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:
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.
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?
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.
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 Atma–anAtma 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 Atma–anAtma , 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 →
Analogy of the Rope and the Snake
This example originates from the commentaries of gaudapAda on the mANDUkyaupaniShad. Seeing a rope in the dark, it is mistaken for a snake – an error or adhyAsa. We mistakenly superimpose the image of an illusory snake onto the real rope. In just such a way we superimpose the illusion of objects etc. upon the one Atman .
If there is total dark, we would not see the rope so could not imagine it to be a snake. Hence ‘ignorance is bliss’, as in deep sleep – there can be no error. Similarly, if there is total light we see the rope clearly – in complete knowledge, we know everything to be brahman. Knowledge is also bliss! The error occurs only in partial light or when the eyes are defective. Then there is partial knowledge; we know that some ‘thing’ exists. This part, that is not covered by darkness or hidden by ignorance is called the ‘general part’ and is ‘uncovered’ or ‘real’. That the ‘thing’ is actually a rope is hidden because of the inadequate light or knowledge. This specific feature of the thing, that it is a rope, is called the ‘particular part’ and is covered. In place of the covered part, the mind substitutes or ‘projects’ something of its own, namely the snake. Continue reading →
Inference 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 →
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 →
Those who have read any of my books, or the brief biography that is available on this site and others, will know that I began my ‘philosophical investigations’ with the School of Economic Science, as it is known in the UK. And you will also know that I have commented frequently upon the misguided notions that were propagated by the school in the name of Advaita. One of the key misunderstandings that I had, which was not cleared for many years, despite reading widely and discussing Advaita with many people on the Internet, relates to ‘action’.
As usual, this was a Sankhyan idea effectively being passed off as belonging to Advaita. It was the notion that it is ‘the guNa that act’, or that action is a function of prakRRiti. In the first edition of ‘The Book Of One’, I actually had a chapter called ‘The Myth of Action’ and the first section of this was entitled ‘Only the guNa Act’. Here are several paragraphs from this:
“The three qualities of nature, the guna, of which all of nature is constituted, are in constant motion and this is the only ‘action’. Yes, the body acts – it is constituted of the three guna – but we do not. Here is a useful practical example of this: It may be that you cycle from time to time. I enjoy cycling in the New Forest, where I live – free exercise in beautiful surroundings and fresh air. However, there are a few hills along the routes, and sometimes you have to go up these rather than down. Many people just get off and walk their cycle up. Others take it as some sort of challenge and insist on trying to cycle to the top without having to dismount. When the going becomes hard, they make an extra mental effort, along the lines of ‘I am damn well going to get to the top, even if it kills me’! This is the hard way!Continue reading →
I came across this essay last week. I don’t actually remember writing it, although the file was dated Feb of this year! (My memory must be deteriorating faster than I thought!) Anyway, since everyone (who contributes these days) seems to be particularly interested in Consciousness and scientific views, it seemed a good idea to post it. Apologies if I have already posted it somewhere before…
Shankara’s Refutation of the Materialist
Seemingly, the most prevalent view today of the nature of consciousness is that it is a phenomenon that comes into existence when the brain reaches a certain level of complexity. To use the favored term, consciousness is an ‘epiphenomenon’ of matter. In fact, this is not a novel idea; it has been around for a long time. An Indian philosopher with whom the theory is particularly associated is Charvaka, who lived around 600 BCE.
The materialist philosophy itself is called lokayata in Sanskrit, and this is the term used in the principal Vedantic text, the Brahmasutras. It is interesting to note that the term ‘lokayatika’ was effectively used by the eminent philosopher Shankara as an insult but nowadays would be regarded by most people as a compliment, since it literally means ‘someone experienced in the ways of the world’ – an indication, perhaps, of the spiritual depths to which Western society has sunk! Continue reading →
Q: At the end of the day, what does knowledge of self give us ? It does not help to answer the burning question of why the appearance/dream/mAyA that we are experiencing as humans or animals exists. Also, it appears that even if one attains knowledge of self in one life, he/she can actually become a cockroach in the next due to karmic effect, ie we are not really liberated from the brith-death cycle. The only benefit I do see in a life in which one attains knowledge of self is that one might lead a life devoid of misery in the mind as we sail through good and bad times, even though we may experience physical pain.
