Understanding Reality

Understanding Reality
in the Vision of Advaita Vedānta

by Wolfgang P., wpl@gmx.net

We, as human beings, are interested in reality. Unlike animals, we are able to ask questions about the nature of our experience. We understand that experiences are numerous and fleeting, so the question arises: What is the reality behind those experiences? From this question subsequent ones emerge: What does it mean to say something is ‘real’ or ‘unreal’? What is the nature of reality? Vedānta is a body of knowledge to analyze the nature of reality and its relationship to the individual (jīva). It applies a teaching methodology that has been handed down from teacher to student since time immemorial. The aim of Vedānta is to make one understand its fundamental tenet:1

ब्रह्म सत्यं जगत् मिथ्या जीवो ब्रह्मैव नापरः

brahma satyaṃ jagat mithyā jīvo brahmaiva nāparaḥ

Brahman is the only truth (satyam), the world, jagat, is unreal (mithyā), and there is ultimately no difference between brahman and the individual self (jīva).

In this article I will explain the three categories Vedānta provides to understand reality: sat or satyam, asat, and mithyā.2 When we talk about reality, we need to distinguish that-which-is-real from that-which-is-not-real. This discriminative inquiry is called tattva-viveka. In Sanskrit, that-which-is-real is called satyam, whereas that-which-is-not-real is called asat. Satyam means something is existing on its own and is not depending on something else for its existence. Asat means not existing at all, like ‘the horns of a hare’ or ‘a barren woman’s son’. Mithyā is what is depending on something else for its existence. Vedānta claims that only brahman, the Absolute, is satyam. Everything else is mithyā, depending on brahman for its existence, including the indiviual (jīva), which makes it non-separate from brahman. Understanding satyam, asat and mithyā results in a correct vision of reality. In the Bhagavad Gītā, Kṛṣṇa informs Arjuna:

नासतो विद्यते भावो नाभावो विद्यते सतः ।
उभयोरपि दृष्टोऽन्तस्त्वनयोस्तत्त्वदर्शिभिः ॥ २-१६ ॥

nāsato vidyate bhāvo nābhāvo vidyate sataḥ | ubhayorapi dṛṣṭo’ntastvanayostattvadarśibhiḥ || 2-16 ||

For the unreal (asat), there is never any being. For the real (satyam), there is never any non-being. The ultimate truth of both (the real and the unreal) is seen by the knowers of truth.

I will provide two examples to illustrate mithyā. They should clarify why a third category between satyam and asat is necessary. There are a number of words in English which are antonyms of ‘real’: Something can be illusionary, fictional, or non-existent. Mithyā is often translated with ‘illusion’, but it is more accurate to speak about dependent reality. We usually say that something is an illusion, if it appears to be different from what it actually is. For example, when we walk along a forest trail at dawn, it could happen that we believe we see a snake rolled up in front of us. But as we are getting closer, we realize there is only a coiled rope. The snake was an illusion.

In mathematics, there are universally true statements, like Pythagoras’ theorem, as well as universally false statements, like the claim that the angular sum of a triangle is 90°.3 True statements in this sense are always true, independent of time, location or the viewpoint of the one who is making the claim. The same accounts to mathematically false statements. What has been recognized as absolutely true cannot be subject to negotiation, because it does not change. What has been recognized as absolutely false will never become true.

In between the two opposites, satyam, and asat, lies the peculiar realm of illusions. They appear to be real, but they cannot be taken as real in the above sense. Think about movies. We love to go to the movies and be part of a sci-fi epic or a thrilling blockbuster. The world within a movie is ‘less’ real than the world of our everyday lives. Illusions need certain conditions to be present: The light of the movie projector has to be switched on, the film has to be inserted into the projector and so on. Otherwise we will sit in a silent, dark room. Let’s take the snake example from above: To see a snake instead of a rope, there has to be twilight and furthermore there has to be a memorized image of a coiled snake in my mind. Without those conditions, my subconscious would not be able to project a snake onto a rope.

