Continuing Reflections (on reflections)


Back in April I wrote an article which looked into the concept of chidAbhAsa This is the idea that the ‘notion of I’ is a reflection, in the mind, of the non-dual consciousness. The theory is called pratibimba vAda in advaita. It says that there is only one ‘real’, pAramArthika or witnessing Consciousness, although there are many jIva-s; one ‘original’ (bimba) and many ‘reflections’ (pratibimba-s).

But of course, reality is non-dual, so it makes no sense to talk of a ‘Consciousness’ and a ‘reflected Consciousness’! So how do we explain this? In order for there to be a reflection, there have to be two things: an original thing, and some medium in which a reflection can take place. This is obvious in the case of the mirror. We cannot see our face in order to be able to shave or apply make up by looking into empty space. We cannot even do it by looking at a blank wall. There has to be a mirror or some reflecting medium which can serve as a mirror. Here, we seem to be saying that there is Consciousness and a reflecting medium – the mind. But of course if we have these two things, then we’re talking about dvaita not advaita.

Shankara’s Advaita introduces the concept of mAyA to provide a sort-of explanation for the world-appearance but the dvaitin may argue that, pedantically, brahman and mAyA are still two things. Only if we can explain everything in terms of paramArtha alone, he might say, can we establish non-duality. Of course, we can be pedantic too – you cannot explain anything in paramArtha, only in vyavahAra! But we acknowledge that mAyA is mithyA. In reality, there are no jIva-s, no world, no reflections. So, the bottom line is that reality is non-dual, so that we do not really have to justify the theory at all!

But there are useful things to be learned from this criticism. A reflection can only occur if there are two things, namely something having a definite form plus a separate physical medium (with reflecting properties). The Sanskrit for something having ‘form’, or attributes, is saguNa. And yet we (i.e. the Advaitin) state that consciousness or Brahman is formless, nirguNa. And clearly the mind, which we say is the reflecting medium, is also formless. So how can we get a reflection of something which is formless in a medium which is also formless?

The reply is that we cannot! And a careful restatement of the theory (unfortunately, we are so often a bit careless when we use metaphors!) is that the chidAbhAsa is not actually a reflection; it is like a reflection. Many of the usual similes that we use in the English language function in this way. When we say that something (or someone) is ‘as hard as nails’, we do not really mean that it (he or she) has a sharp point and can easily be driven into wood; we mean that they are very resistant to damage (literally or, if a person, emotionally). Or if someone is as ‘busy as a bee’, we do not expect to find them collecting pollen from flowers from dawn till dusk but we do not usually find them lazing around doing nothing.

Swami Paramarthananda, in his talks on the Brahma Sutras (3.2.20 – 1), lists five ways in which chidAbhAsa is like a reflection:

  1. When we see a reflection, it is always in a particular place, such as a mirror, a pool of water, a shop window etc. Similarly, Consciousness always ‘occurs’ in a body, such that scientists even think that it is a property of the body! (Yet we never conclude that our face is actually ‘in’ the shaving mirror or that the sun is literally ‘in’ the pond.)
  2. The reflection itself has distinct similarities with the original. The make-up mirror is an obvious example. There was also the example that I gave in the linked article above of using a mirror to reflect the sun into a dark place; i.e. the reflection has similar properties to the original. We can also use a mirror to start a fire by focusing the reflection, so the reflection has propertied of both heat and light (though obviously not to the same degree!) And Advaita tells us that the Consciousness in the body is ‘similar to’ ‘real Consciousness. (In fact, of course, it is the same, but that is even better than similar!)
  3. We know from the example of the shaving or make-up mirror that a dirty mirror does not function so well as a clean, polished one. And if we look into a distorting mirror, our image is distorted. So it is apparent that a reflection takes on some of the attributes of the reflecting medium. Similarly, Consciousness pervades the body; as the body grows, Consciousness effectively grows with it. A new reflection appears when a pond is formed after heavy rain and that in a mirror disappears when the mirror breaks. So a reflection is subject to creation and destruction, dependent on the reflecting medium. Similarly, Consciousness in the jIva is born with, and dies with the body.
  4. A reflection is obviously less real than the original – fortunately, as the earth would not survive for an instant if all of the reflected suns were as real as the sun itself! Similarly, the ‘individual’ Consciousness is less real that the non-dual, pAramArthika Consciousness itself. In fact, both the reflected sun and the jIva are mithyA. They are not ‘unreal’, but their reality is dependent upon the original., which is the only reality or satyam.
  5. Although the reflection may be mithyA, it nevertheless has utility – otherwise no one would ever buy a shaving mirror! In fact, as Swami Paramarthananda points out (possibly disturbingly), only the mithyA has utility – brahman itself is quite useless! And, of course, we know that Consciousness in our body has utility – I am typing this, you are reading it for starters, both impossible without the reflected consciousness.

