Notes on the Rational Foundation of Sankara’s Theory of the World


If we put together the arguments used by Sahkara to support the theory of apparent change (vivarta) and the cognate concepts of nescience (maya and avidya) and of projection or super imposition by imagination (adhyasa), we find that they constitute a strong rational foundation of the Advaita theory.

Those who do not believe in any revealed scripture or in any mystic intuition, but try to understand the real nature of the world in the light of common experience and reasoning based thereon, will also value these arguments, if only for their great logical and philosophical merit.

The followers of Sahkara have multiplied such arguments in independent treatises in some of which {e.g., Tattvapradipika or Citsukhi, Advaita-Siddhi, Khandana- Khandakhadya) logical skill and dialectical subtlety attain heights scarcely reached by the most profound treatises of this kind in the West.


While the Vedanta was based on intuitive experience, embodied in the revealed texts, it did not ignore the fact that so long as the reasoning faculty of man is not fully satisfied and the things are not explained by reasoning in the light of common experience, there is no possibility of his accepting the intuitions of others however high.

To give the beginner an idea of this aspect of Advaita philosophy, we shall briefly mention below how Sahkara tries to reach his theory of the world by subjecting common experience to rational criticism and logical construction:

(a) If the relation between any effect and its material cause is carefully examined it is found that the effect is nothing more than the cause. Perception cannot show in a pot made of clay anything other than clay, or in a ring made of gold anything other than gold.

An effect is, again, inseparable from its material cause; the effect cannot exist without it. We cannot separate the pot from the clay, or the ring from the gold.


It is not reasonable, therefore, to think that the effect is a new thing which is now produced, but was absent before. In substance it was always there in its material cause. In fact we cannot even think of a non­existent entity coming into existence.

We can only think of a substance changing from one form into another. If something non-existent could ever be brought into existence.

There would be no reason why we could not press oil out of sand (where it is non-existent), and why we have to select only a particular material, namely oilseed, to produce the particular effect, oil.

The activity of an efficient cause, the oilman, the potter or the goldsmith, cannot produce any new substance, it only manifests the form of the substance concealed by its previous state.


The effect must thus be admitted to be non-different (ananya) from the cause, and to be existing in it from before.

On these grounds Sahkara admits the theory of Satkarya-vada which, we have seen, is also accepted by the Sankhya.

But he finds that the Sankhya does not realise the full implication of Satkarya- vad for, it holds that though the effect exists previously in its material cause, there is a real change (parinama) of the material into the effect, since the material assumes a new form.

Now this view amounts to the confession that this form which did not exist previously comes into existence.


The doctrine of Satkarya-vada, that nothing which did not exist previously can come into existence, thus breaks down. If the grounds on which that doctrine stands, are sound, then we must be prepared to accept all that logically follows from it, and cannot hold any view which implies any violation of this doctrine, rationally established.

But how can we, it may be asked, deny the perceived fact that the effect does have a new form? Sankara does not deny the perception, but only questions the interpretation, the logical significance, of it.

Is the Sankhya right in holding that change in form means a change in reality? It would be right, only if a form had a reality of its own.

But closer consideration shows that the form is but a state of the material or substance, and cannot be separated from the latter even in thought.


Whatever status in reality a form may possess is in virtue of its substance. We have no reason, therefore, to interpret the perception of a change in form as a change of reality.

On the contrary, it is found that in spite of changes in form, a substance is recognised by us as the identical entity. Devadatta, sitting, standing or lying is recognised as the identical person. How could this be, if change in form implied change in reality?

Moreover, if the form or, for that matter, any quality were granted any distinct reality, we would fail to explain the relation between the quality and its substance.

For, two distinct realities cannot be conceived to be related without the help of a third entity to connect them.

Now, as soon as we think of this third entity (which must be distinct from the two terms it attempts to relate) we have to think of a fourth relating entity, and also a fifth, which would relate the third with each of the first two terms respectively.

Similarly, these fourth and fifth entities would require other similar media for relating them to the terms they themselves want to relate, and so on. There would then be an infinite regress (anavastha).

We can thus never come to the end of our supposition and there will never be a complete explanation of the relation between the quality and its substance.

In other words, the supposition of any distinction in reality between any quality and its substance would be logically indefensible.

So a form cannot be treated as a distinct reality, and no change in form can be logically accepted as a real change, unless there is change in substance.

