[Advaita-l] Nature of Avidya (fwd)

V Subrahmanian v.subrahmanian at gmail.com
Wed Mar 24 12:49:30 CDT 2010

Namaste Shri Subhanu ji,

I consider it a privilege to have a very learned person and a serious
sadhaka such as you give the time to address many issues in my article.  At
the outset I acknowledge with thanks the comments you have made.  You have
said it all in these lines of wisdom of yours:

// However, all this is only from the standpoint of an ignorant empirical
knower who attaches some reality to passing through different states, as his
wrong notions have not been eliminated through right knowledge. For, the
ultimate truth is that the Atman has been, is, and ever will be transcendent
above all notions of time, space and causation. This leaves no room for
ignorance to have any existence in reality whatsoever, as all is the
eternal, changeless immutable Brahman. I would encourage all aspirants,
paraphrasing Mundaka, to shoot straight at the target of realising their
true nature by living a life conducive to bringing about such knowledge, and
not be waylaid along the journey by the minutiae of various dialectic
arguments. //

Especially the sentence:

// This leaves no room for ignorance to have any existence in reality

has been very well stated by ChitsukhaachArya thus:

// However, in practice, as a courtesy (upachArAt), it is spoken as

bhavarUpa, to distinguish it clearly from purely nonexistent entities such
as a hare's horn.

 भावावविलक्षणस्य अज्ञानस्य अभावविलक्षणत्वमात्रेण भावत्वोपचारात् //

Thus, when Advaitins say that avidyA is bhAvarUpa it should not be mistaken
that they assert it as a reality, equal to that of Brahman.  You have made
this point amply clear in your comments.

When you say:

// Vedanta teaches that knowledge alone reveals the Truth. Since
knowledge cannot remove an actual entity , it can only remove that which is
not real (ie false), therefore ignorance cannot really be a real entity,
even if we designate it to be so for the purpose of some teaching or other,
for knowledge can never remove an existing substance or material, only a

it is well understood that in Advaita anything other than Brahman is only a
notion.  The positing of Avidya by Shankara through the words 'tAmasa
pratyaya' is definitely a mental mode, a notion.  All sadhana is directed at
knowing the Truth that can happen only when this notion is also attacked
simultaneously.  For only then, as Sureshwara says, the realization that
'avidyaa was not, is not, will not be' is possible.

Shankara says in the Brihadaranyaka Bhashya that 'vidyaa keeps waxing even
as avidyaa keeps waning' thereby showing that a 'thing' , a 'notion',
called avidya has to be constantly under attack.

This observation of yours is quite implicit in my article:

//Notions of cause etc can only be provisional //

Sir, with these opening remarks, I proceed to make a few observations in

your comments.  I shall reiterate that this short exchange is only of
academic interest and Advaita, as sAdhana, is not solely dependent of this.

For purposes of easy identification, I shall superscribe my comments with VS
and yours with 'Subhanu ji says'.

> Namaste Sri Subrahmaniam-ji
> I read with interest your notes  on avidya as bhAvarupa which were well
> argued. I thought it may be helpful to make a few remarks on your points,
> but I felt the need to make a couple of prefacing comments:
> ·         As long as are minds are active debates are bound to continue
> endlessly. We should therefore recognise that what is more important than
> the intellectual discussion is to live a life of compassion, service and
> humility according to our ancient tradition (and as described by Sureswara
> in his “sAdhana-sopAna-krama”) that results in brahma-vidya here and now.
> ·         As such I write these notes in the spirit of atma-vichara and in
> the spirit of sharpening my own understanding, and not in an attempt to
> defeat any argument.
> I will now cover the above points in more detail with quotations and
> translation from Suresvara’s works:
> Notions of cause etc can only be provisional
> Evam bhUtAtmasiddhyartham kAraNAdi prasAdhyate
> upayaH so’vatArAya tathA tajjnaishca sUtritam (BBV 1.1.27)
> Cause etc are established only to establish Atman
> “For that is a means to explain the concept (of the uniquenss of) Atman”,
> so
> it is said by the knowers of That
> Suresvara is quoting the famous kArikA of Gaudapada 3.15 mrilloha ..etc..
> Even though this shloka is in the context of creation the principle holds
> true of the provisionality of causation
> The only reality is Atman. The only cause for the world of manifestation
> and
> modification is  Atman not being known, and no other material cause
> whatsoever
> sarpAdayo yatha rajjvA vikArAH syurabodhataH
> ajnAnAdAtmanas tatvad tejobannAdi vikriyA (BBV 4.4.178)
> As modifications of the snake as the rope can only occur through not
> knowing
> its real nature.
> So in the same way modifications  into fire, water, food etc of Atman can
> only occur because Atman is not known
> Some may be tempted to see materiality in the causal nature of ajnAna here.
> So, Suresvara clearly states in the next verse:
> Na hi vedAntasiddhAnte hyajnAtAtmAtirekataH
> sAnkhyAnAm iva siddhante labhyate kAraNantaram (BBV 4.4.179)
> Indeed in the Vedanta siddhanta no other cause exists other than the
> unknown
> Atman
> This is in contrast to other systems such as Sankhya etc (which postulate a
> material cause for the universe)


