Dreams are a powerful metaphor in Advaita. The Yoga Vasishtha is perhaps the best known book to utilize them extensively but probably the earliest teacher to do so was Gaudapada in his kArikA-s on the mANDUkya upaniShad.
He effectively says that the waking state is unreal, like dreams, ‘because we experience it’. This is anvAya-vyatireka logic: we experience objects in dreams, and they turn out to be unreal; therefore the objects we experience in waking are also unreal.
This does not sound very convincing and there are various arguments that we can raise to object to the analogy. Gaudapada raises them for us, in case we can’t think of them all! Here is the third argument he puts forward. It is an extract from my forthcoming book, which will be published 25th September 2015.
Third objection to world being unreal
And this leads on to the third objection namely that, whereas the dream world is subjective, the waking world has objective reality. It is experienced as external to ourselves, whereas the dream takes place in our mind (K2.9 – 10). But this notion suffers from the same confusion as before. We only recognize that the dream world is ‘in our mind’ when we are awake; at the time of the dream, it is just as much ‘external’ as is the waking world when we are awake. We might as well say that the waking world is really non-existent since it disappears when we are in the dream or deep sleep states. At the time of the dream, I experience external objects and events in just the same manner. Their illogicality or even impossibility only becomes apparent on awakening.
Similarly, when we recognize that turIya is the reality, we will also realize that the waking world has no objectivity of its own but is just an appearance within Consciousness. The objective reality of the two worlds is entirely relative to the standpoint of the observer. In fact, they are both mithyA.
From a ‘detached’ point of view, both waking and dream are similar experiences. Within the dream, there are ‘others’ who validate my dream experience. I have conversations with them and I assume (as a dreamer) that they see the same external (dream) world as I do. It is only from the vantage point of having woken up that I am able to see that this world was internally generated and (no longer) has any objective existence.
Of course I feel that I am unable to take a position from outside of this waking world to look at the situation in a similar fashion. And so I call the waking world ‘real’ and the dream world ‘false’. But in fact I do take such a stand every time I go to sleep. In the dream, the waking world is negated and in deep-sleep, both waking and dream are negated.
If we imagine a dream A in which we go to sleep and have a dream B. When we ‘wake up’ (from dream B into the dream A), we will say that the dreamt dream was ‘only a dream in the mind’, and that we are now (in dream A) in the real world. Of course, when we ‘really’ wake up into the waking world, we realize that both A and B were dreams and think that we are now in reality. Except that we are now effectively in dream C!
So long as we continue to believe in the objective reality of a separate world, we have not really woken up! The bottom line, with respect to this third objection, is that the experience of an external world does not mean that the world is real. Of course, we assume that it does, but an assumption is no proof at all.
If objects of both waking and dream worlds are unreal, that must include the people who inhabit them also, including the waker and the dreamer! If this is the case, it is denying the reality of the knower as well as the known. But this makes no sense as there has to be someone who is doing the denying! So who is it who sees or imagines these two worlds (K.2.11)?
This question highlights the danger of choosing the wrong word. Gaudapada actually uses the word vaitathya for the word translated here as ‘unreal’ but this should be regarded as a synonym for mithyA. The objects of the world are not unreal. Try walking in front of an oncoming car to demonstrate this! The objects (of both states) have reality relative to that state. What they do not have is absolute reality. Their reality depends upon I, the observer. That is I, the ultimate observer – Consciousness – not I, the separate person, which is equally mithyA. I, the waking person, cannot have absolute reality because I disappear, to be replaced by the dreamer or sleeper, when I go to sleep. I, the ego, also has only relative reality.
Gaudapada provides a preliminary answer to this question of who sees the worlds in K2.12, and introduces the concept of mAyA, which was mentioned in the introduction. He says that the scriptures tell us that it is the non-dual Self that ‘imagines’ itself and cognizes objects, by the power of its own mAyA. There is only the non-dual Self, or Consciousness. But he is suggesting here that this Self effectively creates a world, together with conscious beings to inhabit it, out of Itself. And, looking out at the world through the eyes of these beings, this Self ‘forgets’ that it is everything.
In fact, the ‘knower’ is not the original Consciousness but Consciousness ‘reflected’ in the mind of the observer. And we should never forget that all of this is really mithyA, like the snake misperceived in the rope.
It does, indeed, sound fantastical. And yet this is precisely what happens when I the waker go to sleep and dream! Whilst dreaming, I fully believe that I am in a complex, fully populated world of others; and yet everything is produced in my own mind, by itself, out of itself. The apparent plurality is self-delusion. Relatively speaking the waking world is no different. None of it has independent, substantial reality; it is all only name and form of myself, turIya.
Who-I-really-am is not the waker, which is Consciousness identified with this material body and believing in a separate gross universe. Both body and world effectively disappear when I go to sleep. And I am not the dreamer, which is Consciousness identified with the mentally created subtle body and dream world. These creations disappear when I wake up or go into deep sleep. The reality is that I am the Consciousness which is doing the identifying; that which is present throughout all of the three states and which does not change.
When I enter the dream, I (now the dreamer I) forget all about the waker I, believing that I am now completely awake in this mentally created dream world. And when I enter deep sleep, I forget both. All these experiences come and go but I, as Consciousness, remain unchanging as that in which they all arrive and depart. They are transient and their reality is relevant only to the ‘I’ which temporarily rules in that particular state. I, as Consciousness, am the only absolute reality. Recall again the metaphor of the actor playing several roles.
The paperback details are: ISBN 978-1-78279-996-2 UK: £20.99 US: $36.95
and the EBook: ISBN 978-1-78279-997-9 UK: £12.99 US: $21.99
A second extract from the book, explaining the symbolism of the cover image, may be read here.