Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century


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First Definition - Dennis Waite

Not only do we fail to appreciate the true nature of ourselves but also we identify ourselves with the limited body, mind and intellect. Our bodies grow old and die so we think that we grow old and die. Our minds are confused and the intellect unable to discriminate so we say that we are dull and stupid. It is a combination of inapprehension – failure to see the Self – and misapprehension – seeing wrongly. We are the seer, not that which is seen but we confuse the two. We superimpose the changing body and mind upon the non-changing Self. This process is called adhyAsa or adhyAropa (wrong attribution or erroneous transferring of a statement from one thing to another). It is sufficiently important for Shankara to examine it in detail before he begins his commentary on the brahmasUtra-s (brahmasUtra bhAShya) as follows:

Preamble : It being an established fact that the object and the subject, that are fit to be the contents of the concepts “you” and “we” (respectively), and are by nature as contradictory as light and darkness, cannot logically have any identity, it follows that their attributes can have it still less. Accordingly, the superimposition of the object, referable through the concept “you,” and its attributes on the subject that is conscious by nature and is referable through the concept “we” (should be impossible), and contrariwise the superimposition of the subject and its attributes on the object should be impossible. (Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Shankaracharya, Translated by Swami Gambhirananda, Advaita Ashrama , 1996. ISBN 81-7505-105-1.)

And this extract illustrates, perhaps more than most, why many seekers today rebel against traditional teaching with its perceived excessive use of Sanskrit, emphasis on preparation and sAdhana [spiritual disciplines] and, as here, its over-intellectualizing. Very few are likely to have the slightest idea what is being said here and, unless some clear explanatory comment is provided elsewhere, they will simply give up. It has to be remembered, however, that Shankara was a philosopher trying rigorously to prove his points and overturn the views of his objectors. Anyone who has read (or tried to read) western philosophers such as F. H. Bradley will know that unreadability is an occupational hazard!

What Shankara begins by saying is that “I” am different from the perceived object. I make a fundamental mistake when either I see one thing and think it is something else (e.g. I see a rope and think it is a snake) or I think something has an attribute that it does not really have (e.g. I think that the mirage is actually a lake). There is always something real (the rope or the sand with shimmering air above it) and something illusory. The real part is unaffected by our superimposition. What is effectively happening is that we partially see the real part, the substratum such as the rope, and then overlay it with some recollected memory of something else, such as the snake.

… When a mistake of this type occurs, what is happening is that a real part and an unreal part are getting mixed up and this is effectively how Shankara defines adhyAsa - the mixing up of real and unreal.

… When someone refers to the “snake,” he does not realize that there are two aspects, one real and one unreal. If he says, “there is a long snake,” the adjective “long” in fact refers to the rope, which is real whilst, if he says “there is a poisonous snake,” the adjective refers to the unreal part.

… Similarly, when someone says: “I am a shopkeeper” (or whatever), he does not realize that the attribute “shopkeeper” refers to the unreal part. He does not know that there are two parts, only one of which (I am) is real. In the mind of the ordinary “person” these two things are mixed up and a single, false, jIva is created. [jIva is the identification of the real Self with a body and mind.] It is this mixed-up jIva who is striving for liberation.

*** The above is extracted from the forthcoming book, ‘Back to the Truth’ to be published Feb 2007. Much of the specific detail on the topic of adhyAsa comes from my long essay which itself was based on the excellent series of articles posted by Sri Sadananda to this group. These may be downloaded from the ‘Files’ area of the group at Yahoo. ***

Second Definition - Prof. V. Krishnamurthy

Error arises, according to the theory of Non-duality, on account of the superimposition of one reality on another. Seeing

• a snake where there is a rope,
• a piece of silver where there is nacre,
• a thief where there is the trunk of the tree,
• water where there are only heat-waves,
• a dream object,
• a reflection in a mirror,
• a movie on the screen

all these are common errors, though the last two are not usually accepted as errors. In all these cases, a lower order of reality is superimposed on a higher order. The snake on the rope exists only in appearance. It is perceived by only one individual and that also for a brief moment. It belongs to the lowest order of reality, that may be called `the illusionary order of reality', also called `phenomenal order of reality' ( pratibhAsa) . It has no existence independently of its perception. In fact this is the case of the first five examples above. None of these however can be dismissed as unreal, for if they were so they would not have been perceived. An unreal thing is that which is never perceived by any one. No one has ever seen a hare's horn. It is a mere word which does not correspond to anything in the real world.

The rope which remains after the place has been examined with the help of better lighting belongs to a higher order of reality. It is the same to the same individual at different times and the same to different individuals at the same time. It exists more or less permanently. So also the nacre and the trunk of the tree. These belong to what is called the common experiential order of reality, also called `the empirical order of reality' ( vyavahAra). They are vouched for by common experience. For most people this order is the highest reality for they do not rise to a higher level of knowledge.

