The Reality and Unreality of Our Existence

Krishna's Teachings

by Jayaram V


Chapter 2, Verse 16

16. The unreal has no existence and the real never ceases to be; the reality of both has thus been perceived by the seers of the truth.

What is reality? Is it the apparent reality, visible and perceptible to the senses or the reality which one comes across in dreams, thoughts or reveries? Or is there any reality beyond the perceptual field, which is not visible and perceptible but truly exists and beyond our comprehension? The reference here is to the contrast between the physical reality which is perceptible to the senses but transient and destructible, and the transcendental reality which is imperceptible to the senses but true and indestructible.

The subject of reality is a matter of intense speculation and enquiry in the Vedanta. What should we believe in, that which is visible to the naked eye, or that which is invisible and cannot be determined except with the help of scriptures or in deep spiritual states? One cannot ascertain the nature of God or his transcendental existence unless one realizes the real and unreal aspects of one’s own existence. It is therefore important to develop right discernment and spiritual wisdom to distinguish truth from untruth and reality from illusion. The Bhagavadgita describes it as the seer's vision.

What is visible and sensible need not always be true and real. Therefore, you should not blindly believe in the surface reality but look for that which is its source as well as support. This is the most important declaration of the Upanishadic philosophy. The Bhagavadgita affirms the same. Apparent reality is the work of the senses and the mind, which can play tricks upon us, whereby we mistake one thing or reality for another.

It is well illustrated in several expositions with the example of a rope which in semi darkness is often mistaken for a snake. The illusion is the superimposition of the mental image of the snake upon the reality of the rope, which the mind temporarily accepts as the reality. We are told that this world is also a similar superimposition of God’s imagery upon the reality of God himself. We cannot perceive the truth of it because we are part of it and live in it. Besides, it outlasts all of us.

However, we can discern some aspects of this illusion in our daily lives. The world is not what it appears to be. We know this from our own experience. We cannot always trust our senses, for they have limitations in reflecting the objects. For example, we perceive the sun and the stars as small shining objects in the dark sky, as if they are revolving around the earth, where as in reality neither they are small nor the sky is dark. A person may outwardly appear friendly and honest but inwardly he may be their opposite.

Thus, we can see that the senses are certainly not true messenger of truth. You cannot determine the reality of anything, leave alone invisible objects, solely based upon what they reveal. Even that which we consider the direct experience (pratyaksha) should be subject to confirmation and verification from other sources. They are unreliable conveyors of light and truth and prone to faltering, falsification, exaggeration, distortion and misrepresentation. They tend to color the truth rather than illumine it, unless they are completely free from the influence of the gunas. As the instruments of the mind and body, which are imperfect in themselves, they recreate the external world in a way that may be different in many respects from what really exists.

Therefore, to understand truth we must go beyond the senses and their limitations and learn to distinguish between the perceptual reality and the transcendental reality. Our scriptures point to the latter and describe it as the ultimate reality or the ever-lasting reality, which is beyond all known realities of the mind and its faculties. What is real must exist forever. It must not appear differently to different people according to their desires, attachments and expectations. It must always be the same to everyone, in every situation. If it is something now and something later, it cannot be considered real, but an illusion.

These were a few important criteria used by our seers to determine the distinction between reality and unreality. According to them the visible aspects of a being namely the name and form are unreal because they keep changing from time to time, whereas what exists in that body as the Self is real because it is the same in all and never changes. Same holds true for the visible world and the invisible Self or God who pervades it. Logically, therefore, it makes sense not to develop attachments to the world or rely upon it for our peace and happiness.

A seer is one who sees with clarity the reality of existence. That clarity arises from inner purity, which in turn arises from the predominance of sattva and freedom from desires and attachments. If you are bound to things, or caught in the web of desires, you cannot discern truth. Therefore, if you want to cultivate true discernment you must practice self-purification and purify your mind and body so that truth present itself to you without any modification.

Note : These commentaries are not part of the Bhagavadgita Complete Translation.

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