A Game of Ropes and Snakes


Shankara’s view of what it means to be real comes from his predecessor, Gaudapada, and from the Upanishads. No object, no kind of knowledge, can be absolutely real if its existence is only temporary. Absolute reality implies permanent existence. For example, we often have different experiences while dreaming during sleep. Those experiences often contradict the experiences we have while awake. And of course, both our waking and dreaming experiences cease when we’re deep into dreamless sleep. And so every object of knowledge, whether external or internal, is subject to modification and therefore not “real.” Here in the West, we don’t often recognize that thoughts and ideas are also objects of knowledge.

Behind all our experiences lies the Reality. This deep consciousness alone is the only constant feature of all experience. Vedanta sits squarely between realism and idealism. Western realism and idealism are both based on the distinction between mind and matter. For Vedanta, though, mind and matter fall into the same category as objects of knowledge.

According to Shankara, the world-appearance can be likened to an imagined snake which ends up being just a piled/coiled rope. When the truth is known, the snake-appearance vanishes into the reality of the rope. In like manner, the world vanishes into Brahman for the illumined soul. This snake-appearance idea can also be found in the Ashtavakra Gita in a lesson given by sage Ashtavakra: “The universe rises from you like bubbles rising from the sea. Thus know the Atman to be one and enter even thus into (the state of) Dissolution. The universe, being manifested like the snake in the rope, does not exist in your who are pure, even though it is present to the senses; because it is unreal. Thus verily do you enter into (the state of) Dissolution.”

Other systems of Hindu philosophy (Sankhya, Nyaya, etc…) insist that the phenomenal world holds objective reality. Advaita Vedanta disagrees, insisting: there is no ultimate reality to the world of thought and matter. Mind and matter, which are finite objects with relations, are a misreading of Brahman… like confusing a rope to be a snake.

At this point, it should be made clear that according to Shankara there’s a difference between non-real and non-existent. Simply put, the world-appearance “is and is not.” In the state of every-day consciousness (ignorance) it is experienced and it exists as it appears. However, in the state of illumination it is not experienced and ceases to exist. Shankara also distinguishes between private illusions of the individual and the world illusion. He refers to private illusion as pratibhasika (illusory) and the world illusion as vyavaharika (phenomenal). So pratibhasika would apply, for example, to a man’s dreams – which cease to exist during his waking hours. However, the other, vyavaharika, continues through his waking life – until he comes to realization of the Truth through knowledge of Brahman.

This seeming paradox – the world being non-real yet having existence – is a fact. And Shankara calls this fact Maya. Maya has its basis in Brahman, but only applies to the phenomenal world of names and forms. This leads us to a deep philosophical issue: the relationship between the finite and the Infinite; the problem of how the phenomenal world came into being.

“If we believe that the finite has an absolute reality of its own and that it has emerged from the Infinite and is an actual transformation of the Infinite, or if we regard the Infinite as the transcendental first cause of the phenomenal world, then we must admit that the Infinite is infinite no longer. A God who transforms Himself into the visible universe is Himself subject to transformation and change – He cannot be regarded as the absolute reality.”

We surpass this difficulty if we consider the world as Maya. Further, this explanation of the universe is in perfect accord with modern science. Some might point out that the Upanishads state that the universe emerges from, subsists in, and eventually merges back into Brahman. Shankara doesn’t disagree, but explains it differently: The universe is a superimposition upon Brahman.

In this way Brahman remains entirely unchanged. It is not transformed into this universe, but appears to us as this universe, in our ignorance. We superimpose the apparent world onto Brahman just as we sometimes superimpose a snake onto rope.

It should be noted that the idea of superimposition (vivartavada) is inseparably linked to the Theory of Causality. Causal relation exists in the world of multiplicity – which is Maya. Within Maya, the mind cannot function without causal relationships. Here’s the twist: To speak of cause and effect with reference to the Absolute is absurd. To seek to know what caused the world is to transcend the world. To seek to find the cause of Maya is to transcend Maya – and when we do that, Maya vanishes because the effect ceases to exist. How can there be a cause to a non-existent effect? Thus the relation between Brahman and Maya is unknowable by the human intellect.

Coming up: Maya is an unreal fact.

Om Shanti




There are many branches to Hinduism, and just about everyone falls into one of two camps: Dvaitists/Dualists and Advaitists/Non-Dualists.

Dvaitists generally maintain the view that God and everything else are separate entities entirely. Christians, Muslims, and some Jews are experts at this. Most of the Bhakti Yoga paths, at least in the depths experienced by most devotees, also land squarely here (whether they like it or not) – and even their version of union with the divine often still involves keeping their own identities. Likewise, or not, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a great many Jnanis adhering to this view.

