The Theory of Vivarta

Advaita Vedaanta explains the creation of the world by the theory of vivarta. (…) According to Advaita, the effect is not an actual transformation of the cause. Brahman is immutable and there can be no transformation of it. It only serves as the substratum (adhishThaana) for the appearance of the universe, just as the rope serves as the substratum for the appearance of the illusory snake.


This appearance of the universe is due to avidyaa, or nescience, which conceals Brahman by its veiling power (aavaraNa s’akti) and projects the universe by its power of projection (vikshepa s’akti). The universe is therefore said to be only a vivarta, or apparent transformation, of Brahman. Like the illusory snake with rope as the substratum, the universe is illusory, or mithyaa, with Brahman as the substratum.

But there is a vital difference between the illusoriness of the rope-snake and that of the universe. While the snake is purely illusory, or praatibhaasika, the universe has empirical, or vyaavahaarika, reality. That means that the universe is real for all those who are still in ignorance of Brahman. It loses its reality only when Brahman is realized as the only reality and as identical with one’s own self, or, in other words, when identification with the body-mind complex completely disappears.

Bondage is nothing but identification with the body-mind complex. This identification being due only to the ignorance of the truth that one is really the aatmaa, which is the same as Brahman, it can be removed only by the knowledge of one’s real nature as Brahman.

Vedanta Spiritual Library |                                                 Elucidation of Terms and Concepts in Vedanta                                                         [Based on the Commentaries of Sri Sankaracharya and other authoritative texts]                                       By S. N. Sastri

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About Sitara

Sitara was born in 1954, she became a disciple of Osho in 1979. In 2002, she met Dolano and from then on,discovered Western-style Advaita teachings, especially those of Gangaji. After reading Back to the Truth by Dennis Waite in 2007, Sitara started to study traditional Advaita Vedanta (main influences being Swami Paramarthananda, Swami Dayananda and Swami Chinmayananda). She teaches several students on a one-to-one basis or in small groups (Western-style teaching inspired by Advaita Vedanta). Sitara is highly appreciative of Advaita Vedanta while at the same time approving of several Western Advaita teachers. She loves Indian culture and spent many years in India.

7 thoughts on “The Theory of Vivarta

  1. Dear Sitara,

    Could I trouble you for a reference in the Upanishads for this distinction between illusory vs empirical vs ultimate reality, and for the multiple water pots theory of reflected consciousness? Or are these explanatory models developed by Sankara and his followers?

    Thanks and best wishes,


    • Dear Venkat,

      I am sorry to say that I cannot help you here. These explanatory models are derived from the Upanishads but I do not remember any direct reference to the the terms vyavahara, pratibhasa or paramartha or even the multiple water pots theory of reflected consciousness. This does not mean that they do not exist as I am not an expert on the Upanishads at all. Maybe Ramesam would know better because he studied Vedanta much more and much longer than me. If he also does not know I can ask Shri Sastriji himself because if someone knows he would be the one.

  2. Dear Venkat,

    I believe you are right. The word vivarta does not occur in any of the Upanishads and I believe that the 3 ‘states’ of reality were ‘devised’ by Shankara. However, it does all follow logically from what IS in the Upanishads. Gaudapada used the word vaitathya, which is effectively a synonym for mithyA (which also does not occur in the scriptures). Both of these words convey the sense of vivarta.

    Here is an extract from a more academic source on the subject:

    “It is clear that the earliest usage of the term ‘vivarta’, (understood in post-Sankarite Vedanta as a technical term for the illusoriness of the creative act), was to denote the “rolling out” or “unfolding” of creation. Thus, it had none of the “illusionistic” connotations that were later attributed to it. This is how the term was used by Sankara himself and conforms to the understanding of the term ‘viparivartate’ as it occurs in Bhagavadgita 9-10, and Sankara’s commentary upon it. It is only in the post-Sankarite works of Advaita Vedanta that we find the term ‘vivarta’ used in the specific sense of ‘apparent’ as opposed to ‘real’ (parinama) transformation. The term does not occur in this sense in the works of Sankara and is not to be found in the Gaudapadiya-karika, although Sankara’s contemporary Mandana-misra does appear to have used it in distinction to parinama. Pre-Sankarite Vedanta, therefore, seems unaware of the vivarta :: parinama dichotomy. This in all likelihood reflects the fact that the early Vedanta school was overwhelmingly realistic in its approach to the created world of duality. It is important to note, however, that the development of the doctrine of creation as an illusory transformation of Brahman occurs in the Gaudapadiya-karika, without recourse to the ‘vivarta’ terminology.

