No one knows how or when “religion”—as we understand it—was born. But it seems reasonable to assume that it began with questions and, almost certainly, those questions were related to this world. The world, after all, is what we experience from the moment we are born. Even in the twenty-first century, when we seem to know a lot more about the world than our grandparents did, we still know very little. We have answers to most questions, but many of these answers provoke fresh questions. Every mystery that is solved opens the door to new mysteries.
About some of the basic questions—who made this world? where did its material come from?—we know almost nothing. We have theories aplenty, but theories, useful as they may be, are not really answers. They are, at best, intelligent guesswork in need of direct evidence and confirmation. Take this question, for instance: How did this world emerge? One of the theories is that God created this world. The exploration of how this emergence occurred—or how God created this world—led to the fleshing out of the theory in many different forms. These forms crystallized, over time and across this planet, into various religious traditions.
Each tradition defines and describes the complex relationship between God and the world, between the world and me, and between me and God. The traditions that keep these three—God, the world, and me—forever apart belong to the dualistic (dvaita) school of thought. Those that weave a tighter bond among these three, making them almost one but not quite, are said to belong to the qualified nondualistic (viśiṣṭādvaita) school. And those that claim that the three are not really three but one, belong to the nondualistic (advaita) school.
Each of these schools is divided into sub-schools that provide explanations with a few minor variations. All of these formulations contain amazing insights and make for a fascinating study. Without direct experience there is no way to verify which of these ways of thinking represents the truth fully. Every school has its staunch supporters as well as fierce critics. People generally gravitate toward the kind of thinking that resonates with their head and heart—usually more of the heart than the head, it would seem.
The most enigmatic of these three schools is the nondualistic school, because its claim—that the “many” don’t really exist—is radically contrary to our present experience. The idea sounds quite audacious if not crazy. How do they justify their claim? Simply by some commonsense observations and a remarkable ability to think outside the box. The rest of this reflection is a brief statement about why the nondualistic claim deserves to be taken seriously.
It is helpful to begin by examining our understanding of what “real” means. What makes one thing real and another unreal? What is the most essential ingredient in reality? Existence seems to be the obvious answer. For a thing to be real, it must exist. Only if something exists will I be able to experience it. There are, however, things that I experience and yet dismiss as unreal. Take the case of dreams. I dismiss my dreams as unreal because the dream world has no stability. It didn’t exist before I fell asleep and it doesn’t exist after I wake up. It seems to have some kind of existence while I am dreaming, but that’s about it. That interim flash of existence, we conclude, has no real existence when we return to the “real” world which we see when we wake up.
This is another way of affirming that what is really real (satya) must also be eternal (nitya). A temporary reality—such as that of my dream or of a mirage in a desert—is no reality. This doesn’t sound too startling until we apply this principle to the world around us. If there is no problem accepting that the dream world is not real, why should it be a problem to accept that the waking world may also not be real? The two are remarkably similar. The dream world didn’t exist before I slept and it didn’t exist after I woke up. The waking world didn’t exist before I woke up and it doesn’t exist when I sleep. The dream world exists for me only when I am dreaming and the waking world exists for me only when I am awake.
We might be tempted to say that the two are not quite the same. The world I see every morning is the world I see every day, whereas my dream world keeps changing every night. This is an obvious counterpoint but without much substance. When I enter the dream world, I never think of it as a new world that I am seeing for the first time. I seem to know everything and everyone in it as if the dream world had been existing all along. It never feels new every night, the way the waking world doesn’t feel new every morning. From our experience of dreams we know, in retrospect, that it is possible to see a new world and yet not feel it to be new as long as we are in it. There is no plausible way to deny that such is not the case with regard to the waking world.
The discovery of these similarities in the waking world and the dream world may modify our understanding of the three states we experience daily: waking (jāgrat), dream (svapna) and deep sleep (suṣupti). Seeing that, like dreams, they all begin and also end, we may find ourselves admitting that these might as well be three kinds of dreams: waking dream, dream dream, and deep sleep dream. Once the mind starts thinking along these lines, what is there to stop it from thinking of death as another dream, of the residence in heaven or hell as another dream, and of rebirth as another dream? Perhaps our entire existence is a series of seemingly endless dreams.
“Seemingly” is the key word, for these dreams are not really endless. They do end, but only when we wake up—when we really wake up. It is then that we encounter the reality which is both really real as well as eternal. According to nondualists, the real reality—distinct from the pseudo reality of this world—is indescribable. We can only say what it is not, never what it is. We distort it the moment we try to describe it. Nevertheless, we need to have some word to refer to it if we must talk about it.
The word that is most commonly used to refer to what is really real is Brahman. It is not the name of a person or a state or of anything in particular. The word simply means vast, all-pervading. Since Brahman is infinite, it has no boundaries, no limitations of any kind, no subjugation to any laws. It cannot therefore be material. The nondualists identify Brahman with consciousness—not in the sense of consciousness of something or someone, but consciousness itself, unattached to anyone or anything. Brahman is the real me. The human me is wandering endlessly in these cascading dream worlds. The real me is the one who is always awake (buddha).
If our experiences while awake, asleep or dreaming are seen in terms of a series of dreams, we begin to see the world in a different light. Having cast sufficient and credible doubt on the independent existence of the world, we no longer need to think of the source, or “God,” who may have created this world. Which is not to say that God is unnecessary or has no role to play. It simply means that discussion about God can wait. What is of immediate concern is the perplexing question: if this world is a dream-like experience, whose experience is it? Who is asleep and who is dreaming this dream?
