IBSA (ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Sadhana Asrama), Govardhana, India
12 January 2004

What the Upanisads Teach
Part Fourteen

The Universe, Brahman and Maya

A traditional diagram of the Jagat Purusa, the universe conceived of by mystic yogis as a cosmic person.

Brhadaranyaka Upanisad IV. 4. 19 states:

manasaiva anudrastvyam neha nanasti kincana
mrtyoh sa mrtyum apnoti ya iha naneva pasyati

Brahman is to be perceived by the mind purified by knowledge of Truth. This Brahman is not diverse. He who sees diversity in this Brahman goes from death to death.

In the same upanisad (II. 4. 14) we find:

yatra hi dvaitamiya bhavati taditara itaram pasyati. . .
yatra tu asya sarvam atmaivabhut. . . tat kena kam pasyet

In duality, one sees another. Where everything has become the Self, then by what and by whom should one see?

Commenting on the first quotation in his Sariraka-bhasya, Sripad Sankaracarya writes, avidyadhyaropana vyatiriktena nasti paramarthato dvaitm asti. . . asati nanatve nanatvam adhyaropayati avidyaya--"Other than Brahman, the manifold universe does not really exist. Due to avidya, Brahman appears illusorily as the manifold universe. "

For stalwart Vaisnava Vedantists like Ramanuja and Madhva, neha nanasti kincana in the first quotation means there is no other reality than Brahman. To think a thing is "diverse" from that reality--in other words, to think something exists apart from God, in its own right--is illusion.

In III. 8. 8 of the same upanisad, Yajnavalkya tells Gargi that the infallible Brahman (aksara) has no material qualities. He says it is asthulam (not gross) and ananu (not subtle), ahrasvam (not short) and adhirgham (not long), and so on through a list of twenty-five negations of mundane characteristics. Thus Brahman, the only reality, is not to be perceived through the sensory portals of the impure, ignorance-clouded mind. Manasaiva anudrastyam, begins the quotation at the start of this installment: "It is to be perceived by the mind purified by knowledge of Truth. "

Accepting this, it is a non sequitur (i. e. it does not follow logically) to arrive at Sankara's conclusion that the universe does not exist. In the very next verse of Brihadaranyaka Upanisad, III. 8. 9, Yajnavalkya declares to Gargi:

tasya va aksarasya prasasane gargi suryacandramasau vidhrtau tisthatah. . .

Truly, at the command of Aksara Brahman, Gargi, the sun and the moon are held in their positions, heaven and earth are held in their positions, the moments, hours, days and nights, fortnights, months, and seasons stay in their positions.

If, as Sankaracarya claims, the universe is not real, then why is the command of the infallible Brahman involved in holding it together? Actually, Brahman is known as Aksara because He holds the universe together. In Vedanta-sutra Srila Vyasadeva states, aksaram ambarantadhrteh--"Aksara is Brahman because the upanisads say He supports the whole universe from the gross element of earth to the subtle element of ether. " Vyasa further states, sa ca prasasanat--"Aksara supports all that exists by His supreme command. "

As long the mind and its attendant senses are darkened by ignorance, one knows only mundane sense impressions. Mundane sense impressions--grossness, fineness, length, shortness and so on--are not (to borrow Kant's phrase) Ding-an-Sich, "the thing in itself. " They do not constitute Brahman Himself nor even the universe that is the energy of Brahman. They are simply the limited, imperfect data that our organs of perception make available to the limited, imperfect mind.

The ignorance that darkens the mind and the senses is certainly diversity, but it is diversity as defined by the Vaisnava acaryas. The impressions the senses present to the mind of an ignorant soul are diverse from Brahman, the source of the universe. Brahma-vidya, Vedic knowledge, grants the soul scripturally-opened eyes (sastra-caksusa) to see beyond the screen of those impressions to the Absolute Truth, the transcendent and immanent all-powerful Personality of Godhead--and thus to see the real purpose of sense impressions as creations of the Lord and His energy. That purpose is devotional sacrifice. This is the method (vidhi) ordained in the scriptures by which human beings "make sacred" (in Latin, sacer facere, the phrase from which the English word "sacrifice" is derived) the objects of their sense perception.

