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spiritual essayEssay 9/2012

Is the World Illusory?


Advaita seekers in the West want to find out whether it is true that they are neither body nor mind, but in truth are one, eternal, free and all-pervasive. Most of all they are interested in the answer to the question: „Who or what am I?“ They do not really care what the world is.

But once the true import of the understanding that I am all-pervasive and One dawns, then we can no longer ignore the question about what appears to be a second thing: What about the world?

The knowledge that I am limitless in time and space (one and all-pervasive) is incomplete if no explanation is included in it of that ‘which somehow is also there’. My true nature is non-dual – but body/mind, other living beings, the ocean, the continents, space, objects and possible subtle beings – what about all that? After all this is pure duality, isn’t it! If the mind does not find an adequate explanation for it, a feeling of incompleteness of the Self-knowledge of non-duality is likely to persist.


The world

What I mean by the ‘world’, is everything I have listed above. Under the term ‘world’ I include everything that is not eternal, one, free and all-pervasive – in a word: everything. ‘Everything’ includes my body, my energy, my mind, my feelings, as well as bodies, energy, minds and feelings of all other living beings. ‘Everything’ includes the totality of all organic and inorganic matter, as well as the totality of all energy and all natural laws operating in the universe.

Whoever claims to know what he/she truly is, should check whether this knowledge is crystal-clear. As long as the mind is uncertain as how to explain the perception of duality, self-knowledge remains clear up to a point. The explanation of how it is possible that on the one hand duality is experienced and, on the other hand, the truth is supposed to be non-dual, will be made clear for those who do not yet have the knowledge.


Unreal, real and neither-nor

Advaita Vedanta offers possible explanations to the mind with which it can utterly relax as they dissolve all contradictions. One vedantic key that can almost be called a master key is the distinction between unreality, absolute reality and relative reality.

Everything that is logically impossible or that does not exist (at least up to now) is totally unreal (sanskrit: tuccham), for example a baby elephant hatching from a tortoise's egg.

Absolutely real (sanskrit: satya) is only Existence – Consciousness –Limitlessness – the one reality that is the substratum, of which there is no second, which pervades everything and which is independent of everything. Limitlessness here means: not restricted by time, space or by a specific form and function.

Everything else, ‘everything’ in the above sense, is relatively real (sanskrit: mithya). But not totally unreal. Relatively real means that its reality is dependent on the one absolute reality. Everything depends on absolute reality, without which there is no relative reality that depemds on it. What does this mean in concrete terms?


Mithya – relative reality

According to Vedanta the perceptible world consists of gross (for example house, car, mountain) or subtle matter (for example thoughts, emotions or energy), or even subtlest matter (i.e. the potential for any manifestation). All this meets us as a colourful multiplicity, constantly changing, constantly originating and passing away again. And everything is quite obviously there.

But it is manifold, not one. It is transient, not eternal. It depends on something, is not independent/free. And clearly it is not all-pervasive as well. So it cannot belong to the category ‘absolutely real’, satya.

To find out more about it lets single out one part of gross matter: a car. It obviously exists, we can use it to go from A to B, we can fill it with petrol, repair it etc. Now we investigate what a car really is. We mentally take it to pieces: Car body, wheels and tyres, windows, interior fittings, engine etc. Taken by themselves none of these components is a car and even all of them together on a big heap is no car. ‘Car’ is a bare name for something that composed of other forms.

Not more? Not more. Not more than a name.


Okay no car to be found.

But a car is not unreal. It exists, it is there. This kind of existence is called relative or functional reality (sanskrit: mithya). 

Next we take each components of the car, for example a tyre. What is a tyre? As with the car we will not find a tyre, even if we lay all components of the tyre side by side or mix them randomly. Although we then have rubber, soot, wire mesh, mineral oil, plasticizer etc., where actually is the tyre? The tyre too is mithya.

