As we examined in a previous article, the concept of mithyā in Advaita-vāda must be properly understood and represented. As a reminder,
mithyā means sat-asat-bhinnam or “neither sat nor asat”
Water seen in a mirage is neither sat nor asat. It is not asat like a son of a barren woman, which cannot exist even in principle. The water is perceived, so it is not asat. Going closer to the mirage, one finds no water- which means it is also not sat- existing there in past, present and future phases of time.
The meaning of adhyāsa and vivarta
As we saw in the snake-rope analogy in the previous article, the snake is superimposed in the rope by the observer – it is the observer who makes the perceptual error. In the same way, Advaita-vāda holds that all objects other than Brahman are super-impositions! To understand this fully, we must understand what the word superimposition precisely means.
Sri Sankaracarya defines adhyāsa (or adhyāropa) or superimposition in the introductory part of his commentary on Brahma-sūtra (1.1.1):
adhyāsaḥ smṛti-rūpaḥ paratra pūrva-dṛṣṭāvabhāsaḥ – the recollection and appearance of an object perceived earlier in another place or object
So one may have previously perceived a snake slithering in the forest or on the road. That created a subconscious impression or saṁskāra. The low light in the rope and the saṁskāra of the previously experienced snake create the right conditions that give rise to the appearance of snake in the rope. Note that the snake that is perceived has prātibhasikā sattā as we examined in the previous article. The snake is a vivarta of the rope, which is defined in Vedānta paribhāṣā as:
विवर्तो नाम उपादानविषमसत्ताककार्यापत्तिः – vivarta means the production of an effect that has a different kind of existence from that of its upādāna or constituent cause.
The snake has a different kind of existence – prātibhasikā sattā – one could say, a ‘lower’ level of existence, than its cause, the rope, which has vyāvhārikā sattā. Note here, that the use of the word upādāna is unusual. The common understanding of ‘upādāna’ is ‘ingredient’, which, in the case of Advaita-vāda is avidyā. Here, the word upādāna is used to convey that the cause does not really undergo any change but appears differently. Thus, we can call this vivarta-upādāna, to distinguish it from avidyā as upādāna.
Advaita-vāda posits that the world is a vivarta of Brahman
Prātibhasikā sattā is what would ordinarily be called ‘illusory existence’. Everyone would agree that the snake in the rope is illusory- it does not actually exist there. But Advaita-vāda makes this type of intuition more precise- when one denies the snake’s existence, one is denying that it has vyāvhārikā sattā, and not that it has no existence or sattā at all. It has prātibhasikā sattā!
Now consider the existence of the perceptible world, or in other words, items like the rope itself. The rope has vyāvhārikā sattā, but it does not have pāramārthikā sattā – only Brahman has pāramārthikā sattā. Thus, Advaita-vāda does not deny that the world exists, but rather it denies that the world has pāramārthikā sattā.
Now, similar to how an object that has prātibhasikā sattā is dependent on a vivarta-upādāna cause which has vyāvhārikā sattā, the world which has vyāvhārikā sattā is dependent on Brahman which has pāramārthikā sattā. Just as the snake is a superimposition or adhyāsa on the the rope, the world is a superimposition or adhyāsa on Brahman. Just as when one sees the rope, the snake is no longer visible, when one achieves Brahman-mukti, the world will disappear.
Now the question is- who has superimposed the world on Brahman? The observer, of course, i.e. us! As per the definition above, superimposition involves recall. That means the observer (us) has seen the world somewhere before, and now is recalling that experience and superimposing it on Brahman right now. And this has been going on from beginning-less time.
Śrī Jīva Goswami disagrees with the theory that the world is a vivarta of Brahman
In Anuccheda 58.3 of the Paramātmā Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Goswami examines the notion of superimposition. I reproduce his writings and Sri Babaji’s translations below. Śrī Jīva writes
anyatra siddhasya vastuna evānyatrāropo yathā śuktau rajatasya, etad eva mithyā-khapuṣpāder āropāsambhavāt pūrva-pūrva-vivarta-mātra-siddhānādi-paramparātve dṛṣṭāntābhāvāc ca |
“Only an object that exists elsewhere can be superimposed onto something else, for example, silver on an oyster shell. This is because it is impossible to superimpose a non-existent object, such as a sky-flower, onto something else, and because no example can be given of a beginningless chain of vivarta superimpositions following one another.”
Śrī Jīva Goswami refutes the notion of different levels of existence or sattā here. According to him, there is no such thing as a snake with prātibhasikā sattā in the rope.
kiṁ ca, pūrvaṁ vāri-darśanād vāry-ākārā mano-vṛttir jātāpi tad-aprasaṅga-samaye suptā tiṣṭhati tat-tulya-vastu-darśanena tu jāgarti tad-viśeṣānusandhānaṁ vinā tad-abhedena svatantratām āropayati”-
“Moreover, though a mental impression in the shape of water is created after seeing water, it remains inactive in the absence of an appropriate context and becomes activated [only] on seeing an object that resembles water. Without closely examining the specific characteristics of the resembling object, one then superimposes upon it the independent sense of its non-difference from water [i.e., one mistakes it for water]. “
tasmān na vāri mithyā, na vā smaraṇa-mayī tad-ākārā vṛttir, na vā tat-tulyaṁ marīcikādi vastu, kintu tad-abhedenāropa evāyathārthatvān mithyā
“Therefore, it is not the water that is illusory, nor is the mental modification (vṛtti) having the form of water and composed of memory illusory, nor is the mirage that resembles water illusory.”
Śrī Jīva’s point is that both a snake and a rope are in the same sattā. When one ‘sees’ the snake in the rope, one actually sees light rays reflected from the rope; the light and the rope both have the same sattā or type of existence. The vṛtti or sensation created in the mind by the light rays also has the same sattā, and the memory that is recalled (incorrectly) of the snake also has the same sattā. This is obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of light, the way light reflects from objects, the way it enters the eye, and the way the information in the light is interpreted or misinterpreted. The recalled object, the perceived object which triggers the recall, and the mental sensation involved in the mistaken identity, all are in the same category of existence. Thus, there is no prātibhasikā or illusory snake in the rope, or prātibhasikā or illusory water in the mirage.
For Śrī Jīva, there are only two categories of existence – sat and asat. Now, one might ask how the world is sat when it does not exist in all three phases of time (past, present and future). The answer is that the world is sat in the sense that its cause is sat- Paramātmā, who is unchanging in past, present and future. But the world is not unchanging in past, present and future; but this does not make it a superimposition, nor does this make it unreal.
Could asat then be superimposed? No, because asat objects like a sky flower or a son of a barren woman cannot be recalled as they can never be seen. So there is no question of superimposition of such imagined objects.
Further, if the current world is considered to be superimposed onto Brahman due to recall of a previous experience of the world, then that world was also superimposed on Brahman, which would in turn be due to recall of a previous experience, and so on. Going back in beginningless time, we would find an infinite series of superimpositions of previously superimposed objects. But there is no example that could be given of such an infinite series of superimpositions. Without an example, the theory is suspect.