What is ‘real’? The practical perspective

From a practical perspective, a car on the street has a different degree of reality than a car in a movie. But why? What makes the car on the street ‘more’ real? Let’s start with a simple and pragmatic answer: its practical effect is stronger. I can only look at the car in the movie, whereas I can touch, drive, or repair the ‘real’ car. I can get in a car crash and, as a result, I may find myself in hospital. This will hardly happen with a car in the movie. Thus, we have found a pragmatic definition of what is ‘real’: The practical impact defines the reality of an object.

This sounds convincing. But we have to admit that this pragmatic aspect varies depending on the context. Fictional entities can have enormous consequences too! Let’s take an example from the movies: Luke Skywalker and all figures of the Star Wars universe are practically real for the trademark holder, as they generate a significant amount of revenue. They are unreal as persons, but the story they are part of nevertheless has huge economic consequences.

In German, the word for ‘reality’ is ‘Wirklichkeit’. It derives from the verb ‘wirken’, which means to have an effect, to act upon something, to operate, as opposed to something that is a mere illusion or has only apparent existence. We see that we need additional information, a context, to evaluate the ‘realness’ of an entity. Take the Star Wars characters: within the context of the economic reasoning of the trademark holder, the characters have a ‘higher’ degree of practical reality than for someone who is only enjoying the movie.

The degree of reality is the result of a relationship between the entity and a certain context. Consequently, the practical ‘realness’ of an entity is not an intrinsic quality. It is depending on many factors, which could be situational, economic, social, cultural and so on. Vedānta claims that the ‘realness’ of an object does not stem from the object itself.

Let’s investigate this dependency relationship by using a classical example in Vedāntic teachings: A pot made out of clay. This example is deliberately simple, so the student can grasp the principle easily and apply it to more complicated objects of inquiry, once it is fully assimilated.

The reality of a pot made out of clay

A pot of clay is clay in the form of a pot. It has practical value for its owner, so it fits our first definition. He or she can use it to carry water, to store food or it can function as a decoration. A pot of clay is a very simple object. It has basically no parts, unlike a table or a cart, and is made of out of a single substance: clay. The existence of the pot is completely depending upon the clay. Therefore, clay has a higher degree of ‘realness’ than the pot.

In this example clay is satyam because the existence of the pot is dependent upon clay, so the pot cannot be satyam as it has no independent existence. The existence of the pot is ‘received’ from the clay, because there would be no pot without the clay. The pot has an odd mode of existence: It definitely exists, but has no existence on its own, since its existence is depending on clay. It is not unreal, asat, but also not independently real, satyam. This peculiar state is mithyā, dependent existence.

The pot adds nothing substantial to the clay: The weight of the pot is the weight of the clay. If you break the pot into pieces the clay is still there. The amount of clay has not been diminished, only the shape of the clay has changed. A pot is only name and form, nāma-rūpa, of clay. Clay can take many forms, not only pot-form. It can be moulded into cups, plates, vases and many more. It is independent of nāma-rūpa, hence it is satyam with respect to the various objects that can be moulded out of it.

This dependency relationship between pot and clay is not reflected in the English language. We say “a pot of clay”, which implies the pot comes first and clay is an attribute. It seems that pot-form is satyam and clay is mithyā. But it is the opposite: Clay comes first and pot-form is an attribute of clay. From the vantage point of the clay, nothing substantial has been added when it has been shaped into the form of a pot and vice versa, nothing gets lost when the pot gets broken. When we look at the pot, we also see clay. We take the pot to be separate from clay, but by understanding the nature of the pot, we see there is no separation. Though pot is non-separate from clay, there is no reciprocal identity relationship between them. The pot is nothing but clay, but clay is not only the pot. If both were reciprocal to each other, both would be satyam, which is not the case.

This is the first part of a 3-part series. To be continued next month. A downloadable PDF version will be provided with part 3.