Adi Sankaracharya

Why The Phenomenal World is MĀYĀ or Indescribable

Can this world be the handiwork or creation of God?

The question arises because of the condition of the world that he ‘created’. People, lives in the empirical world[1], see agony, injustice, cruelties, etc on a daily basis. All of these misfortunes represent a chaotic world devoid of ethics, morality and fraternity. A clear indication of the bad or lack of planning in ‘world-creation’; a handiwork of a un-skilled architect….. Chaos exists in the world here and there always. So the question is worthy. Is this world a creation of God?

We can’t answer as ‘Yes’ because it may question the quality and position of God. How?

God is a perfect being devoid of imperfection and disqualification. To be precise, God is ‘complete’. Such a skilful supreme being, if created this world, then, how can it (world) be imperfect? Only from imperfectness, an imperfect product will come out. Only from perfectness, a perfect product will come out. So the creator of this chaotic and troublesome world can’t be God. If it is He, then He will be an imperfect Being and thus not a god!

So ancient Indian Rishis had to formulate new theories, which can annul the anomalies existed in the God – World relation, and to accommodate the existence of the god and empirical world without hurting each other[2].

Here is one more thing to consider seriously. We cannot theorize that god and world exist separately. Why?

Suppose god created the world, then a serious question will arise and its result, whatever it may, can damage the supreme status of ‘Godhead’. The question is, ‘after the creation of the world, is the god inside his creation (world) or outside of his creation? Or inside and outside? Or neither inside and outside?”. This type questioning style is known as ‘catushkodi’ in ancient India.

Of course, this question is difficult to answer. If we said that god is outside of his creation (world), then the world can limit the god; thus making the god, a non-god[3]. If we took the second option that god is inside the world, then the entire defect that the world has, will also affect the God, thus, again, making the god a non-god. The third option that the god is in both outside and inside of the world is also rejected because, still, god is under the influence of the chaotic world. The fourth option that God is neither inside nor outside the world, can interpret as ‘there is no god exists’!

These are the puzzles that the god’s world creation evoked in the minds of the intellectual people. They found no way to advance with the creation theory[4]. So they discarded creation theory altogether and accepted another. This may be called as ‘Manifestation/Emanation Theory’ (Emanation theory states that there was always a base substance in the world, but it was not in a differentiated or manifested condition. From this non-manifested state, later, it came manifested) and is very much connected to the above mentioned four puzzles of creation theory.

Among the four puzzles presented, ancient Indian Rishis found that the second option is remarkable; i.e., God is inside the world. They found that it is a defendable stand if we slightly modify the theory and introduce a new element. The main drawback with the second option (ie, ‘god is inside the world after the creation’) is that imperfections of the world will also affect the godhead, thus making him a non-god. But what if the imperfections are not real in the ultimate sense and real in relative sense? Here they found a way to annul the problem inherent in the second puzzle. The Māya concept helps them to strengthen their position. The imperfections (and the whole world, in general) found in the world is Māya or indescribable in nature and they are an appearance only. They are not Real in the ultimate sense. They are Real only in the relative, experimental world sense. Thus Ultimate Reality or God is unaffected by the imperfections found in the world, even though he is immanent in the world. The root cause of the imperfections is Ignorance or Avidya[5] of the human being (Jiva or Embodied Soul). Due to that, even though God or Supreme Being present and filled in everywhere in this world, we are not aware of it because of the avidya in us (Absolute is also present in us. Avidya’s locus is Absolute only). When the moksha aspirant acquires Brahma-Vidya, then avidya will vanish and aspirant will realize that he is Brahman itself.

Thus Advaita Vedanta effectively solves the ‘World – Chaos – God’ puzzle by postulating two levels of existence for the Ultimate Truth. All of the inequalities and chaos that we see in the experimental world, around us, is relative in nature and we can overcome such difficulties by realizing the Brahman.

Phenomenal World in Advaita Vedanta:-

Advaita Vedanta views the phenomenal, experimental world as indescribable or Māya[6] from the Ultimate Truth level (Paramarta Satya); but doesn’t consider it as indescribable from the Relative truth level (Vyavahara Satya). Only from transcendental, ultimate stand point, phenomenal world is indescribable.

As per Advaita Vedanta all that exists is Brahman. All animate and inanimate substances are Brahman from the Ultimate standpoint. Brahman is one without a second[7] because nothing exists in addition to it. This merely implies that Brahman[8] (ultimate truth) is inherent or immanent in the phenomenal world. In the world of day to day activities, ultimate truth is present. But we are not able to understand it till we get special knowledge to realize it[9]. Thus the external world is not only indescribable or Maya, but it is a way for the ignorant people to reach the ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is immanent in the relative, phenomenal world. Only through the relative, one can reach the ultimate. The distinction between them is only apparent.

