Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Notes on Shankara's exmination of the nature of 'Error' in the introduction to the Brahmasutra.

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These notes are essentially a rewording, omitting most of the Sanskrit, of the notes provided by Kuntimaddi Sadananda on the Advaitin List and I gratefully acknowledge his permission for this. In turn, he wishes that I acknowledge his own indebtedness to H.H. Swami Paramaarthaananda of Madras, himself a student of Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda. His lectures form the basis of these notes.

The Brahmasuutra is the third of the so called 'Three pillars of Vedanta', the first two being the upanishhad-s (shruti - the scriptures 'revealed' and not 'authored' by anyone) and the Bhagavad Giitaa (smRRiti - the 'heard' scriptures passed down by memory). The Brahmasuutra is a very terse and logical examination of the essential teaching of the upanishhad-s, seeking to show the nature of Brahman and the superiority of the philosophy of Vedanta. It is usually studied with the help of a commentary or bhaashhya, the best known being the one by Shankara.

It is in the nature of man, with his intellect, that he seeks to enquire into the causes of observed phenomena. The six topics of enquiry for a 'student of life' relate to the individual, the world, the cause for these two, suffering, liberation from this suffering and the means for attaining such liberation. Any consistent explanation for all of these is deemed a philosophy or darshana. There are 12 specific philosophies identified in India. Six of these are called aastika and the other six naastika. Aastika refers to those systems which accept the Vedas as a valid means for acquiring knowledge. Conversely, the naastika philosophies do not recognise the Vedas as valid or reliable sources of knowledge. These latter philosophies prefer to rely upon direct perception and inference or reasoning as the means for knowledge.

The first of the six naastika philosophies is materialism, said to originate with the teacher of the Gods, BRRihaspati. It is said that this was devised in order to mislead the demons so that they could be destroyed. It emphasises the sense pleasures as being the purpose of life and does not accept such things as heaven and hell, the soul or Vedas. Modern science, with its belief that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter, may come close to this philosophy. Materialism only recognises direct perception as a valid means of knowledge. This philosophy is not discussed in the Brahmasuutra since it is not considered worthwhile.

The second naastika philosophy is Jainism. Some aspects of this are discussed and refuted later. The remaining four cover the various aspects of Buddhism. Buddha himself did not teach any real system of philosophy; he only had various dialogues with his disciples. Hence Buddhism was not initially well-developed. Later however it developed into four branches, each of which is analysed and criticised in the Brahmasuutra.

Although all of the six aastika philosophies accept the Vedas as a valid means of knowledge, three of them do not accept Brahman and four of them given more importance to reasoning than to the Vedas. Only two give primary importance to the Vedas. One of these however, considers that the first part of the Vedas - the one concerned with ritualistic action - is more important than the upanishhad-s. The second gives primary importance to the last portion of the Vedas, and it is this that is the principal subject of the Brahmasuutra-s.

A suutra literally means 'a thread'. It is a very concise statement expressing the essential meaning of a given idea in a logical manner, free from any defects. A simple translation is therefore not adequate on its own and requires additional explanation in the form of a commentary or bhaashhya. Because there exist possibilities for ambiguity, the various commentaries have led to 10 different teachings each claiming that theirs represents the intended meaning. The three most popular (in historical sequence) are known as Advaita, VishishhTaadvaita and Dvaita,. The commentary by Shankara is concerned with Advaita.

A brief outline of the brahmasuutra

The Brahmasuutra consists of four chapters; each chapter is divided into four sections and each section is divided into topics of which there is a total of 191 or 192 depending on how the suutra-s are divided. Most of the topics are concerned with statements in the 10 principal upanishhad-s. The topics are divided into suutra-s of which there is a total of 555.

Each of the four chapters is concerned with a particular theme. The first chapter endeavours to establish that the central theme of the upanishhad-s is Brahman. This is necessary because some of the other philosophies do not accept this. The second chapter shows there are no contradictions in the teaching since this would constitute a defect. There are three types of contradiction defined - internal (i.e. the Vedic statements themselves contradicting each other); contradiction with statements from smRRiti; contradiction with logic. The third chapter discusses the means for attaining Brahman, both direct and indirect (the latter covering such aspects as ritual etc., which are merely means for purifying the mind). The fourth chapter is about the 'fruits' of knowledge of Brahman, namely liberation from bondage and suffering, both delayed and immediate.

