Discussion on chidAbhAsa

In the comments following the Question and Answer on the subject of mAyA and Ishvara – Q.325, Peter and I began the following exchange on the subject of ‘reflection of Consciousness’ (between the <<<  >>> marks below). We continued this discussion off-line. Now that this has been concluded, we are posting the discussion so that others may, perhaps, benefit from the clarification that ensued.


PB: 2. The easiest misunderstanding to resolve is the distinction between ‘original consciousness’ and ‘reflected consciousness’: there is NO difference. To explain this we are given the analogy of light. Any opaque object is seen because it reflects light. One can say that the light reaching our eyes from the object is ‘reflected light’. But what is the difference between ‘reflected light’ and ‘original light’? There is no difference: light is light. ‘Reflected light’ is merely the name given to ‘original light’ seen together with a reflecting medium (the object). In the same way, ‘reflected consciousness’ is the name given to ‘original consciousness’ seen together with the reflecting medium of the perceptible gross and subtle universe. ‘Original consciousness’ is given the name Brahman.

 DW: As usual your explanations are mainly excellent. I did find your point 2 slightly misleading however, although I understand what you are getting at. You seem to be saying that the bimba (original) and the pratibimba (reflection) are the same. This is not so as I understand it. The quality of the reflection depends upon that of the reflecting medium. Muddy water does not give a clear reflection etc. Moreover, the reflection disappears when the medium is destroyed, whereas the original is unaffected. My article on chidAbhAsa goes into this http://advaita-academy.org/talks/The-Real-I-verses-the-Presumed-I—An-Examination-of-chidAbhAsa.ashx. It is ignorance which leads us to think that we are the reflection when we are really the original. Rectification of this mistake is enlightenment.

 PB: ‘Reflected consciousness’ is ‘pure consciousness’ ‘mixed with’ name and form of the reflecting medium, just as reflected light is pure light ‘mixed with’ the opaque object that reflects it. Once separated from names and forms there is no difference between pure and reflected consciousness. There is only consciousness and names ‘pure’ and ‘reflected’ are only to indicate whether it is manifest or not. Without the manifesting medium of name and form (with which, as you rightly point out, it becomes entangled due to ignorance) consciousness is unmanifest. That’s why Swami Dayananda prefers the term ‘manifest consciousness’ instead of ‘reflected consciousness’. There is only one consciousness: either manifest or unmanifest (or pure and reflected if you prefer – as long as you appreciate the similarity).

 And there’s one more point worth making: consciousness can never be tainted or distorted by the ‘reflecting medium’. Distortion is due to not being able to distinguish between pure consciousness and the manifesting medium. If you can cognitively separate them (i.e. understand what’s the truth of the situation) you’ll see that consciousness is consciousness – there are no two grades, one pure and the other somewhat lesser.

 DW: Yes, of course there is only Consciousness in reality. And even though it may appear to be tainted, this is only the ‘snake’ on the ‘rope’.

 But I was taking issue with the metaphor. In the case of an object being seen, the light reflected off the object is actually different from the incident light. If the object appears red, this is because light of all other wavelengths is actually being absorbed by the object and the red part of the spectrum is what is left to be reflected. So the ‘original’ light is white (i.e. all colors of the visible spectrum) and the reflected light is red. I.e. the reflected light is NOT the same as the original.

 To return to the non-metaphor, the behavior of a Mother Teresa is clearly quite different from that of a Hitler, although it is the same Consciousness that is animating both. Brahman is the same; chidAbhAsa (which is only a meaningful concept from the vyAvahArika perspective) is different. This difference is due to the nature of the mind (vAsanA-s, karma) which is doing the reflecting.


 PB: Does this mean that what is referred to as chidAbhAsa (‘reflected’ consciousness) only appears to be tainted but is actually no different from ‘pure’ consciousness? In which case we are saying the same thing. If, however, you apply your (100% accurate) observation of the distinction between pure and reflected light to what happens between pure consciousness and chidAbhAsa (reflected consciousness), then we aren’t necessarily on the same page. Reflected light is the traditional example used because both reflection and illumination are involved (something not necessarily involved in other reflected waves).

