Superimposition (Adhyas) in Vedanta

One of the most important concepts in Vedanta is that of Adhyas or superimposition. It is generally believed that the apparent existence of world is similar to the experience of snake on rope or silver in mother-of-pearl or ghost in a post. It is said that existence of world is superimposed on Brahman in the same manner as that in the case of snake and rope. That is, the apparent world is as illusory as the imaginary snake.

The general understanding of Adhyas (E-I) includes seeing X in Y when X is not there in Y ( अध्यासो नाम् अतस्मिन् तद् बुद्धि: इति अवोचाम्, ब्र॰सू॰). Automatically, it includes seeing the धर्म of X in Y.

A few questions arise, which can be summarized as under:-

        i.  Which entity is experiencing this Adhyas?

      ii.  Which entity is being superimposed by which other entity?

Generally accepted idea (E-I) is that the entity experiencing Adhyas or doing Adhyas is jiva. It is doing Adhyas on Brahman (or Turiya). The other entity is this manifest world which is being superimposed. However, I have recently come across another explanation of Adhyas (E-II) and it has shaken my basic understanding. All discussions in this post are based exclusively on Shankar Bhashya on Prasthantraya and Upadesh Sahasri.

In order to discuss further, certain concepts need to be revisited. It is explained conclusively in Mandukya Upanishad that examples of pots and clay or sparks and fire don’t depict the reality in correct fashion. It is clearly said in Karika that Atma is like space and jiva, which is kshetrajna, is IMAGINED as pot-spaces. Shankara says that the illustrations in Vedanta which refer to genesis of jiva from atma like pot from mud or sparks from fire are not true really (Karika 3.14, 3.15, 3.22). The idea behind these illustrations was to merely indicate at the unity of jiva and atma. The correct analogy is the pot-space vis-a-vis space. Further, no pot space has ever been created. The pots themselves are अविद्याकृत and are unreal.

Also, Shankara says that when a magician throws a thread in sky and then ascends on it along with arms and ammunition to wage a war in the sky, gets himself cut into pieces and thrown back on earth, only a foolish person gets moved by the apparent manifestation. A wise man understands that it is all illusion and is unconcerned. He knows that real magician is not dead but is on earth, beyond his eye sight. The thread thrown is compared to the states of waking, dream and deep sleep. The magician ascending on that thread is compared to Vishva, Taijas and Prajna. The real magician who is on earth is comparable to Turiya.

Further, very clearly Shankara says that jiva is IMAGINED in Shuddha Atma (Turiya). This जीवकल्पना is सर्वकल्पनामूलम्. But why this जीवकल्पना is there at the first place? Just as rope is regarded as snake, stick, stream of water etc in dim light, similarly because of non-apprehension of आत्मा, it is imagined as Jiva, prana etc. It is, therefore, very clear that because of non-apprehension of Turiya, jiva and jagat are imagined.

In this background, let me discuss the other explanation of Adhyas (E-II). It states that everything is Atma. Therefore, there cannot be Adhyas in Atma. It is a fundamental presumption in Adhyas that the two objects which are being superimposed must be different. Since everything is nothing but Atma, there is no question of Adhyas on Atma. It goes on to say that both jiva and jagat emanate from Turiya. And the Adhyas is between these two. It also says that Prajna, which is the third state of jiva, cannot do Adhyas. The Adhyas can be done only by Vishva or Taijas. Thus, according to this view, Adhyas is done BY Vishva or Taijas ON Jagat and Prajna.

Shankara categorically holds that Adhyas is between प्रत्यगात्मा and अनात्मा. E-II holds that the word प्रत्यगात्माcannot mean Turiya and hence has to be explained as Prajna. Further, अनात्मा cannot be explained as non-Turiya as there is nothing which is not Turiya. It explains that अनात्मा is nothing but Kshetra. Thus, this view holds that the Adhyas is between Kshetra and Kshetrajna.

