Śrī Jīva Goswami refutes the notion that the universe is not real

In the Paramātmā Sandarbha, Anuccheda 70, Śrī Jīva Goswami embarks on an extensive refutation of the notion that the universe is not real. In his fascinating discourse, he examines the arguments of the vivarta-vādīs, who claim that the universe is unreal, and refutes them sequentially. This topic is pertinent not only as a refutation of vivarta-vāda, but also to refute sad misconceptions now floating in the minds of many adherents who claim to be Caitanya Vaiṣṇavas. These people claim that the universe is but a dream spun by Kṛṣṇa to entertain the minds of those who are ‘envious’ of Him; everyone is in reality in Vaikuṇṭha. Such a silly claim has no place in Śrī Jīva Goswami’s theology, of course, because he went to great pains to refute it! As we will see below, he establishes that the universe is really real.

The effect need not have the same nature as its cause

There are several statements in the scriptures to the effect that Brahman is the cause of the universe. The vivarta-vādī argument goes like this:

Sat-kārya-vāda states that the cause is the potential state of the effect, which implies that the effect has the same nature as the cause. For example, a gold earring has the same chemical nature as its constituent, gold. Likewise the clay pot does not have a different nature from the clay. Brahman (understood by Vaiṣṇavas to mean Bhagavān in this context) is the cause of the universe. So the universe should have the same nature as Brahman. However, the universe is perishable and Brahman is not. This means, then, that the universe is not real. The vivarta-vādī claims that the universe is in fact merely a mental construct.

Śrī Jīva refutes this logic by citing a verse from the 10th canto of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Verse 10.87.36, forms the centerpiece of his step-wise refutation, because the verse raises the vivarta-vādī’s objection and then refutes it. It would take too long for me to reproduce all the Sanskrit and translations here, so I have chosen to just present the essence of Śrī Jīva’s logical analysis. I refer the reader to Śrī Babaji’s translation of and commentary on Anuccheda 70 of the Paramātmā Sandarbha for more details.

Śrī Jīva points out that the above logic has the flaw of anaikāntika-hetu, or the lack of universal concomitance between the reason given and what is to be proven. It is not always true that the effect must have the same nature as the cause. For example, light emanates from a fire, but light has no capacity to burn. Likewise, the universe need not have the same property of imperishability as Brahman, although the universe may share other properties with Brahman, like being real.

What is real?

While the vivarta-vādī might concede the flaw in his or her proffered logic, he or she may argue that the universe still is a mere appearance, and not actually real. Here, the logic is that silver is completely different from an oyster shell. The oyster shell is the ‘source’ of the false appearance of silver. The universe is completely different from its source, Brahman. Just as the silver is illusory, so is the universe.

To that, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa verse replies that, certainly, some things can be perceived as different from their ‘source’, like the rope could be perceived as a snake or the oyster shell could appear like silver. But there are other things, which are not only perceived, but also have the capacity to bring about an action or event (artha-kriyā-kāritva). For example, if there were a real snake and not a rope, it could bite and kill the perceiver. If the silver in the oyster shell was real, it could be extracted and sold for money. Thus, the criterion for something to be real versus merely an illusion is whether what is perceived has an actual functional capacity. The verse rejects the notion that an object is unreal because it is perceived in a manner that is different from the source. Rather, it is unreal if it has no practical function or utility, or if it is incapable of producing an action.

To this, the vivarta-vādī might respond that counterfeit coins have utility, in that people use them for buying or selling things. Therefore, that which has utility, and is perceived, is not necessarily real. Also, that which is unreal can have utility.

Śrī Jīva refutes this argument in several ways. First, he notes that if one donated fake money, one will not get piety from that act of charity. The giver of the piety, Bhagavān, is not in illusion. If one were to buy medicine which is not actually what it is claimed to be, one’s malaise will remain uncured. Water in a mirage cannot quench anyone’s thirst.

If the vivarta-vādī were to argue that there is partial utility in imaginary objects, like how a person might get fearful and run away after seeing an imaginary snake in the rope, then the answer is that the snake still cannot actually bite. It is only one’s incorrect belief that the snake is real. The illusory object has utility only as long as it is perceived to be real. The use of fake coins has no utility in fooling someone who can actually diagnose that they are fake.

Further, the function of fake objects, like a counterfeit coin, or the illusory snake, is only because of the utility of real coins and real snakes. The utility is based on the belief that those objects are real. Thus, fake objects actually have no utility. It is real objects that have utility, and fake objects can be mistakenly perceived to have it owing to prior experience of real objects. All practical dealings are based in reality.

It follows then, that the material world is not a dream, because dreams do not have actual utility or capacity to produce an actual action. The utility of a dream derives from real experiences of real objects. The material universe is real, as Śrī Jīva has emphatically shown. Therefore, the idea that we are sleeping in Vaikuṇṭha, dreaming that we are in the material world, is ludicrous.


  1. The universe need not share all properties of Brahman. Many effects do not possess all the properties of their cause.
  2. The universe is real because it has come from a real source or cause, Brahman (here Brahman means Bhagavān), and it shares this property with its source.
  3. The universe is perishable or transformable, while its source, Brahman, is not.
  4. The universe is a pariṇāma or transformation not of Brahman itself, but of the śakti of Brahman.
  5. That which is perceived, and also has utility, is real. The universe is perceived, and it has real functions and capacity to bring about events and actions. Therefore, it is real, even though temporary.
  6. The universe is not a mere appearance (vivarta) like a snake misperceived in a rope or silver in an oyster shell.

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