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Sankara on the Absolute

Alston (Shankara:62-67) – Natureza e resultados da ignorância

Chapter II - The Doctrine of Nescience

sexta-feira 30 de setembro de 2022, por Cardoso de Castro


A doutrina   de Sankara   foi bem resumida no seguinte verso que circula entre os professores de sua escola. ‘Esse universo   de pluralidade é realmente uma ilusão. A realidade é o Absoluto   indiferenciado e eu sou   isso. A prova disso são os Upanishads  , os grandes Mestres que perceberam a verdade da doutrina dos upanishads e a própria experiência pessoal’.


Sankara  ’s doctrine has been well   summed up in the following verse which circulates among the Teachers of his school. ‘This universe of plurality is verily an illusion. The reality is the undifferentiated Absolute and I am that. The proof of this is the Upanishads  , the great Teachers who have realized the truth of the upanishadic doctrine, and one’s own personal experience’.

Sankara’s doctrine of nescience   has to be viewed in this context. Attempts have been made to represent it as a mere theological device for eliminating contradictions in the upanishadic texts. For example, if some texts say that the Absolute is without internal distinctions and others say that it undergoes modification to assume the form of a diversified world, then the contradiction can be eliminated if the texts which speak of diversification are relegated to the standpoint of nescience. It is true that the doctrine of nescience does have this theological function. But it is primarily concerned with human experience; and it must be remembered that from Sankara’s own point of view the texts themselves have little value unless they lead to a cancellation of the illusion under which one feels identified with the individual body and mind  . As interpreted by the Advaita   tradition  , the texts of the Veda   proclaim that man, in his true nature, is identical with the one Spirit   that sustains all, and which is infinite, eternal, raised above all differentiation and change, beyond all limitation and suffering, of the nature of perfect peace. It is ignorance or ‘nescience’ (avidya) which obscures this truth, reduces man to the level of an acting, suffering individual, and paints before him a world of multiplicity and illusion, an abode of change, limitation and suffering, and keeps him revolving on the wheel of repeated births and deaths called ‘samsara  ’. The eternal truth lies embedded in the Vedic texts. But it requires a Teacher who has himself had personal experience of the truth to communicate it to a student. Whatever intellectual insight   the student may attain, the Spirit will not shine forth manifestly in his heart in its true nature until all attachment and other psychological defects have been weeded out. And to attain this end he requires the loving guidance of a Teacher.

From an original failure to apprehend the true nature of the Self (agrahana) there arise positive wrong conceptions (anyathagrahana), even as from failure to apprehend the true nature of the rope there arise erroneous superimpositions (adhyasa, adhyaropa) of different images, such as those of a snake or stick or patch of water   on the ground. From failure to apprehend the true nature of the Self arises, by way of unwitting superimposition or projection, a not-self. And then comes that ‘failure to discriminate’ (aviveka) the Self from the not-self which is the proximate cause of our self-identification with the body and mind and thus of our painful experiences in the realm of samsara.

Sankara conceived of nescience as operating in much the same way as earlier Hindu philosophers had conceived of errors of sense  -perception occurring in everyday life. Nescience thus conceived is ‘of the form of memory’ (smrti-rupa  ) and depends on the unwitting revival of the impressions (samskara, vasana) of previous experience. The snake for which the rope is mistaken results from images derived from previous experiences, stored in seed-like form and capable of manifestation upon an appropriate stimulus. In this way Sankara can, on occasion, represent the world as no more than the outcome of the revival of images derived from the past acts and experiences of its denizens.

In an atheistic creed like Buddhism  , past actions together with their ‘seeds’ may well suffice to account for the continuation of the world, without appeal to a God   as Creator or Controller or even to permanently subsistent souls as authors of those actions. But the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma   Sutras  , on which the Vedanta   is based, all affirm the existence of a supreme Lord (Isvara, paramesvara) who projected the world, who entered it as the principle of life, and under whose control it evolves. There are aspects of the world as it appears before us in the waking state, such as its size and order and harmony, as also the inter-relation of the experiences of souls which each possess only limited and mutually exclusive trains of knowledge, and the free ‘descent’ (avatara) of the supreme deity into the world as Vasudeva or in other forms, which cannot be explained as the mere outcome of the activity of the mass of individual souls with their puny personalities and limited powers. If we wish to explain the order inherent in the common objective world of waking experience, we cannot make do with mere action and its impressions and seeds. We have to assume a Creator and Controller or ‘Lord’ (Isvara), from whom it is projected and under whose guidance and control it evolves.

