Notes on Shankara’s examination of the nature of ‘Error’ in the introduction to the brahmasUtra.
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.
Answers to these Objections and Showing the possibility for adhyAsa
- ‘The object must be directly perceivable.’ This is not strictly true. It is certainly the case that the object must be known. It is not possible to make a mistake about something about which we know nothing at all but it is not necessary that the object be immediately in front of us. This first condition should be restated as ‘the object must be a known, existent entity’. Now, there is no problem since the Atman is known even though it cannot be seen (we know that we exist).
- ‘The object should be incompletely known.’ This is equivalent to saying that we should have partial, but not complete ignorance about the object. This is precisely the case with the Atman . We know that we exist (sat) and are conscious (chit) but we do not know that we are bliss (Ananda). We have partial knowledge. Thus there is no valid objection.
- ‘There must be a similarity between the object and its superimposition.’ The counter-argument here is that this is a general rule and that exceptions are possible. E.g. it is a general rule that the intelligent cause or creator is different from the material cause just as a potter is different from the clay from which he makes his pots. However there are exceptions such as the spider and its web. Here the material for the web comes from the spider’s own body. Similarly a dreamer creates her dream from the thoughts and memories in her own mind. Shankara argues that this is such an exception to the general rule and that it is not necessary for similarity to exist.
This argument on its own may seem a bit feeble. Shankara says that we know of cases where adhyAsa takes place when there is no similarity and gives an example to support his claim. We know that the sky is really colourless but nevertheless we see it as blue. We might also claim that it is polluted. But these are superimpositions by us of ‘blue’ or ‘polluted’ upon a sky which is without colour or form. This error takes place without there being any similarity between ‘sky’ and ‘blue’ or between ‘sky’ and ‘pollution’. (As written, this argument carries little conviction. It is slightly better if ‘air’ or ‘space’ is understood rather than ‘sky’ – the Sanskrit word ‘AkAsha‘ can mean either sky or space.)
- ‘We must have had prior experience of that which is superimposed.’ Shankara agrees that, in the rope-snake analogy, we must have had prior experience of a snake but says that it does not have to be a real snake; experience of a false snake would have left a suitable impression, too (e.g. we might have seen the snake in a movie). Another analogy encountered in the scriptures is seeing a ghost instead of a post and we all accept that we do not have to have seen a real ghost for this since we mostly do not believe such a thing exists. It is sufficient to have read about them. Similarly, in the case of Atma–anAtma , we project an unreal anAtma . And where did we encounter the unreal anAtma before? In a previous adhyAsa , says Shankara! This leads to an infinite regress, of course, and Shankara claims that ‘we never talk about the beginning of adhyAsa ‘ – it is beginningless! Therefore (he says), there is no real anAtma and it is not necessary for there to be a real one for adhyAsa to occur.
Thus all conditions are effectively fulfilled. In the first, the object is evident rather than actually perceived; in the second, the object is partly unknown; the third condition is not compulsory; the fourth condition is effectively fulfilled because we have prior experience of an unreal anAtma . Therefore the objections are not valid and the adhyAsa is possible.
In fact, this is only a provisional refutation of the objector and a defensive argument, to satisfy both Astika and nAstika philosophies. It uses the same scientific reasoning that was used for the objections. He then goes on to provide a more complete response and offensive argument for Astika objectors. He says that the entire rope-snake analogy is only an illustration of the concept of adhyAsa and is not intended to be used to prove the Atma–anAtma situation This must use the veda-s as pramANa (a source of knowledge) and not rely solely on scientific reasoning. In fact, even if scientific argument disproved the rope-snake adhyAsa , this would not affect scriptural based arguments for the Atma–anAtma adhyAsa.
Furthermore, Shankara points out that the other Astika philosophies have already implicitly accepted the Atma–anAtma adhyAsa. All of these systems talk about Atma and accept the veda’s assertion that it is eternal. They realise that it refers to ‘aham’ or ‘I’ and claim that this is immortal. And yet they are conscious of the their experience of ‘I am a human being’, ‘I am a father’ etc., which clearly refer to anAtma . Therefore, according to their systems, these statements must be erroneous. Statements such as ‘I am the body’ are examples of superimposition of the gross body onto the Atma; a form of adhyAsa. If they deny this, they will be reduced to the stance of materialism. Thus they cannot object to this special case of Atma–anAtma adhyAsa. Therefore they must accept the more general case, even though they might not have realised it.
Because they had already implicitly accepted the Atma-body adhyAsa without applying their four objections, they have forfeited the right to claim that these apply in other cases. For example, as has already been said, the Atman is not directly perceivable. But this did not stop the objector accepting that the Atman was not the body.
Shankara goes on to say that, although the example of the rope and snake is not based on shruti, we cannot legitimately object to that either because, like it or not, that is our experience. The objector can try to explain it but he cannot question it. The Atma–anAtma error, on the other hand, is based on shruti so that, again, we can try to explain but we cannot question it. The explanations given by the various philosophies may differ but the error cannot be denied.
Degrees of Error
In fact the Astika philosophies all agree that there is Atma–anAtma adhyAsa ; they just disagree about the extent to which this occurs. If the three statements: – I am mortal; I am a doer; I am an enjoyer; are considered, the nyAya and vaisheShika schools of philosophy claim that the first statement is an error but the second two are facts. sA~Nkhya and yoga schools, on the other hand, say the first two are errors and only the third is a fact. According to an advaitin, all three are errors.