The Idea of Creation in Sankara

"That [is Brahman] from which [are derived] the birth etc. of this [universe]." (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.13) This statement initiates Sankara's deliberation upon Brahman and the creation of this universe. The concept of creation constitutes an essential component of Sankara's Advaita system as it asks the following question: what is the relationship between Brahman and the world? Or, in what sense is Brahman the creator of this universe?

Sankara postulates two ways to view the world, which leads to the doctrine of the two truths. From the conventional perspective, the world appears pluralistic facilitating the formation of a subject/object relationship between man and the Ultimate Being. Ultimate reality states Brahman to be the only true, existent Being. The non-dual Brahman alone Is; there is nothing real beside It. Brahman can be described as either saguna (with attributes) or nirguna (without attributes). Saguna Brahman is the Being with qualities or Isvara (the personal God), with the limiting adjuncts (the world) superimposed upon him. Nevertheless, He is omniscient and omnipotent when viewed from the conventional point of view. Nirguna Brahman is the Absolute Being divested of all qualities, attributes, limiting adjuncts etc. and the realization of whom leads to moksha (liberation).

The presence of Isvara does not assign duality to the nature of Brahman. Isvara, Brahman with attributes, exists as the highest possible reality for those lacking the realization of the Ultimate Being, the ones subjected to the powers of nescience. Isvara becomes the subject of all upasana (worship), while man is the object, when viewed from conventional reality. Sankara often uses "Lord" and "Brahman" interchangeably, for example, he states, "it is reasonable to ascribe agentship to It (Brahman) by saying, "It saw"" (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.49). Brahman here is the Lord, the agent, "the omniscient and omnipotent source from which occur the birth, continuance and dissolution of this universe" (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.14). Brahman is the maker and the cause of this world. Thus, it can be stated that Isvara, viewed as the "mediating principle" between this world and the Ultimate Brahman, is not separate from but exists as, conventionally speaking, another side of Brahman.

The individual jiva (soul) is different from Isvara and does not possess powers to create the universe. The Lord is, from the standpoint of nescience, different from and greater than the individual soul, as He is that being "free from grief and hunger, whose will is always realized, which has to be sought by the individual soul" (Chandogya Upanisad, trans. Olivelle, p.171). Until realization is attained about the identity of the Atman with Brahman, it is an error to reject the Lord as a power greater than the individual soul. These ideas are stated explicitly by Sankara as, "We speak of that entity as the creator of the universe which is something greater than, that is to say, different from the embodied being [jiva]" (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.348). This exists as such, from the standpoint of nescience, despite the presence of ultimate reality that upholds Atman as non-different from Brahman. Thus, from the conventional perspective, Isvara transcends individual souls.

The omniscient and omnipotent Isvara is the material and efficient cause of the universe (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.292). To the objection that in experience, material causes do not possess knowledge, Sankara replies, "the causation of the Absolute is not strictly comparable with worldly causation. This is not a matter within the province of inference. And because it belongs to the province of revelation, it has to be conceived just as the revealed texts say," proving that reliance on scriptural texts, makes exact conformity to experience unnecessary (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.294). Isvara, creating without implements or instruments, transforms Himself into the manifold effects of the world by his great powers. Sankara compares the transformation of the Absolute to when "milk gets transformed into curds by itself without depending on any extraneous accessory, so it can be here as well" (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.350). Isvara requires no outside help, as he is one who possesses all the necessary powers perfect within himself. Thus, Isvara can be described as a changing Brahman, combining both aspects of being and becoming in order to produce the world. This does not imply that he is impaired by self-expression in the many. Sankara gives the example of a magician who is himself not affected by his creation, thus the Lord is not affected by his maya (illusion).

Various objections are produced questioning the validity of Isvara as the cause of the universe. The first objection pertains to the idea of transformation and that giving rise to the "contingency of either wholesale transformation or the violation of the texts about partlessness" (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.353). This is the idea that since Brahman transforms either completely, thus becoming one with his creation, or partly, which would contradict the Upanisadic text, "partless, actionless, peaceful, faultless, taintless" (Sv. Upanisad, VI. 19). Sankara denies the existence of Brahman as an object of the senses, thus making all transformations objects of perception. Hence Brahman, in reality, does exist as an unchanged entity. Only when viewed from the conventional perspective as Isvara, does Brahman become subject to modification, and ultimately the conventional view of Brahman is not real. Sankara states that the realm of Brahman is beyond logical grasp (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.355), thus one should not try to apply rationality to It but instead embrace the word of the Vedas, which alone are a source to Brahman.

Another objection raises the argument that Isvara cannot be the cause of the world since there is a difference of nature between the cause and the effect. A piece of gold cannot be the cause of a vessel of clay (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.308). Likewise, Isvara, pure and conscious, cannot be the cause of the impure and non-conscious world. Sankara replies that unconscious objects frequently take rise from conscious beings as shown by the fact that "man, well known as a conscious being, originates hair, nail, etc. that are different in nature (being insentient)" (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.312). Sankara further states that the world and Brahman are not completely different as both share the common characteristic of satta (being).