    “Nevertheless, we should note that the notion of ‘unfoldment’ does not imply any change in the thing that is being unfolded (in this case the unfoldment of Brahman at creation). Perhaps the best translation of the term ‘vivarta’, (one which remains etymologically similar and semantically appropriate), is that of ‘distortion’. Vivarta then is a distortion in two basic respects. On the one hand such a rendering reflects the basically negative attitude of (particularly, but not exclusively) later Vedanta towards the realm of samsara. The created realm is a ‘disfigurement” of Brahman’s essential non-duality. It is this evaluative depreciation of the material world of multiplicity that is emphasized in so much of the post-Buddhistic formulations of Vedanta. On the other hand, the notion of ‘distortion’ implies that what appears is not what The Vedantic Heritage of the Gaudapadiya-karika actually is. This latter sense of the term is one that is particularly emphasized in Advaita Vedanta. The world appears as if it is real, but It Is really nothing but a distortion, a false apprehension, of the all- encompassing unity of Brahman. Just as in the dark a rope can be distorted so as to appear as a snake, so is Brahman distorted so as to appear as the dualistic world of samsara. This particular aspect of the term vivarta is that which is most clearly brought into prominence In the Vedanta of Sankara’s successors.”

    Early Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism, Richard King, Sri Satguru Publications.
    ISBN: 8170305586

  3. Re: vivarta vAda (The Doctrine of changeless change):

    The Dakshinamnaya Sharada Pitham of Sringeri has an online searchable database of the prasthAna trayabhAshya of Shankara. (We have to use devanagari script only).
    See here:

    I made a quick search for vivarta. I found the word vivartate occurring in the taittiriya mantra But the word vivartate there means appears.

    vivartate also appears in the commentary of Shankara for the mantra of taittiriya. Shankara writes as vivartate is vibhAgena vartate (occurs separately).

    I understand the word vivartate also comes in Svetaswatara Upanishad mantra 6.2. (This Upanishad is not available at the Sringeri database). But here too, the meaning can be taken to be as appears only.

    Hence we can say that the Doctrine of changeless change (vivarta vAda) as a theory is a post-Upanishadic post-Shankara development.

    Re: The three realities:

    Reference to pAramarthika and vyAvahArika (and by implication prAtibhAsika)satya can be traced back to Sureshwara’s time (in his vArtika on taittiriya bhAshya). As Shri V. Subrahmanian observes, this usage is available in the shruti semantically (अर्थतः arthataH) but not by actual words (शब्दतः shabdataH).
    — please see for more detail:

    Re: The Reflection theory:

    The great divide between the two major schools of Advaita, viz., bhAmati and vivaraNa is defined by which metaphor is more appropriate to express the relation between brahman and the individual (jIva). The Reflection theory is favored by the vivaraNa group. I touched briefly on this at:

    Re: vaitathya:

    Gaudapada kArikA calls its second chapter by the name vaitathya prakaraNa. The word also appears as the leading word of the first verse in this chapter. vaitathya means falseness.


  4. Thank you, Ramesam, for those very helpful references. Great article of yours in Advaita Academy! In addition to your table 1 I post another piece from S.N. Sastriji’s Vedantic concepts below. All of this is getting very technical but nevertheless may be interesting for some readers.

    I would like to point out that all these theories are within the scope of Advaita, all of them are considered acceptable as long as the final conclusion, identity of jiva and Brahman is not affected.

    Different theories about the nature of jiiva and iis’vara
    By Sri Sastriji

    Among Advaitins there are three different theories on this point. These are described in Vichaara saagara, ch.6, para 449 onwards.

    1. aabhaasavaada (Semblance theory)—This is the vaada or theory adopted in Panchadas’i. According to this, the jiiva is an aabhaasa or semblance of Brahman in the internal organ which is an effect of avidyaa. This reflection or semblance is mithyaa or illusory. In B.S.2.3.50.S.B it is said– The jiiva is an aabhaasa or semblance of the supreme Self, like the semblance of the sun in water. The jiiva is not the Self itself, nor is it something different.
    In the Bhaashya on Ch.up.6.3.2 S’rii S’ankara says that the jiiva is an aabhaasa or semblance of the supreme Being.

    2. pratibimbavaada (Reflection theory)—This is the theory adopted by the author of VivaraNa, Prakaas’aatma Muni. According to this, jiiva is the reflection of iis’vara who is the bimba or the original in avidyaa. iis’vara, according to this theory, is Brahman or pure consciousness itself. Omniscience, etc, are not His natural qualities. But in relation to jiiva who has limited knowledge, power, etc, the qualities of being a bimba, iis’vara, etc, are superimposed. In this theory, the reflection, jiiva, is not mithyaa, but real. This theory is expressed in Amr.tabindu upanishad,12—
    The one Self appears as different in different beings. It appears as one and as many, like (the reflection of) the moon in water. See also B.S.3.2.18.S.B.

    3. avachchhedavaada (Limitation theory)—This is the view of the author of Bhaamatii, Vaachaspati Mis’ra. In this theory the jiiva is a delimitation of consciousness by the internal organ, while iis’vara is not so limited. This theory is employed by GauDapaada and S’ankara in MaaNDuukya Kaarikaa, 3.3 to 7. It is said in the Bhaashya on 3.3:- The Self is subtle, partless and all-pervasive like space. The Self is spoken of as existing in the form of jiivas in the same way as space is referred to as existing in the form of spaces circumscribed by pots. The idea implied is that the emergence of jiivas from the supreme Self is comparable to the emergence of the spaces in different pots from the same all-pervading space.

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