Äcärya Sankara presents the one non-dual Nirguna-Brahman as the absolute. However, this Nirguna-Brahman with upädhi, is Saguna. This Saguna-Brahman is known as Isvara. Isvara is Omniscient, Omnipotent, whereas the jiva is with limited knowledge and power. While both Isvara and the jiva possess qualities and are active, Isvara does not suffer the way the jiva suffers. Because of adhyäsa, the jiva identifies with the physical body and mind, and experiences pains and pleasures. Isvara is the creator of the jagat, not the jiva. The jiva is under the spell of mäyä, whereas Isvara wields the mäyä. Swämi Vidyäranya (-1386 CE), author of Pancadasi acknowledges the difference between mäyä and avidyä and explains that – ‘the Omniscient Isvara is the reflection of Brahman in mäyä, and the jiva is under the spell of avidyä. Mäyä is dominated by suddha-sattva whereas avidyä is dominated by asuddha-sattva. mäyä is the upädhi – adjunct of Isvara, whereas avidyä is the upädhi of the jiva. One has to remember here that, even if mäyä is the upädhi of Isvara, He is not under its spell. Just as a magician is not under the spell of his magic, similarly Isvara is not affected by mäyä, whereas, the jiva with the upädhi of avidyä is under its spell. Pancadasikära therefore says –‘the other one (jiva) is under control of avidyä (impure sattva).’ As per Sankara, Isvara is to be worshipped. For any kind of worship, there has to be a difference (duality) between the worshipper and the worshipped. So long as the jiva does not have brahmajnäna, he/she has a need to worship Isvara, because he/she considers himself/herself as the worshiper, and Isvara as the worshipped. By worshipping Isvara, the mind is purified and is prepared for brahmajnäna. The only absolute reality is Brahman.
The word jia is derived from the root √jiv, which means ‘to continue breathing.’ The name gives prominence to one of the two aspects of life’s activity, viz. the biological or unconscious activity such as breathing. Brahman or Consciousness, associated with individual ignorance, is called the individual jiva. The jiva dwells in a body. That is why the mind, the buddhi, the ego, and the senses, which are products of ignorance and material in nature, appear to be conscious. The individual jiva unlike Isvara is not omniscient, omnipotent like Isvara because of upädhi-bheda.
Both Isvara and jiva are associated with mäyä; both are products of mäyä. However, the difference between them lies in the fact that mäyä is under control of Isvara, whereas the jiva is under the control of mäyä. The limitation imposed by mäyä upon the jiva makes it completely forget its real nature; but Isvara cannot be affected by His mäyä, just as a cobra cannot be injured by its poison. Both Isvara and jiva are manifestations of Brahman on the relative plane; but Isvara is free, like a spider that moves freely on its web, whereas the jiva is entangled in the world like a silkworm imprisoned in its cocoon. Isvara uses mäyä as His instrument for the purpose of the manifestation, preservation, and dissolution of the universe. Through mäyä He exercises His lordship over it. However, the jiva is a slave of mäyä. It must never be forgotten from the standpoint of Brahman, that mäyä is non-existent; therefore, both isvaratvam and jivatvam are non-existent from the standpoint of the Absolute. Both are appearances. On the relative plane, the jiva is the worshipper, and Isvara, the worshipped. Isvara is the creator, the jiva, the created being. However, Isvara’s importance in the relative world is beyond all measure. He is Omniscient and Omnipotent. One cannot worship Brahman, since It cannot be an object of the jiva’s thought or adoration, but one can worship Isvara. In fact, Isvara is the highest conception of the Infinite that can be formed by the finite mind.
Now, we have to understand the essential nature of this Ätmä. As per Sankara, our experience can be categorised into three: i) jägratävasthä – the waking-state, ii) svapnävasthä – the dream-state, iii) sushupti-avasthä – the deep-sleep state. Sankara says that the one Consciousness that remains present in the waking, dream, and deep-sleep state is the Ätmä. The Türiya (caturtham manyante, sa ätmä, sa vijneya – Mä.Up.-5) is not a separate state like the waking, dream and deep-sleep state. It is the non-negatable essential nature of the Ätmä, and is always present in all the three states of waking, dream and deep-sleep. To think that such an Ätmä or Consciousness does not exist, is not possible. Whatever is seen in dream-state is negated by the waking state. The objects of the dream-state have only prätibhäshika – subjective reality, available only during that dream-state and to that individual dreamer alone. However, the objects of the waking world is not dependent on any particular person, it is the same for all. Therefore, in the waking-state, the objects around have some kind of vyävahärika – empirical reality, that is not prätibhäshika, because it is possible to transact in the waking world; whereas, it is not possible to transact in the dream world of a person. In deep-sleep state, since both the experience of the waking-state and the dream-state is negated, one has to understand these experiences as asat – unreal (prätibhäshika). However, the unreality of these two experiences (waking-state – vyävahärikam, and dream-state – prätibhäshikam) is not tuccham or absolutely non-existent, which can never be an object of cognition such vandhyä-putra, äkäsa-kusuma or sasa-srnga. Now, we see that since the cognition of the objects of dreams and waking state is negated in deep-sleep state, they are asat.
