adhyAsa (part 5)

Notes on Shankara’s examination of the nature of ‘Error’ in the introduction to the brahmasUtra.

Read Part 4 of the series

Proofs for adhyAsa  
There are two shruti-based pramANa-s for adhyAsa , 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 pramANa or valid means of knowledge. This pramANa is ‘perception-based’. as opposed to ‘shruti-based’. Shankara’s concept of adhyAsa is in fact a shruti-based ‘postulate’ since there is no mention of the subject in the veda-s 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 gItA (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. Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 15

(Read Part 14 of the series.)

Phenomenology and Existentialism

This movement began in the late nineteenth century as a theory of knowledge that attempted to reinstate science and bring in the modern findings from psychology and sociology to supplant the subjectivity that had predominated until then with the German Idealists. In particularly the wish was to understand the nature of awareness, differentiating between mental and non-mental realms.  Edmund Husserl, who was the teacher of Martin Heidegger (below), is generally credited with establishing the movement. It was acknowledged that we could not know that objects exist independent of our awareness of them but also that it cannot be denied that we are conscious of ‘things’. Phenomenology endeavoured to start from this point and attempt to analyse our experience without making any further assumptions. It subsequently merged into Existentialism.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was particularly interested in perception and the nature of the perceiving entity and ‘object’ of perception. He disliked both the empiricist and idealist approaches and spent much of his time attacking all dualist concepts such as the mind-matter division of Descartes. There cannot be any totally objective perception of the world, he said, because our perceptual apparatus is itself part of the world. Whenever we see something, what we ‘see’ comes along with everything else that we already know and the perception itself is the sum total of all of this. We can never see a chair, for example, without the awareness of its purpose as something for sitting on. The origin of our belief in a separate world derives from our thinking of ‘ourselves’ as other than the body that we apparently inhabit. We are our bodies, he said, and the mind cannot be separated from them. Continue reading

adhyAsa (part 4)

Notes on Shankara’s examination of the nature of ‘Error’ in the introduction to the brahmasUtra.

Read Part 3 of the series

Objections to the theory
Other systems of philosophy claim that, although the rope-snake error is acceptable, the superimposition of anything onto the Atman 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 Atman 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 Atman , however, the advaitin accepts that the Atman 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 Atman and anything else. E.g. Atma is the subject, anAtma  is the object; Atma is conscious and all pervading, anAtma  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 AtmaanAtma  case because we would have to have prior experience of a ‘real’ anAtma and it is part of the fundamental teaching of advaita that there is no such thing; there is only the Atman.

Accordingly, in the case of the AtmaanAtma , not one of these four conditions is satisfied. Therefore superimposition of anAtma  onto Atma, the fundamental cause of our error according to Shankara, is not possible – so says the objector. Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 14

(Read Part 13 of the series.)

Pragmatism and William James to Linguistic Analysis and Wittgenstein

Developed originally in America, and to some extent in rebellion against the metaphysical theories current in Europe at the time (especially Idealism), Pragmatism is effectively a method for determining the worth of philosophical problems and their proposed solutions. What was thought to matter was not all of the intellectual speculation and theorising usually associated with philosophising but the practical worth at the end of the day. Is a theory actually of any use to us in our day to day life? Will it make any difference to me if I follow it or am even aware of its existence? The word ‘pragmatic’ has now passed into everyday usage as referring to an approach that actually works.

The original ideas were developed by C. S. Peirce, who saw himself as following up the system devised by Kant. He thought the only purpose in philosophising to begin with was in order to solve problems that we actually encounter. We should then use the scientific method to enquire into the problem, drawing up hypotheses, experiments to test them and so on. Once we have an answer that gets us over the original problem we should simply stop there. A proposition is ‘true’ if everyone who investigates sufficiently thoroughly comes to the same conclusion. Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 13

(Read Part 12 of the series.)


When deciding whether an action should be deemed good or bad (as opposed to whether it is something we ourselves want to do), people will sometimes try to calculate whether the result will benefit the majority. This principle was expressed in the 18th Century by Francis Hutcheson: ‘That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’. It is effectively the opposite of what Kant was saying. Whereas he insisted that it was the motive alone that determined whether an act should be deemed to be ‘good’ and that we should act from a sense of duty, Hutcheson was claiming that motives were ultimately irrelevant, it was the outcome alone that mattered.

