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

Ignorance – not so obvious!

Ignorance is a fundamental concept in Advaita and most people who call themselves Advaitins will believe that they understand what it is. After all, enlightenment is often equated to the gaining of Self-knowledge, which is equivalent to the removal of ignorance. Here is the definition of avidyA in John Grimes’ excellent ‘Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy’:

“It is the key concept in the Advaita Vedanta system. It serves as the cornerstone for Advaita Vedanta metaphysics, epistemology, and ethical disciplines; thus its role cannot be belittled. It is characterized by six marks: it is beginningless (anAdi); it is removed by right knowledge (j~nAna- nivartya); it is a positive entity of the nature of an existent (bhAva rUpa); it is indescribable (anirvachanIya); it has the two powers of concealment and projection which respectively represent the truth and suggest the false (AvaraNa and vikShepa); and its locus is either in the individual self (jIva) or in the Absolute (Brahman).”

And this is pretty much how most teachers and writers use the term. For example, in ‘Back to the Truth’, I said: “As long as the ignorance remains, there will be identification of one form or another and we will believe ourselves to be other than our true nature. The ignorance is said to be anAdi, without any beginning, and it will continue until it is removed by knowledge and enlightenment dawns.” This is backed up by shruti. The sarvopaniShad, for example, says (verse 1): “…this egoism is the bondage of the soul. The cessation of that egoism is mokSha, liberation. That which causes this egoism is avidyA, nescience.” Other, later scriptures echo this; e.g. the advaita bodha dIpaka: “Though the Self is Brahman, there is not the knowledge of the Self (being Brahman). That which obstructs the knowledge of the Self is Ignorance. Just as ignorance of the substratum, namely the rope, projects the illusion of the snake, so Ignorance of Brahman projects this world.” Continue reading

Q. 372 – Superimposition and Memory

Q: What is the relationship between memory and superimposition (adhyAsa)? In the metaphor of rope and snake, we say that we fail to see the snake clearly, because of inadequate light – there is partial knowledge and partial ignorance. When we superimpose a snake on the rope, we are drawing on fear and memory. We must have seen a snake (or image of one in a film or book) before in order to be able to mistake the rope for one. Similarly, we mistake brahman for the body and the world etc.

 But what about a baby or someone who has no memory as a result of brain damage? Is there still superimposition in this case?

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

A (Ted): We have to bear in mind that the example of a rope being mistaken for a snake is an analogy, and as is the case with any analogy, the example is imperfect. In the example, the snake image is based on a previous experience of the mistaken perceiver.

 In terms of mistaking the body-mind-sense complex as well as the innumerable other objects that constitute the manifest universe for Brahman, however, we are dealing with something a little bit different. Whereas in order to mistake the rope for a snake, one must have previously seen a snake, the projection of the apparent reality (i.e., the manifest universe in both its subtle and gross aspects) is not based on experiential memory, but rather results from the mind’s ability to recognize the “cosmic blueprints” that abide in dormant form in the Macrocosmic Causal Body, which is personified as Isvara, and are made manifest through the conditioning that maya upadhi, the limiting adjunct of causal matter, puts upon Brahman. That is, the mind is an instrument that is designed or a mechanism that is “programmed” to recognize these forms and, thus, is able to discern their apparent existence within the cosmic soup of pure potentiality (i.e., the unmanifest realm or “mind of God,” if you will) from the data it receives via the perceptive instruments/organs. Continue reading

Origin and Meaning of the word mithyA


Seekers often ask questions about the meaning of the word mithyA. It is, after all, one of the most important concepts in Advaita. Someone has just asked about the usage of the word itself: Did Shankara use it? Does it occur in the Upanishads? I had to do a bit of research on this one and thought others might be interested in what I discovered.

The dictionary definition of the word gives: 1) contrarily, incorrectly, wrongly, improperly; 2) falsely, deceitfully, untruly; 3) not in reality, only apparently; 4) to no purpose, fruitlessly, in vain. According to John Grimes, it derives from the verb-root mith, meaning ‘to dispute angrily, altercate’.

It seems that it only occurs in one Upanishad – the muktikopaniShad. This is the Upanishad which tells you which Upanishads you need to study in order to obtain mokSha or mukti. It says that you can, in theory, get away with studying only one – the Mandukya, with its bare 12 sutras. If this alone does not enlighten you, then you need to study the 10 major Upanishads (Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka). If you still haven’t got it, there are a further 22 making up the main ones. Failing that, you are doomed to have to study the 108 commonly recognized ones. (After that, you start again!) Continue reading

Mandukya Upanishad – part 1

Here is Part 1 of a new, short series (5 or 6 parts) on the Mandukya Upanishad, from James Swartz.

This first part talks about the means for obtaining knowledge and the meaning of the word ‘limitlessness’, using the snake and rope metaphor.

(In case you are wondering about the photo, the title of the Upanishad is sometimes claimed to be derived from the Sanskrit ‘maNDa’, meaning ‘a frog’.)