[Yes Sir, that is very well stated by Sureshwara.  Shankara calls it
'tattva-agrahaNam', non-perception of the Tattva, Truth.  This is the one
that *results* in 'anyathA-grahaNam' or 'atasmin tad buddhiH' or otherwise
called adhyAsa by Shankara.  So, in Shankara's scheme it is tattva agrahaNam
that is the cause of anyathA grahaNam.  All these, are according to Him,
tAmasa pratyaya, commonly called avidya.  Tattva agrahaNam, anyathA grahaNam
and samshaya are only manifestations of this basic taamasa pratyaya called
avidya according to Shankara.  Surely, according to this definition of
Shankara, there is a cause preceding adhyAsa/anyathA grahaNam.  And that is
agrahaNam.  ]

> Subhanu ji says:

> Now in a little more detail:
> 1)      Avidya is purely a notion whose cause does not brook enquiry
> Chitta-sammoha-mAtre’smilloko’yam parikhidyate |
> Ding-mohAkula-vijnAno naSTamArgah ivAdhwagah ||
> In this (happening) which is merely a delusion of the mind, people feel
> troubled like a traveller who has his knowledge (of the path) affected by
> confusion of the directions and has lost his way [BUBV 2.1.267]
> Tamo’nvayas tamah kArye buddhyAdAveva yujyate |
> na tvakAraNa-kArye’sminnityabuddhe parAtmani  ||
> The connection of ignorance is to be understood with reason only as
> associated with the intellect
> And not in the case of the ever-awakened Atman that is neither cause nor
> effect [BUBV 4.3.1530]

[Shankara has demonstrated this in his Gita bhashya thru a dialogue in the
13th Chapter.  The effects of avidya are perceived only in the mind, a
vishaya to the perceiver consciousness.]

> Subhanu ji says:

> bAhyam vrittim anutpAdya vyaktih syAnnAhamo yathA |
> narte’ntahkaraNam tadvad dhvAntasya vyaktirAnjasi  ||
> Just as no manifestation of “I” is possible without modification of the of
> the mind directed to the external, so there is no clear manifestation of
> ignorance unless the mind is manifest [NS 3.58]
> Atah pramANato’shakyA’vidyA’syeti vIxitum |
> kIdrshI vA kuto vA’sAvanubhUtyekarUpatah  ||
> In fact one can never know ignorance as belonging to anyone, neither
> determine its nature, or conceive how it can possibly be at all, since it
> is
> essentially the nature of common experience itself [BUBV 184]

In the Gita bhAshya 13.2, in an interesting dialogue Shankara establishes
how avidya is experienced by someone:

Opponent: Since Avidya is the cause of all evil, it is a thing to be got rid

Vedantin: He who has avidya will get rid of it.

Opponent: Why, it is I who have avidya, and I should try to get rid of it.

Vedantin: Then you know avidya and the Self, its possessor.

Opponent: I know, but not be immediate perception (pratyaksha)

[ so goes the dialogue]

> Subhanu ji says:

> seyam bhrAntir nirAlambA sarvanyAyavirodhini |
> sahate na vichAram sA tamo yadvad divAkaram  ||
> This ignorance is a mental notion of the nature of confusion, is without
> cause, and is opposed to logic (ie does not brook enquiry).
> It (and its cause) warrant no further investigation just like searching for
> darkness in the sunlight [NS 3.66]
> This last verse is a comprehensive, clear statement of the nature of
> ignorance as purely a mental notion, and for which deep enquiry into its
> nature and its cause is fruitless. The example given is that the question
> “what causes my ignorance?” is as illegitimate as the question “when did
> time begin?”

