In popular media and layman books, it is assumed that Vedanta states that the world is an illusion and Brahman alone is the reality. However, I think this position has been made popular by the British colonialists to passify the Indian population, and make the Hindu religion look escapist. I may be wrong on this aspect, and it might be innocent mistranslation by foreigners not familiar with the Sanskrit language.

In the complete works of Swami Vivekananda, on his lectures titled - Maya, he explains that the world is an illusion is not a correct explanation of the advaita vedanta doctrine. He goes on to give examples which demonstrate what maya is. From his examples, one can gather it is the human condition of getting lost in emotions and distractions that make one forget to look at the larger picture, ie, to look at life dispassionately and objectively. For an example, he says that the act of a mother caring for her grown up son, despite him beating her and not giving her respect. This is maya. This particular instance can be understood as the natural human inclination/ psychology, which is so designed as to be sometimes irrational. In my opinion, this is similar to stoic principles which seek to make the human mind get some hold on the emotions, in the absence of which, one faces unnecessary grief and mental turmoil. (See- Seneca, "On Anger" or Enchiridion by Epictetus, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius)

A vast majority of people supporting the interpretation that Sankara says that the world is an illusion, Brahman alone is the truth, please watch this: short video.

In this video, it is explained that the sanskrit shloka by sankara, which goes like: Bhraman satya, jagat mithya, is mistranslated as Brahman alone is the truth, World is an illusion/falsehood. However, mithya is not falsehood, when seen in this context. Mithya means construction/reconstruction. Which again supports the view put out by me in the first para, that maya is primarily the explanation of psychological phenomenon/ functioning of the mind, as the mind is involved in interpreting the objective reality as events, for example insult or praise do not really exist, objectively, they are just sounds. It is only when our mind interprets it and the ego is involved, we either take it as an insult or a praise, depending on the context.

What do the commentaries on the original scriptures say about this? For example, what do the various critical commentaries of the Brahma Sutra say on this?


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Shankaracharya said in the 20th verse of Brahmajnanavalimala

ब्रह्म सत्यं जगन्मिथ्या जीवो ब्रह्मैव नापरः । अनेन वेद्यं सच्छास्त्रमिति वेदान्तडिण्डिमः ॥ २०॥

Brahma Satyam Jagan Mithya Jivo Brahmaiva Na Aparah

Brahman (the Absolute) is alone real; the world is mithya; Jiva is non-different from Brahman.

The problem arises because mithya is translated as illusion. Mithya actually means it is not sat or asat. This is due to the wrong understanding of what is sat and asat.

sat is defined that is available at all times (trikalaabaadhyami) including dreams and deep sleep. Only Brahman is sat. Shankara explains this in explaining the meaning of the sütra - janmädyasya yatah – Brahma Sutra Bhasya I.1.2,

asat is used to mean unfitness to appear as existent (tuccham) on any locus. For example: hare’s horn or son of a barren woman like the vandhyä-putra.

jagat is not real like Brahman, because it is subject to time/space/change but it is also not asat like vandhyä-putra. However, jagat is mithya, which is neither sat nor asat.

Jivas attribute reality to the world due to avidya (ignorance).

Jivas delusorily thinks he is himself the seer and the knower. Atma Bodha 26

However, avidya is negated when they realize the Self to be Brahman. For the Brahman, jagat is non-existent while for jivas, it is existent in two forms: appearing as real for the ajnani and understood as false for the jnani. It is this unique combination of non-existence and existence that is called mithya. Being mithya and also anadi, avidya cannot affect Brahman just like a wrong perception of the snake in the rope does not affect the rope.

Sankara has used three orders of realities

i) prätibhäshika Relative view

ii) vyävahärika Empirical view

iii) päramärthika Absolute view

From päramärthika, the origin of the jagat is not the intrinsic feature - svarüpa-laksana - of Brahman but incidental - tatastha-lakshana. Therefore, from this view, Brahman is not the creator, sustainer, or dissolver of this jagat but Nirguna (devoid of any attribute). Nirguna Brahman is the intelligent and material cause of the jagat’s origin, existence, and dissolution while Saguna Brahman plays the role of creator, sustainer and destroyer.

upAdAne.akhilAdhAre jaganti parameshvare |

sargasthitilayAn yAnti budbudAnIva vAriNi || 8|| Atma Bodha

Like bubbles in the water, worlds rise, exist and dissolve in Brahman, which is the material cause and the prop of everything. Verse 8

Though Nirguna, it is not sunya and is thus different from Buddhism. The essential feature of Brahman - svarüpa-laksana – is Sat Chit Ananda and thus has bhava.

