[Advaita-l] Causal Analogy

michael reidy michael_reidy at eircom.net
Fri Jun 22 07:30:45 CDT 2007

In 1974 when I had the darshan of the Kanchi Shankaracarya I was invited  
to put a question to him. I must say that I had no real idea of his  
position as a modern luminary at that time but I was impressed by the  
antique nature of the thatched hut behind the palisade of which he  
squatted; a very frail figure, at that time he would have been 80 or so,  
and he seemed to be attached to this life by a frayed  thread.  That he  
should have lived on for another 20 years is uncanny.  Anyway at that time  
I was wondering whether I should continue on with my postgraduate studies  
in Philosophy.   I asked him if I should continue on with my studies.  He  
said,  ‘Please  continue’.  The gesture of turning out his palms at chest  
level was encouraging.  Now here's the odd thing, even though  I was  
several feet away from him with this gesture I felt a push in my chest  
which  sent me staggering back.
Following through in the spirit of that blessing, I am going to  
occasionally look at  Advaita from a philosophical standpoint informed in  
the first instance by my study of Advaita (in translation) and also by my  
concurrent reading in Western thought.  Some may find this irrelevant at  
best or  at worst impertinent. Ignore it for it is not meant to tease.
A particular text that I have often reflected on that seems to  me  
surpassingly deep is Brh.Up. II.iv.11. in which the theory of progressive  
dissolution is delineated.  Essentially the progression is from part to  
whole,  A specific form of consciousness is seen in general terms and that  
general term is further reduced  to or expanded to  the  whole which  
includes it.  What is thus conceptually formulated can be followed through  
in meditation.
	There is an interesting use of analogy which is worth looking at from the  
general philosophical viewpoint.  The analogy used is that of material  
causality.  Material Causality is one of the fourfold aspects of causal  
relations. The other three are efficient, formal and final.  In relation  
to a bronze statue of Caesar we may say that bronze is the material cause  
of the statue, its formal cause the image of Caesar in the mind of the  
sculptor, its efficient cause the sculptor himself and its final cause the  
purpose for which it was made i.e. to commemorate Caesar.  In modern  
discussions of causality most attention is focused on efficient causality.
	Perhaps a word of clarification about analogy, which is so all-pervasive  
that one may skim over it and think, ‘ well that at least I understand’.   
Shankara has some stray observations on the subject the chief of which I  
have been able to find is in his commentary on  Tai.Up. II.i.1.  The image  
of man being mapped, as it were, on to Brahman is being discussed.
“The intention here is to make that very human being enter into the imost  
Brahman through knowledge.  But his intellect, that remains engaged in the  
particulars that simulate the outer objects, thinking them to be the Self,  
though they are non-Selves, cannot without the support of some distinct  
object, be suddenly made contentless and engaged in the thoughts of the  
inmost, indwelling Self.  Therefore on the analogy of the moon on the  
bough, the text takes the help of a fiction that has an affinity with the  
identification of the Self and the physical body; and leading thereby the  
intellect inward, the text says  ……”
The footnote of Swami Gambhirananda the translator adds this gloss:  
“Though the moon is far away, it is at times spoken of as “the moon on the  
bough”, because she appears to be near it.  The point is that, the idea of  
something, which escapes ordinary comprehension, is sought to be  
communicated  with the help of something more tangible though, in reality,  
the two are entirely disparate.”
The danger that an analogy may be seen as an homology or parallel is  
mentioned by Shankara in Upadesa Sahasri, Chap.XVIII
#83:"When it is accepted that the non-conscious intellect appears to be  
conscious its modifications also appear to be so like sparks of red-hot  
	Chap.XVIII. #85:An objection is made on the basis of the iron ball  
simile:”Is it not a change on the part of the Self to pervade the  
intellect like fire pervading a mass of iron? ((Does not the pervasion of  
the intellect by the Self represent an action?))  (Reply)We have refuted  
this in the example of the face and its reflection in a mirror”.
	#86 "That black iron appears to be red is only an example (to illustrate  
the fact that the non-conscious intellect appears to be conscious).  An  
illustration and its subject can nowhere be absolutely similar in all  
The vedantin's answer is that the intellect etc are not conscious but only  
appear so in a similar manner that in the heated iron ball, fire appears  
to have taken a shape.
	Here it is clear that the interlocuter is taking the analogy to be a  
parallel, i.e. alike in every respect when in fact the likeness is in one  
very narrow focussed way.
	When we look at the analogy of material causality which is given in  
Brh.Up. II.iv.11 we can see the operation of the analogy of  
proportionality.  As water is the cause of  foam, bubbles, etc.; so  
Brahman is non-different from the Universe.  This idea is also linked to  
the doctrine of satkaryavada or the non-difference of cause and effect.   
That is a separate topic on its own. The non-difference of cause and  
effect is related to the idea of efficent cause.  There is a continuity of  
being and substance between cause and effect; one thing can change into  
another only if it has the power/potential to do so.
	Is there a difference between saying that the cause of foam/bubble/waves  
is water and saying that water is their material cause?  I think that  
there must be an advantage in the increased precision that the distinction  
brings otherwise the notion of water being the efficent, formal or final  
cause of bubbles etc may become established.  The analogy seems to be  
working in the following fashion.  As foam is to water so a form of  
consciousness is to pure consciousness.
	What is meant by saying that for instance ‘clay is the reality of the  
different vessels made of clay’?  Is one denying the reality of the  
ultimate subject of predication?  Does one call out ‘bring me the clay’  
when one wants a cup, a jug or a bowl?  Clearly not.  There must then be a  
deeper metaphysical meaning at play here.  The idea is that there is more  
reality attached to what is deemed to be more fundamental.  Cups and  
saucers are more specific and contingent compared to the generic clay  
which has more potential, more power, more being in that sense.  It is  
moving in the direction of absoloute power and potential. We are moving  
 from forms of limitation/limiting adjuncts to the unlimited pure potential.

“When, through these successive steps, sound and the rest, together with  
their receiving organs, are merged in Pure Intelligence, there are no more  
limiting adjuncts, and only Brahman, which is Pure Intelligence,  
comparable to a lump of salt, homogeneous, infinite, boundless and without  
a break, remains.  Therefore the Self alone must be regarded as one  
without a second.”

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