Each topic consists of 5 aspects. The first is the 'subject', which is usually an idea from one of the ten principal upanishhad-s. The second element is the 'doubt' inherent in the subject (if there is none, there is no need for enquiry). Thirdly, the objections and reasoning of other philosophies are considered. Fourthly, these objections are logically refuted and a conclusion consistent with Advaita is drawn. Finally, the connection with the previous topic is shown.

Shankara's introduction to the bhaashhya (called adhyaasa bhaashhya) is central to the entire advaitic philosophy, covering the explanation of the basic errors or mistakes (adhyaasa) that we make that lead us to our belief in a separate existence and hence to the eternal cycle (samsaara) of suffering. Prior to discussing this, however, there is an introduction to the use of inferential logic, since this is fundamental for understanding the arguments of the Brahmasuutra.

A distinction is made between valid and illusory knowledge. What constitutes a valid means of knowledge is crucial to the understanding of this subject of adhyaasa. (Indeed, all Indian philosophies discuss epistemology before moving on to ontological issues.) The senses are usually regarded as our principal source of knowledge but, apart from the fact that information from the senses is not always reliable, much of what is discussed is not directly observable to the senses. Thus we have to be aware of the source of the information and the types of error that can occur in using this as a means of knowledge.

There are six accepted means of knowledge or pramaaNa. The first is direct perception either through one of the senses or possibly imagined by the mind (of things which are not directly present). The senses are however very specific. For example the eyes can only detect colour and form and are unable to hear sounds from an object. In fact, each pramaaNa has validity in its own sphere. If something is directly perceived, inference is not needed; if something can be inferred, the shaastra-s are not required.

The next valid means of knowledge is inference from something that cannot be directly perceived. If something cannot be seen directly, nor inferred, it may it be reported in the scriptures or science or directly from someone who can be trusted. For this latter means, the principal source is the Vedas. It is believed that the Vedas were not written by humans and are thus free from the defects associated with human authorship. Effectively they are presumed to have been revealed to the sages, who then passed them on to their disciples by word of mouth. Since they are heard from a teacher they are called shruti. The three remaining means of knowledge are considered as part of inference itself.

The Brahmasuutra relies heavily on inference and shruti as sources of knowledge. It should be noted that the Brahmasuutra itself was written by a human and therefore cannot itself be considered as a valid means of knowledge.


Before inference can occur, there needs to be some valid data which is itself gathered directly or indirectly through direct perception. Otherwise, the inference could only be a speculation or imagination. For example one could not infer the age of the Moon just by looking at it and estimating it. Data must be collected first e.g. rocks could be brought back and carbon dated.

Four aspects are involved in the process of inference. These are the subject or 'locus' of the discussion, the objective or 'conclusion' - that which is to be inferred or concluded, a 'basis' for the argument and finally an 'analogy'. An example given in the scriptures is the inference that there is a fire on a mountain because one is able to see smoke there, just as might happen in a kitchen. Here, the mountain is the 'locus'; to infer that there is a fire on the mountain is the 'conclusion'; the 'basis' is that smoke can be seen and the 'analogy' is that when one sees smoke in the kitchen, it is invariably associated with fire (this is in the days before electricity!).

The 'locus' has to be something that is partly visible and partly unknown; otherwise, it cannot be a matter of dispute. Whether or not there is a fire on the mountain is not visible or known - hence the dispute. Since we cannot see whether or not there is a fire, we must use inference. The 'conclusion' - that there is a fire on the mountain - is not observable or directly provable. The 'basis' is that smoke can be seen and it is on the mountain. This 'basis' is observable. Thus, in the example, the 'locus' and the 'basis' are both visible while that which is to be inferred, the 'conclusion' is invisible.

In order for the 'analogy' to be valid, both 'conclusion' and 'basis' have to always be experienced simultaneously with the same locus in those examples that have been directly perceived, i.e. on which the inference is based. In this case, the listener is aware that fire invariably exists with the smoke when it is encountered in the kitchen. (It has to be this way around and not that smoke invariably occurs when there is fire.)

