Understanding “Consciousness is Everything”: Journal of a 15 yr Old – Part2/2: The World Was Never Created (Ajativada)

Since origination is not a well-established fact, it is declared (by the Upanishads) that everything is birthless.

~ Gaudapada, Mandukya Karika 4.38


  1. Introduction
  2. Analysis of Three States and Turiya/Atman/Brahman/Non-Dual Reality
    1. The Three Bodies
    2. The Three States
    3. Analysis of the Three States
    4. A Very Big Disclaimer – Brahman is not a Substance/Entity
    5. Who/What is Isvara/God?: Maya
  3. Creation Theories
  4. Refutation of all Creation/Causation Theories
  5. Vivartavada from a Relative Standpoint
  6. Seeming Negation of Vivartavada
  7. Ajativada from the Ultimate Viewpoint
  8. Even Ajativada is a Description from the Empirical Reality
  9. Notes


In Part I of this article series: “Understanding “Consciousness is Everything”: Journal of a 15 yr Old – Part1/2: Mahavakyas (Great Statements)”, I discussed the journal of a young, 15 yr old student who studies in my NEEV Advaita Study Group. In his journal, he describes how he has conceptually understood that Consciousness is the Ultimate Reality and how all the phenomena we see in the world is just a projection on Consciousness, which does not actually affect Consciousness. Further, in his journal he has also described how though he is Consciousness it is actually the Lord who is willing the actions of all Jivas and creatures of the world. The Lord is a sort of supercomputer, while the individual minds/Jivas are just receptors of the thoughts and actions willed by the Lord. In Part 1 I gave the whole of my attention to show how his journal had flashes of genius in it, uncannily describing the journey of a seeker in Advaita towards Self Realization as described by the four Mahavakyas. I further explicated on the four Mahavakyas to help readers understand how a journey of any seeker in Advaita advances through the stages explained pithily in the Mahavakyas.

In this article, I would like to delve into the highest peak of Advaita: Ajativada. This is the doctrine propounded by Gaudapada in Mandukya Karika. It reveals something absolutely unbelievable: It states that in the Absolute sense, the world, including oneself is devoid of changes or mutations like birth, growth, death etc (Janmadivikiirarahita) ; as also it is devoid of all duality (Prapanchopashama). All this is verily Atman/Consciousness/Awareness/Self/Brahman alone. CREATION NEVER HAPPENED. I have written about it in my article “Turiya : The Fourth State of Consciousness & End of Suffering”. In that article my emphasis was more on helping the reader understand how the Mandukya Upanishad, through the analysis of the three states of waking, dreaming and sleep, helps one understand that the ultimate reality is actually the unborn non-dual reality, as described above, and how the phenomenal world is only apparently real. I had written in my conclusion to this article:

“I am aware that I haven’t given enough consideration to what is Maya, how it arises and how it operates? Since this requires a full length article, I shall write about it in my next one.”

I could not write it as my next article. Thus, I am utilizing the opportunity provided by my student’s journal to complete my unfinished task in this article. In Part 1 of this article I had already mentioned that in Part 2, I would be delving into “the nature of relationship between Consciousness, Mind/Jiva and God.” because a bulk of Krishna’s journal is about trying to understand the relationship of the above entities. The two streams from my previous two articles meet here because Ajativada explains how the three entities – Jiva/soul – Jagat/world – Isvara/God – are only illusory constructs of illusory Maya.

My student – Krishna’s Journal – can be found here.

Analysis of Three States and Turiya/Atman/Brahman/Non-Dual Reality

The Three Bodies

The first task of Mandukya Karika is to establish the nature of reality through the analysis of three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep. Since I have already done this in detail in my article, “Turiya : The Fourth State of Consciousness & End of Suffering”, I shall just do a lightning review of it here, mostly through diagrams.

In order to go into the three states, we need to first understand the five sheaths or three bodies a Jiva is supposed to be composed of. “Composed of” is a shorthand way of saying that the “Jiva is Brahman conditioned by the three bodies/five sheaths”. I shall give a detailed explanation of this later. I mentioned this point here intentionally to undercut the tendency in a reader’s mind to attribute any “substantiality” to any “phenomena”. To deny a “substance attribute” to any phenomena and to show that all phenomena are nothing but dream like “appearances” of a single reality called Brahman is after all the purpose of this article.

From the above diagram it is clear that all Jivas have a Gross Body which is made up of matter, a Subtle Body which is Mind and a Causal Body which is called Bliss Body because it is the body closest to Brahman and thus reflects the Bliss of Brahman. The Causal Body is given the name “Causal” because it is the cause for the projection of the other two bodies – subtle and gross. While we can perceive the gross body as our physical body and the subtle body as thoughts and internal images, we cannot perceive the Causal Body as it is formless. The Causal Body is likened to the seed which projects/ sprouts into the shoot of the subtle body and the tree of the gross body in the waking and dreaming states because it has got vasanas/memory of past lives stored in it according to which the Subtle and Gross bodies are projected. In the sleep state, there is only the Causal Body with the other two bodies withdrawn into it.

The Three States

According to Mandukya, the three states of Waking, Dreaming and Deep Sleep are nothing but the worlds we experience because of the projection or withdrawal of the three bodies mentioned above. When we are in the Sleep State, we are in the Causal Body, which is formless. When we come to the dream state, the Causal Body has projected the Subtle Body, and when we come to the waking state, the Causal Body has also projected the Gross Body. We can understand the details through the following diagrams.

