Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Some observations on Shankara's adhyAsa bhAShya
Michael Reidy

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The following was posted to the Advaitin Egroup during Sept - Oct 2008.

One element of surrender in Vedanta or any other study is surrender to the text that is our focus. With primary texts that are encrusted with commentaries I think it is vital to read the text first before our minds are clouded by a view which gets between us and the initial experience. It thus can speak directly to us. That may in fact be difficult when the matter is very abstruse but thereby lies the skill of the reader. I’m biased but it is my opinion that a basic introduction to philosophy can be of great assistance. Certain errors which one is liable to fall into can be avoided by a general grasp of the problem fields and the characteristic approaches. The Sage of Kanchi was not I think being polite when he told me to ‘please continue’ when I asked him whether I should continue my study of philosophy.

It was heartening to have some of my ideas on curious interpretations of the adhyAsa bhAShya (preamble to B.S.B.) confirmed by Sri SSS. People are not reading what is on the page because of the interference of received views. How does one get over that? By the opposite of speed reading which is slow reading. You need to get the sense of strangeness of the text to have it grow into you unimpeded by a veil. It may help to reveal only those words you are reading, masking the rest with a post card.

So one reads: It being an established fact.

Now that’s interesting; Shankara believes that there are established facts. He is at least not a sceptic because he accepts that there are some things we just know or that are given. I may even take it that when a fact is established the implication is that there is general agreement. It is not dependent on my personal validation.

that the object and the subject

This seems to come under the notion of what is given as an established fact, stuff that we don’t have to think about, that is just there. Take it or leave it, you can’t deny it. This is important. Objects exist, subjects exist. Odd though it may seem there are some philosophies that hold that only the existence of a subject is immediately given and that the object is the result of an inference that ‘explains’ sense-data.

that are fit to be the contents of the concepts "you" and "we" (respectively)

This again marks the direct intuition. I mean intuition in the sense of the sort of things we know about without having to think about them i.e. the world has stuff that is not us. The pencil on the desk is not an event in my brain.

and that are by nature as contradictory as light and darkness

One seems to cancel the other out as the light does the dark. The consciousness of the subject is being compared to the inertness of the object as object.

cannot logically have any identity

They are utterly different from each other. I am here and the object is out there.

it follows that their attributes can have it still less.

The attributes of the subject and those of the object

In this first sentence Shankara has set out the field so that we are clear about the basics which are the stuff of everyday intuition. Having done that he now springs the paradox that lies at the heart of perception on us.

Let's talk about the attributes for a moment. The attributes of the subject as subject and those of the attributes of the object as object. The chief attribute of the subject viewed as subject is consciousness otherwise there would not be an object; the two being linked together conceptually. There is more to be said on this but as we are strictly adhering to the development of the argument in the text we will restrict our remarks to that alone. An object has location, weight, dimension etc. What is the weight of a thought? Does it have extent? Their attributes are incommensurable. Some philosophers have been led by this consideration to psycho-physical dualism. This is "the view that human beings are made up of two radically distinct constituents (body, constituted by matter like other natural objects, and an immaterial mind or soul)" (Penguin Dict. Of Phil.)

Accordingly, the superimposition of the object

Here the concept of superimposition is introduced. There would have to be an assumption that most students that have come to read the B.S.B. have a notion of what 'superimposition' is in the technical sense of a transfer of attributes.

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.

The idea here is that the thing that is inert and of material dimensions somehow comes to be in the consciousness of the subject which is immaterial in nature. Inert in the advaitic philosophy carries the connotation that even though it is of the nature of pure consciousness the witness element is missing in it and therefore it is not conscious unto itself. Consciousness has to be applied to it for it to reveal itself as an upAdhi/limiting adjunct.

Perception is such a common thing that it strange to enter into a sense of its fundamental oddness. At the level of the psychology of perception there is much that can be learned about it but this learning does not dissipate the paradox at the ontological level. We cannot say that the activity in the brain is consciousness and claim that we understand what this might mean. The physical and consciousness are incommensurable. Therefore it is the case that subject/object awareness ought to be impossible.

Clearly this is not so. This brings Shankara on to his next point:

Nevertheless, owing to an absence of discrimination between these attributes, as also between substances, which are absolutely disparate,

'Absence of discrimination' has the tone of blame about it because we generally think of discrimination as a good thing. Here I think it is a neutral description of the ontological/epistemological basis of perception. For it to take place there must be an ignoring of the patent difference between the conscious and the inert. That ignoring applies also to the substances or the free standing entities at issue viz. the subject and the object. The object somehow comes to be in the subject.

there continues a natural human behaviour based on self-identification in the form of "I am this" or "this is mine".

