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The Unity and Indivisibility of the Self

The Unity and Indivisibility of the Self (Brahman)
by Antonio T. DeNicolas, PhD

The goal of all inquiry is experience, (anubhava)…Brahma Sutra Bhashya. I. 1.2.


Integration Through Correct (Contextual) Interpretation

It is an obvious phenomenon of our times that Eastern thought (or its semblance) has become as much a part of the “in” culture of America as “woman’s lib,” or the war in Vietnam. From slick magazines to the most prestigious universities, American culture is swamped with Eastern information or misinformation, depending how critical the eye of the beholder. It is obvious that the demand for Eastern thought has increased at an alarming rate in the last few years; alarming in the sense that the supply cannot and has not been adequate (in quality if not in quantity) to the demand. While the number, of those translating and spreading information about the East has increased considerably in the last few years, the number of those qualified people who “understand” both East and West has not. Some scientists, for example, when writing about modern physical theories use Eastern philosophy non-critically and in a “metaphorical” way to express their own insights. Even eminent scholars, pressed by the needs of the times, take to writing about logic, theory of knowledge, language, religion or mysticism, East and West, in ways which exhibit a very inadequate understanding and mastery of the whole range of Western and Eastern philosophy. The result has been the dissemination of misinformation and the perpetuation of misunderstanding on an international scale, thereby impeding the development of an efficient integration of the ways of doing philosophy and religion in the West and the East. The world, for example, has been declared to be an illusion. The “no-thinking” state of Zen has reached the public as a “not-thinking” attitude. The discipline of intuitive experience has been translated as “the spontaneity of doing what you want without any responsibility,” and if these states are too concrete, one can always escape any kind of effort by wrapping one’s own discipline into ephemeral and meaningless (therefore effortless) great sounding words, like cosmic consciousness, the All-soul, the universal self, the Spirit, the Absolute – which mean everything and do nothing.

In sum, there is too much talk and too little understanding. The danger lies in that the true need, which has prompted the interest in Eastern thought, could be fogged out of existence by the polluting fumes of misinformation and clouded thinking. I do not propose to attempt an instant solution to this problem; rather, I would like to bring forward the epistemological context within which philosophical statements from both East and West can be meaningful. Without such a context, statements made by Eastern philosophy about the SelfReality, and Experience are either meaningless (i.e., they have no self-sufficient reason in our Western universes of discourse), or empty, (i.e., they are only conceptual projections of some particular Western philosophical system without empirical content).

In order to avoid the trap of over-generalization, we shall confine ourselves to statements about the Self (Brahman), Reality (Sat), and Experience (anubhava), made by the great Indian philosopher Sankara (A.D. 788-820).

Implicit in Sankara’s analysis are several presuppositions about the philosophical activity, and the role of interpretation. Instead of being taken as arbitrary, however, these presuppositions are based on a conditioned discipline of doing philosophy which looks for the contextual reasons within which presuppositions appear. The key to this conditioned discipline lies in the following statement: the beginning of knowledge is the realization that interpretation stands for interpretation; the end of knowledge is the decision that interpretation stands for something, or is the interpretation of something.


I choose Sankara because in many ways he furnishes a most important perspective on the Indian way of doing philosophy. To understand him is to understand not only the Advaita Vedanta system he sponsored, but also the whole of Indian philosophy – Vedic, Upanisadic, Samkhya, Yoga, Buddhist, and so on.

Sankara’s philosophy may be summarized, somewhat paradoxically, in the following manner:

1. Reality is One, Indivisible; let us name it Brahman. The world is “false.” All “atomic” entities, like souls, bodies, subjects, objects, are only non-differentiated Brahman (the Real).

The foregoing statement, however, though put in positive terms, is negative and void in the sense that no one knows it. It can only be experienced (anubhava) as an intuition. It therefore does not lie within the scope of philosophical inquiry but is rather the origin and end of all philosophical inquiry beyond philosophy, i.e. discourse, but not beyond the philosopher.

2. Philosophical inquiry is concerned with the logical multiplicity of linguistic superimpositions (adyasa) between the subject and the object.* Thus, the subject is superimposed on the object in such remarks as “That I am,” or “This is mine,” whereas, when we say “I suffer,” or “I wish,” the object is superimposed on the subject.

*Superimposition, says Sankara, is the apparent presentation to consciousness, by way of remembrance, of something previously observed in some other thing.

