Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Critical analysis of vedAnta paribhAShA Part XXXIX
Dr. K. Sadananda

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Part XXXIX - Erroneous Perceptions Part 2

In contrast to valid knowledge (pramA), i.e. affirmative knowledge that is not contradicted by any subsequent experience, there are two forms of knowledge that are not affirmative (apramA). One is doubt and the other is error.

Seeing a tree or the stump of a tree in semidarkness, the seer may not be sure whether it is a man standing there or a tree. This is called ‘doubtful knowledge’ – saMshaya. The doubt could propel the seer to investigate further to determine the validity of his knowledge; that is, to find out whether it is a tree that he is seeing or a man, waiting to attack him! He may acquire the knowledge from a bystander who can confirm (by Apta vAkyam, literally a ‘correct sentence’, meaning reported by a trustworthy source) whether it is a tree or a man. He must have faith in the words of his bystander. Doubts are eliminated by further inquiry. When he sees the tree as a tree, of course, all his doubts about the truth are eliminated. Similarly, when a j~nAnI knows the absolute truth as clearly as he knows the fruit in his hands, shruti says that all his doubts are dispelled – chidyante sarva saMsamshayAH. Mu. Up II-2-8. Hence, doubts are the result of aj~nAnam or ignorance about the truth of the object.

If the seer is definite that it is a tree and not a man, then his knowledge is pramA or valid since subsequent transactions, if there are any, will not negate the knowledge he has gained. On the other hand, if a seer is definite that it is a man, then the knowledge is in error (viparyaya or bhrama), since a subsequent transaction could prove that it is not a man but a tree. Since he is definite about his knowledge that it is a man and has no doubts, he therefore makes no attempt to investigate further into the truth behind his perceptual knowledge. If he happens to try to transact with that knowledge and finds to his surprise that he was mistaken, then he would recognize that his earlier cognition was a mistake. We do operate with many mistaken notions without knowing that they are mistakes – the biggest mistake we make is taking the world that we see as real. We are so convinced, since it is transactionally real, that it is very difficult to get rid of the notion even when the scripture tells us that ‘all this that you see is Brahman’. Hence, the error is called viparIta bhAvana and requires constant contemplation (nididhyAsana) in order to be able to affirm or firmly abide in the scriptural knowledge.

When defining an object such as a tree, a rope, a snake or a man, there are inherent or intrinsic attributes (svAbhAvika lakShaNa-s) that differentiate each object from the other objects in the world. Thus, a tree is different from a man and a snake is different from a rope. We have two words in Sanskrit – one is visheShaNa and the other is lakShaNa. Both are normally translated as ‘attribute’, although they are somewhat different. Broadly speaking, visheShaNa-s are those attributes that distinguish objects within their own genus or family. For example, a white cow is different from a brown cow, or a big cow is different from a small cow. All cows have some generic or inherent attributes that make them cows and not horses or donkeys. Those generic qualities that differentiate a cow from a horse, or a tree from a man, are called lakShaNa-s. They are also called asAdhAraNa lakShaNa-s or differentiating attributes of the object.

If one asks: ‘Is there one specific and unique lakShaNa that differentiates one object from the other?’, the answer is a definite NO. Where there is one, we call it the ‘necessary and sufficient’ qualification for the object – svarUpa lakShaNa. tArkika-s or logicians tried to define a generalized svarUpa lakShaNa, or necessary and sufficient qualification, by stating that a cow is that which has ‘cow-ness’, a tree is that which has ‘tree-ness’ and a rope is that which has ‘rope-ness’ etc. Obviously, ‘rope-ness’ is different from ‘snake-ness’, and ‘tree-ness’ is different from ‘man-ness’. They appear to be necessary and sufficient qualifications or svarUpa lakShaNa-s. However, there is an inherent problem in these definitions, because one is trying to define a svarUpa lakShaNa for an object that does not have one. If we ask what is this ‘cow-ness’ that a cow has, then one can only restate the definition as: ‘cow-ness’ is that which a cow has, since cow is that object which has ‘cow-ness’ and that is different from the ‘horse-ness’ that a horse has. We have not become any wiser.