The flow of the three states can be understood through the following diagram.

Based on the three states, one can now understand the phenomenal characteristic of the sleeper, dreamer and waker through the following diagram. The term “vasanas” means memory. Through the stored vasanas, the Causal Body projects the other two bodies. This diagram helps appreciate that one and the same consciousness appears as the different universes of the sleeper, dreamer and waker depending on the bodies being projected.

Analysis of the Three States

Having understood the above concepts we can go into how the Mandukya Upanishad analyses them to reveal Turiya/Brahman/Non-Dual Reality. The Upanishad asks one to appreciate the following by analysing the three states.

  1. All three states appear and disappear to a common Seer/Witness/Experiencer. In one’s life, one intuitively assumes that one is the same waker, dreamer and sleeper even though the worlds of the sleeper, dreamer and waker are entirely different. What makes one assume that the same “I” persisted through the three states, even though one’s ego-identity kept changing from being a waker to someone else as a dreamer (One may have become a child in one’s dreams but is an adult as a waker) to no-one as a sleeper? When one wakes up from dream or sleep how does one have a memory of the dreamer and the sleeper? Memory is always about an experience. If there was no experiencer in the sleep state like we have in the dream and waking state, then who experienced the sleep state, which appears as a memory (I slept well) in the waking state?
  2. Can the waking state, dream state or sleep state be real because all three states keep changing and the reality within one state, cancels the reality within another state? In the waking and dream states there is a phenomenal world of forms but in sleep state the entire phenomenal world including one’s mind and body are wiped out? Can the phenomenal world which includes one’s mind and body be real if it is absent in one of the three states?

The first point establishes the fact that the real “I” is not whom we are assuming ourselves to be – “The Waker”. This is because it is absent in two of the three states. Reality can never cease to exist. When I get up, I don’t feel that I am a different being from the one who slept and the one who dreamt. My sense of being is continuous. Neither the waker, dreamer or sleeper can be the one responsible for my continuous sense of being. It has to be something that is existent in all three states. What is it? It is Awareness/Consciousness/Witness/Turiya which is NOT the individual experiencer present in the waking and dream state and which is lost in the sleep state. Awareness/Consciousness/Witness/Turiya is the Ultimate Experiencer which persists even in the sleep state. This is our real “I”/Self. The second point establishes that the phenomenal world of objects, including our body-mind, we experience in the waking and dream states cannot be real because they are absent in the sleep state. Combining the two we can say in negative terms – “I am NOT the Body-Mind” or in positive terms, I can say – “I am Self/Awareness/Witness/Brahman/Atman/Turiya/Non-Dual Knowledge” which is beyond the three states of waking, sleeping and dreaming.

The final point one needs to appreciate is that the ultimate reality being formless, non-dual and beyond space and time (because it is Witness to the projection of space-time and the phenomenal world of forms in the waking and dream states and their dissolution in the sleep state) it cannot ever be said to be born. Thus, Ultimate Reality in Advaita is called Aja or unborn or birthless. All entities of relative existence possess six characteristics, such as birth, duration, growth, change, decay and death. Brahman/Self/Witness/Awareness is free from them.

Now one can appreciate the following diagram

The waking state experiencer is called Vishva, the dreaming state experiencer is called Taijasa and the sleep state experiencer is called Prajna. None of them is who I am. I AM TURIYA/Brahman/Awareness on which appear Vishva, Taijas and Prajna and the three sates of Waking, Dreaming and Sleeping.

A Very Big Disclaimer – Brahman is not a Substance/Entity

Many individuals, Advaitins and especially Buddhists tend to think that the words Self/Turiya/Brahman/Atman indicate some “substantial” entity. It is plainly ridiculous for anyone to think so, given the fact that Advaita establishes the Ultimate Reality after negating the world of forms (physical/gross and mental/subtle) as well as the formless world (causal). Gaudapada defines Ultimate Reality as Non-Dual Knowledge – which is the synonym for the words Consciousness or Awareness. Thus, we have the verse:

Verse 3.33: “The knowledge (Jñānam) which is unborn and free from all imaginations is ever inseparable from the knowable. The immutable and birthless Brahman is the sole object of knowledge. The birthless is known by the birthless.”

Shankara’s Commentary: The Knowers of Brahman describe knowledge, i.e., the mere essence of thought, which is unborn and free from all imaginations as non-different from Brahman, the ultimate Reality, which is also the object of knowledge. This is supported by such Scriptural passages as, “Like heat from fire, knowledge (Jñānam) is never absent from the knower (Ātman),” “Brahman is Knowledge and Bliss,” “Brahman is Reality, Knowledge and Infinity,” etc.

Anandagiri’s Gloss: The Jñānam or knowledge is the same as Brahman; otherwise no knowledge would be able to tell us what Brahman is. Darkness cannot illumine the sun. Only the light of the sun which is the sun itself, can illumine the sun.

Who/What is Isvara/God?: Maya

My student Krishna makes constant references to Isvara, the Lord who controls and directs the activities of different Jivas. Who is this Isvara or Lord? He is nothing but the Causal Body or Prajna. The following verse Mandukya verse and commentary by Shankara makes it quite clear:

Verse 5. “That is the state of deep sleep wherein the sleeper does not desire any objects nor does he see any dream. The third quarter (Pāda) is the Prājña whose sphere is deep sleep, in whom all (experiences) become unified or undifferentiated, who is verily, a mass of consciousness entire, who is full of bliss and who experiences bliss, and who is the path leading to the knowledge (of the two other states).

