Brahman

Śrī Jīva Goswami refutes Advaita-vāda – part I

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.

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10 replies »

  1. ‘And the hatred that these sects spout for Advaita-vādis is something that all reasonable people ought to reject.’

    It always perplexed me that this frankly ignorant attitude regarding Advaita-vādis was extrapolated from Mahaprabhu’s statement: ‘mayavadi-bhasya sunile haya sarva-nasa.’ In my past experience with an Advaita-vād organization, while the Svāmīs & Svāminīs clearly taught and defended the philosophical worldview, it never devolved into ad hominem attacks on adherents of other saṃpradāyas. Thus, I never really understood why Mahaprabhu’s statement would cause one to develop animosity towards Advaita-vādis, despite prescriptions in Bhagavad Gītā to have equanimity toward all people.

    In my cursory glance of the Sandarbhas, so far I have not encountered Śrī Jīva Goswami writing any ad hominem attacks against Advaita-vādis, despite vigorously refuting their arguments (as you are exopounding upon in this article series). Would this be a correct view?

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    • In Paramatma Sandarbha Anuccheda 71.4, Sri Jiva cites a passage from Padma Purana spoken by Sri Siva that mayavada was propagated by Sri Siva in the form of Sri Sankaracarya to bewilder the asuras. He also cites another statement from Nrsimha Purana which rejects the philosophies of Patanjali, Kanada, Gautama and Kapila. the main point is that these philosophies do not accept that Bhagavan is both nimitta and upadana karana of the world and that Bhagavan is sat-cit-ananda.
      But at the same time, Sri Jiva refers to Sri Sankara respectfully and also cites Sri Sankara in various places to support his own approach. Sri Sankara is responsible for many of the hermeneutic tools that people who followed him- Advaitins and Vaisnavas- used to justify their interpretations.
      Sri Jiva Goswami is not advocating anything against Advaitavadis – he opposes the philosophy of Advaitavada. Sri Babaji, in fact, is learning Advaitavada from a famous Advaitin and teaching Advaitavada to his students. It is the opposing view. That is allowed and tolerated in India.
      Sri Caitanya’s statement is a warning to bhaktas to be aware that Advaitavada is a powerful philosophy not to be engaged with too much. He is not asking people to hate them.
      As Babaji says, ye ghar ki baat hai, not meant for everyone.

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  2. These words often come together. For instance: toma bina ke doyalu jagat-samsare.
    Is the samsara cycle mithya according to advaita-vada?

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  3. Krsna Dasji! In his commentary on Bhagavat Sandarbha, Babaji says that since the JIVA is infinitesimal and Formless Brahman is infinite, so to have the Brahman Realization, the jiva has to follow the method of non-distinction with it. In this way, those Yogis who want to realize their SELF only should have the realization that they are INFINITESIMAL. But some yogis say that the Self is INFINITE like Brahman. So, how is it possible?

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    • I am not sure I follow what you are asking. If the jiva is infinitesimal, still, it has to identify with the infinite Brahman. What does identifying with something mean? Thinking that you are that thing. That means the jiva thinks that it is the infinite Brahman.

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      • I meant that: From Svetasvatara Upanishad 5.9, we know that the JIVA is INFINITESIMAL and Srila Jiva Goswami and Babaji have also proven that the Jiva is not Infinite. But to realize the INFINITE FORMLESS BRAHMAN one has to IDENTIFY itself with BRAHMAN.

        But those yogis who have JUST ONLY REALIZED THEIR OWN SELF NOT BRAHMAN but JUST THEIR SELF still say that the JIVA is also INFINITE like BRAHMAN. That would mean that the JIVA is INHERENTLY INFINITE, according to their REALIZATION?

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      • I am not sure I can answer as I dont know who these yogis are, and what their process is, and what they are actually realizing. Those who think that the jiva is Brahman will realize the jiva as infinite Brahman.

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