Before the individual has begun to reflect on the nature of perception and the puzzle at the heart of it, he will be stuck at the level of the everyday acceptance of the disjunction between the subject and the object. Without philosophical analysis this may seem a fixed and final condition. Even with philosophical analysis one may end up with a view of self-luminous cognition that approximates to the Buddhist shunya vAda .

This behaviour has for its material cause an unreal nescience and man resorts to it by mixing up reality with unreality as a result of superimposing the things themselves or their attributes on each other.

Here we have large blocks of ideas being introduced such as 'material cause' and 'unreal nescience'. First we must get the general purport of the sentence and then how the blocks of meaning move within it. Essentially what Shankara is saying is that we have a limited understanding of reality and suppose that it is complete. We accept perception as a fact and go no further to enquire as to how it is possible. Perception has already been presented as superimposition of the inert on the conscious and the conscious on the inert. Simply sticking at that we are left at the stage where we take the gulf between subject and object to be fixed and final. It is our ignorance of the reality of the unity of being and consciousness, an ignorance exacerbated by the material conditions of perception such as location, ambient conditions, presence etc that make us accept a narrow view of the self. I take material conditions to be what Shankara means by 'material cause'. It is an extension of the base concept of being made out of something or arising out of something.

If it be asked; "what is it that is called superimposition?" - the answer is: It is an awareness, similar in nature to memory, that arises on a different (foreign) basis as a result of some past experience.

He now finds it necessary to give his account of the place superimposition has to play in Advaita. Here I must say that I have found the extensive discussion of the various sorts of confusion, illusion and delusion to be excessive and contrary to the purport of Shankara's basic use of it. He uses superimposition as an analogy for the way in which the object comes to be in the consciousness of the subject and also the way that the consciousness of the subject 'covers' the inert object. He later makes it clear that confusion is not a parallel for superimposition i.e. that all sorts of superimposition must conform to the example of confusion. In fact it is taking an analogy as an example that is the problem. An analogy is like that which it seeks to clarify in one fixed facet only and not in a global way. The facet that is focused on is the coming to be in the mind of an object. That the object in the case of confusion is not really there is not a relevant consideration. It is not the purport of the analogy. Many generations of over-interpretation have befogged this.

Shankara goes on to make it clear, to me at least, that this is his intent.

But others assert that wherever a superimposition on anything occurs, there is in evidence only a confusion arising from the absence of discrimination between them. Others say that the superimposition of anything on any other substratum consists in fancying some opposite attributes on that very basis. From every point of view, however, there is no difference as regards the appearance of one thing as something else. And in accord with this, we find in common experience that the nacre appears as silver and a single moon appears as two.

What we have there is a swift review of all the theories of confusion which were an important topic for the philosophers of the day in their discussion of error. The paradigm or central case of error is taking something to be that which it is not. That is a very interesting discussion in its own right, but what Shankara is using the phenomenon of error for, is to bring out is the notion of the mutual transference of attributes i.e. superimposition. He is not interested in the minutiae of the mechanics of confusion.

The superimposition of the conscious on the inert has also been dealt with in V.P. in the Chapter on 'Subject Matter of Vedanta' page 188(trans.). It is objected that the self which is unlimited must have by that very fact a connection with everything and that there not being a mental state as in the case of the inert would be no bar to it.

The reply to this is that Vedanta does not deny that the self is unlimited and that the individual self can be connected with that which is inert.

Objection: "What, then"? i.e. how can this be?

The answer to this is that the luminous mind because it is a transparent substance can manifest the Consciousness that is the individual self. However a jar or any inert object cannot manifest consciousness to itself because it is opaque. Nevertheless it is an upAdhi or a limiting adjunct of pure consciousness in the form of the jar, etc. It is the mind or consciousness going out to it that 'covers' it and takes its form.

…and being possessed of a capacity to manifest Consciousness, imparted by the mental state, they manifest that Consciousness after the appearance of the mental state. So it has been stated in the vivaraNa, "For the mind imparts to the jar etc. connected with it as well as to itself, the capacity to manifest Consciousness.

On page 15 (Perception Chapter) there is the metaphor of the tank "so also the luminous mind, issuing through the eye etc., goes to the space occupied by objects such as a jar, and is modified into the form of a jar or any other object."

As the vivaraNa states, the mind can give to the inert the power to manifest Consciousness. Because this manifestation is that of a limiting adjunct, it is the truth of the object.

See Michael's own website for many more articles.

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