Thursday, May 8, 2008

Is the world real?

After a series of preliminary verses, the teaching portion of Guru Vachaka Kovai begins with a long series of verses about the nature and reality of the world. In the extract that follows, all the material in roman letters is either my explanation of key concepts or words in the text, or supplementary quotations from Bhagavan. The verses themselves are given in bold.

1 The Reality of the World

The question ‘Is the world real?’ is a recurring one in Indian philosophy, and Bhagavan was asked for his views on this topic on many occasions. To understand the context and background of his replies it will be helpful to have a proper understanding of what he meant by the words ‘real’ and ‘world’.

In everyday English the word ‘real’ generally denotes something that can be perceived by the senses. As such, it is a misleading translation of the Sanskrit word ‘sat’, which is often rendered in English as ‘being’ or ‘reality’. Bhagavan, along with many other Indian spiritual teachers, had a completely different definition of reality:

Bhagavan: What is the standard of reality? That alone is real which exists by itself, which reveals itself by itself and which is eternal and unchanging. (Maharshi’s Gospel, p. 61)

In Indian philosophy reality is not determined by perceptibility but by permanence, unchangeability and self-luminosity. This important definition is elaborated on in the dialogue from which the above quotation has been taken. It appears in full as a note to verse 64.

As for the word ‘world’, Muruganar points out in his comments to verses 63 and 64 that the Sanskrit word for world, ‘loka’, literally means ‘that which is seen’. The Tamil word for the world, ulagu, is derived from loka and has the same meaning. If one combines this definition of the word ‘world’ with the standard of reality set by Bhagavan, the question, ‘Is the world real?’ becomes an enquiry about the abiding reality of what is perceived: ‘Do things that are perceived have permanence, unchangeability and self-luminosity?’ The answer to that question is clearly ‘no’. The names and forms perceived by a seer do not meet the standard of reality defined by Bhagavan, and as such they are dismissed as ‘unreal’.

According to Bhagavan these names and forms appear in Brahman, the underlying substratum. Brahman does meet the stringent test for reality outlined above since it, and it alone, is permanent, unchanging and self-luminous. If one accepts these definitions, it follows that Brahman is real, whereas the world (the collection of perceived names and forms) is unreal. This formulation, ‘Brahman is real; the world is unreal’ is a standard and recurring statement in vedantic philosophy.

Vedanta is the philosophy that is derived from the Upanishads, the final portions of the Vedas, and the subdivision of it that tallies with Bhagavan’s teachings is known as ‘advaita’, which translates as ‘not two’. ‘Not two’ means, among other things, that there are not two separate entities, Brahman and the world; all is one indivisible whole. This point is important to remember since it is at the crux of the apparently paradoxical statements that Bhagavan made on the nature and reality of the world and its substratum. Since there is nothing that is separate from Brahman, it follows that the names and forms that appear and manifest within it partake of its reality. This means that when the world is known and directly experienced to be a mere appearance in the underlying Brahman, it can be accepted as real, since it is no longer perceived as a separate entity. If one knows oneself to be Brahman, one knows that the world is real because it is indistinguishable from one’s own Self. However, if one merely perceives external names and forms, without experiencing that substratum, those forms have to be dismissed as unreal since they do not meet the strict definition of reality.

Bhagavan summarised this position in the following reply:

Shankara [a ninth century sage and philosopher who was the principal populariser of advaita Vedanta] was criticised for his views on maya without understanding him. He said that (1) Brahman is real, (2) The universe is unreal, and (3) Brahman is the universe. He did not stop at the second, because the third explains the other two. It signifies that the universe is real if perceived as the Self, and unreal if perceived apart from the Self. Hence maya and reality are one and the same. (Guru Ramana, p. 65)

Bhagavan used many terms, apart from Brahman and the Self, to denote the underlying real substratum. Consciousness, the word used in the following verse, was one of his favourites.

19

Since the cause itself [reality] appears as the effect [the world], and because consciousness – the cause of this vast world described by the sastras [the scriptures] as being merely names and forms – is a truth as obvious as the nelli fruit on one’s palm, it is proper to term this great world ‘real’.

‘Nelli’ is the Tamil name for a small green fruit that physically resembles a gooseberry. It is known elsewhere in India as ‘amla’. In many parts of India people say, ‘It’s as obvious as the amla on one’s palm’ when they mean that something is clear, easily perceived and irrefutable. In Atma Vidya, one of Bhagavan’s poetical compositions, he wrote: ‘Even for the most infirm, so real is the Self that compared with it the amla [on the palm of] one’s hand appears a mere illusion.’ (The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi, p. 133)

20

The worlds that are described as being either three or fourteen are real when seen from the point of view of the primal cause [Brahman] because they have unceasing existence as their [real] nature. However, when attention is paid only to the names and forms, the effect, even the undecaying cause, the plenitude, will appear to be non-existent.