In deep-sleep state, it is not possible for the cognition of any object of experience of the waking-state or dream-state to remain. However, it is also not possible to state that Consciousness was not present during deep-sleep state; since on waking, the person says – ‘I had a good sleep, I could not experience anything’. It becomes clear therefore, that even without the cognition of any external object, Ätmä exists in the deep-sleep state as the cognition per se. It is not possible to state that this Ätmä of the nature of Consciousness or Knowledge is not there. The existence of everything else is dependent upon this Ätmä. Therefore, this Ätmä of the nature of Existence and Knowledge is always present in the deep-sleep state. This Ätmä is also of the nature of Änanda, Infinite (Anantam). If it were not of the nature of änanda, one would not experience that relative änanda during deep sleep state. (This is because the limitation of space and time and object does not remain during deep-sleep state.)
It is worth mentioning here that, Sat, Cit and Änanda are not the attributes of the Ätmä, rather they are its essential nature. The un-negatable Consciousness that remains undivided during the waking, dream and deep-sleep state is the Cit and Änanda. Since in deep-sleep state one recognizes the existence of cognition per se without the cognition of any object, as per Sankara, it becomes evident that no object can exist without the existence of that vastu. Ätmä is not an object of any cognition; it is self-evident, self-revealing. This Ätmä is one, without a second, and is without any attribute. Sankara established this un-negatable Ätmä as none other than Brahman. Brahman is presented as Satyam-Jnänam-Anantam in the Tai.Up.-II.1. Here, it will be incorrect to consider Satyam and Jnänam as the attributes of Brahman. In explaining the meaning of Satyam, Jnänam and Anantam in his Taittiriya Upanishad Bhashyam, Sankara has said clearly – satyam-sabdena brahma lakshyate, na tu ucyate, meaning – by the three words satyam, jnänam and anantam, Brahman is defined, and not qualified as a big blue-fragrant lily is qualified by its bigness, blueness and fragrance. Thus, in defining Brahman as Satyam-Jnänam-Anantam, the attributeless feature of Brahman is not negatively affected, since Satyam-Jnänam-Anantam are not attributes of Brahman, rather they are definitions. One has to understand the Ätmä or Brahman as being without any attribute. Now let us analyse the doctrine of mithyätvam of jagat by Sankara.
This presentation of Brahman by Saìkara can be understood by another point of view. As per Sankara, there is no Brahman other than it being the Ätmä. This he has shown in Brahmasütra – ‘Brahman is famous being the Ätmä of every being.’ However, one has to analyse the essential nature of the Ätmä and that is the only Satyam – Reality, with which Sankara has established the oneness and non-difference of Brahman.
To establish the difference between sat and asat, Sankara has stated this criterion. The definition of sat and asat is presented in Sankara’s Bhagavadgitä-bhäshyam-II.16 – yad vishayä buddhih na vyabhicarati, tat sat | yad vishayä buddhih vyabhicarati tat asat | meaning – ‘that about which the cognition does not change is sat – real and that about which cognition keeps changing, or is negated is asat – unreal’. To illustrate this definition Sankara has continued in his Gitä-bhäshyam – “if you say ‘the pot’, it is possible to negate this statement, since the pot has no independent existence without the clay. The effect cannot exist without the cause. Before the creation of the pot and after its destruction, the existence of the effect such as the pot is not there. All these are the example of the change of cognition of ‘pot-cognition’. However, there is no change of cognition of the sat-buddhi – ‘reality-cognition’. This change or negation of the cognition of the asat-vastu establishes the unreal nature of the vastu – the object. However, since there is no change in the cognition of the sat-vastu, with reference to the sat-vastu, one has to understand it as sat – real. When the pot is destroyed, the pot-cognition is negated is changed, but the cognition of the sat, existence per se remains unchanged. The reality cognition goes to pata-buddhi – existence of the pot. From this angle, the physical body is asat – unreal (vyävahärika), and the Ätmä or Brahman alone being unchanging and un-negatable is the only sat or Reality.”