Verse6: “This is the Lord of all; this is the knower of all; this is the controller within; this is the source of all; and this is that from which all things originate and in which they finally disappear.

Shankara’s commentary: This in its natural state, is the Lord (Īśvara) of all. All, that is to say, of the entire physical and super-physical universe. He (Īśvara) is not something separate from the universe as others hold. The Śruti also says, “O good one, Prāṇa (Prājña or Īśvara) is that in which the mind is bound.”

Our previous discussion on the three bodies would have made the above evident. The Causal Body is the source of the Subtle and Gross Worlds, thus it is called Isvara. It contains the vasanas/memory/source code for projection of the other two bodies and their corresponding worlds. (A dialogue on this can be found in my article: “The Place of Devotion/Bhakti in Shankara Advaita”

So the analysis of the three states and the three bodies should make it clear to a reader that the world we experience is nothing but Brahman/Turiya/Awareness conditioned with the Causal Body/Isvara which is nothing but a collection of past impressions stretching back to beginingless time. This Causal Body/Isvara is also called Maya.

Creation Theories

Gaudapada examines Maya once again through the analysis of various creation theories arising from the root concept of cause and effect. Maya is then also shown to be this false conception of cause and effect. It shall be shown that the beginning of all vasanas is in the first false root conception of cause and effect which keeps proliferating. This is because a vasana is nothing but a stored experience. All experience is only possible when non-dual, partless reality is imagined to split into two. This first imagined split into duality is caused by imagining a cause-effect transformation. Thereafter, all dualities are overlaid on it: a process called prapancha/conceptual proliferation/vasana build up.

It is the common experience of all of us that all phenomena, as noted earlier, share the following six characteristics – “birth, duration, growth, change, decay and death”. We all see people being born and people dying. We plant a seed, and we see it spouting into a shoot and then into a tree. In short, every effect we see has to have a cause. If I see a tree I infer that it must have been born from a seed. Similarly, if we see a world – as an effect – we look for its cause.

The most plausible explanation that comes to our mind is that all phenomena are born from a changeless Ultimate Reality or two changeless Ultimate Realities. The Upanishads at many places also seem to support such creation theories. For example at many places the Upanishads have spoken about “That from which all these beings emanate,” “As small sparks (come out) from fire,” “The Ākāśa has evolved from that which is this Ātman,” “It created heat” etc. See Note [1]

But the above does not exhaust the possibility of creation theories. It is actually just the beginning of a long list of creation theories that have been advanced by different schools, both, those who consider the Vedas to be their authority and those who don’t. In the Mandukya Karika, Gaudapada compiles a list of creation theories in the following verses

Verse 1.6: “It is the firm conclusion [of wise men] that [there must be] an origin of all existing entities. Prana creates the universe [and] Purusa creates separately the rays of consciousness (i.e the individual jivas)”

[It is indicated by the above verse that there are two manifestors, namely, the Puruṣa and the Prāṇa. The Puruṣa manifests the Jīvas and Prāṇa the inanimate objects. From the empirical standpoint we see two kinds of manifestations, viz., the sentient and the insentient. Therefore, we naturally ascribe these to two manifestors, viz., Puruṣa and Prāṇa. (As the general principle of causality is that the like produces the like.)]

Verse 1.7: “Those who think of (the process of) creation believe it to be the manifestation of the superhuman power of God; while others look upon it as of the same nature as dream and illusion.”

Verse 1.8: Those who affirm (the existence of thecreated objects attribute this manifestation to the mere will of Godwhile those who look upon time as real declare time to be the manifestor of all beings.

Verse 1.9:Others think that the manifestation is for the purpose of enjoyment (of God) while still others attribute it to mere diversion (on the part of God), Rut it is the very nature of the Effulgent Being (Ātman) (for), what other desire is possible for Him whose desire is always in the state of fulfilment?

The theories above can be broadly divided into two types of creation theories:

Cosmological Theories:

  1. Creation is caused by two eternal principles (like Purusa and Prana) (Dualistic Atheism)
  2. Creation is manifestation of the divine power of God (1. 7). (Monotheism)
  3. Creation is manifestation of the nature of dream or illusion (1. 7). (Mayavada)
  4. Creation is manifestation of the Divine Will which cannot but be fulfilled (1. 8).
  5. Creation is manifestation which proceeds from “Time”. Īśvara is indifferent about it (1. 8).

The above Cosmological theories can be classified more generally into Causation and Teleological Theories which I shall be listing below. All Causation theories share the assumption that there is an ultimate timeless, changeless reality or cause (one or two) that gives rise to the world. The Ultimate Reality may have different names and characteristics and may be theistic or atheistic, existent or non-existent.

Teleological Theories:

These are theories relating to or involving the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise.

  1. Creation is for the purpose of the enjoyment of God. (1.9)
  2. Creation is an act of God’s sport. (1.9)

Refutation of all Creation/Causation Theories

The teleological theories are negated by Gaudapada in the verse 1.9 itself, by saying that “What could be the desire for manifestation on the part of Brahman whose desires are ever in a state of fulfilment?” No will can be the cause of creation because a will implies an effort at gratifying some uns,atiated desire. Brahman is Bliss which means the absence of all wants. Therefore, the Divine Will Cannot be the cause of the universe.