In order to use inference them, one has to have a basic knowledge of the relationship between the conclusion and the basis, which has been gathered through perception. Here, the knowledge is that wherever there is smoke, there is fire. Once this concommitant relationship has been established through repeated observation, only then can it be used to infer that same relationship in a situation where the conditions cannot be directly perceived. Also, direct perception forms the basis for the implied relationship from which the inference is drawn.

An inference can only be made about a specific object if the perceptible data has been gathered from that object. For example one cannot make conclusions about Mars if the data has been collected from the Moon. All observable data derive from the perceptible universe. The aatman is not perceivable. From this, it follows that, by using scientific observation one cannot arrive at any conclusions about the aatman. Hence, the whole of scientific reasoning is called 'commonplace inference' and can only deal with objects that can be perceived. 'Commonplace inference' has no access to knowledge of the aatman. To attempt to do so is like trying to hear through the eyes and constitutes an invalid means of knowledge.

Instead of using data collected through the senses, inference may also make use of data collected from the shaastra-s. Here, inferences may be made about the nature of the aatman, since this is the subject of the shaastra-s. The implication of this is that the shaastra-s must be accepted as a valid source of observation. Once this has been done, the validity of the data need not be questioned, although different theories may be put forth to explain the same data. The theories may be incorrect but not the observations. All of the aastika philosophies have accepted the shaastra-s as a valid source; they have just reached differing conclusions. Without valid data, there is no basis for inference, only speculation or belief. Since inference based on the shaastra-s assumes that the shaastra-s are a valid means of knowledge, this method is only applicable to aastika philosophies. The naastika-s do not accept the shaastra-s. Therefore the Brahmasuutra is of no value to them.

Inference or logic, which is based upon perception, could be called scientific reasoning. This is still used in the Brahmasuutra though, as noted above, it cannot make any statements about the aatman. Equally, it cannot be used to disprove Vedantic teaching. This is a mistake that many naastika philosophers make. The Brahmasuutra uses the same technique to disprove their claims. (They would not accept inference based upon the shaastra-s in any case.) It is also used to show that Vedanta is not illogical. In fact, it is beyond the realm of logic.


Adhyaasa means error or mistake. This is the basis of Advaita Vedanta and of Shankara's interpretation of the Brahmasuutra. The doctrine of Advaita Vedanta rests upon the four aphorisms in the Vedas: consciousness is Brahman; that thou art; I am Brahman; this self is Brahman. Shankara's aim is to show that the Brahmasuutra is compatible with Advaita Vedanta. His claim is that adhyaasa causes the cycle of birth and death with its concommitant suffering. Once the error is removed, that is the end of the cycle.

Errors can arise for various reasons. When I act without knowledge, I commit an error. Even if I know that I am ignorant I am still making a mistake. For example, lack of knowledge of Sanskrit can cause errors in these notes. Even if I know the word I may still make typographical mistakes. Here the error is due to lack of awareness, which is also effectively ignorance, since I am not conscious that what is being typed is not what was intended. Errors may also arise if the instruments of knowledge are defective, for example if I am colour-blind or if there is insufficient illumination. In all of these cases, I am ignorant of the truth and, more importantly, I take the false as real and possibly the real as false.

The price of these mistakes is suffering. Ignorance is the source of error and error causes suffering. The solution is therefore knowledge - knowledge of Brahman (Brahmavidya) brings realisation and release from suffering. All techniques, yoga, paths etc. are only methods for preparing the mind to receive that knowledge.

Analogy of the Rope and the Snake

This example originates from the commentaries of GauDapaada on the MaaNDuukya upanishhad. Seeing a rope in the dark, it is mistaken for a snake - an error or adhyaasa. We mistakenly superimpose the image of an illusory snake onto the real rope. In just such a way we superimpose the illusion of objects etc. upon the one aatman.

