[Advaita-l] A Vichara on Avidya and Adhyasa

V Subrahmanian v.subrahmanian at gmail.com
Thu Apr 22 05:42:42 CDT 2010

श्रीगुरुभ्यो नम:

A Vichara on Avidya and Adhyasa

While reading the Upanishad Bhashyams of the Acharya, one comes across two
distinct concepts: Avidya, Ignorance and Adhyasa, error.  These two are
generally understood as AvaraNa and VikShepa respectively.  Here is
presented a set of passages from the Upanishads and the Acharya's Bhashyam
on the Upanishads/Brahma Sutras that substantiate the two concepts Avidya
and Adhyasa as accepted in traditional Advaita Shastra.

Evidence for the existence of Avidya and Adhyasa :

In the Chandogya Upanishad there occurs the BhUma Vidyaa.  Here, Narada, the
disciple, approaches Sage Sanatkumara, the Preceptor, with a view to gain
the Atman Knowledge.  The disciple says:

सोऽहं भगवो मन्त्रविदेवास्मि नाऽऽत्मवित्...सोऽहं भगव: शोचामि (७.१.३)

[O Venerable Sir, such as I am, I merely know the subjects textually.  But I
am not a knower of the Self....I am full of sorrow..]

The Bhashya says:

...न आत्मवित् न आत्मानं वेद्मि ।.....नाऽऽत्मवित् नात्मप्रकृतिस्वरूपज्ञ:
इत्यर्थ: । सोऽहं अनात्मवित्त्वात् हे भगव: शोचामि अकृतार्थबुद्ध्या संतप्ये

[ 'I am not a knower of the Self' means 'I do not know the real nature of
the Self'....Therefore O venerable Sir, I am full of sorrow, I am ever under
sorrow because of the sense of unfulfilment.]

In the above quotes, from the Upanishad and the Bhashyam we come to know
that in the state of bondage there exists a kind of ignorance about the
Self.  This is AvaraNa/a~jnAna.  In the above mantra itself we can see the
'effect' of this ignorance: misery/sorrow.  Sorrow implies taking oneself to
be an experiencer/enjoyer, bhOktA.  This implies that one takes the
mind-body complex to be oneself.  Actions performed using this complex
(kartA) results in effects that are again reaped through this very complex
by identifying oneself with them in the form of bhOktaa.  This is adhyAsa;
taking one thing for another.  In other words, the ignorance of one's Real
nature that is free of the body-mind complex identification results in
taking oneself to be this body-mind complex.  This is what is termed by the
Acharya in the preamble to the Brahma sutra Bhashyam as: adhyAso nAma
atasmin tad buddhiH.   One may recall the Gita Bhashya (13.2) where the
Acharya says: tAmaso hi pratyayaH AvaraNaatmakatvAd-avidyA
viparIta-graahakaH, samshayopasthaapako vA, agrahaNAtmako vA// meaning that
the presence of ignorance leads to AvaraNa, covering/obscuring and vikshepa,

Another instance of the depiction of Avidya/AvaraNa and adhyAsa/vikshepa
from the Bhashyam:

In the Taittiriya Upanishad Bhashyam (II.8) we have:

अविद्या च स्वानुभवेन रूप्यते मूढोऽहं अविविक्तं मम विज्ञानमिति । तथा
विद्याविवेकोऽनुभूयते । उपदिशति च अन्येभ्य आत्मनो विद्यां बुद्ध्वा ।

[ And ignorance is *experienced* by such forms of its perception as, 'I am
ignorant', 'My knowledge is indistinct'.  Similarly, the Self-knowledge is
also *experienced* and the enlightened people communicate the knowledge to
others..]  This is the Bhashyam instance for the existence and experience of
Avidya in the state of bondage.

Sri Sureshwaracharya, in the Taittiriya Upanishad BhAShya VArtika 2.176

न जानामीत्यविद्यैकाऽनित्या तत्कारणं मता ।

स्वप्रसिद्ध्यैव सा सिद्ध्येत् निशौलूकीव वासरे ॥

[ Avidya in the form 'I do not know', which is impermanent, is considered to
be the only cause of the limitations.  It is established by the
self-luminous consciousness itself; just as (the darkness of) the night is
established in the daytime by the consciousness of the owl.]

This experience of the basic ignorance is in one's experience and is
therefore, undeniably, a bhAva vastu, a viShaya for one's consciousness.

The Adhyasa is spoken of by the Taittiriya Upanishad itself by the
elucidation of the Five sheaths, the pancha koshas.  These constituting the
gross body, the prANa, mind, etc. are superimpositions that everyone
experiences.  The bhashyam too explains this vividly.  For example we have
in the Taittiriya Upanishad bhashyam (II.8) itself:

अविद्याकृत-तादात्म्य...[ identity with the body, etc. *created *by
ignorance.] This is an instance in the bhashya where the 'error' is said to
be created by ignorance.  AvaraNa creates/results in vikshepa.

Another famous instance of the jiva with adhyasa is the Mundakopanishad
mantra 'dvaa suparNa' (3.1.1).  In this mantra, the Upanishad, with the
two-bird imagery teaches the bound, saamsaaric, state of the jiva,
experiencing the fruits of his karma.  As seen earlier, this experiencing
presupposes identification with the body-mind complex which in turn has the
basic avidya/Avarana for its source.  Needless to say, the freedom from
ignorance/error through knowledge is also taught in this Upanishad in the
mantra 3.1.3.

*The Eradication of Avidya/AdhyAsa:*

* *

We can see one classic instance of the eradication of ignorance and
error/identification from the Brahma sutra bhashyam (

सूत्र(भाष्यस्थवाक्यम् -

पूर्वसिद्धकर्तृत्वभोक्तृत्वविपरीतं हि त्रिष्वपि कालेषु
अकर्तृत्वाभोक्तृत्वस्वरूपं ब्रह्माहमस्मि । न इत: पूर्वं कर्ता भोक्ता वा
अहमासं, न इदानीं, नापि भविष्यत्काले इति ब्रह्मविदवगच्छति ।

[ Quite contrary to what had been *previously regarded as agent and enjoyer*,
*I am verily that Brahman, which, by nature, is neither agent nor enjoyer at
all in all the three periods of time.  *Even earlier I was never an agent or
enjoyer, nor am I so at present; nor shall I be so in future - such is the
realization of the knower of Brahman.] (translation contained in
SridakshinAmUrtistotram Vol I p. 717.)

In the above quote, we can see:

·                   The Knowledge of the True Nature of the Self, Brahman

·                   The experiencing of freedom from the doer-enjoyer
identification (adhyasa-absence)

 * *

There are a number of Shruti/Gita passages too to show the existence of
avidya/adhyasa and their removal through Jnana.  What we have seen above, to
recapitulate, is the Shruti and Bhashya evidence for the presence and
absence of avidya/adhyasa.


Om Tat Sat

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