The premise is this: humans suffer. No amount of food or technology will ever alleviate this condition. Human suffering cannot be eliminated by physical means, so we look toward the spiritual idea of eternal happiness or infinite bliss. The tradition of Advaita Vedanta says that the perception of the physical world is due to misapprehension (avidya), and once we gain knowledge of Brahman (infinite bliss) we no longer see the physical world; the physical world never existed and we have have always been free from suffering.
As I have argued in the past, if something is to be infinite it cannot be finite and therefore the physical world cannot exist. Adi Shankara’s theory of superimposition deals with this apparent contradiction between the finite and the infinite. Shankara compares our perception of the physical world to a snake that is seen in the darkness of night. Once light illuminates the object, it is found the snake was only a rope or a stick on the ground. Once we know the infinite Brahman we realize our misperception of the finite, physical world.
The problem is, knowledge of the illusion of the physical world requires the physical mind. How can something that is used to point out its own non-existence not exist? Is it possible to believe this chair does not exist without the mind? Once the mind exists the chair exists. The very concept of superimposition relies on discrimination, which is not possible without the mind.
The Mandukya Upanishad declares four parts of the Self (Atman): the waking state, the dream state, deep sleep, and a fourth indescribable state, Turiya. Brahman is identical with these four states. The great preceptor of Advaita, Gaudapada, postulates that the waking state is illusory in nature. He argues that objects in the dream state seem real to the dreamer but are not. If what we perceive in dream is false, then what we perceive in the waking state is also false. Nowhere in the Upanishad, however, is it explicitly stated that the first three states are illusory.
The seventh sloka (verse) of the Mandukya Upanishad describes the fourth part of Atman, Turiya, as not conscious of the internal or external world. Shankara calls this fourth state a “non causal, supremely real state, comparable to a rope.” In contrast, he refers to the first three states as supreme Reality’s “unreal form.”
The Mandukya doesn’t appear, in fact, to support Shankara’s contention that the first three states are unreal, and that the fourth state is the only Reality. It simply describes the four quarters of the Self, each as valid as the other.
The question then presents itself, what are the implications to the Advaitan if the waking state is real? The idea that the manifest physical world is an illusion does not have to be true to believe in Atman as Brahman and knowledge of Atman as the method of liberation. Nor does it change the ultimate belief that all is one. In fact it reinforces it. The waking, dream, and deep sleep states are all part of the Self, and as the Mandukya begins with “All this, verily, is Brahman. The Self is Brahman…”