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Adhyasa or Superimposition

by Swami Sivananda

AN'S transmigration is due to the evil of superimposition and the bondage of superimposition is created by himself and none else. It is this that causes the misery of birth and death for the man of non-discrimination who is tainted by Rajas and Tamas. Superimposition is the favourite theme of the Vedanta philosophy to explain how the ever-free Self came to be bound at all. The Jiva is under self-hypnotism. He must dehypnotise himself by meditation on the significance of Tat Tvam Asi Mahavakya. Then alone he will be free and the Jiva who was bleating like a lamb will roar like a lion.

Adhyasa literally means 'superimposition' in the sense of mistaken ascription or imputation to something of an essential nature or attribute not belonging to it. It is an apparent presentation of the attributes of one thing in another thing. It is the illusory attribution or superimposition of the universe in the Atman which has no universe in it, like the misconception of silver in mother-of-pearl, snake in the rope, man in the post, bluishness in the sky, water in the mirage. This wrong notion is caused through Avidya or ignorance. According to Sankara, Adhyasa is the apparent presentation in the form of remembrance to consciousness something previously observed in some other thing. This is illusory knowledge. Adhyasa, Bhranti, Adhyaropa, Kalpana are synonymous terms.

Sankaracharya writes in his Bhashya: Some indeed define the term 'superimposition as the superimposition of the attributes of one thing on another thing. The so-called Anyatha-khyativadins maintain that in the act of Adhyasa the attributes of one thing, silver for instance, are superimposed on a different thing existing in a different place, for instance, on mother-of-pearl (if we take for our example of Adhyasa the case of some man mistaking a piece of mother-of pearl before him for a piece of silver). The Atma-khyativadins maintain that in Adhyasa the modification in the form of silver of the internal organ is superimposed on the external thing, mother-of-pearl, and thus itself appears external. Both views fall under the above definition. In illusion an unspeakable silver is produced which is a reality for the time being. Silver is superimposed on the mother-of-pearl. The deluded soul actually bends down his body to the ground to possess the silver. The silver is not in the mind. It is not present somewhere else, because it could not have experienced as here and now. You cannot say that it is mere non-entity. It is also not inherent in the mother-of-pearl, because it could not have been removed later on. Therefore, we are compelled to admit that the silver has no real existence anywhere, but it has only a seeming reality for the time being which is indeed indescribable.

Others again define superimposition as the error founded on the non-apprehension of the difference of that which is superimposed from that on which it is superimposed. This is the definition of the Akhyativadins. Others, some Anyatha-khyativadins and the Madhyamikas, according to Ananda Giri, again define it as the fictitious assumption of attributes contrary to nature of that thing on which something else is superimposed. But all these definitions agree in so far as they represent superimpositions as the apparent presentation of the attributes of one thing in another thing. And therewith agrees also the popular view which is exemplified by expressions such as the following: Mother-of-pearl appears like silver The moon although one only appears as if she were double. But how is it possible in the interior self which itself is not an object, there should be superimposed objects and their attributes? For, everyone superimposes, and object only on such other objects as are placed before him (i.e., in contact with his sense organs), and you have said before that the interior self which is entirely disconnected from the idea of the Thou (the non-ego) is never an object. It is not, we reply, non-object in the absolute sense. For, it is the object of the notion of the ego. [The Pratyagatman is in reality non-object, for it is Svayam-Prakasha, self-luminous, i.e., the subjective factor in all cognition. But it becomes the object of the idea of the ego in so far as it is limited or conditioned by its adjuncts which are the product of nescience, viz., the internal organ, the sense and the subtle and gross bodies, i.e., in so far as it is Jiva, individual or personal soul]. The interior Self is well known to exist on account of its immediate (intuitive) presentation. Nor is it an exceptionless rule that objects can be superimposed only on such other objects as are before us, i.e., in contact with our sense organs; for, non-discerning men superimpose on the ether, which is not the object of sensuous perception, the dark-blue colour. Hence it follows that, that assumption of the non-self being superimposed on the interior Self, is not unreasonable.

The subject and the object which have for the spheres the notion of 'I' and 'thou' respectively, and which are opposed to each other, as darkness and light, cannot be identifies. Their attributes also cannot be identified. Superimposition is an established fact. It is not an imaginary hypothesis.

