Notes on Shankara’s examination of the nature of ‘Error’ in the introduction to the brahmasUtra.
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.
In the example then, when we say ‘there is a snake’, there is a real part and an unreal part. The real part is ‘there is’; this is the ‘general part’. The unreal part, the snake, only appears to be there because the ‘particular part’ – the rope – is covered. If light (i.e. knowledge) is made available, the rope is now seen. The ‘general part’, ‘there is’ remains unchanged but the ‘particular part’, which was previously projected by the mind, is now uncovered and revealed to be a rope. The snake has not ‘gone away’ since it never existed, except in the mind of the observer, where it might have given rise to very real fears and physical effects (fast heartbeat, sweating etc.).
From the point of view of actual reality (pAramArthika), only the rope is real, the snake does not exist. For a perceiver who sees a snake, that snake is ‘relatively’ real (vyAvahArika) and causes as much mental suffering as would a truly real snake. There only ever was a rope but the ignorance of this in the mind of the perceiver creates the illusion of a snake and the suffering follows. Once light (i.e. the light of knowledge) is introduced, the mistaken perception of the particular part is corrected; the unreal snake disappears and the real rope is revealed. The associated fear etc. also disappears.
What has happened is that a valid means of enquiry has been undertaken into the nature of the particular part to reveal the truth of the matter. The valid means of enquiry in this example was the torchlight. It was appropriate because the mistake was brought about by the dim light. Prayer or meditation would not have been appropriate and would not have revealed the rope. The method has to be appropriate to the nature of the error. Since ignorance of our true nature is the reason for saMsAra, the appropriate means of enquiry for removing the error is self-knowledge.
Comparison with our own situation
The analogous statement that Shankara uses is ‘I am a saMsari‘, i.e. one who is subject to the cycle of birth and death. He could just as well have said ‘I am a person’ or individual. Here, ‘I am’ is the general part and is true. It refers to a conscious and existent being. It is ‘uncovered’. There is no doubt in our minds that it is true; we need no external means of knowledge to verify it. ‘A saMsari‘ (or ‘a person’ etc.) is the particular part and is unreal, like the snake. In this case, the truth of the situation is covered over, rather than projected, but is just as unreal. That we ‘are’ (sat) and that we are ‘conscious’ (chit) is known from the general part. What is hidden in the particular part is that we are bliss (Ananda) (or unlimited, complete, infinite etc.). In its place, we perceive unreal aspects such as misery, limitedness, incompleteness etc. This error is the cause of all our suffering. In order to solve this problem, it is necessary to apply the torchlight of vedAntic knowledge to reveal the real particular part – not ‘I am a saMsari‘ but ‘I am brahman‘.
Mixing of real and unreal
When a mistake of this type occurs, what is happening is that a real part and an unreal part are getting mixed up and this is effectively how Shankara defines adhyAsa – the mixing up of real and unreal. In the case of the rope and snake analogy, the error can be viewed as a ‘misperceiving of the rope’ or as the ‘superimposition of a snake’ or as ‘the mixing of part of a real rope and part of an unreal snake’. When we say ‘there is a snake’, ‘there is’ is the general part, which could be viewed as belonging to the rope, which is real, while ‘a snake’ is the unreal, mentally projected, particular part. The mixing up of real and unreal effectively creates a third entity that is partly real and partly unreal.
When someone refers to the ‘snake’, he does not realise that there are two aspects, one real and one unreal. If he says, ‘there is a long snake’, the adjective ‘long’ in fact refers to the rope, which is real whilst, if he says, ‘there is a poisonous snake’, the adjective refers to the unreal part.
Similarly, when someone says, ‘I am a shopkeeper’ (or whatever), he does not realise that the attribute ‘shopkeeper’ refers to the unreal part. He does not know that there are two parts, only one of which (I am) is real. In the mind of the ordinary ‘person’ these two things are mixed up and a single, false, jIva is created. It is this mixed-up jIva who is striving for liberation. The purpose of the brahmasUtra is to enquire into the nature of the jIva, by directing the knowledge of vedAnta so that we can discard the unreal part and become established in the knowledge of the real part. When this happens, realisation takes place and saMsAra is dissolved as unreal.
Shankara’s discussion of adhyAsa
This effectively divides into six topics: – the definition of error, objections to the theory as described, answers to these objections, showing the possibility for error, proof of the theory, conclusion.
Definition of adhyAsa
Shankara gives two definitions. The simpler is that it occurs when the attributes of one thing are superimposed on another. Thus a snake is seen instead of a rope or silver is seen on the inside of a shell. The second suggests that it occurs when a previously experienced object is seen instead of the actual. This accounts for the fact that a snake could not be seen instead of the rope unless the observer knew what a snake was and had previously seen a real one (or an image of one). A third indirect definition is the one mentioned earlier; that it occurs when real and unreal are mixed up.