If there is total dark, we would not see the rope so could not imagine it to be a snake. Hence 'ignorance is bliss', as in deep sleep - there can be no error. Similarly, if there is total light we see the rope clearly - in complete knowledge, we know everything to be Brahman. Knowledge is also bliss! The error occurs only in partial light or when the eyes are defective. Then there is partial knowledge; we know that some 'thing' exists. This part, that is not covered by darkness or hidden by ignorance is called the 'general part' and is 'uncovered' or 'real'. That the 'thing' is actually a rope is hidden because of the inadequate light or knowledge. This specific feature of the thing, that it is a rope, is called the 'particular part' and is covered. In place of the covered part, the mind substitutes or 'projects' something of its own, namely the snake.

In the example then, when we say "there is a snake", there is a real part and an unreal part. The real part is "there is"; this is the 'general part'. The unreal part, the snake, only appears to be there because the 'particular part' - the rope - is covered. If light (i.e. knowledge) is made available, the rope is now seen. The 'general part', "there is" remains unchanged but the 'particular part', which was previously projected by the mind, is now uncovered and revealed to be a rope. The snake has not 'gone away' since it never existed, except in the mind of the observer, where it might have given rise to very real fears and physical effects (fast heartbeat, sweating etc.).

From the point of view of actual reality (paaramaarthika), only the rope is real, the snake does not exist. For a perceiver who sees a snake, that snake is 'relatively' real (vyaavahaarika) and causes as much mental suffering as would a truly real snake. There only ever was a rope but the ignorance of this in the mind of the perceiver creates the illusion of a snake and the suffering follows. Once light (i.e. the light of knowledge) is introduced, the mistaken perception of the particular part is corrected; the unreal snake disappears and the real rope is revealed. The associated fear etc. also disappears.

What has happened is that a valid means of enquiry has been undertaken into the nature of the particular part to reveal the truth of the matter. The valid means of enquiry in this example was the torchlight. It was appropriate because the mistake was brought about by the dim light. Prayer or meditation would not have been appropriate and would not have revealed the rope. The method has to be appropriate to the nature of the error. Since ignorance of our true nature is the reason for samsaara, the appropriate means of enquiry for removing the error is self-knowledge.

Comparison with our own situation

The analogous statement that Shankara uses is 'I am a sa.nsaari', i.e. one who is subject to the cycle of birth and death. He could just as well have said 'I am a person' or individual. Here, 'I am' is the general part and is true. It refers to a conscious and existent being. It is 'uncovered'. There is no doubt in our minds that it is true; we need no external means of knowledge to verify it. 'A sa.nsaari' (or 'a person' etc.) is the particular part and is unreal, like the snake. In this case, the truth of the situation is covered over, rather than projected, but is just as unreal. That we 'are' (sat) and that we are 'conscious' (chit) is known from the general part. What is hidden in the particular part is that we are bliss (aananda) (or unlimited, complete, infinite etc.). In its place, we perceive unreal aspects such as misery, limitedness, incompleteness etc. This error is the cause of all our suffering. In order to solve this problem, it is necessary to apply the torchlight of Vedantic knowledge to reveal the real particular part - not 'I am a sa.nsaari' but 'I am Brahman'.

Mixing of real and unreal

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 adhyaasa - the mixing up of real and unreal. In the case of the rope and snake analogy, the error can be viewed as a 'misperceiving of the rope' or as the 'superimposition of a snake' or as 'the mixing of part of a real rope and part of an unreal snake'. When we say "there is a snake", 'there is' is the general part, which could be viewed as belonging to the rope, which is real, while 'a snake' is the unreal, mentally projected, particular part. The mixing up of real and unreal effectively creates a third entity that is partly real and partly unreal.

When someone refers to the 'snake', he does not realise 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 realise 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, jiiva is created. It is this mixed-up jiiva who is striving for liberation. The purpose of the Brahmasuutra is to enquire into the nature of the jiiva, by directing the knowledge of Vedanta so that we can discard the unreal part and become established in the knowledge of the real part. When this happens, realisation takes place and sa.nsaara is dissolved as unreal.

Shankara’s discussion of adhyaasa

This effectively divides into six topics: - the definition of error, objections to the theory as described, answers to these objections, showing the possibility for error, proof of the theory, conclusion.

