mAyA (was Re: The Theism of the Upanishads)
Subject: mAyA (was Re: The Theism of the Upanishads)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Vidyasankar Sundaresan)
Date: 22 Jun 1994 03:26:01 GMT
Organization: California Institute of Technology, Pasadena
In the previous two postings, I have tried to point out two major points :
1) Firstly, Advaita as the philosophy of Vedanta existed at the time
of composition of the Vishnu Purana (i.e. nearly 2000 years ago).
Parasara presents the ultimate description of Vishnu as the Nirguna
Brahman of Advaita, goes on to affirm the identity of the individual
Atma (Vasudeva) with Vishnu who transcends the world, and leaves the
question of the ontological status of mAyA unanswered. This corresponds
in all major details to the position taken by Advaita Vedanta. The
identity of the Atman and Brahman may be questioned, for Vasudeva is a
term with some personal connotation, but the Nirguna Brahman cannot be
denied. This answers Mani's comments about the influence of Buddhism on
Advaita's maintaining the Ultimate Reality as Nirguna Brahman.
2) It might be argued that even if some sort of Advaitic tradition existed
before Sankara, this was also influenced by Buddhism. Such an argument
can really have no basis, if one looks at the historic relationship
between Buddhism and Vedanta. In my posting on GaudapAda, Sankara's
paramaguru, I have tried to show the important philosophical
differences between Buddhism and GaudapAda's writing. Advaita being
"Buddhism in disguise" is a favorite criticism for the other schools of
Vedanta, and they are not going to give it up that easily. Still, I
think an impartial reader would see the major points of difference as
well as the points of agreement, and decide for himself how much
Advaita is indebted to Buddhism. My thesis is that later developments
in Buddhism itself are based at least partly on Upanishadic thought and
the similarity between mAdhyamika Buddhism and Advaita is only due to
Even GaudapAda's being conversant with Buddhist doctrines is not enough
for the Visishtadvaitin to substantiate the claim that Advaita is
"prachanna bauddham". For Advaita is defined more by Sankara's writings
than by GaudapAda's. Thus, the Visishtadvaitin tries to show that the
basic philosophy of Advaita is itself Buddhist in origin. This is done by
attacking the Advaitin's use of the word mAyA. It does not matter for the
critic that the most important tenet of Advaita - Brahma satyam - is not
and cannot be a borrowal from Buddhism. He thinks his job is done if he
chips at the lesser detail of how Advaita views mAyA. More often than not,
the criticism is based on misunderstanding the Advaitin's statement,
deliberately or otherwise. This post focuses on this topic.
Sankara doesn't say more than that mAyA is anirvachanIya. That is, mAyA is
inexplicable. It is neither being, nor non-being, nor both nor neither.
Now this is the famous four-fold negation of Nagarjuna. Is it unique to
Madhyamika Buddhism however? The rudiments of this philosophical
speculation are found in the oldest Hindu scripture, the RgVeda. The
nAsadIya hymn says-
It was not Non-Being, nor was it Being
That which was coming into Being was covered by void
The wise discovered in their hearts
the bond of Being to non-Being.
Whence is this creation? Is it founded or not?
The presiding Deity in the skies knows it,
or perhaps He does not.
To be sure, the hymn affirms a presiding Deity, so it is not indicative of
SUnyavAda. So what is this thing which was not non-Being, and also not
Being? The Being and the non-Being are in this creation. The ending line
"perhaps He does not" already points to the very early origin of the
philosophical speculation whether world-origination is a conscious act of
will of this Deity or not. For if there were no question, the hymn could
have just told us "Only the presiding Deity in the skies knows it."
The Upanishads represent the major details of this philosophical
speculation of the Vedic seers. For the most part, the origin of the world
from Being (Brahman) is affirmed, though it is open to question whether
such origination is active or not. In other words, does the
world-origination change the Brahman from which the world originates? For
if it were active or conscious, Brahman itself gets changed by the very
fact of world-origination. Furthermore, Brahman manifests Itself as the
world, so after the manifestation, is the original Brahman changed or left
unchanged? This question can be said to be the cornerstone on which the
various schools of Vedanta are divided.
