Review of Article on Shankara – part 4



To stay a little longer in this logical dilemma (which of the two is prior – avidya or adhyasa), can one not say that it doesn’t matter, since both imply, or entail, each other? That is, there is no adhyasa without avidya, and no avidya (in its technical, special sense) without adhyasa.

Some could object that the use of words (and their meanings) does not allow for this, but I am here considering a “primeval”, or primordial (mythological) origin of these terms, whereby avidya implies, and is implied by, adhyasa; a sort of tandem (or bifid) concept. Should this give rise to any difficulties? If logically meaningful, actually helping in the clarification and simplification of the meaning  of these two concepts and their mutual relationship, would that not be useful? I may be very wrong, and the problem here may not be exactly the same as the one concerning the ‘locus of avidya’ (though they must be intimately related), which, as Shankara wrote, is “a wild-goose chase”. I think, however, that there is a hint, or confirmation of what I am saying in this paragraph in the references given in (part 3, above) to Shankara and Suresvara. 

With respect of ‘meaning’, a possible objection is that ‘ignorance’ is a general concept, whereas ‘superimposition’ is a restricted and specific concept. I kept this in mind when I was considering (or postulating, if you wish) ‘avidya’ as a technical term with a specific meaning, a secondary, derived meaning and usage. This may not be illegitimate if one considers that this term thus restricted, together with adhyasa, have a central position in the whole of Advaita philosophy, both terms being foundational. Now, let us accept that ignorance (avidya), being a wider, inclusive, concept subsumes under itself adhyasa (also called, with a secondary meaning, ‘illusion’); both concepts are universal, the latter referring, primarily, to a specific type of ignorance: that generated by mutual superimposition of self and non-self. In any case, I think this (putting it this way) is superfluous, from all that has been explicated heretofore. Shankara himself gave a precise meaning of adhyasa in the famous Introduction to the Brahma-Sutras:

‘Superimposition (adhyasa) is the apparent presentation to consciousness, by way of remembrance, of something previously observed in some other thing’.

This pair (avidya-adhyasa), whether by feat or by fiat, is the cause or origin of a whole order of deception, ignorance: mistaking the self for the non-self (body-mind), and vice-versa, all in one move – a  ‘discovery’ or invention… a veritable tour de force by a Demiurge seemingly benevolent towards mankind. That is, a pervading, universal ‘ignorance’ (it is that, at its root) which accounts for ‘the world of multiplicity’, the world of appearances – the empirical world of human interaction as well as interaction with nature which allow for science and technology* (this point was made in part 1 of this Review). All empirical, scientific knowledge, is categorial [sic], relative knowledge – and this can be extended to religion and philosophy as well – whereby ach one of them (each religion, etc.) consists of a particular framework integrated by a set of concepts, presuppositions, categories, definitions, axioms, postulates, a system of logic, and criteria for judging truth or falsity of knowledge claims; only empirical science can be said to have the distinction of being truly universal, though, of course, limited, cumulative and provisional (cf. R. Puligandla, mentioned in part 2, above).

Thus, this pair or double concept is a paradox (a knowledge that is ignorant, or an ignorance that is, or turns into, (a type of) knowledge. It is, thus, the root of all types of ignorance, in that it mistakes reality for unreality, and vice-versa. If we can say that ignorance, either in this particular, specific sense or in general is indefinable, while adhyasa is definable (though, like avidya, anirvachaniya, inexplicable, ineffable), then the latter would be the motor, or modus operandi, of the former, a perfect integration or ‘symbiosis’.

* “Everything is produced by ignorance, and dissolves in the wake of Knowledge.” – Aparokshanubhuti


9 thoughts on “Review of Article on Shankara – part 4

  1. Quite a scintillating and thought-provoking write up, Thanks Martin.

    Maybe I am a simpleton – My understanding is that “avidya” is a ‘causal’ (imaginary, if I may say so) term and ‘adhyasa’ is a process term.

    Is avidya causal for the ‘appearance’ of the world or causal to kick-start adhyasa?


  2. Or vice versa? It now seems to me that saying that there is a background of ignorance (avidya), which is the cause of maya, and then postulating adhyasa as a process (or modus operandi, as in part 4 of my Review), is perhaps not very helpful, or conclusive, although you may be right. I rather tend to agree with R. Puligandla, who writes that “superimposition is the source of ignorance” – and I would add, “and is itself ignorance”. As I wrote, it is a whole order of ignorance, the ‘mother of ignorance’, compared with which other types of ignorance are just trifles. I thought of avidya-adhyasa as a bifid concept (taking this type of avidya in a special, technical sense), but it seems as if we could just stay with adhyasa as the root/cause of ignorance, primordial ignorance, whereby we superimpose names and forms (the world of our senses and intellect) on reality, which is beyond names and forms.
    This is reminds one of the myth of the Garden of Eden (man losing his primordial, unitary vision when seeing himself naked and seeing his companion, Eve, as separated from himself (and having a “feeling of shame”). Also, of Brih. Up. 1.14.4: “Where there is duality one sees another, smells another, tastes another… “.