Next, the Cosmological/Causation Theories are refuted by Gaudapada in Verses 4.3 – 4.10

All those who believe in the act of creation are dualists because they talk about the existence of two reals: the unchanging Cause and the changing Effect. In the proceeding verses, Gaudapada goes on to show the untenability of all Causation theories which imply dualism. The very fact he notes first is, since there are many contradicting theories of dualists for the origination of the universe, this in itself is an indication of an inherent flaw/weakness in creation theories. The dualists dispute with each other and simply destroy each other’s position: thus, unwittingly they aid in establishing his Ajativada by their mutual contradiction.

Verse 3.3. “Quarrelling among themselvessome disputants postulate that an existing entity undergoes evolutionwhereas other disputantsproud of their understandings maintain that evolution proceeds from a non-existing entity.

The above verse is hinting towards the first two of the whole range of Cosmological theories of Causation held by different schools in the list below.

  •  Arambha-vada – The theory (of atomic agglomeration), that the effect, which is something newly produced, does not exist in the cause; held by Nyaya and Vaisheshika Schools. It is similar to modern scientific theories of creation. See Note [2] for a detailed explanation
  • Parinama-vada – The theory of real transformation, based on the fact that the effect, though phenomenally different, is substantially identical with the cause, and pre-exists latently in it; held by Samkhya and Vishishtadavaita schools in different variants. See Note [3] for a detailed explanation
  • Vivarta-vada – The theory of apparent transformation or of false appearance accepted by Gaudapada from a certain standpoint
  • Pratityasamutpada-vada – the theory of dependent origination of Buddhism – There is nothing permanent, nothing substantial, no unique individual self in the nature of becoming and existence, because everything is a result of “dependent origination”. There are no independent objects and independent subjects; there is fundamental emptiness in all phenomena and experiences. Gaudapada and Shankaracharya consider it as nihilism but this is not the view held by many schools of Buddhism.

Taken together these theories cover all possible cause-effect relationships of duality.

  • Cause and Effect are identical (the former exists in the latter)
  • Cause and Effect are absolutely different
  • Cause and Effect are both absolutely different and identical
  • Cause and Effect are neither absolutely different nor identical

By negating the first two theories, the third is automatically negated. The fourth option does not need to be negated because it itself is the denial of any cause-effect relationship, therefore things happen randomly.

After stating the disputing Cosmological theories of Causation, Gaudapada says regally

Verse 4.5. “We approve the Ajāti or non-creation declared by them. We do not quarrel with them. Nowhear from us (the Ultimate Reality) which is free from all disputations.

Basically, he is trying to say here that, with regard to causality, we accept that theory that is not refuted by any party, but which must be admitted by all, viz., Ajāti.

Then with a single strike of his hammer he blows to pieces the first two creation theories in these verses:

Verse 4.6/3.20: “The disputants (i.e., the dualists) contend that the ever-unborn (changeless) entity (Ātman) undergoes a change. How does an entity which is changeless and immortal partake of the nature of the mortal?” 

Shankara’s Commentary: Some interpreters of the Upaniṣads, who are garrulous and who put on the airs of the Knowers of Brahman, admit that the Reality—the Ātman—which is by nature ever-unborn (changeless) and immortal, really passes into birth (i.e., becomes the universe). If, according to them, the Ātman really passes into birth it must undergo destruction. But, how is it possible for the Ātman which is, by its very nature, ever-unborn (changeless) and immortal to become mortal (jivas), and to be subject to destruction? It can never become mortal which is contrary to its very nature.

Thus gone into smoke are the first two cosmological theories of causation: Arambha-vada and Parinama-Vada. Next we come to Vivarta-vada. Some people say that Gaudapada was talking only Ajati-vada while Shankara toned it down to Vivarta-Vada. This is not at all true. This contention is based on the misreading of the Mandukya Karika. Vivarta-Vada is nothing but the term later Advaitins used to call Gauadapada’s view of the world as Vaitathya (false/unreal) which is the heading of his Chapter 2 of Mandukya Karika. The culprit is the word Maya, which is used both by Advaita and Buddhism. The confusion arises because both these schools use the same word differently. I shall now proceed to show that Gaudapada was in fact asserting Vivarta-vada and Advaita’s conception of Maya, though from a provisional standpoint. Gaudapada states this categorically in verse 3.24: “From such Scriptural passages as, “There is no multiplicity in Ātman”, “Indra through Māyā”, we know that the Ātman, though ever unbornverily appears to have become many (only) through Māyā.” Gaudapada being a Vedantin cannot go against the authority of the scriptures. The confusion is that in certain verses he denies “Maya”, even as the cause of apparent creation. I shall show that in these passages his denial of Maya is the way it is conceived in Buddhist scriptures rather than rejecting the Upanishadic notion of the word. From an absolute standpoint, he of course denies Maya and Vivartavada.

Vivartavada from a Relative Standpoint

For this we have to go back to our discussion of the three states I talked about in the beginning of this article. We need to remember how we established that the three states are unreal because they are changing and cancel each other’s reality. Further we said that they all appear to the unchanging Witness/Self/Atman/Turiya/Non-Dual Reality. We have already demolished any “real” causation to take place because it is absurd to think that an immortal, changeless entity can modify itself to become a mortal entity like all Jivas and undergo destruction. So the only option now left for us is to think that the Atman/Non-Dual Reality has not “really” given any birth but “appears” to do so. Thus, Gaudapada says:

Verse 2.11If the objects cognized in both the conditions (of dream and of waking) be illusory, who cognizes all these (illusory objects) and who again imagines them?

