Stephen Kaplan
Department of Religious Studies, Manhattan College
Certainly the most crucial problem which Śaṅkara left for his followers is that of avidyā. If the concept is
logically analyzed, it would lead the Vedānta philosophy toward dualism or nihilism and uproot its fundamental
Sengaku Mayeda1
Avidyā is the fundamental existential problem and the fundamental philosophical/
theological problem within Advaita Vedānta. On the one hand, it is the cause of rebirth, samsāra, and the evil that exists within the world.2 Remove ignorance and one
will realize that ātman is Brahman. It is also the crucial philosophical issue within
Advaita thought. Advaita need not explain why a perfect deity was motivated to create the world, nor why an all-loving God created a world with evil. Ultimately, for
Advaita, there is no creation, nor any God (Īśvara) who creates the world.3 The highest truth is that there is no birth, no death, no change (ajātivāda). The highest truth
is Brahman, one without a second, the true self, ātman. This nondual ātman/
Brahman is pure consciousness (caitanya), the witness consciousness (sāksin), con˙
sciousness without qualities (nirviśesa cinmatram), self-illuminating consciousness
(svaprakāśa).4 Śaṅkara tells us: ‘‘Just as darkness does not exist in the sun, since it
has light as its nature, so there is no ignorance in Ātman, since It has constant knowledge as Its nature. Likewise, as the nature of Ātman is changeless, It has no change of
state, for if It had any change of state, Its destruction would certainly occur.’’ 5
This notion of ātman/Brahman presents a serious philosophical challenge to
Advaita Vedānta, namely, it demands that one explain how all (reality) can be undivided, unchanging, and pure consciousness, yet appear to be everything but nondual, unchanging, and pure consciousness. The Advaita answer is avidyā, ajñāna
(ignorance). This answer tells us that Brahman does not really change; it is only
ignorance that makes it appear to change. The duality imposed upon ātman/
Brahman is no more real than the snake that is imagined in the famous rope-snake
Any pretense that the notion of avidyā resolves the philosophical quagmires concomitant with the idea of nonduality (advaita) and non-origination (ajāti) is facile
even for the Advaitin stalwart.6 Nonetheless, Advaitins have continuously tried to
present avidyā in intelligible ways. These efforts may be said to raise at least as
many questions as they answer.7 For introductory purposes, the list of questions
raised by Advaitins and their opponents may be summarized as follows. If Brahman
Philosophy East & West Volume 57, Number 2 April 2007 178–203
> 2007 by University of Hawai‘i Press
is everywhere and pure consciousness, from where does avidyā come? If Brahman is
partless, how can avidyā be a part of Brahman? If avidyā is not a part of Brahman, is
it all of Brahman? Or, if avidyā is not a part of Brahman, is it other than Brahman? If
Brahman is the real, is avidyā unreal? If it is unreal, how can it have any effect? If it is
neither real nor unreal, then what is it and what is its locus (āśraya) and its content
(visaya)? If the locus of avidyā is ātman, how can that which is pure consciousness
˙ nondual be the locus of that which obscures pure consciousness and nondualand
ity? If the locus of avidyā is the jı̄va, then how can the effect of ignorance—namely,
the jı̄va—be the locus of ignorance?
These are serious philosophical questions that Advaitins have historically asked
themselves and that critics have asked Advaitins. However, when all the logical disputations are stripped to their essentials and all the polemics are dispersed, I believe
that this problem can be boiled down to the following: how can vidyā and avidyā be
simultaneous and coterminous? How can Brahman be both pure, self-illuminating
consciousness and have ignorance appear with it? Explaining how pure consciousness and avidyā could be sequential or how vidyā and avidyā could exist in different
places would hardly pose as difficult a problem. However, either the notion that cit
and avidyā are sequential or the notion that they exist in separate ‘‘locations’’ would
completely destroy the fundamental tenets of Advaita’s nondualism. There is only
Brahman. Therefore, given Advaita’s nondualism, consciousness and ignorance
must be simultaneous and coterminous. But how can this be?
A good deal of Advaita Vedānta philosophizing has been engaged in trying (1) to
answer this question and its variants and (2) to declare that this question is in fact
no question since vidyā and avidyā are not really contraries.8 On the one hand,
the attempts to answer this question have led to the polemical divide between the
Bhāmatı̄ and the Vivarana schools of Advaita. On the other hand, the attempts to
deny the legitimacy of these questions have been attacked by opponents of Advaita,
who see the doctrine of avidyā riddled with contradictions. In both cases, Advaitins
have spent an enormous amount of energy wrestling with opponents, real and selfconstructed, over the nature of avidyā and its relation to ātman, Brahman, pure consciousness.
Analogies such as the rope-snake analogy, the dreamer-dream analogy, the
silver-shell analogy, the crystal-red flower analogy, and the space and space-of-thepot analogy have been invoked to illustrate how ignorance and ātman can be simultaneous and coterminous. Advaitins such as Padmapāda tell us that the success of
these analogies is not to prove their point but to ‘‘assist the pramānas by removing
doubts that may arise.’’ 9 Some would contend that these analogies have been successful; others would argue that they are as bankrupt as the nondualist position that
they are attempting to illuminate. Karl Potter, with reference to the rope-snake analogy, wonders if a more sophisticated analogy is available:
[W]hat becomes free, Brahman or the self? I.e., is the rope in the model analogous
to Brahman or to the individual self? We need an analogy which explains a three-way
relation—among Brahman, self, and world. How can we use the epistemological model
of illusion, which presupposes the existence of a knower and a known, to throw light on
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the relation among Brahman, a knower, and the known? A more sophisticated analogy
seems to be called for.10
I will argue that the contemporary world provides us with a new and maybe
‘‘more sophisticated’’ way to illuminate some aspects of this Advaita quagmire. The
new analogy will allow us to focus on the nature of Brahman. While Brahman is the
subject of most of the questions asked above, the analogies employed to answer
these questions shift, as Potter notes, away from addressing the nature of Brahman
and its relation to the knower and the known. These analogies shift to an emphasis
on the epistemological problem of the presence of avidyā—to the presence of illusory images such as the snake or the mirage. The artifacts employed in these analogies do not provide insight into the nature of Brahman. They do not focus on the
nature of Brahman as a pure, unchanging, self-illuminating consciousness that simultaneously appears with ignorance. Rhetorically speaking, the dreamer is not changeless, the sandy soil is not partless, and the moon is not self-illuminating. The rope is
not partless, unchanging, or self-illuminating. As such, these analogies, while extremely valuable in certain regards, are neither intended nor useful in illuminating
the nature of Brahman and how Brahman can be sat and cit, and yet avidyā appears
to us.
The analogy that will be offered in this essay is based on holography, the technique by which one can produce three-dimensional optical artifacts from a film that
has no images. We will see that holography has some truly fascinating characteristics that will help illuminate this philosophical issue that has plagued Advaita since
its inception. Its strength as an analogy lies precisely in its ability to illuminate the
nature of Brahman; other analogies have different strengths.
Holography presents us with two domains, one of which mirrors our fourdimensional world and one in which there exists no subject-object duality. In this
second domain each part contains the whole, and multiple images may be stored
in the same location without any trace of even a single image. This second domain,
with its extremely unique characteristics, will provide us with the parallels to the nature of ātman/Brahman. While the reality element in all the other analogies—the
rope, the silver, et cetera—mimic the nature of ordinary, dualistic existence, this second domain—specifically, the hologram—is radically different. Its simultaneous, coterminous existence with holographic images will provide us with a heuristic model
that can mirror the alleged simultaneous and coterminous existence of cit and avidyā.
The success of this model to illuminate an aspect of the Advaita quagmire will not
establish the truth of the Advaita concept, nor is it meant to denigrate the value of the
other analogies. Rather, I believe holography can serve as a powerful and unique
tool for illuminating some parts of a vexing problem within Advaita thought.
Before proceeding any further, and rather than waiting until the last page, I will
now present the conclusion to this essay. Simply stated, this analogy ultimately fails.
Holography with its two domains can serve not only as a model for the unchanging ātman/brahman, not only as a model for the notion that there is only one Self,
which is pure consciousness and Being, and not only as a model for how vidyā
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and avidyā can be simultaneous and coterminous, but also simultaneously it can
serve as a model that can represent a process, anātma, śūnyatā view of ultimate reality. An explanation of this alternative position in light of the holographic model is
certainly beyond the confines of this essay. This comment is only intended to highlight the failure of this model to exclusively illuminate the Advaita Vedānta position.
