What is unreal?

The term tuccha means in Classical Sanksrit “worthless”, “insignificant”. In Vedānta, however, it gets a more specific technical meaning, to denote the absolute unreality of chimeral entities, such as the khapuṣpa (flower in the air), which will not and cannot ever exist.

For instance,

api ca saṃvit siddhyati vā na vā? siddhyati cet, sadharmatā syāt. na cet, tucchatā, gaganakusumādivat (Śrī Bhāṣya, mahāpūrvapakṣa).

Moreover, is consciousness established or not? If it is established, then it must have qualities. If not, it is unreal, like a flower in the sky.


api ca – avidyayā brahmaṇi tirohite tad brahma na kiñcid api prakāśate; uta kiñcit prakāśate? pūrvasmin kalpe, prakāśamātrasvarūpasya brahmaṇo ’prakāśe tucchatāpattir asakṛd uktā (Śrī Bhāṣya, mahāsiddhānta).

Moreover, if the brahman is covered by nescience, would it not shine at all or shine a little bit? In the first case, if the brahman, which is essentially nothing but light, would not shine, it would end up being absolutely unreal —this has been said several times.

In this sense, tuccha seems to have been added to Kumārila’s list of four kinds of absence (previous absence, posterior absence, reciprocal absence and absolute absence). But what is then the difference between tuccha and the fourth type of absence, i.e., atyantābhāva? Notwithstanding Kumārila’s initial understanding of it (as reconstructed by Birgit Kellner, Kellner 1996 available for download here) the latter has ended up covering cases of complete absence which however did not imply a logical impossibility. tuccha, by contrast, covered logical and conceptual impossibilities.

However, tuccha and abhāva (which, if not further specified, means atyantābhāva) are found side by side in an odd passage of Veṅkaṭanātha’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā. The passage attacks the Pramāṇavāda idea that invalidity is intrinsic to cognitions, because, being a sheer absence, it does not need to be created, it is the “by default” situation. This cannot be the case, rebucks Veṅkaṭanātha.

avastutvam iti kiṃ abhāvatvam abhipretam uta tucchatvam? nādyaḥ, pradhvaṃse vyabhicārāt. ahetukavināśasya ca tarkapāde parihariṣyamāṇatvāt. na dvitīyaḥ, asiddheḥ. na hy aprāmāṇyamapramāṇe tuccham api tu prāmāṇyam, yanniṣṭhābhāvapratiyogī yaḥ sa tatra tuccha iti tattvam (SM ad 1.1.5, 1971, pp. 72–73)

Does the expression “it is not real” mean that it does not exist (abhāva), or that it is absolutely inexistent (tuccha)? Not the first one, because there would be a contradiction (vyabhicāra) at the moment of [its] destruction (since, if it never existed, it should not be liable to elimination) and since the destruction of something which has no cause (hetu) will be refuted (parihṛ-) in the Tarkapāda [of the UMS]. Not the second one, since it is not established. In fact, it is not the case that in the case of something which is not an instrument of knowledge (pramāṇa) the invalidity is absolutely inexistent (tuccha). Rather, the validity is. The truth (tattva) is that something is absolutely inexistent in something else if the former is the counter-positive of the absence occurring in the latter.

Now, in this case, the idea that prāmāṇya is said to be tuccha in something which is not an instrument of knowledge makes me think that tuccha cannot mean “conceptually impossible” and that it must rather mean just “absolutely absent”. Validity is in fact not conceptually impossible, but just altogether absent from an invalid cognition. Even the definition which follows seems to support this view, since a genuine tuccha cannot have something existent as its counter positive. But what is then abhāva in the same passage? All that Veṅkaṭanātha has to say about it is that its abhāvatva is contradicted by the fact that invalidity can be eliminated. And something non-existing should not be liable to be eliminated. abhāva might then mean any sort of “absence” and even “conceptually impossible” (but this would be really odd).

Can abhāva in Vedāntic texts refer to something different than atyantābhāva?

