This question is often raised at various fora inviting all shades of responses. The question is as enigmatic and ceaseless as are the answers !!
In the holy city of Varanasi, some jealous Pandit-s let lose a mad elephant after Adi Samkaracarya with the malevolent intention to harm him. They were probably not relishing his erudite thoughts on dualism vs. unity of entire existence. When Adi Samkaracarya fled for his life, someone taunted,
KIM PALAYANAM ? GAJOPI MITHYA ! i.e WHY THIS RUNNING AWAY ? THE ELEPHANT IS UNREAL !!
While fleeing, Adi Samkaracarya responded,
MUM PALAYANAM API MITHYA i.e. MY RUNNING AWAY IS ALSO UNREAL !!
Quite mystically, Adi Samkaracarya expounded THEORY OF RELATIVITY thousands of years before Albert Einstein did.
When you behold the gross world and all the items lying within the gross world from the gross / mortal frame of your existence, entire gross world appears real. However, from this frame of existence, subtle world and all the happenings of the subtle world would appear unreal.
When you are dis-incarnate, subtle world appears real while the gross one, unreal which had appeared real earlier.
So by a stroke of genius, the great legendary Master left it to the beholder to decide which one he / she wishes to hold as real or unreal and with which frame of existence !!!!!
Now let us examine what Maharsi Kapila has to say in his legendary exposition SAMKHYAYOGA –
Nasadutpado Nrsrngavat II I / 114 II
Non-existent does not manifest like man’s horn II I / 114 II
Param Brahmatma does exist otherwise who would have manifested into this universe ? A non-existent entity CANNOT manifest itself.
Pradhanasrstih Parartham Svato’pyabhoktrtvadustrakunkumavahanavat II III / 58 II
With entire creation meant for the other one without being Bhokta itself, like a camel carrying saffron II III / 58 II
Param Brahmatma can and does manifest essentially because He Himself is not the “consumer” of the manifests. He remains detached as a Saksi.
Karmavaicitryat Srstivaicitryam II VI / 41 II
Diversity of Karma being the cause of diversity of creation II VI / 41 II
Purusabahuttvama Vyavasthatah II VI / 45 II
Diversity of existence indicative of multiplicity of Jivatma II VI / 45 II
Every Jivatma has it’s own specific schedule / catalogue of Karma-s to redeem. Embodiment is decided by the basket of unredeemed Karma-s alone. Infinite variety of Karma-s leads to infinite variety of creatures / lives.
Jagatsatyatvamadustakaranajanyatvad Badhakabhavat II VI / 52 II
Existence of the world a certainty owing to it’s creation being entirely rational, relevant and bereft of any evidence to the contrary II VI / 52 II
If a Sadhaka attains Moksa after an infinite spell of Sadhana, world / universe ceases to exist for him / her. World exists so long as Jivatma is alive and kicking, organs of sense-perception continue to receive signals. The moment Jivatma is dis-embodied, world / universe is rendered non-existent. However, world / universe continues to exist because crores of other Jivatma-s are yet to attain Moksa at any point of time. For them i.e. ceaseless stream of Jivatma-s seeking emancipation, world exists as we all know / understand it.
So it is now proved beyond doubt, world / universe does exist, shall continue to exist so long as it continues to exist !!!