Advaitists are Non-Dualists and maintain the view that God and everything else aren’t truly distinct. This is definitely more where I fall – this is not to imply that those who adhere to Dvaitism are somehow less. In my own experience, years ago as a Christian, in my early Hindu years and nowdays also, the advaitist view has been more reasonable to me and more productive in my own journey.

Shankara, the author of the Vivekachudamani, was also an Advaitist and took the philosophy further. It might be said that Shankara’s philosophy is Advaita Jnanism on steroids. According to the Vivekachudamani, for Shankara only that which isn’t subject to change is real. All else is hardly more than an illusion. The biggest trap ever lies in confusing that which isn’t real for that which is. Everything snowballs from there and soon enough the sliver of God that is the human soul has not only forgotten its Source and original essence as a spark of the Divine Fire (qualitatively non-different), but perpetually and often increasingly confuses itself, becoming “lost” within Maya – mistaking the unreal for the Real.

Given that the concept of “real” is defined by Shankara as only that which is neither subject to change nor ever ceases to exist, we are faced with two options: 1) Truly only God exists, and 2) The goal of human life is to discern that Reality as different from what we currently and mistakenly perceive as real – and thereby find ourselves.

The largest and most complete, and also mystifying, conception of God within Hinduism is that of Brahman. Lots of comparisons can be made to (at best ) hint at what Brahman is, but from where we humans sit it’s actually more efficient, and indeed the only thing possible, to identify what God/Brahman is NOT. This is the source of the scriptural, “Neti, Neti.” (Not this, Not that)

Truly, if anything like “God” exists, it’s not going to be something that can be fully experienced or witnessed by the senses. It would simply be overwhelming… like trying to taste all the salt in all the oceans everywhere – at once. Your sense of taste couldn’t handle it. You can kind of hint at that though when you sip ocean water. The trick here is the avoidance of thinking that your sip fully represents the ocean.

Enter: Maya, and the concept of World-Appearance.

Om Shanti



Some time ago I mentioned that I’d be creating posts based on a copy of Shankara’s Viveka-Chudamani. In truth, the actual chudamani doesn’t begin until the third chapter of the book. The first two, however have been incredible. In this post, I’ll be sharing the ass-end of Chapter Two, which happens to offer details about the four main yogas practiced today. I’ll admit that the explanation of the main yogas –as offered in this book – are pretty much exactly as I would define them.

A few of you have mentioned to me that you enjoy these posts, but that some of the words I have used, being foreign, are lost on you. In the context of any “yoga talk,” it’s my hope that this post will help you understand the esoteric background behind the word yoga and other words like bhakti, karma, jnana, and raja… and maybe a few others.

To be clear, while I don’t plan to use quotation marks, much of what I’ll be including from here until the end of this post is taken directly, if not verbatim, from this text.

    Methods and Means

There are many paths to the attainment of transcendental consciousness. In Sanskrit, these paths are called Yogas, or ways to union with Brahman. Different Yogas suit different temperaments. Indeed, each individual will approach the Reality in a slightly different manner. Four main Yogas are generally recognized in Hindu religious literature – Karma, Bhakti, Jnana, and Raja. Very briefly, their characteristics are as follows:

Karma Yoga, as its name implies, is concerned with work and action. By working selflessly for our neighbors, by regarding all action as a sacramental offering to God, by doing our duty without anxiety or concern for success or failure, praise or blame, we can gradually annihilate the ego-idea. Through Karma we can transcend Karma and experience the Reality which is beyond all action.

Bhakti is the Yoga of devotion – devotion to Ishwara, the Personal God, or to a great teacher, a Christ, a Buddha, a Ramakrishna. Through this personal devotion, this loving service to an embodied ideal, the devotee will ultimately transcend personality altogether. This is the Yoga of ritual, of worship, of the religious sacraments. Ritual plays an important part in it, as a physical aid to concentration – for the acts of ritual, like the acts of Karma Yoga, bring the mind back repeatedly from its distractions and help to keep it steadily upon its object. For many it is the easiest path to follow.

Jnana Yoga, on the other hand, is more suited to those whose powerful and austere intellects mistrust the emotional fervor or worship. It is the Yoga of pure discrimination. It transcends the intellect through the intellect. It needs no Ishwara, no altar, no image, no ritual. It seeks a more immediate approach to the Impersonal Brahman. This path may perhaps be more direct, but it is also hard and steep, and can be trodden by only a few.