This analogy works for both this ātmavāda position and an anātmavāda position
simultaneously. The analogy ultimately fails because it not only does what the
Advaitins need, but it does more than the Advaitins want. The remainder of this
essay will show how this model illuminates the Advaita position, knowing that this
model illuminates not only this position.11
The Basic Doctrine and the Problem
In what follows I will not review all the intricacies of the Advaita position on avidyā,
nor will I examine all the details of the debates internal to Advaita that fractured this
school into two camps. Furthermore, while the charges and countercharges made by
rival schools of Indian philosophy, both orthodox and nonorthodox, are a fascinating window into the history of Indian philosophizing, the following review of this
subject will be limited. Some material from each of these three areas will be presented as background material for understanding the alleged dilemma of the simultaneous and coterminous existence of vidyā and avidyā. I will begin with an overview of the Advaita notion of avidyā in order to present the dilemma with which
Advaitins have been wrestling.
As a testament to the importance of the notion of avidyā, Śaṅkara opens his
bhāsya to the Brahma Sūtra with a discussion of avidyā. Here he defines ignorance
as adhyāsa
(imposition). In general, adhyāsa is the projecting of the characteristics of
one thing upon another. ‘‘It is an awareness, similar in nature to memory, that arises
on a different (foreign) basis as a result of some past experience.’’ 12 Śaṅkara adds:
This superimposition, that is of this nature, is considered by the learned to be avidyā,
nescience. And the ascertainment of the nature of the real entity by separating the superimposed thing from it is called vidyā (illumination). This being so, whenever there is a
superimposition of one thing on another, the locus is not affected in any way either by
the merits or demerits of the thing superimposed. All forms of worldly and Vedic behaviour that are connected with valid means of knowledge and objects of knowledge start
by taking for granted this mutual superimposition of the Self and non-Self, known as
nescience; and so do all the scriptures dealing with injunction, prohibition, or emancipation.13
This mutual imposition of the not-self and the self is the root of all distinctions,
and as such, no cause can be asserted since all cause implies such distinctions.
Hence, avidyā is, for Advaitins, beginningless. It is the innate epistemological disposition of the individual to see difference and diversity, to bifurcate the world into
subject and object (grāhaka and grāhya), of me and not-me—asmat and yumat.14
The individual sees diversity and does not know ātman/Brahman. The individual
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imposes upon the true self the characteristics of the unconscious material world—
namely, body and mind—and obscures the pure-consciousness nature of the true
self. The true self (ātman) is never an object of knowledge; it is always the pure witness consciousness, eternal, unchanging, infinite, without parts.
Avidyā is said to have two powers or functions.15 It has both a concealing nature
(āvaranaśakti) and a projecting nature (viksepaśakti). As the words indicate, the
former is associated with the capacity to obscure
the nature of ātman/Brahman; it
is the non-apprehension aspect of avidyā (agrahana). Brahman as pure conscious˙
ness is self-illuminating (svaprakāśa)—needing no other source of consciousness/
illumination by which it knows or is known. Avidyā conceals the svaprakāśa nature
of Brahman from the individual as a small bit of cloud can obscure the sun from an
observer.16 The projecting power of ignorance is that which presents the diversity of
appearances. It is the power associated with the presentation of the snake in the
rope-snake analogy.17 This is the misapprehension aspect of avidyā (viparyayagrahana). Advaitins also employ the examples of dreaming and dreamless sleep to illus˙
trate these two powers. In the dream state, the dreamer projects the dream characters, and the nature of the true self is obscured. In the third state of consciousness,
dreamless sleep, there is no projection of characters; however, the true state of the
self, the ātman, is obscured by sleep.18 These two powers may operate together as in
waking or they may be separated as in dreamless sleep. These two powers are also
said to be separated for Īśvara, the lord. Īśvara is omniscient (sarvajñā) and does not
suffer from the concealing nature of avidyā, but is associated with the projecting nature of avidyā. The latter presents the world to the jı̄vas. Sarvajñātman expresses the
distinction between Īśvara and the jı̄vas as follows: ‘‘God, being free from the superimposition of the intellect and being unconcealed by avidyā, is omniscient and his
knowledge is not veiled. But the knowledge of the individual soul is veiled by avidyā
and hence the individual soul is ignorant.’’ 19
Attributing two powers to avidyā may help to explain how it functions, but this
leads to one of the problems noted above, namely, whether these two powers of avidyā are real powers. If they are real powers, then is there another reality in addition
to ātman/Brahman? Clearly, Advaitins cannot tolerate such a notion; Brahman is one
without a second. However, if avidyā is not a real power, then how can it have any
effect? How can it cause bondage?20 The Advaita response to the horns of this dilemma is not to choose either side: avidyā is not real (sat) nor is it unreal (asat). The
real is Brahman; it is, by definition, that which never undergoes change, that which
always is. On the other hand, the unreal is that which has no existence, such as the
barren woman’s son or the footprints of birds in the sky.21 Avidyā fits neither of the
categories above. Therefore, Advaita Vedānta declares that avidyā is anirvacanı̄ya—
literally, indescribable, unutterable. Ontologically, it is that which is experienced but
which cannot be described as either being or nonbeing.22 Again, the Advaitin
returns to the rope-snake illusion to say that the snake is not existent, nor is it
nonexistent like a sky-flower, but it is definitely an object of experience. One sees
the snake and one reacts in fear to the snake that is experienced. Mandana Miśra
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Avidyā is not the essence of Brahman, nor another thing; not absolutely nonexistent, nor
existent. It is just for this reason that [it] is called ‘nescience’ (avidyā), ‘illusion’ (māyā),
‘false appearance’ (mithyāvabhāsa). If it were the essence of anything, whether different
or not different (from it), it would be ultimately real, and therefore not avidyā. If it were
absolutely non-existent, it would not enter into practical activity any more than a skyflower. Therefore, it is inexpressible (tasmād anirvacanı̄yā).23
While avidyā is neither sat nor asat, it is nonetheless said to be a positive entity
(bhāvarūpa). R. Balasubramanian tells us:
Anavabodha or ajñāna (also called avidyā), which means ignorance, is not a negative entity, but something positive (bhāvarūpa). What is negative cannot be the cause of anything. Since ajñāna is the cause of all evil, it is something positive.24
Sureśvara employs the term amitra, enemy—literally, not a friend—to explain this
idea.25 He tells us that avidyā is always to be understood in the context of the term
amitra since the absence of a friend—a mitra—does not mean nobody or nothing. It
refers positively to someone who is opposed to friendship, namely an enemy. Likewise avidyā is not the absence of knowledge, but is that which obscures knowledge
and/or projects false knowledge.
In spite of this latter point one should not surmise that avidyā has or could possibly have any effect on ātman/Brahman. Śaṅkara very clearly tells us: ‘‘Neither avidyā nor its effect pertains to Kshetrajñā pure and simple. Nor is illusory knowledge
able to affect the Real Thing. The water of the mirage, for instance, can by no means
render the saline soil miry with moisture. So, too, avidyā can do nothing to Kshetrajñā.’’ 26 Any apparent change is only the result of avidyā—it is only māyā. These
two terms—avidyā and māyā—are inextricably intertwined in Advaita although different Advaitins develop these terms in distinct ways.27
Since ignorance has no effect on Brahman and since the latter is always selfilluminating pure consciousness and unchanging, one may wonder why some
Advaitins would declare that Brahman is the locus (āśraya) of avidyā. Would it not
make more sense to say that the jı̄va is the one to whom avidyā belongs? But, can
one make the latter claim without running into the problem, for example, that
the jı̄va is the product of avidyā? Similarly, how can one postulate that ātman/
Brahman is the object (visaya) of avidyā, in the same manner that the shell is the ob˙ silver in place of the shell? How can that which is svaject in the illusion of seeing
prakāśa and sarvajñā be concealed by ignorance? These questions regarding the
locus and object of avidyā became the distinguishing issue for the two Advaita
schools—the Vivarana and the Bhāmatı̄. The former maintains that the locus of
avidyā is ātman, while the latter maintains that the locus of avidyā is the jı̄va. Both
schools agree that the object (visaya) is ātman/Brahman.
Without trying to resolve or˙to exhaust the history of this debate, a brief glimpse
into some of the issues surrounding it is pertinent. First, it needs to be noted that two
of Śaṅkara’s chief disciples took opposing points of view on this issue. Mandana
Miśra articulates what will become the Bhāmatı̄ position, and Sureśvara articulates
what will become the Vivarana position. Both positions are formalized later by their
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followers—namely, Vācaspati Miśra and Padmapāda, respectively. It should also be
noted that looking to Śaṅkara to resolve this debate becomes problematic. Currently
it seems that a number of leading scholars, including Karl Potter, Daniel Ingalls, Sengaku Mayeda, and Paul Hacker, contend that Śaṅkara was not so much interested in
answering the question of the locus of avidyā as providing guidance for the realization of moksa.28 This reading is heavily based on his BGBh 13.2.16 and BSBh 4.1.3,
˙ responds to the question ‘‘Whose ignorance?’’ with the reply that it is
where Śaṅkara
a question without sense (praśna nirarthakah) (BGBh 13.2.16). Leaving the question
of the locus of avidyā unanswered did not become the Advaita path.
