What is real? Absolute and relative truth


Adi Shankara, an Indian sage (788–820 CE) declared that “the one unchanging entity (Brahman) alone is real, while changing entities do not have absolute existence”.

That’s a pretty tough standard for determing what is, and what isn’t real. But Shankara was a wise man, and his definition has stood the test of time because it points the way from the world of changing phenomena to the unchanging reality from which all phenomena arise.

In discussing nonduality then, it is useful to make a distinction between absolute, and relative truth. This at least forgoes the need to put the word “apparent” before everything!

For instance if you look around you, nothing you see could be said to have absolute reality, as everything in the phenomenal world is in a constant state of change. Even if you look up at the stars, they all were born, and even if they are among the longest lived stars, will eventually die (some five billion years hence in the case of our own local star, the sun).

But relative, or provisional reality is useful, for example when Samuel Johnson refuted Berkleys immaterialism by kicking a rock and (possibly hopping around) exclaimed “I refute it thus!”.

So, while by Shankara’s definition neither Johnsons foot nor the rock were real, it would be common sense to say they both had “relative” reality. Otherwise we slip into a nonsense where every object has annoying quotation marks wrapped around it.


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