DW: I think this is a paramArtha – vyavahAra confusion. From the point of view of absolute reality there is, of course, only Consciousness. But if we are in the Ishvara-jIva-world domain, then we have Consciousness with attributes. In the case of jIva-s, these are called chidAbhAsa and each one is different. So I believe that the metaphor is quite appropriate but that you are confusing things by saying that the reflected light is the same. This is crossing the boundary from vyavahAra to paramArtha.

 PB: There is only a vyavahArika perspective from which anything is resolved: from the paramArtika perspective there is no ‘knowing’ or ‘seeing’ etc. That aside, this is a matter of what is available for direct perception and what value for mokSha does a correct understanding of what we see hold out.

My contention is that pure consciousness is always available as pure consciousness together with name and form of every upAdhi. That is what we are constantly faced with at the vyavahArika level.

Here we are dealing with the relationship between upAdhi (e.g. hibiscus in the traditional example) and upahitam (crystal). There is only a seeming transfer of the attribute of the hibiscus onto crystal that makes the crystal appear red by virtue of their proximity. Is it really red although it looks red? No. Are you seeing it accurately as appearing red? Yes: everyone will see crystal together with redness. (This is what makes it different from snake-rope, where the seeing is an individual projection).

Now here’s the value: despite it appearing red one knows that the crystal remains colourless. The separation of redness from the colourless crystal has to be done cognitively at the vyAvahArika level. If the crystal is somehow diminished by association with redness, we will never be able to separate what is true from what is mithyA?

My other contention is that, using the translation ‘reflected consciousness’ for chidAbhAsa, you get into a whole range of problems from extending the analogy as you have done from the scientific perspective. The one consciousness (crystal) with different upAdhi-s (names and forms) will be colourless even though appearing red or blue or pink or green. Whereas extending the light analogy scientifically you end up with individual distortions of consciousness reaching the perceiver.

Whilst scientifically accurate, this is not philosophically accurate. What reaches us is untainted pure consciousness that seems to be coloured. No matter how much we try we will continue to see the sky as blue or red despite knowing it is colourless. What is happening is that we are seeing a colourless sky as coloured. Or seeing a straight stick as bent in water, despite knowing it is straight. The only way of dealing with this perception is to separate experience from reality cognitively: I know the sky is colourless, despite seeing it as blue. I know the stick is straight despite seeing it as bent. I know that the wave is water despite seeing its form. I know that consciousness is pure despite seeing it as having been changed by name and form.

DW: You seem to be mixing your metaphors! The light reflection metaphor is the bimba-pratibimba teaching of the vivaraNa school. The upAdhi metaphor is the avachCheda vAda thesis of the bhAmatI school. Shankara did use them both, but not at the same time I think! And the crystal and flower is, I think, a third metaphor.
The reflection metaphor, together with the concept of chidAbhAsa, was devised as I understand it, to explain how it is that I seem to be a separate entity and yet shAstra claims tattvamasi.
Who is it who says ‘I’? It can’t be the body-mind alone, which is inert pradhAna. That needs Consciousness in order to be able to do anything. And it cannot be brahman, which cannot do anything without a mind through which to act. It has to be a ‘mixture’ of the two. And this entity has to be many, one for each being – you do not know what I am thinking; when you act, I do not reap the results. And so on.
The explanation is that I (as ahaMkAra, from a vyAvahArika perspective), which is effectively a ‘part’ of brahman, perform actions, suffer the consequences and so on. It is I (as sAkShI, effectively the pAramArthika perspective) who can claim aham brahmAsmi. sAkShI does nothing, reaps no karmaphala etc.
So I feel my interpretation stands in the context in which I used it. You say “Whereas extending the light analogy scientifically you end up with individual distortions of consciousness reaching the perceiver.” I think this is what we actually perceive. We (as Advaitins) know that the Consciousness ‘in’ A is the same as that ‘in’ B but the manifestation is clearly different from both physical and behavioural points of view. This is because of the differing nature of the reflecting medium – mind. You say that what reaches us is untainted Consciousness. But this is the a posteriori knowledge of the Advaitin. For the normal observer, what reaches us from person X is not the same as that from person Y. If it were, then everyone would be self-realized! So, if your way of looking at things is that of a j~nAnI, then I agree. But not otherwise.
Here is a quote from the Swami Sivananda commentary on BSB 2.3.49 – 50:
Asantateschavyatikarah II.3.49 (265)
And on account of the non-extension (of the soul beyond its own body) there is no confusion (of results of actions).