It is a serious mistake to superimpose on the subject, i.e., Atman whose nature is Intelligence, the object whose nature is insentiency and vice-versa to superimpose the subject and the attributes of the subject on the object. The subject is Atman or the Supreme Self whose nature is absolute consciousness. The object includes whatever of a non-intelligent nature, viz., body sense, mind, Prana and the objects of the senses, i.e., the manifested phenomenal universe.

If the Atman or Brahman is really unconnected or unattached (Asanga), how can He be so related to the Koshas or the sheaths or the bodies as to be ordinarily regarded one with them? There are two kinds of relation in Indian logic. Samavaya Sambandha (inseparable relation as between an object and its parts, the quality and the thing that possesses the quality, the action and the actor, the type and the individual, etc.) and Samyoga Sambandha (relation by contact between two things as between a drum and a stick). Atman's relation to the Koshas can be of neither sort. It can be only Adhyasa like that of a snake in the rope. This Adhyasa is of two kinds, viz., one-sided, e.g., the snake is superimposed on the rope but not the rope on the snake and mutual (Anyonya Adhyasa) i.e., Atman and its attributes are superimposed on the Koshas and the Koshas and their attributes are superimposed on the Atman. So we say, My body exists, shines and is blissful and I am a man, I am a Brahmin, I am a doctor, I am a celibate, I am a house-holder, I am hungry, I am thirsty, I am angry, etc.

Attributes of the body are superimposed on the Self, if a man thinks of himself (his self) as stout, lean, fair, as standing, walking or jumping; attributes of the sense organs if he thinks of himself as mute, deaf, one-eyed or blind; attributes of the internal organ when he considers himself subject to desire, intention, doubt, determination and so on. Thus the producer of the notion of the ego i.e., the internal organ is superimposed in the interior self, which, in reality, is the witness of all the modifications of the internal organ and vice versa, the interior self which is the witness of everything is superimposed on the internal organ, the senses, and so on. In this way there goes on this natural beginningless and endless superimposition, which appears in the form of wrong conception is the cause of individual souls appearing as agents and enjoyers (of the results of their actions) and is observed by everyone.

If nothing exists but one absolute simple being, if truth is one, whence arises this many which we experience through the Indriyas or organs, whence this appearance of this world by which we see ourselves surrounded and in which we exist as individual beings? Truth cannot certainly contradict experience. Brahman or Truth is associated with certain illusory power called Maya or Avidya to which this appearance of the phenomenal universe is due. This is the statement of Sankaracharya. This world is not real. This plurality is an illusion. It is mere appearance like snake in the rope. It vanishes when one gets the knowledge of the Self. Avidya is beginningless but it terminates in the aspirant when Brahma Jnana dawns. So Avidya is Anadi-santam. This illusory power cannot be called 'Being' (Sat) for 'Being' is only Brahman; nor can it be called 'Non-being' (Asat) in the strict sense, for it somehow produces the appearance of this world. Just as a magician produces many things, such a mango tree from a seed, money and sweetmeats from sand, so also Brahman projects the appearance of the sense-universe by means of the illusory power, Maya. The individual soul blindly identifies himself with the adjuncts or vehicles (Upadhis), viz., the body, senses, Prana, mind, Buddhi, etc., the fictitious offering of Avidya. Instead of recognising himself to be pure Brahman, he calls himself a man or Jiva. The Avidya acts as a veil and hides his true nature. He is unable to look through and beyond the veil (Avidya). The body, senses, mind, etc., are superimposed on the pure self on account of the force of ignorance. Through the identification with the body, mind and senses, he imagines that he is the doer and enjoyer. The soul which in reality is pure all-pervading intelligence, non-active and infinite, thus becomes limited in extent as it were, limited in knowledge and power. Through his actions with selfish-motives, he burdens himself with merit and demerit. He has to reap the fruits of actions in future births. Thus he is bound down to this world. He is caught up in the round of births and deaths. He has to enjoy happiness and misery.