And now we can return to the distinction between saguNa and nirguNa. At the microcosmic or vyaShTi level, the individuated consciousness is called the jIva; at the macrocosmic or samaShTi level, it is called Ishvara. Both are ‘with form’, saguNa, or reflections of Consciousness. And, as has been explained above, both must be mithyA. Only the original, formless, nirguNa Consciousness is satyam. Just as only the original sun is real, while all its reflections, whether in the ocean or in a drop of water, are mithyA.

Incidentally, in case you hadn’t made the connection, the name we give to the medium in which the metaphorical reflection of Consciousness takes place is upAdhi.

There is yet more discussion on this topic at







17 thoughts on “Continuing Reflections (on reflections)

  1. Dennis,

    I’m wondering if the last post I made which concerned Maya, and the way Dzogchen views this, has inspired you to write this from the Advaitic point of view.

    Dzogchen equates Rigpa, the intrinsic nature of mind which is pure awareness, with what Longchenpa calls ‘Immaculate Maya’ which is non dual by nature. Maya assumes two aspects, Immaculate Maya which is our original, natural state of being, and it lies beyond intellect. The second is a delusory Maya, the Maya of intellect which is known as the Maya of false conception. It arises within the original Maya as a loss of the natural intrinsic awareness of our original state. Everything we know operates in this dimension of Maya.

    However, the point of Dzogchen is that these two aspects of Maya are never separated even when there seems to be no intrinsic awareness operating. This is revealed when the pure presence of intrinsic awareness spontaneously manifests itself as the nature of mind or Maya. Then all that arises is seen from the viewpoint of non duality which is intrinsic awareness=Immaculate Maya. All experiences become like magical illusions in the vast spaciousness of mind.

    There is much more to this and I am just trying to simplify a few key points here and try to equate this with your Advaitic view. Some questions perhaps you can clarify?:

    In Advaitic terms, what is the difference between this instrinsic pure awareness and what you call consciousness?

    Where does Atman fit into this? Where does ‘The Self’ fit in?

    In Dzogchen, Emptiness is the essence of everything, devoid of self/separation. It is not nihilistic as some would believe. It is to me what you are calling mithya and is the nature of all experience. Nirvana and Samsara arise in Maya and would be considered mithya. Immaculate Maya would seem to be eternal and without form. Perhaps the word eternal could be given up as nothing we can conceive of is eternal as this would be arising in the Maya of the intellect which has no existence of its own. I think Immaculate Maya is not something we are able to conceive of but it is the essence of what we are. The light never looks at itself only at that which it illumines which is of the same nature as itself.

    Can you follow this Dennis?

  2. I don’t know anything about Dzogchen, Anon. I have acknowledged many times that other ‘systems’ may well have value. (In fact Shankara, in his commentary on the Brahmasutras, states that dvaita and visiShTAdvaita are each valuable, in that the former leads to the latter, and the latter eventually leads to Advaita!)

    But the purpose of this site is to provide help specifically on the topic of Advaita and it only causes confusion to discuss other systems (to me as well as others!) Surely, in order to say what the difference is between Advaita ‘Consciousness’ and Dzogchen ‘instrinsic pure awareness’, one would need to understand both systems thoroughly?

  3. Thanks Dennis for these reflections on “Reflection”!

    I liked particularly the easy flowing style.
    No dense abstruse philosophy or obscure tongue twisting terminology. It reminded me of the short 1-page Articles we used to read in a Weekly magazine several decades ago, written ostensibly as ‘the musings of a retired old man free of any worries holding a cigar in one hand and relaxing in a reclining easy chair beside a pond and beneath the trees on a summer day.’ But those were pieces actually penned by a very young man with a pseudonym (as I came to know much later!).