Inherently, the problem lies in the fact that there is no specific lakShaNa that I can identify as being the necessary and sufficient qualification or svarUpa lakShaNa of any object in this universe. All definitions, including cow-ness of the cow etc, become circular definitions (chakraka doSha), and are only operational for transactional purposes. In addition, none of the five senses can gather that cow-ness of the cow and horse-ness of the horse. A cow is recognized as a cow, with all the inherent attributes of cow that the senses can gather together. A cow may have a specific distinguishing organ that distinguishes it from a horse or a donkey, but that distinguishing organ is only part of the cow and not the cow itself to qualify as svarUpa lakShaNa.

Because of the lack of any specific attributes that distinguish an object from the rest of the objects in the universe, doubts and errors are possible in the perceptual processes. The basis for the error lies in the fact that some of the attributes are similar. This is called sAdRRishya. Thus, a rope is taken for a snake only because there are some common attributes between the two. The rope is not mistaken for an elephant or a mountain but for a snake, since the senses are gathering only those attributes that are common to both. Similarly, a man is taken for a stump or a tree due to the limited or incomplete attributes of the object gathered by the sense due to semi-darkness. A tree is immovable while a man can move but, in the time span during which the observation is made, a man may remain without movement. Therefore, doubts and errors can arise during perception, since knowledge of the objects is based purely on the attributes that the senses gather during the observation.

In the case of error, there is vagueness in the attributive knowledge, since the attributes gained by the senses are not discriminative enough to differentiate between man and the tree. It could be a man or it could be a tree. When the seer makes a definitive judgment, based on the attributes that his mind has gathered from his senses, it becomes a pramA from his point of view. But it is bhrama from the point of view of the reality, as defined by a referee, or discovered by the seer as a result of his own subsequent transaction.

In advaita vedAnta, error is generally classified as adhyAsa or superimposition. Shankara provides an exhaustive analysis in his ‘adhyAsa bhAShya’ before he begins his bhAShya on the brahmasUtra. The adhyAsa bhAShya of Shankara has been exhaustively explained in Here we discuss some aspects of it with reference to the errors in perceptions.

Shankara defines adhyAsa as ‘atasmin tatbuddhiH’ - ‘apprehension of something as something else’. In adhyAsa, two types of errors are possible:
1) perceiving something other than what it is. This involves the false assertion of one thing for another, e.g. perceiving a snake where there is a rope. Here the attributes of the object perceived are incomplete, for whatever reason.

2) Perceiving something with attributes that do not belong to it, i.e. falsely assigning attribute of one thing to another; e.g. attributing ‘redness’ to a clear crystal because of its proximity to a red cloth. Here the attribute of the red cloth is falsely superimposed on the clear crystal.

Seeing a ghost instead of a post, silver instead of nacre, mirage water, the world of plurality instead of Brahman are all errors of the first type, wherein one thing is mistaken for another. Seeing the movement of trees in the opposite direction to which the train is moving, sunrise and sunset; the changeless self appearing as changing; the crystal appearing red in the presence of a red cloth are examples of the second type, wherein attributes that do not belong to it are wrongly superimposed. In both cases, the substantive is unaffected by the perceptual knowledge, fundamentally because the knowledge is attributive.

In adhyAsa, there is no physical or mental superimposition of objects; nor does it involve perception of some imaginary object such as occurs during hallucinations or the mental projections of the dream state. Hence, it is not a prAtibhAsika error. When one sees a snake where there is a rope, there is an actual object present out there. It is not an imagination or a dream that we see a snake. The same is the case when one sees a man standing where there is only the trunk of a tree. Hence, Shankara defines adhyAsa also as ‘satyAnRRita mithunIkaraNam adhyAsam’ – superimposition of true and false together to arrive at a unitary perception. There is a real object at the perceptual level – vastu j~nAnam. The vastu j~nAnam is gained through perception via attributes only. What exactly is the substantive of the vastu or object is not known, since attributive knowledge cannot bring in substantive knowledge. The assertion that ‘there is an object out there that is being seen’ comes with the knowledge that the attributes that are being perceived cannot exist without a substantive. Hence, that there is an object is ascertained by the perception only. But, based on the attributes gathered, cognition of the object is different from the substantive – thus, a false object is perceived in place of a real object.

