[Advaita-l] Imagined Nature of Root Ignorance in Vivaranam

subhanu saxena subhanu at hotmail.com
Wed Aug 15 17:35:57 CDT 2012

Vidyasankar wrote:

"You could of course choose to discuss off-list, but at this point of time, I would encourage you to have a
discussion on this list, if you feel like having one!"

In the spirit of Atma-vichara I am reproducing below the note I wrote on the imagined nature of root ignorance in vivaranam. List members should note that some followers of Sri Swamiji have felt I have presented Sri Swamiji's views as too accomodating in stating under which circumstances Mulavidya was acceptable to him. To that my response has been that I have simply quoted Sri Swamiji's own views on these points in my note for readers to judge. Also, I have not had any responses to the questions I pose towards the end of the note regarding the imagined nature of ignorance in buddhism as contrasted with vedanta (and the frequent charge of shunyavadins that the essencelessness of shunyata is incorrectly portrayed as nihilism), or a comparison of how buddhism has employed adhyaropa-apavada vs the advaita vedanta traditon. Comments welcome! The note now proceeds below:

The Imagined Nature of Root Ignorance in Vivaranam

By way of background, there appear to be 2 key objections to Sri Swamiji’s explanation of Shankara’s tradition. The first is that it is non-sensical to state that our ignorance is imagined, since it does not answer the question as to what caused the mind. The orthodox view is that root ignorance must been said to cause the mind. The second key objection is that root ignorance, mūlāvidyā, is itself just a device for the purpose of instruction and it is wrong for Sri Swamiji to make the charge that the orthodox tradition breaks the advaita principle of one nondual reality because he believes that mūlāvidyā has some kind of entity status. Let us see how Swamiji himself addresses these charges in his various Sanskrit works. Whilst I have used Prof Alston’s English translations as a basis, I have modified them to be more in keeping with what I believe to be the tone and measure of Sri Swamiji’s Sanskrit original. My apologies in advance for any errors which I have tried to avoid to the best of my ability. I request learned members to comment on the below also:
1)    The vivaraṇa tradition itself acknowledges the imagined nature of root-ignorance
In section 245 of the Sanskrit work, Sri Swamiji quotes vivaraṇam p294 where we have the following sentence:
Nanu jīva-brahmāshrayo vibhāgaḥ katham avidyā-tantraḥ syāt? Ucyate: anādyavidyāvashiṣṭam chaitanyam anādi-jīva-bhāvena kālpanikānādi-bhedasya āshreyaḥ
But how can the distinction between the jiva and Brahman be impelled by ignorance? We say as follows: consciousness is the ground of an imagined beginingless distinction of the form of a beginingless jiva, and is qualified by beginingless ignorance. [VPP 245.2]
VPP then states with reference to the above “ityuktam paribhāvaneeyam”, “it is worth pondering over what has been said here”.
Swamiji then quotes 2 important passages from vivaraṇam:
Anādi-mithyājñāna-sambandho’pyanātmani ajñānavat “kālpanikatvāt” ākāshakārṣṇyavat ātmanah kūṭasthām na vihanti.
 And since the relationship between beginningless  unreal  ignorance [parsing as mithyā+ajñānam , as the author of the vivaranam would have done] and the atman is imaginary, like ignorance itself, it does not touch the changelessness of the atman just as darkness does not touch the sky” [vivaranam  18].
(Note this is also quoted as the last section in Sri Gangolli’s translation of Sri Swamiji’s Kannada work, with the English title The Pristine Pure Advaita Philosophy of Adi Shankara. Clearly Sri Swamiji attached much importance to this sentence in vivarnam, as he closes this Kannada work with the following sentence as translated by Sri Gangolli as “if the full meaning (import) of this pregnant sentence is discerned by all the critics, I feel that my mission is fulfilled” (p128). Hopefully the note below will shed light on this key phrase.
2)    Root Ignorance is itself superimposed
In VPP 245 Sri Swamiji quotes another important section of vivaranam, which in his view affirms ajñānasya adhyastatvam, the superimposed nature of ignorance in the vivarnam:
Anādisidhye’pyajñānādhyāse kadāchitkam adhyāsam āshritya āha: aham iti tāvat prathamo’dhyāsaḥ
Although the superimposed nature of ignorance has been established as beginningless, the panchapādikā mentions occasional (transient) superimposition when it states there “ I am thus” as being the first superimposition. [vivaranam 18]
Sri Swamiji then states that the various theories in vivaranam regarding disctinctions and the role of ignorance can be accepted if kālpanikatve siddhye ie if taken as merely imagined. However Sri Swamiji charges the auther of the vivaranam as falling within  Shankara’s maxim at BSB II.ii.17 “avidyāmānārtha-kalpanāyām sarvārthasiddhi-prasangāt ..”etc, ie if you are prepared to assume the existence of something that doesn’t exist you can prove whatever you like (in my view this point is a little polemic and open to criticism, for ignorance as imagined can be seen as not really existing and an opponent could have charged Swamiji of falling foul of the same maxim. The response of course would be that our ignorance as a wrong notion is established in experience whereas nobody has the experience of a hypothetical force that is root ignorance –see Shankra srutyanugrihīta eva hyatra  tarkaḥ anubhavāngatvena āshriyate [BSB 2.1.6], logic in consonance with Sruti and experience is to be accepted).
3)    Something either imagined or postulated as a device can only be a superimposed notion
Sri Swamiji then makes a key statement in VPP 245:
Api cha sarvasya apyasya arthajātasya kālpanikatve’bhyupagate sarvasya apyasya adhyastatvam angīkritam eva bhavati
“Indeed if these hypothetical concepts are accepted as imagined then they are necessarily accepted as superimposed”.