    All metaphors, as we all know, are always considered as “eka deshIya‘ — applicable only as illustrations of a very narrow single point. By stretching them in any direction does not add to clarity. In fact analyzing them can lead to disastrous misunderstanding. For example, when a person’s skin color is said to be “as black as coal,” it does not make sense to infer that he was baked for days in a kiln as a log wood is roasted to convert into coal.

    Almost each of the 68 verses in Atmabodha by Shankara comes with an excellent metaphor to drive home very graphically a specific Advaita Vedanta concept. It was merely for the purpose of ‘sukha bodhAya‘ (for easy elucidation), as Shankara expalins. I feel it hardly is helpful to dwell on examining the simile itself instead of what it is essentially pointing to.

    Words too are perhaps only pointers. It is futile to stick to the mere argot of a system of philosophy or hold that a specific jargon only is truthful and others are meaningless. That bespeaks of one’s “attachment” to the form rather than substance; any ‘clinging’ after all, is an anathema in Non-duality.

    Of late, a few of us who regularly meet once a week, have been reading the translation by Keith Dowman, of Dzogchen Teacher, Longchenpa’s “Treasury of the Dharmadhatu, Spaciousness.” A participating friend in our group succinctly put it when she said: “As we waded into radical Dzogchen territory, the terminology seemed new to us, but the content felt universally familiar.”


    • Ramesam,

      I’ve met Keith a couple of times. He is a fine translator and also a practitioner. The two books I find particularly interesting are:

      Natural Perfection;Longchenpa’s Radical Dzogchen
      Maya Yoga;Finding Comfort And Ease In Enchantment

      Maya Yoga is the 3rd part of Longchenpa’s famous ‘Kindly Bent To Ease Us’ which was originally translated by Guenther. What I like about Keith’s work is he translates the language into a modern vernacular that makes it much easier for non traditionalists to access. I am a big believer in ‘updating the terminology’ used hundreds if not thousands of years ago that seem to put many of these works into a somewhat archaic way of looking at things with too many foreign words using Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and other non-English descriptions of abstract concepts. If we’re going to communicate about any of this, there is no reason to use archaic languages and symbology when writing in English. Advaita scholars would do well to rethink their translations and bring the works into the modern era. I think Keith is one of those people who has done this job exceedingly well.

      • Anon,

        “Advaita scholars would do well to rethink their translations and bring the works into the modern era.”

        Thank you for the suggestion.

        I believe there are already many Advaita works and translations written in English spanning the whole spectrum from purely pedantic and highly academic exegetic texts to simple and straight forward conveyance of the basic message. So also there are innumerable Web sites that cater to all tastes / requirements of the seekers. Perhaps it is up to each seeker to home on to a text / web site that meets her/his needs. It is an impossible task to provide a listing of all the available sources / authors. It should not be difficult at all for one to search on the internet using a good search engine to find a site that suits her/his needs. AV caters to a broad range of seekers in Advaita. However, it may not be able to serve the interests of those wanting to explore a different philosophy or want to take up comparative religious studies.

        “I think Keith is one of those people who has done this job exceedingly well.”

        Thank you for the kind info. re: Keith.
        As a translator myself, I know the intricacies and nuances involved in translating an ancient text of a distant cultural milieu and idiom into modern English retaining the same grace, beauty, and thrust while, at the same time, being faithful to the original author.


  4. And, BTW, Dennis, will you please add a line how Shankara (8th CE) could have written about Ramanuja’a Visishtadviat (12th CE) and Madhwa’s Dwaita (14th CE) in the BSB.


  5. Well picked up, Ramesam! My understanding is that dvaita, in the form of pUrva mImAMsA, was certainly around before Shankara. After all, the entirety of kArma kANDa is dualistic. As for visiShTAdvaita, I believe this is essentially the same as bhedAbheda vAda, and Shankara argues with these in the Brahmasutra bhAShya.

  6. Dennis, in the 3rd para. above (Continuing Reflections’) you write: ‘But we acknowledge that mAyA is mithyA. In reality, there are no jIva-s, no world, no reflections.’

    Maya and mithya have frequently been misinterpreted, depending on which authority one is following or quoting. Ramesam, for one, has recently drawn our attention to that (‘Maya’ is deified in Vivekachudamani, verse 108.)