    It is now a question of undoing the trick of the magician: juggling the unreal notions/suggestions of ignorance-maya-adhyasa – that is, appearances* – in front of us to make us “see double” (like the atom, which is directed into two different paths at the same time). As Sri Atmananda wrote, “In one’s experience – strictly so-called – there is neither thought nor external object present. It is the state in which all alone one abides in one’s Self”. We begin our downfall by naming things, not necessarily by thinking (?).
    * or apparitions! – phenomena – from Gr. ‘phanein’, to appear.

  3. Here is how I have been taught the meaning of these terms:
    avidya is ignorance about what the Self is, as a consequence of which we have…
    adhyāsa, i.e. mistaking something else to be the Self, which leads to…
    adhyaropa, the superimposition of the qualities of the thing mistaken for the Self upon the Self.

  4. Peter, the merit of what you say is that it explains “The Fall of Man”, and its expulsion from Paradise (both symbolical, of course) by having forgotten His real identity, which is curious. But, on the other hand, did He (Man-God, Hiranyagarbha) not forget it on account of the allure of the world, Manifestation, with all its colours and attractions? He began to see things and beings as separate from himself, and desire (the root of creation? – a different issue) made its appearance. Man, now an individual-jiva, started to ‘see another…’ (Br. Up.) and to give names to things (nama-rupa), as Adam, the first man, is purported to have done. And that is nothing else than adhyasa, superimposition, which then would be causal. Herewith, a convergence of metaphysics, mythology and sacred science (Sastras, theology, etc.).

  5. Now my wife tells me that if primordial man started to have desires is because he already saw himself as separate from his divine root (ignorance first). So, Peter and Swami Dayananda, and Ramesam, must be right (Hum!). Somehow, though, i believe that the fault must have been of woman, after all.

  6. One more observation about the expulsion from the Garden of Eden might throw more light on this matter. The common belief is that there was only one tree in the centre of the Garden of Eden, but there were two trees: “the tree of life also in the midst of the garden and the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2.9). The forbidden tree was of the knowledge of good and evil (duality). After Adam and Eve ate of it the knew shame. And their problems began…
    “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:” (Genesis 3.22)… so, to stop that God banished them “to keep the way of the tree of life” (Genesis 3.24).
    So even in the garden there was ignorance, not only of good and evil, but also of life. We are told what this ‘life’ is by St John: “In him (God) was life; and the life was the light of men.” Consciousness is the light for us. So there was ignorance of our true nature and we were further cursed with having to live the transactional life with half-knowledge only: the half that’s absent is of consciousness.

  7. Very interesting comments, Peter. In the Garden of Eden, as you make clear, the primordial couple lived in a state of unity, or union, a state of innocence or Grace – not separated from the divine (Consciousness) in themselves and in Nature, and their subsequent disobedience implies distinguishing between right and wrong. Even in the Garden not everything was pure, and this is represented by the serpent (temptation). This ‘impurity’ can be interpreted as a (cosmogonic, ontological, or epistemological) descent: from non-duality (Beyond Being) to duality (Being), because the Garden is already the sphere of duality (saguna Brahman, Isvara).

    A traditionalist or perennialist author, Frithjof Schuon, has written: “Both trees (of the knowledge of Good and Evil and of life), being in the centre of the earthly Paradise could be the same tree: the first symbolizing cosmogonic projection and the second reintegration and interiorization, along with the participative or unitive knowledge that interiorization demands” (Esoterism as Principle and as Way, p.85).

    “The couple yielded to the temptation of ‘cosmic curiosity’; they wanted to know and to taste outside of God the things of the outward world. The worst consequence for them was “the closing of the ‘eye of the Heart’ or the loss of the inward Revelation, and so of the integrity of the Intellect, which brought with it the loss of the ‘state of grace’ and the corruption of the soul … instead of being contented with the simple, synthetic and symbolist vision of things… “

    “This is the way of exile, suffering and death; all errors and all sins retrace the first transgression and lead to this same way which is incessantly renewed. Sin of the spirit or the will always reflects the first fault, whereas Religion or Wisdom on the contrary reflects the lost Paradise within that very world of dissonances that issued forth from the forbidden fruit” (pp. 88-89)

  8. Dear Martin, thank you for sharing Frithjof Shuon’s interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth. I must confess to being a lot more literal in my reading of this story.

    1. I did not mean to imply that the Garden symbolises a state of unity, so apologies if that was the impression that came across. After all there was God and Adam, there was Adam and Eve, there was Adam and the creatures over which he had ‘dominion’. I wonder, therefore, if the Adam myth of Genesis is primarily to encourage obedience to god, i.e. a bhakti parable.

