Let us start with the Dwaitaphilosophy. According to Madhvacharya (1447-1539 A.D.) the proponent of this philosophy, there are two realities—one independent known as Paramatma, and the other dependent known as Jeevatma. Paramatma is the Bimba or the original truth, and Jeevatmas are Pratibimba or mirror images or reflection of the original Bimba. It is comparable to the sun and its reflection in water kept in containers of different shapes and sizes or to fire and its sparks. This world is created for the sake of Jeevatmas to fulfill their obligations (karma) which in turn produces reactions and hence we keep on coming here and going (take rebirths) in cycles. We can be freed from this cycle (Mukti) if we have performed good actions in our life and prayed to God and get His blessings after death.
According to Adwaita philosophy enunciated by Aadi Shankara (788-820 A.D.), this world and its Creator are one and the same. There is no difference between Jeevatma and Paramatma. There is only one reality and that is the Atma which pervades everything and is the inner controlling spirit in everything. The appearance of this world (Jagat) is misleading just like in darkness a rope can be mistaken for a snake and vice-versa (Rajju-Sarpa adhyaropa). Hence it is classified as an illusion (Maya or Mithya). One can achieve Mukti (freedom) from the cycle of birth and death, even when one is alive (Jeevan mukti) through knowledge of the supreme truth.
Vishishtadwaita, propounded by Ramanujacharya (1077-1157 A.D.), is very much like Adwaita in accepting Atma as the only reality encompassing and transcending all living (Jeevas) and nonliving nature (Prakriti) but these are also treated as real and not as illusory.
As we can see, all the three philosophies accept the existence of a Creator of this world but differ in their view as to the creation—whether it is illusory or a reality. To resolve this controversy one has to look into what the Vedas have proclaimed about the origin of this world.
In Aitareya Upanishad, it is clearly stated that “God not only created this world but also entered it as the inner controlling spirit.” If, He only created the world (for the sake of Jeevatmas) and did not enter it, then Dwaita philosophy is applicable but since it is said that He entered it also, then everything becomes God.
A question arises, why does Adwaita call this world an illusion? It is very well answered through an analogy. We can make different kinds of ornaments from gold or different kinds of pottery from mud. But in the ultimate analysis everything is gold or mud. Similarly matter appears in different forms but once you consider all matter as energy, the physical differences become unimportant and everything can be measured in terms of units of energy. This is what Shankara meant when he stated that he world is illusory. Moreover, the world appears differently to each one of us according to our mindset. Hence, Shankara has described the world as ever-changing and deceptive in appearance.
A second aspect of Adwaita philosophy is still more relevant for humankind. It is regarding fear and desire. Under Dwaita philosophy, God is an independent reality and we are a dependent reality. So we have to praise God or be afraid of Him as the watchman, judge and benefactor or punisher for our actions whereas according to Adwaita, we are responsible for our actions and we have nobody to fear—rather we have to fear ourselves. The question why are both good and evil present in this world is very well answered by Swami Vivekananda when he says, “Good and evil are complementary to each other and are like two sides of the same coin. They will always be present. If Ravana was not there, how can you appreciate Rama?”
Regarding desire, Adwaita makes us totally free from any desire because everything belongs to Atma and Atma is in everything. It is like air which is both inside you as well as outside. When that is the case, whether I possess something or somebody else possesses something makes no difference because everything is in Atma only.
Thus we see that all the three philosophies teach us to realize the importance of Atma, whether as God himself or as His reflection in every being, a corollary of which is obviously to love and respect all human beings including all nature that also belongs to Him only.
Believing in a supernatural being and constantly praying to Him for your and others’ well being or believing in yourself as the sole controller of your destiny is one’s option.
C.S. Srinivasan is a scientist who worked on coffee in India and is currently holidaying in the U.S.