Unreality of the world: a further analogy

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Wed Jun 18 15:00:46 CDT 1997

On Tue, 17 Jun 1997, Allan Curry wrote:

> >> To some, the "illusory nature of
> >> the world" implies the non-existence of any extra-mental source of data
> >> which go into the making of our representation of the world. This is a
> >> much more difficult case to make and one that I am not convinced of.
> >
> >You are in good company! SankarAcArya himself is not convinced about such
> >a proposition.
> >
> >Vidyasankar
> Would you please elaborate?  I thought he denied everything but Brahman
> who is the absolute subject. Does he allow the independent existence of
> anything but this subject?

The statement I was responding is this - "To some, the illusory nature of
the world implies the non-existence of any extra-mental source of data."

Nowhere does SankarAcArya say that external objects are completely
non-existent. In fact, in the upadeSasAhasrI and in the brahmasUtra
bhAshya, he addresses the arguments of the vijnAnavAdin buddhists, and
holds precisely such an argument to be wrong. If it is said that there is
no difference between one's mental representation of an object and an
external object, and at the same time that no external objects exist, then
it follows that extra-mental sources of data do not exist. Everything
then becomes just a vikalpa of the mind, and the world can then be said to
be illusory. But SankarAcArya is not satisfied with such an argument.

To further understand this issue, one must look at the advaita theory of
perception. Now, SankarAcArya himself does not present it in the
well-developed form that is found in vidyAraNya, dharmarAjAdhvarIndra and
other later writers, but the seeds of this theory are present in his
bhAshyas. The senses (indriyas) are said to be bahirmukha
(outward-oriented) in the waking state, which is the only state in which
external objects are perceived. The very terminology used here assumes
that there is an inside and an outside as far as perception is concerned.
The senses are also said to "go out" to the object, as a result of which
the antahkaraNa (internal organ) gets modified (pratyaya or vRtti), and
takes on the form of the object. This form is then communicated by the
antahkaraNa to the Atman in the waking state.

The entire analysis tacitly accepts the existence of extra-mental sources
of data, which feed the antahkaraNa. No doubt the perception of the object
is ultimately decided by the form that the antahkaraNa takes, and there is
a subjective element involved in this perception. Still, if there were no
external objects at all (in the waking state only), the antahkaraNa
would have nothing to "go out" to, consequently there would be no
perception of anything at all. In this sense, perception is indeed
creation! The perception of things creates one's impression of them.
Generalizing, the perception of the multiple universe creates and
reinforces the ordinary impression of multiplicity.

But then, this is based on a strikingly phenomenological, and very
realistic theory of perception. There is hardly any subjective idealism in

Before I close, a few words on this antahkaraNa, based on the mature
epistemology theory of the vivaraNa school. The antahkaraNa is variously
called manas, buddhi, citta and ahamkAra in various places, and sometimes
these four are said to be different aspects of the antahkaraNa. The manas
(mind) receives the direct sensory input, and its main function is an
evaluation of these data, based on samSaya (doubt). Before one is sure of
a perception, one always goes through a period where these data are
subjected to doubt. The buddhi (intellect) then takes over, and comes to a
decision (niScaya), regarding the validity or otherwise of the sensory
input. In this function, it is assisted by the citta (reflection) whose
main function is smaraNa (memory). The ahamkAra underlies all these
aspects, and supplies the "I"ness that expresses in every perception, such
as "I see", "I hear", and so on. It is easily seen that the manas, buddhi
and citta refer to three closely related activities, which modern
scientists ascribe to the nervous system in the human body. Sure enough,
the vedAntins have anticipated this - they say that the manas etc. are not
sense organs like the eye, ear etc., but constitute a more subtle organ,
appropriately called "internal". They also hold, against the
nyAya-vaiSeshika school, that the manas etc are not an unconscious,
material substance (dravya), but that they partake of the nature of
consciousness. In fact, the antahkaraNa is also sometimes held to be that
in which the One Atman is reflected, leading to the individual atman.

Now, the preliminary aim of SankarAcArya and other advaitins is not so
much to affirm or deny the existence of external objects, as to direct the
student's enquiry towards an analysis of the "I"ness that underlies all
perception, through AtmavicAra. And after the identity of Atman with
Brahman is taught, what is then said about external objects is not simply
"nothing exists;" what is said is "nothing exists independent of



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