    2. By eating of the tree of knowledge Adam and Eve become like God (and whoever else was with God) because God uses the plural when saying that, by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, ‘he has become one with US’. Before Adam was ‘one with’ God, (i.e. before he knew right from wrong), what was he? And if he didn’t have eternal life, (something God didn’t want him to have, hence the banishment), then he too was going to die like the rest of the creatures. As you say, this ‘perfect’ Garden life might not have been so perfect after all.

    3. The common interpretation of the serpent is of the bad guy. But I have read one view (way back in the mists of time, so I cannot quote the source) that points out that the serpent hanging from a tree presages Jesus hanging from a wooden cross. Jesus said: ‘I am the way and the life’. He seemed to be leading people towards life and not blocking it from them. After all, what’s wrong with having the knowledge of right and wrong, and what is wrong about knowing one’s immortality?

    4. And finally I find myself a bit at odds with Shuon. He says: “they wanted to know and to taste outside of God the things of the outward world” and yet God says: “He has become one with us”. So, by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, does Adam know the world outside god or does he know the very mind of god? Also, in the next sentence, Shuon says: “The worst consequence for them was “the closing of the ‘eye of the Heart’ or the loss of the inward Revelation…” I find that difficult to square with their sudden realisation of their nakedness and vulnerability. Surely that is the opening of the eye of the mind. To one who is ignorant of the difference between good and evil, that ignorance is bliss – like the bliss of the ignorance of sleep. But on awakening to one’s helplessness, the only recourse is to ask god’s forgiveness and accept the consequences. (Further evidence that this might be a dvaitin text, reminding readers of their vulnerability, and of the power that god has).

  9. How interesting that myths (different from ‘mithya’) give rise to different interpretations, perhaps mostly due to one’s cultural background and held views on life, etc. When you say ‘literal’, in this context, I understand something like an interesting story, mostly for children; but if myths say something about man’s life, his struggles, aspirations, etc., how can they be just nice, imaginative stories? (‘literal’ x2 is for those who believe – in the recounting of The Garden of Paradise – that that is how it actually happened; I don’t count you among them, of course).

    Your points:

    1. Right, not unity, but union (Creator/creature, master/slave, etc.); therefore bhakti, with its bond of love and surrender on the part of the creature – which can lead to a state of unity (advaita) once Knowlege or realization has dawn. No?

    2. a) “with us” is not plural, I believe; it is first person singular when the subject is God, a king, or someone in authority, speaking for the law or from a chair of authority, which is impersonal. If you have the K.J. version of the Bible, it reads: “man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” Gen., 3, 22.

    b) Peter: “Before Adam was ‘one with’ God, (i.e. before he knew right from wrong), what was he?”. My answer: ‘one of us’ sounds rather sarcastic (No?). Yes, man knew duality by his ‘individualistic act, but was not like God; this cannot be the meaning of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). With the New Testament, things are no longer oppressive, based on fear and ‘the law’: Jesus brings liberation through knowledge, love, and compassion, and man is seen as theomorphic (capable of assuming his divinity in Oneness). Cf. St. John’s Gospel and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

    3. a) The serpent “presaging Jesus”? At one time Jesus said: “you must be wise as serpents”, meaning to discriminate between acts (and people), but, other than that, the serpent is a temptress and the representation of evil (egotism?), and henceforth there will be enmity between it and mankind (“it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen., 3,15).

    b) Peter: “what’s wrong with having the knowledge of right and wrong?”. Answer: ‘Seeing’ duality everywhere, precisely – the pairs of opposites – and thus becoming judgmental and stuck in that limited, constricted vision, the consequence being the loss of Paradise in union with God (Isvara). “You will be like gods” was the promise of the serpent. Since the world is one of multiplicity, and thus polarity, can God be ignorant of that – duality can be said to be ‘inaugurated’ by Isvara (heavens, hells, etc.)? Right and wrong belong to thinking (vritti/s), as you well know, and it can be a problem (unless you just observe it). Did the couple know that they were immortal? I don’t know, and probably they did not know either.

    4. a) Peter: “by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, does Adam know the world outside god or does he know the very mind of god?”

    The answer must be, I think, that the Fall is due to that act (of “disobedience”) consisting in the couple desiring to “be like gods”, as the serpent promised, to go rampant in the world and enjoy its fruits for themselves, thus becoming alienated from the ‘mind of God’; clearly, a lover of God does not look outside Him for his/her contentment. So, I think Schuon is correct in his interpretation.

    b) Peter: “Schuon says: ‘The worst consequence for them was ‘the closing of the “eye of the Heart” or the loss of the inward Revelation…”

    Answer: “realizing their nakedness and vulnerability” is a sign of that loss of innocence and the resultant guilt I referred to above, for they have severed their intimate link with their creator. What you say (realizing one’s helplessness) would be a valid interpretation in a different context, not in that of the Garden. Mundane people, in general, are quite content with the way they are; they don’t feel vulnerable unless they see their jobs threatened… and no one thinks that he/she may have an accident, etc. The Bible says that ‘fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’, but ordinary folk, in the West at least, are the very definition of ‘ego-centredness’; they are nominal believers, if at all.

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