Back in April I wrote an article which looked into the concept of chidAbhAsa – https://www.advaita-vision.org/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:
- 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.)
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 https://www.advaita-vision.org/discussion-on-chidabhasa/.