Citing Sureśvara, a proponent of the view that avidyā has its locus and object in
ātman, will provide us with not only the problems that the Bhāmatı̄ school faces, but
also the objections that Sureśvara’s own position, the Vivarana position, faces. A
brief mention of the objections that the Viśistādvaitins raise will provide additional
insight into the problems that the Vivarana school encountered. (The Viśistādvaitins,
˙˙ to their
specifically Rāmūnuja, dismiss the Bhāmatı̄ view with little comment relative
extensive attack on the Vivarana school.29)
Sureśvara’s opening comments in chapter 3 of the Naiskarmyasiddhi present
four reasons that the Bhāmatı̄ view regarding the locus of ignorance
is unacceptable:
[T]he not-Self cannot be the locus of ignorance, because ignorance is its very nature; and
what is of the nature of ignorance cannot, indeed, be the locus of ignorance. Even if it
were possible, what change could this ignorance bring about in the locus which is of
the nature of ignorance? The non-Self does not have the possibility of attaining knowledge; should there be this possibility, it could be said that ignorance which is by nature
the negation of knowledge is located in it. Further, since the not-Self is a product of ignorance, [it cannot be the locus]. Indeed, what exists earlier cannot be located in that which
itself comes into being from that [earlier] thing. There is also the reason that the not-Self
has no nature of its own independently of ignorance. Owing to these very reasons it
should be known that ignorance is not about the not-Self. Thus, the not-Self is not the
locus of ignorance; nor does ignorance have the not-Self as its content.30
In brief, Sureśvara is informing us that the jı̄va is a product of ignorance and therefore
must come after ignorance. If it must come after ignorance, then the jı̄va cannot be
the locus of ignorance. The effect cannot precede the cause. Furthermore, if the jı̄va
were the locus of ignorance and thus the ignorance resided in the jı̄va, then ignorance could never be removed from the jı̄va since it would be ignorant by nature.
Since these scenarios are ridiculous for Sureśvara, he concludes that the jı̄va cannot
be the locus or bearer of avidyā.
Having allegedly refuted his opponent’s position that the jı̄va is the locus of avidyā, Sureśvara proceeds to lay out five objections that can be raised regarding his
(Sureśvara’s) position that ātman is the object/content of ignorance. He then follows
these reasons with his rebuttal of their reasons:
What, then[,] is the content of ignorance which is located in the Self? We say that the Self
is the content [of ignorance]. It may be objected that ignorance is incompatible with the
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Self for the reason that the Self is of the nature of knowledge, that it is without a second to
it, that the relation between the locus and the content involves difference, that the Self is
the source of knowledge, and that [it] is unattached and ever free. The reply is that it is
compatible. If it be asked, ‘‘How?’’ the reply is that the differentiation in the Self is due to
ignorance alone like the snakeness of the rope. Therefore, when ignorance is removed,
the evil of duality ceases to be.31
Sureśvara offers us a series of allegedly strong reasons why it makes no sense to say
that ātman could possibly be the object (visayam) of ignorance, including (1) the no˙
tion that ātman is always free and unattached,
and (2) that the nature of ātman is
knowledge. If ātman is the nature of jñāna, without anything other, always free and
without attachments, then how can it simultaneously and coterminously be the object and locus of avidyā? Sureśvara is acknowledging the questions that opponents of
Advaita have long raised and with which we began this essay. He summarily dismisses these questions by invoking the rope-snake analogy. Just as a rope is concealed by the appearance of an illusory snake, so also ātman can be concealed by
ignorance. Thus, just as the rope is the object of one’s ignorance, so also ātman is
the object (visaya) of ignorance.
˙ response provokes two questions. First, can simply citing an analogy
be taken as a serious philosophical rebuttal to the objections he articulates? The
objections are strongly articulated; the response is much briefer, although the response does have a more extensive history in Advaita thought. Second, one may
ask if this analogy provides an adequate response to the particular problems that
Sureśvara is citing. It seems that the objections that are being raised are not questioning what the object of ignorance must be, but rather how ātman/Brahman could be
that object. What is concealed—namely, rope/ātman—is not a seriously contentious
point. Both Advaita schools agree on this point. One has no problem imagining how
the rope can be concealed by the snake because the rope is not self-illuminating;
it is not vidyā. But how can Brahman, the ever-free, pure consciousness, be concealed? The analogy is mum on this. In addition, the rope is not concealed by
itself. It is concealed by one who imagines the snake and imposes the snake on
the rope. However, in the case of ātman, as Sureśvara points out, there is no other
(ananyatvāt), and therefore one must wonder how the analogy of the rope-snake
helps illuminate not only what is obscured but also how that ‘‘what’’ can be
We can see this point in the objections raised by the opponents of Advaita, such
as Viśistādvaitins and Buddhists. Both of these opponents direct their attack on the
Advaita˙˙ notion of avidyā, not primarily at what is concealed but how that particular
‘‘what’’—namely, ātman/Brahman—could be the visaya as well as the āśraya of avidyā. For example, Viśistādvaitins, notably Rāmūnuja˙ and Vedānta Deśika, assert that
˙˙ avidyā represents not only a weak point of Advaita philosothe Advaita position on
phy but a clear line of demarcation between their position on Brahman and their
opponents’. Viśistādvaita does not declare Brahman to be without qualities, nirguna,
but only without˙˙defiling qualities. Nor do they declare that there is no distinction
between Brahman and the jı̄vas. Therefore, since the Viśistādvaitins do not have to
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explain how a nondual, nirguna, pure-consciousness Brahman appears as everything but that, they can attack the Advaita notion that Brahman can be obscured by
avidyā.32 Rāmūnuja says:
And further, while declaring that Brahman having a uniform illuminating nature is
screened by avidyā, [this] would [in effect] be declar[ing] the destruction of its own nature itself. The screening of light means an impediment to the origination of light, or the
destruction of the existing [light]. Because of the admission of light not capable of being
produced, the screening of light is but the destruction of light.33
If Brahman is all—without measure and without end to measure—Rāmūnuja wants
to know how the obscuring of the self-illuminating consciousness, which is its Being,
cannot be the destruction of its self-illuminating nature. In other words, if you, the
Advaitin, claim that ātman is the object of ignorance, you must explain how ātman
can be obscured if it is nondual and self-illuminating, and furthermore, if it can be
obscured, why does this obscuration not destroy ātman?
To such objections Advaitins once again resort to analogies. Here the analogy of
the cloud that covers the light of the sun is appropriate.34 In such cases, the light of
the sun is not destroyed; it is merely obscured. But one may ask if this analogy works
for the Advaitin since it introduces diversity, the cloud, into the nature of the undivided Brahman. Such an analogy may work for the Viśistādvaitin, who does not
assert the unqualified nondualism of Advaita, but it still ˙seems
to place Advaita
squarely in the position of being asked: how can vidyā and avidyā be simultaneous
and coterminous if Brahman is uniform, self-illuminating, unchanging consciousness?
Finally, since much of the Advaita response has been through analogy and since
the next sections will develop a new analogy, I conclude this section by returning to
Śaṅkara for comment on the use of analogy and for his insight into this aspect of avidyā. Śaṅkara, like other Advaitins, finds analogy an extremely important tool to illuminate that which śruti reveals. For example, in BSBh 2.1.27 Śaṅkara states that śruti
reveals that Brahman is unchanging and partless, in spite of its appearance to the
contrary. Śaṅkara then invokes a purvapaksin, who announces that not even the
Vedas can make us accept that which is contradictory.
Śaṅkara responds by readily
acknowledging that contradictory qualities cannot exist, and furthermore he states
that neither reason nor perception can resolve such philosophical conundrums as
these. However, Śaṅkara is not left speechless.35 He responds to his opponents’
challenge to his position with analogy—specifically, an analogy invoking the notion
of avidyā. In the example in question, he utilizes the analogy of the one moon that
appears to be many because of eye disease:
That is nothing damaging, since it is admitted that this difference of aspects is created by
ignorance. For a thing does not become multiformed just because aspects are imagined
on it through ignorance. Not that the moon, perceived to be many by a man with blurred
vision (timira—diplopia), becomes really so. Brahman becomes subject to all kinds of
(phenomenal) actions like transformation, on account of the differences of aspects, con-
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stituted by name and form, which remain either differentiated or non-differentiated either
as real or unreal, and which are imagined through ignorance. In Its real aspect Brahman
remains unchanging and beyond all phenomenal actions.36
Where reason and perception cannot go, analogy illustrating the concept of avidyā
will be offered. Reason, in particular, cannot deal with such notions as the partlessness and apparent parts of Brahman because such juxtapositions strike us as contradictory to reason.37 In turning to holography as an analogy, I wonder what Śaṅkara’s
response to this analogy would have been, given the fact that each part of the hologram can reproduce the whole yet the sum total of all the parts of the hologram also
produce only one whole? Would he find this analogy illuminating not only of avidyā,
but also of the problem of apparent contradictoriness?