In order to clarify the above statement, which pronounces negatively on everything that language claims as “real,” Sankara makes his own philosophical positive statement, thus:

3. Reality is non-dual (a-dvaita). (It should be noticed that he does not affirm the unity, but denies the multiplicity.)

4. Philosophical inquiry – understood as the activity of doing philosophy – may, however, lead to intuitive-experience (anubhava) or to the realization of non-differentiated Unity (Brahman).

Criteria for the Real

It will be helpful, I think, to select certain English meanings of the word “real,” in order to clarify the criteria Sankara chose when using the word – it being self-evident that the particular meaning of the word in every case will depend on the criterion decided upon by its user.

1. Real may mean “natural,” as opposed to “artificial”: a natural or a man-made lake; a real ruby or a synthetic one.

2. Real may mean “genuine,” as opposed to “fraudulent” or “fake,” as when speaking of “a real Picasso,” or “real jewels.”

3. Real may also mean “lasting,” or “permanent,” as when we speak of a “real satisfaction” as opposed to a temporary satiation of desires, or a “real peace” as opposed to a temporary cessation of hostilities. In this sense of the word “real,” one must be aware of the fact that something more is implied than the bare state of affairs itself (ontology), and that a system of values (axiology) is also involved. For example, if war is fighting and fighting has stopped, is that not peace? And since the cessation of fighting is an actual state of affairs, is not the peace real peace? The fact, too evident, that we do not consider it so indicates that more than a mere description of the situation is involved in this sense of the term “real”; a system of values is also involved. The settlement of the war in Vietnam speaks for itself.

4. Real may also mean “non-imaginary” or “non-illusory,” like real water instead of water seen in a mirage, or a real dagger instead of the one Macbeth thinks he sees before him.

5. Real may also mean “existent,” as does in Sanskrit the word sat. Although this is not to say much, it seems to rule out purely fictitious entities. The common criterion for “existent” is “experienceable.”

Sankara’s use of the word “real” (sat) is a combination of the third, fourth and fifth senses suggested above: for something to be “real” it must be experienceable, nonillusory or nonimaginary, and, stable, lasting or permanent.

With this in mind let us go back to the first claim of Sankara’s philosophy as stated in the summary:

In the Balabodhini‘, attributed to him, Sankara boldly states his claim:

Being is living, but thinking is only image-making. Life stops being life when turned into images.

slokardhena pravaksyami yad ukta’ granthakotibhih brahma satyam jagan mithya jivo brahmaiva naparah.

“With half a sloka (stanza) I will declare what has been said in thousands of volumes; Brahman is real, the world is false, the atomic individual self is only Brahman, nothing else.”

That is to say, there is only one Reality. Whatever reality is displayed by discrete things, i.e., the world as divided into subjects and objects, originates in that one Reality. That which language claims is really, not being identified with that one Reality, is false (mithya) or only apparently real; it is an illusion. It should be clear from this quotation that the world is not held to be fictitious or non-existent; the world is sensed, felt, perceived.*

*The word mithya brings out this meaning more clearly than is indicated in the translation. Mithya is a contraction of mithuya, derived from the root mith which means either (1) “unite” or “couple,” (2) “meet” or “engage” (in altercation), or (3) “alternate.” The word mithya comes from the third sense, and is used adverbially (often with respect to a person’s behavior) as meaning “inadvertedly,” “contrarily,” “improperly,” or “incorrectly.” This sense is extended to a nominal form meaning “false” in the sense of “mistaken,” that is, “taken or perceived incorrectly.” “incomplete.”

Sankara’s claim applies to linguistic judgments and the criteria for those judgments which determine certain kinds of concepts, such as the spatiotemporal boundaries of a false atomicity – the particularity of concrete things. If Reality is unitary, then the plurality of the world is claimed mistakenly; certain arbitrary criteria which the use of language imposes upon experience are mistakenly taken to be really experienced.