In Advaita Vedanta, God (Brahman) is defined as Being. This is in perfect
accordance with the Upanishad which says "sadeva sowmya idam agra AsIt."
(sat = Being/Reality, eva = only -> Being alone, dear student, was here in
the beginning.) This world, not being Brahman as is, is therefore, not
Being. However, it is not non-Being either, because, Being is the
substratum of this world. That it is neither follows at once. Also it is
not both, because no entity can be both Being and non-Being at the same
time. Automatically, it can only be perceived as mithya, as mAyA. The
same argument holds for the mAyA conceived as the power of creation too.
Whether this mAyA is real or not is the next question. For Advaita
Vedanta, Brahman is the only Reality. Thus mAyA is not Real, not Unreal,
nor both, nor neither. That is the primary meaning. Illusion comes about
only as a popular secondary meaning, because that which is mAyA is
generally understood as illusion. As regards the world, the conclusion of
Advaita is that this world is a vivarta on Brahman, not a pariNAma - i.e.
the world-origination does not change Brahman, which continues to be the
changeless Nirguna. In that sense, the world is one of appearances, not of
ultimate reality. How is that we perceive the world around us as real
then? How is it that the world originates from Brahman, but Brahman Itself
is not changed by it? The answer is - that is inexplicable, that is mAyA,
which is "anirvachanIya", a mystery. Advaitins use mAyA in this technical
sense. Critics of Advaita, both Dvaitins and Visishtadvaitins, purposely
misunderstand it in the popular sense as mere illusion, and find fault
For the Visishtadvaitin, there are other reals. Hence he finds no problem
in ascribing reality to mAyA too. Advaita does not differentiate various
things in Ultimate Reality, because as the Upanishads repeatedly tell us,
the Highest is undifferentiated, without parts. Advaitins also maintain
this "anirvachanIya" nature of mAyA only at the Ultimate level. The
meaning of mAyA as neither real nor unreal occurs only at the level of
"pAramArthika satya". At the level of "vyAvahArika satya" - mAyA is as
real as anything else, but then that is only because one doesn't apprehend
the pAramArthika at the level of the vyAvahArika. To find fault with mAyA
at the level of objective reality is putting the cart before the horse -
what we perceive as objectively real is due to this mysterious thing
called mAyA; we cannot say anything about its reality or otherwise unless
we have known the pAramArthika satya. Visishtadvaitins easily slip into
characterizing the Advaitic idea of mAyA as unreal. Advaita is careful to
point out that ultimately, if mAyA is not real, it is not unreal either.
To argue that such a category cannot exist, that mAyA has to be either
wholly real or wholly unreal, is being simply blind to the logic behind
such a categorization.
It is true that the Buddhists had used this categorization before Sankara,
but then it is not Sankara's fault that he lived in the 7-8 th cent. A.
D., while Nagarjuna lived in the 1st-2nd cent. A. D. It goes to Sankara's
credit that he is prepared to accept that which is logical in a school
opposed to his own. Mere dogma does not stand in his way of appreciating
what doesn't contradict the Upanishads from any system, be it Samkhya or
Buddhism or Nyaya or Bhagavatism. Moreover, the influence of Upanishadic
ideas on the development of mAdhyamika Buddhism itself cannot be denied.
Also, there is substantial difference between Buddhist usage and Advaitic
usage of mAyA. For the Buddhist, there is no Brahman, therefore mAyA is
like pure dream. For Advaita, Brahman is Supreme, therefore mAyA can be
many different things. When Brahman is seen as Saguna, it is the power of
self-expression of ISvara. Ultimately, it is incomprehensible.
Sankara's description of mAyA-Sakti as "anirvachanIya" fully captures the
mystery that the Upanishads indicate it is. There are many sub-schools of
post-Sankaran Advaita which try to explain mAyA in myriad different ways.