An objection states that if the world issues from and returns to Isvara, then, on its return, the qualities of the world such as materiality, compositeness, non-intelligence, limitedness, impurity, etc. must defile Isvara. Sankara retorts by stating that when the effects return to their causes, they lose their specific qualities and merge into their cause, as when plates made from earth become reabsorbed into the earth devoid of their individual features (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.317). If, then, all distinctions are obliterated during resorption, there will be no reasonable ground regulating the re-emergence of creation with the usual differences. Sankara answers by stating an analogy, "As in natural slumber and samadhi, though there is a natural eradication of differences, still owing to the persistence of the unreal nescience, differences occur over again when one wakes up, similarly it can also happen here" (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.319). The basis of the recurring return of the world of existence lies in the works performed in former lives that require to be accounted for. Thus the liberated, cannot be subjected to rebirth "for [in their cases] unreal nescience stands eradicated by full illumination" (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.319).

The final objection to consider against Isvara being the cause of the world involves him acting unjustly and granting varying, instead of equal, lots on his creatures. The objector states, "God has passion and hatred like some ignoble persons, for He creates an unjust world by making some experience happiness, some experience extreme misery and some experience moderate happiness and sorrow. Hence there will be a nullification of God's nature of extreme purity, etc. that are declared in the Vedas and Smrtis" (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.362). Sankara replies by stating that God takes other factors (i.e. the law of karma) into consideration. He does not act arbitrarily, but acts with reference to the good and evil works of each creature in its earlier births. God is compared to rain which helps paddy, barley, etc. grow, while the reasons for the differences of paddy, barley, etc. depends, not on the rain but on the individual potentiality of the seed (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.363). Thus, God cannot be charged with partiality and cruelty.

This brings up the essential question of why Isvara creates: what remains his motive for creation? God, who subsists self-satisfied, creates without reference to any motive, out of mere lila (play, sport) (Brahmasutrabhasya, p. 361). It is the spontaneous overflow of God's nature, as it is man's nature to breathe in and out. The infinite is not something that exists in itself first and then feels a necessity to go out into the finite. Creation contains no motive; it is spontaneous. No moral consequences attach to the creator in his activity, so he cannot be held responsible for the subsequent actions that arise within the fields of his creation. By viewing creation as a cosmic game in which Isvara indulges, Sankara brings out the ease and effortlessness with which the creation is sustained and demonstrates the infinite might and supra-rational existence of the Lord.

The presentation of these ideas necessitates the summoning of the maya doctrine. Brahman presents itself as fullness of being, as self-luminous consciousness and as sacchitananda (infinite bliss); It alone exists. The phenomenal world of plurality does not exist in reality, it is maya. Maya is all experience that follows from, and constituted by the distinction between the subject and the object. Whenever there is a transformation of the impersonal into the personal, there exists an association with maya. Maya is often denoted as the creative power of Isvara. Using maya, the Lord can manifest himself into the plurality of the world. It is inherent in Isvara, conferring to him limiting adjuncts. Maya often equates itself with the names and forms which, in their unevolved condition, here in Isvara, and in their developed state constitute the world. In this sense, maya is synonymous with prakrti. The Lord, however, remains unaffected by his own maya as the magician with his magic (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.318). When a magician makes one thing appear into another, one is deluded into believing his magic as real. And just as the magician creates illusions that are not binding upon him and that last as long as the believer remains in ignorance, so Brahman conjures up a phenomenal world, whose importance vanishes upon the attainment of true Knowledge.

Maya has the power of concealing and distorting reality. Not only do we not perceive Brahman, we substitute something else in its place as Ultimate Reality. Thus, maya is not just a negative designation but something positive that produces an illusion. Furthermore, maya cannot be designated as mere illusion; it exists as real until all duality is transcended. The world, then, 'appears' to be real as long the non-dual Brahman is not known.

The idea of avidya (ignorance) lies in close connection with the doctrine of maya. Avidya causes adhyasa (superimposition). In reality, there exists no creator and no world; there alone is Brahman. Nescience, in conjunction with maya, imposes limiting adjuncts upon the Limitless and forces the mind to perceive a subject object relationship thus maintaining duality. Sankara uses the analogy of the pots to illustrate nescience when he states,

"Thus the Lord conforms to the external adjuncts formed by name and form set up by nescience in the same way that the ether conforms to external adjuncts such as the clay pot and the [differently shaped] coconut water vessel, etc. And within the realm of human experience He rules over the conscious beings called individual souls, who are in truth nothing but His own Self, but who assume the limitations of body, mind and senses are [not real, being] wrought of name and form which are set up by nescience. Hence the Lordship, as well as His omniscience and omnipotence, exist only in relation to external conditions which are [illusory because they are] of the nature of nescience. From the standpoint of ultimate truth, there can be no talk of any dichotomy between a Lord and His subjects, or of qualities such as omniscience etc. in the Self. For [from the standpoint of the highest truth] no external conditions exist in the Self, in the true nature of which all external cognitions stand negated through knowledge" (Brahmasutrabhasya, II,i,14).