Sankara’s philosophical inquiry therefore turns to an examination of the powerful maya of language (what Wittgenstein called the “bewitchment of language”) in order to free his inquiry from dominance of the false notion of the separate existence of things.1

The goal of this task, for Sankara, was to realize the Real: a fullness of experience which is untranslatable as an eidos – beyond language, space, time, thought and difference. The main purpose of that positive goal is to orient the mind. Its pragmatic success is beyond language. For Sankara, it is indicated in an intuitive self-revelation of Reality itself which does not depend upon perception and other criteria of knowledge.2

This intuition of totality and non-differentiation is the concrete result of a movement of thought losing itself in the depths of undifferentiated consciousness. The statement “Tat tvam asi,”3 “Thou art that,” shows a movement of thought from one ontological level (of particularity), through another (of universality), to yet another (of unity), where in the attainment of the latter negates the distinctions between the former. One begins with individual consciousness (tvam), passes on to universal consciousness (tat) and arrives at non-differentiated consciousness which overcomes the separated reality of both the individual and the universal, and which constitutes their ground.4This method of stripping away contradictory elements of individuation in order to arrive at the underlying non-differentiated Unity is called jahad-ajahad-laksana. This is what Sankara has in mind as the aim of his philosophical inquiry. And to this we now turn.

The Power and the Glamour of Language

Sankara, like Wittgenstein, feels that the mere fact of being human traps man within the linguistic games devised by his culture. Though both philosophers part company in their conclusions, they remain very close in their analysis of language, and of the magic spell it casts over man.

Sankara, also like Wittgenstein, aims at liberating philosophy from the strongly atomistic emphasis that language impose upon experience and thought in every sentence. Nonetheless, man cannot live without language and its conditioning effects. Therefore, both philosophers take it to be the role of philosophy to provide a liberating knowledge – although, of course, the Eastern tradition takes this liberating activity to further lengths than does the West.

Sankara starts his Brahman Sutra Bhashya (see appended translation of the whole introductory chapter) by investigating the nature of language usage:

“It is a clear fact that the object and the subject, whose respective areas are the concepts of Thou and I, and whose natures are opposed to each other as much as light and darkness, are irreconcilable. So also their respective qualifications…”

Yet language functions in such a way that we can only make meaningful statements by “superimposing upon the subject the qualities of the object and vice versa … and this is false (mithya).”5 The resulting confusion is no more than this characteristic linguistic superimposition of natures and attributes, “thus mixing reality and unreality by saying things like: “That I am” or “this is mine.”6

Not only is the individual man caught in this trap; Sankara sweepingly concludes that this faulty superimposition, “is the presupposition upon which are based all distinctions of practical life, of the Vedas, [in the religious and ritualistic sense], between the means of knowledge, objects of knowledge and the authority of Scripture.”7

Furthermore “the means of right knowledge cannot operate without the aspect [nature] of knower, which is of the sense of “I” and “mine” imposed or united with the body and the senses. For by taking away the use of the senses immediate perception does not occur nor do other activities of knowledge.” Even more, action itself would be jeopardized without this superimposition: “Nor does anyone act without having the aspect of the self superimposed on the body.”8

Sankara concludes this Introduction by stating clearly his philosophical aim:

With a view of freeing one’s Self from this wrong notion, the cause of all misery, attaining thereby knowledge of the absolute unity of the Self, the study of the Vedas is begun. That all the Vedas have the above mentioned purpose we shall show in this so-called Sariraka-mimansa.”

What does Sankara really mean by this? Does he imply that you are not really reading this article, that I did not really write it, that the chair you are sitting on does not really exist, etc. – and that all these things are only apparentlyso and a result of linguistic games? Indeed, that is exactly what Sankara claims.9 In terms of the Real, there are no plural individual minds, no plural individual objects, no privacy, no this, no that, no here, no there. All we have is sense experience. The structures with which our experience is imbued are secured by certain grammatical rules we write into our language-games. These games are commonly played by superimposing objectivity on subjectivity and vice versa, denoting individuals, classes” privacy, multiplicity, this, here, etc.; but none of these denoting terms is a factual property of experience as such. No singular sensation-denoting term is a fact which we empirically discover; it is conventional and culture-bound, or context-bound.

Sankara states it thus in his commentary to the Gita:

That awareness which does not vary with its object is “real,” that which does vary with its object is “unreal.”10

What varies with sense experience are the objects and subjects of sensation; that is to say, to use his own example,11 in the successive judgments “real (sensed) pot,” “real (sensed) cloth,” “real (sensed) elephant,” the objects (pot, cloth, elephant) constantly change, whereas the reality of the sense experience does not.

What Sankara seems to have in mind when explaining the superimpositions of language in statements like “I am in pain,” and “This is mine,” is not the obvious explanation that these statements do not refer always to the same subject or object, but rather that they do not necessarily refer to any subject or object at all, even though at times they do. The boundaries (de-finire) of “I” or “Pain” or “this” or “mine” are not given by any of the terms language uses when it says “this is mine,” or “I am in pain.”