Definition of adhyaasa

Shankara gives two definitions. The simpler is that it occurs when the attributes of one thing are superimposed on another. Thus a snake is seen instead of a rope or silver is seen on the inside of a shell. The second suggests that it occurs when a previously experienced object is seen instead of the actual. This accounts for the fact that a snake could not be seen instead of the rope unless the observer knew what a snake was and had previously seen a real one (or an image of one). A third indirect definition is the one mentioned earlier; that it occurs when real and unreal are mixed up.

Objections to the theory

Other systems of philosophy claim that, although the rope-snake error is acceptable, the superimposition of anything onto the aatman is not possible. The argument is that any superimposition requires four conditions to be satisfied.

1. Perception. The object being covered must be directly perceivable, as is the rope in the rope-snake example. The aatman is not an object and cannot be perceived.
2. Incompletely known. The object must be incompletely known, as one is ignorant of the fact that the rope is a rope. In the case of the aatman, however, the advaitin accepts that the aatman is self-evident and always conscious - how can there be ignorance with regard to something that is self-evident?
3. Similarity. There must be some similarity between the actual object and its superimposition, just as a rope and snake have a basic similarity (one could not mistake the rope for an elephant, for example). But there is total dissimilarity between the aatman and anything else. E.g. aatmaa is the subject, anaatmaa is the object; aatmaa is conscious and all pervading, anaatmaa is inert and limited etc.
4. Prior experience. In order to make the mistake, we must have had prior experience of that which is superimposed. We could not see a snake where the rope is unless we knew what a real snake was. Whilst this is possible in the case of the rope-snake, it is not possible in the aatmaa-anaatmaa case because we would have to have prior experience of a 'real' anaatmaa and it is part of the fundamental teaching of Advaita that there is no such thing; there is only the aatman.

Accordingly, in the case of the aatmaa-anaatmaa, not one of these four conditions is satisfied. Therefore superimposition of anaatmaa onto aatmaa, the fundamental cause of our error according to Shankara, is not possible - so says the objector.

Answers to these Objections and Showing the possibility for adhyaasa

1. "The object must be directly perceivable." This is not strictly true. It is certainly the case that the object must be known. It is not possible to make a mistake about something about which we know nothing at all but it is not necessary that the object be immediately in front of us. This first condition should be restated as 'the object must be a known, existent entity'. Now, there is no problem since the aatman is known even though it cannot be seen (we know that we exist).

2. "The object should be incompletely known." This is equivalent to saying that we should have partial, but not complete ignorance about the object. This is precisely the case with the aatman. We know that we exist (sat) and are conscious (chit) but we do not know that we are bliss (aananda). We have partial knowledge. Thus there is no valid objection.

3. "There must be a similarity between the object and its superimposition." The counter-argument here is that this is a general rule and that exceptions are possible. E.g. it is a general rule that the intelligent cause or creator is different from the material cause just as a potter is different from the clay from which he makes his pots. However there are exceptions such as the spider and its web. Here the material for the web comes from the spider's own body. Similarly a dreamer creates her dream from the thoughts and memories in her own mind. Shankara argues that this is such an exception to the general rule and that it is not necessary for similarity to exist.

This argument on its own may seem a bit feeble. Shankara says that we know of cases where adhyaasa takes place when there is no similarity and gives an example to support his claim. We know that the sky is really colourless but nevertheless we see it as blue. We might also claim that it is polluted. But these are superimpositions by us of 'blue' or 'polluted' upon a sky which is without colour or form. This error takes place without there being any similarity between 'sky' and 'blue' or between 'sky' and 'pollution'. (As written, this argument carries little conviction . It is slightly better if 'air' or 'space' is understood rather than 'sky' - the Sanskrit word 'aakaasha' can mean either sky or space.)

4. "We must have had prior experience of that which is superimposed." Shankara agrees that, in the rope-snake analogy, we must have had prior experience of a snake but says that it does not have to be a real snake; experience of a false snake would have left a suitable impression, too (e.g. we might have seen the snake in a movie). Another analogy encountered in the scriptures is seeing a ghost instead of a post and we all accept that we do not have to have seen a real ghost for this since we mostly do not believe such a thing exists. It is sufficient to have read about them. Similarly, in the case of aatmaa-anaatmaa, we project an unreal anaatmaa. And where did we encounter the unreal anaatmaa before? In a previous adhyaasa, says Shankara! This leads to an infinite regress, of course, and Shankara claims that 'we never talk about the beginning of adhyaasa' - it is beginningless! Therefore (he says), there is no real anaatmaa and it is not necessary for there to be a real one for adhyaasa to occur.

