The Vedanta is not interested in cosmology or the processes of creation. All such schemes are for it symbolic and mythical, and in these areas it is content to borrow from the Sankhya and Yoga traditions of Sanatana Dharma. What interests the thinkers of the Vedanta is the reality-status of the world, and the real nature of oneself: the question, Who am I?, takes on a central importance. ‘The noble ones,’ writes Shankara, ‘the seekers of liberation, are preoccupied only with the ultimate reality, not with useless speculations about creation. Hence the various alternative theories about creation come only from believers in the doctrine that creation is real.
It is a widely accepted principle of Indian thought that anything which changes cannot, in an ultimate and final sense, be real. Reality is not something which comes and goes. It requires stability of being; as the Shiv Puran puts it: 'For the unreal there is no being, nor any end of being for the real.’
This constitutes a difference with Western habits of thought. In the West, reality is generally equated with experience coming to us through the senses. It is, first and foremost, the material world- hard, solid, objective, ‘out there’, independent of us. This view goes back at least to Aristotle and, although modern physics has made some inroads into it, it remains dominant. It is not at all the view of Shankara. For him, the material world - the world of growth and decay, of never-ending flux and change- is precisely what is not real.
All that has form is subject to change. It has some stability of being, and therefore a provisional reality, but sooner or later it changes and in doing so reveals its unreal nature. This is reflected in the Adi Parva of the Mahabharat story as well.
And if the whole universe is subject to change, this only means that reality itself, final and absolute Reality, must lie in some other order of being. This is why Shankara’s philosophy is called Advaita or ·Non-Dual ‘ Vedanta, which traces its roots to the Puranas, specifically the Vishnu Puran and the Garuda Purana. They find echoes in the 2300-year-old treatise by Vishnu Gupta (Kautilya), known as the Chanakya Niti. The meaning is that absolute reality lies in a different order of being, outside the duality of the subject-object mode of knowing. That mode of knowing normally prescribes the whole of our experience; it is characteristic of the individual self and of its principal instrument, the mind. Shankara ’s message, therefore, is a radical one: the world around us and the human individual which experiences it are both of them ultimately unreal.
Shankara is concerned with removing the ignorance of our own nature which keeps us bound to the phenomenal world; with clearing away the self-imposed obstacles which stand between us and an immediate apprehension of our own innermost reality. These ideas are present in the Upanishads and in the later versions of the Ramayana story; but the Upanishads, although they contain piercing insights, record the thoughts of many different sages and follow no particular order. The objective of the Vedanta is to derive from them a systematic philosophy. For this school of thought, it is not so much more faith in gods which is required, but more scepticism about the reality of the world and of the individual self which experiences it.
The basis of Shankara’s method was to distinguish between different degrees or levels of reality. There can of course be only one reality as such, and it is as we have seen that which never_ changes its nature. The Upanishads call it Brahman. And in man it is Atman, the unchanging consciousness which lights up the changing forms of experience. In the Panchodoshi , a celebrated Advaita treatise written some six hundred years after Shankara, the Atman is likened to the light which illumines a theatre:
There is a witness-consciousness in the jiva which reveals at one and the same time the agent, the action, and the mutually distinct external objects. The witness persists through all the mental experiences of hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling, just as a light illumines everything in a theatre. The light in the theatre reveals impartially the master of the house, the guests and the dancer. When she and the others are absent, the light continues to shine forth revealing their absence … In this illustration the master of the house is the ego (ahamkara]. the various sense-objects are the guests, the intellect (i.e. the mind] is the dancer, the musicians playing on their instruments are the sense-organs, and the light illuminating them all is the witness-consciousness. The light reveals all the objects in the theatre but does not itself move. So the witness-consciousness, itself motionless, illumines the objects within and without (i.e. the internal world of subjective experience and the 'objective’ world of external experience).
A Short History of Indian Vernacular Literature
About Indian Scriptures
Karma and the Nature of Man