    Mithya refers to something that has, at least, relative reality, and all phenomena are mithya, including illusory phenomena such as a rainbow (which are pratibhasika), but maya, though not equivalent to avidya, is its result: a causal potentiality of the world projected by avidya or, more clearly expressed, ‘the illusory causal seed of the world due to avidya (i.e. adhyasa or mutual superimposition of Atman and un-Atman)’ – ‘The Scientific Approach of Shankara Vedanta’, by D.B. Gangolli. Maya, thus, is unreal from beginning to end, not relatively real as mithya is.

    When commenting on a question posed in Quora, I wrote the following: ‘In fact, the error of taking maya as a positive force [or entity] operating in the empirical world comes from post-Shankara commentators, specifically Vacaspathi Misra and his Bhamati school. The doctrinal deviations concerning avidya and maya have persisted up to the present time (as for example in the Revised Ed. of ‘A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy, by John Grimes, 2009).’

  7. Martin,

    Why do you think Maya and ignorance are not equivalent? Any concept or causal potentiality is part of the relative delusory Maya that we all commonly experience or think about. None of it has real existence including ignorance. It seems to me that all of creation springs forth from the intrinsic Immaculate nature of Maya due to karmic inheritance and forces that are not apparent to the intellect and so called mind as long as there is any identification of an ‘I’ with what arises as experience.

    Then what is Intrinsic Immaculate Maya? How could it be a deity if there is no form to its nature? It is by definition formless, empty, vast and not subject to dualistic interpretation or morality. It seems to me that it is the very nature of the universe, of all creation.

    Please correct me if I am off course here.

  8. There is only Brahman or Consciousness. ‘There has been no creation’ does not mean that the world does not exist; it means that the world does not exist AS WORLD, (i.e. separate from Brahman). The world has always existed. Before the big-bang, it existed in unmanifest form. But it has always been, and will always be, only Brahman. Just as the ring is always gold, even when re-cast into a thimble.

    mAyA is only a concept to provide an interim explanation for the ignorant mind. There are various ‘explanations’ in the scriptures. We can take whichever one(s) we find useful. But they are all mithyA. Concepts are subtle, objects are gross. The reality of all of them is Brahman, because that is all there is.

    You can argue about the difference between mAyA and avidyA. My own view is that the former relates to Ishvara, the latter to the jIva. But it really depends upon how you define the terms. This clearly matters at the level of the particular teaching methodology that you are using but ceases to matter when that teaching is discarded, as it inevitably must be in the end, once it has achieved its purpose. You ‘climb up and over, then throw away the ladder’.

    • Anon., I think I follow you. If ‘Immaculate Maya’ is formless, how can it be deified (personified) or even imagined? But just before implying (rather than saying) that, you refer to a ‘delusory maya’. I wonder if you are considering two aspects of maya, one of them being not just real, but super-real, ‘the very nature of the universe’.

      Further, it is true that the concepts of ignorance (avidya) and maya (deception?) can be interchangeable when used in a secondary sense but, for the rest, I remit myself to what I wrote above (and it could be somewhat expanded).

      Dennis: A good point you are making: ‘concepts are subtle’; so, they have ‘some’ reality, that is, mithya reality; one can say the same thing about mythological stories and all kinds of stories (novels, poetry, etc.): they exist in the mind. But all stories, imaginative or not, are mithya, pertaining as they do to vyavahara, including the Vedas. Isn’t there, though, a general consensus as to the varying quality and value of all or most of that? In vyavahara, transactional life, we make distinctions (such as gross and subtle, as you have done); we prefer one thing over another (the discarded one being perhaps bitter, painful, ugly, etc.).

      Isn’t the concept of maya an empty one (based on ignorance), while mithya often refers to something ‘objectively’ existing (objective phenomena)? The content or referent of the first is non existing (empty), except in one’s imagination, while that of the second is ‘something’ existing, though not clearly identified (e.g., a jiva, individual; or an object). I would call maya ‘illusory’ (a unicorn), and mithya, ‘deceptive’ (a mistake, or ‘subjective ignorance’) – they are not on the same footing. Of course, all evaluations, opinions, choices, distinctions, etc. are made within vyavahara – and all of them are finally, ultimately, sublated, transcended, on realizing that there is only One (attributeless, indefinable, and unchanging) reality: the Unnamable.

      • Hi Martin,

        There are several different concepts here and it is important to differentiate.

        mithyA relates to something that appears to have objective existence but, on analysis, is seem to be just name and form of something else. And it is the ‘something else’ that actually ‘exists’ (is satyam, relatively speaking). The ring is mithyA, borrowing its reality from gold which is (for the sake of the metaphor) satyam.