Verse2.12: Ātman, the self-luminous, through the power of his own Māyā, imagines in himself by himself (all the objects that the subject experiences within or without). He alone is the cognizer of the objects (so created). This is the decision of the Vedānta.

To explain how can Atman imagine a diversified world of all objects due to Maya, Gaudapada gives the following example.

Verse 2.17. As the rope, whose nature is not really known, is imagined in the dark to be a snake, a water-line, etc., so also is the Ātman imagined (in various ways).

The above is an example of Vivartavada. A rope being “imagined” as a snake. The rope did not give any real birth to a real snake. The rope only “apparently” appears as a snake. The appearance is based on the imagination/memory of the mind. Same is the case for Atman. Taking this example further Gaudapada says:

Verse 2.19. ” The Ātman is imagined as Prāṇa and other endless objects. This is due to Māyā (ignorance) of the luminous (Ātman itself) by which It is (as it were) deluded.

Shankara’s (commentary): If it be definitely ascertained that Ātman is verily one, how could it be imagined as the endless objects like Prāṇa, etc., having the characteristics of the phenomenal experience? It is thus explained:—This is due to the Māyā (ignorance) inhering in the luminous Ātman. As the illusion conjured up by the juggler makes the very clear sky appear covered with trees blooming with flowers and leaves, so does this luminous Ātman become deluded, as it were, by his own Māyā. “My Māyā cannot be easily got over” declares the Gītā.

The commentary of Shankara supplies another example of a magician creating a delusory appearance of a clear sky covered with trees and blooming with flowers. The sky never actually created these appearances, but they were merely imagined on the sky. A more common and universal example would be seeing the colour blue in the sky even though the sky or space does not have any colour. Now let us understand how the Atman imagines the world.

Verse 2.16: First of all, is imagined the Jīva (the embodied being) and then are imagined the various entities, objective and subjective, that are perceived. As is (one’s) knowledge so is (one’s) memory of it.

Shankara’s (commentary): What is the source of the imagination of various objects, subjective and objective that are perceived and appear to be related to one another as cause and effect? It is thus explained:—The Jīva is of the nature of cause and effect and is further characterized by such ideas as “I do this, I am happy and miserable.” Such Jīva is, at first, imagined in the Ātman which is pure and devoid of any such characteristics, like the imagination of a snake in a rope. Then for the knowledge of the Jīva are imagined various existent entities, both subjective and objective, such as Prāṇa, etc., constituting different ideas such as the agent, action and the result (of action). What is the cause of this imagination? It is thus explained:—It, the Jīva, who is the product of imagination and competent to effect further imagination, has its memory determined by its own inherent knowledge. That is to say, its knowledge is always followed by a memory, similar to that knowledge. Hence, from the knowledge of the idea of cause results the knowledge of the idea of the effect. Then follows the memory of both cause and effect. This memory is followed by its knowledge which results in the various states of knowledge characterised by action, actor and the effect. These are followed by their memory, which, in its turn, is followed by the states of knowledge. In this way are imagined various objects, subjective and objective, which are perceived and seen to be related to one another as cause and effect.

Shankara’s commentary above bears a striking resemblance to what my student Krishna wrote in his journal. I am quoting him here:

So anyway the mind is a coordinating system; and even right now, the guilt and the fear of being wrong that it is feeling for pursuing self inquiry and not being “of use to the world” somehow, and presenting fear based solutions and fear based rejections of those solutions is a strange mystery. It is at once both superficial and lacking any deeper layers, but with the power to invent deeper layers the more it investigates because it works with the law of cause and effect. Even the investigation of the web of cause and effect is a part of cause and effect.” 

It’s to his enormous credit that he could grasp this at such an early age of 15 yrs. What Shankara is trying to say above is that the Jiva/subject is nothing but the imagination on Atman by Atman, the way a snake is imagined on a rope. After Atman imagines itself as Jiva, then for the sake of the Jiva/subject other subjects and objects too are imagined by Atman. This is how we get the appearance of a plural world. A rope has no parts. But when the snake is projected on it, the snake has various parts like the head, body and the tail. In the case of the world, the Jiva is first imagined by Maya then the Jiva further imagines ideas like actor, action and results of action. This means that the Jiva imagines itself to be an actor doing action and reaping the consequences of his/her actions. These imaginations are what Krishna’s journal (my student) alluding to when he speaks of guilt, fear of being wrong etc. He further says that all these ideas are nothing but mind which is “superficial“, nonetheless with the “power to invent deeper layers“. And then finally with a master-stroke of sheer brilliance he writes that the superficial nature of the mind is “because it works with the law of cause and effect. Even the investigation of the web of cause and effect is a part of cause and effect.” In saying so, Krishna almost anticipates Ajativada This is exactly what the great Shankara mentions in the commentary above. See this:

It, the Jīva, who is the product of imagination and competent to effect further imagination, has its memory determined by its own inherent knowledge. That is to say, its knowledge is always followed by a memory, similar to that knowledge. Hence, from the knowledge of the idea of cause results the knowledge of the idea of the effect. Then follows the memory of both cause and effect. This memory is followed by its knowledge which results in the various states of knowledge characterized by action, actor and the effect. These are followed by their memory, which, in its turn, is followed by the states of knowledge.