Asantateh: on account of non-extension (beyond its own body);
Cha: and;
Avyatikarah: there is no confusion (of results of actions).
The discussion on the special characteristic of the individual soul is continued. An objection is raised that on account of the unity of the self there would result a confusion of the results of actions, there being only one master, i.e., one soul to enjoy the fruits of actions. This Sutra refutes such a possibility.
This is not so, because there is no extension of the acting and enjoying self, i.e., no connection on its part with all bodies. The individual soul depends on its adjuncts, and there is also non-extension of the soul on account of the non-extension of those adjuncts. The individual souls are different from each other. Each soul is connected with a particular body, mind, etc.
The individual soul has no connection with all the bodies at the same time. He is connected with one body only and he is affected by the peculiar properties of that one alone. Therefore the effects of works done by the soul in one body belongs to him in respect of that body only and not of any other body. All the individuals are not affected by the works done by a particular individual.
There will be no possibility for the Atman, as it is one, to experience all the pleasures and all the pains of all the bodies, because the bodies are disconnected. Therefore there is no confusion of actions or fruits of actions.
Abhasa eva cha II.3.50 (266)

And (the individual soul is) only a reflection (of Paramatman or the Supreme Lord).
Abhasa: a reflection;
 Eva: only;
Cha: and.
According to Vedanta, the individual soul is only a reflection of Brahman or the Supreme Soul in the mind like the reflection of the sun in the water. Just as the reflections of the sun in different pots of water are different, so also the reflections of the Supreme Soul in different minds are different. Just as, when one reflected image of the sun trembles, another reflected image does not on that account tremble also, so also when a particular soul experiences fruits of his actions, viz., pleasure and pain, it is not shared by other souls. When the individual soul in one body is undergoing the effects of his actions, the soul in any other body is not affected on that account.
I’ve done a bit of research and it looks as though the development of the bimba-pratibimba ideas through the centuries might actually be a way of writing about how the teaching of Advaita has been changing. It certainly seems as though these metaphors have been used in slightly different ways by different teachers. No wonder it is confusing!

 PB: I take a very pragmatic view of these things, as does my teacher and her teacher, and leave the scholars to argue among themselves. So my starting point is that, despite appearances, what’s there is only Brahman, pure consciousness. Any distortions belong to the manifesting medium and not Brahman. This is what allows us to say the sky is colourless despite the fact that it appears blue, or to see water in the desert despite knowing it is a mirage, or seeing a red crystal despite its being colourless.

 Due to ignorance of the truth of consciousness, we take it to be other than it is and superimpose the qualities of that which we take it to be upon the pure consciousness. Mokṣa is a cognitive matter, not an experiential one. So the correction of the error comes from right understanding; right understanding, however, will not necessarily change the experience – the sky will never ever appear colourless and we will helplessly see a bent stick in water or a red crystal near the hibiscus or separate objects all around us.

 So, even at the vyāvahārika level we can know that the light of consciousness, despite appearing to be variegated, is in fact pure – in fact we can only know anything from a vyāvahārika perspective (nothing is known at the parmārtika level because there is no separate knower or instrument of knowledge or object of knowledge). Variegation is a quality of the manifesting medium and not of consciousness.

 In Manīsha Pañcakam the caṇḍāla, who is brusquely asked to move out of the way by Śaṅkara, opens Śaṅkara’s eyes to the truth by asking the killer question:

 In the ocean of knowledge – the indivisible, unchanging, limitless consciousness – is there really a big difference or confusion such as: “This is a Brahmaṇa, this is a dog-eater”? Also what is the difference between the reflection of the sun in Ganga water or in a ditch in the slums? Or what is the difference between space in a golden pot or in a clay jar?