In the Philosophical Investigations (404, 405), Wittgenstein brings out this same point when he suggests that any decision on identity-making has no one factual answer but rather depends on a great variety of criteria for determining personal (or other) identity. It is up to every language user to decide which criteria to employ. The simple use of terms like “I” or “mine” does not prescribe in any way which criterion we are to use. In fact it presupposes none. It is entirely up to us to decide the type of game we are going to play with sensation-terms so that we may decide, even while suffering the pain, which kind of “candidate” we wish to have as “sensation-owner.”

Turning now to Sankara and the Advaita School, what are the criteria under which the Real is called “real” and multiplicity is called “illusion”?

Sankara uses the word “unreal” (asat) to mean everything other than Brahman (the Real). At times, however, he uses the word “real” to mean the commonly perceived world, in order to oppose this meaning to the “unreality” of dreams and hallucinations, like the water-mirage and the rope taken for a snake. He also uses the word “unreal” to mean the “non-experienceable,” giving as illustrations examples common to all Indian philosophy: “hare’s horn,” “sky-flower,” “a barren woman’s son.” At other times he uses the word “completely unreal” (atyantasat) to refer to such imaginary entities. (Note that no distinction is made between a null class (tuccha, empty) and a self-contradiction.) Indian philosophy is pragmatic: speculation for speculation’s sake is avoided or corrected; the aim of speculation is to convince the listener that the particular system presented could develop a discipline leading to moksa (liberation). Sankara, therefore, seems to imply a four-fold distinction between (a) the real, (b) the pragmatically real, (c) the illusory, and (d) the completely unreal. Later Advaitins presented Sankara’s position more systematically, thus:12

Unreality is not the contradictory of reality, whose nature cannot be negated in the three times (past, present and future), but rather is that which never forms the object of cognition as reality in any substratum whatever.

The “real,” then, is that which can never be negated or destroyed, the “unreal” is that which has “no perceived instance at all,” and the category termed “false” (mithya, or illusion) is everything else – what is neither real nor unreal, including both the “pragmatically real” and the “illusory.

Having in mind the criteria for the real discussed above, we can come now to certain conclusions both about the criteria for experience and the linguistic claims to “reality” of all terms.

In the minimal sense of the word “real,” we may say with Sankara that nothing experienced is absolutely unreal, hence there must be levels of reality beginning and ending in Brahman as the substratum of all experienced subjects and objects. Strictly speaking, only Brahman is real, since only Brahmanjnana (intuition of Brahman) sublates all other experiences. Therefore, in the strict sense of the word we may say that “reality” is (1) independent, for Brahman alone is independent of relations; (2) unlimited; (3) non-partite and (4) unchanging, without limits and relations; (5) indivisible, in so far as it is non-partite; (6) non-acting, in so far as it is unchanging; (7) unitary, in so far as it is indivisible; and finally (8) eternal, in so far as it is non-partite and unchanging.

These eight characteristics are predicated by Advaitins, Sankara included, about the Real as a substratum of the alleged world illusion. This affirmation, in turn, is based upon the impossibility of denying or contradicting reality. This certitude can be experienced; it is the experience which both affirms and negates all other experiences – their Ground.


Knowledge, Consciousness and Reality

It is obvious from reading Sankara’s Brahma Sutra Bhashya that he is not content with denying the multiplicity of the world. The goal of his methodology (“way”) is to reach the intuition of Brahman, the indivisible Reality. The way itself is based, however, on an integration – not a negation – of both knowledge and consciousness. The critical point to realize is that for Sankara the Real (Brahman-Sat) is life, human life, as lived. This is what we count onin order to be conscious. The rest is imagination; all we can do with the rest is interpretation. It is, however, through this interpretation that the intuitive experience of reality is possible. The reason why this interpretation is necessary is that man, because of the superimposition and wrong identification explained above, suffers on account of the ontological unity he (wrongly) establishes between himself as the doer, (Ahamkara) and action. Sankara denies this ontological identification through his analysis of language, and establishes, as the goal of his method, the only ontological identity possible: the identity between intuition – vision – and action. His philosophical methodology tries to uncover (satya-truth) what hides behind language-games, while this same methodology in turn becomes the disciplined condition (ethics) for liberation from suffering.