Thus all conditions are effectively fulfilled. In the first, the object is evident rather than actually perceived; in the second, the object is partly unknown; the third condition is not compulsory; the fourth condition is effectively fulfilled because we have prior experience of an unreal anaatmaa. Therefore the objections are not valid and the adhyaasa is possible.

In fact, this is only a provisional refutation of the objector and a defensive argument, to satisfy both aastika and naastika philosophies. It uses the same scientific reasoning that was used for the objections. He then goes on to provide a more complete response and offensive argument for aastika objectors. He says that the entire rope-snake analogy is only an illustration of the concept of adhyaasa and is not intended to be used to prove the aatmaa-anaatmaa situation This must use the Vedas as pramaaNa (a source of knowledge) and not rely solely on scientific reasoning. In fact, even if scientific argument disproved the rope-snake adhyaasa, this would not affect scriptural based arguments for the aatmaa-anaatmaa adhyaasa.

Furthermore, Shankara points out that the other aastika philosophies have already implicitly accepted the aatmaa-anaatmaa adhyaasa. All of these systems talk about aatmaa and accept the Veda's assertion that it is eternal. They realise that it refers to 'aham' or 'I' and claim that this is immortal. And yet they are conscious of the their experience of 'I am a human being', 'I am a father' etc., which clearly refer to anaatmaa. Therefore, according to their systems, these statements must be erroneous. Statements such as 'I am the body' are examples of superimposition of the gross body onto the aatmaa; a form of adhyaasa. If they deny this, they will be reduced to the stance of materialism. Thus they cannot object to this special case of aatmaa-anaatmaa adhyaasa. Therefore they must accept the more general case, even though they might not have realised it.

Because they had already implicitly accepted the aatmaa-body adhyaasa without applying their four objections, they have forfeited the right to claim that these apply in other cases. For example, as has already been said, the aatman is not directly perceivable. But this did not stop the objector accepting that the aatman was not the body.

Shankara goes on to say that, although the example of the rope and snake is not based on shruti, we cannot legitimately object to that either because, like it or not, that is our experience. The objector can try to explain it but he cannot question it. The aatmaa-anaatmaa error, on the other hand, is based on shruti so that, again, we can try to explain but we cannot question it. The explanations given by the various philosophies may differ but the error cannot be denied.

Degrees of Error

In fact the aastika philosophies all agree that there is aatmaa-anaatmaa adhyaasa; they just disagree about the extent to which this occurs. If the three statements: - I am mortal; I am a doer; I am an enjoyer; are considered, the Nyaaya and Vaisheshhika schools of philosophy claim that the first statement is an error but the second two are facts. Saa~Nkhya and Yoga schools, on the other hand, say the first two are errors and only the third is a fact. According to an advaitin, all three are errors.

Proofs for Adhyaasa

There are two shruti-based pramaaNa-s for adhyaasa, the first is 'postulated' and the second 'inferred'.

The first takes an observed fact - for example I wake up one morning and find the road outside is flooded - and postulates an explanation for this - e.g. heavy rain occurred whilst I slept. Since I slept soundly, I have no direct knowledge of any rain but, without such a supposition, I have no reasonable way to explain the observed phenomenon. Other 'unreasonable' explanations may be put forward but the one suggested is the most plausible to the rational mind. In order to justify an improbable explanation, the more plausible must first be discredited. Since the observed fact can only be explained in this way, the explanation becomes a pramaaNa or valid means of knowledge. This pramaaNa is 'perception-based'. as opposed to 'shruti-based'. Shankara's concept of adhyaasa is in fact a shruti-based 'postulate' since there is no mention of the subject in the Vedas themselves and it is in this way that it becomes a valid knowledge in its own right.