21

To the ignorant, who believe it to be real and revel in it, the world that appears before them is God’s creation, but to the steadfast jnanis, who have known the bondage-free Self by direct experience, it is merely a deluding and binding concept that is wholly mental.

Bhagavan generally taught that the appearance of an external world comes into existence as an act of projection by the individual ‘I’ that sees it. As such, it is very similar to the dream world, which is also a mental creation of the one who dreams. For those who were not able or willing to accept this explanation he would say that it was ‘God’s creation’. Irrespective of which theory one believes in, the external world is known to be a mere concept once the Self has been realised.

22

Understand [well] that the world-scene of empty names and forms, comprising the objects of the five senses perceived in the perfectly pure swarupa, the Supreme Self, is merely the divine sport of the mind-maya that arises as an imaginary idea in that swarupa, being-consciousness.

Question: Are names and forms real?

Bhagavan: You won’t find them separate from adhistana [the substratum]. When you try to get at name and form, you will find reality only. Therefore attain the knowledge of that which is real in all three states [waking, dreaming and sleeping]. (The Power of the Presence, part one, pp. 251-2)

23

Those in whose consciousness there is no awareness whatsoever of anything other than the Self, the absolute fullness of consciousness, will not declare this world, which from the perspective of God [Brahman] does not exist, to be that truth whose hallmark is never to deviate from absolute fullness [paripuranam].

In Bhagavan’s teachings there is usually a distinction made between God and Brahman. Iraivan, the Tamil word used here for God, corresponds approximately to Iswara, the generic Sanskrit term for the personal God who supervises the activities of the world. God, the world and the jivas (individual souls) arise and subsist together, but they are not, according to Bhagavan, fundamentally real entities since they are not permanent. Eventually, they all merge into Brahman, the impersonal absolute and unchanging reality, and disappear.

When the world is seen as a separate entity by the jiva, there is also a God who manages the affairs of that world. When the jiva no longer exists, the world and God also cease to exist. An objection could therefore be raised to this verse which says that the world does not exist in the perspective of God. Bhagavan would normally say that the world does not exist in Brahman, but it does exist in the perspective of God.

Sadhu Om has recorded an incident in which Bhagavan himself queried Muruganar about the vocabulary used in this verse:

The Tamil word Iraivan is usually understood as meaning God, the Lord of this world, and as Bhagavan has elsewhere explained, the trinity of soul, world and their Lord will always appear to co-exist in maya, and thus the apparent world does exist in the view of its apparent Lord, God.

Therefore, on seeing this verse, Bhagavan remarked, ‘Who said that there is no world in God’s view?’, but when the author, Sri Muruganar, explained that he had used the word in the sense of the Supreme Brahman, Sri Bhagavan accepted this meaning and approved the verse. (Guru Vachaka Kovai, tr. Sadhu Om, p. 8.)

24

You who believe that the world, which is experienced merely as an object of the senses, is real, and who cherish it as something worthwhile, come ultimately to grief, like the parrot that waits for the silk-cotton fruit to ripen! If this world is real merely because it is perceived, then water seen in a mirage is also real because it too is perceived.

The fruit of the silk-cotton tree is a large pod that always remains green. When it finally ripens, it bursts open, revealing its insides – an inedible, white, fluffy mass of fibre. Expecting the world to produce real benefits is compared to the fruitless vigil of the parrot that ignorantly expects something delicious to come out of the silk-cotton tree’s pod.

25

Do not get confused by abandoning the state of clarity, the swarupa perspective, and then pursue appearances, taking them to be real. That which appears will disappear, and hence it is not real, but the true nature of the one who sees never ceases to exist. Know that it alone is real.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

David,

Thanks so much for this blog. It is wonderful reading. Your books have been so important in my own search - to now have you here "live" is an unexpected treat.

Although I have in some way contributed to the continuation of your work through book purchases, I would consider it an honor to donate more directly. Please consider setting up some sort of PayPal or other means, or if there is already some route then making it more obvious.

David Godman said...

I follow Bhagavan's policy on this one. I never ask for donations, or even hint that they can be made. However, if people want to give money for a particular project, or to finance my work in general, I usually accept, so long as there are no strings attached.

michael said...

David,

in ajatic terms, is there such a thing as 'life' or even 'Life'?

David Godman said...

michael said...

David,

in ajatic terms, is there such a thing as 'life' or even 'Life'?



That which comes and goes is not 'real' because it lacks permanence. Under this strict definition 'life' is not real because it fails the threefold test of reality that I outlined in the post.

However, as I pointed out in the post, if temporary phenomena are directly experienced as being one's own Self, then one may grant them reality, but only so long as they are known and experienced in that way.