Sankara recognizes that in the Upanishads, the Mahabharata   and the Puranas, the unmanifest seed-form of the activity of the various creatures is known by a variety of different collective names, chief of which he instances aksara, avidya, avyakrta, maya  , prakrti, bija, nidra, tamas   and sakti. Thus the unmanifest seed of activity and experience left by the deeds of creatures in previous world-periods, which evolves in part into the manifest world, may be known as avidya or nescience. And in this special sense the word avidya may be synonymous with the words maya, prakrti and sakti. For most of Sankara’s followers, this was the chief sense of the word avidya, sanctioned by the Epics and Puranas and traceable here and there in Sankara’s texts. And it has long been traditionally regarded as being what Sankara himself normally understood by the term, particularly as certain works which make free use of the word in this sense have been ascribed to his name. Nescience (avidya, ajfiana) has in this way been set up as a power (sakti) which undergoes transformation or evolution (parinama) to assume the form of the objects of the world, and the ‘mutual superimposition’ of the Self and the not-self through which the individual soul   imagines itself to be limited and bound is affirmed to be the result of the activity of this cosmic power.

If we keep strictly to Sankara’s own texts, however, we find the ‘seed of the world’ (jagad-bija), this unmanifest name and form traditionally known by various names such as maya, prakrti, avyakrta and others, is itself a superimposition resulting from nescience (avidya-kalpita). It is not that the superimpositions of the individual depend on die activity of a cosmic power presided over by the Lord. On the contrary, the whole notion of an objective world and of a divine controller governing it makes sense only from the standpoint of the waking experience of an individual experiencer, which itself depends on superimposition, as we shall see.

But if nescience consists only in failure to apprehend the Self in its true nature followed by superimposition of a not-self and subsequent failure to discriminate the Self from the superimposed not-self, what happens to the traditional theistic world-view mentioned above? Can other souls exist? Can there really be a world exterior to the perceiver and a divine projector and controller of it, as some of the Vedic texts seem to maintain? To understand Sankara’s attitude to such questions we have to remember that for him the distinction between the standpoint (drsti  ) or state (avastha) of nescience or ignorance of the Self and the state of enlightenment (bodha) or knowledge of the Self (atma  -vidya) is fundamental. In the state of nescience, everything perceived is a reality in exactly the form in which it is perceived, unless and until it is negated by some correcting-cognition  . But when nescience is destroyed through the discipline of Vedanta and the grace of the enlightened Teacher, then the ignorant one awakens to his true nature as infinite Being and Consciousness  . There is then no possibility of any further superimposition, any more than one can again take a rope for a snake once the rope has been clearly perceived as such. A semblance of empirical experience may, however, continue until the fall   of the physical body; in this phase the enlightened one perceives his embodied state but is not deluded into belief in plurality.

Sankara speaks of nescience not as a power (sakti) but as a state (avastha), an undesirable state or passion (klesa) which afflicts the individual. He was not speaking about anything he conceived to be real but merely constructing a hypothesis that would account for our everyday experience in such a way as to do justice to the metaphysical truth revealed in the Upanishads and confirmed in the experience of the enlightened man. For instance, if there is empirical experience at all or sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, then, if we are to account for it in the light   of the final truth as revealed initially in the upanishadic texts and finally confirmed in direct intuition, it can only be spoken of as being due to nescience. If there is action and the accompanying notion that the Self is subject to experiencing the moral consequences of its actions in future births, then these can only be due to nescience. Likewise embodiment, agency, bondage, power to have experience of objects, mortality and propensity to experience sense-illusions can only be due to nescience. So also, in a wider sense, the whole universe (prapanca), even distinction (bheda) itself and the experience of distinction, is due to nescience.

But if ‘plurality’ and ‘other souls’ are only illusions appearing before an ignorant individual, where does nescience lie? Whom does it afflict? Is it one or many? Sankara maintains that in truth there is no nescience, so that if the student or opponent raises the question of the nature or conditions of nescience at all, it amounts to no more than a complaint that he, personally, is afflicted with nescience. He then proceeds to argue that if anyone knows that he is afflicted with nescience he must know nescience as an object, in which case it cannot belong to him, the subject who knows it. The Self only appears to be deluded, and only appears to be later liberated. It is not that time is a reality and that liberation is a real event involving a real change taking place at a fixed point in time. Nor can we say that nescience is anything real or that the Self undergoes a change from bondage to liberation, as if the latter were two separate real states.

If, says Sankara, you demand to know to whom this ‘not-being-awake-to-the-Self (aprabodha) belongs, we reply, ‘To you who ask this question’. True, in some passages the Upanishads teach that you are not really afflicted with nescience as you are yourself the Lord (isvara), the supreme Self. But if you were awake (prabuddha) to this, you would see that in truth no nescience exists anywhere for anyone.

Sankara argues in a rather similar way in his Gita Commentary. First he asserts that nescience does not afflict the true Self. Then he brings forward a pupil who wants to know what it does afflict if it does not afflict the Self. It afflicts, he is told, whatever it is perceived to afflict. To ask further ‘What is that?’ is a useless question, since one cannot perceive nescience at all without perceiving the one afflicted by it. Sankara so conducts the remainder of the argument that the pupil has to admit that, because he cannot help perceiving the one afflicted with nescience, he cannot himself be the one afflicted with nescience. Thus bondage is an illusion and enlightenment does not imply any real change of state. Enlightenment does not so much destroy nescience as reveal that it never existed.

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