Waking World is also Unreal

small_A-U-MDreams 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

Buy from Amazon US; Buy from Amazon UK

A second extract from the book, explaining the symbolism of the cover image, may be read here.

3 thoughts on “Waking World is also Unreal

  1. Well, this was a neat surprise. That’s quite an interesting and beautiful book cover! Is that a rendering of Shankaracharya’s hand? Arvind Sharma has a book called Sleep as a State of Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta (which I haven’t read). To what lengths does your book address this particular topic?

    The book is high up on my reading list for this year. Hopefully I will have read some full-length treatments of Dvaita (and perhaps Vishishtadvaita) by the time it comes out.

    Given the nature of Advaitic philosophy (being simultaneously a theology, philosophy, and science) and the prominence of dreams in Advaitic analysis, I like to refer to Advaita Vedanta as the “Theologicophilosophicoscience of Dreams.” Your book is a case in point.

    Nisargadatta on sleep:

    That knowledge which experienced itself as Krishna, Buddha or Christ has subsided, it has become one with the Whole. So if you abuse Christ, if you abuse Mohammed, if you abuse anyone, he does not come and ask you: “Why are you abusing me?” because that knowledge, that experience, has mixed with the totality. Similarly, now, you may be a very great person, you might be a dictator of the world, but when you go to sleep you forget what you were–your name, your body, your age, your sex, your nationality, everything. This sense of a separate identity is very limited and not the truth; in fact, it is totally false. So if that is the situation with Christ, what is the case with you?
    Or you may be a humble, virtuous person. Whenever you go to sleep, you forget sin, virtue; you forget yourself. What is the basic fact? It is that you forgot yourself as an individual, which gives you deep rest.
    When you go to sleep, you might have had sex with a hundred women or a hundred men. At that time you were enjoying it. But when you sleep, when you take rest, that sensory experience is not there. So then you don’t have an identity, no
    weight at that place. Don’t say you are so and so, you are an individual, you are a man or a woman. Just stay put; from there you can move ahead. That is the truth, that is the fact; from there you can go to reality. And then whatever is manifested, will arise and subside. It is like sunrise and sunset, waxing and waning. That desultory manifestation you cannot be; it cannot be the real You. [The Ultimate Medicine]

    • I often ponder the myriad intricacies and difficulties that arise in human relationships. Even the most intimate kinds of relationships – between best friends, between husband and wife – rarely escape the “me vs. you” mindset and the conflict that naturally emerges thereout.

      Everyone that you meet in a dream is nothing but yourself in disguise. Why is that so hard to accept in “real life,” the waking state?

  2. Very good point! I suspect you would find, though, that 99.9..% of the population would insist that waking is NOT like dream. Even after reading all of Gaudapada’s arguments, most would remain unconvinced; it is just so deeply embedded. We KNOW, after we wake up, that the dream was all in our mind. And we think we know that the waking world is ‘external’ and objectively real.

    Glad you like the book cover! It is the chin mudrA symbol of the first teacher – Dakshinamurti – and has symbolism very relevant to the Mandukya Upanishad. In fact (thanks for the idea!), I will post the section in which I explain this as the next extract before publication.

    Regarding the Sharma book, I had not even heard of it – how did I miss it; I thought I had dug out everything relevant? I do have four of his other books, though. My book certainly covers the deep-sleep state but it is essentially a ‘commentary’ on the Upanishad and Gaudapada’s kArikA-s; so, if Gaudapada does not address a particular aspect, it is likely that I will not either. (But I do cover other ‘states’, as well as lucid dreams, which G doesn’t.)

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