Two philosophers in particular were responsible for developing and propagating these ideas and thereby influencing many people’s attitude towards morality. The first was Jeremy Bentham, who is generally regarded as the originator of so-called ‘Utilitarianism’, which says that conduct is right or wrong according to its tendency to produce favourable or unfavourable consequences for the people who are affected by it. It was given this name because actions are judged on the basis of their ‘utility’ or usefulness in bringing about good, or benefit of some kind as opposed to evil or unhappiness. Continue reading

adhyAsa (part 2)

Notes on Shankara’s examination of the nature of ‘Error’ in the introduction to the brahmasUtra.

Read Part 1 of the series

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!). Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 12

(Read Part 11 of the series.)

Marx and Nietzsche


As noted earlier, Hegel’s philosophy was very influential with Marx, whose ideas are the basis of the intellectual foundation of Communism. In particular, he accepted Hegel’s concept of reality as an ongoing dialectic process, which could be monitored through a study of history, and which would continue to evolve until there were no further internal contradictions needing resolution. Not until this was achieved would true freedom and fulfilment be possible for man. He believed that the sort of society that would bring this about would be one in which individuals acted together rather than independently. Marx did not however agree with Hegel’s concept of a spiritual ‘Absolute’. Any form of religious belief or pursuit was seen as an attempt to escape from the meaninglessness that life had become.

He believed that matter, in the sense of man’s relation to it, was the driving force behind progress, and this meant that subjects such as the production and distribution of goods, and the economics of this, became extremely important. Thus he would have argued that socialism was simply the point that had been reached in the process of evolution, not something that he was specifically advocating, though his personal commitment to the ‘revolution’ is apparent in his writing. But all of this is a matter of politics and was advocated at the expense of ethical considerations. Continue reading

adhyAsa (part 1)

Notes on Shankara’s examination of the nature of ‘Error’ in the introduction to the brahmasUtra.

adhyAsa is possibly the most important concept in Advaita – certainly in Advaita as ‘formulated’ by Shankara, since he wrote an extended introduction to his commentary on the Brahmasutras on this topic. I wrote this article originally for Advaita Vision but (as far as I know) it is no longer available at that site so I am reproducing it here. It will be in 4 or 5 parts.

These notes are essentially a rewording, omitting most of the Sanskrit, of the notes provided by Achacrya 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 Paramarthananda of Madras, himself a student of Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda. His lectures form the basis of these notes.

The brahmasUtra is the third of the so called ‘Three pillars of vedAnta‘, the first two being the upaniShad-s (shruti – the scriptures ‘revealed’ and not ‘authored’ by anyone) and the bhagavad gItA (smRRiti – the ‘heard’ scriptures passed down by memory). The brahmasUtra is a very terse and logical examination of the essential teaching of the upaniShad-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 bhaShya, the best known being the one by Shankara. Continue reading

It was seen (by no one)

“One early morning in October upon awaking from slumber, there arose a sensation of the sense of self being gone. It was seen that there was literally no one there and that all movement was happening spontaneously without central control.”  Nancy Dolen, interviewed by Jerry Katz.


Why the Neo-Advaitin is not an Advaitin at all

Recently, I asked the question: “Who or what is it that acts?” And it led me to think that this is a question that many modern teachers need to ask themselves. The above quotation immediately triggered my antipathy (my apologies, Nancy, nothing personal!) In fact, one could pick up virtually any book by modern neo-advaita teachers and find a similar statement. Here are a few:

What sees through it? There is simply seeing – there is no-thing, no one that sees.” (Nathan Gill – already awake)

For this body-mind, when liberation was seen, any sense of localization ended for a while. Awareness was seen to be everywhere. The room in which standing was happening, the street in which there was walking, the bodies and lamp posts and benches and space that were appearing, were not differentiated in the belonging from this arm, this thinking process, this seeing, these feet walking the pavement.” (Richard Sylvester – I Hope You Die Soon) Continue reading