In comparison to this explanation of how ignorance is banished by Vedic knowledge, Sankaracarya's version is, philosophically speaking, quite primitive. Human ignorance manifests as the diverse qualities of our sense impressions: the different sounds, feelings, forms and colors, tastes and smells that are projected into the mind from "outside. " But this is Sankara's point: there is no outside. There is only the Self. In Western philosophy, the conception that 1) there is only one self, and 2) this self is me alone, and 3) everything outside me is a creation of my mind, is called solipsism (from Latin solus, alone, and ipse, self). For two simple reasons, solipsism is considered an inadequate philosophy. While asserting that my consciousness is the only substance of the universe, it fails to explain why I cannot change the universe at will, simply by thought. While asserting that the only reality is that I myself exist, it cannot explain why I am dependent for my life, learning and happiness upon a world full of living entities that refuse to acknowledge this reality. Sankara's solipsism argues that "I" (the Self, Brahman) keep myself in maya by concocting diversity in my mind. When "I" negate all such diversity, "I" see that the universe does not really exist, and thus "I" arrive at oneness--my Self alone. That is liberation.

Equipped with this understanding, we now turn to the second quotation that started off this installment. Here the question is raised: if all is the Self, then by what and by whom should one see another? Sankaracarya's take is that Brahman is pure subject. Since Brahman is all there is, there is no object to Brahman's perception. Perception, then, is meaningless. Hence when the Self that is Brahman is at last realized, no relation to anything else remains. The sense of a relation to another beyond that Self is illusion.

The problem with Sankara's interpretation is the same as before. He presupposes "perception, relationship, and the other" to be illusory without exception. He does not factor in the difference between "perception, relationship, and the other" registered within an ignorant living entity's limited and imperfect field of knowledge, and "perception, relationship, and the other" outside that field in the realm of the metaphysical ("beyond physics").

Still, it may be argued that the verse clearly says yatra tu asya sarvam atmaivabhut--"When everything becomes the Self. " That must mean that everything becomes pure subject.

According to the upanisads, everything is pure subject, as we see in Brhadaranyaka Upanisad III. 7. 23 (and in similar passages elsewhere, some of which have been quoted here in earlier installments). These passages make clear that "perception, relationship, and the other" are included within the pure subject, the Lord. Because He sees all that is to be seen, an ultimate standard of reality exists that we can share in. That standard lies outside the power of the material senses.

adrsto drasta asruteh srotra amanto manta avijnato vijnata
na 'nyatosti drasta nanyato 'sti srota nanyato 'sti manta nanyato 'sti vijnata
esa tu atma antaryamy amrtah ato anyad artam

He is not seen with the eyes but He sees all. He is not heard with the ears but He hears everything. He is not comprehended by the mind but He comprehends everything. He is not perceived by meditation but He perceives everything. There is no other seer but He. There is no other hearer but He. There is no other cognizer but He. He is your Self who controls everything from within. He is immortal; all that seems apart from Him is suffering.

The Mayina, the Personality of Godhead Maha-Visnu, glances at His energy Maya-devi, and so engenders the material creation.

Srimad-Bhagavatam 11. 24. 20 confirms that the universe exists only due to the perception of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

As long as the Supreme Personality of Godhead continues to glance upon nature, the material world continues to exist, perpetually manifesting through procreation the great and variegated flow of universal creation.

To share in the reality of the Lord's perception of the universe is to be Krsna conscious.

Krsna consciousness means constantly associating with the Supreme Personality of Godhead in such a mental state that the devotee can observe the cosmic manifestation exactly as the Supreme Personality of Godhead does. (Bhag. 4. 29. 69)

In an earlier installment we have met the statement of Katha Upanisad II. 2. 13 that among eternal souls, the Lord is the supreme eternal soul, and among sentient beings, the Lord is the supreme sentient being. Yes, He is the original pure subject whose consciousness encompasses everything (sarvam atmaivabhut, in the words of Brhadaranyaka Upanisad). But that does not mean that there are no other subjects. Nor does it mean that these other subjects cannot be as pure as the original pure subject. Nor does it mean these other subjects cannot perceive reality as the original pure subject does. In their sentient perceptions, all other subjects are always dependent upon the original sentient being. But because some have diverted their perceptions from His standard, they suffer. The solution to suffering is not to extinguish perception, to break all relations, and to negate the other. The solution is to perceive divinely, as does the Lord; to relate divinely, as does the Lord; and in this way to know there is no other than the Lord and His energy.

Still one may quibble, "But Brhadaranyaka Upanisad asks, yatra tu asya sarvam atmaivabhut. . . tat kena kam pasyet--'Where everything has become the Self, then by what and by whom should one see?'" The answer is: by the grace of that Self, one should see. It a fact established in Brhadaranyaka and other upanisads that it is only by the grace of that Self, the Paramatma, that the individual atma can see anything at all. "Where everything has become the Self" means "Where everything is seen as Paramatma sees. " Seeing as Paramatma sees does not change the fact that we see by His grace. It means we are taking full advantage of His grace.

Let us move on.

