Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

upadesha sAhasrI part 5

Ignorance of Self Originates in Buddhi


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Read Part 4 of the series...

Intellect alone can remove misconception through Vedantic teaching.

In the first four chapters of the text, Adi Sankara had talked about ignorance of the Self as the problem of human bondage and Self-knowledge as the remedy. It was also explained how the scriptures reveal knowledge of Self by a process of negation of the non-Self. He also clearly established that this Self has to be understood as non-different from Brahman. The topic of Jivan Mukti and operation of prarabdha karma was also dealt with.  In the fifth chapter, Sankara enquires where Self-ignorance is located and how it comes about.

Sankara explains that the intellect (buddhi) is the locus of ignorance of the Self, which is the result of erroneous understanding. The chapter is thus entitled Buddhi Aparadha PrakaranamAparadha literally means crime or an offence, but in this context, we can take it as “lapse” or “error” and, therefore, the chapter can be known as the topic related to lapse or error on the part of the intellect. This is again a small chapter with only five verses.

Sankara contends that human bondage in the form of doership and enjoyership (Kartrutva/Bhoktrutva bhavana) and experience of pain and pleasure (Suka-Dukha anubava) is only the result of adhyasa (superimposition or misconception).  Instead of claiming to be the higher Self, the Witness Consciousness (sakshi chaitanyam), this error of identification with body-mind complex and its attributes and experiences is committed by the intellect (Buddhi) because of ignorance of Self.

This analysis (vichara) is important for a spiritual seeker because the intellect, being responsible for this error, is itself the instrument and locus where the error has to be corrected by gaining the right knowledge by a process of spiritual education (Vedantic Teaching). 

Only in Waking State
There are certain schools of philosophy which strongly suggest that right knowledge can be gained by resorting to meditation and Nirvikalpa Samadhi (where thoughts are totally removed and the mind becomes blank). Vedanta does not accept this position because any knowledge can take place only in an active intellect, which is available only in the waking state (Jagrat Avasta),  by operating an appropriate pramanam (means of knowledge), whereas in samadhi the intellect is resolved and no pramanam operates. Thus, resort to the scriptures and a competent guru becomes very relevant in the process of gaining Self- knowledge.

There is an argument that there are several Upanishadic pronouncements that Atma or Brahaman is not an object of knowledge (aprameyam) and, therefore, beyond intellectual perception.

In response, Vedanta points out that the spiritual enquiry, centred on what are known as Mahavakyas, proclaiming the identity of the individual Self (jivatma) with the Supreme Self (paramatma) does not produce any new knowledge of Brahman, but only helps to destroy ignorance of the Self,  responsible for erroneous understanding and resultant superimposition of the attributes and limitations of the body-mind complex on the Self, which is of the nature of Pure Consciousness and ever self-evident.

Thus, there is no “knowing” of Bramhan involved in this entire exercise and what happens is only Adhyasa Nivriti (removal of superimposition) for which we need the intellect (buddhi),  leaving the self-effulgent Atma to be claimed by the seeker.  In technical parlance, the thought, “I am Brahman” (Aham Brahmasmi Vriti) involves only Vritti Vyapti and no Phala Vyapti. 

Strong Addiction
The author also explains how this error takes place and continues to persist. In the first verse, it is pointed out that people are generally reluctant to take to Vedanta Vichara for gaining Self-knowledge, as they have over a long period developed almost an addiction-like association with their varna ashrama-based duties and apprehend giving them up, which they fear, will be the consequence of Atma Jnanam.  Though attachment (sangha) is the cause of bondage, people who are afraid of losing sangha due to their ignorance of the Self resist exposing themselves to the Vedantic teaching.

Sankara illustrates this baseless anxiety by giving the example of Udanka, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, who, in response to his penance directed Indra to provide him with nectar. Indra, reluctant to part with nectar, appeared before Udanka dressed as a chandala with the pot containing nectar hanging from his waist.  Udanka refused to accept the nectar fearing that the nectar could be polluted or contaminated.

Misconception Explained
In the second verse, the adhyasa (superimposition or misconception) is explained.  As the ego (ahankara) is closely and intimately associated with the original consciousness, the attributes of the intellect are erroneously transferred to Atma.  When I use my intellect (buddhi), I should clearly understand that the buddhi dharmas belong only to the buddhi and not  Atma.  Sankara says that the thought modifications really belong only to the mind, though a false impression is gained that Atma is undergoing changes in the form of vikshepa and tranquility, both states being actually a function of the buddhi.

This is also illustrated by the author by giving an example of those travelling by a boat in a river mistaking the movement of the boat as that of the trees on the river bank. The notion that I am subject to bondage is a similar misconception.

This example is further elaborated in the third verse.  It is pointed out that, just as trees seem to be moving in a direction opposite to that of a moving boat by people travelling in it, the human bondage is attributed to Atma because of the identification with intellect. Sankara makes a reference to the well-known passage in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (M.4.3.7) “…dyayativa lilavathiva (“as if at rest or as if it is  distracted”).  Atma does not meditate nor does it entertain thoughts and it is only the attributes of mind, of distraction and tranquillity, that are mistaken to be those of  Atma.

The same idea is conveyed in a slightly technical manner to state how the adhyasa arises.  In every perception, the mind entertains a thought (vritti) corresponding to the object perceived and pervades the entire object of perception.  Consciousness is lent to the mind by means of forming a reflection, resulting in the cognition of the object. 

Thus, though, really speaking, it is only the mind which undergoes modifications corresponding to the objects of perception, because of the close proximity it is wrongly understood that the modifications belong to Atma.  It is like fire, which is formless, taking the shape of the object heated or inflamed or water taking the shape of the container.  Sankara says that this is the reason why people are deluded and commit an error in attributing changes to Atma.

In the final and concluding verse (Verse 5), the author points out that it is necessary to sort out buddhi from Atma, which is Witness Consciousness (Sakshi Chaitanyam).

Close Proximity
While it is relatively easy for us to differentiate the external objects, the body and sense organs from Atma, we face difficulty in isolating the intellect (buddhi) because of its close proximity to Atma. We need to distance ourselves from the mind and be a witness objectifying the mind. This separation cannot be done physically, as in such an event there will be no knower (Pramata) and Pure Consciousness (chaitanyam) cannot do any transaction, much less objectify the mind.

For consciousness to know anything, it has to be associated with the mind. Even in samadhi, separation does not take place and it is only that the mind is resolved. Thus, Consciousness has to be always associated with the mind, whether thoughtful or thought-free. Separation, therefore, has to be purely in terms of understanding the distinction.

Only by using our intellect, we have to say that I am the Witness Consciousness and not the intellect.  If a question is raised as to how I cannot be the intellect as it is experienced all the time, the scriptures point to our deep sleep state (Sushupti avasta) where the intellect is resolved, though I continue to exist. Thus, the intellect is only incidental and not intrinsic to my nature, while the Sakshi is always present.

To conclude, as buddhi is illumined   and also objectified by consciousness, one can claim, ‘I am the Sakshi Chaitanyam’ (which, according to the scriptures, is non-different from Brahman) by entertaining an appropriate thought (Anthakarna vritti) that I am not the intellect.

Read Part 6 of the series...

Compiled by R. B. Athreya from the lectures of Swami Paramarthananda in Chennai.



Page last updated: 28-Nov-2012