Review of article on Shankara – part 2

Review of  ‘A New Approach to Understanding Advaita asTaught by ´Sa ˙ nkara Bhagavadp¯ada’ – Ramakrishnan Balasubrahmanian — 2

We saw in the 1st part of this Review the primary or prior, not to say exclusive, importance that the author, RB, gives to the superimposition of a subject, individual mind or jiva, on the Self: “the superimposition of an observer is avidy¯a and is prior to the reverse superimposition”, not mentioning that Shankara does not talk of a ‘reverse process’, as if it was something happening through time,  but of mutual superimposition of Self and non-Self in a primary sense. He continues: “It is not completely incorrect to say that avidy¯a is the mutual superimposition of the real and unreal. ´ San˙ kar¯ac¯arya and Sure´svar¯ac¯arya do mention this … the superimposition of an observer on the inner-self naturally leads to the reverse process of superimposing the inner-self on the inner organ”. RB’s objective in maintaining this priority of the subject in this ‘act’ seems to be to show that SSS is guilty of circularity (petitio principi, in logic). Even so, and rather surprisingly, he claims that avidya is not something subjective (neither is it ontic nor epistemic – see below).

To begin with, what is a jiva if not (essentially, or in fact), sat-chit-ananda, that is, the Self Itself? Can this essence or real nature be abstracted from the ‘subject’ which, presumably, carries out the “first” superimposition, even if this subject be illusory-mithya, or even non-existent (mythological, then, rather than mithya, such as  the myth of “the first man”)? Quite apart from mythology, and now speaking from vyavahara, the subject or jiva, a living entity, carries already within itself the superimposition of the Self – it is already ‘done’. But it is not  necessary to talk of priority for it is not a ‘process’, but something simultaneous and without a beginning. It can then be said (as a teacher to his/her disciple) that the individual person or jiva is already enlightened, only he/she doesn’t know; or is a knower that is veiled, a ‘seer’ that does not see: a paradox, difficult, or impossible for the mind to grasp – the same as saying that the person is not a ‘person’. The truth has to be dis-covered, un-veiled (aletheia, in ancient Greek philosophy).

Thus, there is no circularity (or a vicious circle) by saying that avidya entails, and is entailed by, adhyasa – we have already advanced the explanation (in the first part) that the double superimposition is, logically and epistemically, a mutual implication or entailment, where time is not involved. This understanding is the product of a phenomenological analysis, quite close to the shruti and tarka of Advaita Vedanta tradition. In the next (3rd) submission I will develop this further.

To stress the fact that the double superimposition (of Self and not-Self) is responsible for all transactions in ‘normal’ or empirical life is not called for in this discussion, being a separate topic, but note what Shankara had said, quoted in the 1st part of this Review: “It is on the presupposition of this mutual superimposition of the self and the non-self, called avidya that all conventions of the means and objects of right knowledge – whether secular or sacred – proceed, as also all the Sastras dealing with injunction and prohibition or final release.” We could add to that: “… and all science and technology”.

Still on the topic of avidya, and reiterating, or expanding on, some of the points already made, RB goes on to demonstrate that it is neither epistemic nor ontic.

• epistemic: of or relating to knowledge or knowing

• ontic: of, relating to, or having real being

Thus, according to him, avidya is not subjective, as some authors (Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati, Paul Hacker, etc.) maintain, as in this quotation: “the natural tendency of the mind to superimpose the self and the not-self on each other.”… “It is clear that the word Avidy¯a which, derived as it is from the root Vid – to know, can primarily express only something epistemic”. (SSS).

Further, in SSS’s words (in ‘Sankara’s Clarification of Certain Vedantic Concepts’, p.7):  “… (Ignorance) cannot be, obviously, a function of the mind… but nevertheless, we have no other instrument of knowledge, associated with which we can talk of ourselves as ignorant of, or knowing anything”.

RB: “Since neither knowledge nor means of knowing exist in a vacuum, any discussion of epistemology has as its fundamental assumption that there is at least one knower/experiencer (i.e., j˜n¯atr./bhoktr. ). It should be clear that the assumption of existence of a bhoktr. is prior to any discussion of epistemology… Thus, the division subject-object is superimposed on brahman due to avidy¯a,  which  is the root cause of the distinctions we make, such as subjective and objective, epistemic and ontic. Clearly, it is circular logic (cakr¯a´sraya in the terminology of Indian logic) to categorize avidy¯a as subjective or epistemic, or even as ontic… [since] ‘San˙ kar¯ac¯arya clearly points out that both subject and object are superimposed on Brahman”.

We have established, however, that it is not only a question of the subject-object being superimposed on Brahman, but of avidya being intimately tied in, logically and epistemically, with the other fundamental notion, adhyasa, and that both notions are coeval or, we could say, congenital to the individual subject. And this is due to the type of psycho-physiological constitution of the subject – perceiver, enquirer – that the human being is [I owe this point to Ramachandra Puligandla, in ‘Jñana-Yoga – The Way of Knowledge’, 1997].

“… apart from superimposition there can be neither name nor form. It follows that superimposition is the only means by which expressible and communicable knowledge can be produced… without superimposition there cannot be talk of the world.”  – R. Puligandla.

In other words, in order to ‘gain’ a world one must lose a unitary vision of reality (must “lose our soul”). Being the kind of beings that ‘we’ are, we were bound to do that. That is the myth of Prometheus.  And that is called ignorance… or pride; or, simply, desire.

(Any Sanscrit words, or their transliteration, have been copied from the article and pasted on)