Shankara’s view of what it means to be real comes from his predecessor, Gaudapada, and from the Upanishads. No object, no kind of knowledge, can be absolutely real if its existence is only temporary. Absolute reality implies permanent existence. For example, we often have different experiences while dreaming during sleep. Those experiences often contradict the experiences we have while awake. And of course, both our waking and dreaming experiences cease when we’re deep into dreamless sleep. And so every object of knowledge, whether external or internal, is subject to modification and therefore not “real.” Here in the West, we don’t often recognize that thoughts and ideas are also objects of knowledge.
Behind all our experiences lies the Reality. This deep consciousness alone is the only constant feature of all experience. Vedanta sits squarely between realism and idealism. Western realism and idealism are both based on the distinction between mind and matter. For Vedanta, though, mind and matter fall into the same category as objects of knowledge.
According to Shankara, the world-appearance can be likened to an imagined snake which ends up being just a piled/coiled rope. When the truth is known, the snake-appearance vanishes into the reality of the rope. In like manner, the world vanishes into Brahman for the illumined soul. This snake-appearance idea can also be found in the Ashtavakra Gita in a lesson given by sage Ashtavakra: “The universe rises from you like bubbles rising from the sea. Thus know the Atman to be one and enter even thus into (the state of) Dissolution. The universe, being manifested like the snake in the rope, does not exist in your who are pure, even though it is present to the senses; because it is unreal. Thus verily do you enter into (the state of) Dissolution.”
Other systems of Hindu philosophy (Sankhya, Nyaya, etc…) insist that the phenomenal world holds objective reality. Advaita Vedanta disagrees, insisting: there is no ultimate reality to the world of thought and matter. Mind and matter, which are finite objects with relations, are a misreading of Brahman… like confusing a rope to be a snake.
At this point, it should be made clear that according to Shankara there’s a difference between non-real and non-existent. Simply put, the world-appearance “is and is not.” In the state of every-day consciousness (ignorance) it is experienced and it exists as it appears. However, in the state of illumination it is not experienced and ceases to exist. Shankara also distinguishes between private illusions of the individual and the world illusion. He refers to private illusion as pratibhasika (illusory) and the world illusion as vyavaharika (phenomenal). So pratibhasika would apply, for example, to a man’s dreams – which cease to exist during his waking hours. However, the other, vyavaharika, continues through his waking life – until he comes to realization of the Truth through knowledge of Brahman.
This seeming paradox – the world being non-real yet having existence – is a fact. And Shankara calls this fact Maya. Maya has its basis in Brahman, but only applies to the phenomenal world of names and forms. This leads us to a deep philosophical issue: the relationship between the finite and the Infinite; the problem of how the phenomenal world came into being.
“If we believe that the finite has an absolute reality of its own and that it has emerged from the Infinite and is an actual transformation of the Infinite, or if we regard the Infinite as the transcendental first cause of the phenomenal world, then we must admit that the Infinite is infinite no longer. A God who transforms Himself into the visible universe is Himself subject to transformation and change – He cannot be regarded as the absolute reality.”
We surpass this difficulty if we consider the world as Maya. Further, this explanation of the universe is in perfect accord with modern science. Some might point out that the Upanishads state that the universe emerges from, subsists in, and eventually merges back into Brahman. Shankara doesn’t disagree, but explains it differently: The universe is a superimposition upon Brahman.
In this way Brahman remains entirely unchanged. It is not transformed into this universe, but appears to us as this universe, in our ignorance. We superimpose the apparent world onto Brahman just as we sometimes superimpose a snake onto rope.
It should be noted that the idea of superimposition (vivartavada) is inseparably linked to the Theory of Causality. Causal relation exists in the world of multiplicity – which is Maya. Within Maya, the mind cannot function without causal relationships. Here’s the twist: To speak of cause and effect with reference to the Absolute is absurd. To seek to know what caused the world is to transcend the world. To seek to find the cause of Maya is to transcend Maya – and when we do that, Maya vanishes because the effect ceases to exist. How can there be a cause to a non-existent effect? Thus the relation between Brahman and Maya is unknowable by the human intellect.
Coming up: Maya is an unreal fact.