For more on absence in Kumārila and in his predecessors, see here. For another post on absence, see here.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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11 thoughts on “What is unreal?

  1. In Advaita Vedānta tuccha and mithyā are different concepts. Tuccha is translated as chimeral and mithyā is translated as unreal. Khapuṣpa is tuccha and the serpent perceived in a rope is unreal. In Advaitasiddhi, Madhusūdana asserts that which can never be perceived in any substratum is tuccha (Kvacidapy upādhau sattvena pratīty anarhatvam). However, an unreal (mithyā) object can be apprehended, though it is sublated by valid knowledge later. We perceive serpent in a rope by mistake but we have never experienced a khapuṣpa (flower in the sky) or bandhyāputra (son of a barren woman) by any means. In Advaita Vedānta, the existence of unreal objects (prātibhāsika sattā – apparent reality) is accepted because they appear as real. Tuccha objects do not have any kind of existence.

    I think ‘absolute unreality’ also is not appropriate for tuccha. Even worthless (arthakriyārahita) is also not appropriate. Worthless is also applicable for mithyā objects and it is discussed in Tattvapradīpika written by Citsukhācārya while discussing the lakṣaṇa of svaprakāśatva (self-luminosity).

    Rāmanuja is very much aware about the meaning of tuccha (1). So, he opines that if consciousness is not established by lakṣaṇa and pramāṇa then it must be tuccha. We know that if an object has existence then it can be established by them. In the same way, the second quotation of Rāmanuja reads that if Brahman can never be known then it will be just like the tucchas. Tuccha objects can never be known. You translated prakāṣate as shine but in the context shining is not just like the shining of sun or fire. A pot also shines when it is revealed by knowledge. The difference here is: Brahman shines without the help of others but pot etc. shine with the help of others (knowledge, light etc.). In Advaita Vedānta Brahman alone is described as self-revealing (svaprakāśa).

    Tuccha is an adjective of the objects which can never be experienced. tuccha does not mean ‘absolute unreality’ because ‘unreality’ is a noun. Abhāva is a noun. So, the question regarding the difference between tuccha and abhāva does not make sense. I mean, the question will not beget any scholarly answer. It may be asked like: What is the difference between tuccha and the negatum (pratiyogī : yasya abhāvaḥ sa pratiyogī) of atyantābhāva or what is the difference between the absence of tuccha and atyantābhāva? These are standard questions frequently asked in the classes of Nyāya Philosophy. The answer is: though tuccha does not occur, you can never say that there is the absence (abhāva) of tuccha. Objects which never occur can never be the negatum (pratiyogī ) of any of the four types of absence. The negatum of absence should be established. So, the sentence ‘bhutale ghato nasti’ conveys the atyantābhāva (absolute absense) of ghaṭa (pot). Ghaṭa has some existence and it is also established by lakṣaṇa and pramāṇa and therefore the pot is qualified for being the negatum (pratiyogitva). So, the difference between tuccha and the pratiyogī of atyantābhāva is – tuccha does not have any existence but the latter has that.

    Venkaṭanātha did not use tuccha in its accurate meaning and this fact confused you very much. Yo yanniṣṭābhāvapratiyogī sa tatra tuccham [arthaḥ: yaḥ yatra na tiṣṭhati tatra tasya tucchatā] – in this portion Venkaṭanātha used the word tuccha casually and not in its proper meaning. Here tuccha means ‘absent’ only.

    Can abhāva in Vedāntic texts refer to something different than atyantābhāva?

    Frankly speaking, Śaṇkarāchārya opines that there should not be any kind of attribute of abhāva. Attributes are given for bhāva padārthas (positive phenomena). So, while refuting prāgabhāva in the Ābhāsabhaṣya of Taittirīyopaniṣad he says – viṣeśaṇavattve bhāva eva syāt (If attribute is given to absence then absence will be a positive phenomenon). Śaṇkara thinks that we give attributes to the positive objects only. So, the attributes like prāk, pradvaṃsa, anyonya and atyanta are not possible for abhāva.