Just as this principle can be used to explain the flooded streets, shruti-based postulates can be used to explain that the ideas that we are mortal, doers and enjoyers are all due to error. For example, the Kathopanishad II.19 says "If the slayer thinks that he slays or if the slain thinks that he is slain, both of these know not. For It (the Self) neither slays nor is It slain." Also the Giitaa V 8 tells us that one who knows the truth understands that we do not act. We are not 'doers' or 'killers' or 'killed'. Therefore, any statement such as 'I am a doer' or 'I am an enjoyer' must be an error, from shruti (and smR^iti) based postulate.

Similarly, the notion 'I am a knower' is an error. The MaaNDuukya Upanishad, for example, says that the aatmaa is not a knower in the waking state, the dream state or the deep sleep state but is pure consciousness. Thus shruti-based postulate shows that this idea, that 'I am a knower', is false. (Unlike the idea 'I am consciousness', which is not an error.)

Another statement in the shruti says that the aatman is changeless (indestructible and incombustible). To be a 'doer' would involve change since this is an experience. All experiences, enjoying, knowing etc., are processes involving a modification of ones state e.g. from ignorance to knowledge. In fact, the suffix -er after a verb implies this modification by indicating an action or process. Since the aatman cannot change, it follows that the aatman cannot be a doer, enjoyer or any oth-er. The concepts must be errors or adhyaasa.

A final argument is that, in order to be a 'doer' one would need an associated 'instrument'; for example, mind is an instrument of thought and sense organs are instruments of perception. A 'doer' would have to be associated with an instrument of 'doing' and an 'enjoyer' with an instrument of enjoyment. But the scriptures say that the aatmaa is not associated with anything and so cannot be a 'doer' etc.

Another adhyaasa is 'I am limited' e.g. ' I am here' (and not elsewhere). The kaThopanishad (I-3-15) for example says that the aatmaa is beyond the five sense perceptions, is eternal and unlimited, beginningless and limitless. Since it is unambiguously stated that we are limitless, the idea that I am limited must be an error, by shruti postulate. The notion 'I am an individual' is false; I am Brahman is the reality.

The last example here is the idea that there are many aatmaa-s. This, too, is an error. Many of the philosophies do claim multiplicity of aatmaa - saa~Nkhya, yoga, vaisheshhika, puurvamiimaa.nsaa and even vishishhTaadvaita and dvaita (which both recognise the importance of Vedanta. But Shankara cites the shvetaashvatara upanishad as clearly implying that aatmaa is one and the iishaa upanishad (V7) says "He who perceives all beings as the Self. for him how can there be delusion or sorrow, when he sees this oneness (everywhere) - all in all?"

Thus, shruti postulate has shown that the ideas that we are mortal, doers, enjoyers, knowers, limited and many are all false.

Earlier, the process of inference was explained as involving four aspects - the 'locus' of the discussion, the 'conclusion' that will be reached, a 'basis' for the argument and an 'analogy'. The example used was ' whenever there is smoke, there is fire'. (The full form used for the analysis was '(we infer that) there is a fire on the mountain because we can see smoke, just as in a kitchen there is always fire when we see smoke'). Shankara's analysis of adhyaasa can be put into the first form by saying that 'wherever there is transaction, there is adhyaasa'.

He uses the example of using grass to catch a cow. The cow comes to the grass because, believing itself to be the body, it has notions such as 'I am hungry and the grass will remove the hunger, giving satisfaction'. It is the mistaken belief or adhyaasa 'I am the body' that causes the cow to come to the grass, 'going after things conducive to happiness'. Conversely, if instead of holding out grass, we take a stick to the cow, the cow senses danger and moves off, 'going away from things causing unhappiness'.

This is again caused by the mistaken idea 'I am the body'. In fact, in this latter case, it is thebelief that 'I am this physical body' (as opposed to the subtle body, which cannot be harmed by the stick).

This provides the 'analogy' for the inference. Man goes after things he likes and avoids those that he dislikes, just as the cow comes to the grass and runs away from the stick. The full form of the inference then becomes: '(We infer that) all human activities are based on error, because all activities can be considered as either coming towards or going away, just as in the example of the cow with the grass or stick'. "Human activity" is the 'locus'; "that it is based on adhyaasa" is the 'conclusion; "all activities are either coming towards or going away" is the 'basis'; the example of the cow, grass and stick is the 'analogy'.