VS:  A cause for adhyAsa has been posited by SSS as:

// AdhyAsa, of course, presupposes ignorance or want of true knowledge.
But this is a logical presupposition, a necessary implication of thought.//

> Subhanu ji says:

> Note this is different from the anirvachanIyatA of so called root
> ignorance.
> It is a simple statement of the fallacy of looking further into a mental
> notion of confusion that is only accepted as existing for the purpose of
> teaching the Supreme Reality. In numerous cases, Sureswara refers to this
> ignorance as bhranti (eg N.S. 2,31), vibhrama (N.S. 2.62), mithyadarshana
> (BUBV 408, 671), mithyadhI (BUBV 4.4.827). Now, whilst it is absolutely
> grammatically correct to see mithyAjnAnam as mithyA+ajnAnam, it is hard to
> reconcile this meaning with numerous descriptions of this ignorance as
> bhranti , abodhataH etc given above or mithyApratyaya (which cannot
> sensibly
> be dissolved as anything other than false notion), or the numerous times
> mithyAjnAnam is described as  opposite to samyagjnAnam in bhashya texts eg
> BSB 2.3.30)


Despite all the above description, SSS admits of a cause that precedes this
bhrAnti, etc.  Surely this cause,  called by the name 'jnAnAbhaava' cannot
itself be a bhrAnti, etc.  It has to be clearly something other than
bhraanti, etc. as it is posited as that which 'causes' bhrAnti..//

Subhanu ji says:

> There are a few  important verses where it  can be easy for the careless
> reader of the original Sanskrit to miss the true meaning and fashion a
> meaning suggesting a root –ignorance view to Suresvara. Here are the 3 most
> important verses in this context:
> nAmarUpAdinA yeyam avidyA prathate’sati  |
> mAyA tasyAh param saukshmyam mrtynunaiveti bhaNyate  ||
> This avidyA, which is unreal, amplifies its supreme subtleness as mAyA
> through name and form, and by the name mrtyu [BUBV 1.2.135]
> Here, the proximity of avidyA and mAyA, both being in the nominative
> singular, has led some translators to assume they are treated as
> equivalent.
> You can see clearly that it is mAyA and name and form  that have
> equivalence. They are described in the sense of being fashioned by
> ignorance
> in a similar way to avidyAkalpita as used by Shankara in BSB 2.1.14. In
> this
> important passage, he clearly sees mAyA and name and form as anirvachaniya
> being fashioned by ignorance and not identical to it. A simple way to think
> of it is as follows: Ignorance  (avidyA) is a basic
> confusion/misunderstanding that leads to a delusion/illusion (mAyA) of
> duality when there is none in reality.


This proposition assumes that the starting point is itself a
misunderstanding/confusion which in Shankara's terminology:
adhyAsa/anyathAgrahaNa/atasmin tad buddhiH/vipreeta grahaNa.  But such is
not the case according to Shankara.  It is tattva agrahaNa, the
non-comprehension of the truth that is the cause of anyathA grahaNa. The
bhashya to the Mandukya kArika 1.16 is clear about this. The word
'abodhataH' mentioned by you a little above with reference to the Vartika,
gets a clearer connotation in Shankara's words:

...उभयलक्षणेन *तत्त्वाप्रतिबोधरूपेण* वीजात्मना, अन्यथाग्रहणलक्षणेन च
अनादिकालप्रवृत्तेन मायालक्षणेन स्वप्नेन...
So, Shankara clearly shows a cause-effect relationship between
’तत्त्वाप्रतिबोद्य (अबोधः) and anyathaa grahaNa which alone is adhyAsa.  In
this bhashya of Shankara, the abodha is undisputably a condition that exists
in all states as long as there is samsara for the jiva.  It is this basic,
fundamental, ignorance that results in taking the truth to be something
else, anyathaa grahana.  This is what adhyasa is.

Subhanu ji says:

> The above passage requires careful examination for a correct understanding.
> The very notion that one is an empirical knower is from the standpoint of
> ignorance. Since only an empirical knower can be said to pass through
> different states. Therefore, when one says “I woke up”, one is still under
> the clutches of ignorance, as the false notion of being an empirical knower
> has not been removed. It is therefore natural that ignorance cannot be said
> to be sublated even in deep sleep , since we erroneously talk of deep sleep
> having a reality in its own right. Since ignorance is a mental notion, and
> there is no mind in deep sleep, there is no vehicle for this ignorance to
> manifest itself. This is poles apart from having to assume a material root
> ignorance clinging to every state and ever present as some inert entity.


