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Sankara Case - Sankara's Account of the World

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Vedas - 3 theistic phases - early, middle and late periods (monotheism, polytheism and 'kathanotheism' - see notes) Rig Veda, in particular hymn to creation as bridge, deconstruction of theistic posture, if monistic interpretation adopted (Advaita Vedanta). Monism and monotheism (Bhagavad Gita).

Sankara's Account of the World

Sankara argues for monism, the idea of Brahman as the one ultimate reality. Brahman is 'a state of being wherein all distinctions between self, world and God are transcended and obliterated.' This monistic strand in Sankara's thesis seeks to deconstruct subject-object distinction, the claim that reality is divided. Sankara held that there must be an absolute and unchanging ultimate reality which cannot be sublated. This reality is Brahman, underlying the appearances that constitute the empirical world. Given this view of singularity, there is need for him to reconcile the perceived plurality and difference of the world with his non-dual conclusions.

So how does Sankara account for the world?

Sankara argues for the illusory nature of the world. The existence of an independent phenomenal world is grounded in pervasive error. Maya is all experience that is constituted by, and follows from, the distinction between subject and object, between self and non-self. Our perception of a world of real objects, persons and events is thus given in maya. [p30 of Deutsch for magician analogy on maya]

Sanakra uses the tool of sublation to construct an ontological hierarchy which supports the view that the world of appearance is ultimately unreal. The central idea of his metaphysics is that from the higher order of experience, the phenomenal world is a misperception and an error in the cognition of Brahman. To illustrate this, Sankara used the snake-rope analogy of illusory perception. Just as how a rope might be mistakenly perceived as a snake, likewise the reality of Brahman might also be misperceived as the world. This analogy illustrates the idea of how the world is a mere appearance that is produced from ignorance of what really is. This ignorance (avidya) causes the superimposition (adhyasa) of an unreal existence onto the real. Just as how the imagined snake conceals and distorts the reality of the rope's existence, likewise the world is 'simply the concealing distortion of Brahman which alone is real' . It is only by transcending this state of illusory existence and entering into Brahman experience that the world as an appearance will be realised and thus sublated.

Sublation is 'the mental process whereby one disvalues some previously appraised object or content of consciousness because of its being contradicted by a new experience.' Simply put, it is the rectification of an error in a given judgement. To clarify this idea of sublation, Sankara sets out an ontological hierarchy which classifies reality according to four different levels of being. Each level of being is sublated by a higher reality, until that of the ultimate reality, Brahman, is reached. The first is the level of non-being where things are logically impossible and 'which neither can or cannot be sublated by other experiences' because they do not exist. The second is the level of illusory existence; it consists of the objects of dreams and illusions which exist in the mind and are repudiated by normal waking experience. The third is the level of worldly existence, that of normal waking experiences. For the realist, this level is the level of ultimate reality. For the Advaitin, however, there is yet a fourth and higher level of reality which sublates the experience of the world - the ultimate reality, Brahman. Just as how dream experiences are sublated by waking expereinces, likewise the world of appearance as seen from an even higher order of reality, that of Brahman experience, is sublatable.

From this, we see how Sankara's view of the world of multiplicity as ultimately unreal provides a reconciliation of the perceived plurality in the world with his monistic intentions. The Advaitic treatment of the status of the world thus affirms Sankara's thesis of absolute oneness.

Ramanuja's Account of the World

Ramanuja, on the other hand, held that different selves and things make up the world, and this plurality is united in the sense that they are all qualities of an ultimate underlying substratum, which is Brahman. Brahman is non-dual and yet qualified by the world and selves.

In arguing for his ontological status of reality, Ramanuja posits two points:

(1) Each property can in turn be the substance of another. For example, if you say "that girl is wearing a dress", the dress which is the qualifying property of the girl can in turn be a substance from another standpoint, as in "that dress is blue".

(2) Qualities must inhere in substances. All properties bear a necessary relation to some underlying substance and cannot be free-floating. For example, colour which is a property must always inhere in a substance. In the case of a white shirt, the white inheres in and is inseparable from the shirt.

Ramanuja claims that in order to



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