I have gone through the main ajata texts and arguments and I have discussed them with people who claim expertise in this field. I still cannot decide whether they are saying that (a) creation never happened except in the imagination or (b) creation never happened at all, even in imagination. Position (a) would allow one to claim some sort of reality for phenomena such as 'life', so long as it was directly experienced as one's own Self. Position (b) would exclude that possibility.

michael said...

David,

perhaps they are saying both in two 'dialects' of ajata, in which one is more uncompromising than the other. in the language of purest ajata, it seems that (b) would be favored.

in terms of direct experience, i've also seen that (b) is true. are you aware of others who have spoken of this?

ShastriX said...

David,

This post is so wonderful that i've permanently linked to it from my blog sidebar.

Thank you.

Captcha: nexuarr

Anonymous said...

Scott Fraundorf:

It may have been a pointless thing to do, but I put several threads on Richard Dawkins atheist forum about nonduality in regards to religion. the first one I put up, titled What is Real? ended up with almost 600 comments, which I thought was sort of cool. I did my best to explain Advaita Vedanta, and quoted Maharshi, sometimes from this site. When I commented too much, as I sometimes do, I think I killed the mystery of what my perspective was that was driving it. I took a gander at deconstructing some of their Only Objective Atheist Mindset, using scientific anecdotes.

baxishta said...

re: spiritual languages

i recently sent an e-mail to a friend on the topic of the need to employ more than one viewpoint to understand our experiences. i'm including it below and i'd be interested in hearing what others think about this approach. the reference to Bhagavan's comments in the p.s. are his discussion of the different vadas which describe the status of the world.

---

sometimes i picture the self as being in the middle of a diamond. each facet is like a different way of looking in at the self, a window with a slightly different orientation than its neighbors. one of the best facets is the one we call 'language'. there are several other good ones, like 'states of mind', 'here and now' and 'subject and object', as well.

the words of great teachers are usually hard to follow because they switch languages according to who they're talking to. the result is a mix of different viewpoints, which seems to be very inconsistent in meaning. i think that if we start off with the understanding that no one language or viewpoint can locate the self it makes things easier. if we're able to alternate between three of them, we can get a fix on it.

these languages are just our own different ways of describing what's happening at a particular moment. they naturally alternate as we go through the day. for example, if you ask me about the tree falling in the forest at 3pm i'll be in the waking state, so an honest description would probably be "yes, it makes a sound - science can prove it". if you somehow manage to ask me at midnight while i'm dreaming, i might say "no, it makes no sound - that part of my dream is gone forever". and if you could ask me at 3am while i'm sleeping i'd say "what tree?" each one of these is an honest attempt to describe what's happening at that moment, but they're very different.

any question whose answer can be reduced to "it depends on what time of day you ask me" is not the self, so what remains is the self, the solid background upon which these different viewpoints come and go.

i think the main thing to remember about these different vedantic 'dialects' is that they're nothing special, mystical or outside. they're just you and i honestly attempting to describe "what's happening now" under different conditions.

ps

i'm attaching something that Ramana said about the three viewpoints or languages. instead of describing different points on the daily cycle, as i did above, he's describing different levels of maturity of the listener, but it amounts to the same thing.

rgn said...

Real and Unreal can only be two extremes of of one thing as is the case with all "opposites". Every definition requires further definition ad infinitum. Language is handy but almost useless when trying to define abstractions.

Anonymous said...

Chapter 12 of Bhikkhu Ñanamoli's classic compilation, The Life of the Buddha according to the Pali Canon.
********************************
Once too the wanderer Uttiya went to the Blessed One, and after greeting him, he sat down at one side. Then he asked: "How is it, Master Gotama, the world is eternal: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" -- "That is not answered by me, Uttiya." -- "Then the world is not eternal: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" -- "That too is not answered by me, Uttiya." -- "The world is finite: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" -- "That too is not answered by me, Uttiya." -- "Then the world is infinite: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" -- "That too is not answered by me, Uttiya." -- "The soul is the same as the body: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" -- "That too is not answered by me, Uttiya." -- "Then the soul is one and the body another: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" -- "That too is not answered by me, Uttiya." -- "After death a Perfect One is: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" -- "That too is not answered by me, Uttiya." -- "Then after death a Perfect One is not: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" -- "That too is not answered by me, Uttiya." -- "Then after death a Perfect One both is and is not: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" -- "That too is not answered by me, Uttiya." -- "Then after death a Perfect One neither is nor is not: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" -- "That too is not answered by me, Uttiya."

"But why does Master Gotama decline to answer when I ask him these questions? What then is answered by Master Gotama?"