As a spider sends forth and draws in its thread; as herbs sprout from the earth; as head and body hair grow from a living person; so from the Aksara arises the universe. (Mundaka Upanisad I. 1. 7)

Commenting on this, Sankaracarya writes in Sariraka-bhasya: karanantaram anapeksya svayameva srjate--"Brahman is the sole cause and does not require any other causal agent. " It is due to this point of doctrine that Mayavadi philosophy is bedeviled by the question

Where did maya come from?

If Brahman is the sole cause and takes no assistance from any other agent, then, argues Mayavada, maya only appears to be the energy of Brahman. But in truth Brahman is originally one without a second. So did Brahman create maya? Mayavada answers no. Is maya a tattva (ontological truth) independent of Brahman? Mayavada answers no. Then what is maya? Mayavada answers that it is anirvacaniya, which literally means "inexpressible"--something not to be discussed. But lest it be taken as a fancy "Shut up!", the Mayavadis offer that anirvacaniya indicates that maya is neither real nor unreal but different from both; and that it is without any cause at all.

We will come back to this curious notion of the Mayavadis. For now, let us see what the upanisads have to say about maya. Of the 14 upanisads that Srila Vyasadeva refers to in his Vedanta-sutra, only Svetasvatara Upanisad employs the word maya.

mayam tu prakrtim vidyat mayinam tu mahesvaram

Know then that prakrti is maya and the wielder of maya is the great Lord. (Sv. U. IV. 10)

From two other words here--prakrtim and mayinam--it is quite clear that this line intends the word maya to mean "power" more than to mean "illusion. " The word prakrti is formed from pra (complete) and krti (one able to create). Hence prakrti means an entity with vast creative potential. The word mayinam is a grammatical form of the name Mayina, which according to Srila Prabhupada means "the Supreme Lord who possesses great mystic power" (see Bhag. 7. 8. 23 in the context of the word harinorumayina). The conclusion is that Svetasvatara Upanisad equates maya with prakrti and declares the great Lord (mahesvaram) to be the wielder of that maya. And so He is called Mayina. From the language of this verse a hint of illusion can be teased out. Srila Prabhupada also translates mayinam as referring to jugglers and magicians (see Bhag 3. 6. 39 and the purport). The Bhagavatam even uses the word to indicate the demons (7. 10. 53). Jugglers, magicians and demons are all skilled in illusion. But this only affirms that illusion has its basis in power; jugglers, magicians and demons exhibit powers that astonish the common man.

The demon Maya Danava is called mayina in Srimad-Bhagavatam 7. 10. 51. Here Srila Prabhupada translates the word as "possessing technical knowledge. " Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001--A Space Odyssey and the inventor of the telecommunications satellite, is often quoted as saying, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. " Magic means the conjuration of illusion; but we cannot argue that such illusion just floated up out of nowhere. There is a technique at the back of it. When one comes to know that technique, the illusion of the magic is banished. One can then appreciate the skill of the magician/technician without being bewildered by him.

What exactly is the illusion of maya? Chandogya Upanisad VIII. 3. 2 states, anrtena hi pratyudhah--"they do not find Brahman, as it is hidden by untruth (anrta). " Now, rta (truth) is defined by Katha Upanisad I. 3. 1 in this way: rtam pibantau sukrtasya loke--"the fruits of pious deeds. " Sankaracarya has confirmed this in his Sariraka-bhasya with the words rtam karma phalam. Bringing this gloss back to the Chandogya verse, we see that anrta is a synonym for papa or sin. In a previous installment it was noted that Chandogya Upanisad VIII. 4. 1 clubs together both sukrta (pious deeds) and duskrta (impious deeds) under the heading of papmana, sinfulness. Why? Because the transcendental nature of atma and Paramatma has nothing to do with the material dualities of good and evil.

The engagement of Brahman, the Mayina, with His prakrti bewilders those who are sinful--which means those who pursue the good and bad fruits of karma. Attachment to these fruits is anrta, not the true purpose of the creation. Neither is the true purpose of creation to be found in artificial renunciation, by which one tries to liberate himself from fruitive reactions. Both bhoga (enjoyment) and tyaga (renunciation) of karma phala are symptomatic of a fallen soul's obsession for the temporary sense objects. This obsession, or ignorance, covers the living entity's knowledge of Brahman. That covered state is what is meant by "being in maya. "

This is all wonderfully summed up by Srila Prabhupada in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 1. 3. 37.