Sankara does not mean that the world is absolutely nothing like the horn of a hare, or a barren woman's son, or a lotus in the sky. He means that the world has a relative existence, i.e., it is not so real as Brahman who exists in the past, present and future, that it is not real at all times. When compared with Brahman, world is unreal. This is what he exactly means. Maya cannot be adequately described. It is a mystery beyond our understanding. It is inscrutable or indefinable (Anirvachaniya). Brahman is not affected a bit by the illusion, just as a juggler is not affected by the illusion he produces. Just as a writer of a drama projects his own thoughts when he writes down the scenes in various acts, so also Brahman has projected this universe by mere willing. This theory or doctrine of Sankara is known as Vivarta Vada or Maya Vada or Anirvachaniya Khyati Vada. A tree or dog or rose is a Vivarta or Brahman, just as earring or bracelet is a Vivarta or apparent modification of gold.

The generic character of a cow which was previously observed in a black cow, again presents itself to consciousness in a white cow, or when Jackson whom you first saw in Madras, again appears before you at Calcutta. These are cases of recognition where the objects previously observed again present themselves to your senses, whereas in mere remembrance the object previously perceived is not in renewed contact with the senses. Mere remembrance operates in the case of Adhyasa, as when you mistake mother-of-pearl for silver which is at the time not present in it but as a mere superimposition only.

The aim of Vedantic Sadhana is to destroy entirely the erroneous idea, 'I am the body' and to substitute the idea, 'I am Brahman.' When you get knowledge of the Self, this erroneous idea, 'I am the body' is annihilated and you get liberation or Mukti. This mistaken idea is removed automatically, just as the illusory snake which is superimposed on the rope is destroyed by bringing a light; so also the idea of reality of this world is removed, when you get knowledge of Brahman. The Srutis emphatically declare: 'Rite Jnananna Mukti - there is no liberation without knowledge of the Self.' 'The heart's knot is broken; all doubts are cleared, all Karmas are burnt when one realises the Self.' by knowing the Self, one passes beyond death; there is no other way.'

Man does not differ from animals in the matter of cognition. Empirical knowledge is no knowledge at all from the stand-point of knowledge of Brahman. A cow runs away when she sees a man coming near her with a raised stick in his hand. She thinks that he wants to beat her and therefore she runs away, while she approaches a man who advances towards her with some fresh green grass in his hand. In a similar manner, persons who are endowed with a higher intelligence run away when they behold fierce-looking men drawing near them with shouts and drawn swords, while they approach with confidence and joy men of opposite nature. With regard to perception, man also behaves in the same manner as animals, though he possesses superior intelligence.

The superimposition is destroyed by knowledge of the Self. This knowledge of the Self is not mere theoretical or intellectual knowledge. It is actual realisation through constant meditation. It is direct intuitional knowledge gained by coming in direct contact with Brahman. Avidya is nescience or ignorance. Superimposition is Avidya. Avidya or false knowledge is destroyed when true knowledge of the Self dawns. Avidya does not mean want of knowledge. The ascertainment of the true nature of the Self by means of discrimination of that which is superimposition on the Self is known as Vidya.

This relation of superimposition is not recognised in the higher teachings of the Vedanta, because superimposition connotes the existence of two distinct subjects at the same time. But the rope is not perceived when the snake is cognised and the snake is not perceived when the rope is cognised. There is no existence of two objects at the same time to enable one object to be superimposed upon the other. The rope alone exists before, during and after its apparent appearance. Similarly the Koshas do not really exist. They are illusory. Brahman alone exists. Brahman alone is the solid reality. The Koshas are apparently related to Atman.

Atman is without any kind of limiting adjuncts. It is bodiless. The mutual superimposition is due to ignorance or lack of discrimination. This will vanish, if you comprehend the right significance of the Mahavakya and practise regular meditation. Just as the house is different from you, so also this body is different from you. An objector may argue: The chair is outside us while the Koshas are within us. This does not make any difference at all. A very sharp intellect is necessary to understand that Atman is distinct from the Koshas. In Kathopanishad, you will find: This Atman is hidden in all beings. It does not shine; but it is cognised by the seers who possess subtle sharp intellect.

In conclusion I have to say once more that superimposition is a statement of fact. Knowledge of the Self is the only way to liberation. An enquiry into Brahman through the study of Brahma-Sutras is absolutely necessary. Then only, you can free yourself from the wrong notion, 'I am the body' which is the cause of all evil and attain thereby the knowledge of the absolute unity of the Self.

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