top of page

Vedanta is the philosophy that is derived from the Upanishads, the final portions of the Vedas, and the subdivision of it that tallies with Bhagavan’s teachings is known as ‘advaita’, which translates as ‘not two’. ‘Not two’ means, among other things, that there are not two separate entities, Brahman and the world; all is one indivisible whole. This point is important to remember since it is at the crux of the apparently paradoxical statements that Bhagavan made on the nature and reality of the world and its substratum. Since there is nothing that is separate from Brahman, it follows that the names and forms that appear and manifest within it partake of its reality. This means that when the world is known and directly experienced to be a mere appearance in the underlying Brahman, it can be accepted as real, since it is no longer perceived as a separate entity. If one knows oneself to be Brahman, one knows that the world is real because it is indistinguishable from one’s own Self. However, if one merely perceives external names and forms, without experiencing that substratum, those forms have to be dismissed as unreal since they do not meet the strict definition of reality.


Bhagavan summarised this position in the following reply:


Shankara [a ninth century sage and philosopher who was the principal populariser of Advaita Vedanta] was criticised for his views on maya without understanding him. He said that (1) Brahman is real, (2) The universe is unreal, and (3) Brahman is the universe. He did not stop at the second, because the third explains the other two. It signifies that the universe is real if perceived as the Self, and unreal if perceived apart from the Self. Hence maya and reality are one and the same. (Guru Ramana, p. 65.)


Maya is the power, inherent within the Self, that makes the world appear to be manifold, rather than an indivisible appearance within Brahman, its source. Maya is both the power that brings apparent multiplicity into existence and the manifestation itself. However, it has no inherent reality, as Bhagavan points out in the following reply:


Question: What is the relationship between maya, the power that makes us take the world to be real, and Atman, the reality itself?


Bhagavan: A man gets married in a dream and there the groom is real but the wife is false. And when he wakes up he is the same man as before. Similarly, the real Atman always remains as it is. It does not get affected or contaminated by maya. It does not marry either maya or anatma [the not-Self] because it is complete, whereas the substance of the world is unreal. (The Power of the Presence, part one, p. 257.)


Bhagavan used many terms, apart from Brahman and the Self, to denote the underlying real substratum. Consciousness, the word used in the following verse, was one of his favourites.


19 Since the cause itself [reality] appears as the effect [the world], and because consciousness – the cause of this vast world described by the sastras [the scriptures] as being merely names and forms – is a truth as obvious as the nelli fruit on one’s palm, it is proper to term this great world ‘real’.


‘Nelli’ is the Tamil name for a small green fruit that physically resembles a gooseberry. It is known elsewhere in India as ‘amla’. In many parts of India people say, ‘It’s as obvious as the amla on one’s palm’ when they mean that something is clear, easily perceived and irrefutable. In Atma Vidya, one of Bhagavan’s poetical compositions, he wrote: ‘Even for the most infirm, so real is the Self that compared with it the amla [on the palm of] one’s hand appears a mere illusion.’ (The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi, p. 133.)



20 The worlds that are described as being either three or fourteen are real when seen from the point of view of the primal cause [Brahman] because they have unceasing existence as their [real] nature. However, when attention is paid only to the names and forms, the effect, even the undecaying cause, the plenitude, will appear to be non-existent.


21 To the ignorant, who believe it to be real and revel in it, the world that appears before them is God’s creation, but to the steadfast jnanis, who have known the bondage-free Self by direct experience, it is merely a deluding and binding concept that is wholly mental.


Bhagavan generally taught that the appearance of an external world comes into existence as an act of projection by the individual ‘I’ that sees it. As such, it is very similar to the dream world, which is also a mental creation of the one who dreams. For those who were not able or willing to accept this explanation he would say that it was ‘God’s creation’. Irrespective of which theory one believes in, the external world is known to be a mere concept once the Self has been realised.


22 Understand [well] that the world-scene of empty names and forms, comprising the objects of the five senses perceived in the perfectly pure swarupa, the Supreme Self, is merely the divine sport of the mind-maya that arises as an imaginary idea in that swarupa, being-consciousness.


Question: Are names and forms real?


Bhagavan: You won’t find them separate from adhistana [the substratum]. When you try to get at name and form, you will find reality only. Therefore attain the knowledge of that which is real in all three states [waking, dreaming and sleeping]. (The Power of the Presence, part one, pp. 251-2.)


23 Those in whose consciousness there is no awareness whatsoever of anything other than the Self, the absolute fullness of consciousness, will not declare this world, which from the perspective of God [Brahman] does not exist, to be that truth whose hallmark is never to deviate from absolute fullness [paripuranam].


In Bhagavan’s teachings there is usually a distinction made between God and Brahman. Iraivan, the Tamil word used here for God, corresponds approximately to Iswara, the generic Sanskrit term for the personal God who supervises the activities of the world. God, the world and the jivas (individual souls) arise and subsist together, but they are not, according to Bhagavan, fundamentally real entities since they are not permanent. Eventually, they all merge into Brahman, the impersonal absolute and unchanging reality, and disappear.


When the world is seen as a separate entity by the jiva, there is also a God who manages the affairs of that world. When the jiva no longer exists, the world and God also cease to exist. An objection could therefore be raised to this verse which says that the world does not exist in the perspective of God. Bhagavan would normally say that the world does not exist in Brahman, but it does exist in the perspective of God.


Sadhu Om has recorded an incident in which Bhagavan himself queried Muruganar about the vocabulary used in this verse:


The Tamil word iraivan is usually understood as meaning God, the Lord of this world, and as Bhagavan has elsewhere explained, the trinity of soul, world and their Lord will always appear to co-exist in maya, and thus the apparent world does exist in the view of its apparent Lord, God. Therefore, on seeing this verse, Bhagavan remarked, ‘Who said that there is no world in God’s view?’, but when the author, Sri Muruganar, explained that he had used the word in the sense of the Supreme Brahman, Sri Bhagavan accepted this meaning and approved the verse. (Guru Vachaka Kovai, tr. Sadhu Om, p. 8.)


There are a few other instances (see verses 33 and 38, for example) in this section where Muruganar uses the word ‘God’ when ‘Brahman’ might possibly be a more appropriate term. 


The slide show comprises photos of Muruganar, the author of Guru Vachaka Kovai.

David Godman Books


Books by David Godman on Ramana Maharshi, his devotees and his teachings

bottom of page