Before presenting the holographic analogy, a review of the preceding analogy is
in order. The analogy provides us with a moon, which, while technically not selfilluminating, appears to be self-illuminating. (As such, in this particular aspect, this
analogy has the advantage over the rope-snake analogy in that the latter is not remotely self-illuminating.) This analogy also shows us that the moon does not change
just as Brahman does not change. However, it does reveal a person who is changing
and who is other than the moon that is analogously related to Brahman.
Not missing a trick, Śaṅkara appears to anticipate the criticism above. He follows the preceding passage, which utilizes the moon analogy to explain how ignorance makes Brahman appear manifold, with a passage that invokes a different analogy. This second analogy is the analogy of a dreamer and the multiplicity of dream
objects. In this analogy, we do not have two separate things, as in the preceding
analogy. Rather there is only one dreamer, who produces a dream with a diversity
of objects. Śaṅkara says:
Moreover, there is no occasion for dispute here as to how there can be creation of various
kinds in the same Brahman without changing Its nature; for we read in the Upanisad that
a diverse creation occurs in the same soul in dream without any change of nature. ‘There
are no chariots, nor animals to be yoked to them, nor roads there, but he creates the chariots, animals, and roads’ (Br. IV.iii.10). In the world also in the case of gods, as also jugglers and others that various kinds of creation of elephants and so on take place without
any destruction of their nature. Similarly even in the same Brahman there can be a diverse creation without any destruction of Its nature.38
This dream analogy, unlike the rope-snake and moon analogies, avoids the pitfalls of
introducing a second reality in addition to Brahman. However, the dream analogy
avoids that pitfall by introducing the notion of change into Brahman. The dreamer
dreams characters and events. The dreaming mind, analogously Brahman, is a
changing, evolving mind. Yet, repeatedly, Advaita tells us that Brahman is unchanging. These analogies are useful epistemological tools to illustrate the relation between the false knowledge and the knower, but, as Karl Potter indicated, they seem
to fall short as models to illuminate the nature of Brahman as a pure, unchanging,
self-illuminating consciousness that is not marred by avidyā. For a possible insight
into this problem, we shall turn to holography.
Stephen Kaplan
Holography and the Formation of a Model
As indicated, holography is the technique by which one can reproduce threedimensional optical images from an imageless film. Holography is very different
from other forms of optical-imaging reproductions. Photography, for example, uses
lenses to capture an image on a piece of film. In photography, a point-by-point correspondence exists between the object and the image captured. The lens focuses the
light onto the film in a manner that corresponds to the object being photographed.
The patterns produced on the film resemble the object. As we know, one can look at
the photographic negative to see what object was photographed. The photographic
image can be printed on paper, flashed on a wall, or called up on a computer
screen. In each of these cases, the photographic image is flat—it has only two
dimensions. There is only one perspective from which to view the recorded object.
One does not have the ability to change one’s angle of view and see a different side
or face of the recorded object.
Holograms are different. They record information about the whole object—the
object as three-dimensional. Holography means to write the whole. Holography is
a lensless process of optical recording and reproduction. The hologram refers to the
medium on which the information necessary to reproduce a three-dimensional image is recorded. Generally speaking, holograms are made with silver halide film similar to regular black-and-white photographic film, except with a much higher resolution.39 This higher-resolution film is used to record the interference patterns that form
the basis of the hologram. The interference patterns do not resemble in any way,
shape, or form the object that is being filmed.
The holographic interference patterns are produced with a laser. A laser is a
single-frequency light source that is in phase—in other words, the light waves are
in step with each other. (Light from an ordinary light bulb is neither in phase nor
single-frequency.) The hologram records not only the varying intensities of the light
as it reflects off the object, as does a photograph, but it also records the phase relations of the light reflecting off the object.40
In order to produce a hologram, the laser is aimed at a device that splits the
beam into two separate light waves. One of the waves is directed toward the film;
the other is directed toward the object and then, reflecting off the object, toward
the film. The former is called the reference beam and the latter is the scene or object
beam. At the film, the two beams of light converge. Their convergence creates the
interference patterns, which spread across the film. These interference patterns are
like waves created in a pool of water into which two stones are thrown. No image
of the object is recorded on the film; only the confluence of the waves from the object beam and the scene beam are recorded on the film.
In order to reconstruct an image of the original object, a laser beam of the same
frequency as that which was used to construct the hologram is directed at the holographic film.41 This procedure of passing a reference beam back through the film
will cause that which was originally coded onto the hologram in the form of interference patterns to be decoded from the hologram. This decoding process presents
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us with the optical conditions that allow us to perceive the image as a threedimensional object. As a three-dimensional image, a holographic image cannot be
displayed on a wall, on a piece of paper, or on a computer screen. Any such attempt
would yield only a two-dimensional reproduction. The holographic image appears
suspended in space. You can look at this three-dimensional image from different perspectives. Holograms have the visual characteristics of our everyday visual world.
These images have height, width, and depth.
Before utilizing holography as a model for understanding the Advaita notion of
avidyā, three highly unusual characteristics of the film must be noted. First, since the
film is without any images, it does not exhibit the subject-object dichotomies found
in our spatiotemporal world. For example, a photographic negative of my two children would exhibit two discreet individuals that stand in subject-object relationship
to each other. On the negative, one can also observe these individuals and the various parts that constitute them—legs, arms, heads, et cetera. However, the holographic film does not exhibit any such subject-object relations corresponding to the
objects filmed—no son, no daughter, no arms, no legs, et cetera. Here, the information about the individuals is enfolded throughout the interference patterns that are
spread over the film. Only interference patterns exist on the film, not images.42
Second, the film exhibits redundancy. In this context, redundancy means that
each piece of the hologram can reproduce the entire holographic image, yet the
whole film only produces one holographic image. Concretely illustrated, one can
tear a hologram into four parts, for example, and each part will reproduce the entire holographic image. Recall, the film has no images; rather, only interference
patterns are recorded on the film and they are spread throughout the film. The
spreading of the interference patterns across the film allows any part of the film to
produce a complete holographic image of the original object. Thus, while the sum
of the parts of a hologram equals the whole of the hologram, each part also ‘‘equals’’
the whole.
Finally, one holographic film is able to record multiple scenes. In distinction
from photography, in which a double exposure of the negative will blur both images,
one may record on one holographic film multiple scenes by changing either the angle at which the laser hits the film or the frequency of the laser used to create the
hologram. (In fact, color holograms are produced by recording the same scene on
the same holographic film with lasers of different frequencies.) This ability to record
a series of different scenes/objects on one holographic film provides it with enormous storage potential.
This holographic situation presents us with two domains called the explicate domain and the implicate domain.43 The explicate domain refers to the object or
objects filmed and to the holographic images that are reproduced. The implicate domain refers to the film with its unusual characteristics. The explicate domain is that
order with which we are most familiar. It is our normal spatiotemporal world in
which objects are made up of parts and in which objects and parts of objects stand
in relation to other objects and parts. Distinctness, difference, duality, and relationship are the chief characteristics of an explicate domain.
Stephen Kaplan
The second domain—the implicate domain—refers to the film with its unusual
characteristics. In this domain, in which each part is enfolded into all the other parts,
one does not talk about subjects or objects, discreet parts, or the relations between
parts. The nonduality of subject and object, and of part and whole, is the appropriate
language for the implicate domain. In this domain there are no individuals—
individuality is enfolded into the whole. About the implicate domain, the renowned
physicist David Bohm has said: ‘‘in the implicate order the totality of existence is
enfolded within each region of space (and time). So, whatever part, element, or aspect we may abstract in thought, this still enfolds the whole and is therefore intrinsically related to the totality from which it has been abstracted.’’ 44 This domain, which
is radically unlike our normal spatiotemporal world, in which each subject stands in
relation to other subjects, will help us illuminate the Advaita notion of vidyā and avidyā as simultaneous and coterminous.
