It is very common to come across triumphant pronouncements in some modern Vaiṣṇava sects of how their gurus have refuted Advaita-vāda comprehensively. Yet a closer examination reveals that these sects do not have a clear understanding of even basic concepts of Advaita-vāda. More often than not, these sects simply mis-represent Advaita-vāda and refute (or try to refute) a strawman version of it. And the hatred that these sects spout for Advaita-vādis is something that all reasonable people ought to reject.
The edifice of Advaita-vāda is built on the foundation of a brilliant analysis of the śāstras by Śrī Śaṅkarācārya. It is not easily understood, and it is very difficult to defeat. While carefully building the theology of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism, Śrī Jīva Goswami also simultaneously and methodically tried to refute Advaita-vāda. His arguments against Advaita-vāda are many and scattered throughout the Sandarbhas. Here we examine what I believe to be the main Achilles heel of Advaita-vāda, which Śrī Jīva identifies in Anuccheda 58 of the Paramātmā Sandarbha. But first, we must define certain terms that are basic to Advaita-vāda.
The concept of mithyā
Advaita-vāda posits that everything other than Brahman is mithyā. That is, the world is mithyā. Many Caitanya bhaktas take mithyā in this context to mean “false”. But this is a mis-representation of the concept of mithyā. In actuality, the word means the following:
mithyā means sat-asat-bhinnam or “neither sat nor asat”
This definition can be understood in the context of the favorite example from Advaita-vāda – mistaking a rope for a snake. Consider that a person sees a rope lying in the corner of a dimly lit room. Unable to make out what the object is, and due to the similarity of the rope with a snake (its shape, color etc.), the person mistakes the rope for a snake. The person experiences the act of ‘seeing’ the snake, and becomes afraid.
Now consider that someone walks into the room and turns on a bright light. The rope is now clearly visible, and the person realizes that the snake was an illusion or bhrama; there was no snake in the room.
To complete the definition above, let us now define sat and asat.
sat is that which exists in past, present and future. Brahman is sat.
asat is that which does not exist in past, present and future. A rabbit with horns or a flower in the sky is asat.
Is the snake ‘sat’? No, because when the light was turned on, it was no longer visible. Is it ‘asat’? No, because the person saw the snake before the light was turned on, which means it existed before the light was turned on. This is unlike a rabbit with horns or a flower in the sky, which cannot be seen even in principle. One therefore concludes that
the snake is neither sat nor asat, or it is mithyā.
One cannot say that the snake is asat as it was seen in the rope. At the same time, one cannot say that the snake is sat as it was no longer seen when the light was turned on.
The world is mithyā
Advaita-vādis extend this analogy to the world by stating that the world is mithyā. They do not say that the world is false – they say that the world is neither sat nor asat. The world is not sat because it does not exist in all three phases of time. The world is perceived so it is also not asat. This is the real position of Advaita-vāda. The world is compared to the snake, while Brahman is compared to the rope. Brahman is mistaken for the world by us, the observers.
What about dreams then? Aren’t they less substantial than the world? And what about the rope? Its existence seems to be different than the snake. Advaita-vāda responds that there are three levels of sattā or existence – the pāramārthikā, vyāvaharikā and prātibhāsikā levels. The rope has vyāvaharikā sattā while the snake has prātibhāsikā sattā.
Vyāvaharikā sattā is perceived as a common reality by everyone in the world e.g. everyone can see the rope. Prātibhāsikā sattā is perceived only by the individual who experiences bhrama or illusion – e.g. only the person who is confused sees the snake in the rope.
Not only does Advaita-vāda not state that the world is false in the sense of ‘not existing’, but it posits an existence for even those experiences that are commonly considered to be false. That is, the snake exists at some level (prātibhāsikā) and is therefore perceivable by the observer. Likewise, dreams have prātibhāsikā sattā.
Brahman alone has pāramārthikā sattā.
Māyā is the upādana kāraṇa or ingredient cause of all perceivable, material objects
One may ask – if the snake perceived in the rope, exists at some level, how does it get super-imposed there under dim light, and how does it then vanish when the light turns on? Advaita-vāda’s answer is fundamental to how they explain the world. They argue that the snake is created in the rope from māyā. Likewise, dreams are created from māyā. This way, the snake exists at the prātibhāsika level. When the light is turned on, the snake is destroyed at the prātibhāsika level. In a similar manner, all objects, whether vyāvaharika or prātibhāsika, are created from māyā – as a pot is created from clay. Māyā is thus the upādana kāraṇa or ingredient cause of all perceivable, material objects.
The problem with the snake and rope analogy
Now, there is a fundamental problem with the explanation of the concept of mithyā. If this problem is not raised at the outset, and one accepts the definition of mithyā as presented by the Advaita-vādis, then one is sunk. It is very difficult to refute Advaita-vāda from that point on.
The problem with the snake and rope analogy is as follows. When one sees the snake in the rope, it is not that one actually sees a snake there. One ‘sees’ the rays of light bouncing off the surface of the rope and entering the eye. From there, the signal travels through the optic nerve to be interpreted in the brain. It is here that one goes wrong. Because of insufficient information contained in the light rays that bounced off the rope, one makes an interpretive error. It is not that one saw a snake – rather, one misinterpreted the information contained in the light rays as being indicative of a snake. The notion that the snake exists in the rope at any level is clearly false! There is no snake there at all.
This then is the problem with the concept of mithyā – there is no object which is ‘neither sat’ nor ‘asat’. Even Śrī Kṛṣṇa points out only two levels of reality in the following verse from the Bhagavad-Gītā:
nāsato vidyate bhāvo nābhāvo vidyate sataḥ | ubhayor api dṛṣṭo’ntas tv anayos tattva-darśibhiḥ ||
The unreal (asat) has no existence, and the real (sat) never ceases to exist. The conclusion regarding these two [principles] has been directly apperceived by seers of the truth. Bg 2.16.
In fact, I am not aware of any scriptural statement which explicitly defines mithyā as sat-asat-bhinnam or “neither real nor unreal”.
We will take a deeper look at Śrī Jīva Goswami’s refutation of the concept of mithyā in the next post.