Notes on Shankara’s examination of the nature of ‘Error’ in the introduction to the brahmasUtra.
Proofs for adhyAsa
There are two shruti-based pramANa-s for adhyAsa , the first is ‘postulated’ and the second ‘inferred’.
The first takes an observed fact – for example I wake up one morning and find the road outside is flooded – and postulates an explanation for this – e.g. heavy rain occurred whilst I slept. Since I slept soundly, I have no direct knowledge of any rain but, without such a supposition, I have no reasonable way to explain the observed phenomenon. Other ‘unreasonable’ explanations may be put forward but the one suggested is the most plausible to the rational mind. In order to justify an improbable explanation, the more plausible must first be discredited. Since the observed fact can only be explained in this way, the explanation becomes a pramANa or valid means of knowledge. This pramANa is ‘perception-based’. as opposed to ‘shruti-based’. Shankara’s concept of adhyAsa is in fact a shruti-based ‘postulate’ since there is no mention of the subject in the veda-s themselves and it is in this way that it becomes a valid knowledge in its own right.
Just as this principle can be used to explain the flooded streets, shruti-based postulates can be used to explain that the ideas that we are mortal, doers and enjoyers are all due to error. For example, the kaThopaniShad (II.19) says ‘If the slayer thinks that he slays or if the slain thinks that he is slain, both of these know not. For It (the Self) neither slays nor is It slain.’ Also the gItA (V. 8) tells us that one who knows the truth understands that we do not act. We are not ‘doers’ or ‘killers’ or ‘killed’. Therefore, any statement such as ‘I am a doer’ or ‘I am an enjoyer’ must be an error, from shruti (and smR^iti) based postulate.
Similarly, the notion ‘I am a knower’ is an error. The mANDUkya upaniShad, for example, says that the Atma is not a knower in the waking state, the dream state or the deep sleep state but is pure consciousness. Thus shruti-based postulate shows that this idea, that ‘I am a knower’, is false. (Unlike the idea ‘I am consciousness’, which is not an error.)
Another statement in the shruti says that the Atman is changeless (indestructible and incombustible). To be a ‘doer’ would involve change since this is an experience. All experiences, enjoying, knowing etc., are processes involving a modification of ones state e.g. from ignorance to knowledge. In fact, the suffix -er after a verb implies this modification by indicating an action or process. Since the Atman cannot change, it follows that the Atman cannot be a doer, enjoyer or any other. The concepts must be errors or adhyAsa.
A final argument is that, in order to be a ‘doer’ one would need an associated ‘instrument’; for example, mind is an instrument of thought and sense organs are instruments of perception. A ‘doer’ would have to be associated with an instrument of ‘doing’ and an ‘enjoyer’ with an instrument of enjoyment. But the scriptures say that the Atma is not associated with anything and so cannot be a ‘doer’ etc.
Another adhyAsa is ‘I am limited’ e.g. ‘ I am here’ (and not elsewhere). The kaThopanishad (I-3-15) for example says that the Atma is beyond the five sense perceptions, is eternal and unlimited, beginningless and limitless. Since it is unambiguously stated that we are limitless, the idea that I am limited must be an error, by shruti postulate. The notion ‘I am an individual’ is false; I am brahman is the reality.
The last example here is the idea that there are many Atma-s. This, too, is an error. Many of the philosophies do claim multiplicity of Atma – sA~Nkhya, yoga, vaisheshhika, pUrvamImAMsA and even vishishhTaadvaita and dvaita (which both recognise the importance of vedAnta. But Shankara cites the shvetaashvatara upanisShad as clearly implying that Atma is one and the Isha upaniShad (V.7) says ‘He who perceives all beings as the Self. for him how can there be delusion or sorrow, when he sees this oneness (everywhere) – all in all?’
Thus, shruti postulate has shown that the ideas that we are mortal, doers, enjoyers, knowers, limited and many are all false.
Earlier, the process of inference was explained as involving four aspects – the ‘locus’ of the discussion, the ‘conclusion’ that will be reached, a ‘basis’ for the argument and an ‘analogy’. The example used was ‘ whenever there is smoke, there is fire’. (The full form used for the analysis was ‘(we infer that) there is a fire on the mountain because we can see smoke, just as in a kitchen there is always fire when we see smoke’). Shankara’s analysis of adhyAsa can be put into the first form by saying that ‘wherever there is transaction, there is adhyAsa ‘.
He uses the example of using grass to catch a cow. The cow comes to the grass because, believing itself to be the body, it has notions such as ‘I am hungry and the grass will remove the hunger, giving satisfaction’. It is the mistaken belief or adhyAsa ‘I am the body’ that causes the cow to come to the grass, ‘going after things conducive to happiness’. Conversely, if instead of holding out grass, we take a stick to the cow, the cow senses danger and moves off, ‘going away from things causing unhappiness’.
