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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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