Brief notes on the Criticism of Sankara’s Philosophy of the World

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Many kinds of objections have been raised against Sahkara’s theory of the world. The chief one is that Sankara does not explain the world, but explains it away; that philosophy has for its business the explanation of the world, and if it explains the world away as unreal, it only cuts away the ground on which it stands.

But such criticism is rather rash. It is true that the task of philosophy is to explain the world, that is, the sum total of experienced facts.

But it does not mean that philosophy is committed, from the beginning, to the view that the world of common sense must be totally accepted as real.

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It must examine common experience and common views of the world, but only to judge their natures and interrelations in the light of reason, and find out what would be the most consistent view of the world.

But it is found, on examination, as shown by Sankara, that all experiences cannot claim to be equally reliable, nor all common views about the world free from contradiction. One kind of experience actually contradicts and, supplants another and claims greater reality.

Again some experiences and beliefs, in their particular forms, are found to be in conflict with possible future experience. Philosophy must, therefore, rationally discriminate between belief and belief, experience and experience, and critically assign to each its proper place.

On such rational grounds Sankara grades and classifies common experience. As we saw, he, first of all, distinguishes all objects of possible and actual experience from utter unreality, like the child of the barren mother.

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The former again are classed under three heads:

(a) Those that only appear momentarily in illusions and dreams, but are contradicted by normal waking experience,

(b) Those that appear hi normal waking experience-the particular and changing objects, which form the basis of our ordinary life and practice, but which are still not acceptable to reason as completely real (because they exhibit contradiction or are open to future contradiction), and

(c) Pure existence which reveals itself through all experience, and is neither contradicted nor contradictable If ‘world’ is the name of all these kinds of experienced facts surely it will be irrational to say that the world, as a whole, and in every aspect of it, is real.

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The first kind of facts possesses only ephemeral existence (pratibhasika satta or apparent existence); the second empirical or virtual existence, the sort of existence necessary for ordinary life and practice (vyavaharika satta or practical existence) and the third absolute existence (paramarthika satta or supreme existence).

The world is thus not a homogeneous conception; and if, in spite of this, one insists on being told what such a world (as a whole) is, the fairest reply can only be, what Sahkara gives, namely, that it is indescribable (anirvacaniya) either as real or as unreal.

But if the word, world, is confined only to the second aspect, it would be again fair to say, that the world is real only for practical purpose, more real than the first and less real than the third kind of existence.

But if the word is taken in the third sense, Sahkara would emphatically assert that the world is eternally real.

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As he puts it: ‘As the cause, Brahman, does not lack existence at any time, past, present or future, so does the world not lack existence in any of the three periods of time.

Again, ‘All particular modes of existence with different names and forms are real as existence, but unreal as particulars.

It will be quite clear now that Sahkara does not deny the world even in the second or practical aspect, like a subjective idealist who reduces it to a mere idea of the perceiving individual, and who does not allow it an extra mental existence.

This will be further evident from the way in which he refutes the subjectivism of the Vijnanavadin.

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Here he asserts that the objects of normal waking experience are not on par with dream-objects, since dream experience is contradicted by waking experience, which, therefore, is relatively more real; that external objects like pillars, pots, etc.

Which are immediately felt to be outside the mind cannot be reduced to the status of mere ideas in the mind, and that while the former are perceived by all, the latter only by the individual in whose mind they are.

He also makes it clear that though he explains the world on the analogy of a dream, he does not deny the difference between the contradicted dream experience and the contradicting waking experience on which the world is based, nor does he overlook the fact that these two experiences are differently caused.

The ignorance responsible for the first is of an individual and temporary nature, and that at the root of the second is public and relatively permanent.

The first is sometimes called avidya (individual ignorance), the second maya (general ignorance), though these two terms are also sometimes used synonymously in the sense of illusion-producing ignorance in general.

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