But we have seen that no causation involves any change in substance. Hence causation does not imply any real change. Moreover, as every change is a process of causation, there cannot be any change in reality.

This amounts to the position that though we perceive changes we cannot rationally accept them as real. We have therefore to understand them in the same way as we do, when we perceive an illusory object.

We do perceive a rainbow, a blue sky, movement of the sun and many other things which we cannot believe as real because reasoning proves them to be unreal. Such a perceived but unreal phenomenon is called an appearance and distinguished from reality.

On the same ground we must call change also an appearance, and distinguish it from reality.

We can thus reach, on purely logical grounds supported by common observation, the theory of rivarta or apparent change, as a rational doctrine required for the explanation of the world.

The acceptance of this theory also leads us to think that our perception of change is nothing more than a supposition or mental projection of change on reality. This is but Sankara’s conception of adhyasa.

Again, a wrong supposition of this kind implies that we are deluded by a sort of ignorance which makes us perceive things where they do not really exist.

This is but Sankara’s conception of ajnana, avidya or maya, which he regards as the cause of the appearance of the world.

(b) But it may be asked, supposing that the world, with its changing objects is an appearance, what is the substance or reality which appears to us in various forms as objects? Ordinarily we call anything which is the bearer of some qualities as a substance.

A pot or a ring is a substance in that sense. But we have seen that the qualities of a pot have no reality apart from the pot, and also that the pot itself has no reality apart from cause.

The clay, which is the real substance of which the pot is only one form of manifestation. But as clay itself is liable to modification and may cease to be clay, even it cannot be called a real substance.

It is only a form of manifestation, though more abiding than a pot, of some other substance which persists through all the modifications of clay, and is also present in what clay itself comes from and in what it is changed into, after its destruction.

If all so-called substances are thus liable to modification (vikara), then the substance underlying all objects of the world would be that which persists through all forms of objects.

And we observe that existence (not of any specific form but existence pure and simple) is what is common to all forms of objects.

Existence is revealed in the perception of every object, whatever is its nature. It can, therefore, be called the substance, the material cause or the underlying reality behind the world of objects.

But when we examine the changing states within our minds what we also find there is that every state, every idea, whatever its object, exists. Even an illusory idea which lacks an external object exists as an idea (avagati).

A state of deep dreamless sleep or of swoon also exists, though no object of consciousness is present there. Existence is thus found to be the one undeniable reality persisting through all states, internal and external.

It can, therefore, be accepted as the substance, and material cause of which all determinate objects and mental states are the diverse manifestations.

We find then that pure existence which is the common cause of the entire world is itself formless, though appearing in various forms; part-less, though divisible into different forms; it is infinite, though it appears in all finite forms.

Sahkara thus reaches the conception of an infinite, indeterminate (nirvisesa) existence as the essence or material cause of the world. He calls this Absolute or Brahman.

(c) But is this Absolute existence conscious or unconscious? Ordinarily we think that external objects are unconscious and the internal states of our mind are conscious. But what is the criterion of consciousness?

A mental state is conscious, because its existence is self-revealing. But when we perceive the external world, its existence also reveals itself.

The power of appearing (bhati) is common to both internal and external forms of existence; and it can, therefore, be argued that existence which is common to the internal and the external world must possess the power of revealing itself.

Therefore, it is more reasonable to hold that Absolute existence is of the nature of self-revealing consciousness.

In fact, a little reflection shows that self-revelation may even be taken as the differentia that distinguishes existence from non-existence. What is non-existent (e.g., the son of a barren woman) cannot even appear or reveal itself for a moment.

But two objections may be raised against this view. Are there not objects which exist but do not appear before us, and are there not also illusory objects which lack existence and yet appear to be there?

As to the first, the reply is that the non-perception or the non-appearance of some existing objects may be explained by supposing the existence of some obstruction to revelation.

Just as the non-appearance of the sun, which is capable of self revelation, is explained as being due to obstruction of light by clouds (or as the non-revival), at a particular time, of some ideas existing in the mind, is explained by some obstruction to recollection.

As to the second objection, the reply is that even in illusion there is existence underlying the illusory appearance, and that is what appears before us. Existence is thus co-extensive with the power of self revelation, that is, consciousness.

(d) This conclusion is also strengthened by another consideration. Wherever there is appearance of existence there is awareness invariably present.

Even an external object, say clay, which appears to us, is presented by an awareness of clay (mrt- buddhi).

