Ashtavakra Samhita, Chapter 5, Verse 03
The world as an illusion
vishvam naasthyamale thvayi
rajjusarpa iva vyaktam evameva layam vraja
Being unreal, all this that you see does not really exist in you who are pure. Knowing thus that it appears just as a snake appears in the rope, in this way also you can attain final dissolution.
The Third Way to Liberation: Dissolution Through Discernment
Ashtavakra was a teacher of Advaita or nondualism, according which there is only one reality, the reality of the Self or Brahman. The rest is unreal or an illusion, which arises from Brahman just as the rays of light emanates from the sun or reflected upon the surface of water. Light has no existence of its own. It appears so long as its source exists. It is not the same as its source, although it may have some aspects of it. One may say the same with regard to the world. It is not the same as Brahman, who is its source. It has no existence of its own, and lasts only for a limited period.
The world is an illusion
An illusion is something that you see and believe to be true, until truth dawns upon you that it is untrue. When you know the truth, your relationship with it changes. Take for example, love. Imagine that you fell in love with someone. You believed that the person was honest and trustworthy. One day, you realized that the person was not honest with you and lied to you to deceive you. What would be your reaction in such a scenario? Your world would turn upside down. Whatever illusions you had about that person would be shattered as you feel betrayed, letdown and devastated. You would learn your lesson and realize that it would not be wise to trust everyone on face value.
A similar transformative experience happens when your illusions about the world as the source of peace and happiness are shattered. Ashtavakra used here the analogy of a rope, instead of love, to teach the same moral. When you see a rope in a dark room, for a moment you may mistakenly see in it a snake and feel fear or anxiety. Then, as you closely see it again, you will realize that it is not a snake but a rope, and you may feel relieved. In a momentary lapse of discernment, your mind conjured up a snake instead of rope, creating the confusion.
Proponents of Advaita suggest that the world appears in Brahman just as the snake appears in a rope, whereby we do not perceive Brahman, the source, but the world. The world is a temporary formation or superimposition in the depths of Brahman. However, we cannot easily discern it. The momentary lapse as in case of the snake and rope lasts for eons (yugas) on the cosmic scale, and as mortal beings we do not get an opportunity to realize the truth, until we reach a certain stage in our spiritual evolution.
The world is a dependent reality. Its source is Brahman, who is the absolute, eternal, indivisible and independent reality. Ashtavakra stated that in ignorance we see the world rather than Brahman and consider it to be real. We do not perceive it as an effect, but as reality in itself. Since we cannot perceive Brahman, who represents the transcendental reality which is beyond the mind and the senses, we grasp the objective reality only and make it the basis of our existence, knowledge, desires, thoughts and actions.
A somewhat similar situation arises with regard to your self-awareness also. For example, you may perceive the world and objects, but you cannot perceive the one in you who perceives. You may experience the physical reality, but you cannot mentally experience the experiencer. The source of your perceptions, knowledge and individuality defies you. You may have a vague idea of who you are, but you can neither see him nor locate him in your consciousness. You may perceive your body and cognize your thoughts, and consider them to be your true identity, but it may not truly characterize you since your perceptions and awareness are bound by time and clouded by desire and expectations.
The truth is that there is a person (purusha) hidden in that identity of yours, which you cannot perceive with your senses. You may have a vague idea of who that person is, but you cannot be that person unless you silence your mind and senses and completely take the world and the objective reality out of it to become absorbed in it without duality or division. It is what we call the state of oneness or self-absorption.
To the ignorant people, who have not attained that state, the world appears as a distinct and independent reality in relation to them. They consider themselves to be distinct realities, separate and unique from the world. Because they are accustomed to seeing the world as an object, they cannot see the Person (purusha) pervading it and supporting it, nor can they perceive the real person who supports each of them, residing in their own bodies.
The world and your physical identity may exist in your mind as impressions or reflections, but they do not exist in the transcendental reality of your true Self. The same is the case with regard to the world and the Cosmic Self. The body or the world represents your objective reality, whereas you (as the pure Self) represent the subjective reality. They are not the same. The world is not-self or the opposite of the Self. It is made up of the tattvas (finite realities) of Nature, which are perishable and mutable, whereas the Self belongs to the transcendental realm, which can be experienced only in a subjective state of self-absorption.
Why do we need to bother about this distinction? How is it going to help us? Without this knowledge, we remain actively engaged and involved with the world birth after birth, without any hope for salvation. The knowledge that the world is unreal and has no basis of its own helps you to cultivate indifference towards the world and worldly objects and withdraw from them. The withdrawal is necessary for you to stabilize your mind and draw it into the contemplation of the Self to become detached from the world. When the truth regarding the objective nature of the world dawns upon you, you learn to endure the modifications of the world and become stable minded.
The world does not exist in you
The reality in which you should remain focused is not the world around you but in you. Similarly, your identity should not arise from your name and form but your soul. The idea that you are not the mind and body but a pure, eternal, indestructible and incorruptible soul must be firmly implanted in your consciousness. When it happens, the world ceases to enthrall you, enter you, involve you, taint you or disturb you. Your mind and body constitute the microcosm. They are inseparable from the world outside. They do not exist in you but outside you. Therefore, whatever happens in your mind and body happens outside. Ashtavakra says by constantly remembering this, you can cultivate detachment and become indifferent to the happenings in the external world
You and your physical self are two distant realities. You are the perceiver, the witness (sakshi) and the enjoyer. Anything that happens to you or in your mind, and anything with which you can have a subject-object relationship constitute the objective reality. It does not belong to the subjective realm of the Self and does not exist in it. You can have a subject- object relationship with your mind and body and with the world. You should consider them to represent your not-self, but not your true Self.
