Why the World is Unreal or an Illusion? The Advaita Concept
Shiva, the Self of all
Question: Many Hindus believe that the world is unreal and illusion. It is hard for me to believe that the world is unreal. How can it be unreal or an illusion, when it is so real? Please give me a simple answer.
Answer: Of all the living beings upon earth only human beings know what world means. The rest of them do not have any idea. It does not mean the world does not exist for them. There was a time world meant where people lived. Today we know that our world is just an insignificant little spec in a vast and unfathomable universe. The fact is our understanding is relative to our knowledge and perspective. Therefore, it will be difficult to understand the nondualistic view of the world in a state of duality. You will truly understand it in the state of unified awareness only. However, I will try to explain it as you requested. To grasp it, you need to stretch your thinking.
One of the famous quotations of Sri Adi Shankaracharya which is found in the 20th verse1 of his work named Brahma Jnanavali Mala declares thus, “Brahman is real (satyam), the universe is false, made up or illusory (mithya). The jiva (living being) is Brahman only and not different. This should be known as the true instruction as proclaimed by the Upanishads (Vedanta).”
Those who are not familiar with the term Brahman may know that Brahman is the highest supreme reality and the source of all sources. He is also known as the Self of all or the Supreme Self. His essential nature is eternal, indestructible, limitless, pure consciousness. He is neither the mind nor the body nor the entire objective reality which you can perceive or conceive, but the inner witness because of whom they all exist.
The idea that the world is unreal, and the Self is real, is revolutionary. From a purely intellectual or rational point of view, it does not make sense. How can you say that the world is unreal, when you can touch it, see it, sense it, feel it and live in it? It means we too are unreal and all that we live through and experience also. It is probably worse than nihilism, the idea that things are empty in themselves and life is empty and meaningless or purposeless.
However, we cannot brush aside the words of Shankara. They are loaded with profound meaning. Those who understand its true meaning truly understand Vedanta and qualify for liberation. There are many explanations how and why the world is unreal or illusory. I myself have written a few articles on it. Apart from the works of Shankara and several tantras and Upanishads, one may also find its further exposition in the Ashtavakra Gita, which contains the teachings of Ashtavakra, one of the greatest proponents of the Advaita or the philosophy of nondualism.
The explanation which I am presenting here is the most basic and fundamental to the Advaita philosophy. It strips of all embellishments and modern explanations and presents the idea in its purest form as envisaged by the early proponents of the philosophy, the true masters and sages who composed the Upanishads and transcribed the Vedas as they heard them in their deepest silence. Here it is.
The explanation is, you have to look at the world or the material universe just as you look at your mind. The universe is verily the mind of Brahman, a kind of projection or illumination, which arises from him within himself. It is within himself only because there is nothing other than Brahman. He is without a second. Now you know that your mind is not real because you cannot locate it, touch it, or separate it. It is a temporary formation, an aggregation of things such as thoughts, perceptions, memories, feelings, etc.
It arises from you and subsides in you. No one can sense it or feel it or know it, except you. It is also highly unstable and impermanent and disappears when you go to sleep or when you depart from your body. From the universal perspective, or Brahman’s perspective, you have to see the world in the same way.
You have to see that just as your mind, the world is his projected reality or illusion, in whatever way you want to call it. It exists until he projects it, and disappears when he withdraws it or dissolves it or goes into a sleep mode. However, unlike your mind which remains in a subtle state and rarely materializes into tangible reality, the projection of Brahman materializes into objective reality at several levels. Hence, it has both gross and subtle aspects.
It is difficult for us to see the objectified world as unreal because we consider unreal only what manifests in the mind. We cannot overcome the incredulity because Brahman’s creation is physical, mental, subtle, and supra-subtle, while ours is purely mental. We are also subject to duality and think that we are different and separate from Brahman. Therefore, we cannot see the world the way it appears to a seer at the highest level of unified awareness. We cannot also see it as a materialized thought of Brahman. For us it is real because we see it, feel it and experience it as a concrete reality.
However, all that changes if we transcend our limited egos and the consciousness which is associated with it and abide in the pure consciousness of Brahman which exists in us also as our very core. Only those who achieve oneness with it or enter the state of self-absorption see that the world disappears in the reality of Brahman. When the duality or the awareness of “the otherness” disappears and when only subjective awareness remains (which is otherwise known as pure consciousness or Brahman consciousness), yogis realize that the world is but an extension of their own minds or consciousness and they are its source and support. This truth is affirmed in many scriptures.
In other words, it does not make any sense to you if you are told, “The world is unreal and Brahman is real.” It makes sense only when you attain the pure consciousness of Brahman (Brahmajnana) and make it your natural state (sahaja vidya). Another important point to remember. This is not speculative knowledge. Many Hindu scriptures affirm that it is a verifiable reality. Yogis and tantriks experience it after a long practice. Many seers, siddhas and yogis vouch for it.
The worshippers of Shiva who attain liberation confirm that one can enter the pure state of Shiva, whom they equate with Brahman and see the world as their own projection. According to them Shiva lives in every jiva as their pure consciousness, but remains concealed due to the impurities of egoism, attachments, and delusion. When they realize him through oneness, they attain liberation and the state of nonduality, and see the world as the extension of their minds and they are the source of all that happens in the objective world.
The Shiva Sutras confirms this and offers different approaches to attain this state. It states that when the mind of a yogi is in an impure body it is filled with maya and dreamlike indistinct knowledge. However, when true knowledge (vidya) arises in him through the awakening of Shiva, he attains the illuminating, natural state of khechari avasta or Shiva consciousness (svabhavike khechari shivavasta). Without entering that state and experiencing nonduality, it is difficult to understand the true nature of Shankara’s words.
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