adhyAsa (part 3)

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

Read Part 2 of the series

Analogy of the Rope and the Snake
This example originates from the commentaries of gaudapAda on the mANDUkya upaniShad. 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

Q. 387 – Value of Self-knowledge

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.

Q. 382 – Art and Vedanta

Q: As an artist and casual reader of advaita-vedanta, I wanted to ask about advaita-vedanta’s opinion on Art (be it music, painting, dance etc.).

Generally speaking, we can classify art into broadly 2 categories – sentimental art and non-sentimental art. But, as a practitioner of the former and a student of the latter (I had strict classical music training), I almost think of myself as being ‘attracted’ to art – as in, there is this sense of desire to create music. Personally, I have been advised by several elders to continue producing and practicing music. But does this go against the advice of advaita-vedanta? Am I acting on desires? Will art get artists permanently stuck in the cycle of samsara?

I ask this question because – There are so many Slokas, mantras, verses (sam-veda) that are musical… so it seems like music is encouraged by the vedas and the upanishads. But at the same time, it seems like a thing of desire. This confusion needs to be cleared!

Responses from Martin, Charles, Ted and Dennis Continue reading

Q. 373 – Ego, soul and mithyAtva

Q: For the last few years I have been trying to develop a manuscript detailing a working model which marriages the teachings of Advaita Vedanta with contemporary research on NDE or “Near Death Experience” and similar fields of inquiry. There are several questions I have, but for now I will only bother you with one: Is it possible the Atman does possess a “spiritual ego”?

 Clearly the culprit for the ignorance of our real self as the Self is the wrongful identification with the body-mind. Shankara explains the identification with the kosha-s perpetuates the illusion, which is nothing more than a superimposition of the kosha(s) on brahman helped by mAyA.

 The way I see it, our greatest enemy is the ego, the human ego. This ego comes from the mind and is maintained alive by desires. But I have many reasons to suspect there is also a “spiritual ego” present in the Atman, which similarly perpetuates the ignorance of the wrongful identification by the so-called discarnate “spirit soul”.

 The metaphor I have used is this: there is an actor in the “spiritual world” (the Atman) which wrongfully identifies with a spiritual ego preventing it from realizing brahman. This actor goes through an induced amnesia, after agreeing to play the role of a character in the Grand Stage of the world. This is the incarnation stage. The human ego is the combination of the spiritual ego – which carries the saMskAra-s and the vAsanA-s – plus particular influences on the personality traits caused by internal factors such as the brain/mind of the new body, as well as external factors such as family, society, education, etc. This is the embodied Atman as the jIva. Continue reading

Q. 369 – mokSha

Q: What is meant by mokSha as a puruShArtha? (The answer should incorporate a definition of mokSha.)

Responses from Ted, Venkat, Ramesam, Martin, Shuka and Dennis

A (Ted): Moksha literally means, “liberation.” It indicates freedom from dependence on objects (i.e., anything perceivable, conceivable, or in any way experienceable) for happiness, contentment, or a sense of wholeness and completeness. And since it is our vain pursuit of permanent fulfillment through impermanent objects that is the cause of suffering, moksha also implies freedom from all suffering.

 Moksha is the essential purushartha (i.e. goal or end) that we are seeking, though in most cases not consciously, through our pursuit of artha (security), kama (pleasure), and dharma (virtue). If we analyze the objects we chase in any of these categories, we invariably find that it is not actually the object itself that we want, but rather the sense of peace and/or happiness that it seemingly provides us. Admittedly, the objects we seek to obtain in these areas are either necessary for our survival or enhance our enjoyment of life, but all are limited. And no limited object can provide limitless fulfillment. Thus, if we depend on these objects for our happiness, we doom ourselves to inevitable disappointment and certain suffering. Continue reading

Knowledge, Action and Liberation

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost 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.

Continue reading

Topic of the Month – buddhi

The mind in Sanskrit is antaHkaraNa. It is the seat of both thought and feeling. It derives from antar – within, interior – and karaNa, which means “instrument” or sense-organ. The mind consists of a number of separate functions – manas, buddhi, chitta and ahaMkAra. The buddhi is responsible for discrimination and judgement, perhaps nearest equated to the intellect in Western usage. It differentiates between pairs of opposites, particularly between transient and eternal. In terms of the ‘spiritual development’ of a man, it is the most important function of the mind, since it is able effectively to exercise control over all of the rest of the body-mind instrument. Without it, we are no better than animals, driven by primitive instincts and selfish, acquisitive urges. Continue reading

upadesha sAhasrI – part 16


Part 16 of the serialization of the  presentation (compiled by R. B. Athreya from the lectures given by Swami Paramarthananda) of upadesha sAhasrI. This is the prakaraNa grantha which is agreed by most experts to have been written by Shankara himself and is an elaborate unfoldment of the essence of Advaita.

Subscribers to Advaita Vision are also offered special rates on the journal and on books published by Tattvaloka. See the full introduction

upadesha sAhasrI – part 15


Part 15 of the serialization of the  presentation (compiled by R. B. Athreya from the lectures given by Swami Paramarthananda) of upadesha sAhasrI. This is the prakaraNa grantha which is agreed by most experts to have been written by Shankara himself and is an elaborate unfoldment of the essence of Advaita.

Subscribers to Advaita Vision are also offered special rates on the journal and on books published by Tattvaloka. See the full introduction