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The crux of Vedanta

The orders of reality

The pursuit of Vedanta is about understanding the nature of what is, the reality of myself, the world and its cause. Hence, it becomes essential to define the term 'reality'. What is the reality? Are there many realities? What is more real or more fundamental in terms of reality? For that purpose, we are introducing two terms in this section, satyam and mithya. In the analysis of Vedanta, these terms about 'reality' are used not to refer to any object, but ones understanding of an object based on its ontological status.

Let us take an example. A clay-pot. Is it real, satyam or not? It is not non-existent like a human horn or a square circle. The pot is satyam, real. What about the clay the pot is made of? It is satyam. Now we have two objects which are both real, satyam with reference to one thing, the pot! Is that right? Since pot and clay are not synonymous, both cannot be equally right with reference to one object. That means even though I can not say any one is completely wrong, one has to be more right than the other. Then which one is more right? The pot doesn’t have a being without clay. The weight of the pot is the weight of clay. The touch of the pot is the touch of clay. The pot is not upon the clay, nor does it come out of the clay. We cannot even imagine a clay-pot without thinking of clay. From this we understand that while the pot is clay, clay is not the pot. Pot is not an independent object, it is a just a word, a name revealing a form of clay and a given function 54.

What does it mean in terms of reality? Since clay is independent of pot for its existence, it is defined as satyam. Satyam is that which does not depend upon anything for its existence. As the pot depends entirely upon clay for its existence, it is defined as mithya. Please note that mithya does not mean illusion. It only means dependent reality. Mithya is defined as that which depends upon something else for its existence, which
has no being on its own but has its basis or being in something else.

From the above example, we understand that mithya refers to status of pot with reference to clay, or table with reference to wood, etc, where pot, table etc. are empirically true. In addition, the term 'mithya' - dependent reality, also includes things that have only a subjective reality. For example, if I see a snake upon a rope, the snake that I see depends entirely on rope for its existence. Hence, snake is mithya. With reference to snake, rope is satyam as rope exists independently of snake.

The term mithya itself can therefore be divided in two categories, what has an empirical reality such as pot, table, etc. and what has a subjective or personal reality such as snake, etc.

How do I now apply the distinction between these orders of reality, satyam and mithya, in understanding the vision of Vedanta?

Let us start by the domain of empirical reality, where clay was said to be satyam and pot mithya . Is clay really satyam? No, because it depends upon molecules for its existence. Molecules become satyam and clay mithya. If we continue this, we will have to say in turn, atoms and then particles are satyam. How far can we go? With mere reasoning, there is no answer. The scientists continue to find things that are more basic than the previous discoveries. For example, particles are further divided into quarks etc. But nobody has been able to find the final substance. This is where Vedanta as an independent means of knowledge has a role to play. It says that all forms depend upon existence. Existence is the 'is' that is present in and through all forms, from particle, atom, molecule, clay and pot. Wherever there is form, mithya, there is existence, satyam. The particle 'is', the molecule 'is', the clay 'is', the pot 'is'. This 'is' is existence, satyam, upon which all forms depend for their being.

We can extend this understanding of mithya to the entire world. All the names and forms existing in time and space become mithya in terms of reality, whether you take a flower or a car, a mountain, the oceans, any planet, a galaxy, or one's body-mind-sense complex; they are all mithya, they are only forms within forms within forms with different names. They all depend upon existence, satyam, the absolute reality, for their being 55. It is this existence that is present invariably, in all times, in all places and in all objects. That limitless existence is called Brahman by the Upanishads. And like the pot is not separate from the clay, nothing is separate from Brahman, the absolute reality 56.

The domain of subjective reality can also be examined in the same way. We can note that subjective reality includes our dreams and also the projections we can make on somebody during waking state. But let us come back to our snake imagined on a rope. Snake is mithya while rope is satyam. Rope itself is mithya as it depends upon fibers, molecules, atoms, etc. Here, we are first converting what belongs to subjective reality to objective or empirical reality. Then the objective reality itself is seen as mithya as it depends upon something else for its existence. Finally, you come to only one reality that is upon which existence of everything depends.

The Upanishads do not reveal this absolute reality as something away from you, it says that this reality which is the truth of everything is you. How can I be the reality of the entire universe? In order to understand this, we will be dealing in the next section with the meaning of the equation 'you are that', which summarizes the whole vision of Vedanta. Let us first inquire into the nature of I with the help of the Upanishads.

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