"I teach the Dhamma to disciples from direct knowledge, Uttiya, for the purification of beings, for surmounting sorrow and lamentation, for ending pain and grief, for attainment of the true goal, for realizing Nibbana."

"Master Gotama, does that Dhamma provide an outlet from suffering for all the world, or for half, or for a third?"

When this was said, the Blessed One remained silent.

Then the Venerable Ananda thought: "The wanderer Uttiya must not conceive any such pernicious view as 'When the monk Gotama is asked a question peculiar to me and to no one else and he founders and does not answer, is it because he is unable?' That would be long for his harm and suffering." So he said to him: "Friend Uttiya, I shall give you a simile; for some wise men here get to know through a simile the meaning of what is said.

"Suppose a king had a city with strong ditches, ramparts and bastions, and a single gate, and he had a wise, clever, sagacious gate-keeper there who stopped those whom he did not know and admitted only those whom he knew; and since he had himself gone round the path encircling the city and had seen no gaps in the ramparts or any hole even big enough for a cat to pass through, he might conclude that living beings above a certain size must go in and out through the gate -- so too, friend Uttiya, a Perfect One's concern is not that 'All the world shall find an outlet by this, or a half, or a third,' but rather that 'Whoever has found or finds or will find an outlet from the world of suffering, that is always done by abandoning the five hindrances (of desire for sensuality, ill will, lethargy-and-drowsiness, agitation-and-worry, and uncertainty), defilements that weaken understanding, and by maintaining in being the seven factors of enlightenment with minds well established on the four foundations of mindfulness.'

"Your question which you put to the Blessed One was framed in the wrong way; that was why the Blessed One did not answer it."

AN 10:95

Anonymous said...

"One common mistake is to think that one reality is the reality. You must always be prepared to leave one reality for a greater one." -

Mother Meera, Answers, Part I


-Z

Anonymous said...

"One common mistake is to think that one reality is the reality. You must always be prepared to leave one reality for a greater one." -

Mother Meera, Answers, Part I


-Z

Anonymous said...

"One common mistake is to think that one reality is the reality. You must always be prepared to leave one reality for a greater one." -

Mother Meera, Answers, Part I


-Z

Anonymous said...

"One common mistake is to think that one reality is the reality. You must always be prepared to leave one reality for a greater one." -

Mother Meera, Answers, Part I


-Z

Anonymous said...

"One common mistake is to think that one reality is the reality. You must always be prepared to leave one reality for a greater one." -

Mother Meera, Answers, Part I


-Z

Anonymous said...

"One common mistake is to think that one reality is the reality. You must always be prepared to leave one reality for a greater one." -

Mother Meera, Answers, Part I


-Z

Anonymous said...

"One common mistake is to think that one reality is the reality. You must always be prepared to leave one reality for a greater one." -

Mother Meera, Answers, Part I


-Z

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the multiple posts.It was by mistake.

-Z

Ravi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zee said...

**********************************
From Anguttara Nikaya translated by
Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi
www.scribd.com/Buddhist_Publication_Society
**********************************
56. The Four Unthinkables

Monks, there are these four unthinkables,120 not to be pondered upon; which if pondered upon,
would lead one to insanity and distress. What are the four?
The range of a Buddha,121 O monk, is an unthinkable, not to be pondered upon; which, if
pondered upon, would lead one to insanity and distress.
The range of the meditative absorptions … the results of Kamma … speculations about the
world122 are unthinkables, not to be pondered upon, which if pondered upon, would lead to
insanity and distress.

Zee said...

**********************************
Why parroting:everything is Maya, everything is Self is dangerous for Beginners
**********************************

One understands wrong view as wrong view, and one understands right view as right
view. What is wrong view? The view that there is nothing given,
offered or sacrificed,13 no fruit or ripening of good and bad actions,no this world, no other world, no mother, no father, no apparitional beings, no good and virtuous monks and brahmans who have themselves realized by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world: this is wrong view.

"What is right view? There are two kinds of right view: there
is that affected by taints, which brings merit and ripens in the
essentials of existence; and there is the noble ones' right view without taints, which is supramundane and a factor of the path. What is right view affected by taints? The view that there is what is given, offered and sacrificed, and that there is fruit and ripening of
good and bad actions, and there is this world and the other world
and mother and father and apparitional beings and good and virtuous monks and brahmans who have themselves realized by direct
knowledge and declare this world and the other world: this is right
view affected by taints which brings merit and ripens in the essentials of existence. And what is the noble ones' right view? Any
understanding, understanding faculty, understanding power, investigation-of-states enlightenment factor, right view as path factor,
in one whose mind is ennobled and taintless, who possesses the
path, and who maintains it in being: this is the noble ones' right view without taints, which is supramundane and a factor of the
path."
M. 117
[From Life of the Buddha by Bhikku Nanamoli]