There are two classes of materialists, namely the fruitive workers and the empiric philosophers. The fruitive workers have practically no information of the Absolute Truth, and the mental speculators, after being frustrated in fruitive activities, turn their faces towards the Absolute Truth and try to know Him by mental speculation. And for all these men, the Absolute Truth is a mystery, as the jugglery of the magician is a mystery to children. Being deceived by the jugglery of the Supreme Being, the nondevotees, who may be very dexterous in fruitive work and mental speculation, are always in ignorance. With such limited knowledge, they are unable to penetrate into the mysterious region of transcendence. The mental speculators are a little more progressive than the gross materialists or the fruitive workers, but because they are also within the grip of illusion, they take it for granted that anything which has form, a name and activities is but a product of material energy. For them the Supreme Spirit is formless, nameless and inactive. And because such mental speculators equalize the transcendental name and form of the Lord with mundane names and form, they are in fact in ignorance. With such a poor fund of knowledge, there is no access to the real nature of the Supreme Being.

On that note, we return to the Mayavadi explanation of maya. In his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4. 24. 17, Srila Prabhupada writes as follows.

. . . it is stated in the Padma Purana that Lord Siva appeared as a brahmana in the age of Kali to preach the Mayavada philosophy, which is nothing but a type of Buddhist philosophy. It is stated in Padma Purana:

mayavadam asac-chastram
pracchannam bauddham ucyate
mayaiva vihitam devi
kalau brahmana-murtina

Lord Siva, speaking to Parvati-devi, foretold that he would spread the Mayavada philosophy in the guise of a sannyasi brahmana just to eradicate Buddhist philosophy. This sannyasi was Sripada Sankaracarya. In order to overcome the effects of Buddhist philosophy and spread Vedanta philosophy, Sripada Sankaracarya had to make some compromise with the Buddhist philosophy, and as such he preached the philosophy of monism, for it was required at that time. Otherwise there was no need for his preaching Mayavada philosophy. At the present moment there is no need for Mayavada philosophy or Buddhist philosophy, and Lord Caitanya rejected both of them. This Krsna consciousness movement is spreading the philosophy of Lord Caitanya and rejecting the philosophy of both classes of Mayavadi. Strictly speaking, both Buddhist philosophy and Sankara's philosophy are but different types of Mayavada dealing on the platform of material existence. Neither of these philosophies has spiritual significance. There is spiritual significance only after one accepts the philosophy of Bhagavad-gita, which culminates in surrendering unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

In the first purport cited, Srila Prabhupada informs us that fruitive workers and empiric philosophers (i. e. philosophers whose "bottom line" is the data of the senses) are two kinds of materialists. In the second purport he explains that Buddhism and Sankara's Vedanta philosophy deal on the platform of material existence. Neither has spiritual significance.

Buddhism and Mayavadi Vedanta are empiric. The word empiric comes from the Greek empeirikos, "experienced. " Mayavadis, Buddhists and all such mental speculators have experienced fruitive activities and are frustrated by them. But rather than transcending sense impressions, they cling to them by trying to negate them. Their logic is: "Name, form, variety, relationship, activity, personality, desire, contact of the senses with their objects--our experience is that all these lead to misery. Liberation from misery must entail an existence absent of name, form, variety, relationship, activity, personality, desire, senses, and sense objects. "

Yet name, form, variety and the rest persistently continue to bind human consciousness. Why? Mayavadi Vedantists and Buddhists propose maya as the answer. What is maya? The explanations of maya they give I have drawn from a book that Srila Prabhupada said is "very authoritative", An Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Satischandra Chatterjee and Dhirendramohan Datta.

On pages 145-6, in their summary of Buddhist sunyavada philosophy, these scholars write:

Things appear to exist, but when we try to understand the real nature of their existence the intellect is baffled. It cannot be called either real or unreal, or both real and unreal, or neither real nor unreal. . . . Sunyata or voidness is the name for this indeterminable, indescribable, real nature of things. . . . The conditionality of things which makes their own nature (svabhava) unascertainable, either as real or unreal, etc. , may be also regarded as a kind of relativity. Every character of a thing is conditioned by something else and therefore its existence is relative to that condition. Sunya-vada can, therefore, also be interpreted as a theory of relativity which declares that no thing, no phenomena experienced, has a fixed, absolute, independent character of its own (svabhava) and, therefore, no description of any phenomenon can be said to be unconditionally true.

This clearly shows that sunyavada deals on the material platform of existence. Nothing is certain on that platform. Meanings and explanations are not to be trusted. The whole idea here is that one should not attach oneself to the world of appearances, as it is sunya or empty. Sunya, in this philosophy, is another way of saying maya.