    Later Advaitins like Vidyāraṇya, Madhusūdana, Chitsukha, Sri Harṣa, Dharmarājādvarīndra etc. used all the four types of abhāvas while propagating their opinions regarding Advaita Vedānta. For instance, in the first chapter of Advaitasiddhi while discussing the second lakṣaṇa of falsity (mithyātva) Madhusūdana uses atyantābhāva and anyonyābhāva and pradvamsābhāva in the third lakṣaṇa. In Vedāntaparibhāṣa, Dharmarājādvarīndra mentions prāgabhāva and atyantābhāva in anumāna pariccheda (chapter). If you will like to have detailed reference regarding abhāva in Advaita books I will provide it in later posts.

    1. However, Rāmānuja is not aware about the fact that sat and asat are not contradictory. Sat means immutable and asat means tuccha (Chimeral). Rāmānuja thinks that the absence of sat is asat and therefore the anirvachnīyatānupapatti is discussed by him.


    • Vivek,
      thanks for this thoughtful reply. Still, I feel like I am not progressing in my goal, i.e., understanding Vedānta Deśika’s passage. He *does* in fact oppose tuccha and abhāva (more precisely, abhāvatva and tucchatva) in the passage I mention in the post. And although he uses tuccha in a “casual” way, he surely means to distinguish it from abhāva. But how? I am still puzzled.
      Moreover, the fact that Vedānta Deśika uses tuccha in a non-standard way makes me think that there might have been a tradition of use of tuccha in a different way. What do you think?

      • Thank you a lot Elisha for providing me the book ‘Seśvaramīmaṃsā’. The context here is very much important and without it the purport of the passage is hard to understand.

        In the passage of Vedāntadeśika, abhāva means absence and tuccha means the negatum (pratīyogī) of absence. There is a huge difference between the absence and the negatum. Absence is a negative phenomenon and the negatum is a positive phenomenon (1). ‘Bhūtale ghaṭābhāvah’ – in this example, according to Vedāntadeśika, ghaṭābhāva is different from ghaṭa (abhāva is different from tuccha). Ghaṭābhāva is absence itself and ghaṭa is the negatum of the absence occurs in bhūtala (piece of ground).

        Tuccha does not mean chimeral here. Vedāntadeśika mentions the meaning of tuccha in the passage itself, which is very different from the traditional approach. He wrote: ‘Yanniṣṭhābhāvapratiyogī yaḥ sa tatra tucchaḥ’ (Which does not occur in a locus is tuccha in that locus). In the gloss Sūkṣmārthatīka, Vīrarāghava also mentions that. Vīrarāghava wrote: “abhāvatvam kiṃchitpratīyogikābhāvarūpatvam, tucchatvam abhāvapratīyogitvam.” ( abhāvatvam means the absence of some undetermined negatum and tucchatvam means the negatum of absense).

        Even abhāvatvam is not confined within atyantābhāva. Here abhāvatvam means all the four types of absence.

        Here is the meaning of the passage:

        The discussion is on the invalidity (aprāmaṇya). Bauddha philosophers contend that invalidity is self-established as it is a negative phenomenon (avastu). Vedāntadeśika refutes the view asking: is avastutvam means abhāvatvam or tucchatvam. It means is aprāmaṇyam an absence (the kind of absence is not determined) or the negatum of absence.

        The first view cannot hold water because abhāva includes pradhaṃsābhāva also. If aprāmāṇya is pradhaṃsābhāva then it should be created by some cause. The lakṣaṇa of pradhaṃsābhāva is ‘sādir anataḥ’ (the absence which has a beginning but not an end). If aprāmāṇya is taken as pradhaṃsābhāva then it must not be self-established, it must be yielded by some cause. So, the Bauddha theory of ‘aprāmaṇyaṃ svataḥ’ is not logical.