Implication of adhyaasa

In everything that we do, we make the error of confusing what is real with what is unreal. We have a single experience but our understanding of it is confused. It is just like the example of the rope and snake. In our ignorance we have a single experience - there is a snake - but in fact two things are being mixed up viz. a real rope and an unreal snake. When I say 'I know', we think there is a single entity - a 'knower' but in fact there is a real, conscious self and unreal, inert thoughts. In the sentence "I am a knower", 'I am' is the 'general' part, referring to a real, conscious and existent being, while 'a knower' is the 'particular' part and is unreal. The two aspects are confused and adhyaasa occurs. The changeless part (existence and consciousness) belongs to aatmaa and the changing thought process belongs to anaatmaa. The two are mixed up and the idea 'I am a knower' is the result. Aatmaa cannot be a knower since it is changeless and thus cannot go through a 'knowing process'; anaatmaa cannot be a knower since it is inert. The two are mixed up to form a new entity, a 'knower', as a single experience but this is adhyaasa.

Conclusion of adhyaasa commentary

This understanding is not simply of academic interest; it is the source of the belief that we are mortal and thus brings about our fear of death and consequent insecurity. This then generates our constant concern with food and shelter etc. and hence our obsession with money. The fact is that money can only provide comforts; the basic insecurity does not go away however much money we may have. Adhyaasa thus directly gives rise to samsaara. Because we believe we are limited, we are continually trying to get those things we like in order to remove the perceived limitations. The belief that we 'do' anything, that we are 'doers' is due to adhyaasa and such actions result in the merits and demerits of karma and in samsaara. All of the suffering, from birth through disease, old age and death results from this fundamental error that we make. And so it will continue until the ignorance that is the cause of adhyaasa is removed. Actions are only a movement within nature, the 'play of the guuNaa'; there is no doer.

The mistake takes place at all levels. With the thought 'I am the knower', the anaatmaa of the mind and intellect is superimposed upon the aatmaa. At the level of perception, a statement such as 'I am blind' superimposes the anaatmaa of the sense organ upon the aatmaa. At the level of the body, ideas such as 'I am a man' superimposes the anaatmaa of the body upon the aatmaa. All of these various ideas are deemed to be properties of the Self, thus mixing up aatmaa and anaatmaa in a disastrous mistake.

And so it goes on. Because of the identification with the body, we become entangled in relationships with 'others' and imaginary 'needs' for 'external objects' etc. The aatmaa has no relationships (there is only the aatmaa) but because of the adhyaasa, the roots of samsaara spread everywhere.

The solution is to remove the ignorance of the Self. Only this can have the required effect - removing any other ignorance will not affect this. Any amount of education or knowledge in other subjects will only result in an educated samsaari, someone who is knowledgeable about the anaatmaa. The error is in respect of the Self, so samsaara can only be removed by knowledge of the Self.

The ignorance is not total. We already know that we exist and that we are conscious, just as in the rope and snake metaphor, we know that 'something' is there (if we did not there couldn't be any error). The aspect about which I am still ignorant is that I am Brahman. When we talk about searching for knowledge of Brahman, we are not endeavouring to find out about some new thing called 'Brahman' but about coming to realise our true status as Brahman. Whilst this true status is not understood, we exist under the mistaken impression that we are 'individuals' or 'jiiva-s'. It is the purpose of the Upanishads to remove this adyhaasa.

Herein lies the difference between Vedanta and many other religions, together with science, that they begin with the assumption that we are inferior or 'sinners' and that we have to better ourselves. We waste our whole lives trying to improve our status. Vedanta tells us that this assumption of an inferior status is mistaken; we do not have to try to improve ourselves, we are already perfect, whole and without limitation of any kind. We need to enquire into the nature of Brahman and thereby remove our adhyaasa.

Other Discourses in this Section:
The Unreal Spiritual Path The Real
The Unreal The Spiritual Path The Real
We are not the Body A Brief View of Advaita Adhyaasa - the Nature of Error
Control of the Ego How to Act - Karma Yoga There is Only the Self
States of Consciousness The Process of Enlightenement Fate and Free Will
Meaning and Purpose   We cannot think or talk about Reality
Pleasure and Happiness   Time, Change and Memory
Desire for Objects    


Page last updated: 08-Jul-2012