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Material Cause Of The Universe In Various Hindu Philosophies

It is commonly accepted that the universe we live in is a created entity. However, we need to know the nature of this creation. Every creation needs a material cause. Material causes are threefold —initiating, transforming, and uninvolved. The view of the initiating material cause is upheld by the Nyaya-Vaisheshika system of Indian philosophy, while the notion of the transforming cause is held by Sankhya, and that of the uninvolved cause by Advaita Vedanta.

Take, for example, a piece of cloth formed by weaving together a bunch of threads. The threads remain in their original form in the cloth without undergoing any change. Here the cloth is something new, though it consists of nothing but threads, which form the material cause of the cloth. This view of fresh origination, arambhavada, is held by the Naiyayikas and Vaisheshikas. One may argue that these threads could produce a second piece of cloth after having formed the first piece, because they remain essentially as threads even after the cloth is produced. The Naiyayikas would say that this cannot happen because, with the production of the first piece of cloth, the prior-absence, pragabhava, of the cloth is lost. That is, the piece of cloth already exists now and cannot be produced anew. Prior-absence, according to Nyaya-Vaisheshika, is one of the causes that produce any effect. And with its destruction, after the first piece of cloth is produced, there can be no further production of effect out of the same cause, which here is the prior-absence.

The Sankhyas, on the other hand, hold that the material cause no longer remains in its original state. It gets transformed into an effect. In the piece of cloth therefore, threads are no longer threads; they have become a piece of cloth. Therefore, there can be no further production of another piece of cloth. The ‘absence of something’ is a negative entity; it cannot give rise to anything positive, as that would be a contradiction in terms. Here the question of pragabhava, prior-absence, giving rise to an effect does not arise at all. This view regarding cause and effect is known as parinamavada, the theory of real transformation.

The Nihilists or Shunyavadins among the Buddhists hold that it is only after the complete destruction of a cause that the effect can be seen. None can hope to see the seed below the earth once the plant has grown. This view is known as asatkaryavada, theory of origination from a cause that no longer exists.

The Advaita Vedantins are against all these views and contend that what is said to be produced, is in fact mithya, false. In other words, it has no independent existence. A piece of cloth is nothing but threads woven together. Therefore, strictly speaking, a cloth is no cloth. While calling it a cloth we ignore what it is made of, the essence of it. We pay attention to the appearance and not the underlying essence. To clarify this point the Advaita Vedantins give the well-known example of the snake-rope illusion. We may mistake a piece of rope for a snake and be frightened for the time being. But ultimately, we find out that it is no snake and there is nothing to worry about. However, this apparent manifestation is caused by the underlying reality and our ignorance of it. Such is the power of ignorance, asserts the Advaitin, that it obscures what is true and creates something in its wake which is non-existent or false. The Advaita Vedantins are unique in their assertion that an effect or appearance is essentially false and, therefore, its cause is also false. Extending this argument further, they try to prove that the whole universe as perceived by us is established on Brahman, the ultimate Reality, and that Brahman cannot be termed ‘a cause’ and hence is free from any qualifying features or attributes.