 The implied answer to the bit of the question I’ve italicised is: None. Śaṅkara doesn’t want the student to say: The reflection of the sun in gutter water (caṇḍāla/Hitler) is different from that reflected in Ganga (Brahmaṇa/Mother Theresa). Consciousness is one, upādhi-s differ.

DW: What you are saying still seems to be part (as if) paramArtha and part vyavahAra.
In the first para, you say that ‘despite appearances, what’s there is only Brahman, pure consciousness’. Obviously I agree. This is an (as if) pAramArthika statement. You then say ‘Any distortions belong to the manifesting medium’. But if we are ‘talking paramArtha’, there is only brahman. So you can’t make that statement – the manifesting medium is brahman too, so no distortion is possible.
If we are talking about vyavahAra, which we must be doing if distortions and reflections are present, we must be talking about Ishvara-jIva-jagat, where there are differences. What we are trying to explain is why there ARE these (seeming) differences. And we can say that it is the vAsanA-s or whatever which cause the mind to ‘reflect’ Consciousness differently. If you just repeat that there is only Brahman, it doesn’t explain anything. And saying that the Consciousness that is reflected is the same seems not to explain it either. Do you not agree that the Brahmasutra commentary I gave supports this?
I agree with the second and third paras.
I don’t have a copy of the text you mention (library shortfall!). I agree that the quote you give seems to support your interpretation. Maybe the resolution of the discussion is that metaphors may be used in different ways to support different points. But it still seems to me that this particular point is making a confusing (if not actually erroneous) crossing-over of levels of reality. It is a fact that people are different at the empirical level, despite Consciousness being non-dual. This metaphor, in the way in which I have been using it, ‘explains’ this sensibly. Do you deny this? What metaphor would you use instead?

 PB: I do believe there is starting to be a convergence of views. The metaphor you use does ‘explain’ to some extent how empirical differences appear. But only partially. It ‘explains’ how Peter interprets the world differently from Dennis and thus behaves differently. But it does not explain how Peter and Dennis both recognise that a person is different from a tree: vāsanas don’t quite do the job (though vāsanas could ‘explain’ why Peter’s reaction to the person or tree might be different from Dennis’s). Nor does it explain how Peter, as a manifesting medium of consciousness, is different from a stone as a manifesting medium of consciousness. Vāsanas don’t quite do the job here either – because a stone, as a manifesting medium, is not sophisticated enough to manifest the subtle body. (And despite an ape being able to manifest a subtle body, its antaḥkaraṇa isn’t sophisticated enough to manifest the ‘I’ thought.)
At the very heart of our seeming difference I now see two ‘culprits’:
1. The use of the word ‘reflection’. It may be an accurate translation, but one needs to interpret the word correctly to give the desired (and useful meaning) in context. The word ‘ātmā’, for example, is used to mean Self, body, mind, consciousness, etc. The word ‘yoga’ too has a range of meanings. One needs to choose carefully. Would we be having this discussion if ‘cidābhāsa’ was translated as ‘manifest consciousness’ (as proposed by Swami Dayananda)? An opaque object is ‘manifest light’, without which light continues to exist but is not available for perception. The jagat is manifest consciousness.

