergoing modification it would be as finite as any other material object. In the presence of the self all changes take place in objects. The change is only in the body, mind and world.
*//How can there be anything but the “perfect” unchanging oneness if everything is this oneness?*//
The answer lies in the word ‘false’. Two orders of reality are to be kept in mind: empirical order of reality and absolute order of reality (vyAvahArika satta and pAramArthika satta respectively). While the empirical is of the world, in terms of functions, actions changes etc, the absolute is the standpoint where the world is not there at all. In the absolute where is change, where is action?
The waker sleeps, the dreamer-hood begins, the dream world begins. The very moment of awakening from dream is the moment when the dream world is destroyed. Where is the dream tiger or dream disappointment now? Was it ever truly there? Similarly, the world can be equated to the dream. Upon awakening to knowledge, meaning upon understanding the Vedantic truth without a trace of doubt, one cognitively appreciates the falsehood of the world (though it still appears in front of him). The world is empirically real.
The world, body and mind continue as before. One will still face the same plumbing issues in the house and weeds will still grow in the backyard. Outwardly nothing changes. The change is in understanding and the status that one gives to what he perceives.
We, as children, are taught that the sun rises in the east. As we go to higher grades, we understand that sun neither rises nor sets. The motion of the earth causes the illusion of sunrise and sunsets. Though we understand this, we continue to use the word ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’. In the same way, though one may have an appreciation of the truth as being one’s own self, he will continue to transact in the world amidst divisions.
A (Dhanya): This is a very good question.
Your first sentence reads: “Since brahman is non-dual, attributeless, changeless, and eternal, and since brahman is everything, it must follow that everything is also non-dual, attributeless, changeless, and eternal.”
Right here, in the first sentence, there is an incorrect conclusion. Something has been left out. The initial statement isn’t quite correct.
In Sanskrit an initial statement is called ‘the pratij~nA.’ Here is a quote from my teacher, Dr. Carol Whitfield, on the subject of the pratij~nA:
In logical syllogisms, if what we call the pratij~nA, the initial statement is false, and you don’t know that, like a bouncing ball of logical steps, we will logically come up with very valid conclusions based upon the false initial statement. If that initial statement is wrong, your conclusion can be correct in reference to the initial statement, but be totally incorrect in reference to what is.”
What has been left out of the initial statement is a very important word. The word is ‘being.’ In order to make the statement correct one would need to add the word ‘being.’ ‘The being of everything is brahman.’
If the being of everything is brahman, then it does not logically or necessarily follow that everything that appears has to be unchanging, but rather only that the being of everything that appears is unchanging, and this is completely true.
One way the teachings point this out is through the use of the word ‘is.’
‘Is,’ i.e. existence, is the one constant of every single changing thing. Chair is, table is, experience is. I am, you are, he is, she is, etc. The words ‘is, am, and are’ all refer to brahman.
The isness of everything is brahman. There is no getting out of isness. Even though objects come and go, they all come and go in isness. Isness is the changeless, attributeless, eternal being of every changing thing.
One analogy the teachings use to illustrate this is the dream experience.
When you have a dream at night, the dream comes from you, is sustained by you, and resolves into you; and yet when you wake up in the morning, nothing has happened to you. Your being was the very being of the dream. The material of the dream was your being. But in actuality your being was never touched or modified by the dream in any way.
Everything in the dream was you, the characters, the scenery—you may have even taken the part of an individual character. All things in the dream appear to be different from each other, some are moving, some not; some are changing, some not; all have different attributes, yet in reality the being of all of them is you. The one unchanging constant of the dream, the very basis of its existence, is your being.
You are the material of the dream, and the intelligence displayed in it is your intelligence, but when you wake up in the morning and the dream is gone, nothing has happened to you. Nothing has happened to your being. You were untouched by the dream. But while it was going on, and you were either playing a part in it or just witnessing it, it appeared to be greatly varied and totally real.
How did that happen? How did your being, without changing in any way, manifest a dream that displayed with such variety? How does this waking world of experience manifest with such great variety without changing brahman in any way?