If the Ultimate truth is that what we see through the relative one, then the chaos will be restricted to the relative only. Brahman, including the one who realized Brahman, and chaos will behave like a lotus leaf in the water. Though they both co-exist, water cannot malign the lotus leaf. The agonies that a person faces in his life, is due to the avidya in him. Brahman has no role in the difficulties that one faces in life. The relation between avidya and Brahman is in an agnostic level.

The relation between Brahman and Maya[10]:-

If the Brahman is one without a second and it is everywhere and pure without any contaminants, then how Maya can remain at the level of Brahman?[11]. How the ultimate truth like Brahman can be the locus of Maya, which causes distorted and disordered system like chaos?

The relation between Maya and the absolute Brahman is in the level of agnosticism. Though Sankaracharya has not explicitly commented on this issue, his position is assumed to be that the relation between them is in agnostic level, beyond the level of human comprehension. To the one who is entangled in that Maya, Brahman is not realizable to him. So he cannot understand the relation between them. And to the one, who attained Brahman by acquainting Brahma-vidya, Maya is no longer applied or relevant to him[12]. Thus again making it difficult to define the relation between Brahman and Maya.

In such a situation, how can anyone define the relation between Brahman and Maya? If somebody defines the relation between them, then how can he credibly argue that Brahman is beyond the comprehension of ordinary ignorant man? Here the problem lies in the fact that, the term (Maya) which we have to relate to another term (Brahman) is not present together with the latter, for the one who realized the Brahman. He then cannot differentiate between Brahman and Maya.

Phenomenal World as the Relative Truth:-

For a man who has not realized Brahman, cannot understand phenomenal world as ‘Maya’. To him phenomenal world is Real and exist by itself. He approves the existence and objectivity of external/phenomenal world apart from him. He interacts with this objective world. He performs every duty that should be performed by a common man. He, thus, lives in the state of duality. Living in and interaction with the phenomenal world gives him a kind of truth. This is called the relative truth. The truth that the phenomenal, relative world provides is called the relative truth. It is a step inferior to the ultimate truth, Brahman. But the phenomenal world enables the common man to get familiar with relative truth. Good – bad, sin – virtue, etc. exist at this relative plane. In the Ultimate truth these contrary characteristics (and also all characteristics) are absent.

Sin and virtue are not present in Brahman because supposition of any one of them, will lead the thinker to the other, opposite end, evoking the duality. All kinds of dualities are absent in ultimate truth because ultimate truth cannot have two contrary qualities (or even a single quality). If it is supposed to have two qualities, which are antagonistic or not, then it will automatically become non-ultimate truth.

Projection of the God or Ultimate truth as the progenitor and wielder of virtue and sin is a defective method. We cannot deny that injustice exists in the world. If we attribute the authorship of this to the God, then it may follow that the God is cruel, which is not in line with the paradigms set forth for the God.

So the best way to overcome the riddles of sin – virtue, good – bad, etc., type antagonistic duality is, propose an (ultimately) unreal and indescribable phenomenal world, making sin (& virtue) relative and unreal, from the Ultimate truth’s stand point, and making them real from the phenomenal world’s (Relative truth) standpoint. This is exactly the position of Advaita Vedanta. Monism in its strict version can be seen there!

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[1] Experimental world, with which we interact and communicate.

[2] This theory was not an artificial formation. Actually this theory is inherent in Upanishads.

[3] When two persons are in a room, we may say that the presence of one will limit the other in various ways. An obvious limitation is that, a person can’t occupy the space occupied by the second person at a time; there will always be a space, that the latter occupies, which is not attainable by the former. The same logic applies to the God.

[4] There were more hurdles. A creation from ‘nothing’ is impossible even to a God. Only ‘Something’ can come from ‘Something’. ‘Something’ can’t come from ‘Nothing’.

[5] Though Avidya and Māya are synonymous in many respects, they work in two planes. Māya in the transcendental (extra-sensual) plane and Avidya in empirical (intra-sensual plane) plane. Nirguna Brahman when reflected on Māya is called Isvara, while reflected on Avidya is called Jīva.

[6] Maya is often called also as Relative truth.


[8] Whenever reads ‘Brahman’ in this article, it means ‘Nirguna Brahman’. Saguna Brahman, if meant, will state so explicitly.

[9] This knowledge is not in the realm of senses and can attain it via systematic steps as expounded and laid by Advaitins.

[10] Many people equate Maya with ‘illusion’. But this is wrong. The right usage of Maya in Advaita tradition is not in a ‘non-existent’ style. It is both in existent and non-existent manner, like a snake-in-a-rope, is existent and also non-existent. (It is existent when we think that rope is snake and it is non-existent when we realize that ‘it is rope, not snake). The right meaning of Maya is relative or indescribable. Everything in the external phenomenal world depend upon each other and hence they are ‘relative’.

[11] NA

[12] He will continue to live in the relative world and interact with it, till his Prarabda Karma gets exhausted. But he recognizes Maya as Maya and so, he is not entangled in the relative world. He understand relative as relative.

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