2. The understanding of paramārtika. I understand nirguṇa brahman (paramārtika satta) to be a cognitive concept. There is only saguṇa brahman – i.e. consciousness with the potential to manifest (māya). If the potential to manifest was not there from the very start, then when did it come into existence and  how and from where? Consciousness always has a potential to manifest, it is always saguṇa. We can say, however, that this potential is dependent on the substratum and therefore, being mithyā, can be resolved into its cause, satyam, ‘pure consciousness’. ‘Pure consciousness’ (paramārtika satta) is, thus, cognitive – useful for beaking the tendency to take the manifest to be absolutely real. Everything is taking place at the vyavahāika level and the difference between one who knows the truth and one who has yet to know is that the former never ever think the names and forms are absolutely real. Vyavahārika understanding sees only wave. What you refer to as ‘as if’ paramārtika understanding is knowing without a doubt that the wave is water, but sometimes taking it to be wave. The ‘as if’ drops when one just sees water. That is mokṣa!
So, to be 100% accurate in my statements, instead of saying: ‘Any distortions belong to the manifesting medium’. I should say ‘Any ‘as if’ distortions belong to the ‘as if’ manifesting medium’. And, going right back to the start of this discussion, it would be accurate to say that just as the crystal appears coloured, so too pure ‘reflected’ light appears coloured by association with the ‘reflecting medium’. Or, as I would actually prefer, drop the word ‘reflecting’: pure light, without changing, appears in the form of its manifesting medium due to ignorance and superimposition.

 DW: I, also, do not think that there is any real disagreement at the heart of this but it is useful to discover why there is not total accord. This, after all, is the situation with many seekers.
1.     I did say vAsanA-s etc, meaning the ‘various’ explanations. I did not see this as an area into which we either wanted or needed to venture.

2.     I was seeing the discussion as particularly relating to the bimba-pratibimba ‘theory’, so I think we have definitely to use the word ‘reflection’. I agree that had we been talking about ‘manifest’ consciousness from the beginning, there might be no problem.

3.     Your understanding of my use of ‘as if’ is not correct. I meant that it is not possible to say anything at all about paramArtha. Everything about it, including the concept itself, is within vyavahAra only. (You say this yourself as “I understand nirguṇa brahman (paramārtika satta) to be a cognitive concept.”) But, when talking ‘as if’ from the standpoint of paramArtha, we cannot talk about manifestation at all. So I agree with all that you say in your number 2, apart from the sentence “What you refer to as ‘as if’ paramārtika understanding is knowing without a doubt that the wave is water, but sometimes taking it to be wave.” That is to say, I might agree with it but it needs rewording to avoid ambiguity: ‘pAramArthika understanding is knowing without a doubt that the wave is water, but still treating it as a wave for empirical transactions’. But I don’t think this is relevant anyway.

I see the misalignment of our views as relating to the use of metaphor. Metaphors only have value in so far as they enable one to understand the actual topic of discussion. Thereafter, they have to be discarded lest they confuse the issue. This is perhaps clearer if you take, say, the pole vaulting metaphor in respect of the utility of shAstra pramANa. Scriptures take one to the brink of understanding in the same way that the pole propels one to the cross bar. But just as one has to let go of the pole in order to clear the bar, one has to leave the scriptures behind in order to for akhaNDAkAra vRRitti to take place.
But this is only a metaphor. There is no distance involved, nothing to cross over, and long sticks have nothing to do with the accumulation of knowledge. Similarly, Consciousness is not actually being reflected anywhere, there are no mirrors and so on. We are getting bogged down in arguing about whether the pole is made of wood, aluminium or carbon fibre. Consciousness is not really like light. So arguing about whether the light is really coloured or only seems to be is missing the point. (I believe you have to take the scientific view once you enter that discussion, and light that ‘appears’ red is red because that is what the word ‘red’ means! The light has the appearance of being red – it is red light. It appears red because the wavelength of the light falling on your retina is in the region of 625–740 nm and your brain interprets that as ‘red’. So it makes no sense to say that it is ‘really’ white!)
So metaphors don’t really explain how things work, They simply enable your brain to make the leap to an intuitive understanding. And I think that the pratibimba theory enables one to ‘sort of see’ why it is that the same Consciousness can manifest sometimes as a Hitler and sometimes as a Mother Theresa. The way that you out your last statement (“pure light, without changing, appears in the form of its manifesting medium due to ignorance and superimposition”) implies that it is the fault of the observer that Hitler appears so bad!

 PB: As always, the way you have put this, draws a (satisfactory) line under the discussion.

Maybe, as you say, others might find it useful. In that case, here is the complete sequence in the exchange.


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