Brahman Satyam, Jagat Mithyä
The philosophy of Advaita Vedänta has been briefed in the following sloka attributed to Äcärya Sankara:
brahma satyam jagan-mithyä jivo brahmaiva näparah ||
– meaning – ‘In half of a sloka I state what has been stated by millions of texts; that is, Brahman alone is real and this jagat is mithyä, and the jiva is non-different from Brahman.’ From this statement, the Advaita philosophy can be divided into three distinct areas of analysis – i) Brahman is Satyam, ii) Jagat is Mithyä and iii) Relationship between the jiva and Brahman. We try below to analyse the above.
As per Sankara’s interpretation, Brahman is the only reality – Satyam. The word Brahman is derived from the Sanskrit root √brhi, meaning – vrddhau, – meaning growing, and the suffix man, added to it, signifies an absence of limitation (in expanse). So, Brahman derivatively means, that which is limitlessly big. One has to understand that, the root meaning of the word Brahman indicates its nitya-suddha-buddha-mukta-satya-svabhäva and its sarvajnatvam and sarva-saktimatvam. This Brahman is the intelligent and material cause of the Jagat’s origin, existence, and dissolution. In explaining the meaning of the sütra – janmädyasya yatah – Br.Sü. I.1.2, Sankara says, from that Omniscient Omnipotent cause has come this Jagat, comprising various names and forms, various doers and enjoyers, dependent on specific time and space and result of their actions, of incomprehensible varied forms and is sustained and dissolved by Him. One has to remember here that, as per Sankara, Brahman is represented from two points of view.
i) One is vyävahärika or empirical point of view,
ii) the other is päramärthika or absolute point of view.
From the vyävahärika point of view, Brahman is regarded as the cause of this Jagat’s origin, existence, and dissolution, because this Jagat indeed has an empirical reality. However, from absolute point of view, since this Jagat is asat or mithyä, the question of its origin, existence and dissolution does not arise, much less Brahman being its cause. Again, from vyävahärika point of view, Brahman is sarvajna, sarva-saktimän, of varied attributes and of nitya-suddha-buddha-mukta-svabhäva. As per Sankara, this description belongs to Saguna-Brahman or Éçvara. One can worship and meditate upon this Isvara. However, Saguna-Brahman has only a vyävahärika reality.
From päramärthika point of view, one has to understand Brahman is neither the cause of this Jagat, nor is omniscient or omnipotent. The origin of the Jagat is not the intrinsic feature – svarüpa-laksana of Brahman. This phenomenon is his incidental feature – tatastha-lakshana. Therefore, from absolute point of view, Brahman is not the creator, sustainer, or dissolver of this Jagat. He is devoid of any form or attribute. From absolute point of view, Brahman is Satyam-Jnänam-Anantam. This is the essential feature – svarüpa-laksana of Brahman.
Brahman does not have any kind of difference. Differences are of three kinds: i) difference from another class (vijätiya) ii) difference of one member of the same class (sajätiya), and iii) internal differentiation (svagata). Brahman is free from any of these three differences – vijätiya, sajätiya, or svagata bheda. This undifferentiated Brahman without any kind of distinction is the only Satyam – Reality, and except Him, everything else is to be understood as asat (vyävahärika, prätibhäshika or tuccham) – unreal. However, one has to understand here that, although Brahman is devoid of any attribute, He is not sunya – void. Otherwise one can get caught by the Buddhistic understanding. It is not possible for bhäva – something to come out of abhäva or sunya – nothing. Therefore, one has to notice that Sankara’s establishment of an attributeless Brahman, completely swallows Buddhistic theory of sunyaväda.
Sankara has established the reality of this Jagat as mithyä. However, by mithyä here, one is not to understand the reality of the Jagat as that of the reality of vandhyä-putra or sasa-srnga. Here, what is mithyä as per Sankara needs to be clear. That this Jagat is not non-existent like the vandhyä-putra or sasa-srnga is clear from the fact that the Jagat is evident to us. However, this Jagat is not päramärthika or absolute real like Ätmä or Brahman, because it is subject to time, subject to change and can be negated, therefore asat (here asat means vyävaharika reality). So the Jagat is not sat like Brahman-Ätmä, nor asat (here asat means tuccham – absolute non-existent) like the vandhyä-putra. It is anirvacaniya, i.e. neither sat nor asat. This is what is meant by his – Jagat mithyä.
Sankara has used three orders of realities in his explanation of Advaita-Vedänta – i) prätibhäshika (ii) vyävahärika (iii) päramärthika. This has already been discussed. The appearance of the snake on the rope, or the objects seen in the dream-state, which is negated in waking-state, belongs to prätibhäshika – subjective reality. Before knowledge of Brahman/Ätmä, whatever appears as real, and wherein transaction is possible, is vyävahärika – objective reality. And Nirguna-Brahman from whom Ätmä is non-different, that can never be negated is päramärthika – absolute reality.
Thus, the Jagat has some kind of reality that is neither prätibhäshika, nor päramärthika. Therefore, while trying to understand the mithyätvam of the Jagat, one should not lose sight of this vyävahärika reality. That this Jagat is not real, is the purport of the doctrine of Jagat-mithyä.
After this explanation, it becomes imperative to explain the Mäyäväda of Sankara. That this Jagat is because of mäyä or avidyä, has been presented in many places of his bhäshyam. Many contenders of Sankara call him a Mäyävädi, whether deliberately, or innocently and have severely criticized him.
Now its time to discuss the essence of Sankara’s doctrine of Mäyä.