Next: are the components of the tyre more than just mithya? We take soot. What is soot? Carbon; so soot also is mithya, something else forms the basis of it. And what is carbon? Atoms. And an atom? Mass and energy, in the end quarks, strings etc. – these are at least the smallest components known up to now. Science will probably find other smaller and finer components, giving them new names and formulating new theories about them. What matters for us is that we neither find carbon, nor atoms, nor energy – always something else forms the basis to which one can reduce a respective form.

The interesting thing is that the smaller and more refined the components, the more alike these basic elements are. Nobody is able to determine whether an electron is from a leaf, an animal, a rubber duck or a rifle bullet, whether it comes from a living person or a corpse. Every electron looks alike.

A suggestion: find out for yourself that everything you experience in this world is mithya. Try and find something that is not mithya. Play through everything that you can think of.


Satya – absolute reality

Advaita Vedanta distinguishes every mithya name and form  from that which is the substratum of all names and forms The substratum is called satya, absolute reality. One can also translate it as ‘truth’, ‘existence’, ‘what is permanent’. Even if some scientists accept that there must be some sort of satya, science will never be able to point to satya. Science can only point ot forms of matter (gross, subtle, most subtle), which sooner or later will turn out to be something based on something else. What Vedanta calls satya, on the other hand, is no matter. This, however, is not the main reason, why science will not be able to point to it. Yet even at a scientifically comprehensible level the postulates of Vedanta are reflected, although a reflection of Vedanta can never be Vedanta:


The material universe is manifold, while the matter, which underlies it is unitary.

Advaita calls the manifold mithya and the underlying reality satyam.


Every form is transient but the material that underlies it continues after the form has gone.

Advaita Vedanta calls the transient mithya and the permanent satyam.


Matter in whatever form is dependent on one material substance, but the one underlying substance is independent of the form of matter for its existence.

Advaita Vedanta says the dependent is mithya, the independent is satyam


All material forms are permeated by a causal substance, the ultimate substance is not permeated by anything else.

Advaita Vedanta says the nature of mithya is to be permeated while the nature of satya is that it permeates all mithya.


The problem at the material level is that one continues assuming that the last basic substance has been found; however then again finds another one.

Vedanta says, because the one (non-material) basic substance

  • •            is absolutely one,
  • •            absolutely eternal,
  • •            forms the basis of everything and
  • •            permeates everything,

therefore it is that which is everything in essence. There is nothing here that is not essentially this basic substance. That’s why it is impossible for science to find it; science looks for objects and thus will only find objects. But this essential basic substance is no object, in fact it is the very science and scientist.

All objects are mithya. Satya is the one and only subject. And because it is the only one, it is that what we ourselves truly are.


The relation of satya and mithya

Let’s go back to our car example. We saw that soot is carbon.

So: soot = carbon

Logically one would have to be able to reverse the equation:

Carbon = soot

But thus it is not correct.

Carbon can be a diamond, pencil lead or simply a piece of coal, not just soot.

Another example: Window pane. Window pane = glass is correct (in case of the car). But glass = window pane is wrong.

And just as we cannot reverse window pane = glass because glass is ‡ window pane, just as we cannot reverse soot = carbon because carbon is ‡ soot, every mithya object is in its essence satya but satya is not any mithya object.


Now, is the world illusory or not?

Okay, back to the initial question: Is the world illusory? Not if this would imply it is unreal. The world, as it appears to us, is mithya. It is just an incomplete perception of reality on our part; the world is something other than we think.

A tsunami is nothing but water. However, is this a reason for us not to shelter from it? A dewdrop, too, is nothing but water. However, is this a reason not to marvel at its beauty?

The relative reality of the world is based on satya. We can perceive the world, take pleasure in its manifestations or, if necessary, protect ourselves against them. At the same time we can make it out to be mithya and know about satya as its base, which is absolutely real and non-dual:

Sat – Chit – Ananda, existence – consciousness – limitlessness.

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