I mentioned earlier that Sankara was in many ways the meeting point of all Indian philosophy. This point is important, for Sankara himself, in his analysis of superimposition, takes for granted much of the earlier epistemology (mainly Buddhist) with which the Western reader is not familiar. (If this fact is overlooked, Sankara might appear to be a philosopher of the “leap,” and inconsistent at that.)

Sankara’s epistemology grows out of the “non-self” epistemology of Buddhism. This doctrine – that there is no abiding self as substance – was bent on destroying any claims for the existence of atomic entities like self, soul, body, and so on, which language, by its very nature, introduces into our imagination. This epistemology denies the independent existence of the reality of independent beings. Instead, it claims a functional relationship among factors common to all consciousness, a relation which varies according to the linguistic criteria used for its analysis. The best analogy in Western thought to Buddhist logic is to be found in the theoretical structure of sub-atomic physics. There is a continuous flow of “energy,” but no one particle is the subject of that “energy.” In fact, there are only the relations among “elements” of the field. In the same manner, Buddhism claims five khandhas (aggregates) as the main fields of relationships: rupa (corporeal form); vedang (feeling); sanna (perception); sankhara (mental form); vinnana (consciousness). These five khandhas are only the expression of a pure flow from corporeal form (rupa) to mental form (nama) and therefore from rupa, through feeling, perception, mental form, to consciousness. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine the exhaustive analysis Buddhism has made of the wrong identification of the five khandhas with atomic entities. Suffice it to say that to the five khandhas eighty-nine other dharmas (or groups of relations) are added to account for all the possible criteria which make superimposition and identification of subjects and objects possible.

The important point here is that Sankara took for granted not only much of the Buddhist epistemological material but also the classification of levels of knowledge in relation to the states of consciousness. The earlier Upanisads (Mundaka) (around 800 B.C.), had already made a distinction between two levels of knowledge: a higher (paravidya) and a lower (aparavidya).13 Buddhism (Mahayana, Madhyamika and Vijnanavada) confirmed the Upanisadic distinction as “ultimate truth” (paramarthasatya) and “practical truth” (samvrtisatya), the latter being the result of ignorance, wrong superimposition. The Buddhists later added a further distinction between the “practical truth of the world” (lokasamvrtisatya) and “practical illusions” (mithyasamvrta), the latter called “practical illusions” only to avoid calling the entire world an absolute illusion. As for things like “hare’s horn” or “sky-lotus,” they were called “mere stupidity” (avidyamana). These divisions of knowledge in the Indian tradition become in Sankara boldly translated as “knowledge of Brahman” (Brahanajijnasa), and “interpretation.” The goal is the knowledge of Brahman; the means, interpretation. Interpretation, however, is not done for its own sake, but in order to cure the psychological misery which the ahamkara, the I-maker, suffers as a result of his continuous attachment to a view of the world as composed of separate, atomic entities or things. In Sankara’s analysis of consciousness, integration and detachment go hand in hand, or are the result of the same methodology. For brevity and clarity’s sake, I will try to summarize Sankara’s analysis of consciousness and detachment in my own words.14

What is there besides language-games? Sankara would answer, “desire”: the desire of the ahamkara, the I-maker. It makes little difference how wrong superimposition may logically be, psychologically we all live by action, which leads to experience of pleasure and pain; the memory of pleasure and pain evokes desire and aversion and attachment to the objects of desire and aversion. This “round” of samsara (cycle of existence) would be inescapable, were it not for the fact of “consciousness.” Consciousness is the springboard which allows man to pass from one way of seeing the world to another way of viewing which is liberating and immortal.

This dialectical progression of consciousness may be described thus:

1. There is ordinary consciousness (jagarita), as the condition of possibility for anything to be (Kant). This ordinary consciousness displays itself as “scattered” at the level of the “involuntary” – “my leg,” “my arm” “my body.” Attachment to object and subject distinction is greatest at this level.

2. There is a more “concentrated” state of consciousness when we proceed to feelings, and the realm of the voluntary: “I am sorry,” “I like” “I wish.” Sankara compares this to the “sleeping state with dreams” (svapna), where the continuity of consciousness is established while the detachment from the objects of dreams is obvious by realizing: “Oh, it was just a dream.”

3. The “concentration” of the conscious state is even greater at the level of rational analysis, where sudden insights establish relationships among entities, and relationships among these relationships. Sankara would describe this as an effort of harmony between the dichotomy subject/object, similar in some ways to deep sleep without dreams (susupti), where there is continuity of consciousness, yet absence of attachment to objects. In fact there are no objects at all.