Correlating the Advaita Position with the Model
In this section, I will show that this holographic analogy is a valuable tool for understanding how vidyā and avidyā can be simultaneous and coterminous. More specifically, the power of this analogy will be shown to arise from the correlations between the highly unusual characteristics of the implicate domain and the qualities
of ātman/Brahman. I know of no other ‘‘entity’’ that can serve to illuminate the
nondual reality of Brahman like the implicate domain. As such, I know of no other
entity that can serve as the basis from which to illuminate how the unchanging,
nondual Being/Consciousness can appear as a myriad of subjects and objects. The
rope, the moon, space, the sandy soil, the dreamer, and so forth all have characteristics that mirror our ordinary four-dimensional world. These entities do not mirror
the nature of Brahman; each, for example, is constituted by parts that stand in relation to other parts. That is not true of the hologram—of the implicate domain of
In spite of these alleged values, this holographic analogy is not intended (1) to
quell the myriad criticisms of the Advaita position, (2) to eliminate all the internal
wrangling between the schools of Advaita, or (3) to prove the truth of the Advaita
worldview. I do not know, for example, if this analogy, or for that matter any of the
analogies, resolves the debates surrounding the locus of avidyā. Nor can I imagine
that this analogy would convince a non-Advaitin to fall before a Śaṅkara mūrti. In
addition, this analogy is not intended to replace all other Advaita analogies. One
cannot think ‘‘Advaita’’ without conjuring up the rope-snake analogy. The goal of
this essay is to add to our wealth of knowledge without subtracting or denigrating
other analogies. Finally, like all analogies, the holographic analogy has positive,
neutral, and negative correlations. In other words, some aspects of the familiar system upon which the model is based can be successfully related to the item or issue
to be explained (the explanandum). Other aspects of the familiar system—for example, holography or the rope-snake illusion—are either irrelevant to the point being
made or problematic when raised in relation to the issue to be explained.45 In spite
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of these points, I believe that the holographic analogy is a powerful tool for illuminating this long-standing quandary within Advaita. It will allow us to envision how
pure consciousness can be everywhere, and everywhere the same, yet ignorance
can be somewhere and somehow, as anirvacanı̄ya. It will allow us to envision how
vidyā and avidyā can be simultaneous and coterminous.
My construction of this holographic metaphor begins by correlating Brahman to
the implicate domain. In such a schema, the implicate domain would be analogous
to Brahman as the one true metaphysical reality of all existence. To unfold this analogy, we need to condense the Advaita talk of Brahman to a limited number of characteristics and relate them to the implicate domain. Six well-known, essential, and
interrelated qualities of Brahman will serve this purpose. First, Brahman is Being—it
is the one Being of all existence, without measure and without end to measure. Second, it is the nondual reality of all existence. It is one without a second (advaita).
Third, there is only one true self, ātman, and that ātman is Brahman (tat tvam asi).
Fourth, this one Being is unchanging. It is always the same (samatām gatam),
characterized as such by ajāti (non-origination). Fifth, it is always cit—pure, selfilluminating (svaprakāśa) consciousness, and this cit is sat, the Being of ātman/
Brahman. Sat must be cit. If cit were other than sat, there would be duality, and
therefore there could be no knowledge of ātman/Brahman as nondual. And finally, sixth, ātman/brahman is always free, never ignorant, never wallowing in
As indicated, in constructing this holographic metaphor, the implicate domain
of holography is analogized to Brahman, and therefore its characteristics would
be analogized to ultimate reality, to the nature of all existence, to paramārtha.
As such, the implicate domain must be imagined to be everywhere and everything. It would be imagined as the Being of all. Second, utilizing the characteristics of the implicate domain as an analogy for Brahman in this fashion would
present us with a model for Brahman that is without the discreet parts of our empirical world. In the implicate domain there is no self, me, standing in relation to
an object, you. Self and object are enfolded into the implicate domain. In the explicate world there is an ‘‘I,’’ the typist, and an it, the keyboard; however, in the
implicate domain the duality of ‘‘I’’ and ‘‘keyboard’’ do not exist. In this domain,
both are folded into a nonduality of being—into an implicate domain that lacks
such distinctions. In the implicate domain, there are only interference patterns that
in no way, shape, or form resemble particular entities. The implicate domain, like
Brahman, is characterized by nondualism—the nondualism of subject and object.
Third, from this perspective each piece of the implicate domain can reproduce
the whole and as such is equal to all other ‘‘pieces’’ of the implicate domain. In this
sense, one can say that the implicate domain is a state in which there is one self, and
that one self is the nature of all of the implicate domain. This one self of the implicate
domain, like ātman/Brahman, would be without the particularity of individuality—it
would be without duality—without the duality of subject and object. It would be like
ātman that art Brahman.
Stephen Kaplan
Fourth, the implicate domain can be understood, from one perspective, as
unchanging. All aspects of individual, explicate, spatiotemporal objects are enfolded
into the implicate domain. From the information encoded onto a hologram, explicate, spatiotemporal entities unfold, but these entities are not present as spatiotemporal entities in the implicate domain. Thus, the implicate domain, as the enfoldment of all spatiotemporal entities, remains unchanged. David Bohm, as physicist
and metaphyscian, puts the issue as follows:
‘‘All implicates all,’’ even to the extent that ‘‘we ourselves’’ are implicated together with
‘‘all that we see and think about.’’ So we are present everywhere and at all times, though
only implicately (that is, implicitly). . . . The general law, i.e., holonomy, has to be
expressed in all orders, in which all objects and all times are ‘‘folded together.’’ 46
All objects and all times may be enfolded, from one perspective, in the implicate domain, and the unfoldment of objects or holographic images does not alter their
enfolded nature. The implicate domain of the hologram is unchanging even as
images are unfolded from it and appear to us.
Fifth, by analogy, since the implicate domain would be coextensive with the
being of all, the knowledge of any part of the implicate domain would be the knowledge of all since each part can reproduce the whole. In this model, a realization of
the implicate domain, as implicate and not as explicate, could not entail a subject
knowing an object since the implicate domain does not contain the characteristics
of duality. A realization of the implicate domain—as completely enfolded—would
be different from viewing a piece of holographic film and noting its lack of subjectobject dichotomies. As a model for the Advaita worldview, we are not talking about
one object, the viewer, looking at a second object, the film. In the metaphysical situation, the implicate domain, like Brahman, would analogously be everywhere—it
would be co-extensive with all that exists. Therefore, if a realization of the implicate
domain qua its implicate nature were to occur, the alleged realizer would not be
separate from the ‘‘object’’ of this realization, namely the being of this domain. And
therefore the consciousness that knows the nondual Being of the implicate domain
cannot be other than the implicate domain since the subject-object dichotomies
have been enfolded. There cannot be Being as one thing in the implicate domain
and consciousness as another thing; all is enfolded into the implicate domain. In
this model, being (sat) would have to be consciousness (cit).
And finally, sixth, since sat is cit in this model and since they/it can be understood as unchanging, then one can see how this unchanging reality, which is sat
and cit, which is always nondual, must always be unattached and free.
I have just taken six major characteristics of ātman/Brahman and analogously related each to the implicate domain of holography. In so doing, one can envision a
reality without subject-object duality, in which each piece equals the whole, where
being and consciousness would not be separable nor alterable. In such a reality the
Being that is consciousness would exist unchanged, and it would be simultaneous
and coterminous with the appearance of explicate artifacts, with subjects and
objects, with avidyā.
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Conclusion: Questions Facing Advaita and Questions Confronting This Proposal
Having made these correlations between the implicate domain and ātman/Brahman,
I will now return to two sets of vexing questions that Advaita faces in order to develop this analogy further, and then I will examine three questions looming over
this proposal. First, if Brahman is partless, how can avidyā be a part of Brahman? If
avidyā is not a part of Brahman, is it all of Brahman? Or, if avidyā is not a part of
Brahman, is it other than Brahman? Second, how can avidyā be both concealing
and projecting yet not alter Brahman? In other words, why does avidyā not destroy
vidyā? How can pure consciousness be everywhere, and everywhere the same, yet
ignorance be somehow somewhere, even if only anirvacanı̄ya? Each set of questions
is asking, in their own way, how vidyā and avidyā can be simultaneous and coterminous.
First, might one imagine the partlessness of Brahman in terms of the partlessness
of the implicate domain? If so, it would be an undivided wholeness consisting of
enfolded, interference-like patterns that have no particularity, no subject-object dualism, and thus no discreet parts. These interference-like patterns are spread throughout the implicate domain and are therefore coterminous with it. They cannot be distinguished from the implicate domain since they are the implicate domain. Thus,
they are not separate, nor separatable from the implicate domain. They are all of it;
yet they do not alter its inalterability since, as we have seen in the passage from
Bohm, all (both temporally and spatially) may be enfolded in each piece. Therefore,
one cannot say that these interference patterns are a part of the implicate domain
(i.e., Brahman), nor something other than the implicate domain (i.e., Brahman). They
are all of the implicate domain, yet they are not any thing; they are no particular
thing. Their presence is the Being and hence consciousness of the implicate domain
(i.e., Brahman).