        The Second view also is not correct as aprāmaṇya stays in apramāṇa (just as ghaṭatva stays in ghaṭa). If ‘a’ stays in ‘b’ then ‘a’ should not be the negatum of the absence occurs in ‘b’. So, aprāmāṇya is not the negatum of absence also. Prāmāṇya does not stay in apramāṇa, so the absence of prāmāṇya is in the apramāna. And, thus, Prāmānya is the negatum (pratiyogī: Yasyābāvaḥ sa pratiyogī) of the absence (prāmāṇyābhāva) occurs in apramāṇa.

        ‘Yanniṣṭhābhāvapratiyogī yaḥ sa tatra tucchaḥ’ – this portion is specially given to show that he is not taking tuccha in the traditional meaning. Otherwise, there was no point to mention the meaning of tuccha. If we think that the meaning is given for clarification then I must say that the meaning of tuccha is not taken in that much strong sense as it is taken in other books like Advaitasiddhi etc. In the previous post the word ‘casually’ means not in the strong sense.

        Please let me know if there is any fault in my understanding.

        1. Though, some naiyāyikas thinks that abhāva is also a positive phenomenon because we say ‘abhāvaḥ iha asti’ (abhāva is here). The thing which can be denoted by ‘asti’ (occurs) must be positive.


        • Dear Vivek,

          The Vedāntadeśika definition of tuccha you quote: “Yanniṣṭhābhāvapratiyogī yaḥ sa tatra tucchaḥ”, appears to me to be a mere restatement of the traditional (Nyāya) definition of pratiyogī as “yasyābhāvaḥ sa pratiyogī”!!! And this doubt gets deeper at the sight of Vīrarāghava’s explanation of tucchatva as “abhāvapratiyogitva”. Am I right???

          • Respected Sudiptada,
            You are right. I think if a creature barks and sways its tail, it must be a dog. You may call the creature in different names but that does not make any difference.

        • Vivek,

          thank you for this detailed answer and for taking time to think it through.
          Concerning the first point, i.e., why aprāmāṇya cannot be tantamount to abhāva, Vedāntadeśika discusses two reasons. The second one is the one you mention (if it has been destroyed, it must have been originated). This leads, by the way, to interesting problems regarding the origin of avidyā (if one applies to Advaita Vedānta this line of reasoning, it follows that avidyā must be originated in time).
          Concerning the second point, i.e., tuccha, your interpretation seems to fit, thank you so much! (I hope you don’t mind if I add a fn thanking you.) What really still disturbs me is that I cannot imagine that Vedāntadeśika just decided to use a word in an idiosyncratic way. You are right, he does explain it, but why not using “pratiyogin” if this is what he wanted to say? There must be some predecessors to this use of tuccha…

          • Thank you Elisa for your intriguing response.

            “If aprāmāṇya is pradhaṃsābhāva then it should be created by some cause.” – I wrote this while discussing the first argument. The pronoun ‘it’ was given here to denote pradhaṃsābhāva not to mention the pratiyogin (negatum) of the absence . The pronoun was ambigous there and it was not expected to be used there. I am extremely sorry for that. The exact meaning is: If aprāmāṇya is pradhaṃsābhāva then aprāmāṇya (which is tantamount to pradhaṃsābhāva) should be created by some cause and therefore can never be treated as self-established.

            ‘Yad yad utpattimat tat tat vināśi’ (Which has an origin that must be destructed) – this vyāpti (invariable relation) is accepted in Advaita philosophy(1). However, yad yad vināśi tat tad utpattimat (which gets destructed has an origin) – is not a proper vyāpti (2) and, thus, is not accepted in Advaita Vedānta philosophy. All the objects created by Brahman from avidyā must be destructed because the objects are ‘created’. However, as avidyā gets sublated it, of course, has an origin – this argument can not hold water. According to Advaita Vedānta, avidyā is one of the six beginningless padārthas (3) but avidyā gets sublated by the knowledge of Brahman.

