The word ‘mithya’ has been an integral part of Indian darshanas since time immemorial. But its meanings and nuances are not easily understood. Commonly, mithya is supposed to mean falsehood. Thus, when Sankara proclaims ‘Brahman Satyam Jagan Mithya’, it is taken to imply that he meant that Brahman is the truth and the world is illusory or false. Such an understanding is only one aspect of the complex shades of mithya though and, I believe, one needs to explore it in more detail.

Sri Krishna in the Gita does not consider the world as a falsehood or illusion but as his yoga-maya. And as it is his creation, he does not consider it false, nor mukti from it the aim of human endeavor. Thus, he enjoins Arjuna to follow his dharma and fight and conquer the enemy. And this injunction makes his stance very clear. For if the world were an illusion, there would be no sense in participating in a national war that would be extremely violent and sanguinary. And even the fighting would be an illusion, fit to be discarded immediately in an awakening as if from a bad dream.

Nor is Sri Krishna’s mukti an escape or palayana. The only moksha in his eyes is sayujya, or a complete union with the Divine in each thought, feeling, sense and action. Nirvana according to the Gita is not the ending of all desire or one’s response to the constant changes in the world but a Brahma-nirvana, one where only the Brahman exists and wills and acts, a true monism with Sri Krishna as Purushottama, above all purushas and prakritis.

The only mithyachara, wrong behavior, is Arjuna’s recoil at the prospect of killing those whom he identifies as his family, friends, teachers and companions. And his rejection is wrong at every level of dharma that Sri Krishna points out, right from his dharma as a Kshatriya who has to stand up for what is righteous and for those who have been oppressed by the asuric forces.

Then, how does Sankara consider the world as illusion, mithya? This is the question that often confronts the seeker. It might be pertinent here to realize that figuring out what Sankara meant when he spoke these words is well-nigh impossible now, so colored has his perception become to us in present times. For Sankara has become identified with the illusionists. But that may not have been his own position or understanding.

John Grimes writes in ‘The Seven Great Untenables: Saptavidha Anupapatti’ that mithya is that which is both cognized and sublated (Sublated means that which as a smaller entity is assimilated into a larger entity). For example, if we consider modern physics, the Newtonian order is assumed or sublated into the Einsteinian paradigm. Once one understands Einsteinian physics, one realizes that everything that Newtonian principles posit is more completely satisfied with the Special and General Theories of Relativity and then some. And once the Newtonian framework is absorbed by the Einsteinian substratum, it may be seen as mithya. Newton is not false or unreal yet, but dependent on a larger, more universal principle or conditioned by it. This is the understanding of mithya, as John Grimes notes, that which is neither real, nor unreal, sadasad vilaksana.

The advaitic understanding allows for the existence of various levels. And confusion happens when we start mixing these levels. It is as if we told a child that his 3-D math is mithya before he has graduated into a 4-D frame of reference and mastered the new rules and principles of arithmetics and geometry. It is as if we told a fifth grader that his calculations are mithya because they are not based on differential calculus that he has not learnt yet.

John Grimes further reminds us that the illusoriness of the world is itself an illusory understanding. And once Brahma-knowledge arises, both the cognizer and the cognized disappear. Sri Aurobindo explains Advaita beautifully in his own manner thus, “There are several forms of Indian philosophy which base themselves upon the One Reality, but they admit also the reality of the world, the reality of the Many, the reality of the differences of the Many as well as the sameness of the One (Bhedabheda). But the Many exist in the One and by the One, the differences are variations in manifestation of that which is fundamentally ever the same. This we actually see as the universal law of existence where oneness is always the basis with an endless multiplicity and difference in the oneness….Through this we can look back into one of the fundamental secrets of existence, the secret which is contained in the one reality itself. The oneness of the Infinite is not something limited, fettered to its unity; it is capable of an infinite multiplicity. The Supreme Reality is an Absolute not limited by either oneness or multiplicity but simultaneously capable of both, for both are its aspects, although the oneness is fundamental and the multiplicity depends upon the oneness.

“There is possible a realistic as well as an illusionist Adwaita… The world is a manifestation of the Real and therefore is itself real. The reality is the infinite and eternal Divine, infinite and eternal Being, Consciousness-Force and Bliss. This Divine by his power has created the world or rather manifested it in his own infinite Being. But here in the material world or at its basis he has hidden himself in what seem to be his opposites, Non-Being, Inconscience and Insentience. This is what we nowadays call the Inconscient which seems to have created the material universe by its inconscient Energy; but this is only an appearance, for we find in the end that all the dispositions of the world can only have been arranged by the working of a supreme secret intelligence. The Being which is hidden in what seems to be an inconscient void emerges in the world first in Matter, then in Life, then in Mind and finally as the Spirit.”

And we are reminded of the famous incident when Sri Ramakrishna makes Totapuri, his teacher of Vedanta, realize the truth and existence of the Divine Mother. And Totapuri falls at his feet recognizing Sri Ramakrishna’s deeper and wider understanding and accepts Sri Ramakrishna as his guru. The Shakti has its own existence, independent and as significant as Shiva and is not mithya.

In Jainism, mithya is false belief. In Buddhism, it means deceit and a deluded world-view. Tattva Sutra says that mithya is ‘a fundamental tendency to see things other than as they really are’. Mithya thus might be avidya or aviveka, a false seeing due to darsana-moha, desire masquerading as sight.

As Vedanta says, “Understanding mithya is much simpler if we come to the heart: that which depends upon something else for its being or existence, which has no existence by itself but is conditioned (or determined) by something other than itself, is mithya; Satyam, obviously, is that which is self-existent, independent and unconditioned.”

Vedanta is a vast field. Eventually, one has to realize that its precepts are not fixed mathematical formulae but descriptions of the yogi’s anubhava, which are individualized to some extent due to the nature of their adhara. It is only very vast yogis such as Sri Krishna or Sri Aurobindo who can hold the various accounts in their visva-dharana. And yet, no individual account is incorrect or mithya, even if it gets sublated into the larger vision of a more complete or poorna Vedanta.

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