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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
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.