In this context, it should also be noted that all particular things, whether part of
the holographic analogy or of the Advaita worldview, could not be some place other
than the implicate domain (i.e., Brahman) since the implicate domain (i.e., Brahman)
is everywhere. The unfoldment of explicate artifacts (i.e., the appearance of the
world of duality) could not therefore be someplace other than this most fundamental
The second set of questions may be summarized as follows. How can avidyā
conceal the true nature of Brahman and project subject and objects yet not affect
Brahman? Why does avidyā not destroy vidyā? How can they be simultaneous and
coterminous? In the same way that the projection of holographic images does not
affect the hologram, so also the appearance of duality does not affect Brahman. In
this model, the projection of explicate individuality does not affect the enfolded implicate domain; the latter remains enfolded. Just as recognizing the unfolding of the
interference patterns obscures one’s knowledge of the implicate domain by projecting an explicate artifact and simultaneously concealing the implicate domain from
view, so also adhyāsa conceals pure consciousness and projects duality. And furthermore, just as the implicate and explicate domains are simultaneous and coterminous
Stephen Kaplan
in this model, so also we can imagine how Brahman as Being and pure consciousness can be simultaneous and coterminous with the projecting and concealing world
of avidyā. The projections, which are the consequence of avidyā, would no more
alter Brahman as sat and cit than the appearance of holographic images alter the implicate domain. Explicate holographic images appear at the same time that the implicate domain exists. Without the implicate domain, no explicate images could be
projected. Of course, there can be an implicate domain without the projection of
the explicate holographic images. Likewise, in this analogy, there can be Brahman
with and/or without the world of māyā, but the appearance of māyā does not destroy
the nonduality of Brahman (i.e., the implicate domain). This model allows us to
imagine how vidyā and avidyā can be simultaneous and coterminous.
Before concluding, three questions that threaten the intellectual integrity of this
proposal must be confronted. But first, it needs to be repeated that this analogy is not
intended to be an actual replica or scale model of the Advaita worldview; rather, it is
only a heuristic device capable of providing additional insight into Advaita Vedānta.
The three questions threatening this proposal are: (1) Who is the observer in this
analogy? (2) What is the source of illumination that would be comparable to the light
in a holographic situation? (3) What causes ignorance?
First, who is the observer? While the rope-snake and other analogies allow
Advaita to explain how illusions can appear in the place of an unchanging substratum like the rope, a number of these analogies leave the notion of an observer who
experiences the illusion, the snake, et cetera hanging untouched in the air. On the
one hand, like these traditional Advaita analogies, the holographic analogy seems to
be limited in this regard. I have talked about the implicate domain and the explicate
holographic images, but who, what, and where is the observer of these images?
While the notion of an observer seems to be a problem, it should be noted that as
a heuristic model, which analogizes the implicate domain to the Being of all existence, something akin to Bohm’s proposal, one would have to say that both the
observer and the observed are simultaneously an explication of the implicate domain.47 From this perspective, one could say that, if all were fundamentally implicated in the implicate-like Being, then both observer and observed would be the result of this projection process. Applying this holographic model, each subject, each
grasper (grāhaka), would be an unfoldment from the fundamental implicate-like domain just as the observed would be. Each subject-grasper (grāhaka) is presented to
itself as it presents that which is object, the grasped—grāhya. Analogously, from the
Advaita perspective both subject and object—grāhaka-grāhya—are simultaneous
and mutually interdependent. There is no grasper without the grasping (grahana) of
the grasped.
Returning to the opening discussion, Śaṅkara told us that avidyā is the imposition of both subject and object—of both you and me.48 There can be no presentation of the image of an other without the notion of subject that stands in relation, nor
can there be a sense of subject without the notion of at least body and senses that
become an object to one’s self.49 Just as for Advaita, which sees the duality of subject and object as the projection of avidyā from the nondual Brahman, so also in this
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holographic analogy one can imagine that both the knower/observer and the
known/observed would be unfolded from the nondual implicate domain.
The second question concerns the source of illumination. A hologram needs to
be illuminated by a reference beam in order for one to see an image. What functions
as the source of illumination? Is this a new element, like the addition of pots that divide space in the analogy of ākāśa and ghatākāśa? From where do the pots come?50
Utilizing holography as a model, where the implicate domain is compared to Brahman, this issue is not actually a problem. On this premise, the implicate domain is
analogized to Brahman, which is Being and consciousness. Thus, the source of illumination is inherent in the nature of its Being. It is all Being and simultaneously all
cit, pure consciousness; thus, to ask, as an analogy, where the source of illumination
would come from is to forget the analogy. One could clearly declare that the nature
of Being is not cit. This analogy does not pretend to prove that sat is cit. This analogy
is merely trying to understand the Advaita position, and that position declares that
sat is cit. Therefore, as an analogy, if the implicate domain is a heuristic model for
the Advaita metaphysical view of Being, then there need be no question as to
whence the illumination would come. It is the basic fabric of the nonduality of existence and consciousness.
This leads us to the final question. If (1) the illuminating source is Being/
consciousness itself, which is said to be everywhere and nowhere changing, and
(2) the observer and that which the observer observes is an appearance that unfolds
from this implicate-like metaphysical order, then what could be the reason for the
unfoldment of the latter? In other words, why is there ignorance? Why is there an
appearance of perceiver and perceived, subject and object? For an answer to these
questions I am drawn to Gaudapāda’s Māndūkya Kārikā. This is not to say that all
˙ questions˙ in
˙ the same way. Nonetheless, from this
Advaita texts would answer these
perspective, the appearance of the observer and that which it observes, the grasper
and the grasped, the appearance of duality (dvayābhāsam) arises from the movement
of the mind (cittaspanditam). It is the latter that is declared to be avidyā—the imposition of subject and object—self and other—on a reality that is nondual. (This is
consistent with Śaṅkara’s BSBh.) As Gaudapāda declared:
Just as the movement of a firebrand gives the appearance of being straight, crooked, etc.,
so also the movement of the mind (vijñāna) gives the appearance of perceiver and perceived. (MK 4.47)
Just as the firebrand without moving is without any appearances and is unborn, so also
the mind without moving is without appearances and unborn. (MK 4.48)51
Why the mind moves, or if the mind really moves, returns us to the most fundamental problem: why is there avidyā?52 In the holographic analogy, the movement is part
and parcel of the nature of the implicate domain. It is simultaneous and coterminous
with the nonmoving, partless implicate domain. From the Advaita perspective, it is
only the latter aspect—namely, the implicate-like Brahman—that affords liberation.
As such, for the Advaitin, all else is associated with that which obscures liberation—
namely, avidyā.
Stephen Kaplan
Finally, this analysis seems to end up where it began, with the inexplicability of
avidyā staring us in the face. However, we must also recognize that in arriving at this
point, the movement of the mind does not create the empirical world. It simply
allows those things that are the external causes for the appearance of the empirical
world to be presented. This analysis may not have resolved why ignorance appears,
but it has allowed us to see how the unchanging Brahman can be simultaneous and
coterminous with avidyā, and it may have put us in a better position to untangle the
complexities surrounding the Advaita view of the empirical world.
Abbreviations are used in the text and the Notes as follows:
Śaṅkara. Srı̄mad Bhagavad Gı̄tā Bhāsya of Srı̄ Saṁkarācārya. Translated by
A. G. Krishna Warrier. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna
Math, n.d.
Śaṅkara. The Brhadāranyaka Upanisad with the Commentary of Śaṅ˙
karācārya. Translated by Swāmı̄ Mādhavānanda.
Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1997.
Śaṅkara. Brahma-Sūtra-Bhāsya of Śrı̄ Śaṅkarācārya. Translated by Swami
Gambhirananda. Calcutta: Advaita
Ashrama, 1965.
Śaṅkara. Brahmasūtra-Śāṅkarabhāsyam with the Commentaries, Bhāsyarat˙
naprabhā of Govindānanda, Bhāmatı̄
of Vācaspatimiśra, Nyāyanirnaya
Ānandagiri. Edited by J. L. Shastri. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000.
Gaudapāda. The Māndūkyopanisad, Gaudapādiya Kārikā, Śaṅkarabhāsya.
Gita Press,
Samvat ˙2026. ˙
Sureśvara. The Naiskarmyasiddhi of Sureśvara. Edited and translated by R.
Balasubramanian. Madras:
University of Madras, 1988.
Vidyāranya. Pañcadaśı̄: A Treatise on Advaita Metaphysics. Translated by
Hari Prasad Shastri. London: Shanti Sadan, 1965.
Rāmūnuja. Śrı̄bhāsya of Rāmūnuja. Part 1. Edited by R. D. Karmarkar.
Poona: University ˙of Poona, 1959.
Sarvajñātman. The Saṁksepasārı̄raka of Sarvajñātman. Edited and trans˙ Madras: University of Madras, 1985.
lated by N. Veezhinathan.
Shāntaraksı̄ta. The Tattvasangraha of Shāntaraksı̄ta with the Commentary
˙ Ganganatha Jha. Delhi:
of Kamalashı̄la.
Volumes 1 and 2. Translated by
Motilal Banarsidass, 1986.
The Taittirı̄yopanisad Bhāsya-Vārtika of Sureśvara. Edited and translated by
R. Balasubramanian.
University of Madras, 1984.
A Thousand Teachings: The Upadeśasāhasrı̄ of Śaṅkara. Translated by Sengaku Mayeda. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Philosophy East & West
Śaṅkara’s Upadeśasāhasrı̄. Critically Edited with Introduction and Indices
by Sengaku Mayeda. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1993.
