This Month’s Special Article
The One and the Many
Prof Nalinikanta Brahma
It is generally believed that the Vedantic system of thought explained by Sankaracharya denies the existence of the manifold things of the universe. Brahman is real and the world is unreal is taken to be the substance of the Vedantic teaching, not only by those who are supposed to be acquainted with the Vedantic texts, but even by ordinary persons. The charge that the Vedanta is unpractical and that it is not based on concrete experience is not a little due to the impression that it preaches the illusoriness of the world. The spirit in which the esoteric doctrine of the non-fundamentality of the universe and the ultimate reality of the Absolute has been held has very often eluded the grasp of the average intellect uninitiated into the technique of the sublime philosophy of the Vedanta and has consequently been misunderstood and misrepresented.
The world of our everyday experience is as real to the Vedantist as it is to everyone of us. The Vedantist also drinks water when he is thirsty, takes food when he is hungry, and takes the help of fire for heating. The distinction between fire and water is not a bit less pronounced to the Vedantist than to the common person. The jivanmukta [liberated in life] or the tattva-jnani, that is one who has attained perfect knowledge, does not swallow fire to quench his thirst or apply water for heating things.
Nothing is more absurd than to suppose that the jnani or the liberated, in consequence of his perfect knowledge and identity with the Absolute, is liable to confuse between the nature and function of fire and water. God is omniscient and His omniscience is never clouded. He could never have been the creator of this orderly universe of variety and multiplicity, if His knowledge pre-supposed ignorance or neglect of the distinctions of the things of the world. The world with all the minutest distinctions of the things of its contents is ever present to the consciousness of the Almighty who is its creator as well as its sustainer. God is the ideal Jnani and if the manifold universe is presented to his consciousness and offers no hindrance to His omniscience, it will be illogical to suppose that the Jivanmukta or the person who becomes a Jnani and attains liberation while holding this corporeal frame will not be able to deal with this universe.
The Vedanta does not deny the empirical reality of the universe and does not differ in this respect from other systems of thought which confine themselves to the discussion of empirical reality and admit the reality of the world. The Vedanta is not in agreement, however, with the thinkers who hold the fundamentality of the universe. That experience alone is real which is never contradicted. All that appears is not real. An experience that is contradicted by another, which, establishes itself more steadily than the former, is only an appearance. But an experience which is not thus contradicted by any other experience and which establishes itself as higher than all previous experiences by being able to explain them is to be regarded as fundamental and real.
This is the distinction between the real and the unreal.
The experiences of the things of this universe are not ultimate. An experience is taken as real for a certain period of time, but later it is contradicted by another experience. This process applies to all the things of this universe and also to the universe as a whole. The Absolute or Brahman alone is an experience which is never contradicted. While the experience of the world is transcended by the experience of the Absolute, the experience of the Absolute is not transcenced by the experience of the world. It is because of this that the Absolute or Brahman is declared as real, while the world is declared to be unreal or false [mithya]. It is to be understood that the Absolute transcends the world, and is not contradictory or opposed to it. If the experience of the Absolute is merely opposed to the experience of the world, if the two are opposities or contradictories, then there is no means of establishing the superiority of the one over the other. Contradictories or opposites are on the same level. If the one is true, the other is not true.
But how are we to find out which is true? Mere opposition is not enough to decide the question. Dreams are opposed to experiences of waking life; experiences in Samadhi are opposed to experience of ordinary consciousness. Is it possible to say, merely from the fact of opposition, that dreams are unreal being opposed to experiences of waking life, but experiences of Samadhi state are real? Both dreams and experience in Samadhi are opposed to ordinary waking consciousness. Is there any reason to deny reality to one and grant it to another? There must be something in the experiences themselves which establish their superiority over the experiences they are opposed to. In fact, it is not so much an opposition as a transcendence. The higher experience transcends the lower inasmuch as the latter does not fall outside of the former to form an antithesis. If the world is opposed to Brahman as is commonly supposed, then the world will form an antithesis of Brahman, and Brahman will not be absolute. The reality of the world becomes included in the reality of Brahman. All other lights are lights borrowed from Brahman; and when the reality of Brahman becomes manifest, the world is found to have no reality of its own.
Co-ordinates or complementaries are both real; the reality of one of them is on a par with the reality of the other. Brahman and the world are not coordinates; they are not reals of the same order. The things of the world are real so long as the reality of the Brahman is not perceived. But as soon as the reality of Brahman is perceived, there is nothing else apart from Brahman. It is the source of all that appeared to be real so long. It is the all-comprehensive reality, and nothing can assert itself by its side. Hence while Brahman is real, the world is unreal. To the ordinary consciousness the world is real; but to the transcendental consciousness it is unreal. We cannot speak of Brahman and the world. There is nothing besides Brahman. Brahman means the all-pervading, all-inclusive reality; so there cannot be any world in addition to, or by the side of, Brahman. The world is eternally negated in Brahman. Brahman is not an aggregate or a collective unity so that all-inclusiveness will be in opposition to negation. It is the genuine one that is free from all dividedness or manyness. It negates the many, it is not manyness. The manyness or the nature of multiplicity, distinction and aggregation [jagat bhava] is not its characteristic. But it is the source of the many. The many do not fall outside of it. this is the genuine characteristic of the One. Negation and inclusion here almost coincide. Transcendence really means both.