Real, Unreal, & "Apparently Real"

“Reality” is not a popular topic of discussion in everyday life. The nature of reality or what “real” means is something that we find in books on philosophy, not something that is common in casual conversations.

In religion-related matters, what does come up often is whether we believe in God. Do we have faith that God exists? Although the word “real” is not used, it is implicit. If we believe in God, or if we have faith in God, what it means is that God is real for us. When we think of God, we think of a real being, not a theoretical construct, not simply an idea of God, not also a peg on which to hang our emotional needs. God is not merely an expression of our desperate hope that there is someone out there who will protect us. To people of faith, God is real even before they have experienced God’s presence.

While questions regarding belief in or faith in God are not unusual, rarely do we ask whether we believe that the world exists or whether we have faith that the world exists. Such questions seem superfluous, even outrageous, considering that, unlike God, the world is experienced by us right here, right now. Even to question the reality of the world feels silly, if not downright crazy. If the world were not real, we wouldn’t see it at all. But we do experience the world through all of our senses. The world is so obviously real. That’s how we think.

Real, Unreal, Vedanta, Advaita Vedanta

Nevertheless, it is sometimes good to question what may seem ridiculously clear. Is it possible that I am taking too much for granted by not questioning the reality of the world? Is the world real merely because I experience it? I experience dreams too, but that doesn’t lead me to conclude that the dream world is real. I do mistake one thing for another, the often cited example of a rope mistaken for a snake in a semi-lit room comes to mind. I do see the snake, but do I end up concluding, even after I know that it was really a rope, that the snake was real nonetheless, at least as long as I was seeing it?

So what does it mean when someone says that God is real? How is that different from saying that this world is real or the dream felt real until I woke up? The reality of God, the reality of the world, and the reality of dreams—are these realities all same? If everything I experience is “real” in some way, then is there anything at all that is “unreal”?

It is possible to think in terms of levels. Let us call them levels of reality. This assumes that a thing can be in some way more real than something else. It is helpful to grade our notions of reality.

  1. In this way of thinking, God is the topmost reality. There is nothing and no one more real than God. God’s reality never wavers and never disappears. God always is. The word that is most used in the Upaniṣads is Brahman. Brahman is not the name of God, it simply means that which is vast, infinite. The reality cannot be named, because the moment we name it, we distort it. Brahman is the absolute reality which is beyond the reach of the mind and the senses. It is beyond even the ideas of form and the formless. In Sanskrit, this absolute reality is called pāramārthika sattā. The odd thing is that Brahman is the only reality, nothing else exists, and yet we manage to see everything except Brahman. It is everywhere and yet we don’t see it anywhere! This is because Brahman is seemingly covered by another reality, which we simply call “the world.”

  2. For most of us, what is truly real at present is the world that we experience day after day, the world we were born into, and the world we will be in until we die. We cannot really say that the world doesn’t change. We only have to look around to see the changes occurring everyday. The changes in a neighborhood, for instance, become obvious when we visit it after a gap of some years. People change with time and with circumstances. We ourselves have changed so much over the years! Time is the great transformer and destroyer (Gita 11. 32). Everything changes and is continuing to change. There is climate change on our planet, not to speak of other major cataclysmic changes occurring at the galactic level. We cannot also say that the world always is. It does disappear for us when we fall asleep or when we become unconscious. In spite of its changing nature and in spite of its periodic disappearance, the world does seem to have a functional reality that persists day after day, month after month, year after year. In Sanskrit, this kind of reality is called vyāvahārika sattā. This reality is periodically covered by yet another reality—the dream world.

  3. The third level of reality is of the dreams that we see, or the “snake” that we see instead of a coiled rope in a room with insufficient light. The reality of a dream lasts only until I wake up. The snake lasts only until I realize it’s really a rope. Whenever something is experienced through error, the perception ends when the error is discovered. Such short-term “reality” is not really real but only apparently so. In Sanskrit, this is called prātibhāsika sattā.

Thus there are three levels of reality—absolute reality, functional reality, apparent reality. How are these different levels related? In a simple hierarchical way. The absolutely real tops the list. The relatively real comes next, and the apparently real is the lowest level. The lower level of reality gets out of the way when I become aware of the higher level. When the higher level is activated, the lower level vanishes. When I become aware of the rope, the “snake” I saw in its place vanishes. The dream-reality makes way for the world-reality. Being awake means nothing more than being aware of the waking world. The moment I wake up, the dream world disappears.

The world-reality makes way for a yet higher reality when I have another kind of awakening. To distinguish it from our daily wakings, this can be called a spiritual awakening. When I wake up to the reality of God, the reality of the world recedes to the background and eventually vanishes. This kind of awakening is “spiritual” because I become conscious of the spirit, which is my true self and which (unlike the body and mind) is non-material. It is pure consciousness (prajñānam brahma). The one who wakes up to this reality is truly awake (buddha). Although many think of Buddha as the name of Siddhartha Gautama who is considered the founder of Buddhism, it is not really his name but a state which, the Buddha said, anyone can attain. In other words, every one of us is a potential buddha, or a buddha-to-be.

That which is real (sat) is eternal (nitya), and what is eternal is unchanging (acala). It never ever disappears and it never ever changes. That can be said to be true only of God, or pure consciousness. Why “pure”? It is simply a qualifier to denote consciousness itself, which is uncontaminated by the presence of objects. Objects change but awareness does not. Consciousness exists whether or not there are objects to be aware of. The light of consciousness never wavers and never disappears. Not only is God real but God alone exists. Nothing else does. Everything else is unreal (asat).

If something is unreal, it can never exist—and if it doesn’t exist, how can it be experienced? There are indeed unreal things that no one has ever experienced and no one ever will. A “square circle” is one example that comes mind at once. But sometimes unreal things can appear to exist, in a delusive sort of way. Dreams belong to such apparently real (mithyā) things. So does the world, but because it seems to persist longer than a dream, a concession is made and the world is granted a level of reality higher than dreams, although it really is as much an appearance as a dream.

To put it bluntly, the raw truth is that “functional” reality and “apparent” reality are not really different. They are both unreal but somehow manage to cloak themselves as real—and fools like us get easily deluded by them, especially by the functional reality of the world. The magic of the unreal presenting itself as real is accomplished by a phenomenon called māyā. It seems to make the impossible appear possible, the unreal appear real, the nonexistent appear existent. It defies logic because māyā is until it isn’t. It does vanish because it is not really real. But to get out of the clutches of māyā, we do need to wake up to what is truly real.

Our goal is to remain awake and not get fooled. If we remain awake, we won’t dream and we won’t lose touch with what is really real. Every time we lose touch with the real, and as long as we remain disconnected from the real, we cling to a fantasy imagining it to be the real—and we experience pain and sorrow, lack of fulfillment and peace, bondage and mortality. That is more or less our present experience. Freeing ourselves from this morass is possible. It is not complicated but it is something only we can do. No one else can do it for us.

We are “not traveling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth,” said Swami Vivekananda (CW 1. 17). The lower levels of reality are the “lower” truths. Insofar as we learn from them, they can be the stepping stones to “higher” truths until we reach the highest truth, the absolute reality of God. Errors of perception teach us that, if you we don’t look deeply, we are likely to mistake one thing for another. Wrong perceptions lead to unwanted results. Our own life’s experience is the best evidence for that.

The search for truth, the search for the real, is the only search that can lead us to the best and the brightest outcome possible. Everything else is a hogwash. The sooner we realize this, the better off we will be.

from Vedanta Blog - Vedanta Society

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