Here again we could refer to the Mandukya Karika and bhashya 1.16 quoted by
me above.  Shankara very clearly speaks of the 'material root' clinging to
every state and ever present throughout a jiva's samsaaric existence.  That
entity is called : tattva apratibodhaH.  This is clearly differentiated from
anyathaa grahaNa.

> 3)      From the highest standpoint ignorance cannot exist

VS:  This is never disputed.

> Subhanu ji says:

> Some direct comments to the article posted
> ·         “tAmaso hi pratyayaH”: You are right to highlight the importance
> of Shankara’s commentary on BG 13.2, as it is very consistent with adhyasa
> bhashyam. In fact, a complete reading of this section shows how Shankara
> uses avidya and adhyasa interchangeably and equates the two. I just wish
> you
> had completed your quotation and added the important next sentence
> “vivekaprakAsha-bhave tadabhAvAt”, meaning “when the light of
> discrimination
> comes it is seen that avidya is a non-entity”, which goes contrary to your
> explanation. Note the first phrase simply means that such ignorance is a
> mental notion (this is correct translation of pratyaya) of the nature of
> darkness/non comprehension.


Sir, I do not think that the sentence: “vivekaprakAsha-bhaave tadabhAvAt”,
meaning “when the light of discrimination comes it is seen that avidya is a
non-entity” goes against my explanation.  It is well known that when
knowledge arises there is no place for ignorance. I have never said that the
bhAvarUpa avidya is there to stay for ever. On the contrary, I have
explicitly stated that it is only a temporary bhAvarUpa status given to it.

(1) //tAmaso hi pratyayaH AvaraNaatmakatvAd-avidyA viparIta-graahakaH,
samshayopasthaapako vA, agrahaNAtmako vA//

Here  itself, in a subsequent sentence He says:

3 (2)// tAmase cha AavaraNaatmake timirAdi-doShe sati
agrahaNAderavidyA-trayasya upalabdheH.//

Note the word 'AavaraNaatmake' which clearly means, as an adjective of
tamas, and the example of timira dosha provided by Shankara, that the
condition prevailing is agrahana, anyathaa grahana and samshaya.  This is
the basic ground, the platform of avidya, the root, that provides the ground
for all manifestations of avidya to thrive.  Surely, in Shankara's scheme
this basic ground is not of the nature of adhyAsa.  It is something clearly
different from that.

> Subhanu ji says:

> ·         You also note the orthodox view that ignorance cannot be
> non-existent and bring out effects. The above section should answer this
> for
> you but you may be interested to know that Suresvara has explicitly refuted
> this view in BUBV 1.4. 423-427 and other places. Suresvara makes the point
> that there is no entity as anatman, so the defect of something non-existent
> bringing about anything does not arise.


First, it should be noted that this 'orthodox view' is that of Shankara.  I
have quoted Shankara's Taittiriya Upanishad commentary where he specifically
criticizes the view that 'an existent thing could come from a non-existent
thing': अभावात् भावोत्पत्तिः..सर्वप्रमाणव्याकोपा .  If it is true that
Sureshvara has refuted this view, clearly he is refuting Shankara.
And worse, Sureshwara is contradicting himself.  For, he has said in the
Taittiriya Upanishad Bhashya Vartika: न ह्यभावाद्बवेद्भावो मानं यस्मान्न
विद्यते  (sIkShAvalli 19) [What is existent cannot, indeed, come out of what
is non-existent, as there is no evidence for that.]

The point that 'there is no entity called anAtman' prior to adhyAsa, is made
by SSS too and I have noted that point.  If adhyAsa or the world-illusion
should come out of nothing, it is definitely a defect that cannot be
overcome by SSS with his proposed position of 'jnAnAbhAva' as a condition
prevailing prior to adhyAsa.  His accepting this condition preceding adhyAsa
and at the same time averring that it is not bhAvarUpa is the glaring
contradiction that one cannot miss.  The Mandukya Karika too dispels this
proposition that something existing can originate from non-existence.