Sadānanda. Vedāntasāra or The Essence of Vedānta of Sadānda Yogı̄ndra.
Translated by Swami Nikhilananda. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1974.
1 – US, p. 82.
2 – ‘‘Since the root cause of this transmigratory existence is ignorance, its destruction is desired. Knowledge of Brahman therefore is entered on. Final beatitude
results from this knowledge’’ (US 1.1.5, p. 103).
3 – na nirodho na cotpattir na buddho na ca sadhaka/na mumukur na vai mukta ity
esa paramārthatā (MK 2.32; see also MK 3.2).
4 – Ātman is always enlightened, according to Śaṅkara. See US 1.1.13, 16, 18, 19.
5 – US 1.16.37–38, p. 153.
6 – We find this expressed by R. Balasubramanian, in the introduction to NS, as: ‘‘It
is impossible for us to explain in any intelligible way the relation between
Brahman-ātman and avidyā’’ (p. xxxv).
7 – Allen Thrasher, in the context of a discussion of Mandana Miśra’s Brahmasid˙˙
dhi, says ‘‘[I]t is precisely because avidyā is logically contradictory
that we call
it ‘ignorance’ or ‘illusion’’’ (Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, ed. Karl Potter
[Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981], vol. 3, p. 352).
8 – Advaitins often do not see vidyā and avidyā as being contradictory, just as they
do not see Brahman as containing contradictory qualities. Just as Brahman cannot be both motionless and with motion (BGBh 13.2.10; BSBh 2.1.14), partless
and with parts (BSBh 2.1.27), so also vidyā is not seen to be contradicted by
avidyā. The opposite or contradictory to avidyā is said to be discernment
(viveka) (see Andrew O. Fort, ‘‘Reflections on Reflection: Kūtastha, Cidābhāsa
and Vrtti in the Pañcadaśı̄,’’ Journal of Indian Philosophy 28˙ (2000): 499; and
PD 6.31–33: atah kūtastha caitanyam avirodhı̄ti tarkyatām). Another way of
phrasing this is to see ˙jñāna and avidyā as opposing each other while cit illuminates them both (J. N. Mohanty, Explorations in Philosophy: Essays by J. N.
Mohanty, ed. Bina Gupta [New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001], p.
129). There is no question that cit illuminates each specific state of mind,
which is a form of avidyā. Nonetheless, additional perspectives must be noted.
First, critics of Advaita assert that the Advaita position is contradictory on exactly this relation between Brahman and avidyā. The Viśistādvaita critique of
the Advaita position will be discussed below. For an example
of a Buddhist
critique of the Advaita position see Śāntiraksita’s text with the commentary of
Kamalaśı̄la (TS 7.333, pp. 215–216). There˙ the Advaita position is declared
unacceptable because Brahman cannot be pure consciousness while avidyā
presents itself. Second, there are places where Śaṅkara and Sureśvara, for example, indicate that the apparent presence of contradictory qualities stemming
from ignorance cannot really exist but certainly appears to exist just as the rope
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is experienced as a snake (NS 2.50, p. 157, and 3.66, p. 290). The latter states:
‘‘This ignorance is without any support. It is opposed to any logic. It cannot endure inquiry in the same way as darkness cannot endure the sun.’’ Although
vidyā and avidyā appear to be contradictory, nothing contradictory can exist,
and therefore they are declared not to be contradictory. Finally, and I think
most significantly, it must be noted that vidyā and avidyā (and their cognates) are often juxtaposed as opposites. For example, Śaṅkara states that
only a knowledge of Brahman will remove ignorance (see, e.g., US.s 1.1.6
[vidyaivājñānahanāya] and 2.2.48; BGBh 13.2.3; BrUBh 3.3.1; TUBhV 1.33).
9 – Potter, Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, 3 : 576 (Padmapāda, Pañcapādikā,
chap. 31.115–118).
10 – Karl H. Potter, Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies (Westport: Greenwood
Press, 1972), p. 163.
11 – For a discussion of the use of this model to illuminate simultaneously three different ultimate realities, see Stephen Kaplan, Different Paths, Different Summits:
A Model for Religious Pluralism (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002).
12 – BSBh 1.1, Introduction, p. 2; BSBh.s, p. 13: ucyate, smtirūpah paratra pūrvadrst˙
˙ ˙˙
13 – BSBh 1.1, Introduction, pp. 3–4.
14 – BSBh 1.1, Introduction. For a discussion of this passage see Purushottama Bilimoria, ‘‘On Śaṅkara’s Attempted Reconciliation of ‘You’ and ‘I’: Yusmadasmat˙ of Bimal
samanvaya,’’ in Relativism, Suffering and Beyond: Essays in Memory
K. Matilal, ed. P. Bilimoria and J. N. Mohanty (Delhi: Oxford University Press,
15 – For example, see VS 2.51, p. 37: asyājñānasyāvaranaviksepanāmakamasti śak˙
˙ two powers to avitidvayam. And see also PD 6.26. This tradition of ascribing
dyā is obviously very old, as it appears in a variant form in Gaudapāda, MK
1.14 and 1.16. It is also evident in Mandana Miśra’s Brahmasiddhi˙ (149.16 to
150.24). For a discussion of the latter and˙ his relation to Gaudapāda, see Allen
Thrasher, The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-Siddhi (Delhi: Motilal
1993), pp. 72–73. There seems to be some debate as to whether Śaṅkara held
the notion that there were two functions of avidyā. For example, Paul Hacker
says: ‘‘Even the theory, already current among Ś.’s contemporaries, that avidyā
possesses a ‘power of dispersion’ (viksepa-śakti) and a ‘power of concealment’
(āvarana-śakti) is foreign to the Sbh’’ (Paul
Hacker, ‘‘Distinctive Features of the
Doctrine and Terminology of Śaṅkara: Avidyā, Nāmarūpa, Māyā, Īśvara,’’ in
Philology and Confrontation, ed. Wilhelm Halbfass [Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1995], p. 64). While Hacker references the BSBh, it should
be noted that in the MK Śaṅkara distinguishes two functions associated with
wrong knowledge of the world—anyathāgrahanam and tattvāpratibodha (see
note 18 below). The authenticity of this work by Śaṅkara is debated.
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16 – ‘‘Just as a small patch of cloud, by obstructing the vision of the observer, conceals, as it were, the solar disc extending over many miles, similarly ignorance
though limited by nature, yet obscuring the intellect of the observer, conceals,
as it were, the Self which is unlimited and not subject to transmigration’’ (VS
2.52, p. 38).
17 – ‘‘Just as ignorance regarding a rope, by its inherent power, gives rise to the illusion of a snake etc. in the rope covered by it, so also ignorance, by its own
power creates in the Self covered by it, such phenomena as Akasa etc. Such a
power is called the power of projection’’ (VS 2.54, p. 39).
18 – Gaudapāda, in MK 1.14, distinguishes some of the characteristics of the four
states˙ of consciousness. Śaṅkara comments on this verse by telling us that
dreams are the misapprehension of reality (anyathāgrahanam), like seeing the
snake in place of the rope, while dreamless sleep is the non-perception of reality (tattvāpratibodhena), like darkness. In MK 1.16 Gaudapāda states that when
the jı̄va, which has slept because of beginningless māyā,
awakens, then it
knows the nondual.
19 – SS 2.183, p. 488. Sarvajñātman continues this in verses 2.184–185 telling us
that God’s knowledge is nirāvaranam, but that the knowledge of the jı̄va is
sāvaranam. Karl Potter analyzes this issue as follows: ‘‘it is said that God is om˙
niscient, but according to the Samksepaśarı̄raka he is limited by ignorance.
How can this be the proper way of understanding God? The answer is that
‘omniscience’ means ‘lacking the concealing type of ignorance.’ God can be
omniscient, in this sense, and still limited by His connection with the projective
aspect of māyā’’ (Potter, Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies, p. 180). See
also BSBh 2.1.14.
20 – Daniel H. H. Ingalls, ‘‘Śaṅkara on the Question: Whose Is Avidyā,’’ Philosophy
East and West 3 (1953): 69. Ingalls sees this situation as presenting Advaita with
the horns of a dilemma that should lead either to the end of monism or to the
destruction of the doctrine of avidyā.
21 – MK 3.28 and 4.28, with an implied reference to birds.
22 – ‘‘However, ignorance is described as something positive though intangible,
which cannot be described either as being or non-being, which is made of
three qualities and is antagonistic to Knowledge’’ (VS 2.34, p. 22).
23 – Allen Thrasher, The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-Siddhi, p. 1 (English), p. 135
24 – R. Balasubramanian, NS, p. 4.
25 – ‘‘Its nature does not consist in anything other than the non-perception of the
Self. Only if it is said that the term avidyā is like the term amitra, it is always
tenable’’ (TUBhV 2.179, p. 366).
26 – BGBh 13.2.13, p. 415.