The superimposition of the snake on the rope is a common error. When we superimpose a lower order of reality on a higher order, it is an error. In superimposing the snake on the rope, or the piece of silver on the nacre, or the thief on the tree-trunk, what we are doing is a supereimposing of an illusionary order of reality (which is `lower') on the empirical reality (which is `higher').

Now this empirical order of reality also suffers contradiction when man gets the knowledge of the Transcendent Absolute Reality (paramArtha), called `Consciousness' or `Pure Spirit'. So Vedanta says the empirical world must be treated as a superimposition on Absolute Reality. This superimposition is also an error. In order to distinguish it from the common error earlier mentioned, we may call it a metaphysical error. Ordinary error can be set right by a little examination but not so the metaphysical error . This metaphysical error is `adhyAsa'. One has to go through much discipline and acquire the saving knowledge from a teacher. It is this knowledge which will consign the world to a lower order.

Shankara defines adhyAsa as "the apparent presentation, to consciousness, by way of memory of something previously observed in some other thing".

Recall the appearance of 'snake' where there is only a 'rope'. It is 'apparent' because the knowledge that arises out of the presentation is contradicted later. It is later contradicted, therefore it belongs to a lower order of reality. It is presented to consciousness, therefore it cannot be dismissed as unreal. It is sublated later, therefore it cannot be classified as real. Thus it is neither real nor unreal.

It means it is distinct from both real and unreal. The Sanskrit word for 'distinct from both real and unreal' is "sad-asad-vilakShhaNa". 'sat' means 'real'; 'asat' means 'unreal' and 'vilakShhaNa' means 'distinct'.

Recall that, in all this, 'real' means 'absolutely real' and 'unreal' means 'absolutely unreal'. A hare's horn is absolutely unreal. A reflection in a mirror is not. The transcendental Reality called Brahman is absolutely real and is the only one that is absolutely real, as per the statements of the Vedanta scriptures.

The object that is presented as an illusion is not a mere remembrance of an object earlier perceived somewhere else. If that were so there would not have been that feeling of immediacy. The individual who sees it says: "There is a snake right there". He does not say "There is something there which looks like the snake I saw elsewhere".

The error of perception that is being made is something positive. It is not merely the failure to keep different perceptions distinct. For if that were so, one cannot account for the practical activity such as trying to pick up the silver, that follows the perception. Just a failure to keep distinct perceptions (one of silver and one of nacre) apart cannot lead to purposeful activity.

What is presented in illusion is an object which is outside of us. It is here and now before us. It leads to purposeful activity, like running away from the snake, like trying to pick up the silver, etc. But it is falsified by the knowledge that arises later.

These are the characteristic features of illusory perception. The advaita theory regards the object of illusion as a real objective fact. The snake or silver is an actual creation for the time being. It is the creation of IGNORANCE (Sanskrit: "avidyA").

Now we can go deeper into the error of 'adhyAsa'. There are two types of errors.

One is that of mistaking one object for another: mistaking the rope as a snake, mistaking nacre for a piece of silver, etc. The metaphysical error of not recognizing Brahman and instead, seeing only the universe in front of us, belongs to this type.

The other type is that of attributing to an object a certain quality which does not actually belong to it. A white crystal by the side of a red flower appears to be red. The redness attributed to the crystal is actually an erroneous transfer of the colour of the flower to the crystal. The mistake here is not due to superimposition of one object on another, but to the failure to keep the two different things and their qualities apart. The mistake arises from close physical juxtaposition of the two objects. The metaphysical error of not recognizing the Brahman in the 'individual soul' (Sanskrit: jIva) is of this type.

When right knowledge sets in, the 'snake' disappears and only the 'rope' is there; so also the universe of matter is not seen, only Brahman is seen.

When right knowledge sets in, the appearance of 'redness' disappears and only the white crystal is seen. The crystal itself does not disappear. So also when right knowledge sets in, all the adventitious qualities of the individual soul - including its individuality - disappear and it remains as Brahman.

If we can speak of degrees of error, we can say that seeing the world of matter and not Brahman is an error (metaphysical, of course) of the first degree, whereas seeing jIva as a separate individual instead of Brahman is only an error (metaphysical, again) of the second degree.

This error of the second degree is the universal metaphysical adhyAsa. We superimpose the body, the sense organs and the mind on the Self and we use expressions like: 'I am fat', 'I am thin', 'I am white', 'I am black', 'I stand', 'I go', 'I am dumb', 'I am deaf', 'I think', 'I am not going to fight', 'I shall renounce' and so on.

The Self, when endowed with the adjuncts of the body, sense organs and the mind, becomes the individual jIva and it is the subject of all our experiences. Perceptual knowledge is impossible for the Pure Self. The sense organs are necessary for perception to arise and the senses want a locus and that is the body. The body must be invested with self-hood for otherwise it will not function. Thus the non-self must be superimposed on the self for perceptual knowledge to arise. Such knowledge, however, is vitiated at the very source on account of this foundational error. Perceptual knowledge is thus founded in Ignorance (avidyA). The whole range of our empirical life is therefore vitiated by this foundational error.

Other essays on this topic may be found at the Oneness Commitment site.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012