        Concepts appear to have objective existence (in the mind) but their reality is Consciousness. So they are mithyA.

        Unicorns have no objective existence anywhere. They are tuchCham – completely unreal. It is the ‘idea’ of unicorns that is mithyA.

        The other concept that may be confused with these is adhyAsa. The metaphor that explains this is the rope and snake. We mentally superimpose the image of snake (from memory) onto the rope. The mental image is mithyA, just like all other things in mind. The rope, too, is mithyA, since it is a gross object in the world.

        Of course, as you say, some mithyA things, such as the Veda, (and the above concepts) are more valuable from the perspective of the jIva because they can lead the mind to an understanding of all this.

        Best wishes,

  9. To objectify any concept (our inner life) or to objectify any experience (our exterior life) is how most people live their lives. Ignorance and reality are part of the conceptual flow along with jiva and other ideas of the Unnamable. All of it is the vast ocean of Maya composed of the karmic influences that make up and determine our experiences including the sense of self, the experiencer. There is nothing that is not Maya. But Maya is not something to be thought of as negative or undesirable. It is what is. You are Maya, not separate from it. There is nothing else that can be experienced that is not part of this ocean. With our ordinary mind being present in this moment, the nature of Maya, both the manifested and unmanifested is made known. This knowingness is the intrinsic awareness that is always present and is non dual by nature. The only way that any of this can make sense is through the existential Presence where all experience, inner and outer is resolved.

  10. Anon., you must have been inspired to write that post. Yes, ‘all of it’, including concepts – such as ‘reality’ – is Maya; the enchanter or magician. ‘Ego’, as concept, is also Maya, but there is ‘something’, signified by ‘ego’ or ‘myself’, which is not Maya, and the same can be said about that which is signified by ‘reality’ (is ‘what is’ better?). One may readily accept the ‘denomination’ (also a concept or word, taken by itself) you give it: ‘Presence’, as well as ‘intrinsic awareness’, and its ‘knowingness’ – better, or more correct terms, than ‘Immaculate Maya’ which you employed previously and characterized as ‘the very nature of the universe’.

    Why not accept what Dennis said of concepts (and all appearances), that is, that they have some reality, a relative reality (we need words to express ourselves). If you don’t like the term ‘mithya’, no problem; you, we, can stay with ‘relative reality’. Needless to say that, as a concept, ‘Presence’ is a relative reality (as ‘unicorn’ is so), that is, mithya.

  11. Martin,

    In my case, what is, is also a concept. Presence, or Intrinsic Awareness, is not separate from the universe and the myriad appearances of both inner and outer phenomena. All reference points are within the scope of Maya.

    I really don’t like using these Eastern terms but I feel forced to if I want to communicate with most of you because you subscribe to the Advaitin models that you have studied and interpret life with. And, I do accept Dennis’ view up to a certain point, but not when he says you climb up and over and then throw away the ladder. This is a contradiction of everything that he said before, that there is really no ego and all is mithya. It is a concept to think that someone climbs up and over and that there is a ladder. All these references are part of the manifestation of Maya. It doesn’t throw away appearance. What is includes everything, not just an absolute or mithya. Everything. There is no division.

  12. Anon,

    The use of a metaphor is to enable you to make the intuitive leap to understanding that for which the metaphor is acting. Rope and snake enables you to grasp the concept of adhyAsa (superimposition) for example.

    And the whole of language is effectively a metaphor to enable us to relate to the world. ‘Things’ are not really as we describe them to be. Bananas are not ‘really’ yellow either; this is an accident of our perceptual apparatus.

    When we have used language, metaphor and concepts to realize the truth about the nature of reality, we also know all of this to be so. We know that the words, metaphors and concepts have served their purpose and effectively discard them for our own use. Obviously, we continue to use them when communicating with (the still perceived) others, because they haven’t yet made that leap.

    This only seems like a contradiction if you have still not grasped the distinction between paramArtha and vyavahAra – the really real and the empirically real. While still functioning in the world, all of the appearance is treated as though it were real. As the story goes, if you are chased by an elephant, you run away, even knowing that in reality ‘both’ are brahman only. If you don’t, this gross form of brahman will meet a premature end!

  13. Dennis,

    Perhaps some metaphors are better than others. Those who are goal oriented may think this has value.

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