There are several oppositions to this view which crop up immediately. I enumerate them as under:-

        i.  E-II says that Vishva does Adhyas in Prajna (Kshetrajna) of Kshetra and vice versa. But, Vishva and Prajna cannot exist at same point of time. That which was Prajna, is now Vishva. Therefore, this explanation appears to fail on this aspect of non-coexistence of Vishva and Prajna.

       ii.  When Shankara says that both jiva and jagat are imagined in Turiya because of non-apprehension (avidya), is it not immediately to be asked, who is the imaginer? Shankara says that jiva is the imaginer. Then, is it not absolutely clear that Adhyas is between Turiya and Jagat done by Jiva due to avidya? Shankara says also, अध्यासं पंडिता अविद्या इति मन्यते.

      iii.  Basic idea in E-II is that Adhyas is BY Vishva IN Kshetrajna OF Kshetra. It derives the reason thereof by the similarity between first line of Adhyas Bhashya and the statements in Bhashya of thirteenth chapter of Gita.

              However, if we recollect the Bhashya on Gita XIII, we find that it mentions following statements:-

    1. यथा रज्जु आदि सर्प आदि मिथ्या कल्पितस्य. Kshetrajna is the source, sustainer and destroyer of Kshetra.
    2. क्षेत्रम च मायानिर्मितहस्ति, स्वप्नदृष्टवस्तु, गंधर्वनगरआदि वद असद, सद इव अवभासते.
    3. As discussed earlier, in Mandukya, “just as rope is regarded as snake, stick, stream of water etc in dim light, similarly because of non-apprehension of आत्मा, it is imagined as Jiva, prana etc”.
    4. पुरुष: जीव: क्षेत्रज्ञ :भोक्ता इति पर्याय:.
    5. अविद्यामात्रम् संसारम्.
    6. जन्मकारणम् चअविद्यानिमित्तक: क्षेत्रक्षेत्रज्ञसंयोग:.

    iv.  Further, in connection with Adhyas i.e., superimposition of प्रत्यगात्मा in अनात्मा and vice versa, E-II holds Pratyagatma to be same as Prajna i.e. Kshetrajna. It holds Anatma as Kshetra.This has to be taken very seriously as in Mandukya, Shankara categorically holds Pratyagatma to be Atma, i.e. Turiya (Mantra 3), कथमयमात्मा ब्रह्म इति प्रत्यगात्मनो अस्य चतुष्पात्वे. Shankara holds Pratyagatma to have four legs and thus it is clear that by Pratyagatma, Turiya is meant. At other places too, one understands by Pratyagatma, the inner Atma, which has four legs.

   v.  While describing Turiya in Karika 1.9, Shankara says that just as false things like silver, snake cannot be without a substratum of mother-of-pearl or rope, similarly Turiya. He further holds that the three legs of Turiya are caused by Avidya like snake and rope (अविद्याकृतम् रज्जुसर्पादिसममुक्तम् पादत्रयलक्षणम्).

    vi.  E-II explains Satya as something which doesn’t change and Anrita as something which changes. It holds that Prajna is Satya and world is Anrita. It further holds Prajna as Satya. This is in direct contradiction with Mandukya as sited above wherein it is treated as illusion created by magician.

  vii.  E-II holds (page 41) both Prakriti of Ishwara to be eternal. But, as already seen, both para and apara Prakriti of Ishwara are caused by avidya and are unreal and hence non-eternal.

In view of the above contradictions, one is tempted to accept the normally held belief of E-I. However, the biggest support in favor of E-II is first line of Adhyas Bhashya. So, I would still hold that I am unable to understand Adhyas clearly.


One thought on “Superimposition (Adhyas) in Vedanta

  1. […] Everything which can be perceived is Supreme Brahman only. This perception of non-Brahman (अब्रह्मप्रत्यय: सर्व: अविद्या मात्र: रज्ज्वाम् इव सर्प प्रत्यय:) is merely avidya just as the perception of snake in rope. Incidentally, this is in sharp contradiction with E-II, as discussed in Superimposition (Adhyas) in Vedanta. […]


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