4. Within the common-sense world of our experience we are also aware of rich, unifying moments of total consciousness, natural states which we know in experiences of love or aesthetic contemplation. Consciousness is then present in its greatest unifying synthesis, without anyone reflecting upon its presence. Even within our world of samsara there is an experience of unity without self-identification. We do know how “it feels” to have a certain natural experience of unity in our own consciousness.

There is implicit in this methodology a movement toward the integration of consciousness which proceeds first through wrong identification, and then the denial of the wrong identification. This progressively detaches consciousness from the distinctions of objective and subjective atomic entities and linguistic differences. In so far as the total experience of unity is not yet achieved and man suffers the results of his I-making (ahamkara), Sankara’s philosophy is a program for liberating action: in so far as it is achieved – momentarily at least, as some have claimed in history – it is an achievable reality, possibly actual and certainly eschatological, in the sense that this reality represents an end to life and the world which is not death, but transfiguration. And who can say that philosophy is not entitled to such a goal?

Concluding Notes on Method

If the method of Sankara appears to distract us by enticing us to speculate upon the nature of ultimate Reality, Sankara himself cannot be blamed – our methods are to be blamed. Ultimate Reality, for him can be realized only in an intuitive experience (anubhava) through the dynamism of interiorizing consciousness. This is his liberation.

Seen from the philosopher’s viewpoint, Sankara was attempting to clarify in linguistic terms the meaning of “reality.” In this sense, it is clear that his aim was not to establish a unity only as a goal of thought (objective); nor a numerical unity as opposed to the plurality of the same sort; nor a transcendental unity which comprehends the many in a transcendental idea or cause, outside of which or opposed to which there is nothing. He did not try, either, to establish a unity of harmony, by which the many are held together in a structure greater and higher than the sum total of the parts. The unity which Sankara’s intuitive experience has in mind is the concentration of all reality in a single center – life itself – which does not exclude, oppose, or add to the possibility of the many. For this reason it cannot be called one or many. The only possible characterization of Reality is a-dvaitanon-dual. Language refers to this Reality not directly (pratiaksa), not indirectly (paroksa), but non-indirectly (a-paroksa). Hence, because of the reverse order through which the activity of philosophy uncovers (satya-truth) perception (as interpreted and reflected in language), the philosopher can attain the integrative experience (anubhava) of what constitutes human life.

Any criticism of Eastern philosophy in general and Sankara’s philosophy in particular will have to contend not only with the epistemological contexts within which Western and Eastern traditions make statements, but also and more drastically with the “decision” which philosophers of both traditions have explicitly or tacitly made on philosophical methodology itself. Both have implicit and explicit claims as to how far philosophical activity may be allowed to go. Anything else or less is at best conceptual imperialism, and at worst a list of empirically empty statements. Regardless of who is right or wrong in this academic dispute, the fact remains that anyone making statements about or comparisons between East and West cannot do so metaphorically; his own methodology will have to extend itself as far as does that of the East, in order that he may discover the context and the structures which give rise to the meaning of Eastern thought. In fact, any Western philosopher who wishes to approach the East must first understand analysis, phenomenology as criticism, and contextual philosophy well enough so that his own methodology may draw upon the insights of these disciplines. Only thus can a philosophical activity emerge which allows the fullness of contextual or historical reason to become available for the integrative progression of man himself – thus offering a guarantee of human growth.


1. Sankara was obviously struggling in his interpretations with an inadequate vocabulary to express his philosophy. The word maya is a typical example which has led to many misinterpretations. Sankara means by maya very much what Wittgenstein means by the bewitchment of language: a magic, an illusion which deludes everyone except, hopefully, the magician. While in Sankara, avidya and ajnana remain always technically accurate, meaning “improper, incomplete knowledge” or “nesciens,” maya is less technical and rather descriptive of the situation of the ordinary mortal who does not discriminate and take the magician’s tricks as gospel truths. The proportion of the frequency of occurrence of avidya and ajnana to maya is about ten to two in the Brahman Sutra Bhasya. It was the disciples of Sankara who presented his doctrine as mayavada, a sort of mysterious material cause proper to illusory beings.

