Confusion regarding Sankara’s commentary on 2.16 of the giitaa

Dennis Waite dwaite at INTERALPHA.CO.UK
Tue Jan 21 14:33:49 CST 1997

The translation of this sloka in the Sastry translation is:-

"Of the unreal no being there is; there is no-non-being of the real. Of both
these is the truth seen by seers of the Essence."

We can use an effective definition of 'real' as that which is eternal and
unchanging and of 'unreal' as that which is transient and changing. In the
commentary, Sankara states that any 'effect' is unreal because it is not
perceived as distinct from its causes, which is a bit more difficult to
understand. Anyway, his imaginary objector concluded that "nothing at all

Sankara's answer is as follows:-

"No (such objection applies here). For every fact of experience involves
twofold consciousness (buddhi), the consciousness of the real (sat) and the
consciousness of the unreal (asat). Now that is (said to be) 'real', of
which our consciousness never fails; and that 'unreal' of which our
consciousness fails. Thus the distinction of reality and unreality depends
on our consciousness. Now, in all our experience, twofold consciousness
arises with reference to one and the same substratum, as 'a cloth existent',
'a pot existent', 'an elephant existent' - not as in the expression 'a blue
lotus' - and so on everywhere. Of the two, the consciousness of pot etc. is
temporary as was already pointed out, but not the consciousness of
existence. Thus, the object corresponding to our consciousness of pot etc.
is unreal, because the consciousness is temporary; but what corresponds to
our consciousness of existence is not unreal, because the consciousness is

The confusion arises in respect of the term 'twofold consciousness'. It is
understood that, in the same way that a pot is just name and form
superimposed upon the 'reality' of clay, so is everything, in this apparent
creation, name and form superimposed upon the reality of the brahman. It is
also understood that nothing exists (or appears to exist) without the
sustaining power of brahman or, in this context, 'consciousness'. However,
there seems no reason to suppose that our 'consciousness' of anything, be it
thing, thought or emotion, is different from our 'consciousness' of any
other thing. (After all, even Berkeley - a mere western philosopher! - has
pointed out that we perceive everything in our minds anyway. i.e. a
so-called physical object is only actually perceived in the mind, in just
the same way as an idea or emotion, so we cannot really differentiate.)

I understand that Sankara is distinguishing between a thing and what he
terms 'existence' of that thing, and is saying that the former is unreal and
the latter real. I think I can appreciate what he trying to say, but he
doesn't seem to define exactly what he means by 'existence'. Without any
such definition we are bound to use the word in the way we normally use it,
and expect others to be doing so as well. We use the word even for
admittedly transient phenomena. I might take exception if you denied that my
headache existed. Certainly most people would express disbelief if anyone
claimed that the pyramids did not exist. We might be persuaded that the
latter has more 'existence' than the former or we might think that perhaps a
flower has more existence than a stone, by virtue of being alive (whatever
that means) but one presumes that all this is irrelevant to the way in which
Sankara is using the term.

One can accept the working definition of 'real' or 'true' as something which
always exists and 'unreal' or 'false' as something which is only transient.
( e.g. true love, real effort). Then we can see that the pot, flower,
elephant and the ideas and feelings about these etc. are all unreal. And we
can imagine that there might be some 'thing' which always has and will
exist, though on analysis, we will probably conclude that there could only
be one such thing - the Self - and we haven't yet realised that! But none of
this seems to quite tie in with the idea of 'existence' being real.

And that still leaves the unanswered question of this 'twofold'
consciousness. What is Sankara talking about?

dwaite at

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