The use of abhyupagate by Sri Swamiji is important. He recognises in the system of Pañchapādikā that avidyā-shakti is a hypothetical device. For we have in Pañchapādikā itself:
Avashyam eṣā bāhyādhyātmikeṣu vastuṣu tat-svarūpa-sattāmātrānubandhinī abhyupagantavyā. Anyathā mithyārthāvabhāsānupapatteḥ
Ignorance as a force, clinging to the very nature of all things internal and external, must be hypothetically assumed, otherwise we cannot account for false appearances. [PP p 41].
By using abhyupagantavyā, the panchapādikā is implying that the notion of what was later termed mūlāvidyā is a hypothetical device for the purpose of teaching. This is why Sri Swamiji goes on to say in VPP 245:
Evam sthite’pi iyam avidyā adhyāsasya upādāna-kāraṇam iti prakriyāyāḥ prādhānyam āsthāya sarva-kalpakādhyāsasya anādaraṇe ko heturiti tu na spaṣṭīkritam atra prasthāne
“As this is the case (ie that a device is imagined and is therefore something superimposed) it is not clear why this system takes ignorance as the upādāna-kāraṇam of superimposition. In this system no reason is given why it should not simply taken that everything is imagined via superimposition.”
4)    The vivaraṇa school is based on a dialectic inconsistency that is unnecessary to properly understand Sri Sankara’s tradition of advaita
Sri Swamiji sums up the issue nicely in mūlāvidyānirāsaḥ section 116, where having raised the objection that  even if you allow a root ignorance to be the cause of the mind, it raises the question what causes root ignorance, which cannot be resolved by just stating it is beginningless, as Sri Swamiji has refuted this possibility earlier in mūlāvidyānirāsaḥ (section 46 - if this topic of how Sri Swamiji refutes beginnglessness of root ignorance as the get-out clause, then please let me know and I can make this the topic of a separate posting). The important paragraph in section 116 as if follows:
Tathā cha na mūlāvidyā-siddhiḥ. Kim cha adhyāsāshrayam manaḥ, manasascha kāraṇam avidyeti chet svīkriyate, tato vaktavyam bhavati avidyā kim adhyastā kim vā neti. Yadi nādhyasta tarhi paramārthasatī seti katham tannnivvritiḥ? Athādhyastaiva sā, na tarhi manaḥ-kāraṇam iti ubhayataḥ pāshabandhanam!
“So, root ignorance is not well established (as a key principle). And if you claim that the mind is the locus of superimposition and that root ignorance is its cause then you must state whether that root ignorance is itself superimposed or not. If it is not superimposed it has a reality, and how can it therefore be brought to an end? If it is superimposed then it cannot be the cause of the mind, so you are either way caught in a trap!”
In summary Sri Swamiji’s point is as follows: If you take root ignorance as a hypothetical device for the purpose of teaching, it becomes something imagined as it is something superimposed, and it is non-sensical, and unnecessary, to speak of something itself superimposed as the cause of anything. If you either take root ignorance as not a device, or something other than superimposed it acquires an entity-status that prevents it from being removed by knowledge, as it is not then a superimposed notion. In that case, the advaita tradition of Shankara has nothing to offer the seeker for their liberation.
It can be seen from the above that if one accepts that root ignorance is an imagined notion for the purpose of instruction that it could be acceptable to Sri Swamiji, although to do so invalidates the very need for root ignorance to explain false appearances. To my knowledge this dialectic inconsistency is nowhere addressed in any work of the orthodox tradition other than the recourse to a beginningless nature.  Also, I am not aware of any work where simply taking once ignorance as a false notion for the purpose of teaching has been shown to impede one’s sādhanā. Any such references from list members would be appreciated.
I close by quoting two passages from his English works to illustrate:
From Sankara’s clarification of certain vedantic concepts page 8, section 8:
But it is evident this power (avidyā-shakti) is not really a logical necessity, since none of the other thinkers have recognized it and yet their systems have not suffered in any manner just because they dispensed with the postulates
From The Pristine Pure Advaita Philosophy of Adi Shankara (eng translation by Sri DB Gangolli of Sankara Siddhanta), last section p128, from short treatise published by Sri Swamiji in 1940, 13th series of the monthly magazine adhyātma prakāsha)
The quintessence of this article of mine is this much: Because of the reason that Avyākrita Nāmarūpa is the seed (cause) for the world of duality-if any one calls it mūlāvidyā-thenn the opinion of such people is not unacceptable to me. Because of the reason that such Avyākrita Nāmarūpa is the cause for everything it can be called ‘Mūla’. But to say that “it is not adhyasta (superimposed)-not avidyākalpita (imagined, misconceived due to ignorance)-is opposed to Bhāshays and also to Yukti; and hence I can never accept that.
Swamiji then quotes the vivaraṇam 18 passage above.
I look forward to the comments of learned members on the above, as well as any important references. As a side note, ignorance as imagined brings it closer to the shūnyavāda theory of error of Mādhyamikā Buddhism (where we also find application of adhyāropa-apavāda nyāya), especially when we take the correct translation of Shūnya as devoid, instead of the common and erroneous “void”. (Swami Atmanendra Saraswati makes this point in his Sugama lectures when discussing the various khyāti-vāda positions on the section “āha ko’yam adhyāso nameti”). Shūnyatā is to negate all distinction and notions as they are devoid of any independent reality, including the substrate on which false appearances are superimposed. I would request learned members to share their understanding of Sri Swamiji’s comments contrasting advaita Vedanta to Buddhism in this regard, especially any references from Māṇḍūkya-Rahaysa-Vivrittiḥ.


More information about the Advaita-l mailing list