Sat and Asat, what is the Difference?

Reality and Vedanta

by Jayaram V

Verse 16 from Chapter 2 of the Bhagavadgita declares, “The unreal has no true existence; the real has no non-existence. (Thus) the seers who have seen the reality of That reached the conclusion about the two.” Sat and Asat are the fundamental realities as well as dualities of creation. Sat (the real) is that​ which is eternally true, real, and existent. Asat is what is not Sat or everything that is not Sat. These meanings may be misleading or confusing to some if they try to understand them from a purely mental perspective. The distinction between the real and unreal need to be understood from a universal and eternal perspective. Shankara interpreted that both the causes and effects are Asat. Although perceived through the senses, they are unreal because they do not exist permanently. Madhavacharya interpreted them as righteous and unrighteous deeds and bhava and abhava as happiness and misery, respectively.

What we consider Sat is that which shall always be universally real or true, irrespective of time, place, or conditions. It does not qualify as Sat if it is intermittently, relatively true, or real. In other words, Sat is the reality of absolute truths which are always true, independent, and self-existent. Whatever is not absolutely true or real is Asat. Sat never ceases to exist or comes into existence because it is eternally present without a beginning and end and modifications. Anything which does not fall into this definition is Asat. If something happens intermittently or comes and goes, as in the case of heat or cold, or pain or pleasure, it does not qualify as Sat because it is not eternally existent. For example, you do not consider a dream real because it might have felt real when it happened, but it was not real in a true sense because it does not exist forever in any form except as a vague memory. You cannot also recreate it exactly as it happened. You may remember it, but that does not make it real. Also, one shall not be confused by the fact that the unreal (Asat) may temporarily manifest as real (as in the case of a cloud or rain), and the real (Sat) may temporarily remain hidden and become imperceptible to our senses as in case of the Self or Brahman. Shankara said that any object, such as a clay pot, is unreal (asat) because it did not exist before it was created or after it was destroyed.

Simply because you cannot perceive Sat, it does not mean that it does not exist, or because you perceive Asat, it does not mean that it exists. The only criteria to decide whether something qualifies as Sat is whether it is eternally and unchangeably existent (bhava). According to the Vedas, the distinction between Sat and Asat is represented by the Self and the body at the most fundamental level. At the highest level, they are represented by Brahman and his creation or manifestation, respectively. The world, the body, and the materiality they represent are Asat because they are effects produced by causes. They have a beginning and an end but do not eternally exist. The supreme reality of Brahman is eternal and immutable, and everything else, including his creation, is unreal or illusory.

Similarly, the absolute Brahman is Sat. However, from Isvara downwards, all his manifestations, including the highest gods, are Asat since they have a beginning and an end and last for the cycle of creation. Some may argue that the highest gods are also Sat. However, it depends upon how you view them. Whether it is a god or human, any being with names and forms (which are transient) is unreal. However, their essence may be true since it is Brahman only.

Sat represents Brahman's absolute, eternal, pure, and infinite reality which exists by itself and in itself. It is also the purest and blemishless reality (shuddha tattva), which appears as Atman or the individual Self in beings (jivas) and as the Supreme Self in the Supreme Being, who is also known as Saguna Brahman or Isvara (Lord of the Universe) in creation. Asat is that which is devoid of suddha sattva or the eternal divine essence. Brahman pervades Asat, just as he pervades our minds and bodies, but he does not exist in them. The whole creation exists in him as his projection, but he does not exist in it.

Sat is not to be mistaken with sattva, which is a mode of Nature. Our minds and bodies contain sattva along with the other two gunas. However, sattva has no direct relationship with Sat. It is just a poor reflection of Sat in the field of Nature. Hence, it has the name sattva or that which reflects the purity of Sat. When you have the predominance of sattva, you will cultivate nearness to Sat and experience it. The phenomenal world and all the modifications of Nature arise in the brilliance of the Pure Consciousness as temporary formations. They are mere reflections without any real substance. Therefore, the objective reality, along with all the objects and phenomena in it, which we experience in our minds and bodies as states (bhavans), such as aging and death, or as pairs of opposites (dvanada), such as heat and cold or as impermanent realities (tattvas), is strictly unreal. They are nonexistent because they are false (mithya), inconsistent, and impermanent, just like the images appearing on a film screen or in a mirror.

In our consciousness, Asat comes into existence when we pay attention or when our mind and senses perceive it or when the Self exists in the body as the witness and enjoys it, or when the duality of subject and object arises in the internal organ (antahkarana) due to the activity of the senses. What we experience as perceptions (Asat) arise in us as formations within the mind. They cease to exist when the internal organ changes from one state to another or retreats into a resting mode (abhava). Since they are mere formations or projections with a beginning and an end, and since they are subject to change and impermanence, we cannot say that they qualify as Sat (real). On the contrary, the Self is permanent, stable, and immutable. It does not depend upon any agent or instrument for its existence. It is eternally real and always exists whether it is perceived or not.

Tattva (tat + tva) Darshana is the vision of That (Tat) Supreme Reality or Brahman as perceived through oneness. Tattva jnana is the knowledge of his reflection (form) in the field of Nature. The seers who have seen the essence of Brahman have the knowledge and discretion to identify the real from the unreal because they know how things appear and disappear in the consciousness and how truth exists eternally and immutably beyond the mind and the senses. They know that the Self (bhava) is the cause, while any experience (anubhava) is the effect. They also know that the phenomenal world is made of several tattvas, but the Self is made of only Sat, described by some as shuddha sattva. Knowers of the Self are known as seers because they experience the essence of Brahman (Sat) and see the appearance of things (Asat) by controlling the modifications of their minds and transcending the pairs of opposites.

Author's note: Most of the content for this article is taken from the new and improved translation and commentrary of the Bhagavadgita, by this author, which is currently in progress and will be published soon.

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