The scholars continue:

But when nirvana is attained and the conditions of sense-experience and the appearance of phenomena are controlled, what would be the nature of the resultant experience? To this we cannot apply the conditional characters true of phenomena. The Madhyamikas [i. e. the sect of Buddhists that subscribes to sunyavada], therefore, hold that there is a transcendental reality (noumenon) behind the phenomenal one and it is free from change, conditionality and all other phenomenal characters. . . . The truth of the lower order is only a stepping-stone to the attainment of the higher. The nature of the nirvana experience which takes one beyond ordinary experience cannot be described. Nagarjuna [the founder of the Madhyamika sect], therefore, describes nirvana with a series of negatives, thus: "That which is not known (ordinarily), not acquired anew, not destroyed, not eternal, not suppressed, not generated is called nirvana. "

The sunyavadis allow that there is an ultimate truth (noumenon) behind the ever-changing illusion of phenomena. But just as we saw with Immanuel Kant (in In2-MeC of 25 December), the sunyavadis allow no link to speak of between phenomenon and noumenon. The developments in German intellectual life in the century after Kant illustrate that the doctrine of the complete severance of human experience from reality-in-itself represents a downward turn in the progress of knowledge and culture. It is atheism cloaked as piety. At the end of their chapter on sunyavada, Chatterjee and Datta have this to say about Mayavadi Vedanta:

It may be noted here that in its conception of twofold truth, its denial of the phenomenal world, its negative description of the transcendental, and its conception of nirvana as the attainment of unity with the transcendental self, the Madhyamika approaches very close to Advaita Vedanta as. . . elaborated by Gaudapada and Sankaracarya.

On page 372, the two scholars take special note of an essential difference between the Mayavadi Vedanta of Sankaracarya and the Vaisnava Vedanta of Ramanujacarya. This difference pertains to maya.

The difference between Ramanuja and Sankara, then, is that while, according to Ramanuja, the matter or prakrti which is an integral part of God really undergoes modification, Sankara holds that God does not undergo any real change, change is only apparent, not real.

And so the Vaisnavas, citing Padma Purana, say that Mayavada Vedanta is pracchanam bauddham, covered Buddhism. Both sunyavadis and Mayavadis speculate that change belongs to phenomena, while transcendence is changeless. "Changeless" in this conception is freighted with negative connotations: no name, no form, no variety, no relationship, no activity, no personality, no desire, no senses, no sense objects. Hence transcendence, in any practical sense, is unreachable by those who live in the world of change.

But the doctrine of the upanisads is, as summarized by Vyasadeva in Vedanta-sutra, sastra-yonitvat--"Brahman is to be reached through the sastras" (V-s 1. 1. 3); tarkapratishtanat--"Brahman is neither established nor refuted by logical argument" (V-s 2. 1. 11); and srutes tu sabda-mulatvat--"Brahman is not conceivable to an ordinary man; He can be understood only by the Vedic sound. " (V-s 2. 1. 27) Now, in this connection Mundakopanisad I. 1. 4 teaches, dve vidye veditavye iti ha sma brahmavido vadanti para ca apara ca--"Two kinds of knowledge (vidya) are to be known as, indeed, the knowers of Brahman declare: the higher (para) as well as the lower (apara). " Srila Prabhupada comments in the purport to Sri Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 19. 17:

As far as Vedic literature is concerned, Vedanta-sutra is accepted as the para vidya. Srimad-Bhagavatam is an explanation of that para vidya. Those who aspire for liberation (mukti or moksa) and introduce themselves as vaidantika are also equal to those groups aspiring to improve religion (dharma), economic development (artha) and sense gratification (kama). Dharma, artha, kama and moksa are called catur-varga. They are all within the system of inferior material knowledge. Any literature giving information about the spiritual world, spiritual life, spiritual identity and the spirit soul is called para vidya.

Persons engaged in dharma, artha and kama are seeking to obtain the objects of sense gratification under Vedic injunction. Persons engaged in mukti or moksa are seeking to rid themselves of those objects, also under Vedic injunction. The first are bhogis, the second are tyagis, and both are obsessed with sense impressions either positively or negatively. For bhogis and tyagis the unobstructed truth of the Lord, His sakti, the atma, and the transcendental relationship of these three, remains unrealized. This is because bhogis and tyagis persist in struggling with the duality of enjoying and renouncing their sense impressions--impressions that amount to a screen of ignorance that hides Brahman from their vision. The bhogis and tyagis are in maya, not because of their sense impressions per se, but because of their ignorant struggle with those impressions in their effort to gratify or stultify their lust. But if they sincerely accept the direction of the Vedic scriptures, they will be lead out of maya into para-vidya, knowledge of transcendence.

To be continued, starting with Sadhana in the Upanisads

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