From the vyävahärika point of view, Brahman is regarded as the cause of this jagat’s origin, existence, and dissolution, because this jagat indeed has an empirical reality. Saguna Brahman (Ishvara) is sarvajna, sarva-saktimän, etc but does not have an absolute reality. As the creator, sustainer and destroyer, Ishvara is worthy of worship. But it's reality is restricted to vyavaharika.

From the prätibhäshika point of view, the appearance of the snake on the rope, or the objects seen in the dream-state, which is negated in waking-state, belong to subjective reality. What is unreal is that it may appear to be real at some time but becomes unreal at some other time. For example, dreams appears real to the dreamer but is rejected by the waker. Similarly, the snake appears to be real in illusory experience in semi-darkness but under clear light is seen to be a rope. Thus, the snake is not real as it sublated when a light is shown.

tAvatsatyaM jagad.hbhAti shuktikArajataM yathA |

yAvanna j~nAyate brahma sarvAdhiShThAnamadvayam || 7|| Atma Bodha

The Jagat appears to be Sat so long as Brahman, the substratum, the basis of all this creation, is not realised. It is like the illusion of silver in the mother-of pearl.

ataH pR^itha~N.hnAsti jagatparAtmanaH

pR^ithak.hpratItistu mR^iShA guNAdivat . guNAhivat

aaropitasyAsti kimarthavattA.a-

dhiShThAnamAbhAti tathA bhrameNa .. 235.. Vivekachudamani

The world has no existence apart from the Supreme Self and the appearance of its separateness is false like the appearance of a snake in a rope. Can a superimposition have any existence apart from its own substratum? Through delusion, it is the substratum itself which appears like that.

From Talks with Ramana Maharshi (Talk 315)

The tantriks and others of the kind condemn Sri Sankara’s philosophy as maya vada without understanding him aright. What does he say? He says: (1) Brahman is real; (2) the universe is a myth; (3) Brahman is the universe. He does not stop at the second statement but continues to supplement it with the third. What does it signify? The Universe is conceived to be apart from Brahman and that perception is wrong. The antagonists point to his illustration of rajju sarpa (rope snake). This is unconditioned superimposition. After the truth of the rope is known, the illusion of snake is removed once for all. But they should take the conditioned superimposition also into consideration, e.g., marumarichika or mrigatrishna (water of mirage). The mirage does not disappear even after knowing it to be a mirage. The vision is there but the man does not run to it for water. Sri Sankara must be understood in the light of both the illustrations. The world is a myth. Even after knowing it, it continues to appear. It must be known to be Brahman and not apart. If the world appears, yet to whom does it appear, he asks. What is your reply? You must say the Self. If not, will the world appear in the absence of the cognising Self? Therefore the Self is the reality. That is his conclusion. The phenomena are real as the Self and are myths apart from the Self. Now, what do the tantriks, etc., say? They say that the phenomena are real because they are part of the Reality in which they appear. Are not these two statements the same? That is what I meant by reality and falsehood being one and the same.

Similarly the universe cannot be real of itself - that is to say, apart from the underlying Reality

  • 1
    "Saguna Brahman (Ishvara) is sarvajna, sarva-saktimän, etc but does not have an absolute reality." Could you please explain this concept more clearly? What exactly is Saguna Brahman? Is it the empirical material world, when considered in whole? You could direct me to some answer on this site/reference material too.
    – user22892
    Commented Jan 31, 2021 at 5:59
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    In short, as advaita vedanta is also connected with bhakti tradition (Sankara composed many hyms too, I've heard), I want to know what is the philosophical basis of worship? (2/2)
    – user22892
    Commented Jan 31, 2021 at 9:02
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    But, what is the philosophical definition of isvara? Is the isvara, also a living being, or is he a powerful supernatural being, or is it a philosophical concept that is embodied by the brahmana philosophers for convenience, to take these concepts to the common man, and there is no independent/'real' isvara (according to vedanta)?
    – user22892
    Commented Jan 31, 2021 at 9:55
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    Ishvara is not a philosophical construct. The concept of Jiva, Ishvara, jagat all exist at the vyavaharika. In fact Advaita emphasises on Ishvara anugraha.īśvarānugrahādeva puṁsām advaita-vāsanā mahadbhaya-paritrāṇād viprāṇām upajāyate.
    Commented Jan 31, 2021 at 14:00
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    It is Brahman appearing to be in association with maya – is the Ishvara that monitors and manages both the universe and the JIvas. It is in His control all this world of JIvas rolls about. When that is so, for us to transcend this curtain of MAyA, and to get out also of His control so that we may realise the Brahman that is the core of Him as well as us, is not possible without the sanction of that power, namely Ishvara. In other words only by the Grace of Ishvara can our mind be overcome and Brahman-realisation can happen. Kanchi Mahaperiya in Tamil
    Commented Feb 1, 2021 at 5:24

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