2. Brahman Sutra Bhasya, cf., II.3.7. (abbr. BSB).

3. Chandogya Upanisad, 6,8,7.

4. It is obvious I am only making a descriptive journey within conscious interpretation. All interpretation is conscious, yet is based on a “naive intuition,” not conscious, which constitutes our lives, and on which we “count” in order to interpret. Life precedes philosophy; it is only in thought that objects and subjects appear, not in life.

5. BSB, introduction.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. What we are really doing is much more than just that on which we focus our attention. Our field of vision covers more than the line we are reading; we are also hearing and sensing, and feeling, and hating and loving. In fact, what we call reality can only be a limited and interpreted reality just because we name it. We decide on the limits of reality by using certain language.

10. Bhagavad-gita, 2.16. BSB, 2. 1.11.


12. Madhusudana Sarasvati, 16th century, in the Advaitasiddhi, by M. M. Anantakrishnasastri, 2nd Edition-Rev. (Bombay: Nirhayasagar Press), 1937, pp. 50-51.

13. Mundaka Upanisad, 1.4-5.

14. For a short and concise analysis of Vedanta, see Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction, Eliot Deutsch, (Un. of Hawaii, East-West Center Press), 1969; also, A Source Book of Advaita Vedanta, Eliot Deutsch and J. A. B. van Buitenen (The Un. Press of Hawaii), 1971.

From the Introduction to the Brahma Sutra Bhasya, by Sankara
Integration Through Correct Interpretation

It is a clear fact that the object and the subject, whose respective areas are the concepts of Thou and I, and whose natures are opposed to each other as much as light and darkness, are irreconcilable. So also are their respective qualifications (attributes) irreconcilable. Hence it follows that the superimposition upon the subject (whose Self is intelligence and has as its area the concept of I) of the characteristics (attributes) of the object and of the object (whose area is the concept of Thou, non-I) is false (mithya); and also the contrary: to superimpose upon the object the characteristics (attributes) of the subject and of the subject. In spite of this, it is man’s natural behavior, on account of false knowledge, not to distinguish the two areas (object and subject) and their respective attributes, though they are absolutely distinct, but to superimpose upon each other the characteristic nature and the attributes of the other and thus, mixing the real and the unreal, to make use of expressions such as “that I am,” “this is mine.”

Objection: What is the [meaning] of the word superimposition?

Answer: The appearance, in the form of remembrance, of something previously observed in another place. Some say that superimposition is the superimposition of the characteristics of the thing on another. Others [designate it] as an error, based on the non-apprehension of the difference of that which is superimposed from that on which it is superimposed; others, too, as the fictitious assumption of attributes of opposite properties to that which is present. But all of these definitions agree [as definitions of super- imposition] insofar as they represent superimposition as the apparent presentation of the attributes of one thing or another. Popular experience also agrees with this, in such expressions as “Mother-of-pearl appears like silver”; “The one moon appears as having a double.” But, again, how can there be superimposition of objects and objective properties on the interior Self, which is a non-object? For everyone superimposes on the object perceived in front of him; and you have said before that the interior Self is a non-object, and unconnected with the concept of the Thou.

We reply, it is not absolutely a non-object, for it is the object of the “I” concept; and the Self is well-known to be perceived by its non-indirectness. Nor is it a law without exception that an object can be superimposed only on another before us, for ordinary people superimpose dark-blue color, etc., on the sky which is not directly (by the senses) perceived. Thus it is not contradictory, the assumption of the Self being superimposed on the interior Self.

This superimposition the learned consider ignorance (avidya), and the ascertainment of the true nature of that [which is the Self] by means of the discrimination of that [which is superimposed on the Self] they call knowledge (vidya). This being so, they [Self and non-Self] are not affected in the least by any evil or good qualities produced by mutual superimposition. The mutual superimposition of the Self and non-Self, known as ignorance, is the presupposition upon which are based all practical distinctions of ordinary life and of the Vedas, between means of knowledge, objects of knowledge and texts of Scripture, as they are concerned with injunctions, prohibitions, or final liberation.

Objection: How again can the means of right knowledge, perception, inference etc., and Scriptures, have for their object that which is dependent on ignorance.