When we perceive clay becoming a pot, our clay consciousness turns into pot-consciousness (ghata buddhi).’An imaginary object is just the idea of the object, and so also is an illusory object. So we find that awareness pervades all forms of existence known to us.

By a series of arguments like these Sankara reaches logically what he accepts on the authority of the revealed texts, namely, that the world originates from Brahman, which is Absolute Existence and Consciousness and that Brahman has the power of manifesting itself in diverse apparent forms, without really undergoing any modification.

Though Brahman (or Existence consciousness) appears in all our experiences, or in all that appears to exist, the forms vary.

Moreover, one form of experience (e.g. illusion or dream) is contradicted by another form of it (e.g., normal waking experience).

The contradicted form is thus regarded as less real than the contradicting one. But in spite of such contradictions among the different forms, existence (or consciousness) as such remains uncontradicted.

When we disbelieved! Illusory serpent we only deny that the existence there is of the form of a serpent, but do not deny that there is some existence. Again, even when we deny a dream object, we do not deny that the experience or idea existed.

And when we think of or place where nothing exists, we are thinking of the existence of at least that time or place. So existence, in some form or other, is as wide as thought, and we cannot conceive of the absence or denial of existence.

This universal, pure existence (or consciousness) is thus the only thing whose contradiction is unthinkable. Sankara calls it, therefore, supreme reality (Paramdrthika satta). He thus logically arrives also at his conception of reality as that which persists uncontradicted through all forms of existence in all places and times.

About any definite or particular form of existence which may appear in our experience, we can never be certain that it will not be supplanted by a contradictory experience arising in the future.

So the theoretical or logical possibility of its being contradicted is always there. This is another reason why Sankara holds that such an object, or the world as the totality of such objects, does not enjoy the status of uncontradictable or supreme reality.

On account of the above reasons, he sometimes defines reality as that which persists (through all forms of existence) and unreality as that which does not do so. Persistence or pervasion (anuvrtti) is the criterion of the real, particularity or exclusion (vyabhicara) that of the unreal.

It is in the light of this logic that we can understand the somewhat puzzling assertion of Sankara that a pot and a cloth which exclude each other also contradict and falsify each other.

There are two kinds of contradiction that Sankara has in mind, experiential and logical. The perception of an existence as a snake is contradicted by a stronger or better perception of it as a rope.

Actual experience is here corrected by another actual experience. We have here experiential contradiction. This is what is ordinarily and almost universally regarded as the mark of unreality. Sankara also admits this.

But he (like some thinkers of the West, e.g. Zeno, Kant and Bradley) also recognises a kind of logical contradiction which consists in actual experience being proved inconsistent by thought, or one thought being contradicted by another thought.

We have seen previously how change, which is actually perceived, is shown by Sahkara as unreal because it is found inconsistent by logical thinking.

In a similar manner it is shown that though the perception of a pot is not experientially contradicted by that of a cloth, both are found logically inconsistent with the nature of reality.

The experience of the truly real (viz. pure existence), we saw, is not only not actually contradicted, but also logically un contradictable, since the contradiction of it is unthinkable.

The experience of a particular, e.g. the experience of existence as a pot or as a cloth, does not, however, possess such uncontradictable nature.

On the contrary, the very fact that existence is experience able in different forms keeps the door open to the possibility that what is experienced to have one particular form now may for experienced to have a different form later (just as what was experienced as a snake is experienced later as a rope).

This theoretical possibility of change in perception, and of consequent contradiction, then makes the status of every particular object precarious, in respect of its reality. We can never be absolutely certain that what appears now as pot will not appear otherwise later.

We see, therefore, how different particular forms of existence, like pot and cloth, weaken and undermine each other’s claim to indubitable reality.

If, however, these claimed only pure existence, and not existence of particular forms, their claims would not have been mutually exclusive. Each would enjoy uncontradictable reality as pure existence.

The rival claims of particulars as particular existents thus prevent them from having the position of indubitable reality such as pure existence enjoys.

(e) By assessing the claims to existence made by all changing and particular objects of the world Sahkara discovers a dual nature in them.

These objects cannot be called real insofar as they are particular and changing; but they are not surely utterly unreal like the son of a barren woman, since existence as shines even through their appearance, and is present in them.

In view of this they can be described as neither real, nor unreal. They are indescribable (anirvacariiya). The worlds of appearance as a whole, and the power of ignorance (maya or avidya) which conjures up such a puzzling world, are also indescribable in this sense.

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