We know that when we sleep, our waking identity is left behind and we are, as it were, separated from ourselves and the world. As long as we are asleep, we remain unaware of our waking persona and the world. This kind of ignorance is necessary for sleep to occur and for dreams to begin. I create the dream world after I forget who I am—and I become a part of my dream world by identifying with someone in my dream as “me.” The real me is asleep, the dream-me is doing all sorts of things in the dream world.
What would happen if Brahman—the real me—fell asleep? At first glance, the question seems preposterous. We have already identified Brahman with consciousness, one who is always awake. To imagine Brahman falling asleep is the same as imagining consciousness becoming unconscious, which is not only ridiculous but also impossible. Impossible things don’t happen. If they did, they wouldn’t be impossible. But they can seem to happen. Not really, but apparently—as in sleep. One moment I am lying in my bed, turning and tossing, and the next moment I am enveloped in the warm embrace of sleep, which gently guides me into a new world of the type I had never seen before. This transition from the waking world to the dream world is magical but far from real. Nothing has happened really. I am still lying in my bed but I am not aware of it. I am aware of only the dream world before me. Just as the dream world doesn’t really exist, Brahman doesn’t really sleep. But dreams are still possible, so speculation about Brahman’s sleep is also possible.
So, then, what would happen if—and that’s a big, skeptical if—Brahman slept? Brahman would inevitably be separated from its identity as the divine being, as one who is infinite and complete in every way. When Brahman’s infinitude is left behind, what emerges is a finite being, vulnerable and mortal. When Brahman’s completeness is left behind, what emerges is an incomplete being, filled with desire.
In Brahman’s dream world, Brahman is no longer Brahman. The dream transforms the divine being into a human being. Brahman is asleep and dreams of this universe—“creates this universe,” if you like—with its galaxies and its solar systems, its oceans and its mountains, its trees and its rivers, its living beings and its nonliving objects, and everything else that fills the space. Brahman identifies with one human being in the dream, as “me.” That’s the “me” you and I experience in our hearts all the time.
My sense of being incomplete and never quite fulfilled forces me to do things that I hope will bring fulfillment. What they do bring is either joy or sorrow, depending on whether my action is successful or not. Nothing seems to remove my discontent totally and permanently. So I keep trying: some of my ventures turn out well, others don’t. My ambition and others’ expectations, my desires and others’ needs, keep pushing me. I cannot stop now. It’s a vicious cycle. Having fallen into the vortex of karma, I—a finite being in Brahman’s dream world—continue revolving in an endless circle of alternating experience of success and failure, joy and sorrow, birth and death.
Brahman’s separation from its own divine identity—even if the separation is the result of ignorance or “sleep”—has resulted in a dreamlike human identity. This is my present state of being, very real for all practical purposes unless and until I wake up. At the moment, I don’t know that I’m dreaming. Even when told that I am, I roll my eyes or shake my head in disbelief. The cover of ignorance is doing its job remarkably well.
When I look at the world around me, which is really Brahman’s dream world, I wonder who created it. I imagine all sorts of things about the cause of this world and, unless I’m a diehard materialist, what emerges out of my thoughts is the creator God—whose love for me and for the world sustains us all, and unto whom, I tell myself, we’ll all return. Is this creator God a projection of my mind? Yes and no, depending on which “me” I am referring to. Let’s remember the original premise: Brahman is asleep and dreaming. The real “me” of Brahman is the dreamer, and the individualized and diminished “me” of Brahman is the me in my heart at this moment.
The creator God, sensed in the dream, is obviously the projection of the “sleeping” Brahman’s mind, but so is the entire dream world including this person whom I see as me. But—and this is important—the creator God is not the projection of my little mind, which is why many others besides me in Brahman’s dream world have also heard, imagined and experienced the presence of the God who creates the world and takes care of it. Moreover, prayer, worship and meditation directed toward God produce tangible results. Which wouldn’t happen if God were only a projection of my mind. God is real—as real as I am.
I am a person and, when I try to think of the source of this world, a personal God is what my mind imagines, what my heart longs for, and what my intellect can grasp. If and when my own little personhood will begin to melt, my personal God will also begin to melt. Those who talk about the impersonal reality while clinging to their own personalities can never experience the impersonal. An empty talk is just that—empty. When I am no longer a person, my God too will no longer be a person. My concept of God evolves as I evolve.
The beauty of the nondualistic thought is that, even when it affirms the unity of all existence, it still has in its scheme a place for God and the world. The triad—God, the world, and me who acknowledges their presence—all belong to the same plane of reality. If we accept any one of these as real, we have to accept the other two as well. If we question the existence of one, we are in effect also questioning the existence of the other two. What would be impossible to do, obviously, is to question the existence of the questioner.
When the focus turns to the questioner, it turns also to the relationships between me and the world, the world and God, and God and me. It is then that we discover, as seen through the analysis of dreams, that the world has no objective existence apart from me who is experiencing it. The creator God exists only as long the world seems to exist. The personal God exists only to fulfill the needs of the personal me. Looking deeply and learning from experience, the spiritual seeker realizes that the three—me, the world and God—are not really three. God and me are “not two”, me and the world are “not two,” the world and God are “not two.” The many and the one are not two.
No matter which school of thought—dualistic, qualified nondualistic, or nondualistic—provides us the tools to think and to practice, we are all like rivers wending our way to the ocean. The experience of merging into the ocean is what counts, who cares which path brings us to that ultimate and total fulfillment?