A (Dennis): Self-knowledge removes Self-ignorance and it is that which makes us think we are limited, unhappy, doomed to old age and death. With Self-knowledge we realize that we are not human, living in an inhospitable world; we are brahman. The world appears as separate because of our ignorance. On gaining Self-knowledge, we realize that it’s substance is nothing but brahman.
From the perspective of the ignorant person, there is rebirth (possibly as a cockroach) and we are subject to karma. With Self-knowledge, we realize that there is no person, no birth or rebirth, no death, no creation.
The idea that knowledge is pointless is actually the main argument of the pUrvamImAMsika philosopher. They believe that only the karmakANDa portion of the Vedas is relevant – rituals that we have to perform in order to gain benefits. They say that the Upanishads etc are only supporting material to be meditated on. In the Brahmasutras, I.1.4, Vyasa effectively refutes all those philosophers who deny that brahman is the principal topic of the Vedas. But he does this with the single word ‘tu’ (tattu samanvayAt). Fortunately Shankara takes the opportunity to take up arms against pUrvamImAMsA. Whilst he agrees that knowledge in itself is often useless – we need actually to do something in order to gain some benefit – there is one situation in which ONLY knowledge bears fruit. That is when the problem is one of ignorance. The classic example is the rope mistaken for a snake. As soon as we find out that it is a rope, all our fears etc disappear. And our essential problem in life is that we believe we are a limited person. The knowledge that is to be gained from Advaita is that we are brahman – and that reveals that we have no real problems at all.
Most readers of this site will certainly have heard of this text- the third branch, nyAya prasthAna, of the source for the teaching of advaita. (The other two branches of the so-called prasthAna traya are the Upanishads or shruti, and smRRiti, of which the most important is the bhagavadgItA.) But few have probably read it. You may have attempted to do so but been quickly put off by its seeming complexity. This is not surprising!
The basic text was written by vyAsa and otherwise known as bAdarAyaNa. And ‘text’ is not really the right word. It is actually written in short, numbered sutras whose meaning is often obscure, to say the least. The practice of the time required that writers of such works used as few words as possible – and vyAsa must have been one of the most proficient! The reader is expected to remember what has gone before and fill in the appropriate words as necessary. He is also expected to know the Upanishads and other works off by heart so that the relevant references do not have to be spelled out. Continue reading →
Most readers will be aware of the Brahmasutras – the third ‘leg’ of the prasthAna traya (the threefold set of scriptures that constitute the authority for Advaita – and some will even have read them! And you may also know that the first, famous sutra is athAto brahma jij~nAsA – Now, therefore, an enquiry into Brahman. It is the claim that Brahman forms the subject matter of Vedanta and has to be enquired into if we are to gain Self-knowledge.
The author of the Brahmasutras is said to be vyAsa, also known as bAdarAyaNa and the purport of the work is to summarize, in an extremely abbreviated form, the philosophy of vedAnta, showing how this naturally derives from the (last portion of) Vedas. (Of course, this does not mean a summary of Advaita. Others have written commentaries on the Brahmasutras and shown how it is commensurate with the philosophies of dvaita and vishiShTAdvaita.)
What fewer readers will know is that there is a similar (much longer) work, called the pUrva mImAMsA sUtra-s, written by the ‘father’ of pUrva mImAMsA philosophy, Jaimini. And, surely not coincidentally, the first sutra in this work is athAto dharma jij~nAsA – Now, therefore, an enquiry into dharma. This makes the claim that dharma forms the subject matter of the Vedas and has to be enquired into if we are to gain liberation from saMsAra. The word ‘dharma’ is often translated as ‘duty’ and the meaning of this word relates to what we ought to be doing with our lives. Their claim is that knowledge is useless, since it cannot produce any benefit. They utilize only the first part of the Vedas – the karma kANDa – believing that only actions can achieve anything and that, consequently, we must assiduously follow the injunctions, rituals and meditations prescribed there in order to attain liberation at some point in the future.