Search & Read
Is the Material World Real?
Diorama: Dear Dr. Ram, I have a problem of a more dialectical nature type, but not without its eschatological Ramifications (if you will forgive the pun). I have read, and in large part support, many of the Vedic texts (Shankacharya, for example) that say the material universe is an illusion. Unfortunately, the tax commissioner does not believe me and is threatening jail. I assumed I already was in jail. Who is correct?
Dr. Ram: Dear Diorama, I’m sure the Vedic texts will be relieved to know that the great sage Diorama supports them “in large part.” I thought long and hard about whether or not you were taking the piss (doesn’t your ISP offer emoticons in its email utility?) out of them. There were a number of clues in your email that led me to believe you were spoofing, but there was also enough ignorance to inspire a satsang. It so happens that the demand for satsangs seems to have decreased of late and I have a lot of time on my hands this evening, so I decided to put on my guru hat and take the question at face value. The ignorance I refer to is the notion that Vedanta says the material universe is an illusion.
The material world, according to Vedanta, is not an illusion, you’ll be happy to know. It is quite real. It is nothing but the self. It is called Isvara sristi, the creation of the Lord, meaning the self. It is non-separate from the self.
There is another creation that is brought on by avidya, ignorance of reality. This is called jiva sristi. This is the creation, or psychological “world,” of the individual. It is not called an illusion but is called an “apparent” reality. The “world” is what an individual projects, or interprets, when he or she is experiencing the world. The individual’s creation is like a dream. It seems real until he or she wakes up. When you wake up you realize that the snake was not a snake – to refer to the famous example of the relationship of the self and the mind. If the snake bit you in the dream, does the venom still work on you when you wake up?
The teaching that the world is not real, meaning permanent, is easy to misunderstand. It is not something to be believed. It is something to revealed by investigation. Most of us take the world to be real because we believe that what we are experiencing (our projections) are real. The Vedantic definition of reality is “that which is always the same, that which endures.” The individual’s world is not real, although it is experiencable because it changes.
The idea behind Yoga is that the vasanas are real and that they need to be destroyed so that you can experience reality as it is. The idea behind Vedanta is to point out what reality is. When reality is known, what is apparent becomes apparent. It is the vision of non-duality that destroys (the belief) that the vasanas are real. The vasanas are the cause of jiva sristi.
There is little point in telling a person who is asleep that this is a non-dual reality, but everyone has doubts about their world because it is rarely what it seems to be. The parts of the scripture that point to the unreality of the subjective are attempting to help such an individual question the reality of his or her “world.” The belief that what I am subjectively experiencing is real is the cause of most suffering. The “world is an illusion” teaching is for people who have had an epiphany or epiphanies and then fallen back into the sleep of their personal creations and desire to reawaken.
Diorama: Yesterday, while wandering about in my cosmic body (which is infinite and eternal), I stubbed my toe on a rock, causing the mind component to register pain and suffering. Did this event really take place?
Dr. Ram: The event took place, but it was not real.
Diorama: Am I covered by any known policy?
Dr. Ram: You are the toe, the stubbing, the policy and that because of which the event was known. You’re also an idiot (1) for not knowing you are covered and (2) for being so cosmic that you didn’t see where you were going and therefore stubbed your toe. I hope it hurts.
~ All the best, Dr. Ram