The teachings of Vedanta provide an explanation for the manifestation of the dual world of experience which we see in the waking state. The explanation is mAyA shakti.
Intrinsic to brahman is a power called mAyA which manifests an apparent world of duality that has brahman for its being without brahman undergoing any change at all. This is the explanation the teachings give.
I like one word I have often heard Swami Dayananda use to explain the appearance of the world of duality, “Magic!”
Your last sentence reads: How can there be anything but the “perfect” unchanging oneness if everything is this oneness?
In a sense this is true. There really is only unchanging oneness. That is the truth. That is satyam.
The changing manifestation of the shared waking world is ‘less real,’ than brahman—that which gives it being.
In your dream, while it was going on, it seemed entirely real, didn’t it? You may have had lots of different experiences, or witnessed many different things. Yet in reality your being, the very being of the dream, remained untouched. So too is it here. Brahman—the very being of this shared waking world of experience—remains unaffected, attributeless, changeless, and eternal, despite the appearance of duality. Brahman is that which is really real—the being of every changing thing.
A (Dennis): If you look at Mandukya Upanishad mantra 7 – possibly the most famous mantra in all of Advaita, and justifiably so – brahman is ‘described’ as achintyam and avyapadeshyam and agrAhyam. The first word means it cannot be thought about; it is beyond the mind or inconceivable. The second means indefinable, not an object of experience. The third means not graspable, beyond understanding or comprehension – it cannot be ‘caught’ by any of the organs of action.
In fact, here is something I wrote in Nov 11 – I can’t recall in what context or whether it was published anywhere:
Absolute Reality (brahman or turIya) cannot be ‘described’. In order for something new to be ‘describable’ at all, it has to satisfy one or more of five conditions:
• It can be available for direct perception via at least one of the senses. Then we can give it a name and refer to it.
• It may be a species of something with which we are already familiar.
• It can have describable properties, such as color.
• It can provide a describable function.
• It can have some describable relationship with something that we know.
Since brahman doesn’t have any of these aspects, we cannot talk directly about it. However, that is not to say that we cannot speak of it indirectly. And this is how the scriptures operate.
Some ways in which they manage to achieve this are:
• Speaking of brahman as the ‘witness’ is analogous to saying that the sky is blue – it is an ‘apparent’ attribute.
• Speaking of brahman as ‘consciousness’ (in relation to the body). This is acting as a ‘pointer’ from something that we know to something that we cannot describe. The classical example is describing a house as ‘the one on which a crow is (temporarily!) sitting. It is an ‘incidental’ attribute.
• Speaking of what brahman is not. The example often used is identifying a man by his baldness – the fact that he has no hair. Thus, brahman is described as adRRiShTam – (it is) unseen (by any of the senses); avyavahAryam – nothing to do with ‘worldly’ things; agrAhyam – beyond understanding; alakShaNam – without any characteristics; achintyam – inconceivable; avyapadeshyam – indefinable. (And this is just in one mantra of the Mandukya Upanishad.)
• Speaking about something else and about brahman only by implication. This is what is often referred to as ‘neti, neti’, ‘not this, not this’. When we have finished negating, whatever is left must be brahman by implication. The example that Swami Dayananda’s disciples use is speaking of the elder son as being very intelligent (and thus implying that the younger is relatively stupid!)
So you are fighting a certain-to-be-lost battle if you are trying to ‘pin down’ brahman in some way! What is truth, reality or brahman? brahman has no attributes and, since we can only describe attributes and not the ‘thing-in-itself’, the question is essentially unanswerable. This is why Wittgenstein would not say anything. “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”
The functioning of advaita is not to tell us what brahman is but to remove all our false notions, Hence the ‘purpose’ of neti, neti. As I said in ‘Book of One’, paraphrasing A. C. Doyle: “when all has been investigated and rejected, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” When all attempts to define brahman have been rejected, as Karl Potter puts it, “pure consciousness will remain unqualified by adjuncts, and that state of understanding will constitute liberation.”
And Shankara says, in the BSB II.1.14, that the means of knowledge can only operate in the realm of ignorance so they must inevitable fail to tell us about reality. When you wake up, the dream monsters disappear.