This paragraph explains thoroughly the ideas constituting the theory of nescience. Thus, it can be concluded that all duality, including creation, persists because of nescience; once ignorance is uprooted the non-dual Brahman alone exists.

Now, the question of the relation between Brahman and the creation of the world can be approached. For Sankara, this question has no relevance because this admits that the world and Brahman are distinct entities. This demands a discussion of causation and the various levels associated with it. The first level involves the belief in an omniscient and omnipotent creator. The mind, conceiving the Lord (Isvara) as the material and efficient cause of this universe, perceives a definite distinction between the creator and his creation. The creator is different and somehow superior to this world and to the individual souls. Thus, there exists a subject/object relationship between the Lord and human beings.

The second level introduces the concept of satkaryavada in conjunction to Brahman and the world. This idea postulates that an effect pre-exists in the cause and that it is not different from its cause. Sankara, in support of this idea, states, "for direct perception does occur about the non-difference of the cause and effect. It is thus: In a cloth constituted by an arrangement of yarns, one does not perceive the cloth apart from the yarns; but the yarns themselves, arranged as warps and woofs..." (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.336). Satkaryavada, like the dualistic level, pertains to the phenomenal world because it ultimately upholds causation, an idea whose existence is derived only from the conventional perspective. It differs and elevates itself from duality in the sense that it states non-difference between the cause and effect, between the creator and his creation. Satkaryavada offers the mind, not a rejection of causality, but a rational, defensible theory of it thus facilitating an understanding of the Vedas, at the phenomenal level, and simultaneously maintaining the possibility of the Infinite in which causality is altogether transcended. Sankara defends this doctrine and yet interprets it in such a way as to lead the mind beyond the realm of causality into the realm of transcendence by introducing the idea of vivartavada.

Vivartavada, the theory that the effect is only an apparent manifestation, an 'appearance' of its cause, constitutes the third level. The creation of this world is only an apparent change, it is not a modification of Brahman in reality. From the viewpoint of vivartavada, there is no creation; reality is the non-dual Brahman. The infinite Brahman can in no way create the finite world since He is beyond all action. The relation of cause and effect has no bearing to Brahman, since cause has only meaning in relation to the finite modes of being. Vivartavada affirms the appearance-only status of the effect and thus points the way to the sublation of the world in Brahman, where all questions of creation are silenced. Once Brahman is realized, all causality and duality is transcended. Thus, vivartavada teaches that no causal relation can be established between Brahman and the world and that the world as effect must be only an appearance of Brahman.

A question now arises concerning the potential helpfulness of the creation texts and other texts not directly pertaining to the Ultimate Being. The purpose of the duality teachings in the texts is to prepare the mind for the ultimate realization. The contemplation of the Lord as the subject and creator of this universe relieves the mind of its thoughts on the more vulgar sides of the world of appearance, in particular crude sense enjoyment. In addition, the texts on creation and entry of the Absolute into the phenomenal world are part of a process that conveys to the student a notion of his own true identity by way of false attributions and subsequent denials of them. Sankara bestows positive qualities upon the idea of the Lord's manifestation when he states,

"During the state of ignorance, when the individual soul is blinded by the darkness of ignorance and cannot understand itself to be different from the assemblage of body and organs, it derives its transmigratory state, consisting in its becoming an agent and experiencer, from the behest of the supreme Self who presides over all activities and resides in all beings, and who is the witness (of all), imparts intelligence (to all) and is the supreme Lord. Liberation, too, results from realization that is vouchsafed by Him out of His grace." (Brahmasutrabhasya, p.504)

By this Sankara means that even the manifestation of the world, with the Lord as creator, should be viewed as a kind of grace; only because of the Lord's grace is Liberation possible.

The problem of creation is a complex one, and is approachable from various levels. The first level is a definite difference between the all-powerful Isvara Brahman (cause) and his creation, the world (effect). This level is a pre-requisite to understanding the other two levels and thus is of importance to one who has not attained realization. The second level is satkaryavada, where the effect is supposed to pre-exist in the cause. This level is also a preparatory step towards vivartavada, where both creation and causality are transcended because Brahman alone is acknowledged to exist. Thus, one cannot establish relations between disparate levels of being, one can only trace the generation of these levels in the mind of the subject. Any sort of identity with a previously transcended level would mean a reversion back to that level.

Mr. Desikan is a senior pursuing his B.A. in Biology, Classics, and Neuroscience at Boston University, Boston, MA