One method of teaching by Shankaracharya is superimposition


One of the methods of teaching by Shankaracharya is said to be superimposition – putting on things which are false, imaginary and fantastic ideas [fanciful] onto the Absolute, and then removing them, which means liberation. As an example of this, here is a quote from a very reputable text book on Advaita and Vedanta:

We superimpose qualities and relations such as omniscience, omnipotence, causality etc. on the Absolute as they help us to understand it to start with. This is the stage of superimposition. On closer examination, we find that the Absolute, which is super-sensuous, is free from qualities and relations, and so we negate it of all qualities and relations. This is the stage of negation.’

P.G.Wodehouse used to write comic stories about the perfect manservant, Jeeves, who was much better educated and far more intelligent than his master, the amiable chump Bertie Wooster. On one occasion they are talking, and Wooster says, “Jeeves, as that chappie said, ‘A man is a man you know, in spite of everything.’” Jeeves coughs, and Bertie looks up, saying, “Well, what is it Jeeves?” Jeeves replies, “It is the poet Burns, sir.” “Expunge the poet Burns, Jeeves, from the tablet of your mind, Jeeves”. And Jeeves answers, “Very good, sir.”

In a little bit the same way, we are told to negate the whole superimposition of the world, all its pain, all its changes – we [are] just [to] negate it. “Very good, sir”. But it doesn’t happen. Jeeves doesn’t forget the poet Burns, but he says: ‘Very good, sir.

We can easily get into the idea of mere theory, as though Vedanta was simply intellectual concepts, superimposing concepts and then taking them off again at will. But it is not so. The theories may be propounded, but they cannot actually be lived through, even though the Vedanta is supported by very carefully reasoned arguments and very fine analysis of states of consciousness, to which full assent is given. Yes, it is proved, and yet it cannot be taken in. Well, if it is proved, and we know it is proved and we accept it, how is it that it is not taken in? I’ll give an example.

A newly rich businessman wanted to show off his new house, so he invited a host of fifty odd guests, with the occasion being his sister’s return from abroad. She had married an astronomer, and he was going to meet some of her friends. In the course of conversation, it turned out that this astronomer was also interested in astrology. He said, “I think there is something there. It is full of superstitions, of course, but I think something is there and I and a few scientific friends are studying it. The host said aggressively, ” No! How can you call yourself a scientist if you study astrology? You will never make exact predictions. It is all about this likelihood is possible [of this or that happening] and then when it does not turn up then there are excuses.” The astronomer/astrologer got a bit nettled and said, “Well, it is quite true that astrology deals mostly in tendencies, which are difficult to confirm, but there are occasions, such as in a group like this, where it is possible to make an exact prediction, then and there.” The host sneered, and said’ “Oh yes, and I suppose, that this not one of those occasions, unfortunately.” The astronomer said, “Well, as matter a fact, it is. In our astrology, people born on the same birthday have what we call a birthday bond, and I sense that there is one here. As you are know, I’ve come from abroad and I don’t know any of these people. I don’t know who they are, but I know that there are two people here who have a birthday bond. What do you think is the likelihood of that happening by chance?” The host looked round and said, “Well, there are about 50 people here and 365 days in a year…. So I think it could happen about 1 in 7.” The astronomer said, “Well now, I will make a definite prediction that it is so.”

The host was delighted. He put two chairs in the middle of the room, and the people were to file through the chairs and as they went between the chairs, they would call out their birthdays. When about the eleventh person went through and said, “September 3rd”, somebody spoke up from the crowd, still to go through, ” Yes, I am September 3rd [too].” The host said, “Oh, that’s just a fluke,” and the astronomer/astrologer said, “It‘s not a fluke. I predicted it, didn’t I?” And the host said, “Well, it’s a fluke that you predicted a fluke,” so the other man said, “Do you remember what you said about finding excuses when you’re wrong?” So the subject was changed.

There was a mathematician at the party, and he said to the astronomer, “You were on to a pretty good thing there. It’s almost certain [to happen]. You’re a mathematician, too?” He said,”Yes.”

[A sheet on a board, representing a calendar is displayed]. The white squares are the calendar of the year: 365 days and these little black dots are the 50 people. If at random those dots were scattered about by a blind person, what is the likelihood that two of them will fall in the same box? It seems pretty small. If they were spread out evenly, each dot would have seven days, seven boxes, to go into, and by the law of averages they ought to be spread out fairly evenly, although there will be a few irregularities. But to say that it is certain that two of them will land in the same box seems unbelievable. Yet there is mathematical proof that it is so. We can go back to our school mathematics, and with labour, and perhaps the help of a mathematician, establish the proof that it must be so: 97% of the time two of the black dots will land in the same box. Now we can read through the proof and be absolutely convinced, yet common sense tells us ‘no’.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: Word Clouds and Realities

Part 2: One method of teaching by Shankaracharya is superimposition

Part 3: Yoga theories can be verified by experiment

Part 4: Intensity of enquiry enables transformation

Part 5: Theories may be propounded but cannot be lived through

Part 6: The Great Lord seated in the body

Recap of experimental verification argument: Vedanta is supported by very carefully reasoned arguments


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