Raja Yoga – the Yoga of meditation – combines, to some extent, the three others. It does not exclude Karma Yoga, and it makes use both of the Bhakti and Jnana approach – since true meditation is a blend of the devotional and the discriminative.

By temperament, Shankara inclined toward Jnana, the way of pure discrimination – although, he was capable of great devotion also. Renunciation, discrimination, self-control – these are his watchwords. Some may find his austerity too forbidding, but it is precisely this severity a valuable corrective to the dangers of an easy sentimentality, an excess of carefree optimism, a confusion of real devotion with mere emotional self-indulgence. Shankara was under no illusions about this world of Maya; he condemns its apparent pleasures and delights with brutal frankness. For this very reason he was able to describe so powerfully the complete transformation of the universe which takes place before the eyes of the illumined seer. When Brahman is experienced, when all creatures and object are seen in their real relation to the Absolute, then this world is indeed a paradise; it is nothing but Brahman, nothing but utter consciousness, knowledge, and peace.

Om Shanti

Can of Worms

Opening up a can of worms

If you look back into earlier posts here on Sthapati, you’ll recall that I mentioned having purchased a copy of Shankara’s Vivekachudamani. The particular copy in my possession is that translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. I’ve been affected and really affirmed by this reading and in the posts to follow, have relied heavily on either Shankara’s words or those of Prabhavananda and Isherwood. This work is incredible and all should read it. The basic philosophical foundation of all of Shankara’s efforts is Advaita Vedanta. Some of my readers have griped that I often use fancy or foreign terminology, and I’m sure a term like Advaita Vedanta will strike these kind souls as such.

Vedanta is a compound word of sorts. Ved- means wisdom or knowledge. The suffix – anta means “the end of,” closure to, or culmination. Theoretically, something like “Joshanta” would imply the entire sum of all that is “Joshua,” that is “there’s nothing more to learn about Joshua.” As such, the term Vedanta shouldn’t be taken lightly and should be recognized for the very weight it carries. Much of what will be referenced within Vedanta pertains to the various Upanishads – other texts that anyone would do well to become familiar with.

Advaita translates simply as “non-dual,” and deals with the nature of Reality, or God. Generally speaking, and this is mentioned in upcoming posts, the Advaita view is that there’s no real separation between us and our Source – only an essentially imagined but very convincing one.

Certainly all of that, and much much more will be revealed in subsequent posts.

On the note of the posts about to be published, it cannot be overstated that the view of the upcoming posts is 1) Shankara’s “version” of Advaita Vedanta philosophy. 2) An accurate and fairly complete vision of what the practice and achievement of Jnana Yoga entails, and is certainly something mostly in line with my own personal views/beliefs. 3) Is not meant to directly offend or otherwise try to confrontationally challenge anyone in their current beliefs – beliefs should be continually challenged and reassessed, but this is the responsibility of the adherent, and if any beliefs held can actually hold their own & they perfectly suit the adherent there’s no real need for change.

With this much out of the way, I hope you’re not only prepared to spend more than a few minutes reading, but also prepared to spend more than a few minutes actually mentally chewing on what you’re about to read. A deficit in either direction is sure to mean you’re going to miss something important. The following seven posts are not meant for lazy people.

Om Shanti.


A little over a week ago, I think, I happened across a book in my favorite bookstore. The “stature” of the book itself wasn’t impressive. But after flipping quickly through a few of the pages, I determined that this book would indeed further my journey in Jnana Yoga. And – wow – has it ever.

The book is titled, “Viveka-chudamani,” which translates as something like “the crest jewel(chudamani) of discrimination(viveka).” The reference to a crest jewel is obviously to imply splendor or immense value or importance. In this case, and unlike the popular usage of the word, discrimination is meant to be synonymous with discernment – not judgmental prejudice.

Here’s where I feel a little silly. I’ve only gotten into the forward and introduction. Believe it or not, as thrilled as I am so far, I haven’t even read the actual work! Still, I’m hopeful that it’s highly indicative of the content of the piece itself that I’m so moved by something like the foreward/introduction.

With no expected ETA as of yet, I’m planning to share my thoughts and discoveries as I work my way through this book. The posts I could create from the intro alone would be whoppers. With that in mind, and with the sincere hope that you good people actually read what I post here, I’ll have to devise a plan of attack that will allow me to feed you all this stuff either in baby steps or some kind of “digest” format. Either way, I’m excited and I hope you benefit from this book as I’m sure I will.

Om Shanti