If you are aspiring for liberation or self-transformation, you should constantly reflect on this truth, as you interact with the world, so that you can burn away all your attachments and impurities. Everything that you perceive here is an object, including your mental notion of who you are. It is the not-self, not you. You should always remember it, with each breath, each thought, each action and each movement, to remain uninvolved, detached and indifferent and become firmly established in the subjective experience of the Self.
If you are not properly grounded in the study and philosophy of nondualism, verses such as these are difficult to understand. To understand the teachings of Ashtavakra, you need to cultivate the mindset of a nondualist and see everything from that perspective. Instead of becoming lost in the diversity and duality of the world, to which we are habitually accustomed, you must see it as the play or projection of one indivisible Self. For example, during the whole discourse, Ashtavakra spoke to King Janaka from a unified, universal perspective as the Self. He did not see King Janaka as a separate person, king, object or entity, but as the pure Self or Brahman only who is free from duality, delusion and objectivity.
The Upanishads encourage students and seekers of Brahman to cultivate this perspective. When they say, “You are That,” they are stressing that you are Brahman. When they say, “Jagat mithya,” they are reminding you that from subjective experience of your Self, your experience of the material world is an illusion. Objective reality is not a part of Brahman, who is pure consciousness. They are like oil and water.
Ashtavakra also stated that the world does not exist in you. It is true. The world exists in your thoughts and perceptions, but not in you, the pure Self. Your dreams, visions, memories and images arise and subside in the objective reality of your mental realm only. They are subject to modification, impermanence, loss and destruction, which the Self witnesses, without being touched or affected by them. It is necessary to keep this distinction in your mind, as you engage in desireless actions and practice renunciation and detachment.
A whole world exists in your mind as thoughts, ideas, images, perceptions, feelings, emotions, memories and sensations. They create your alternate reality, identity, individuality and ego, or the sum of who you are in the objective realm. In your wakeful consciousness you may consider it to be your true self, whereas they are but formations or constructs, created from a loose bundle of fragmented pieces of perceptual consciousness. They coalesce around your desires, attachments, hopes and fears to give you the illusion of a personality, continuity, relationships and experience.
These fragments of your consciousness or beingness are comparable to the pixels in a digital image. Individually, each pixel is a little piece of information, just as the little fragments of memory in your mind. By association, they create the illusion of an image. The same thing happens in the mind in the formation of a person. Little pieces of memory, thoughts or emotions create the illusion of personality, experience and perception. What happens when you dissemble those pixels? The image disappears. The same happens when the little pieces of consciousness which constitute the image of a person disperse. The person as well as the personality disappear. It happens to every being at the time of death, and temporarily when one goes into deep sleep.
The world is unreal does not mean it is nonexistent
The concept of reality has a different connotation in Advaita. Unless you understand it, much of its philosophy and teaching will not make sense. There can be many realities in the universe, in different worlds and at different levels, but there can be only one ultimate reality. From that perspective, all other realities are false, including the finite realities (tattvas) of Nature. The school defines the ultimate reality (sat) as that which is free from modifications, impermanence, association, duality and division. If you experience the reality as this and that, or if you can perceive it, define it, distinguish it, describe it, or explain, you can safely assume that it is not the realty of Brahman. The reality of Brahman is indescribable, indefinable, unrelatable and inexplicable. Therefore, when Ashtavakra says that the world is not real, it does not mean it is nonexistent. It only means that it does not represent the reality of Brahman and it is undependable since it has no permanent existence and no basis of its own.
You will probably understand this concept better when you consider the distinction between true and false relationships in your life. You know that the people in your life are all not the same, and your relationship with them varies according to their nature and level of trust and faith. You may consider some relationships real and dependable and some false and troublesome. You will deem only those relationships real which are based on truth and honesty. You may also have relationship with some people who cannot be considered truthful or honest. They may have habitually cheated you, deceived you or lied to you. You may keep those relationships for the sake society or propriety, but you cannot deem them to be real, nor can you consider them your real friends or well-wishers.
You may apply the same logic to your relationship with the world, and to everything that represents it. The world leads you astray and binds you to the cycle of births and deaths. It is your false friend who prefers to keep you in chains, clouding your mind and intelligence, and binding you to your own illusions, delusion, ignorance, egoism, vices, desires and attachments. When you realize that the world is not your true ally, you will not anymore trust your relationship with it, nor will you consider it to be your true support on the path of liberation.
From a spiritual perspective, the world is trap. It binds you to birth and rebirth and delays your liberation, inducing in you desire-ridden actions and thereby subjecting you to karma. Unless you wake up and break that relationship, you cannot hope to achieve liberation. However, the realization that the world is unreal does not easily arise in you, without a paradigm shift in your thinking and awareness. Neither direct experience (pratyaksha) nor inference drawn from circumstantial evidence (anumana) is much helpful because the senses cannot adequately convey the illusory nature of the world. The only option which is left to you is to rely upon scriptural validation (sabda) or the words of an enlightened seer or sage such as Ashtavakra. You have to take their words or instructions to be true and accept the notion that the world is a projection of Brahman and is not a part of his transcendental reality.
If you want to dissolve your association with the world and overcome your likes and dislikes about it, faith in the metaphysical truths of the scriptures is the only option and support left to you. You cannot rely upon reason or perceptual reality because they belong to the domian of the mind rather than the Self. You must rely upon the words of the scriptures or of your teacher and treat the world with the same distrust and indifference just as you would treat any false relationship in your life. You will be careful and cautious in your reactions and responses and try to guard yourself against its influence and ulterior motives. Seeing the world as unreal, treating the mind and body as separate and distinct from yourself, you must dissolve all your attachments and involvement with them, and abide in the contemplation of Self to experience the ultimate reality of the Self.
Suggestions for Further Reading
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