This is again caused by the mistaken idea ‘I am the body’. In fact, in this latter case, it is the belief that ‘I am this physical body’ (as opposed to the subtle body, which cannot be harmed by the stick).
This provides the ‘analogy’ for the inference. Man goes after things he likes and avoids those that he dislikes, just as the cow comes to the grass and runs away from the stick. The full form of the inference then becomes: ‘(We infer that) all human activities are based on error, because all activities can be considered as either coming towards or going away, just as in the example of the cow with the grass or stick’. ‘Human activity’ is the ‘locus’; ‘that it is based on adhyAsa ’ is the ‘conclusion; ‘all activities are either coming towards or going away’ is the ‘basis’; the example of the cow, grass and stick is the ‘analogy’.
Implication of adhyAsa
In everything that we do, we make the error of confusing what is real with what is unreal. We have a single experience but our understanding of it is confused. It is just like the example of the rope and snake. In our ignorance we have a single experience – there is a snake – but in fact two things are being mixed up viz. a real rope and an unreal snake. When I say ‘I know’, we think there is a single entity – a ‘knower’ but in fact there is a real, conscious self and unreal, inert thoughts. In the sentence ‘I am a knower’, ‘I am’ is the ‘general’ part, referring to a real, conscious and existent being, while ‘a knower’ is the ‘particular’ part and is unreal. The two aspects are confused and adhyAsa occurs. The changeless part (existence and consciousness) belongs to Atma and the changing thought process belongs to anAtma . The two are mixed up and the idea ‘I am a knower’ is the result. Atma cannot be a knower since it is changeless and thus cannot go through a ‘knowing process’; anAtma cannot be a knower since it is inert. The two are mixed up to form a new entity, a ‘knower’, as a single experience but this is adhyAsa.
Conclusion of adhyAsa commentary
This understanding is not simply of academic interest; it is the source of the belief that we are mortal and thus brings about our fear of death and consequent insecurity. This then generates our constant concern with food and shelter etc. and hence our obsession with money. The fact is that money can only provide comforts; the basic insecurity does not go away however much money we may have. adhyAsa thus directly gives rise to saMsAra. Because we believe we are limited, we are continually trying to get those things we like in order to remove the perceived limitations. The belief that we ‘do’ anything, that we are ‘doers’ is due to adhyAsa and such actions result in the merits and demerits of karma and in saMsAra. All of the suffering, from birth through disease, old age and death results from this fundamental error that we make. And so it will continue until the ignorance that is the cause of adhyAsa is removed. Actions are only a movement within nature, the ‘play of the guNa; there is no doer.
The mistake takes place at all levels. With the thought ‘I am the knower’, the anAtma of the mind and intellect is superimposed upon the Atma. At the level of perception, a statement such as ‘I am blind’ superimposes the anAtma of the sense organ upon the Atma. At the level of the body, ideas such as ‘I am a man’ superimposes the anAtma of the body upon the Atma. All of these various ideas are deemed to be properties of the Self, thus mixing up Atma and anAtma in a disastrous mistake.
And so it goes on. Because of the identification with the body, we become entangled in relationships with ‘others’ and imaginary ‘needs’ for ‘external objects’ etc. The Atma has no relationships (there is only the Atma) but because of the adhyAsa , the roots of saMsAra spread everywhere.
The solution is to remove the ignorance of the Self. Only this can have the required effect – removing any other ignorance will not affect this. Any amount of education or knowledge in other subjects will only result in an educated saMsAri, someone who is knowledgeable about the anAtma . The error is in respect of the Self, so saMsAra can only be removed by knowledge of the Self.
The ignorance is not total. We already know that we exist and that we are conscious, just as in the rope and snake metaphor, we know that ‘something’ is there (if we did not, there couldn’t be any error). The aspect about which I am still ignorant is that I am brahman. When we talk about searching for knowledge of brahman, we are not endeavouring to find out about some new thing called ‘brahman‘ but about coming to realise our true status as brahman. Whilst this true status is not understood, we exist under the mistaken impression that we are ‘individuals’ or ‘jIva -s’. It is the purpose of the upaniShads to remove this adhyAsa.
Herein lies the difference between vedAnta and many other religions, together with science, that they begin with the assumption that we are inferior or ‘sinners’ and that we have to better ourselves. We waste our whole lives trying to improve our status. vedAnta tells us that this assumption of an inferior status is mistaken; we do not have to try to improve ourselves, we are already perfect, whole and without limitation of any kind. We need to enquire into the nature of brahman and thereby remove our adhyAsa.
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