            Above all, do not always expect that the arguments or assumptions of a philosophy will be applicable in other philosophies as well. So, Vedāntadeśika’s argument may not be accepted by Advaitins for different reasons.

            The use of the word tuccha in Vedāntadeśika’s book surprises me too. I did not get this kind of usage in my 12 years’ experience of studying śāstras. I shall ask my gurus regarding it and inform you as soon as I get any answer.

            1) Saṃkhya philosphers conted that the vyāpti should be like: Yad yad bhāvatve sati utpattimat tat tad vināśi (which object is positive and has an origin will be destructed), because according to them dukkhātyantikaikantikapradhvaṃsa (The certain and final destruction of sorrow) is liberation. Though pradhvaṃsa has an origin but it is not a positive phenomenon. Thus, it does not have an end. I mean, It will never be destructed. I think Naiyāyikas will also agree with Saṃkhya philosophers.

            2) Because, this vyāpti is not applicable in the case of avidyā. At least, Naiyāyikas will never show this invariable relation (which gets destructed has an origin) to Advaita philosophers because their theory of prāgabhāva will be affected then.

            3) Jīva, īśvara, Viśhuddhā cit (pure consciousness), The difference between jīva and īśvara, avidyā, the relation between avidyā and cit (consciousness) – these six things are accepted as beginningless in Advaita Vedānta.


        • Vivek (I need to reply here, but this is meant as a reply to your last commment, for which I am very grateful),
          1) If I understand you correctly, you are saying that V. might be saying that abhāva includes also pradhvaṃsābhāva and this needs to be originated by some cause and cannot, thus, be intrinsic. But it would be easy to answer that aprāmāṇya represents a different sort of absence. In fact, if I am not wrong, when not further qualified abhāva is understood as atyantābhāva.

          2) Thank for your offer to enquire further concerning this use of tuccha. I am very much interested in your results.



          • Yes, V’s argument will not work for atyantābhāva. Bauddha philosophers did not specify the type of abhāva, so their view is refuted by V. taking one of the types of abhāva (absence). So V. is successful in his mission. If aprāmāṇya is taken as atyantābhāva then what kind of problems will arise is a subject of further discussion.
            ‘Tuccha’ also means ‘insignificant’. It can be used as an adjective of opinion, matter etc. For example – tasya matam tuccham (his opinion is insignificant), Brahmānandāpekṣyayā viṣayānandaḥ tucchaḥ etc.


    • Thanks, Elisa, for this wonderful post.

      Thanks, Vivek, for your detailed reply.

      “What is the difference between tuccha and the negatum (pratiyogī : yasya abhāvaḥ sa pratiyogī) of atyantābhāva or what is the difference between the absence of tuccha and atyantābhāva? These are standard questions frequently asked in the classes of Nyāya Philosophy. The answer is: though tuccha does not occur, you can never say that there is the absence (abhāva) of tuccha. Objects which never occur can never be the negatum (pratiyogī ) of any of the four types of absence. The negatum of absence should be established.”

      This reminds me of the Naiyāyika view that for the knowledge of the absence of something, the thing should not be altogether unknown (abhāvajñānaṃ prati pratiyogijñānam apekṣyate). It is on this score that the Vedāntins refute the Nyāya view that nescience or ajñāna is the absence of knowledge or jñāna (abhāvarūpam ajñānam), and establish the opposite (ajñānasya bhāvarūpatvam). To explain: If the knowledge of the “absence of knowledge” is to be there, then there should be a prior knowledge of the counter-correlative (pratiyogi) of it, which is knowledge here. Again, if the knowledge of “knowledge” is already present, then how can it be said (in the Naiyāyika fashion) that there is no knowledge, as this would lead to self-contradiction (vadato vyāghātāpatti)? This explanation is taken over from Dr. Swami Prajnanananda Saraswati’s Sanskrit introduction (p. 13) to his edition of the Naiṣkarmyasiddhi along with the Bhāvatattvaprakāśikā gloss of Citsukhācārya.