Śaṅkara, the very famous Indian scholar of the ninth century AD, wanted to clear the Creator of all the evil in the world. The existence of evil and suffering agitates spirits, encourages questioning and sows doubt about the Lord’s intentions and His very nature, – leading the most skeptical to question the role of the Brahman in Creation.
A first objection to his responsibility points to the lack of any motive strong enough to compel the Brahman to come out of his own bliss and get down to the task of creating the Universe.
« The conscious, supreme Self could not create this Universal Sphere. Why could it not? Because it would lack a motive for this action.»i
Why would the Brahman undertake such an effort? Wouldn’t the Whole of Creation be considerably less than his own Self anyway? The Whole is nothing compared to the Self, to the Brahman. Śaṅkara quotes a famous Upaniṣad in this regard to support his position: « Truly it is not for the sake of the Whole that the Whole is dear, but for the sake of the Self that the Whole is dear.”ii
Why then would the Self consent to divest itself of its beatitude, freed from all desire, to undertake the colossal task of creating a universe? If it had done so, then it would directly contradict the Veda, which describes the Self as « desireless ».
Or would the Brahman have temporarily lost his mind, would a moment of madness have led him astray, during which he would have committed the universe? But then this would also contradict the Veda’s view that the Brahman is omniscient.
Consequently, it is perfectly incongruous to posit that the universe was created by a supremely intelligent or blissful Being.
A second line of criticism is the hypothesis that the Brahman created the Universe simply to ‘pass the time’.
“Creation for Brahman is a mere pastime”iii. His power being infinite, and all his desires being fulfilled, Creation is just one game among others, without any real stakes or consequences, just as a king would indulge in some sports activity, or any other relaxation, without any particular reason, or even as a kind of reflex, automatic activity, such as breathing, which does not require any a priori reason, but simply takes place, without the consciousness taking part in it.
The third objection concerns the existence of evil in the universe, and the cruelty and injustice it would reveal in the Lord, the Brahman.
« Yet the Lord cannot be the cause of the universe.
– Why then?
– Because he would then have been biased and cruel, by procuring extreme happiness for some, such as gods, etc., and extreme misery for others, such as animals, and by reserving a mixed fate for others, including humans. He would have fabricated a world of inequalities, thus manifesting preferences and rejections, in the manner of an ordinary man. This would ruin the nature of the Lord, made of purity, etc., as Revelation and Tradition make it known to us. Moreover, by dispensing pain and death to beings, he would show a ‘cruelty’, a ferocity abhorred even by the dregs of the people.
– To this we answer: No, ‘because it takes into account (merit and demerit)’. If the Lord created this world of inequalities without taking anything into account, he would indeed be guilty of both sins […] but in reality, in composing this unequal creation, he has regard for merit and demerit. Just as Parjanya [god of rain] plays the role of general cause in the production of rice, barley, etc., while the particular potentialities contained in the seeds of these various grains account for their mutual differences, so the Lord is the general cause of gods, men and others (classes of living beings), while the unequal condition between these classes of beings has as its particular causes the acts (previously) performed by each individual soul.”iv
Everyone is responsible for his or her actions, and pays the price or reaps the benefit, age after age, in the cycle of reincarnations.
The Lord is not responsible for evil, it is the creatures who freely indulge in evil deeds, and who, as a result, are reborn endlessly to do more evil.
All this seems quite logical. The Lord created the Whole, but is responsible for nothing.
It is therefore that creatures are essentially, eminently free (and therefore responsible) for what they are, and what they become.
Two sets of questions then arise.
– Who is responsible for the intimate nature of each being? Of their very essence? That is to say, of the faculty of this or that being to act in accordance with the nature of ‘good’ or ‘evil’? Why is one called ‘good’ and the other ‘evil’? If it is not the Lord Creator Himself, who populated the world with good, bad, or intermediate creatures, and thus launched them into the endless cycle of transmigration, who is it?
– What is the purpose of Creation? Why was it created, with its seemingly inevitable procession of suffering and pain? What interests does this immense circus of samsara serve?
The theory of māyā (illusion) is one of the possible answers to these questions, at least it is the answer of Advaita, the »non-duality », as theorized by Śaṅkara.