The above lines may appear confusing but what they are saying is something very simple. It says that the Jiva is a product of wrong knowledge superimposed on Atman. What is the wrong knowledge? The knowledge of “Cause and Effect”. The wrong knowledge that “I” as a Jiva (effect) was born from Atman (cause)”. Now all knowledge is followed by a memory which is similar to the knowledge that creates it. The knowledge that inheres in the Jiva or rather creates Jivahood is the wrong knowledge of “Cause and Effect”, thus this wrong knowledge of cause and effect becomes a memory for the Jiva, and he constructs further knowledge based on this memory. This knowledge creates further memory of cause and effect which further re-inforces the primary wrong knowledge. The whole re-iterative cycle of cause and effect can be shown with the help of the following diagram:

Fig: The Cycle of Wrong Knowledge of Cause and Effect

Anandagiri in his Tika/gloss/explanation to the above commentary of verse 2.16 clarifies it beautifully:

It is seen from common experience that the idea of food and drink is followed by the idea of satisfaction. One is not possible in the absence of the other. Following this method of agreement and difference we imagine thus. From the idea of knowledge of food, etc., which is the cause, follows the idea of the knowledge of satisfaction which is the effect. Next day, we get the memory of this cause and effect experienced on the previous-day. Then we have the idea of a duty which may be described as a result of the previous experience. Accordingly we begin the act of cooking, etc., with the help of rice, fuel, etc. After eating the food thus prepared, we derive certain definite states of knowledge characterised by the idea of satisfaction, etc. This satisfaction inheres in us as the memory which stimulates us, next day, to similar action. We perform the action which is followed by an identical result. Thus ideas succeed one another and appear to-be related as cause and effect. That these ideas need not have any counterpart in the gross physical world of the waking state can be understood by the analysis of the dream experiences. As a matter of fact, it cannot be rationally proved that even, in the waking state, an idea can produce a corresponding effect in the world perceived to exist outside of us.

With reference to our discussion of the three bodies and the three states of sleep, waking and dreaming we are now in the position of understanding them in terms of Cause and Effect. Thus as Gaudapada says:

Verse 1.11: “Viśva (Waker) and Taijasa (Dreamer) are conditioned by cause and effect. But Prājña (Sleeper) is conditioned by cause alone. These two (cause and effect) do not exist in Turīya.

Anandagiri’s Gloss: Causal state/Body/Prajna is that in which we do not know the Truth. From it follows the result/effect which is the mis-apprehension of Truth. It is because one does not know the rope one mistakes it for the snake. Prājña or the state of non-apprehension as such is said to be the cause of the Viśva(Waker) and Taijasa(Dreamer) or the states of mis-apprehension. In dream and waking states there are both non-apprehension and mis-apprehension of Reality. But in deep sleep, there is only non-apprehension. As a matter of fact these two conditions, mis-apprehension and non-apprehension, cannot be experienced separately. They have been differently classified only to facilitate understanding.

It must be clear from the above discussion how:

  1. The Cause of Creation/Plurality is nothing but having wrong knowledge of Cause and Effect called Avidya. This Avidya conceals the right knowledge that the Atman was never born and therefore there is no Cause and Effect phenomena in operation.
  2. The wrong knowledge of Cause and Effect/Avidya causes the effect or Causal Body/Maya which further creates the effects: Dreamer(Taijasa) along with dream world and the Waker(Visva) along with waking world.
  3. The cycle of cause and effect started by Avidya-Maya keeps reinforcing itself

Gaudapada rounds off his discussion on Avidya-Maya (wrong knowledge of Cause & Effect) with it being the sole reason for us to perceive a plural world of phenomena when in fact there is only Atman/Brahman, with the verse:

Verse 3.19This unborn (changelessnon-dual Brahman) appears to undergo modification only on account of Māyā (illusion) and not otherwiseFor, if this modification were realthe Immortal (Brahmanwould become mortal.

And finally:

Verse 4.56As long as there is faith in causalitythe (endlesschain of birth and death (samsara) will be thereWhen that faith is destroyed (by knowledge) birth and death (samsara) become nonexistent.

To summarize, non-origination, non-birth, or the negation of the concept of causality strikes at the root of dualistic conceptual thought. The concept of birth or causation suggests duality in all its forms of relation. Cause and effect is the example which stands for the other relations within time, space and causality such as subject-object, substance-attribute, and so forth. Instead of dealing with multiple examples of dualistic relations, he confines himself to fully exploring this one proposition and negating it by showing that it is Maya.

Seeming Negation of Vivartavada

After asserting Vivartavada or Avidya-Maya as the cause of the apparent birth of the phenomenal world, Gaudapada seems to negate Maya too. Here are two verses. In the first he posits Maya and in the second one he negates it.

Verse 3.27. “That which is ever-existent appears to pass into birth through illusion (Māyā) and not from the standpoint of Reality. He who thinks that this passing into birth is real asserts, as a matter of fact, that what is born is born again (and so on without end).

The above verse gives another logic as to why the Atman cannot give birth to anything real [See Note 4]. However, this verse is quoted by me here to show that Gaudapada accepts the illusory birth of the world through ignorance/Maya. Shankaracharya’s comment on this verse reads:

Shankaracharya’s Comment: Brahman or Ātman, however, does not really create the universe nor transform itself into the universe, as the rope does not really create the snake nor does it become the snake. The appearance of creation is due to ignorance. Therefore the theory of Māyā or vivarta which posits a real Ātman is the best explanation of the universe when such universe is recognised as a fact.

