Is Ishvara Illusory? Is God an illusion?
In the Brahma Sutras (II.1.14) Sankara, in answer to objections, does seem to admit that Ishvara, the Lord, is on the same level as the creation which he made and rules and destroys. Theoretical Vedantins use this and similar passages to argue that from the highest point of view there is no Ishvara, there is no Lord to whom devotion can rationally be offered. Admittedly, they say, devotion is everywhere in the Gita strongly recommended, but in the end this is an illusory worship of an illusory Lord. By these arguments they confuse and often discourage those who follow the Gita doctrine of devotion.
The argument seems strong, even conclusive, but it is based on an equivocation. A word such as Creator, like many other nouns of agency, has two meanings: relating to specific action and relating to habitual action. A drummer does not make a noise all the time, if he merely frequently drums he is a drummer.
So also with a singer. She sings a song and she is therefore the singer but when that song ceases she is silent. Now according to the argument put forward there is now no song and therefore no singer. But the fact is that when she walks down the street, people say to their children, “That’s the famous singer”. The children don’t say, “Well, I can’t hear any song so she can’t be a singer”.
As we all know to say someone is a singer does not mean that they are singing all the time; it means that they can sing. The singer is someone who has the potentiality, the power to sing; it is not only someone who happens to be singing at the time.
In the same way Ishvara, the creator-Lord is Lord not only when a creation appears. He is still Lord even when there is no creation because he has the potentiality, the power of creating.
It may be objected, “Ah, but the song is as real as the singer whereas samsara is illusory, so it is not the same thing. The Vedantins want to say that there is a real Ishvara but only illusory creations so the analogy does not hold.”
The answer is that the singer-song illustration does hold even when what is produced is illusory. The actor is producing an illusion on the stage but he is still called an actor when he is outside the theatre. Again, an Eastern story teller sitting on a mat can produce a whole world for his listeners so that they laugh and even cry but when he is not actually telling his stories he is still a storyteller.
In his Gita commentary Sankara quotes an objection; “When there is no creation, how can there be an Ishvara to rule over it. Over what would he be the Lord?”
His answer is that when there is no creation, not even an illusory creation, Ishvara is the Lord of the potentialities of such creation.
So Ishvara, the creator of the world illusion is always the creator-Lord.
He is the supreme reality and devotion to him is to the supremely real. The devotee is the same Lord partially veiled by illusion; as this is thinned and thrown off the Lord knows himself by himself (XI.38).
© Trevor Leggett