Review of article on Shankara – part 3

Ramakrishnan Balasubrahmanian (RB): “Now the error in calling avidy¯a as something epistemic should be obvious. The following extract, from [SSS], is clearly putting the philosophical cart before the horse:

‘Avidy¯a is subjective and has been explained by ´ Sa ˙ nkara as the natural tendency of the mind to superimpose the self and the not-self oneach other.’

When the conception of j¯ıva itself is due to avidy¯a, how can avidy¯a be the ‘natural tendency of the mind to superimpose the self and not-self’?” (*)

Our reply: To repeat, it is not just avidya as a general concept, that is, ignorance, but avidya-adhyasa, which is a technical (double) concept whose consequences are far-reaching in empirical life, being responsible for all divisions and superimpositions. No reason why this should be considered a circular argument.

But further: Although we have already dealt with this issue sufficiently, we  could add: Taking avidya as either superimposition or, for the sake of argument, even logically prior to it, what is illogical about seeing it as a natural, congenital predisposition of the mind which is beginningless and universal? Both concepts  – avidya and adhyasa – are artificial, and imply one another, as previously stated (except for the non-technical, broad sense of avidya or ignorance – e.g., mistaking a lamp-post for a human being, ignorance of many facts, etc.), and, if they resemble the chicken-egg dilemma, is because here time is  involved – avidya itself being its conjurer, as SSS has indicated.

In other words, there is a kind of avidya which, being pervading and universal, has as its modus operandi superimposition, adhyasa.

As to the role of mind, SSS has stated that ignorance cannot be a function of the mind, “but nevertheless, we have no other instrument of knowledge associated with which we ca talk of ourselves as ignorant of, or knowing anything. What then can the Upanishads mean when they speak of the ignorance of Atman?” (‘Vidya and Avidya – in ‘Shankara’s Clarification of Certain Vedantic Concepts’).

(“That Inner Dweller, The Witness, all knowing and unobjectifiable, appears to become a separate object through the false superimposition that is avidyA” – Suresvara).

Avidya’s elimination is brought about, not by a thrust of an Alexandrian sword, as if it were a riddle or a Gordian knot, but by understanding what is going on. Indeed, the author (RB) traces this differentiation (avidya and adhyasa) within avidya to Shankara: “Many times ´ Sa ˙ nkar¯ac¯arya and Sure´svar¯ac¯arya compare the avidy¯a due to which we superimpose false limiting adjuncts on brahman to truly epistemic errors.” But then, it is himself who twists this affirmation by Shankara and Suresvara by adding: “… there is also a difference between avidy¯a and common place epistemic errors… the fundamental error is the superimposition of a ‘knower’ on brahman, whereas epistemic errors presuppose the existence of a ‘knower’.”

Our reply concerning ‘the fundamental error’ is that, since both concepts, avidya and adhyasa, play an important, technical role in the philosophy and logic of Advaita Vedanta, both can be considered as epistemic, pace RB. Furthermore, though artificial (all of it mithya after all), they have consequences in empirical life, as it has been noted, which reinforces that opinion. RB admits that in this last sense, and in this sense only, it can be said that avidya is both epistemic and ontic (“since the effect of avidy¯a is the perceived schism between the observer and observed. To give a modern analogy, light is neither a wave nor a particle. But it does exhibit characteristics of both, so it could be called both a wave and a particle in that sense…”).  He has finally granted what he was so strenuously resisting! (what else is there for him to save, or to contend with?).

[As an aside, Aristotle was bothered with the chicken-egg dilemma, and concluded that both bird and egg must have always existed. For Plato, they are ideas, archetypes in the intelligible world, more real than their shadows in the lower realm, our conventional world.]

(*) RB: “Note again that it is not “naisargika”, or natural, for the mind to superimpose the real and unreal. Instead it is natural that the ego (including the mind) is superimposed on the self [by whom, or what?], and a reverse superimposition logically follows. This is made clear by ´ Sa ˙ nkar¯ac¯arya in his adhy¯asa bh¯as. ya. SSS misunderstands this superimposition and reverse superimposition as being performed by the mind.”

Is there not a contradiction or, at least, obscurity in the above paragraph?