And soon after the preceding verse, Gaudapada writes this:

Verse 3.28. The unreal cannot be born either really or through Māyā. For the son of a barren woman is born neither in reality nor in illusion.

Shankara’s Commentary: There are those who hold that all entities are unreal, that the non-existent produces this world. But production, by the non-existent, of any thing either in reality or in illusion is not possible. For we know nothing like it in our experience. As the son of a barren woman is not seen to be born either really or through Māyā, the theory of the non-existence of things is in truth untenable.

Anandagiri’s Gloss: In truth—In case the Ātman is a Reality, the passing into birth may be explained by Māyā; but in this case even that explanation cannot hold, for there is no evidence in our actual experience to justify the presumption that either something comes out of nothing or nothing comes out of something.

A careful reading of the above comments show that what is being rejected is not actually Vivartavada‘s conception of Maya or the “seeming appearance” of the Atman as the world through ignorance. What is being rejected is the concept of Maya in the school of Buddhism which claims that Maya like creation happens out of nothing or a void.

The Early Buddhist Texts contain some references to illusion/Maya, the most well known of which is the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta in Pali (and with a Chinese Agama parallel at SĀ 265) which states:

Suppose, monks, that a magician (māyākāro) or a magician’s apprentice (māyākārantevāsī) would display a magical illusion (māyaṃ) at a crossroads. A man with good sight would inspect it, ponder, and carefully investigate it, and it would appear to him to be void (rittaka), hollow (tucchaka), coreless (asāraka). For what core (sāro) could there be in a magical illusion (māyāya)? So too, monks, whatever kind of cognition there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near: a monk inspects it, ponders it, and carefully investigates it, and it would appear to him to be void (rittaka), hollow (tucchaka), coreless (asāraka). For what core (sāro) could there be in cognition?

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_(religion)#Buddhism

Gaudapada’s objection is to this conception of Maya which shows creation happening from a “void” or “nothingness”, which denies any real substratum that persists for the illusion to manifest itself, like a rope for a snake and the Atman for the world, or, in the above example, a “magician” for the magic trick.

In his commentary to verse 2.12 (quoted earlier), Shankara explains this very clearly:

Shankara’s Commentary to Verse 2.12: The self-luminous Ātman himself, by his own Māyā, imagines in himself the different objects, to be described hereafter. It is like the imagining of the snake, etc., in the rope, etc. He himself cognizes them, as he has imagined them. There is no other substratum of knowledge and memory. The aim of Vedānta is to declare that knowledge and memory are not without, support as the Buddhistic nihilists maintain.

Thus, the above attack is to Buddhist’s conception of creation happening from a void. It is an attack levelled at their concept of Emptiness and Pratityasamputpada-vada or Dependent Origination. According to me this attack seems to be based on a misinterpretation of the Buddhist doctrine of Emptiness or Sunyavada and Pratityasamputpada-vada. I shall deal with this in another article.

Ajativada from the Ultimate Viewpoint

The question naturally arises that if Vivartavda has been shown to be the accepted philosophy for Gaudapada, then why is he so famous for Ajativada. The answer is simple theoretically but there is a world of difference experientially. Ajativada and Vivartavada are explanations given from two different standpoints of reality. Anandagiri in his gloss of verse 2.19 says, “Māyā as the explanation of the manifold is from, the causal standpoint. Even when the Ātman appears to be transformed into the universe, it does not, in reality, lose its non-dual character.” This terse statement explains everything. Vivartavada is spoken from the empirical/causal standpoint of viewing the world constituted by Jiva-Jagat-Isvara, which is from the standpoint of ignorance. It is a provisional teaching for realizing Self/Atman/Brahman as Witness. From the Ultimate Standpoint, the standpoint of Atman itself or the Jivanmukta, the Atman never got transformed into any world, never into the trio of Jiva-Jagat-Isvara, so even the division of Witness and objects does not exist. This is Ajativada. As Gaudapada intimates to us in this verse.

Verse 2.35: “By the wise, who are free from attachment, fear and anger and who are well versed in the meaning of the Vedas, this (Ātmanhas been verily realized as totally devoid of all imaginations (such as those of Prāṇa, etc.), free from the illusion of the manifold, and non-dual.

Another point to bear, because the mind’s tendency to objectify reality is very powerful, is that Maya itself is not something really existent. Thus, Gaudapada clarifies in the following verses:

Verse 4.58: “Those Jivas said to be born by convention are not born in reality. Their birth is like Maya, and that Maya itself does not exist”

Shankara’s Commentary to this verse clarifies this matter beyond doubt:

Shankara’s Commentary: Those, again, who imagine the birth of the Jīvas and other entities, do so only through Saṃvṛti or the power of ignorance as stated in the preceding Kārikā. The Jīvas are seen to be born only through ignorance. But from the standpoint of the Supreme Reality no such birth is possible. This (supposed) birth of the Jīvas is through ignorance, described above, is like the birth of objects through illusion (Māyā).

(Opponent)—Then there must be something real known as Māyā or illusion?

(Reply)—It is not so. That Māyā or illusion is never existent. Māyā or illusion is the name we give to something which does not (really) exist (but which is perceived).

Maya is thus the creative and illusive principle. It does not have an independent ontological status as it is not an entity or a reality having a substance of its own. Brahman is the only real (sat). As such, maya is a riddle to the intellect. It is indeterminable and unthinkable. But when the Absolute is directly realized in anubhava, there is no maya to be explained for maya does not really exist.