Answer: We reply, because the means of right knowledge cannot operate without the aspect of the knower which is of the sense of “I” and “mine” imposed or united with the body and the senses. For by taking away the use of the senses, immediate perception and other activities of knowledge do not occur. Nor without a base can the activities of the senses take place. Nor does anyone act without having the aspect of the Self superimposed on the body. Nor, in fact, can the Self, which is without involvement, have the ascribed aspect of the knower [be a knower] without all this [mutual superimposition]. And if this [aspect of] knower is not, then the means of right knowledge do not operate. Therefore, perception, the other means of right knowledge, and the Vedic texts have as their [final] object non-knowledge. And this sense is not different from the case of the animal, as animals, when sound and the like affect their cars, withdraw from the unfavorable, or approach that which in truth appears to them favorable. Thus, for instance, a cow seeing a man approaching with a stick in his hand thinks “he wants to kill me,” and therefore runs away, while she walks up to a man who comes to her with his hands full of green grass. In a similar way, men with a higher intelligence run away when they see big, angry-looking fellows coming towards them with shouts and brandishing swords, while they approach that which is opposite. Therefore we see that men and animals follow the same procedure as regards the means and objects of knowledge.

Now it is clear that the procedure of animals is without discrimination with regards to perception by analogy; men also, although of higher intelligence, proceed in perception in the same way as animals do for as long a time as the mutual superimposition is certain. In reference, again, to those activities found in the Vedic texts, it is true that the intelligent man enters on them without knowing the transcendence of Self: yet knowledge about the true nature of the Self – free from all wants, beyond the distinctions of the Brahmana and the Ksatria [castes], and so on, beyond transmigration – does not come from the Vedic texts. For such knowledge is useless, and also inappropriate, for ritual action. And the Vedic texts, which operate before the realization of Self, do not go beyond the object-plane of ignorance. For such texts as “A Brahmana shall offer sacrifice” are based on the supposition of superimposition upon the Self of caste, state of life, age, conditions, and so on. And we have said that by superimposition we have to understand the attribution of something to some other thing, in the same way as a man whose wife and children are without defects considers himself also to be without defect. Attributes of the body are superimposed on the Self, as when one says “I am stout, lean or fair; I sit, I walk, I jump.”; or attributes of the sense organs, “I am mute, deaf, one-eyed, blind”; or attributes of the internal organ, as subject to desire, intention, doubt, determination, etc. Thus the producer of the concept of “I” is superimposed on the interior Self, which, in truth, is the witness of all modifications of the internal organ; and vice versa, the interior Self, which is the witness of everything, is super-imposed on the internal organ, the senses, and the rest. In this way, this superimposition goes on, beginningless and endless; it appears in the form of illusion, it operates as agent and enjoyer, and is known to all.

With a view to freeing one’s Self from that wrong notion which is the cause of all misery, and attaining thereby the knowledge of the absolute unity of the Self, the study of the Vedas is begun…

Translated by Antonio de Nicolas

Antonio T. de Nicolas was educated in Spain, India and the United States, and received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University in New York. He is Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Dr. de Nicolas is the author of some twenty- seven books, including Avatara: The Humanization of Philosophy through the Bhagavad Gita,a classic in the field of Indic studies; and Habits of Mind, a criticism of higher education, whose framework has recently been adopted as the educational system for the new Russia. He is also known for his acclaimed translations of the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning author,Juan Ramon Jimenez, and of the mystical writings of St. Ignatius de Loyola and St. John of the Cross.

A philosopher by profession, Dr. de Nicolas confesses that his most abiding philosophical concern is the act of imagining, which he has pursued in his studies of the Spanish mystics, Eastern classical texts, and most recently, in his own poetry.

His books of poetry: Remembering the God to ComeThe Sea Tug ElegiesOf Angels and WomenMostly, and Moksha Smith: Agni’s Warrior-Sage. An Epic of the Immortal Fire, have received wide acclaim. Critical reviewers of these works have offered the following insights:

from, Choice: “…these poems could not have been produced by a mainstream American. They are illuminated from within by a gift, a skill, a mission…unlike the critico-prosaic American norm…”

from The Baltimore Sun: “Steeped as they are in mythology and philosophy these are not easy poems. Nor is de Nicolas an easy poet. He confronts us with the necessity to remake our lives…his poems …show us that we are not bound by rules. Nor are we bound by mysteries. We are bound by love. And therefore, we are boundless”

from William Packard, editor of the New York Quarterly: ” This is the kind of poetry that Plato was describing in his dialogues, and the kind of poetry that Nietzsche was calling for in Zarathustra.”

Professor de Nicolas is presently a Director of the Biocultural Research Institute, located in Florida.

This article was published in Philosophy East and West 29, no. 2, April 1979. By The University Press of Hawaii.