Stephen Kaplan
27 – A cursory overview of the relation between these terms indicates, for example,
that Gaudapāda often uses the term māyā, but not avidyā. Yet the former in
˙ usages takes on the characteristics of avidyā, and furthermore, Śaṅsome of its
kara in MK 1.16 glosses māyā with avidyā. Also, in BSBh 1.4.3, Śaṅkara links
these terms. For a full discussion of this issue within the works of Śaṅkara
see Paul Hacker, ‘‘Distinctive Features of the Doctrine and Terminology of
Śaṅkara,’’ pp. 75 ff. For a discussion of this in relation to Mandana Miśra,
Vidyāranya, and others, see E. A. Solomon, Avidyā: A Problem of
Truth and
Reality (Ahmedabad: Gujarat University, 1969).
28 – For example, Daniel Ingalls says: ‘‘What Śaṅkara does is to avoid the difficulty.
He concentrates on what he considers the heart of the matter, the teaching that
is necessary for the attainment of moksa. This teaching is that avidyā, whatever
its modality, is never truly connected with the self. Here, as in other differences
that may be noticed between Saṁkara and his disciples, one may say that Saṁkara’s approach to truth is psychological and religious’’ (Ingalls, ‘‘Śaṅkara on
the Question,’’ p. 72). Paul Hacker says: ‘‘Ś. in one passage of the Sbh . . .
makes it clear that for him theorizing about the āśraya of avidyā is unimportant
and contrary to the spirit of the teaching’’ (Hacker, ‘‘Distinctive Features of the
Doctrine and Terminology of Śaṅkara,’’ p. 65).
29 – John Grimes, The Seven Great Untenables (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990),
p. 27.
30 – NS 3.1, p. 215 (Sanskrit), pp. 216–217 (English). The objections that Sureśvara
raise are presented as follows: nanu ātmano ‘pi jñānasvarūpatvāt, ananytvāt,
āśrayaāśrayibhāvasya bhedagarbhatvāt, jñānaprakrtitvāt, asaṅgatvanityamuktatvācca hetubhyo naivājñānam ghatate/.
31 – NS 3.1, p. 215 (Sanskrit), p. 217 (English).
32 – Seven objections are presented by Rāmūnuja in his Śrı̄bhāsya, and these objec˙ Śatadūsanı̄. These
tions are also elaborated upon by Vedānta Deśika in his
˙ ˙
objections may briefly be summarized as: ‘‘(1) the very nature (svarūpa)
avidyā is riddled with contradictions; (2) its description as inexplicable (anirvacanı̄ya) is untenable; (3) no valid means of knowledge (pramāna) supports such
a theory; (4) the locus (āśraya) of avidyā can be neither Brahman nor jı̄va; (5) it
is unintelligible to claim that avidyā can obscure (tirodhāna) the nature of Brahman; (6) its removal by right knowledge (jñāna-nivartya) is untenable; (7) the
very conception of the cessation of avidyā (avidyā-nirvrtti) is absurd’’ (John
Grimes, The Seven Great Untenables, p. 22).
33 – RSBh 1.1.1, par. 60, p. 128.
34 – US 1.16.37–38, and BrUBh 4.1.6.
35 – ‘‘Brahman does exist as an unchanged Entity. There is no violation of the texts
about partlessness, since partlessness is accepted on account of its very ‘mention in the Upanisad,’ and the Upanisads are the only authority about It, but not
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so are the senses etc. . . . And even these powers can be known not from mere
reasoning but from such [śruti] instruction . . .’’ (BSBh 2.1.27, pp. 354–355).
36 – BSBh 2.1.27, p. 356.
37 – There are a number of other examples cited by Śaṅkara dealing with allegedly
contradictory qualities. In each case, he asserts that contradictions cannot exist
and therefore one of the terms does not really exist. See, for example, his discussion of motion and motionlessness in BGBh 13.2.10.
38 – BSBh 2.1.28, pp. 356–357.
39 – ‘‘Holographic film typically has a resolution of 2,500 to 5,000 lines per millimeter . . . , in contrast to standard photographic film, which has about 200 lines
per millimeter. The higher resolution is achieved by using smaller grains of the
photosensitive silver in the emulsion. The smaller grains are less sensitive to
light and decrease the ‘speed’ of the film substantially’’ (John Iovine, Homemade Holograms: The Complete Guide to Inexpensive, Do-It-Yourself Holography [Blue Ridge Summit, PA: TAB Books, 1990], p. 1).
40 – ‘‘[T]hese reconstructed images have a three-dimensional character because in
addition to amplitude information, which is all that an ordinary photographic
process stores, phase information also has been stored. This phase information
is what provides the three-dimensional characteristics of the image, as it contains within it exact information on the depths and heights of the various contours of the object’’ (‘‘Holography,’’ in Encyclopedia Britannica, CD 1998,
p. 2).
41 – Actually, it should be noted that a holographic image can be made to appear
using any ‘‘reasonably coherent’’ light source as a reference beam. For example, the light from an ordinary light bulb that is not in phase can be used to
present a holographic image, although the clarity of the image is better with a
coherent light source.
42 – Parts of this description of holography have appeared previously in Kaplan, Different Paths, Different Summits. My appreciation to the publisher, Rowman and
43 – The use of these terms is indebted to David Bohm, the physicist whose work on
quantum theory holds an important place in the field. Bohm, a student of Krishnamurti, also developed a holonomic model for undivided wholeness that
reached from physics to philosophy.
44 – David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge and
Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 167.
45 – Mary Hesse, ‘‘Models and Analogy in Science,’’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 5, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1967),
p. 356.
46 – Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 167.
Stephen Kaplan
47 – The phrase ‘‘somewhat akin to Bohm’s proposal’’ is intentional since Bohm’s
proposal is distinguished from the Advaita perspective because he see the fundamental nondualism as the holomovement. This holomovement is both static
and dynamic, as has been noted earlier in my acknowledgment of the failure of
this proposal to exclusively illuminate just the ātmavāda perspective without
the anātma perspective. Second, Bohm’s proposal is different from the one
developed by this author in Different Paths, Different Summits since Bohm conflates the nondualisms of Advaita and Buddhism, such as Yogācāra, whereas
the aforementioned text maintains the differences between these schools.
48 – From a contemporary Advaita perspective, K. C. Bhattacharyya has said: ‘‘The
individuality is understood as me, i.e. as the illusory objectivity of the subject
and not merely illusory identity with the object taken as real. . . . The individual
self means the self feeling itself embodied, the embodiment being only a restrictive adjective of the self; and the illusoriness of the embodiment is the illusoriness of the body itself and not merely of the self’s identity with it. The idea
of the object, in fact, as distinct from the subject is derived from the idea of the
embodiment, which itself is born in the consciousness of the individual self as
false in respect of its individuality’’ (K. C. Bhattacharyya, Studies in Philosophy,
ed. Gopinath Bhattacharyya [Calcutta: Progressive Publishers, 1956], vol. 1,
p. 114).
49 – ‘‘Since a man without self-identification with the body, mind, senses, etc., cannot become a cognizer, and as such, the means of knowledge cannot function
for him; since perception and other activities (of a man) are not possible without accepting the senses etc. (as his own); since the senses cannot function
without (the body as) a basis; since nobody engages in any activity with a
body that has not the idea of the Self superimposed on it; since the unrelated
Self cannot become a cognizer unless there are all these (mutual superimposition of the Self and the body and their attributes on each other); and since the
means of knowledge cannot function unless there is a cognizership; therefore it
follows that the means of knowledge, such as direct perception as well as the
scriptures, must have a man as their locus who is subject to nescience’’ (BSBh
1.1.1, p. 4).
50 – ‘‘Indeed ātman is said to be like ākāśa with the jı̄va being like the space of the
pot. And this is an illustration in jāti (origination) by bodies like that from (the
space of) a pot’’ (MK 3.3).
51 – rjuvakrādikābhāsamalātaspanditam yathā/ grahanagrāhakābhāsam vijñānas˙
panditam tathā// aspandamānamalātamanābhāsamajam yathā/ aspandamānam
vijñānamanābhāsamajam tathā// (MK 4.47–48).
52 – Karl Potter makes the following comment about this analogy: ‘‘Gaudapāda’s
use of it does not work very well [sic] it is left unexplained who or what˙ is analogous to the one who waves the stick. It is also not clear whether Gaudapāda
invokes the analogy to help explain the generation of selves or empirical
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objects from God, or of empirical objects by individual selves. His comments
seem to suggest the latter, but this appears to conflict with more realistic passages elsewhere in the work’’ (Potter, Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies,
3 : 84). The view to which this essay is now leaning suggests a third alternative
built upon Potter’s second position. This essay is raising the possibility that for
Gaudapāda and the Advaita tradition the individual self does not generate/
˙ the empirical object, but unfolds for its own knowledge the enfolded nacreate
ture of the empirical object. An exposition of this notion requires another essay.
Stephen Kaplan