Because mAyA can be many different things, each person sees some of those
things. These sub-schools are all subordinated to the original teaching of
Sankara, so that differences of opinion about what mAyA is, do not lead to
major schisms within Advaita on a philosophical or a religious basis. The
emphasis remains on understanding and knowing Brahman as one's own Atman.
For, whatever mAyA is thought to be, when the Atman is known as Brahman,
mAyA is fully understood to be "anirvachnaIya". In no way can the Advaitic
idea of mAyA be dismissed as a mere illusion. Having said that, let me
turn to the other criticism about mAyA.
Mani - For example, consider the ontological status of mAyA, the
principle that is supposed to be the source of avidyA and hence
our bondage in this world. Other Vedantins wish to know, if
Brahman is pure, homogeneous Consciousness, admitting of no
difference whatsoever, how does mAyA fit into the picture?
Advaitins respond by saying "it is anirvacanIya
(incomprehensible)". Now you tell me, is that a response in the
context of a debate?
My response to this frivolous charge is this. Don't you resort to
incomprehensibility yourself? Let me elaborate. Visishtadvaita explains
the relationship between the Atman and the Brahman, not as an Identity
(even though Upanishad expressly tells us so) but as a SarIra-SArIrin
relationship. When asked how is it that changes in the SarIra (one's AtmA)
do not affect the SArIrin (Brahman), what is the Visishtadvaitin's answer?
He cannot say that one's individual AtmA is changeless, because that is
the Advaitic view. However, Brahman, the AtmA of this Atma, must remain
changeless, because Upanishad says so. How does he resolve this? He
resorts to this same mysteriousness! The Visishtadvaitin can hardly find
fault with Advaita for saying mAyA is anirvachanIya. The double standard
in his reasoning is patent. When the Advaitin says mAyA is inexplicable
i.e. mysterious, that is not a proper response in the context of a debate.
When the Visishtadvaitin says "Mysterious are the ways of the Lord", that
is a wonderful response in the debate and the Advaitin should exalt him as
a great bhakta, I suppose!
Advaita would rather leave the ontological status of mAyA as
anirvachanIya, than compromise on the Upanishadic teaching of identity
between Atman and Brahman. When the Upanishad says "tat tvam asi" it does
not mean "tad tava AtmA". Similarly, "ayamAtmA Brahma", not "asya Atmana:
AtmA Brahma". No SarIra-SArIrin relationship here, no soul of the soul
description, only absolute identity. In fact, it is this identity that is
unique to the teaching of the Upanishads, in no other religion is such
powerful non-duality affirmed. (Buddhism teaches identity, but not with
Brahman, because there is no concept of Brahman in Buddhism.)
Visishtadvaita offers alternative explanations to such identity, and is
comfortable with it; Advaita does not wish to dilute the Upanishadic
Nobody disputes the Visishtadvaita claim that Brahman is described as
Saguna in the Upanishads. The Advaitin accepts the Saguna fully, as a
manifestation of the Nirguna. What the Advaitin disputes is the
Visishtadvaitic denial of the Nirguna. Ultimately the Advaitin's answer to
the Visishtadvaitin is that you cannot just wish away the Nirguna Brahman
and claim that Brahman is Saguna always. You cannot just wish away the
identity affirmed in the Upanishads. You cannot adequately explain
Yajnavalkya's affirmation of non-duality as the ultimate truth in the
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (IV, 5. 15, for example), in terms of
Visishtadvaita. The Advaita explanation is the only one to fully
understand the teaching of the Upanishad.
Even if you do explain Yajnavalkya's affirmation of non-duality in terms
of Visishtadvaita, at least recognize that the Advaita explanation is an
alternative explanation, and in fact the older one with the force of
tradition behind it. Do not arbitrarily dismiss Advaita as nihilistic and
do not search for imaginary origins in Buddhism. At the very least, do not
claim that Visishtadvaita is the only true school of Vedanta.