Now I quote the most famous statement of Ajativada found in the Mandukya Karika, along with Shankara’s commentary, which beautifully summarizes the entire article.

Verse2.32. There is no dissolution, no birth, none in bondage, none aspiring for wisdom, no seeker of liberation and none liberated. This is the absolute truth.

Shankara’s Commentary: When duality is perceived to be illusory and Ātman alone is known as the sole Reality, then it is clearly established that all our experiences, ordinary or religious (Vedic), verily pertain to the domain of ignorance. Then one perceives that there is no dissolution, i.e., destruction (from the standpoint of Reality); no birth or creation, i.e., coming into existence; no one in bondage, i.e., no worldly being; no pupilage, i.e., no one adopting means for the attainment of liberation; no seeker after liberation, and no one free from bondage (as bondage does not exist). The Ultimate Truth is that the stage of bondage, etc., cannot exist in the absence of creation and destruction. How can it be said that there is neither creation nor destruction? It is thus replied:—There is no duality (at any time). The absence of duality is indicated by such Scriptural passages as, “When duality appears to exist….” “One who appears to see multiplicity….” “All this is verily Ātman.” “Ātman is one and without a second.” “All that exists is verily the Ātman,” etc. Birth or death can be predicated only of that which exists and never of what does not exist, such as the horns of a hare, etc. That which is non-dual (Advaita) can never be said to be born or destroyed. That it should be non-dual and at the same time subject to birth and death, is a contradiction in terms. It has already been said that our dual experience characterized by (the activities of) Prāṇa, etc., is a mere illusion having Ātman for its substratum, like the snake imagined in the rope which is its substratum. The imagination characterized by the appearance of the snake in the rope cannot be produced from nor dissolved in the rope (i.e., in any external object), or dissolved in the mind, nor even in both (i.e., the rope and the mind). Thus duality being non-different from mental (subjective) imagination (cannot have a beginning or an end). For, duality is not perceived when one’s mental activities are controlled (as in Samādhi) or in deep sleep. Therefore, it is established that duality is a mere illusion of the mind. Hence, it is well said that the Ultimate Reality is the absence of destruction, etc., on account of the non-existence of duality (which exists only in the imagination of the mind).

Even Ajativada is a Description from the Empirical Reality

After the vast terrain that we have covered and come to the ultimate, is there anything left to say. Yes. We have to negate the last word and enter into total silence as the ultimate description of non-dual silence. Thus, Gaudapada is careful to last vada/viewpoint from us so that we enter that viewless experience from where the mind turns back speechless

Ātman is called unborn (Aja) from the standpoint of the illusory empirical experiences. It istruly speakingnot even unborn.……….

Gaudapada, Mandukya Karika, Verse 4.74


  1. Gaudapada says in Mandukya Karika Verse 3.15 that the Vedas make the statement regarding the separateness of Jīva and Brahman keeping in view the experience of multiplicity by the ignorant people. Anandagiri in his gloss to that verse clarifies, “The aim of the dualistic statements of the Śruti is to establish ultimately the identity of Jīva and Brahman. The Upaniṣads accept the empirical view of the world as it appears and explain it by saying that Brahman who is both the material and efficient cause of the universe, created the world with all its beings and then entered into all as the living Self. This explanation establishes the unity of Brahman and Jīva, the apparent difference being ascribed to ignorance.” 
  2. This is the view of the followers of the Naiyāyika and Vaiśeṣika systems. According to them, an existing entity cannot be born as an effect. If an entity already exists, it is not said to be produced again. This view can be stated thus:—A cannot produce B, as A is always A and B is always B. It may be contended that A + C may produce B. Therefore C is something which does not exist in the cause A. Therefore the effect B does not come out of the cause A. Thus the world [B] is not mere appearance of cause [A], nor an evolution of a cause, but is an effect produced by aggregation of causes. Vaisesika also introduced the concept of ‘adrista’ or universal law [C]. Atoms are passive by their nature. They exist without causing any effect. Adrista introduces motion into them. For example, it introduces motion into the atoms of air to form dyads, triads. And from the triads, the gross element air is formed. [A + C = B]. For a very good explanation see https://asischaudhuri.wordpress.com/2018/01/05/vaisesika-darshana%E2%94%80the-vedic-atomic-theory/
  3. This is the view of the followers of the Sāṃkhya system. According to them, the existing entity cannot undergo any annihilation; nor can the non-existing entity pass into existence. The existing entity is existent in times, past, present and future. A non-existing entity, such as the child of a barren woman, is always non-existent. By “birth”, the Sāṃkhyas mean manifestation and by “death”, they understand the return of the effect into the cause. The sesame seed produces oil. It means that oil, already existent in the seed, manifests itself in the form of the effect when the seed (the cause) is pressed. But one cannot get oil by pressing sand, as oil is never present in the sand. The clay which contains in potential form the pot, manifests the pot. Again the destruction of the pot means its going back to the original cause, viz., the clay. There is no absolute destruction of the pot.
  4. It is because the unborn cannot give birth to a new thing. If this causality be admitted then the so-called unborn cause must itself come from another cause and so on ad infinitum. Thus we never come across an unborn cause. There will be thus an endless past in the case of causes and an equally endless future in the case of effects. If the cause produces an effect that effect, in its turn, must produce new effect and so on ad infinitum (Hegel’s position). Thus there can be no mukti or liberation which means freedom from the causal chain.

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