One fellow may see the stump of tree, while the other fellow may see a real man out there. Thus, for the same substantive, one person sees a tree and another sees a man standing. ‘Out there is an object’ is the knowledge from the point of both perceivers. From their individual points of view, both are valid perceptions as per advaita. But the substantives that they associate with the object they perceive are different. Let us suppose that there is an independent knowledgeable person, whom we can call the referee, who knows experientially that it is indeed a tree and not a man. He would characterize one perception as real and the other as false. The referee’s knowledge is substantial since he has transactional knowledge with the tree in some form or another.

From the point of view of the perceivers, both have perceived the object since their senses have brought attributes that they could see (measure) within the external constraints (dim light, etc), and both know that there is an object out there. Based on the information they have, one says it is a man and the other says it is a tree. If their senses could not gather any attributes, because it was too dark or they were blind for example, then there would be no error since no object would be perceived. There would be ignorance of the existence of the object out there. If the light is bright enough so that the senses can gather all the attributes of the object, then the possibility for any error is reduced, since the attributive content of the vRRitti is sufficient to distinguish man from a stump of a tree or snake from a rope.

Hence, partial knowledge (or partial ignorance) contributes to a mixture of real (that there is an object out there) and unreal (that the object is a snake) giving rise to errors in perception. Hence, Shankara defines adhyAsa as satyAnRRita mithunIkaraNam adhyAsam – mixing of real and unreal parts to arrive at a unitary perception of snake or man, etc. Since, as far as the perceivers are concerned, their intellects have made definitive conclusions about the perceived objects, from their reference point their knowledge is definitive and neither doubtful nor in error. Even though the perceptions are unreal (from the point of view of the referee), the reactions that arise as a consequence of their definitive perceptions can be real – such as fear associated with the cognition of snake. The reactions of the body such as increased blood pressure, sweating, etc are all real.

Proceed to the next essay.

Other Essays in this Section (Perception):
01. Introduction Part 1. 28. Perception at the Individual Level.
02. Introduction Part 2. 29. Perception at the Cosmic Level.
03. Analysis of Time and Space. 30. Summary so far.
04. Knowledge is Continuous. 31. vAchArambhanaNaM.
05. Whatever you perceive is Brahman! 32. Re-examination of the Perceptual Process Pt.1.
06. Attributes and Substantive. 33. Re-examination of the Perceptual Process Pt.2.
07. Mechanics of Perception. 34. Re-examination of the Perceptual Process Pt.3.
08. Some Objections. 35. Re-examination of the Perceptual Process Pt.4.
09. Internal Perceptions. 36. Re-examination of the Perceptual Process Pt.5.
10. The Criteria for Cognition. 37. Nature of ‘ego’ and Self-realization.
11. Unity of limiting consciousness for perception. 38. Erroneous Perceptions Pt. 1.
12. Internal Perceptions (cont.) 39. Erroneous Perceptions Pt. 2.
13. Some Clarifications Regarding Internal Perception. 40. Analysis of Error - Part 1: khyAti vAda-s.
14. Some Clarifications Regarding Character. 41. Analysis of error - Part 2: vedAnta paribhAshA analysis.
15. Question related to jAti [species]. 42. Analysis of error - Part 3: naiyAyika objection.
16. Relation between an attribute and its substantive. 43. Creation as Transformation.
17. brahman is the changeless substantive. 44. Questions on ‘Creation as Transformation’.
18. Perceptuality of Objects: Definition vindicated (part 1). 45. Ontological Status of 'This'.
19. Perceptuality of Objects: Definition vindicated (part 2). 46. Two Layers of Ignorance.
20. Questions related to Perceptuality (part 1). 47. Conclusion of silver-nacre analysis.
21. Questions related to Perceptuality (part 2). 48. Perception in Dream.
22. Mind as Subject. 49. Negating false perception.
23. Self-realization. 50. Counterpositive.
24. Application to Illusions. 51. Summary of Mechanism of Perceptual Knowledge.
25. Determinate and indeterminate perceptions (part 1). 52. vyAvahArika vs. prAtibhAsika Pt. 1.
26. Determinate and indeterminate perceptions (part 2). 53. vyAvahArika vs. prAtibhAsika Pt. 2.
27. The position of vishiShTAdvaita.  
The next section in this series continues with the pramANa of anumAna (inference).

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