According to Shankara, the phenomenal world has a relative existence that is superimposed upon Brahman. When transcendental consciousness is achieved, superimposition ceases. Because of this, we can know for certain that while the real world is existent, it’s not actually, technically real.
Shankara basically defines this superimposition as falsely remembering something in the place of what’s really there. Some might be quick to point out that one has to also have experienced or perceived what’s actually there in order to mistake it for the superimposition (You follow? You have to know something is there to begin with before it can be mistaken for something else) – and how can this be true of something like Brahman, which is not perceivable by the human senses? Shankara foresaw this argument and responds, “Brahman is not non-objective in the absolute sense, for Brahman is the object of the ego-idea. We know quite well, by intuition, that the inner Self must exist, since the ego-idea is a presentation of the inner Self. Nor is it an absolute rule that objects can be superimposed only upon such other objects as are placed before us; for ignorant people superimpose a dark blue color upon the sky which is not an object of sense perception.”
What this means is that although Brahman isn’t exactly apparent to our every-day sense perception, there is a manner in which we are aware of It: the inner Self. Yet Brahman is partly apparent to our normal consciousness also. Brahman is Existence, and we all know that we exist. In our ignorance we superimpose the private individuality of being Mr. Smith onto our awareness of Existence. In doing this, we end up forgetting that Existence isn’t our private property, but instead is universal and absolute. This expression of superimposition is our first act as human beings. The moment we say, “I am I,” we’ve started a kind of chain reaction which makes further superimposition inevitable. The very nature of our claim to individuality implies individuality everywhere, and immediately creates a superimposed world of creatures and objects upon the absolute Reality. The egoic self and world-appearance depend on each other. Lose the ego, and the world-appearance must necessarily disappear.
Beyond this, Shankara also notes that searching for the beginning of this cycle of world-appearance is futile and mostly fruitless: What is world-appearance? Maya. What causes it? Our ignorance. What is this ignorance? Maya, also. Shankara makes a very important distinction in regard to Maya/Ignorance. Maya is not only universal, but beginningless and endless. Ignorance (avidya) is beginningless, but can end at any moment. It’s precisely because of this distinction that 1) humans are born into the world perceiving the same Maya as all other humans, and 2) that an “individual” soul can achieve illumination, and thereby achieve moksha/liberation – which means the end of perceiving the phenomenal world to that consciousness – but the world still remains as perceivable (existent) Maya for all other humans.
Wrap your brain around that!
Methinks I will have to chew even harder on that one than the last.
Do it, bhai. And I still want to hear from you, post-chew.
I have always considered that “the world IS real, its just that the way we perceive it is delusion.
Interesting… do you feel there’s a conflict here?
I see no reason to argue with Shankara-ji 🙂