> Subhanu ji says:

> ·         mUlAvidyA itself is notional: I am happy to see you make this
> importance clarification. I have to say though I have discussed with many
> who follow the vivaraNa viewpoint who nevertheless attribute a real-entity
> status to mUlAvidyA and really feel that a mysterious ineffable material
> avidyA-shakti clings to all name and form, creating the illusion of
> duality,
> and that it actually creates illusory snakes etc, and that such avidya
> clings to even a jnAni resulting in the need for continuing mystic
> practices
> even after the dawn of true knowledge (they miss the irony of a seeker who
> has realised themself as the actionless atman still requiring to perform
> actions to quell  impressions! Such a view has been refuted extensively by
> Suresvara)


The above is a point that is contentious.  I do not think anyone would
propose that.  The Jivan Mukti Viveka of Vidyaranya speaks of 'those people
of the present times come to Vedanta without going thru the prerequisite of
adequate, intense upAsanA, to the extent of getting the vision of the
upAsya.  They apply themselves rigourously to Vedantic shravana, etc. and
gain the avidya-dispelling Jnanam too.  But, owing to their inadequate
preparation, there is bound to be a lack in their experiencing the
bliss/joy/ananda of Brahma jnanam.  Undoubdtedly, their Jnanam is secure; it
will not go away and result in their rebirth.  Yet, they will not be
experiencing the supreme peace, while alive, that is the ideal result of
gaining Knowledge.  For this, if they want, they will do well in engaging
themselves in whatever appropriate practices going by the name of manonAsha,
vAsanAkshaya etc.'.  This proposition, I think, is not opposed to
scripture.  It is quite reasonable.  It is not a compulsion on a Jnani to do
this.  It is purely optional.

> ·Subhanu ji says:

>         adhyAropa-apavAda: I concur with your reminder of the fundamental
> methodology of Vedanta. We know from even earlier times this method has
> been
> termed as “siddham to nivartakatvat” etc.


Sir, I am unable to understand the synonymity between the two:
adhyAropa-apavAda AND

> “siddham to nivartakatvat”.  Could you pl. explain?
> Subhanu ji's Conclusion:
> It is not easy for an aspirant to get past the question “why am I
> ignorant?”
> or “what causes my ignorance?”.  Whilst Sureswara gives the simple
> explanation that it is just because of avichArita-siddha (eg BUBV 1.4.1170,
> 1329, 1341; 2.3.192,224; 3.4. 131; 3.5.42; 3.8.31; 4,4,307 to name a few),
> ie lack of critical reflection on our part, and whilst Shankara gives short
> shrift to such questions (BSB 4.1.3, GBh 13.2), for those aspirants who see
> the question “what causes my ignorance” as a legitimate question, there is
> no doubt that seeing avidya as bhAvarupa mUlAvidyA may help their sAdhanA.
> However, such aspirants must be absolutely clear that such notions are
> provisional for the purpose of their teaching, and should not be seen to
> have an actual status as a real entity. Ultimately all such notions must be
> discarded. To realise that the very question “what causes my ignorance” is
> an illegitimate question, is a great discovery for an aspirant.

VS:  This is very sane advice, Sir, and I agree with you fully.

Subhanu ji says:

> For those interested, Mandana Misra actually distinguishes clearly between
> Shankara’s tradition and the tradition that holds avidya as the upAdAna
> karanam. He refers to Shankara’s school as “tathA aparaiH
> adhyAropa-apavAdAbhyAm nishprapancham prapanchyate..” and then in B.S 10.13
> he refers to the other school (known later as vivaraNa) as “tathA choktam
> avidyopAdAna-bheda-vAdibhiH ‘anAdiraprayojanA cha avidyA’ ”, “and so say
> the
> followers of the school that avidyA is a material cause of distinctions
> that
> ‘avidya is beginningless and purposeless’ “. So we have early authority for
> the difference of Shankara’s tradition to the school that upholds the
> mUlAvidyA theory.

VS:  The adherents of MUlAvidyA do not agree with this 'authority'.  For
them there is no such difference between Shankara's tradition and a school
upholding MulAvidya.  For them mUlAvidyA is admitted by Shankara and

Subhanu ji concludes:

> However, all this is only from the standpoint of an ignorant empirical
> knower who attaches some reality to passing through different states, as
> his
> wrong notions have not been eliminated through right knowledge. For, the
> ultimate truth is that the Atman has been, is, and ever will be
> transcendent
> above all notions of time, space and causation. This leaves no room for
> ignorance to have any existence in reality whatsoever, as all is the
> eternal, changeless immutable Brahman. I would encourage all aspirants,
> paraphrasing Mundaka, to shoot straight at the target of realising their
> true nature by living a life conducive to bringing about such knowledge,
> and
> not be waylaid along the journey by the minutiae of various dialectic
> arguments.
> Harih Om!
> VS:  Yes, Sir, this should be an aspirant's goal.  All striving is to
accomplish this.

I thank you once again Sir, for your interest in the article and the
elaborate comments.

Warm regards,


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