Advaita says that the Whole has always been the Self itself. But the creatures who are part of the Whole ignore it. They do not know that their own self is the Self. The endless cycle of reincarnations only ends when awakening or liberation makes beings aware of the identity of their self with the Self.
By translating māyā as ‘illusion’, I am picking up a long tradition of translations.
A famous formula uses the word and applies it by extension to the Lord, who would then be an « illusionist ».
« Understand the material nature (prakṛti) as an illusion and the Great Lord (maheśvara) as an illusionist.”v
Despite the almost universal consensus, there is still serious doubt about the meaning of the very notion of māyā.
Alyette Degrâces for instance refuses the very idea of ‘illusion’ and she translates the verse as follows:
« Nature is the power of measurement and the Great Lord is the master of measurement.”vi
And in a note about the Lord « master of the māyā », she develops a tight argument to justify having thus departed from the usual translation of māyā by ‘illusion’.
« This term is impossible to translate, and especially not as an illusionist as it is found in many translations (but not Max Müller’s or the Indian translators). The māyā, witha root MĀ « measure » means « a power of measurement », where measure means “knowledge”. If the measurement is bad, then we will speak of illusion, but not before. Brahman is here māyin « master of measurement, of this power of measurement », through which the world manifests itself. When the Brahman takes on a relative aspect and creates the world, maintains it or absorbs it, it is defined by attributes, it is said saguṇa, aparaṃ Brahman or the master of measure (māyin) by which the world is deployed and in relation to which the human being must actualize his power of measure in order not to superimpose or confuse the two levels of Brahman, one of which is the support of everything.”vii
Aparaṃ Brahman is the « inferior », non supreme Brahman, endowed with « qualities », « virtues » (saguṇa). He is the creative Brahman of theUniverse and is distinguished from the supreme Brahman, who is nameless, without quality, without desire.
By consulting Monier-Williams’ dictionary at māyā, we can see that the oldest meanings of the word have nothing to do with the notion of illusion, but refer to the meanings of « wisdom », « supernatural or extraordinary power ». It is only in the ṚgVeda that other notions appear, that Monier-Williams enumerates in this way: « Illusion, unreality, deception, fraud, trick, sorcery, witchcraft, magic. An unreal or illusory image, phantom, apparition.”
These last meanings are all frankly pejorative, and are clearly in contrast with the original meaning of the word, « wisdom », itself based on the etymology of « measure ».
We can then consider that, before the age of ṚgVeda (i.e. more than a millennium before the time of Abraham), there has been a complete reversal of the meaning of the word, changing from « wisdom » to « deception, fraud, illusion ».
These considerations may put us in a position to answer the following question:
Why did the supreme Brahman delegate to the Brahman ‘aparaṃ’ the care of creating a universe so full of evils and illusions?
The reason is that evils and illusions, frauds and deceptions, are there for « wisdom » to live and flourish.
The world of māyā, originally, is not the world of evils and illusions but the world that « wisdom » founded, and that creatures must « measure ».
The Brahman is the master of wisdom.
And creation, the whole creation, therefore the Whole, also has the vocation of appropriating « wisdom ».
A millennium after ṚgVeda, other Scriptures took up the idea again.
« Who put wisdom in the ibis?”viii
« YHVH, through wisdom, founded the earth.”ix
« But first of all, wisdom was created.”x
It is rather unwise, then, in my opinion, to see in wisdom only an illusion.
iŚaṅkara. Brahmasūtra bhasya, II, 1, 32. Trans. from Sanskrit into English by Swami Gambhirananda, Advaita Ashrama, ed., Calcutta, 1956, p. 360.
iiBṛhadāraṇyaka-Upaniṣad, 2.4.5. My translation in English from the French translation by.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014
iiiŚaṅkara. Brahmasūtra bhasya, II, 1, 33, translated from Sanskrit into English by Swami Gambhirananda, Ed. Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1956, p. 361.
ivŚaṅkara. Commentary at Brahmasūtra, II, 1, 32-34. Quot. Michel Hulin. Shankara and non-duality. Ed. Bayard. 2001, p.148
vŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.10. My translation in English from the French translation by Michel Hulin. Shankara and non-duality. Ed. Bayard. 2001, p.144
viŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.10. My translation in English from the French translation by Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014
viiThe Upaniṣad. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.9. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 408, note 1171.